Seattle's Open Government Laws, Past and Present

Seattle's "Sunshine Laws" reflect increasing concern with ethics and openness in City government from the past century to the present. These laws were enacted in response to growing interest - on behalf of the public and legislators alike - in three major areas: disclosure of campaign finance information, transparency in policymaking, and public access to agency records.

Campaign Disclosure

Transparent campaign practices are key to ensuring fairness in elections and ethical governance, and campaign disclosure laws have been on the books in Seattle since 1912, when the people of Seattle approved a Charter amendment (Resolution 3884) to require campaign finance reporting by candidates for City offices. In 1936, another Charter amendment (Resolution 11492) further required candidates and their contributors to submit itemized reports of contributions over $25 and empowered the City Council to establish penalties for violation of the new rule. Ordinance 66812 set the penalty at $300 and/or a jail sentence of up to 90 days for failure to comply. Then, in 1955, in response to public concern (Resolution 16610, Comptroller File 224002, Comptroller File 223849, Comptroller File 223903), the City Council passed Ordinance 83771, expanding the scope of campaign regulations to prohibit anonymous political advertising.

Alleged violations of campaign finance reporting rules by elected City officials prompted the City Council in 1970 to establish an ad hoc Citizens Ethics Committee to conduct an investigation into the claims (Comptroller File 268640, Resolution 22791, Ordinance 99440). After the investigation, in 1971, Ordinance 100241 established the Fair Campaign Practices Commission (which would, twenty years later, be combined with the Board of Ethics to create the current Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission under Ordinance 116005). The same month, Council sent to the voters a proposition to amend the City Charter in order to clarify that all candidates, not just those who win an election, must file itemized reports of campaign contributions (Resolution 23212).

At the State level, the citizens of Washington passed Initiative 276, the 1971 Public Disclosure Act, with 72% of votes in favor of the Act. Although it included requirements for disclosure of public records of all types, the Act focused on campaign finance reporting. The Seattle City Council declared its support for I-276 in Resolution 23823 and reaffirmed that support in Resolution 24122 after the initiative's passage.

In 1976, in a 6-2 vote, Council adopted Resolution 25300 to bring yet another proposition to the people, this time to remove the details of reporting requirements from the City Charter and to shift the responsibility of establishing such regulations to the City Council. The Charter was thus amended to read as it does today (City Charter XVIII, Section 4). With this new authority, in 1977 Council passed Ordinance 106653, codified as Seattle Municipal Code Chapter 2.04, to create the Office of Elections Administration. The City's ethics and elections laws have since been amended many times. One recent and significant measure, Ordinance 122645, added a new Seattle Municipal Code Chapter 2.06, Lobbying Regulations, which requires registration and reporting by lobbyists communicating with the City Council, the Mayor, or their staff with the intent of influencing legislation.

Open Meetings

The public's right to attend City Council meetings was established by the Washington State Legislature's adoption of the Open Public Meetings Law (Chapter 250, Laws of 1971 Extraordinary session). The Seattle City Council amended its own rules accordingly (Comptroller File 270808). Prior to this change, Council Rules had limited public access to meetings:

The Mayor, Comptroller, Corporation Counsel and members of the Board of Public Works, reporters of newspapers publishing the proceedings of the Council, and such other persons as may be invited by the members of the Council shall have the privileges of the Council Chamber during sessions. (Rule 56, Comptroller File 250301)

A Seattle Times article described Councilmembers' varied reactions to the new open meeting regulation, ranging from support for complete openness to regret at having lost the ability to discuss issues informally.1 Soon after the Act took effect, the City Council ran into trouble by continuing its practice of electing the Council President using secret ballots.2(Seattle Times January 16, 1972)

The City of Seattle today provides many opportunities for the public to keep informed and involved in policymaking. The City Council Rules and Procedures affirm the public's right to attend and comment at Council meetings, and they ensure that agendas, including supporting documents and draft legislation, are made publicly available in a timely manner.

Public Records

The City of Seattle has legally provided for public access to its records since 1890, when the voters approved a new City Charter. Article XIV, Section 3, read:

All books and records of every office and department shall be open to the inspection of any citizen at any time during business hours. Copies or extracts from said books and records, duly certified, shall be given by the officer having the same in custody to any person demanding the same, and paying or tendering, for the use of the City, ten cents per folio of one hundred words for such copies or extracts.

In 1971, Citizens' Initiative 276 created the Washington State Public Records Act (codified as RCW 42.17, now RCW 42.56), which set out specific requirements and exemptions for disclosure of public records by State agencies, including cities.

Today, in addition to complying with the Public Records Act, the City of Seattle proactively provides access to hundreds of thousands of records via the Web. The City Clerk's Office plays a significant role in providing access to City records, not only through online resources, but also through research assistance and management of current and archival City records.

In 1984, Ordinance 111782 established the Municipal Archives Program in the Office of the City Clerk, with the Digital Image Management Program of the Archives later added by Ordinance 122415. The Municipal Archives is open to the public, with an increasing number of records available online through indexes, digital document libraries, and exhibits. Finally, the City Records Management Program was created in the Clerk's Office in 2002 by Ordinance 120736 to ensure that the records of all City departments and offices are properly retained. Together these programs facilitate public access to City records and information, supporting openness and transparency in Seattle City government.

  1. Shelby Gilje, "Unsure officials are talking less." The Seattle Times [Seattle] January 16, 1972, C-1.
  2. Shelby Gilje, "Did Council votes violate new law?" The Seattle Times [Seattle] January 16, 1972, C-1.