Opinion

Federal Way city attorney's office made two poor calls | Inside Politics

Bob Roegner - Contributed
Bob Roegner
— image credit: Contributed

An old political saying is still as true today as it was decades ago.

“There are two things the public should never see being made, sausage and laws.”

Recently, the Federal Way mayor and Council held a special, and unnecessary, council meeting to vote on whether to release to the public the names of the 20 candidates for the Council seat vacated by Jim Ferrell when he was elected mayor.

The agenda bill gave them the option of voting to release the names or not. The Council eventually voted to release the names and, to their credit, didn’t seem to have any reluctance in agreeing to the request to protect the public interest.

The result was correct and the mayor and Council established a precedent for future situations. But how they got there and how the issue was presented was not the best of evenings for thoughtful debate or the city attorney’s office.

The Mirror had requested several weeks ago that they be provided the applications. The Mirror was acting on behalf of the public’s right to know who wanted to represent the citizens on the council.

The Mirror’s request to the city was a simple legal standard. “Are applications for appointment to the city council public documents that must be released to the media?” Based on legal advice, the Mirror believes the documents were open to the public. Other cities have willingly provided the information to the media.

According to the Attorney General’s Office, applications for appointment to the council should be thought of as a “mini-election,” and much like an election, most everything included in documents filled out by candidates is open to public review.

However, the Mirror’s request was denied as the city attorney’s office held that the candidates should be treated as “employees” and by extension applicants for employment. However, like an election, only one is going to be an “employee” and even then elected officials have a different category.

Worse, the legal context was misapplied and when presenting the issue to the mayor and Council, it was represented to be almost a “favor” to the Mirror, due to publication timetables. That was not the case at all. Had the information been provided when originally requested, the timing would have never come in to play.

Also, the representation had the ring of an “exception” being made to the usual process. That is probably correct. But that only means the city process has also been flawed in the past. By way of illustration, only those residents attending the meeting were informed for the first time that four candidates had withdrawn.

Two didn’t meet the residency requirements. Isn’t that something that the public might like to know? And of more importance, the city attorney never mentioned to the Council during the meeting the Attorney General’s opinion supplied by the Mirror.

This meeting never should have occurred. All the city attorney had to do was note the Attorney General’s opinion and advise the mayor and Council that she was releasing the names.

No meeting. The attorney has that power. The reason a meeting was called was Ferrell read the Attorney General’s opinion and overruled the attorney. And with the concurrence of Deputy Mayor Jeanne Burbidge, Ferrell called for the special meeting. But behind the scenes, the mayor, likely in an attempt not to embarrass the attorney, suggested the Mirror’s request was an “evolving public discussion.”

Cities have been filling council vacancies for decades, just because some cities continue to try and keep the information secret doesn’t change the interpretation. Applicant information for a council vacancy is public, although some personal information may be private.

But the moves and spin control, combined with how the issue was presented to the Council, suggests the city attorney’s office has a different understanding of state law than the Attorney General’s Office. Fortunately, the public interest was served as the Mirror was able to run pictures and bio’s just before the interviews. But what happens next time or a citizen asks for public documents?

It only took a few days to find out. Even after Ferrell announced his nominee to be the city finance director, the city attorney would still not release the nominee’s resume and application. Even the Council didn’t get the information until minutes before they were expected to vote. The public had no time or information with which to offer an opinion on the mayor’s choice to handle their tax dollars.

The choice might be great, or it might not. But we have no way of making our own judgment. Even if you subscribe to the city attorney’s legal ruling on the finance director, does it make any sense to keep the information secret after the mayor releases the name?

Wouldn’t you want to reassure the public of your choice by releasing as much as possible to build community support for your bosses’ choice? Other strong mayors have willingly released the information.

Ferrell and the Council took one step forward by releasing the council candidate names. And they should be applauded if they did it for the right reason. But if they did it as a “favor,” rather than because it is the law, then they took two steps backward. And not releasing the nominee’s background after the mayor’s announcement was simply a bad management decision by the city attorney.

Worse, it undermined Ferrell’s previous support for transparency. The city attorney’s office made two poor calls.

Bob Roegner, a former mayor of Auburn: bjroegner@comcast.net.


 

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