Council votes to suspend recording of open public comment unrelated to agenda

It was a close 4-3 vote. Only non-agenda item discussion will go dark.

Gov. Jay Inslee made his presidential announcement March this year and used footage captured of the candidate speaking at various points of his political career. The clips featured in his bid video varied, but in the few glimpses he was shown speaking before Congress and state legislators. And the scenes used appeared to be captured on government cameras.

Snoqualmie City Council candidate William Donaldson did something similar when he used footage captured of himself during the open public comment period at city council for promotional videos. He spliced the footage with non-council scenes before posting the pieces on his campaign website.

In an attempt to curb the practice, the Snoqualmie City Council voted 4-3 on Sept. 9 to stop recording the open public comment period if they are not about agenda items. The other agenda-related comment opportunities will continue to be recorded and live streamed for viewers.

Councilmembers Sean Sundwall (Donaldson’s competitor), James Mayhew, Bryan Holloway and Katherine Ross all voted in favor of the restrictions. Matthew Laase, Peggy Shepard and Bob Jeans voted against the action.

Certain councilmembers and Donaldson have been in disagreement over what is legal based on RCW 42.17A.555.

The state law says that “No elective official nor any employee of his or her office nor any person appointed to or employed by any public office or agency may use or authorize the use of any of the facilities of a public office or agency, directly or indirectly, for the purpose of assisting a campaign for election of any person to any office or for the promotion of or opposition to any ballot proposition.”

“This is an open dialogue between us and the citizens,” Mayhew said. “The purpose of this is not for someone to come in and grandstand for our cameras, grandstand for people at home or for recordings. This is about us communicating with our residents. The people that vote us to be here and who we represent.”

But other council members were against the move and worried about the impact the decision would have on those who tune in online to view that portion of the meeting.

“We’re trying to make a rule based on a bad apple, and all we’re going to do is punish everyone,” Laase said. “I don’t support this in any way. There’s got to be a better way. We’ve got to find a way to deal with it. And if dealing with it means that we continue to broadcast and take our chances, that’s what we have to do.”

Laase said he believed public comment is intended for public consumption, and he would hate to have 99 percent of the comments that have been said during that time not available to the public. However, the council indicated that whatever is not recorded, would be documented in the meeting minutes.

Jeans favored staying with the current system. He suggested that if the mayor were to observe someone speaking on personal or political matters during public comment, he should step in and stop it.

“The purpose of our council meetings is not open-mic night,” Mayhew said in his argument for the action. “There’s some restaurants nearby that do open-mic nights and bars that can do that there.”

Throughout the night, councilmembers in favor of cutting the recording also alluded to discussions that happened between the council and the Public Disclosure Commission on the RCW.

“The PDC has informed us that on occasions where it is abused for campaign purposes, the offense is on the currently sitting elected official, not the candidate making comments as part of the public discussion,” Holloway said.

Holloway continued, “The logic there being that the sitting elected official really has the opportunity or ability to limit that exposure. We are are responsible for providing the opportunity. If it’s abused, it’s on us.”

Donaldson argued that the videos were not in violation of the law. He was not an elected official and had no ability to expend any public funds on his campaign. And he said the city’s representatives were not in violation because they too spent zero dollars on his campaign.

“What was said during these particular public comments is fine,” Sundwall said during the meeting. “I didn’t find the content of the items to be campaigning. I didn’t hear ‘This is my view. Vote for me.’ I didn’t hear any of that. The problem is those public resources were used on a campaign website. That’s the problem.”

Kim Bradford, communications director with the PDC, told the Valley Record in August that the official in charge of running the meeting would need to step in and stop any offender of the law. They need to vocalize that they can’t use that public open comment time for campaigning. That the onus is on the city, not the member of the public, for compliance with the law.

She elaborated that campaigning could appear as someone who “gets up and says, ‘I’m a candidate and you should vote for me.’” But other comments not falling within the campaigning parameters were OK to happen. She added that there’s no problem with using the video footage, and it would be comparable to someone using a photo taken by the city of an event that’s available to everyone.

Bradford was emailed a link to Donaldson’s videos posted onto his website in August. She responded, “Based on a brief look at those videos, it doesn’t appear that they would be a concern under RCW 42.17A.555.” In a Sept. 11 email, Bradford did note that at the end of Donaldson’s Mill Site Development video he attempts to announce his candidacy. But Donaldson is soon cut off after the signal sounds notifying him that his time had run out.

“The question seems to be what constitutes campaigning,” she said by email.

When asked about any communication between the city and the PDC, Bradford said “I’m not aware of any contact. I’ve talked to anyone who would have fielded that inquiry. It is quite possible someone called and didn’t say they were from the city of Snoqualmie or we don’t remember that they were. That’s quite possible. There will be no record of that other than people’s recollection.”

Bradford reached out to the city to verify what communication between the two agencies had taken place. After hearing back, she said it appeared that the city had no recent contact with the PDC, but that it was still possible the PDC was contacted by an elected official. The Valley Record also reached out to the city for further elaboration on the communication and hasn’t received a response.

In his defense of the videos, Donaldson said that members of Congress use excerpts of video captured in both the House and Senate to create montages. Even Jay Inslee, the highest elected official in the state bound by the law, has done it, Donaldson said.

“If the city’s position is that my actions are unlawful, then in my view, their top priority should be to get the (PDC) to first enforce the appropriate policies on the state’s highest office,” he said.