Friday, December 4, 2009

City Council "Open Government" proposals would be a setback for open government, reform group says. It urges Mayor-elect to begin in office with open government initiatives.

The Seattle Community Council Federation is calling on the City Council to make major improvements in open government proposals it is considering at a Dec. 7 public hearing, Dec. 9 committee meeting, and Dec. 14 full Council meeting. Jeannie Hale, President of the Federation, said "It is strange that these proposals would have come out of the Council's 'Open Government Committee', because as a whole they are a setback for open government."

Hale did find some things to praise in the proposals. She thanked the Council for proposals that would: (1) Put on the web the materials to be considered by committees; (2) Begin audio recording of special meetings and special committees; (3) Have an attorney present during executive (closed) sessions to discourage Open Public Meetings Act violations; (4) And, from an interagency committee led by the City Clerk, rules and guidelines to ensure that Councilmember use of social media such as blogs, Facebook, and Twitter don’t violate public records, open public meetings, and campaign practices laws.

Chris Leman, who also represents the Federation on open government issues, detailed what is lacking in the Council proposals: (1) On Monday afternoons the Councilmembers can still pass measures that emerged from a committee as recently as the previous Wednesday (they will rush these rules through that way next week). At least a ten-day interval should be required, except when the Council declares why it must act more quickly; (2) There’s no providing beforehand to the public of amendments that will be debated at the afternoon Council meeting, the morning briefings meeting, special committees, or committees of the whole (Councilmembers mutually insist on this right for themselves only); (3) And committees can still pass legislation at the same meeting in which a public hearing on it was held.

And worst, Leman said, are the setbacks in the Council proposals: (1) Council briefings and standing committees would no longer have to meet in City Hall--or even in Seattle. The Council chambers are easily accessible, televised live and can be heard on the “listen line” at 206-684-8566; without such guarantees, meetings elsewhere hamper access. (2) Councilmembers would no longer be required to attend their assigned committees or have an excuse when they don’t. (3) Committees would no longer need a quorum to pass legislation (and apparently could act with no Councilmember present). (4) And future Council rules revisions would no longer need to be considered by a committee.

The Seattle Community Council Federation also urges the City Council to get started in developing a “coordinated plan and policy on open and participatory government,” as the Council unanimously committed to do in passing Res. 31049 nineteen months ago. A draft “Public Engagement Plan” doesn’t (as resolution 31049 requires of such a plan) consolidate and review existing policies and make improvements in them, and it applies only to the Council, not also the executive and judicial branches. Hale said, "With an incoming administration pledging openness and participation as watchwords, there’s no better time for the Council and Mayor to work out this new plan in partnership with the public. Public pleas having failed, maybe Mayor-elect Mike McGinn can get the Council to set a timetable, solicit written and oral suggestions, adopt a scope, circulate a draft, and get comments on it at a hearing."

The Federation also urged the City Council to require itself and agencies to save e-mails and other electronic documents for at least six years, as Pierce County government does. In Seattle, e-mails are automatically deleted after only 45 days, unless archived by the employee who sent or received them. Few take the time, and all have a conflict of interest to destroy the illegal, unethical or politically embarrassing messages before ethics- and law-enforcement officials, the press or public learn they ever existed. Hale said, "If the Council won’t act, the new Mayor should by executive order, just as Barack Obama began his presidency by opening up government practices that the previous administration had used to evade public scrutiny."

Founded in 1946, the Seattle Community Council Federation represents neighborhood associations from throughout Seattle. Its advocacy for open government in City government is of longer standing than perhaps any other Seattle-based organization.

For further information: Chris Leman, (206) 322-5463; Jeannie Hale, (206) 525-5135