City of Tacoma settles in open meetings lawsuit
LEWIS KAMB; Staff writer
The City of Tacoma has paid The News Tribune’s legal fees to settle a lawsuit brought by the newspaper in January that claimed the city had violated the state’s open meetings law during its process to appoint two City Council members.
The city’s payment of $7,500 to Gordon Thomas Honeywell effectively ends the lawsuit, which was formally dismissed Feb. 12, court records show.
William Holt, the newspaper’s attorney and the law firm’s managing partner, said his client is satisfied with the case’s outcome.
The News Tribune “feels that it accomplished its purpose,” Holt said. “We filed suit, had a court hearing and a judge issued a temporary restraining order. The City Council then held a lively debate open to the public to make the appointments. That’s what the newspaper wanted.”
City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli said Monday that the decision to settle the case does not indicate fault on the city’s part.
“I think it was important for the City Council to move on and not be under the cloud of that issue or any ongoing litigation,” Pauli said of the reasons for the settlement.
On Jan. 13, the newspaper sued the city, arguing that the Tacoma City Council violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act that prohibits vote-taking in private during an executive session convened Jan. 6 to discuss applicants for two vacated council seats.
Right after that closed-door meeting, council members held a public meeting, where they unanimously approved, without discussion, eight finalists from a pool of more than 40 applicants.
The newspaper’s lawsuit claimed the council’s action clearly showed “there was some sort of understanding reached in the executive session,” which meant the state’s open meetings law had been violated. Attorneys for the city said the council had followed the law.
The lawsuit asked the court to declare the appointment process invalid. As part of the suit, the newspaper also filed a motion seeking an injunction to halt a second executive session set for Jan. 14, when the council planned to make its final appointments.
During a hearing to consider that motion, Pierce County Superior Court Judge Bryan Chushcoff ruled that a “reasonable inference” existed that the council had violated the law. But the judge was reluctant to enjoin a future executive session allowed for under the law. Instead, he ordered the city to video and audio record any future closed-door council meetings related to the appointment process.
Both the newspaper and the city agreed to the ruling, though Holt noted that the newspaper clearly was “the prevailing party at that stage.” Had the case continued, the losing party would have been required to pay the prevailing party’s legal fees, he added.
“It made little sense to continue this case and build up legal fees when there was really no reason to do so,” Holt said. “What the newspaper really wanted was openness. It would have preferred to have (the appointment process) go back and start all over again in the open. But allowing video taping and tape recording in the (executive session) meetings is an acceptable substitute.”
On Jan. 14, the council held a second executive session about the appointments that was recorded, as called for by the judge. Council members then emerged to hold a robust public debate about the finalists, and ultimately appointed David Boe and Ryan Mello to fill the two open seats.
Open government lawyers and Attorney General Rob McKenna said the judge’s order to tape the executive session likely is a first in Washington that could influence future cases. In the wake of the court order, the Puyallup City Council opted to avoid any closed meetings while making a similar appointment, and the University Place City Council nullified a secret ballot it had taken during an appointment in that city, reconducting the vote in public.
“It had a ripple effect,” Holt said of the judge’s order.
The order dealt only with the newspaper’s motion for an injunction but did not issue findings on the related lawsuit. That case was left pending until the city paid the newspaper’s legal fees earlier this month.
Lewis Kamb: 253-597-8542