Burien Council in dither over member comments included in meeting packets


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By Jack Mayne

A full third of the Burien City Council’s Monday night meeting was taken up by a dispute over whether a Councilmember should have made comments in response to a citizen’s letter included in the Council’s publicly distributed online packet (download PDF here).

The Monday (Nov. 7) meeting was drawn into the debate because Councilmember Nancy Tosta had written a response to a citizen’s letter regarding the size of the police staff that was criticized by a citizen. That led to the lengthy discussion of whether the public letters in the packet should be continued to be published online in the packet, the compendium of documents and information for a Council session.

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Interim City Manager Tony Piasecki

After the lengthy Council dialogue, Interim City Manager Tony Piasecki said since he did not get “clear direction, either way” from the Council discussion, he said he would put into the packet all correspondence, “unless it is clearly a problem … that means it is profane or pornographic.”

“I am going to err on the side of putting it into the packet,” said the interim manager and recently retired longtime Des Moines city manager.

Piasecki said he also would order changes made to include forwarding all communications sent to the city staff to all Councilmembers – “staff will get it at the same time as you.” Council member responses would be placed in the “Council member report” section of the packet, he said.


Not for ‘political diatribes’
The taut discussion on letters sent by the public and the recent inclusion in the Council packet of material was Tosta’s response to a citizen’s letter. That sort of response had not been included in prior years, but Piasecki said he ordered it included and now was seeking Council direction on continuing the action.

At citizen comment period at the beginning of the meeting, resident Chestine Edgar said the packet of public comments was never intended to become “an avenue for Councilmembers to present their diatribes or political platforms,” which she said was done in the current publication of letters, and she said Tosta’s response included a misperception of her past submissions of information to the Council.

In one response to a letter, Tosta referred to comments from Chestine Edgar and said they “are not true.” Tosta later in the meeting reiterated that Ms. Edgar’s comments were not accurate.

“I’ve provided no misinformation to the public or to the Council. …” Edgar said.

Edgar also asked the Council not to cut the city police budget, she said, because “these cuts don’t serve the citizens well.”

‘Lies about me’
Councilmember Lauren Berkowitz, speaking via telephone from home, said she chose not to include her responses in the packet so people not involved in a conversation could have access to comments, but she said if other Councilmembers wanted their comments included it should be allowed.

“In three years, (there have been letters with) lies about me,” she said, adding she could understand why people would want to respond to things that were not true.

The city staff should determine what “is true and what is not true and what is defamatory and what is not defamatory.” She said defamation, to be proved, must be proved beyond simply being negative, and that actual harm to a person had taken place. Material that may or may not be true will remain online forever, she said, and could be damaging to that person years later when someone does a review of material online.

“That is the danger of putting it online,” she said.

Berkowitz said the more reliable thing would be “to remove the correspondence to the Council altogether.”

“This is not about transparency, it is about people who want their friends and followers to be able to express themselves in this way.”

Councilmember Nancy Tosta agreed with Berkowitz that the public correspondence should not be included in the publicly available Council packet.

‘Cease and desist’
“Just because we have done it for year, doesn’t mean it is the right thing to do,” Tosta said, noting other communities have decided that inclusion of such correspondence was not appropriate for the packet.

“This was a situation where a member of the public accused a couple of councilmembers of doing things – I was one of those members – and I had not done what I was being accused of doing,” Tosta said, adding that Council rules allow members to request material they consider is false or defames them can be kept out of the public packet.

“It does put staff in a very awkward position, to try to make that decision,” Tosta said, noting that some of her exchange with the public was not included because the staff had to determine how much of such a discussion should be kept in the packet.

“I would like to see us cease and desist with this practice” of keeping public communications in the public packet, adding people can use public disclosure requests if they want to see those communications.

Mayor disagrees
Mayor Lucy Krakowiak disagreed with Berkowitz and Tosta.

“I have been a member of the Council for 13 years and the letters to the Council have been a voice for the public so I would like to have us continue that.” She suggested Councilmembers could express their opinions in other “venues in our packet” and preserve the public communications “for the public.”

Deputy Mayor Bob Edgar said he was concerned about how the comments from the public section is being used, that it was intended to inform citizens of what people were telling the Council and not intended to have the councilmember responses published.

“In my opinion, this is an example of behavior unbecoming of a councilmember by attempting to discredit or criticize any member of the public who has pointed out statements or positions a council member has made during public meetings that are part of the public record, said Bob Edgar.

Councilmember Debi Wagner said the communications from the public should “be open to anybody and everybody” and “I want it to stay” in the public packet. She said that the elected should not name names in responses that will become public, but simply “state the facts of it and move on.”

‘Easily available’
Wagner said keeping it in the packet was a way to let the public know we were getting and seeing their comments and views.

Councilmember Stephen Armstrong said the issue is “about respect, transparency, trying to work together,” but was not sure whether the material should be in the packet but has to be “easily available” to the public.

Berkowitz asked City Attorney Lisa Marshall for her views on the matter.

Asking staff to decide on comments from the public “is a completely impossible task for staff to serve … and the correspondence to the Council should be all in or all out.”

Marshall said many other cities don’t put such letters in their packets and others may make such comments available on websites.

“This is the first city where I have worked that it is this way,” she said.

She added that Councilmembers have a Constitutional right to respond to statements whether in writing or some other way.

“So you as a Council have to decide whether it is all in or all out and if a Councilmember wishes to respond,” the city attorney said, adding the Council may have to consider the manner in which they need to respond.

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Comments

7 Responses to “Burien Council in dither over member comments included in meeting packets”
  1. Randy Johnson says:

    Given recent council events that have NOT been made transparent, I would urge the council to err on the side of giving citizens MORE information, and not less.

  2. Lee Moyer says:

    Hooray for Tosta. Actually giving feedback to written comments is unheard of and when you give verbal comments at a meeting you might as well be talking to cardboard cutouts of the council members.
    I support real dialog, especially when it is needed to correct such obvious errors.

  3. Question Authority says:

    Dysfunction Junction, somebody got butt hurt but at least they attended the meeting. We ought to have our own comedy channel on TV, huge ratings!

  4. Clean it up! says:

    Listen up council members. Being on the council is not about you. It is about conducting the cities business, which should not be about you. If the council wants to change the way the packets are created, so be it. Do what needs to be done to do that. If we don’t like it, we will certainly let you know. But, stop wasting our and your time with this type of high school like behavior. We need leadership in our council that has matured enough to know what’s important and what’s not. Get a grip and start working together.

  5. shari says:

    Maybe I’m just grateful that 18 months spent viciously tearing each other apart now must necessarily turn to years of the much harder work of figuring out how to move forward in some kind of solidarity, but I find a lot in this story to be hopeful about. (For the record: I’ve been called Pollyanna exactly never). 1) An engaged citizen is concerned about issues in their community and reaches out to their network to raise awareness and action. 2) Someone in that network, reading that message, became concerned enough to reach out directly to elected officials to present her concerns and ask pointedly but respectfully for clarification. 3) A councilmember responds with an equally respectful answer that highlights some misinformation in the original message (misinformation with strong ramifications for all of us in terms of our ability to come to our own conclusions relative to an urgent community problem based on accurate information); provides a detailed summary of what is and is not under consideration and why (without attempting to push a platform); and concludes with an invitation to the citizen to ask any additional questions and to attend a council meeting to be part of the dialogue in person. The piece also highlights the need for some due diligence on a key legal/procedural issue related to public comment that all of this raised. I like what much of what Lee, Randy, and Clean say, and speaking only for myself, I’m not seeing dither or diatribe.

  6. Joey Hopps says:

    I am conflicted, on the one hand I want total transparency with our City Council. On the other hand, I completely agree with Tosta and Berkowitz about how lies about ones character and such can permanently damage your reputation/ Once something is out there on the internet for the whole world to see, true or not true, people make up their minds about the situation and the person. As long as all of the correspondence is easily available, in a timely manner, and without having to jump through a bunch of hoops – I think it would be ok to omit anything that could falsely damage someones reputation.

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