The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission found Councilmember Sawant’s use of the city council’s copy machine during the Head Tax debate did not violate Seattle ethics rules, despite an appeal heard last week.
Kshama Sawant and the Council Copier
In the days leading up to the final vote on the highly controversial head tax, the council chambers were filled with signs reading “Tax Amazon” and “Stand up to Bezos’ Bullying.” Normally, one would expect to see advocates waving signs in the council chambers, but these were different. These signs were printed by the thousands using city council resources and distributed by Councilmember Sawant’s staff both inside the chambers and at rallies outside Amazon’s headquarters, several blocks away from city hall. Sawant’s actions prompted Councilmember Bagshaw to publicly object and several members of the public to file ethics complaints against Sawant.
Despite the uproar, on June 20th the SEEC Executive Director Wayne Barnett found that Councilmember Sawant had not violated any part of Seattle’s municipal code. He based his claim on Seattle Municipal Code (SMC) 4.16.070(2)(b), which states that no current officer or employee shall “use or attempt to use, or permit the use of any City funds, property, or personnel, for a purpose which is, or to a reasonable person would appear to be, for other than a City purpose…” In short, Sawant could only use the copier if she used it for a “city purpose.”
But what does city purpose mean? For that definition, the Barnett turns to an opinion the Commission gave in 2006. In this opinion, the Commission says it first looks for “explicit authorization of a department’s use of City facilities in an official City action.” There is no ordinance or department rule that explicitly authorizes Sawant’s use of the copier, so the second case applies: “If the use is not expressly authorized by some official City action, the use may still be for a City purpose if the department acts within the scope of its authority…and the use is not inconsistent with an official City action.”
Barnett interpreted this precedent to mean Sawant could use city property to make and distribute her signs because it is within the Councilmember’s scope of authority. Her job is to convince her colleagues to vote for legislations that she believes will benefit the city, and therefore printing signs is not a violation of the code of ethics. This decision was appealed by Joe Kunzler, one of the original complaint filers.
On July 11th, Kunzler made his case to the full SEEC. His argument (here) focused on the use of public resources to aid one side, giving them an “unfair advantage,” and challenged Barnett’s assertion that Sawant’s actions were for a “city purpose.”
Ultimately, Kunzler’s appeal was unanimously rejected by the SEEC, but with palpable reluctance. Many members of the SEEC seemed uncomfortable supporting the director’s decision, but found his legal reasoning unassailable. Barnett himself refused to comment on the “prudence” of Sawant’s actions, which begs the question: should the City Council change its rules?
You can watch the full meeting, including Kunzler’s appeal, here.