Those who care about the future of Seattle Center had a chance to speak Wednesday evening (July 7) about how their thoughts on redeveloping the Fun Forest. But the committee studying nine proposals to remake the Fun Forest will now disappear from public view.
The advisory group in charge of analyzing the proposals will hold the rest of its meetings in private. Ultimately, Seattle City Council will choose a project in an open, public meeting. But the RFP Review Panel, as it's called, will conduct its deliberations in closed sessions before making a recommendation to Center director Robert Nellams, sometime by the end of August. Nellams, in turn, will make a recommendation to Mayor Mike McGinn, who is expected to forward a plan to the council.
Center spokeswoman Deborah Daoust said the nine-member panel decided to close the meetings so it could deliberate more freely. Because the group is purely advisory, and its members were chosen by the mayor, not a legislative body (in this case, the council), the panel is not subject to the state's Open Public Meetings Act.
Given the backstory, however, this decision is a little surprising. Early this year, the Center's staff took a lot of heat for privately making plans with the Wright family, builders and owners of the Space Needle, to locate a Dale Chihuly glass museum in the Fun Forest spot. The criticism prompted Nellams to admit the process should have been more public — hence the Request For Proposals and appointment of a review panel. The Chihuly museum is now one of the nine proposals.
There may be aspects of the panel's deliberations that would be done best in private: negotiations of lease rates, for example, or a brokered deal to combine two or more of the proposals. But much of the discussion undoubtedly will center on policies and philosophies that will affect the Center many years into the future; one mark against the Chihuly plan was that it clashes with the Center's own Century 21 Master Plan, which calls for open space in this area. (Full disclosure: My boss, Crosscut publisher David Brewster, is part of a group proposing a park in the area.)
Daoust acknowledged that the master plan committee did meet in public in 2006-07 — even though it, too, was an advisory group — because it recognized the policy-shaping nature of its meetings.
One open-government advocate questioned the closure: "You're going through this because you took so much heat in the first go-round, so what are you gaining by closing these meetings?" asked Jason Mercier, director of the Center for Government Reform, part of the Washington Policy Center. "If this is a way to regain trust, then I'm not sure why you'd want a closed process."
Tim Ford, the state's assistant attorney general for government accountability, said if the review panel were subject to the public-meetings law, it would have to deliberate publicly except for specific, exempted issues, including rent negotiations. But Ford said groups that are made up of citizens and don't have governing authority typically don't have to follow the public meetings law. (There can be exceptions, he said, such as groups with a large government budget and a lot of clout with decision-makers.)
Two people involved with the Fun Forest RFP process said they had no problem with the closed-meeting decision. One of those is Tom Mara, executive director of the nonprofit, indie-rock radio station KEXP, which is proposing to move its studio to the center and to create indoor and outdoor performance spaces. The other is City Council member Sally Bagshaw, head of the council's parks committee; she said that even though she called for a more open process after the Chihuly flap, she understands that RFP deliberations typically are private — and she praised the review panel for holding tonight's public session.