Crosscut publisher David Brewster wrote recently about my actions towards the Seattle City Council and the Seattle Mayor regarding the Open Public Meetings Act. Although I respect Mr. Brewster, his analysis saddened me.
The role of City Attorney is a duality: on the criminal side, I lead on criminal justice matters and take strong positions. On the civil side, the City Attorney serves the mayor, the city council, and all other city departments; I am, in essence, general counsel to a large and diverse corporation. In the civil role, it is very important to keep my personal opinions to myself.
The people of Seattle elect their City Attorney to help keep them safe and not to make policy decisions reserved for the council and the mayor. The 50 civil lawyers in my office provide a wide range of legal guidance on myriad issues policy-makers face. For that advice to be trusted, these lawyers must remain free of any taint of political agenda.
Political reporters ask questions of elected officials, as did Seattle Times'ê reporter Emily Heffter in her April 10, 2009 front-page story. Sometimes, the questions asked are framed in a hypothetical situation, such as 'êshould four members of the city council privately receive a briefing from mayoral staff?'ê Such questions are good questions for reporters to pose of any elected official; answers do not provide a complete, or necessarily, legal analysis when asked of the City Attorney.
Seattle has one of the more open governments in our nation. The mayor and council value transparency and promote openness in our government. When issues of open meetings arise, the matter is addressed quickly and appropriately. To the extent that my comments hastened suitable resolution towards openness, I am pleased.
Of course, it matters little what I think of the city council'ês action. The Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) has been the law of the state of Washington since 1971. Seattle is committed to following both the letter and the spirit of the law. If we have fallen short, we are committed to doing better.
I do, however, find it interesting that the actions of our city council have drawn so much media attention while our state legislature meets in secret on a regular basis and no one protests. A citizen can request emails to a city council member, but not to a state senator. And as our city council and mayor grapple with how to chop, in public, $34 million from our budget, your state legislature meets behind the curtain to slice and dice $9 billion. This is legal, of course, because the state legislature exempted itself from both the OPMA and the Public Records Act (formerly the Public Disclosure Act). If open municipal government is good public policy, why is not good for state government?
To have good government, we need open government. The (statewide) Sunshine Committee, which I have the honor to Chair, will consider the state legislature'ês exemption from the Public Records Act at its May meeting. I have faith this will ultimately lead to more open government, to better government, at all levels.