Hearing Examiner reappointment sails through committee

This morning, the Governance, Equity and Technology Committee wrapped up its work on confirming the reappointment of Ryan Vancil as Hearing Examiner, and sent it on to the full Council for final confirmation next Monday. While that outcome was hardly in doubt, there was still an interesting conversation between the Council members and Vancil that covered several topics related to the Hearing Examiner’s office.

In discussing his office’s workload, he noted that the Seattle Fire Department is working on a new citation system for offenses such as false alarms, which can be appealed to the Hearing Examiner. They estimate that it would send another 400 cases per year to Vancil’s office, on top of the 750 he already receives from SDOT and SDCI. That will be a budget issue in the fall, as Vancil will likely need more staff next year if the Council approves the new SFD citations. Vancil’s office is currently only five people.

The size of the Hearing Examiner’s office came up in another context as well: diversity. Council member Mosqueda encouraged him to increase diversity in his staff, but with so few people and low turnover, there simply aren’t many opportunities to make progress.

Vancil and the Council members also discussed efforts to increase the diversity of the people using the Hearing Examiner appeal process. While his office has a “citizen’s guide,” as a quasi-judicial process engaging with the Hearing Examiner is hardly “user friendly,” Vancil admitted, though he is beginning a process of reaching out to communities to understand what they need most in order to take advantage of his office.

One of the ideas he is considering in trying to broaden access is to allow participation in hearings via video conferencing — though he admits that the currently available technology is not where it needs it to be. Courts are further down the path of allowing it, he said, but they have the advantage of being able to use other courthouses for remote participants.

Finally, there was an interesting discussion of how to curb abuses of the Hearing Examiner process, in terms of both frivolous appeals and attempts to stretch out the hearing examiner appeal process in order to delay actions (particularly for land use/SEPA decisions). Vancil noted that it was tricky to find the right balance between expanding access to his office to underserved communities while at the same time curbing abuses of the system. He said that even for the serial abusers, one out of ten times they may be right,  He also observed that if he rushes things through he may create a cause for further appeal up the line, so he generally allows cases to run their course.

The full Council will vote on Monday afternoon to confirm Vancil’s reappointment.