Opinion

Federal Way officials should include public | Editor's Note

Carrie Rodriguez - File photo
Carrie Rodriguez
— image credit: File photo

Here we go again.

Last week, I requested that city officials disclose the finalists’ applications for the city’s economic development director position.

I knew the city was in the interview phase of filling the position and I wanted to ensure that residents could weigh in on Mayor Jim Ferrell’s decision.

It’s a huge position. The person who leads that department will be charged with attracting businesses to Federal Way and promoting economic growth in the city.

However, city staff notified me on July 17 that the city would not disclose the applications, citing state law, RCW 42.56.250(2). The law states that applications for public employment are exempt from disclosure. Fair enough — if it was that simple.

But a search through the Mirror’s story archives found the city has disclosed finalists’ information before, for the community development director and police chief positions.

And other cities have disclosed finalists’ information too, including Kent and Bellevue. The latter city went so far as to host a meet-and-greet in 2010 for Bellevue residents to speak with four finalists for the planning director position. Imagine that.

So this week, I asked Ferrell if we could circumvent the public records disclosure process and if he could tell me who the finalists are, as the city has done in the past. The problem, Ferrell said, is that he did not notify the five finalists that their information would be disclosed to the public. He was concerned about their privacy and potentially jeopardizing the finalists’ current employment.

I understand his concern. But there are 90,150 residents in Federal Way and their right to know far outweighs a few out-of-state finalists.

We’ve been at this crossroads before, when the city refused to disclose the finalists’ applications for a Council vacancy in February. The Council finally voted, at the mayor's request, to disclose the applications to the public, following some public outcry prompted by the Mirror.

And the mayor told me at the time that moving forward the city would include a disclaimer on city applications, notifying applicants that their information would be subject to public disclosure. The city has yet to add that disclaimer, though the mayor this week said he would ensure the disclaimer goes on applications for Council positions at least.

Regarding the legal exemption the city cited, some officials believe it is optional.

“I’ve always viewed this exemption as optional, not mandatory. The city could choose to waive it if they want to,” said then-Assistant Attorney General for Government Accountability Tim Ford in the Bremerton Patriot’s January 2013 story regarding a similar issue.

Ford added that cities usually release this information “because they want public feedback” on who they should appoint or hire.

Bottom line: The city should include residents in its decision making process, including major hiring decisions and projects that will affect the community. I urge the mayor, Council members and city department heads who influence major decisions to include the public. Hold a meet-and-greet, disclose finalists’ information and include all 90,150 residents, not just a few on a panel.

Some residents, including supporters of the Performing Arts and Conference Center, have argued that we elect our leaders to make decisions that are best for us. I strongly disagree.

“The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them,” according to the preamble to the Public Records Act. “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.”

Moving forward, Ferrell said the city will work on disclosing finalists’ information to the public, including the upcoming positions for city attorney and community development director.

I look forward to watching the city’s transparency improve with these changes. And the Mirror looks forward to sharing this information with the public so that you can provide feedback on issues that impact you.


 

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