Will lawsuit alleging Seattle City Councilmembers violated Open Public Meeting Law affect head tax repeal, referendum?

The Seattle Times reports on a new lawsuit alleging city councilmembers violated state law in their rush to repeal the head tax.

Three trial lawyers sued the city of Seattle Thursday over the City Council’s abruptly called special meeting and vote this week to revoke a head tax on big businesses, alleging that in its haste to repeal the controversial ordinance, Mayor Jenny Durkan and a council majority “repeatedly violated” the state’s Open Public Meetings Act.

The attorneys — James Egan, identified as the case’s plaintiff, and Julie Kays and Lincoln Beauregard, who are representing Egan — contend in the lawsuit filed in King County Superior Court that “without any public debate, and with pressure of a repeal referendum growing,” Council President Bruce Harrell on Monday announced the special meeting to conduct the repeal vote.

ST reporter Lewis Kamb writes that the lawsuit relies heavily on an earlier Seattle Times news story. While seeking fines to be paid by the city, the lawsuit does not ask the the action taken at the hastily-arranged special meeting be repealed. But, he writes, it may have thrown the referendum petitioners into some uncertainty.

It’s unclear whether the lawsuit could affect whether the big business-bankrolled “No Tax on Jobs” campaign will opt to submit the required 17,0000 signatures needed by a 5 p.m. Thursday deadline to qualify a citywide referendum asking voters to repeal the tax.

A consultant for the campaign declined to comment Thursday.

Lamb quotes prominent open government advocates.

“I find all of this very disturbing,” Seattle attorney Michele Earl-Hubbard said Tuesday about the circumstances surrounding the City Council’s special meeting. “Not only does it appear that the mayor and a majority of the council colluded behind-the-scenes to reach some collective thinking on holding a meeting about this issue, but they’ve put it out there in a press release in black and white.”

Toby Nixon, board president of the nonprofit Washington Coalition for Open Government, has said the open-meetings law and prevailing case law have determined an illegal meeting can occur even when a quorum of a government body doesn’t meet in the same physical site.

It can also happen through a chain of phone calls or written messages, or when a third-party, such as a mayor or a surrogate, acts as a go-between to convey information to individuals so that a collective meeting of the minds occurs on an issue.

Interestingly,

All three of the lawyers now suing the city are opponents of the head tax, Beauregard said.

“We’re all three against it,” he said. “I mean, I disagree with every word that comes out of Kshama Sawant’s mouth, but she and the people she represents have a right to participate in a public process.”

In other head tax news, Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat takes the city council to task for blaming everyone but themselves for the chaos of the past month.

Tuesday’s circus of a council hearing, at which the city backtracked on its misguided $275 per worker head tax, could best be described as a finger-pointing blame-fest. About everybody in Seattle was to blame for this humiliating political debacle, as it turns out. Except them.

Some on the council blamed “big business,” which was predictable. A few called out Amazon in particular. Kshama Sawant got the most personal about this, as is her specialty, bluntly declaring that, “Jeff Bezos is our enemy.”

Other council members insisted with great passion, voices rising in anger, that the city is in fact doing a great job on housing the homeless, and so has simply been misunderstood.

But most jarring, to me, was that they blamed you. Yeah, you, the witless public.

It’s a good read.