Last week, The Mirror published a story announcing that 20 candidates have applied to fill the seat that Jim Ferrell vacated when he became mayor in January.
The story was mostly a list of all the names, with a few details about some of the candidates that our staff was able to compile before our deadline.
Since then, we have received phone calls, emails and comments on our website from residents asking an important question: who are these people?
“I want to know what their qualifications are and their position on the Performing Arts and Conference Center, how they (would) bring good paying jobs to Federal Way and what they have done in the past to serve Federal Way,” wrote former Councilmember Diana Noble-Gulliford on our website.
But when I requested for the city to disclose the applications to The Mirror in search of finding these answers, I was met with some resistance.
I received a letter from City Clerk Carol McNeilly on Feb. 13, stating that city council members “are considered employees as they are paid for their service.”
McNeilly cited RCW 42.56.250, which states that applications for public employment are exempt from public inspection and disclosure.
I was shocked that we were unable to obtain this valuable information – details that would inform residents about what kind of person would be stepping up to lead Federal Way and make decisions that directly impact them.
And the last time I checked, city council members are elected or appointed officials – not employees. Yes, they do receive a stipend. However, applications for appointment to a vacant council position should be treated differently than a standard employment application – there is a difference.
I consulted with our attorney, as well as Nancy Krier, the assistant attorney general for open government, who both agreed.
Krier noted that during a campaign for public office, a candidate must publicly disclose certain information in his/her declaration of candidacy, as well as provide the public information in filings with the Public Disclosure Commission.
“In my view, the appointment process to fill a vacancy for an elected position on a city council is the ‘functional equivalent’ of a campaign,” Krier said, adding, “Public disclosure of an application to fill an elected position therefore presents very different and weightier policy considerations as compared to disclosure of an application for a typical public employee position.”
Other cities interpret the law that McNeilly cited differently. When I was an editor for a Kirkland newspaper, for example, the city released nearly 20 candidate’s applications for a vacant Council seat.
The bottom line is, the city of Federal Way is doing a disservice to residents by withholding the applications.
It is also unfair to the candidates themselves as The Mirror is only able to report on those candidates that our staff knows about.
McNeilly said the written responses to the application essay questions will be disclosed the morning of the interviews on March 1 “in fairness to all applicants.”
If that information is not exempt from disclosure, then, why can’t the city disclose that information to the public sooner? How is that fair to the applicants or the public?
I strongly urge Federal Way city attorney Pat Richardson and Mayor Jim Ferrell to reconsider disclosing the applications and making them publicly available to the greatest extent possible.
Residents need to be informed of who the candidates are so they have enough time to weigh in and let city officials know who they support before March 1.
I also urge the city to include a disclaimer on all Council applications in the future, which states these documents are public documents and available to the public.