Urban Politics #79: City Council Retreat


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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.

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City Council Retreat

I’ve received requests from a number of citizens to video tape the upcoming January City Council retreat because the Council will be discussing important public policy matters.

There is no question that all of the past yearly City Council Retreats have been subject to the Open Meetings Act, and as such Seattle citizens have legal access to the meetings. However given that January’s retreat is to be held out of town, as many others have been over the last 20 years, such access is limited. Consequently, some citizens have argued that we should not hold retreats out of town unless we can provide an electronic recording of them.

Acting on these concerns I found that Portland, Spokane, Tacoma, Olympia and Vancouver hold retreats outside their municipal boundaries and they do not electronically record them. All of the retreats, however, are open to the public, although no public comment is allowed during them.

It appears that all of the cities generally take minutes in the form of a written summary showing the start and finish time of the retreat, who is in attendance and an outline of the topics discussed. While that may have also been the case with past Seattle City Council retreats, our City Clerk’s Office has not been able to identify any consistent collection of such records for our own past retreats. Apparently there are some bits and pieces here and there, but nothing systematic.

Such findings lead to one of three courses of action:

1. Do a better job of recording and maintaining agendas, summary of topics discussed and attendance.

2. Electronically record, through video or audio taping, the retreat sessions

3. Hold retreats in town or in City Hall so as to maximize public access and keep our costs low.

It is my understanding that some Council Members prefer Option One. Our Administrative Services staff has also urged us to take this approach as well. The rationale is that Option Two is too costly and Option Three is impractical given the amount of planning already done for the 2000 Legislative Retreat.

In further support of Option One some have suggested that the retreat is a strategy for building personal bonds among the legislative department staff and not about public policy. Central City Council staff have written to constituents that although “No legislation is prepared, no votes are taken on legislative matters.” there is “discussion of Council work plans and priorities.” From my experience at the last two Council Retreats I would say that these are accurate statements.

As an aside, the Executive Department has also held a number of retreats over the past year and as far as I know none have been recorded and may not have even been open to the public.

The above line of reasoning would compel me to support Option One, if it were not for a close reading of our Council Rules, City Charter and the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) Chapter 42.30 “Open Public Meetings Act”.

None of them make reference to “retreats”. All of them make reference to a “meeting” of the municipal corporation (I would assume both the Executive and Legislative branches would be included). The RCW does state that “meetings of the governing body need not be held within the boundaries of the territory over which the public agency exercises jurisdiction.”

Nevertheless, a “meeting” is defined as gatherings at which an “action” is taken, and that is defined as “discussions, considerations, reviews, evaluations,*” A “final action” is when a vote is actually taken. And that is what we generally think of as legislation being prepared and votes taken on legislative matters. In other words, the Open Meetings Act does not sanction any less public access to a City Council “retreat” than any of our other meetings simply because we do not take votes.

Yet nothing in our Council Rules, the City Charter and the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) Chapter 42.30 “Open Public Meetings Act” requires that meetings be recorded electronically. Thus this a policy decision, not a legal one. So while I believe we are acting legally in not electronically recording our retreats, I think we should treat retreats as we have other Council special meetings in the past. We should again choose to follow the spirit of the law and not a strict interpretation of the law which avoid recording meetings.

When I came on the Council we started to hold our regular Monday Morning Business Meetings in the Chamber and for the first time ever we had them video taped. The Council made a conscious decision to tape this “special meeting” because we wanted to inform our citizens of our deliberations.

I don’t believe that we should be persuaded by the decisions of the other above-mentioned cities to not record their retreats, because I believe that they are not following the spirit of the law. We have to be accountable to our citizens and have to evaluate our decisions in that light.

As for cost, if the Council can afford to video tape the thirty plus off-site community meetings that our Neighborhoods, Growth Planning and Civic Engagement Committee held last year, as well as 2 Community Forums, I believe we can afford to do so for our two day Council Retreat.

On the scale of the many issues we will have to deal with this year, it may be a small one, but it could set the tone for the rest of 2000.

In that light I will be introducing a resolution at this Monday’s City Council Meeting that this January Council Retreat’s presentations, and group discussions where technically practical, be video tapped and aired on the Seattle Municipal television channel.

Right now it looks like it will be a close vote. I hope the majority of the Council takes this innovative step as an opportunity to start this year off by making our deliberative process more accessible to the public.

Westcrest Park: Park Horse Patrol Agreement Reached

On January 12 my Culture, Arts, and Parks Committee will be hearing legislation to reverse a park property exchange approved by the City Council last year.

As required by Initiative 42, my Culture, Arts, and Parks Committee held a public hearing to determine whether the conversion of park land to another use was “necessary because there is no reasonable and practical alternative and the City shall at the same time or before receive in exchange land or a facility of equivalent or better size, value, location and usefulness in the vicinity, serving the same community and the same park purposes.”

Although the testimony was divided, a very clear majority of those in the community supported the transfer of the mounted police facility to Westcrest Park. Many felt that the loss of about 40 trees was offset by the expected increase in attention to public safety with the addition of a mounted patrol.

At my request the city looked at other sites that were owned by the City, the State Department of Transportation and the Seattle School District. No other sites could be identified that could accommodate the mounted police’s horse barn, paddock and office facility. I also asked the Police Department and ESD to explore siting the Horse Barn exclusively on ESD property. They responded that the topography of the land did not make that a feasible alternative. The adjacent SEATRAN yards were also considered instead of the Parks Property. SEATRAN responded that they could not give up those yards because they are used for their winter response team.

In addition to the loss of trees there are two other problems with the proposed transfer that I sought to remedy. A path on the Park property would be eliminated and there wasn’t public access to the ESD property being given to DOPR because there is a fence around it.

I requested as part of the property exchange legislation that the city provide adequate funds to open up the ESD property to the public, replace the fencing and the path, and landscape the newly acquired park land. I hoped that these measures would serve to make the exchange of lands more equitable.

Soon after the City Council approved the property exchange, the Westcrest Defense and Preservation Fund was created. They filed a lawsuit based upon their belief that due to the loss of numerous old growth trees used for habitat the property exchange was unequitable.

A member of the Westcrest Defense and Preservation Fund, Charles Hand, has argued that the SPD Horse Barn could be built on existing SEATRAN property without the need for park property. The Executive Services Department, SEATRAN, the Department of Parks and Recreation, and the Seattle Police Department are now pursuing such a redesign of the Mounted Patrol Facility within the SEATRAN boundary without any taking of property from Westcrest Park.

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