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Originally published Saturday, April 11, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Seattle City Council ends its closed-door budget briefings

The Seattle City Council and Mayor Greg Nickels' staff decided Friday not to hold any more closed-door budget briefings after the city attorney, the state Attorney General's Office, and an open-government group said the meetings may violate the state's open-meetings law.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The Seattle City Council and Mayor Greg Nickels' staff decided Friday not to hold any more closed-door budget briefings after the city attorney, the state Attorney General's Office, and an open-government group said the meetings may violate the state's open-meetings law.

The meetings were intended to allow the mayor's staff and the council to discuss in private how to deal with a $43 million shortfall in this year's budget. The sessions were designed to include no more than four council members at any one time because having five would constitute a quorum and require the meetings to be open to the public.

City Attorney Tom Carr said he sent an e-mail to the City Council on Friday morning. Citing attorney-client confidentiality, he declined to share the contents of his e-mail. However, the day before, he told The Seattle Times he had concerns that the meetings might violate state law.

Carr said Friday that he didn't know why council members decided to stop the private meetings, adding, "It might have been your article.

"It does show their commitment to try to adhere to both the letter and the spirit of the law," he said.

The state's Open Public Meetings Act requires that meetings of public governing bodies be open. The law applies to their votes — and discussions and deliberations leading up to votes.

The mayor's office and the city council defended the meetings this week, saying it was important to them to be able to speak privately about budget decisions out of the public eye.

But by midafternoon Friday that concern had been set aside.

"We want to make sure the public is engaged in the process," said Alex Fryer, a spokesman for the mayor. Fryer said the mayor's office spoke with Carr about his concerns, but the decision to discontinue the private briefings was not a result of legal counsel.

"It was just something we wanted to do," Fryer said.

Questions raised by The Times about the meetings were "a distraction," Fryer said, adding that the mayor's office encourages people instead to attend several planned open meetings of the full City Council.

The next such meeting is 10:30 a.m. Monday at City Hall.

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The mayor and council wrote a news release on Friday announcing they had changed their mind. But then it was decided not to send it to the media, Fryer said.

In that statement, Councilmember Jean Godden, the budget committee chairwoman, said she felt it was important to stay in touch with the community, and she urged people to attend the upcoming budget meetings. She said she would continue to get individual briefings from the mayor's office about upcoming budget cuts, but she would leave it up to other council members to seek information from the mayor's staff one-on-one.

Godden could not be reached for comment Friday.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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