Council says no more ’inflammatory comments’ will be included in packets

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By Jack Mayne

For at least the next six months, public comments will not be included in the Burien City Council’s regular pre-meeting packet, the City Council decided Monday night following the city manager’s earlier removal of material from the packet because it made “a spectacle that does not reflect positively on the City of Burien.”

The first word that there were problems with the weekly packet – which is usually distributed late the previous week – was on Nov. 16 when many people looked for the packet for the Nov. 20 Council meeting.

City Manager Brian Wilson said there would be no Correspondence To The Council (CTTC), and later issued a more sterile business version of the packet.

Keep it out
The matter came before the Council Monday when Deputy Mayor Nancy Tosta moved for a moratorium on inclusion of public comments in the packet. She later added the moratorium should be for six, months and the new 2018 Council could reconsider and redefine the issue.

The comment issue has come up many times in the past year or so, sometimes totally against comments, Tosta said “after much discussion” to include them. She and others have noted that other cities do not include such comments in their public meeting packets.

Suddenly though, she said there was an explosion of “a wide variety of comment, much of which had nothing to do with our council activities,” and much of it defamatory and negative.

“The city has become sort of a joke,” Tosta said, adding that a moratorium would allow the Council to consider the issue further next year.

City Manager stops comments
Last week, the matter came to a head when Wilson called an immediate halt to including the comments in the packet.

“I have made the decision to not include ‘Correspondence to the Council’ or in city jargon, the “CTTC” until there was further discussion,” he wrote in an email.

“During my tenure in Burien, I have directed staff to not censor CTTC correspondence and not decide if certain correspondence meets subjective standards of relevance, respectfulness, or truthfulness,” Wilson wrote. “I have also not directed staff to undertake investigations to determine whether correspondence is defamatory. As City Attorney Marshall has stated, the tort of ‘defamation’ is a legal conclusion that can only be reached by a judge or a jury.”

So Wilson said the city decided the correspondence was either “all in” or “all out.”

In other words, he and city staff did not want to have to make decisions on the comments that others would make.

“We have had advocates who have taken a position on both sides of this issue,” Wilson said.

But, he wrote to Council, that practice has not worked.

“Over the past several weeks, the discourse contained in the CTTC has become a city spectacle that does not reflect positively on the City of Burien. Based on the content of the discourse and correspondence, I have made the decision to leave all CTTC correspondence out of the Council packet,” he wrote.

If you wanted to see the “messy parts” then you had to physically go to City Hall and get the hard copy, and no one said whether it was given out in a plain brown envelope.

“I recognize that this decision is not in compliance with the City Council’s Guidelines,” he told Councilmembers in his Nov. 16 memo. “While the Guidelines are critical in assuring the effective functioning of the Council, the ethical responsibility to preserve the dignity of the City and the Council as an electoral body is greater. It is my hope that the Council will provide direction and take action to leave all CTTC out of the packet moving forward.”

He added the correspondence “will continue to be considered a public record.”

During Council debate on the issue, Councilmember Lauren Berkowitz said she preferred that inclusion of the comments was immediately dropped permanently and not brought back again, adding the problem now suddenly is that some did not like the latest specific comments. She, with Tosta, has long opposed the inclusion of comments.

Councilmember Debi Wagner said the latest inclusion of comments now was being used to ridicule those who opposed having comments included and that those comments should be somewhere where people could find them, not shut away somewhere “away from transparency.” Taking the comments out means people lose their voice in city matters, adding she will take hate mail if it is included with the rest.

Low Risk Offenders
City Attorney Lisa Marshall told the Council of a new “community court” process the city is working on with King County to divert “low risk offenders and nonviolent offenders to a program that will allow them to attend a court where … service providers, health and mental health service providers, physical health providers, housing providers” are available at one time for those in need.”

This system provides a more low key approach not available in regular courts, an approach that sometimes pushes people in a “downward spiral,” Marshall said. It is the city’s hope that this new process will “decrease the burden on our criminal justice system and helps these individuals more fundamentally.”

The Council members also heard of the successful completion of the city’s regular state audit and the finalization of the updating of the city’s 2017-2018 biennial budget.

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