The Seattle Times editorial page set out to nail current City Attorney Pete Holmes in the August Top Two election, endorsing Republican Ann Davison and falsely blaming Holmes for failing to prosecute misdemeanor crimes.
They got him. Three-term incumbent Holmes ended up as odd-person-out in a three-way contest involving himself, Davison, and public defender/bartender Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, who had the backing of The Stranger. The Stranger had supported Holmes dating back to 2009, when he unseated incumbent Tom Carr.
“Fairview Fannie” has a memory, dating to the 2017 election when the paper touted Holmes’ challenger – a son-in-law to former Governor Chris Gregoire – only to see Holmes reelected with more than seventy percent of the vote.
Brier Dudley, the Times’ free press editor, also roasted Holmes over the matter of Mayor Durkan’s missing emails, which the Times has sued to obtain.
The city has countersued.
Under journalistic tradition of fairness, a response would have been in order. Not on the news pages, but on the Times opinion page.
(This scribe has long wished he could get the Times’ excellent reporting on doorstep or online, without the paper’s editorial page.)
Such a response (from an expert!) was received. The Times chose not to publish.
The guest essay was penned by Seattle attorney Ramsey Ramerman, who was deeply involved in uncovering the City Hall scandal.
Ramerman represents government agencies in Public Records Act litigation and is co-editor-in-chief of the Washington State Bar Association’s Public Records Act Deskbook. He was an original member of the State Sunshine Committee.
Below is the guest essay that the Seattle Times did not run. Judge for yourself whether readers of the newspaper – voting on whether to retain Holmes in office — should have been able to see it. Here goes:
It would be foolish for Pete Holmes to pledge never to sue a Public Records Act requestor again.
I have worked with Pete Holmes and several of the attorneys in his office for over a decade, primarily on public records issues, and I have seen how his office has worked hard to promote the interests of transparency while also looking out for the interests of the taxpayers. The Times’ critiques of Mr. Holmes are as misguided as the Times’ premature lawsuit against the City.
I first met Mr. Holmes when he took over Tom Carr’s seat on the State Sunshine Committee. From our first interaction, it was clear that he understood the two duties that government attorneys owe to the public when working on public records compliance.
First, the attorney is responsible for making sure his client is only withholding the records that the public has directed the government to keep secret in the Public Records Act.
Second, the attorney is responsible for protecting the public’s tax dollars from being burned up in wasteful litigation.
This second task is about a lot more than just good litigation tactics – in fact most of the real work involves developing training and the adoption of procedures, which happens before a request is even made. Over the years I have seen Mr. Holmes and the attorneys he hires work to fulfill both of these duties that have served the public well.
This spring, I received an inside view of Mr. Holmes’ dedication to these public duties when I was hired by Seattle Ethics and Election Commission to investigate a whistleblower complaint at the city.
The investigation showed that Mr. Holmes’ office had provided sound legal advice that would have served the city well had it been followed. His office had also provided training and model best practices for city employees and departments city-wide.
And when the investigation showed that the city had violated the law, the attorneys in his office made no effort to suppress my investigation and instead accepted the results by reopening the requests that had been improperly closed.
Which leads us to the second duty – protecting the public’s tax dollars – the Seattle Times’ lawsuit and the city’s counterclaim.
First, the city’s counterclaim against the Times did not expose the Times to any additional costs or burdens.
The Public Records Act does not permit attorney fee awards against requestors like the Times, and the city’s claim was simply a mirror of the Times’ claims so it did not add any additional issues that would have increased the Times’ litigation costs.
Second, the city’s counterclaim would have served the taxpayers’ interest by giving the city a tool to prevent the Times from unnecessarily dragging out the litigation.
Finally, for reasons too detailed to address here, Mr. Holmes is correct that the Times lawsuit is premature given that the city is still working on those requests, so the lawsuit should be dismissed.
For the Times to insist that Mr. Holmes pledge never to file a counterclaim against a requestor is shortsighted and if followed would cost the taxpayers.
Because the Public Records Act’s daily penalty can continue to accrue during litigation, there are times when it is in the taxpayers’ interests to secure a speedy resolution of these disputes.
Conversely, a requestor might be motivated to drag out a public records lawsuit knowing each day increases the potential reward. By filing a counterclaim, Pete Holmes was looking out for the taxpayers’ interests.
An end note:
With self-absorption and self-praise, The Seattle Times has made a big deal of its dogged pursuit of public records and commitment to open government. The newspaper should display an equal commitment to public comment, particularly from one as intimately involved as Ramsey Ramerman. Readers deserved to receive a defense of Holmes, even if the newspaper was hot for his blood.
Sure, the controversy is complicated, but Washington was — and remains — a pioneering state with respect to its robust public disclosure laws.
Pete Holmes was first elected, in part, due to his efforts as a citizen to pry open the closed disciplinary procedures of the Seattle Police Department.
The failure to publish Ramerman’s letter underscores the dangers of having a monopoly… a one-daily-newspaper town with resulting outsized influence.
We need open journalism to nourish open government.