Legislative Advocacy

Read the guest essay defending City Attorney Pete Holmes that The Seattle Times refused to publish before the August Top Two election

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.

Joel Connelly

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