Solutions emerging to Seattle National Archives debacle

Jan 29, 2020, 9:14 AM | Updated: 5:53 pm
National Archives Seattle...
The National Archives in Seattle. (Feliks Banel, KIRO Radio)
(Feliks Banel, KIRO Radio)

In the aftermath of the Office of Management and Budget and National Archives and Records Administration decision – without public or stakeholder input – to close the Seattle facility of the National Archives, two possible solutions are emerging.

One is possible legal action by Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

Attorney General Ferguson was on live with KIRO Radio earlier this week. Ferguson said his office is taking a close look at the federal legislation and how the process was carried out by an obscure yet powerful federal agency called the Public Buildings Reform Board.

Ferguson seems to agree with the emerging consensus of the history community in Washington and the three other states – Oregon, Idaho and Alaska – whose residents are served directly by the Seattle facility, which has been in operation since 1963.

That consensus is that the decision to close and sell the Seattle facility was made with zero public outreach — the general public here was only alerted because of a KIRO Radio listener — and there was no stakeholder outreach to history groups or tribes, or to anybody who regularly accesses the documents, photos, maps and other materials held there.

Ferguson said he used to visit the National Archives in Seattle with his dad, and his librarian sister refers library patrons there all the time. But regardless of how he feels personally about the value of that material remaining in Seattle, he says the decision to possibly seek legal action is only about the process.

Should the Attorney General decide to proceed with legal action, it will likely be based on what might be considered mundane details of how the process to identify the Seattle facility and decide to close it was carried out. Ferguson has sued the Trump Administration more than 50 times, and has prevailed over 20 times.

“The majority of those wins have not come on some big Constitutional claim of due process or equal protection — it’s come because the administration violates something called the Administrative Procedure Act, which is about as boring as it sounds, but it’s the Procedural Act that requires them to take certain procedural steps before they make changes to people’s lives and they simply don’t do it over and over and over again,” Ferguson said.

“And that’s why they lose in court to us all the time,” he continued. “So my team is looking at whether there were procedural steps that the federal government was required to take before reaching this decision, if they took those or not, and that’s what we’re focused on.”

A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office said Tuesday that the work to examine the details and to then make a decision about pursuing possible legal action might take days, or even weeks.

On Monday, the National Archives Public and Media Communications Staff in Washington, DC issued a statement about what’s next for the Seattle facility:

A specific date has not been set for the closure of our Seattle facility, and we are not taking any immediate actions that will impact our customers. We expect the entire process of sale to take approximately 18 months and we have requested to stay in the building for an additional three years following the sale. We will continue to offer all services and maintain our current operating hours for the immediate future.

These same National Archives communications staff have ignored KIRO Radio’s emails and phone calls for two weeks, short of Communications and Marketing Director John Valceanu offering “no comment” in an email last week.

KIRO Radio has repeatedly asked for clarification about the process to select the Seattle facility for closure, and, in particular, why the National Archives chose to not conduct any public or stakeholder outreach as part of the decision process.

Answers to these questions became even more important earlier this week, when KIRO Radio learned from the Public Buildings Reform Board — the federal agency that led the process of identifying federal facilities to close and sell – that it was National Archives’ staff who chose to not conduct outreach to the public and to stakeholders.

“I have to refer you to them for the rationale for that decision,” Bodner told KIRO Radio on Monday.

KIRO Radio posed this question about the “rationale” to National Archives communications staff via email and Twitter on Monday. As of early Wednesday, there has been no response beyond the statement that was issued Monday.

And two lines of that statement seem almost laughable, were not so many people and organizations rising up in opposition to the decision regarding the Seattle facility:

We will communicate with our customers and stakeholder organizations when we have more information and as we develop our plans. We will also seek to include input from our stakeholders in order to inform our plans and decisions.

Multiple calls and emails to media staff at the Office of Management and Budget seeking information about the decision process have also generated no response.

Meanwhile, the second solution that may possibly be emerging is some kind of local effort to keep the National Archive materials from leaving Washington and being shipped more than a thousand miles away to a National Archives facility Riverside, California.

It’s unclear if there is an actual organized effort underway, but social media has been abuzz with alternative solutions, such as creating a new federal facility on real estate less valuable than the current location, perhaps in a suburban or rural area somewhere else in Washington.

On Monday, Secretary of State Kim Wyman – whose office oversees the Washington State Archives — issued a press release that said, in part:

My staff and I are ready and willing to work with our congressional delegation, National Archives, and the historical records community to discuss alternative solutions to the closure of this facility for the continued regional access and storage of these important documents.

Many local governments also maintain their own archives, including Seattle and King County. Those entities have a legal responsibility to maintain records, and also have significant collections of photos, maps and other valuable historical materials.

No clear leader of this potential local effort has yet emerged. For such an effort to be successful, it would likely need to involve a coalition of local and state governments in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska, as well as private not-for-profit historical organizations and other stakeholder groups. And, regardless of who’s involved, the cost would easily be millions and millions of dollars, and the management and upkeep would require the untangling of federal regulations and other red tape at many, many levels.

Even for those Pacific Northwest residents who don’t care about history or historical archives, the actions of the National Archives and Records Administration, the Public Buildings Reform Board and the Office of Management and Budget should be a wake up call.

The steps taken to close and sell the Seattle National Archives facility – with no public or stakeholder input in what amounts to a secretive process – could easily be mimicked at any time for Veterans Administration healthcare facilities, National Park lands, or pretty much any aspect of the federal government that currently provides services to residents of this or any region.

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Solutions emerging to Seattle National Archives debacle