Pushing the limits of public comment; Snoqualmie council questions candidate’s methods

Donaldson uses video of his speeches during open comments for videos appearing on his website.

Even before Snoqualmie city council candidate William Donaldson decided to run for office, he would speak during city council meetings and collected the footage, he said.

But now current councilmembers are worried because the footage is being used for videos appearing on Donaldson’s website promoting his candidacy. The topic was broached during the Aug. 6 Finance and Administration Committee meeting.

So far six videos are on Donaldson’s website. In the videos, Donaldson is speaking before the council on different topics such as single-use plastics, the mill site development, the initiative and referendum and Snoqualmie transit center. The videos are edited to include only his speaking portion and graphics and images are overlaid on top.

The council’s main concerns lie with RCW 42.17A.555. It 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.”

Snoqualmie Mayor Matt Larson said the issue is one of equal access. With public resources, you have to make sure everyone has equal access. When a candidate debate is put on in City Hall, it must be accessible to everyone in the campaign.

“Along those same lines the video being used … if councilmembers decided to make a little speech and grab that speech off of the city YouTube channel, they would be smacked for that,” Larson said.

Donaldson said he’s been in a back-and-forth dialogue with members of the city. He said he told the mayor to report the use of his livestream archives to the Public Disclosure Commission — the entity who enforces the rule.

He explained that the videos are hosted on his website and his property because they have been so heavily edited.

“I interpret their discussion and actions as threatening and an attempt to silence one of the city council candidates — an attempt to silence me,” Donaldson said.

Out of respect for concerns, Donaldson said he plans to attend the next meeting with a video crew of his own, so then he won’t have to rely on any footage captured on city-owned cameras for creating his videos.

He will be bringing two people. One will have a DSLR attached to a Gimbal (a device the keeps the camera footage stable), the other will sit in the audience with another tripod. And Donaldson, with a background in media production, will be microphoning himself.

Snoqualmie city attorney Bob Sterbank said someone could potentially file a complaint to the PDC over the RCW, and fines can be imposed. And while the rule applies to elected officials and employees using or authorizing the use of public resources, it doesn’t necessarily apply to someone who doesn’t work for the city.

Councilmembers brought up the potential of ending the recording and broadcasting of the three-minute section of comments.

But could and should something be done?

Kim Bradford, communications director with the PDC, said the RCW spells out that public agency resources can not be used for election activity. Usually it’s public agency email, public agency staff time or any kind of government resources being used to advocate for or against a candidate or ballot measure.

“If someone uses public comments to campaign, the mayor or whoever is in charge of running the meeting needs to end that comment, needs to step in and tell the commenter they can’t use that time for campaigning,” Bradford said.

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 that are made not falling within the campaigning parameters are free to happen.

And Bradford said 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.

“Councilmembers have opportunities to say their piece at other parts of the meeting,” Bradford said. “That would be streamed and if there’s something in the public domain that a candidate, whether incumbent or not, wants to use in their campaign they can do that.”