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City of Seattle sued; head tax signatures submitted anyway

The Seattle City Council discusses a head tax repeal. (File, Associated Press)

The City of Seattle is being sued for violating the state’s Open Public Meetings Act over the special meeting that resulted in the end to its short-lived head tax. The lawsuit led to the No Tax on Jobs Coalition filing the 46,000 signatures it gathered to send the issue to the November ballot.

RELATED: Seattle head tax 101

The Seattle Times first reported that James Egan, Julie Kays, and Lincoln Beauregard filed the lawsuit in King County Superior Court.

Beauregard says the allegations stem from the possibility that seven of the nine council members agreed to repeal the head tax before announcing the special meeting on Tuesday, June 12.

“It sounds like they reached a consensus and had a debate outside of public view and then announced it,” Beauregard told KIRO Radio. “And then they also didn’t announce it with the proper 24-hour timeline.”

Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, the No Tax on Jobs Coalition submitted nearly 46,000 signatures in favor of a referendum. The referendum would be placed on the November ballot, giving Seattle voters the ultimate decision over whether or not the city should tax Seattle’s largest companies. Coalitions spokesperson John Murray told The Times they decided to file the signatures “out of an abundance of caution.”

The lawsuit seeks for the mayor and the council members to be fined. It does not seek a reversal of the 7-2 vote that put an end to the head tax. However, if a court finds that the council was in violation of the law, it could make the head tax repeal vote “null and void,” the Times points out. This prompted concern with the No Tax on Jobs Coalition causing them to submit the signatures — just in case — hours before the submission deadline Thursday.

Mayor advised

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has been advised by City Attorney Pete Holmes that he believes the council met the requirements of the Open Public Meetings Act. The mayor is not a member of the council governing body. Meetings are scheduled by the council president, Bruce Harrell.

In an email to the mayor, Holmes notes that a special meeting requires 24 hour notice to local newspapers and radio stations, and posted at the main entrance of the council chambers.

“Notice of the June 12, 2018 noon meeting was physically posted at the main entrance to the Council chambers on June 11, 2018 at 11:57 a.m. The notice was also transmitted to the City Council’s web service contractor, Legistar, at 11:55 a.m. Finally, an email to certain media organizations was sent at 12:10 p.m.” Holmes writes.

Holme’s email further states that despite media being notified at 12:10 p.m. (10 minutes less than 24 hour notice) of the meeting, he believes that the media was immediately aware of the meeting, citing social media posts about it at 12:12 p.m. Holmes argues that the council chambers were filled during the meeting and council heard more than an hour of public comments on the issue. He says that since there was full engagement in the meeting by residents, media, and the council, the city met requirements of the Open Public Meetings Act.

Special meeting lawsuit

According to state law, city councils — and other government bodies — must conduct business openly, including deliberations. A majority of the council cannot meet outside of a public meeting to discuss future action. Even if there isn’t a physical meeting between council members, they can be in violation of the law if there was a serial meeting.

The law reads:

“No governing body of a public agency shall adopt any ordinance, resolution, rule, regulation, order, or directive, except in a meeting open to the public and then only at a meeting, the date of which is fixed by law or rule, or at a meeting of which notice has been given according to the provisions of this chapter. Any action taken at meetings failing to comply with the provisions of this subsection shall be null and void.”

Further:

“No governing body of a public agency at any meeting required to be open to the public shall vote by secret ballot. Any vote taken in violation of this subsection shall be null and void, and shall be considered an “action” under this chapter.”

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