After several accusations in April that Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s rent control forum in City Hall was a thinly veiled campaign rally, Mayor Ed Murray and Councilmember Tom Rasmussen introduced legislation to prohibit election activities near City Hall. But in a rare action, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission has struck that bill dead.
The bill was originally referred to the council's Governance and Education Committee in mid May. But rather than hold a vote, Council President Tim Burgess sent it to the SEEC.
The bill aimed to prevent the coupling of officially sponsored events and political campaigns. Although Rasmussen vaguely referred to the activities of “some incumbents,” the discussion was clearly a response to the distribution of campaign fliers at Sawant’s late April rent control forum.
Although Sawant campaign staffers said they’d checked with the Ethics and Elections Commission, Rasmussen and Councilmember Sally Bagshaw had concerns that the event used city resources for campaign purposes, which would violate code.
Murray and Rasmussen’s bill would have added a clause to the ethics code that, in short, set a proximity (300 feet) and time (1 hour) window around campaign activities associated with public events in public offices. “We thought there was a clear line that you cannot use resources,” said Rasmussen in a May 20 committee meeting. “We don’t want to game the system.”
Sawant disagreed. “I have concern,” she said, “that … this ordinance will have a chilling effect on grassroots campaigning and would potentially violate the First Amendment.”
David Mendoza, senior policy adviser to the mayor, held that the bill would only restrict the campaign speech of elected officials, not the free speech of the public.
The decision by Burgess, who is also the governance committee chair, to send the bill to the Ethics and Elections Commission for review is not common, but because it related to campaign ethics, not unprecedented either.
(Discussion about the campaign bill begins at 45:00.)
Mendoza represented the bill before the Ethics and Elections Commission on Thursday evening. To say the commissioners were skeptical would be an understatement.
The main concern for the commissioners was the fuzziness around who was allowed to do what. Especially challenging, said Commissioner Bruce Carter, would be distinguishing between who was tied to an official’s campaign and who was not. For example, he said, “I believe there would be value with some organizations gathering people to comment publicly at a meeting. This would prohibit that.”
Mendoza disagreed. “I don’t see how it does that,” he said. “That would be public comment on substantive matters, not re-election activities.”
But the fuzziness was enough of a deterrent for Commissioner Bill Sherman. “Once you’re trying to draw lines like this,” he said, “it makes it difficult to distinguish between desirable and harmful speech. What I’ve seen so far would put us in a position that would have us trying to enforce lines that are hard to see and may encompass perfectly legitimate events.”
Sherman recommended that the Commission not endorse Murray and Rasmussen’s bill, essentially asking for more clarity. Commissioner Eileen Norton seconded and the commissioners unanimously agreed. The bill will not go to council.
As the meeting wrapped up, Mendoza asked, “Are you willing to consider a future version?”
“Always,” answered Sherman.
Requests for comment from Councilmember Sawant and the Mayor’s office have not yet been answered.