Researching Legislative History

Sometimes background information on ordinances is helpful.  You can learn what options might have been discussed, who participated in the discussion, and how much time the item was under discussion.  Committee records, Central Staff records and Councilmember Subject Files are all good places to check.  These records are strongest for the time period 1985 to the present.  Audio recordings can also be used to listen to the meetings from about 1970 to the present.

Committee Records and Bill Books

For ordinances from about 1985 forward, the best place to start is Council committee records, as the committee is often (but not always) presented with background information for their discussion about whether or not to forward a Council Bill to Full Council.

For example, if you were looking for information on Ordinance 116885, you would find the following information in the ordinance database:

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You can see that the Council Bill was introduced on August 9, 1993, by Councilmember Pageler in the Public Safety Committee. The item will be referred to by its Council Bill number until it is passed as an Ordinance. There is no way of knowing exactly when the bill was discussed in committee; to find this information it is necessary to review committee agendas, which are organized chronologically, until you see the Council Bill you are looking for. For meetings 2002 and after, you can search the agenda database.

Committee records are described in SMA's finding aids. Searching on Pageler and Public Safety, you will find this entry:

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Reviewing Pageler’s committee files from this record series starting with August 1993, you will find CB 109814 mentioned on the August 12, 1993, agenda.


Supporting materials included with the agenda include a briefing by City Attorney Mark Sidran and a letter of support from Mayor Rice, along with a draft of the ordinance.

Bill books (Record Series 1801-77) include materials provided to Councilmembers during Full Council meetings to assist in the decision making process. Bill books in the archives start in 1997.

Legislative Department Central Staff Records

Central Staff Records (Record Series 4603-01) are a good place to check for additional supporting materials for legislation. The City Council's Central Staff was created in the mid-1970's to significantly enhance the independent research and analysis capability of the legislative branch of City government.

Searching for information on Ordinance 122734 / Council Bill 116208, relating to taxicabs, the ordinance database tells us that it was introduced to the Finance and Budget Committee in May 2008 and passed by Full Council in July 2008.

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Searching the finding aids for folder titles on this topic, the search can be limited to only folders created by Central Staff by using the series number 4603-01 and any additional words. Adding a “*” after the word taxi works as a wild card. In this case, adding 2008 narrows the search to items from that year. (See example below.)

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The search result brings up folders in box 454, all from 2008.

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To request this box, the archivist needs to know you’d like to see Record Series 4603-01, Box 454.

Reviewing this box uncovers a memo in folder 8 from Michael Jenkins in June 2008 providing background:


Councilmember Subject Files

Councilmember Subject Files can contain additional information such as constituent correspondence or interdepartmental and intergovernmental correspondence. It is important to note that files for sitting Councilmembers are not available through the Archives.

Searching the ordinance database for the ordinance on the ban on disposable shopping bags, one learns it is Ordinance 122752 and Council Bill 116251. It was sponsored by Richard Conlin and came through the Environment, Emergency Management and Utilities Committee sometime after 2008.

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But looking closely at this record in the ordinance database, one reads it was repealed by referendum. The ordinance putting the issue on the ballot is Council Bill 116500 / Ordinance 122960. Councilmember Conlin is again the sponsor.

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Search the Guide to discover that the six-digit code for Conlin’s Subject Files is 4621-02.

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It’s always good to check other search terms in the Subject Files database as folder titles are input exactly as they are named. In this case, a search for 4621-02 plastic and 4621-02 disposable did not yield any additional results. Reviewing these folders, researchers will find memos from Central Staff on expanding the ban on plastic bags to food service business use of polystyrene and plastic food ware, a report from Herrera Environmental Consultants on both disposable shopping bags and “to-go” food service items, a list of pros and cons for a ballot measure on the issue, and other reports, newspaper articles and correspondence.

Audio Recordings

Audio recordings can be helpful when little other documentation is available. At the very least one can learn whether or not there was any discussion on a specific item. When the discussion is rich, it is like being in the same room and attending the meeting.

Audio recordings are available for most meetings from 1970 to the present. They are not all digitized, however. The best approach when looking for an audio recording of a meeting is to talk to someone in the Clerk’s Office, either Information Services staff or an archivist.

The agenda database will assist in identifying the meeting you need. For example, looking for meetings of the committee that met regarding Yesler Terrace in 2012, you can put “yesler terrace” in the committee name field:

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Which brings this search result:

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Clicking on a date will show you the contents of that agenda. The July 27, 2012, agenda includes a design presentation as well as transportation mitigation discussions.

You can then go to our digital collections site to see if a copy of the audio is online. Click "advanced search" in the upper right and then select "audio" under Type. Enter "Yesler Terrace" in the Body Name field. You can also search by meeting date, using the format #7/17/2012.

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A meeting on July 17 has a digitized copy of the audio available online. You can play or download the file from the catalog record. Ask an archivist for assistance if the audio file you are looking for is not online.

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