Seattle City Leaders Sued for Violating Public Meetings Law

SEATTLE (CN) – The Seattle City Council violated public-meetings laws by deliberating in private before a special vote on Tuesday that repealed the newly passed employee head tax on large businesses, a suit filed Thursday in King County Superior Court claims.

Plaintiff James Egan, a Seattle attorney, says he agrees with the repeal and isn’t challenging the vote, just the “unlawful clandestine discussions” that violated Washington’s Open Public Meetings Act.

“Through this lawsuit, Mr. Egan is not challenging the ultimate vote, and repeal, of the head tax ordinance because the ultimate vote was taken in a public forum,” the complaint says. “The interested parties and advocates hereto, including the undersigned attorneys, stand in strong belief that the head tax should never have been enacted.  This lawsuit challenges compliance with the law with the intent of ensuring lawful public debate in the future.”

The complaint cites a Seattle Times’ story about events leading up to the special meeting where the council abruptly reversed course and repealed the $$275-per-employee homeless services tax on the city’s big businesses passed unanimously on May 14.

“According to the Seattle Times, in email, Councilwoman M. Lorena Gonzalez said she spoke Sunday night with Councilwoman Lisa Herbold about the potential of a head tax repeal based on reports on the public polling,” the complaint says.

The complaint continues: “She also said she spoke Sunday evening with Deputy Mayor Shefali Ranganathan, who asked her to sign the joint statement, which Gonzalez’ staff reviewed Monday morning.  She said she only became ‘aware of the possibility of a Special Meeting’ during a ‘properly noticed’ executive session at the council’s briefing on Monday.  ‘I am unaware of any facts related to other council members’ alleged discussions with each other or the Mayor on this meeting notice issue,’ Gonzalez said in her email.

Councilman Rob Johnson was quoted in the Seattle Times as saying, “The Council President walked into my office and said, ‘While you’ve been away, these are the discussions we’ve been having,’” according to the complaint.

The complaint also says Councilwoman Sally Bagshaw told the Times: “I was at the beach minding my own business and I got a call from the mayor’s office letting me know that she already had heard from a number of my council colleagues that this was going to be on the agenda.”

Announcement of the special meeting was late and also violated public meetings laws, according to the complaint.

“Prior to the announcement, it was expressed and understood that Mayor Jenny Durkan, along with the City Council members at issue, Bruce Harrell, Sally Bagshaw, Lorena Gonzalez, Lisa Herbold, Rob Johnson, Deborah Juarez, and Mike O’Brien, had reached an agreement, via unlawful clandestine discussions, to repeal the original ordinance enacting the head tax,” the complaint says. “Later that day, the Seattle Times published an article, referencing multiple experts on the topic, highlighting the assorted violations.”

Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, an ardent supporter of the tax, was “apparently left out of the communications that are the subject of these violation,” according to the complaint.

Egan, along with attorneys Julie Kays and Lincoln Beauregard, is asking for civil penalties against the named officials and for legal fees and costs.

The complaint doesn’t seek reversal of the vote, but one statute-approved penalty for violating public meetings laws.

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