Note: new material included, following Tom Carr's explanations below.
Last week's flap over the meeting Mayor Greg Nickels held with four City Councilmembers, and whether that violated the state's Open Meetings Law, quickly escalated into an outbreak of posturing worthy of a Fox News show. I rise to voice a dissent.
Rallying to the side of transparency in government never hurts a politician, and City Attorney Tom Carr, who allowed himself to be caught off guard by a reporter and opined that the offending meetings might be in violation, promptly became a hero, earning a nice fat editorial from The Seattle Times, which rode this high horse until it keeled over. The melodrama was enhanced when a reporter from the paper was pulled out of the meeting — by her purse strap! — by an overwrought Tom Van Bronkhorst, an aide to Councilmember Jean Godden. (Godden, a longtime journalist, was almost thrown out of the club for this.)
Some perspective, here, if you please. Carr tells me he actually agrees that the meeting was within the guidelines for the Open Meetings Act, and that the Mayor is to be commended for filling in the Council as he did. "Passive receipt of information" in a closed meeting, short of a quorum, is permitted, Carr explains. He says he was asked the hypothetical question about what if the Council were using this device as a way of corraling consensus, as some were alleging, and expressed his "concerns" about that. He went to tell me he gives the City Council high marks for how carefully it observes the open meetings regulations.
That said, Carr behaved imprudently for a person in the role of City Attorney, who if he had some legal advice to give (and he probably needed to get the facts first), should deliver that privately to his clients. Injecting himself this way, grabbing attention, is exactly the wrong way for the City's law department head to behave. It might have cost him dearly in attorney-client confidence, though Carr says he has patched up the misunderstanding with the one Councilmember who called, Jean Godden. Secondly, the media posse got it wrong: Meetings like this, if not a quorum and not taking a vote, have long been deemed consistent with the law (maybe not quite the spirit) of the open meetings laws.
Moreover, the Mayor deserved praise for actually levelling with some of the Council, particularly the budget committee, on his plans, hearing out their reactions. He seemed to understand the explosive politics of big budget cuts and the need to get a few candid reactions out on the table before all the rushing to microphones bound to come later. Nickels' usual way has been not to consult but to let the Council learn his wishes by reading about them late in the process. Cheers, not jeers were in order.
Such conversations, without the media there to fan the issue into a public hurricane, are not only valuable; they take place all the time. Think of caucuses in the Legislature, closed to the press. Think of those Chamber-organized expensive trips to Dubai or Singapore, so expensive that the media can't afford to go along, where lobbyists and our political leaders quietly work out the coming year's agenda. You'll never stamp out these critical conversations, nor should you. Of course, in a full-blown Nanny State, all these meeting rooms will be bugged.