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Saving Seattle’s National Archives will take a team effort

The public can finally weigh in on the decision to close the Seattle facility of the National Archives when Attorney General Bob Ferguson convenes a virtual forum on Jan. 19, 2021. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Radio)

Over the past year, the effort to prevent the priceless federal records stored at Seattle branch of the National Archives from leaving the Evergreen State has appeared to progress on two distinct tracks.

Last week, Democratic Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson amped up his office’s ongoing legal battle against the Public Buildings Reform Board, notching a victory in a lawsuit filed in August demanding relevant documents, and seeking an injunction from a federal judge to shut down the planned sale of the building. Ferguson first told KIRO Radio in late January 2020 that his office was considering legal action.

Around the same time that Ferguson began examining the legal questions, Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman launched an effort to broker a solution that would keep the materials – including photos, documents, and maps dating back to the mid-19th century, documenting history across the Pacific Northwest – in Washington, regardless of what became of the acreage and warehouse in Seattle.

Wyman convened invitation-only stakeholder meetings, and in July – prior to any legal action – William “Jay” Bosanko, Chief Operating Officer of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the agency that operates the archives in Seattle, confirmed to KIRO Radio that he was taking part in discussions with Wyman’s office.

KIRO Radio reached out to Secretary Wyman’s office for comment on last week’s legal developments. Wyman declined to comment on the specifics of the legal battle, and provided this statement:

Suspending the sale would be a great first step and would provide stakeholders more time to find a sustainable, long-term solution to keeping these records safe and accessible. The last thing we want is for these archives to be shipped thousands of miles away, which would create immense challenges for local researchers, historians, tribal members, journalists and many others who currently have few barriers to access some of our region’s important records.

It’s important as we seek to maintain access to these archives that we also provide a safe and secure environment. This is why my office offered the idea to collocate an adequately sized NARA facility adjacent to the site of our planned, state-of-the-art State Archives-Library Building in Tumwater, providing a hub for people to access archival treasures preserved by both the state and federal governments. The idea was suggested to members of Washington’s Congressional delegation early last year, and I discussed the idea further with a broader stakeholder group during a virtual meeting I hosted in August. Additionally, I sent letters to Washington’s federally recognized tribes and other interested stakeholders to express our concern and willingness to work together on solutions.

With the sale still on the table, the possibility of the collocation or other long-term solutions Congress may pursue to keep the archives in Washington hang in the balance. Ultimately, regardless if the sale is suspended, Congress must act to implement a long-term storage and preservation solution, preferably in the Pacific Northwest. My office stands ready to work with them and lend our expertise as the state entity charged with maintaining our state’s archives.

Attorney General Ferguson’s filings in federal court last week included nearly 600 pages of affidavits and other legal documents from tribes, heritage groups, and individuals attesting to the value of the Seattle facility and the materials held there. On Tuesday, Jan. 19, Ferguson’s office will convene a public meeting (via Zoom) to formally gather more public input regarding the facility and the threatened sale.

Meanwhile, members of Washington’s Congressional delegation have also weighed in on the situation in Seattle and taken small steps toward a federal solution. In late December, Democratic Senator Patty Murray included language in a funding measure encouraging “NARA and GSA [General Services Administration, the federal agency that owns and manages federal real estate] to explore action to prevent the immediate closure of the Sand Point facility as well as identify long-term options to ensure continued access to its contents.”

While Wyman’s diplomatic efforts and Ferguson’s legal battle have been distinct and separate over the past 12 months, they obviously share the goal of keeping the precious archival materials in Washington. Further, if and when the secretive effort to target the building for closure and sale is brought to a halt via legal action, key to the post-lawsuit future of the materials – and to a public facility where they will remain accessible – will likely be a negotiation process involving the federal government and perhaps a bipartisan coalition of Washington’s Congressional delegation – as well as all those stakeholders so far convened separately by Wyman and then by Ferguson.

Thus, if and when it’s appropriate, let’s hope Attorney General Ferguson and Secretary of State Wyman – and our senators and representatives from both parties – will work together to achieve the best possible solution for all Washingtonians, and for the Seattle branch of the National Archives.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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