Laurelhurst Community Club                                                     

Serving 2800 Households in Seattle’s Laurelhurst Neighborhood

 

 

September 15, 2003

 

 

 

Council President Peter Steinbrueck

Members of the City Council

City Clerk Judith Pippin

Seattle City Hall

600 Fourth Avenue

Seattle, Washington  98104-1876

 

Re:  Proposed Changes to Council Rules and Procedures—Is it true that Governments are from Saturn and Citizens are from Jupiter? 

 

Dear Council President Steinbrueck, Members of the Council and Ms. Pippin,

 

The Laurelhurst Community Club Board of Trustees requests that you postpone voting on the proposed changes to council rules and procedures scheduled for today’s council meeting to allow citizens the opportunity to weigh in with recommendations.  As noted at the September 8th Council briefings meeting, most of the proposed changes have been developed over the past two years, yet citizens have not had the opportunity to weigh in with recommendations. 

 

There has been no effort to involve citizens in changes to the Council’s rules.  As the Municipal Research & Services Center pointed out in its report Governments are from Saturn…Citizens are from Jupiter, “the work of local government has been handicapped by declining citizen confidence and involvement in government.”  Your rules make a difference and can promote a greater citizen understanding and involvement in government. 

 

We offer the following comments on the proposed changes to the rules and additions to the rules.  We also attach the November 29, 2002 recommendations of the Seattle Community Council Federation, of which Laurelhurst is a member, as they were not addressed in the current proposal.  The changes to the proposed rules by councilmembers on September 8th have not been made available to the public, so our comments are on the original version of the proposal.  We apologize for not meeting the Friday, September 12th comment deadline, but it took a long time to review the proposal and research the issues.

 

The rules should reflect the council commitment to holding public hearings on important issues, rather than retaining the current language that states that “public hearings are not generally required…” (II.D).  The Council and its committees have a good track record of holding public hearings.  While the Council is only required by law to hold public hearings in certain limited areas, we recommend that you specify the kinds of policy issues that should be subject to public hearings.  When not required by law, the current rules say that hearings are in the discretion of the committee chair. 

 

The Council should provide electronic copies of the preliminary agendas of full council and council briefings meetings to interested citizens and groups (II.A.1.f. and II.A.2.e).  On November 1, 2002, those subscribing to the full council electronic list were notified that agendas of council meetings would no longer be emailed due to the short turn-around time for compiling the agenda.  Agendas for the full council meeting and briefings meeting are now generally available on Friday afternoon prior to the Monday meetings on the council’s website.  We see no reason why the agendas for full council meetings and briefings meetings cannot be emailed to the public at the same time they are posted. 

 

State law requires that preliminary agendas for council meetings be made available to the public.  That law lists various means for complying with this requirement such as publication of the agenda in the city’s official newspaper or posting the agenda, but leaves it to the city to specify the procedure to satisfy the intent of the requirement.  We do not believe that requiring citizens to take the affirmative step of accessing the council’s website is sufficient.  Those without computers, must go to the library to access the council’s website and that is not always an option due to the cutback in library hours.

 

Notice of special council meetings and special standing committee meetings should be provided to the public (II.B.1.b. and II.B.2.b).  The Open Meetings Act requires that notice of special council meetings be provided “to each local newspaper of general circulation and to each local radio or television station which has on file with the governing body a written request to be notified of such special meeting or of all special meetings.”  The Seattle City Council should provide notice to citizens beyond the minimum required by state law.  An electronic mailing list already exists and it would seem that providing this notice would require minimal effort.    

 

Electronic attendance at council meetings should not be allowed (II.F).  The Open Meetings Act does not expressly allow councilmembers to attend meetings electronically.  The staff position is that because electronic attendance at meetings is not prohibited by state law, then the Council can amend its rules to allow this type of meeting attendance.  Although the proposed rule change in question relates to attendance at emergency meetings, the August 22, 2003 staff memorandum indicates that electronic attendance at other kinds of meetings will be addressed in the future.

 

There is great value in attending council meetings—viewing the interaction among councilmembers, the interaction that takes place with members of the audience and the dynamics of the meeting.  This would be lost by allowing electronic attendance by councilmembers.   

 

Two options have been presented for electronic attendance—multi-party telephone and video conferencing.  With regard to the latter, we have questions as to whether video conferencing equipment is available and, if not, the cost of purchasing this equipment.

 

Should you move forward to allow electronic attendance at emergency meetings, we ask that you specify procedures within the rules that must be followed.  We recommend that attendance procedures adopted by the City of Bothell be used as a model.  These procedures state:

1.      The councilmember attending via speakerphone

a.       Must be able to hear the discussion on the agenda item taking place in the council chambers, and

b.      Must be able to be heard by all present in the council chambers.

 

2.      When the particular agenda item is ready to be discussed, the mayor (or presiding officer, if the mayor is not physically present) should state for the record:

a.       Let the record reflect that Councilmember __________ is attending via speakerphone for agenda item no. ___, relating to ____________.

b.      Councilmember __________, can you hear me?  [There must be a clearly audible response in the affirmative.]

c.       Let the record reflect that Councilmember ___________, who is attending via speakerphone, can be heard by all present in council chambers.

 

3.      Upon conclusion of the particular agenda item, the mayor (or presiding officer, if the mayor is not physically present) should state:

a.       Councilmember ___________, discussion on agenda item no. ___ has concluded.  Thank you for your attendance via speakerphone.  The telephone connection will now be terminated.  [Connection should be terminated at this time.]

b.      Let the record reflect that Councilmember ___________’s attendance via speakerphone has been terminated.

 

The reference to electronic attendance at public sessions should specifically state that it is limited to emergency meetings (III.A.1). 

 

Council rules and procedures should specify the policies and procedures for matters coming before the council (IV.A.1).  The current council rules state that all council bills, resolutions and clerk files must be prepared for introduction according to established policies and procedures.  Just as citizens are provided with information on how a bill becomes a law in the State Legislature, similar information should be provided at the local level.  When inquiring to get copies of Seattle’s established policies and procedures, we were told they include thousands of pages.  It shouldn’t be that difficult for citizens to understand the process and to get involved.  Other local jurisdictions provide this information to citizens and Seattle should also.    

 

A council resolution placing a proposed charter amendment on the ballot (other than citizen initiated efforts) should not be introduced and passed at the same meeting (IV.A.2).  In 2002, the Council recommended four proposed charter amendments.  These measures were proposed with no citizen involvement, public hearing or advance notice of the text of each amendment.  On matters as important as amending the Charter, the Council should not exclude the public from participation.  The provision in the rules that prohibits the introduction of a bill and passage at the same meeting should be amended to include resolutions developed by the Council placing proposed charter amendments on the ballot.

 

The Council rules should specify that notice of Committee of the Whole meetings will be provided to the public (VII).  This is the current practice and should be a part of the rules.

 

Policies governing the media should be set forth in the rules (XI.G.2).  The proposed change to the rules states that “access by media shall be in accordance with Legislative Department policy.”  This policy should be listed.

 

Quasi-judicial rules and procedures and appearance of fairness rules should be included in the council rules and procedures.  The September 8, 2003 refresher training on quasi-judicial rules and procedures demonstrated a need for a greater understanding of these important rules.

 

The Council Rules and Procedures should be posted on the Council’s website with hard copies available upon request.  Understanding the rules promotes greater citizen participation in government.  The Council’s website is preferable to the Clerk’s as the latter is harder for the average citizen to understand due to formatting of the documents.

 

Highlights of Council meetings currently posted on the Council’s website should be emailed to those subscribing to the full council list.

 

The Council Rules and Procedures should include provisions relating to the Open Records Act and the obligations of councilmembers.  It is important that councilmembers understand the requirements imposed by the Open Records Act, including those relating to providing email correspondence upon request.

 

            We hope you consider our comments on the proposed changes to Council Rules and Procedures and also postpone the final vote to allow other groups to comment. 

 

Sincerely,

Jeannie Hale, President

3425 West Laurelhurst Drive NE

Seattle, Washington  98105

206-525-5135 / fax 206-525-9631

jeannieh@serv.net


 

SEATTLE COMMUNITY COUNCIL FEDERATION

2511 West Montlake Place East

Seattle, Washington  98112

 

November 29, 2002

 

Hon. Peter Steinbrueck

Seattle City Council

600 Fourth Avenue, 11th floor

Seattle, WA  98104

 

Dear Council President Steinbrueck:

 

The Seattle Community Council Federation appreciates the City Council’s commitment to making and keeping Seattle a model of governmental openness.  For more than 50 years, the Federation has worked with the City Council on these issues, and we know you will be concerned that a number of other local governments elsewhere in the state or nation are currently ahead of Seattle in certain of their practices in providing citizen access to their government.  We hope that the City Council will adopt the following ten practices to restore Seattle as a leader in open government. 

 

(1)  Amend the City Council rules to ensure that the bills and resolutions acted upon at the Monday afternoon Council meeting are those that the public has been given prior access to and an opportunity to make oral comment on, whether at this meeting or (preferably) at an earlier committee meeting.  A provision could be adopted making an exception to this prohibition if the Council declares an emergency.   Whereas the Washington legislature and the King County Council ensure oral citizen testimony on virtually all bills and resolutions they consider for passage, the Seattle City Council and its committees often pass bills and resolutions for which citizens have been given no opportunity for oral public comment, and in some cases, even without the text being available for public review.  Note that while a majority of the Council committees have a public comment period, several do not.  We suggest that the City Council rules be amended to provide that each committee have a public comment period.

 

(2)  Amend the City Council rules to discourage the Council from adopting a bill less than two weeks after it has emerged from a committee.  It is not a healthy situation that many bills are being adopted within days of first emerging from committee, and sometimes even when the agenda and the City’s web site have not included complete information on what is proposed.  Like the above, this proposal could be adopted with a provision allowing the Council to act more quickly if it has declared an emergency.

 

(3)  Make changes so that the Monday morning briefings meetings do not have the effect of reducing citizen notice and access, and of reducing the role of regular Council committee meetings.  The City Council rules currently do not even require an agenda for the Monday morning briefings meetings.  While an agenda is currently being offered, it is not made available in as timely a way, or with as wide distribution, as are the agendas for the Council committee meetings.  The City Council rules should be amended to restore the pre-1998 requirement for briefings meeting agendas:  "meeting agendas and amendments to the same shall be prepared and made available to the public." 

 

(4)  If the morning briefings meeting is used as an alternative to committee consideration of bills, the City Council should improve its publicizing of the agenda, provide an opportunity for public comment, and (in the absence of declaring an emergency) commit not to adopt bills or resolutions in the afternoon meeting if the Council’s first public discussion of them is at that morning’s briefings meeting.  In recent years, important bills such as the annual state legislative agenda, and a resolution on regional economic development, have been adopted after discussion only in the morning briefings meeting, and without being referred to or discussed in any committee.  

 

(5)  Any charter amendments that the City Council originates for submission to the electorate should first have been made available in a timely way for the public to scrutinize, with the opportunity for oral public comment before the Council or one of its committees.   The four charter amendments that the Council submitted for the November 2002 ballot were unavailable on the City web site or from the City Clerk prior to the Council’s vote to place them on the ballot, and there was no opportunity for oral public comment, or any meaningful notice of what was being proposed. 

 

(6)  The minutes of the afternoon City Council meeting should be provided (or a link should be provided) on the City Council ’s web site.  Currently, these minutes are available only on the City Clerk’s web page, and they are not on the menu.  For access, one needs to know the exact web address.  Members of the public find it difficult to know that the minutes are available on the City’s web site, and to locate them.   

 

(7)  The City Council should strengthen the Seattle Channel’s focus on public policy issues and debates.   The changes that have occurred in Seattle Channel programming in the last six months were instituted with little public notice or discussion, and no formal action by the City Council.  While some of the changes have been commendable (especially the real-time broadcasting of Council meetings, and the provision of video on the web), the net effect has been to reduce the actual unedited coverage of City Council meetings in the “prime time” evening hours.  Also, the televising of City commissions and other advisory bodies has virtually ceased.  Meanwhile, there has been a huge increase in “infotainment” and “infomercials” that are unrelated to ongoing City Council debates but benefit various groups, businesses, and City agencies.  In viewing the Seattle Channel in October and November, one might not even have known that an important biennial budget debate was going on; in contrast, the King County channel provided much more budget coverage by repeating videotaped County budget meetings and hearings, including in prime time.  The Seattle Channel must restore to its schedule the rebroadcast of unedited public meetings on the model of what is done on the King County and state of Washington channels, as well as C-Span. 

 

(8)  The City should amend the procedure under which the executive branch solicits bids for the City’s adoption of an official newspaper.  Currently this process favors selection of the Daily Journal of Commerce, which is not accessible or affordable to most citizens.  In contrast, many other local governments are able to select as their official newspaper a widely read and more affordable daily newspaper.

 

(9)  The City Council rules currently require unanimous consent in order to allow an opinion of the City Attorney to be discussed in open session.  In other words, even a single councilmember can veto discussing in a public meeting the City Attorney’s advice.  This policy is not democratic, and effectively precludes the public’s access to the advice of its elected city attorney.  The City Council rules should be amended to restore the pre-1998 provision that a majority of the City Council may vote to allow disclosure of a City Attorney’s opinion..

 

(10)  The City should adopt a policy stating that e-mails are public records.  Currently, the City’s e-mail policy states that e-mails are not public records, and requires that they be erased within 90 days.  This is contrary to the practice in many other localities as well as in state government, and contrary to the recommended practice of the Washington State Municipal Attorneys Association.

 

We hope that the above suggestions can be adopted in the coming year, and we look forward to working with you on them.  This letter was authorized at our November 21 board meeting.

 

Yours truly,

Stephen Lundgren, President

s.lundgren@attbi.com

 

cc:  City Councilmembers

      City Attorney Tom Carr