Who Shut the Doors: Lawyers Guild Seeks Explanation for Council Chambers Closure

by Clifford Cawthon
On September 26, Seattle appeared a city of two tales: one, a city with a seemingly transparent government whose executive is open with the public; the other, a city with citizens excluded from interacting with their government, stuck in an overflow room screaming at an unresponsive screen.

That day, Mayor Murray addressed the full Seattle City Council with his 2017 Budget Proposal. The crowd sitting in City Council Chambers was largely supportive of his words.

However, housing and racial justice critics of the Mayor, socialist activists, and concerned residents seemed intentionally confined downstairs in the Bertha Knight Landes room. As a result, a week ago the National Lawyers Guild Seattle Chapter filed a Public Records Act Request to the City to get answers on such an unusual move that excluded so many from being in the council chambers on that day.

In an eyewitness testimony recounted in the Emerald by Jerrell Davis, many of those directed to the room downstairs were confused at being left in the overflow room during the budget speech before early attendees arrived.

According to the National Lawyers Guild observers, “[City staff and the Mayor’s supporters] in the Bertha Knight Landes Room were escorted up a non-public back stairway, guarded by a security officer, into the Chambers, where they were joined by dozens of other guests of the Mayor.” Neil Fox, from the National Lawyers Guild’ Seattle Chapter went on to say that it was a way to get Mayor Murray’s supporters into the room and block his critics from the meeting.

In a statement, Fox called it an assault on the right of the public to attend City Council Meetings and cited this as a violation of the Open Public Meetings act if an order was explicitly given to exclude the public.

Councilmember Kshama Sawant, was one of two city councilmembers, along with Mike O’Brien, to support letting in the excluded members of the public for public comment by opening the fire doors.

The closing of council chambers by Council President Harrell due to maximum capacity concerns, and what many critics saw as an intimidating use of security by the council, has been heavily denounced by the aforementioned groups. Last week, the Emerald reached out to Councilmember Harrell’s office for a statement but he has yet to respond.

This seeming exclusion of critics and activists has been noticed by organizer Zarna Joshi, from Women of Color Speak Out. She called it a “sure sign of the corruption at the core of Seattle’s politics.”

Mr. Fox also reached out to members of the council and other people at the scene for an explanation, “I asked multiple people at the scene who appeared to be in positions of power what authority there was for restricting access by the public to the BKL room, and for then allowing Mayor Murray’s guests to gain access to the Chambers”. His direct inquiries were unsuccessful. The Emerald reached out to the Mayor’s office but has not yet received a response.

According to attendees, only after the Mayor’s speech wrapped and his supporters departed, was the general public allowed into the chambers.

“We want answers, we want to know who specifically gave the order”, said Mr. Fox when asked why this was important said, “people being able to attend city council meetings, being able to make your voice heard, and people being held accountable; this is how democracy works.”

The request was sent to Monica Martinez Simmons, the City Clerk, on Sunday. Mayor Murray’s office has yet to respond and has five days to either provide the records, an estimate on the timeline for their response, or a denial of the request in writing. 

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