Last week, the city of Seattle paid a $5,000 fine for organizing an illegal citizen lobbying effort.
That’s OK; we can afford it. But behind this $5,000 rebuke from the state’s Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) lies a million-dollar question: Why didn’t the city (and King County, in a related case) just admit wrongdoing and pay the dang fine, say, a year ago?
Here’s the legal situation: State law allows cities and counties to directly lobby other levels of government but not to fund so-called “citizen” lobbying efforts. Local governments can inform residents about political issues but must stop short of a “call to action,” a PDC representative told city officials in 1998.
And here are the potential violations: King County sent out 20,000 invitations to a pro-transportation rally in Olympia. Does that constitute a call to action? Of course it does.
In the Seattle case, the Pro Parks Committee was formed by the city to consider new parks-funding measures. The major part of that group’s work was studying, critiquing, and lobbying for a proposed new state tax law. The committee was aided by city staff and met in city buildings. Is this a violation of the statute? Yes, obviously.
But then came the whining. City officials, including the mayor and council president, claimed that the law was vague and the state’s enforcement unfair. A high-priced downtown lawyer was hired and an aggressive attitude adopted, to the point where said lawyer ended up launching personal attacks against the citizen activist who filed the complaint rather than arguing his case (a dumb move, because activist Chris Leman provided the PDC with reams of evidence—all legally obtained from city files).
At least the fact that the case has been settled means the city has gotten a little smarter. With more outside legal support (from a less abrasive attorney), the city fessed up and will now pay up. Still, it’s hard to figure out why city officials, after needlessly delaying this process for more than a year, suddenly decided to accept reality.
Leman has his own theory: It’s an election year, and they “didn’t want a situation where both the mayor and the city attorney were defending a position in which the city would clearly be found guilty.”
At last, an argument that makes some sense.