Tumwater City Council authorized Mayor Debbie Sullivan to sign a joint defense agreement with the city of Olympia on Tuesday, May 2, to address complaints filed by two area residents with the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC).
The two residents, Arthur West and Robert Shirley, alleged that the two cities used public funds to promote a ballot measure, violating the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) 42.17A.555. The fliers were labeled “For Information Purposes Only” and informed residents about Proposition 1, which would have created a Regional Fire Authority (RFA).
In the April 25 special election, 63.6 percent of votes were against the proposition.
The agreement stipulated that it would help “avoid duplicate defense efforts, minimize defense costs, and promote cooperation” between the two cities, represented by the law firm of Law, Lyman, Daniel, Kamerrer & Bogdanovich, P.S. of Tumwater. The agreement also provided for the sharing of confidential information related to the case.
The law firm sent an initial reply to PDC on April 25. It wrote that while the RCW allows two cities to put forth a ballot measure for the creation of an RFA, jurisdictions are “constricted by the PDC’s guidance on what it may permissibly express to the voters.” The letter appealed to PDS to weigh “what is permissible speech by the cities in informing the citizens” rather than limiting “the cities’ ability to communicate with the public on matters of clear public concern.”
The two cities’ legal representatives also took issue with the timing of the complaints as they came immediately before the voting period on April 25. West filed his complaint on April 7; Shirley filed his on April 12. The fliers were mailed as March was ending.
The law firm’s response stated that the complaints “appear calculated to use the provisions of RCW 42.17A.555 to chill the ability of the cities to carry out their duties to inform the public.” The letter added that “PDC should acknowledge this context and treat such complaints with a critical eye that is skeptical of the political motivations of the complainants.”
The letter also mentioned that the PDC has previously informed cities that it has no resources to comment on proposed mailers which, according to the legal representatives, left local governments “in the dark as to the application of the PDC’s guidance” and put them at risk of possible litigation.
The two residents mainly took issue with a portion of the flier which included a four-part explanation of the RFA’s priorities. Enclosed in four boxes, the text stated that the RFA would “stabilize funding,” meet the needs of growing communities,” maintain a healthy workforce,” and “increase service efficiencies.”
West wrote that the flier was designed to be promotional despite a disclaimer on the first page of the flier saying that it was for information purposes only and that it did not intend to promote or oppose the ballot measure.
Shirley’s complaint noted that Olympia committed 12 violations, most relating to the four-part explanation of RFA’s priorities. He felt that the flier was misleading “to the extent it focuses on fire and EMS activities, including promises of new and enhanced services when the ballot measure is concerned with administration and funding and not with activities and services.” He also believed the flier did not sufficiently explain how the RFA would impact taxpayers.
PDC’s website shows a third complainant, Walter Jorgensen, who filed a similar complaint on April 28 but named Tumwater City Administrator John Doan and Communication Manager Ann Cook as the respondents. The first two complainants only filed a complaint against Olympia city officials.
The two cities spent $9,918.10 for the printing of the material and $13,184.75 for the mailing of the fliers. Olympia covered two-thirds of the total cost, with Tumwater contributing the remaining amount based on the number of mailboxes in their respective cities. The two cities would also equally share legal costs related to the case.
UPDATE: May 10, 2023 -- This story was updated to include the name of the law firm representing the two cities.
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