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News / Northwest

How Washington cities’ lobbying muscle shapes housing, public records bills

Lobbyists for the Association of Washington Cities flex the group’s influence in Olympia — including the ability to draft policy themselves.

By Joseph O’Sullivan, Crosscut
Published: June 25, 2023, 6:04am

When the Association of Washington Cities last year didn’t like a proposal to allow more housing density amid a statewide affordability crisis, the nonprofit posted a bulletin to mobilize its supporters: “Ask your legislators to oppose this bill until there is meaningful engagement with a broad array of cities.”

“Regardless of what you think of the policy, making these decisions without more meaningful engagement with cities is not good public policy or ‘the Washington way,’” continued the bulletin. The tactic appears to have worked. That legislation, known as the “missing middle” housing bill and another proposal to expand backyard cottages, died amid the Association’s opposition.

But this year, when the Association sponsored a bill that could make it slower or harder for citizens to request and receive taxpayer-funded documents under Washington’s Public Records Act, it didn’t extend “the Washington way” to open-government groups or others who might be impacted.

Instead, the Association drafted its own proposed tweaks to the 1972 voter-approved, Watergate-era transparency law, which a pair of senior lawmakers – one of whom is a former mayor of Kirkland – then sponsored. Open-government groups weren’t consulted on the drafting of the bill.

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The Association’s “Washington way” for itself but not for others highlights the strategies perennially employed by influence groups as they advance their interests at the Capitol while killing other bills that might hurt their interests.

A nonprofit that represents Washington’s 281 cities, the Association includes a pair of government affairs directors – Candice Bock and Carl Schroeder – who are a constant presence in many areas of state policy.

In an interview, Bock said that the cities raised concerns about housing bills last year because they were asking to be included as stakeholders in the missing-middle housing bill and weren’t being allowed in.

“I know every group thinks they’re unique, but I think we believe we’re unique, not just any stakeholder, but a government partner,” Bock said in an interview, adding later that the cities will have to implement whatever the Legislature decides to do about housing density.

Bock said that the lack of communication on the public records bill wasn’t meant to disrespect the Washington Coalition for Open Government, which had issues with the proposal.

“I would have fully expected that as we went through the session … that we would have stakeholder conversations,” said Bock. “And oftentimes, that’s the way it ends up happening.”

The ‘Third House’

Bock and Schroeder are two of roughly 800 registered lobbyists who swirl around the part-time Legislature – some of whom refer to themselves as the “Third House,” as in an additional branch of government. In 2021, Bock earned about $169,000 and Schroeder made about $138,000, according to a ProPublica database of nonprofit tax documents.

This year, the Association pushed for a wide list of priorities for local governments and city councils – and to many residents. They pressed to pass reforms of the statute governing when law enforcement can engage in vehicle pursuits, and to enact a new statewide drug-possession and treatment law in the wake of the state Supreme Court’s Blake decision. According to Bock, the Association also pressed for more funding for city infrastructure projects by boosting the Public Works Trust Fund and advocated for increased behavioral health spending in the new state budgets.

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But the Association also found itself under the Klieg lights of two of the biggest issues to emerge from the Legislature’s annual session. One was the long-stalled progress over the lack of affordable housing. Washington is short hundreds of thousands of housing units, with increases in rents now rippling far beyond Seattle out across Washington and high prices driving some from homebuying. Meanwhile, exclusionary local zoning laws have left Black, Indigenous and Latino Americans underrepresented among homeowners, according to one report, essentially creating a wealth gap between people of color and white Americans.

The other big Association-related issue to emerge this session is the question over the government’s commitment to Washington’s 1972 voter-approved transparency law allowing residents and taxpayers to assess the performance of public servants by gaining access to public records. Washington’s Public Records Act, considered one of the strongest transparency laws in the nation, is now under sustained assault as politicians redact and withhold documents, pass more exemptions to the law and move to break up the state’s Sunshine Committee, which is tasked with looking at ways to increase government transparency.

After opposing missing-middle housing bills for years, the Association of Washington Cities this year came to the table on some housing issues. The Association ultimately supported the final version of House Bill 1110 – the missing-middle bill, which among other things legalizes duplexes in most places – which passed into law. Two other key housing-supply bills opposed by the Association stalled: one to increase housing density around transit stops and another to allow people to split large lots to build an additional home.

The Association’s push to limit judicial review of the Public Records Act, however, came at an inauspicious time. In January, McClatchy – which owns The News Tribune of Tacoma and The Olympian – revealed that state lawmakers were redacting thousands of pages of emails, text messages and other communications, flouting a 2019 state Supreme Court ruling that said they must disclose those records. The Legislature now faces a lawsuit.

After the ensuing outcry and media coverage of lawmakers’ use of “legislative privilege” to shield documents on the capital gains tax, a proposed Chinese American history month and other bills, House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said the Association’s records bill wouldn’t move forward this year.

Those two stalled housing bills – on transit density and lot-splitting – and the Association’s records proposal will be back on the table when the Legislature returns in January for next year’s session.

In an interview, Lt. Gov. Denny Heck, a Democrat and former member of the U.S. Congress who has worked on housing issues for years, called the Association of Washington Cities “a very powerful force in all the housing measures.”

Heck helped lead the coalition of progressive labor unions, think tanks and conservative builder organizations that this year pushed a slate of housing bills across the finish line and onto Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk. But the Association’s ability to kill bills the year before shows its influence, he said.

“First of all they’re statewide, secondly they’re community leaders, and thirdly they have pretty considerable lobbying forces,” Heck said in an interview earlier this year. “Not only the staff capacity here, but then the staff capacity to mobilize your local city council members to call up and say, ‘Don’t you dare do this middle-housing bill.’”

More than one city opinion

Sitting in his office in the Capitol building one day near the end of the legislative session, Rep. Andrew Barkis gestures to a shelf of mementos that hold his two “City Champion” awards, given annually by the Association to recognize legislators who advance issues dear to local governments.

Barkis, a Republican from Olympia whose day job involves the housing market, has spent years on the front lines of a bipartisan push to reform exclusionary zoning laws and onerous permitting to help the state catch up with a shortfall of building amid an influx of new residents. This year, he co-sponsored two of the key Democratic housing-supply bills – the missing-middle proposal and another to allow backyard cottages – that passed after stalling for years.

Another proposal he sponsored, House Bill 1245, would have allowed properties to be split so that an additional house can be built on the land. It’s an idea already adopted by California, Barkis said, and his bill passed the House by a vote of 92-2. Among other things, that proposal could help rural communities ease their housing shortages, Barkis said.

But that bill and another focused on boosting density near transit areas, both opposed by the Association, ultimately stalled this year.

The Association has “a big influence” over housing policy as bills get public hearings, move through committee and get amended in order to advance, he said.

“More so this year, what I noticed is that you have a broad representation of cities, but individual cities and jurisdictions deviated,” Barkis said. “You had many cities saying, ‘We very much support this zoning type of situation.”

But if a handful of influential cities remain opposed, the Association can “use that and they chip away, chip away, chip away” at proposals to weaken them as they advance, he said. “It’s a tough process.”

The message from the Association about housing is often “’Yes, we want to do this,’” Barkis added. “But there’s always a reason they can’t.”

Local officials have often opposed zoning reform because it eats away at their own authority to regulate how people can use land. But Barkis and other lawmakers have been working to clear zoning obstacles and to streamline permitting, both of which, at least one study suggests, have contributed to Washington’s affordability crisis.

“Local government is government … there’s no distinction when it comes to government,” he said. “It’s a barrier.”

The Seattle-based Sightline Institute has been working on housing policy since 2019, according to Dan Bertolet, and in that time the Association has blocked policies that would remove local zoning obstacles, even as home prices and rents have risen across Washington.

“They have been opposing the housing bills since we started this work,” said Bertolet, director of housing and urbanism at the Institute.

Both Bertolet and Barkis said they believe HB 1245 was sacrificed to get the other housing bills passed.

By that point, a full slate of bills – which included others that streamlined permitting and the transit-oriented development bill – passed one chamber of the Legislature and moved to the other.

“But the cities start making some noise about that – ‘What happens if we pass all these bills?’” said Bertolet, who helped draft the lot-splitting proposal. “It’s going to be too much.”

But the overall progress on housing issues was more than many expected. Bertolet said he thinks the affordability crisis just got too dire for city governments to keep blocking proposed solutions.

“More and more, they were coming under fire for being obstructionists, among legislators, among everybody,” said Bertolet.

Who writes the bills?

Meanwhile, the Association wrote its own proposed law that could make it harder and slower for citizens to get government records – and then gave that bill to a House deputy majority leader in the Democratic-controlled Legislature to sponsor.

Cities wanted to combat a very small number of records requestors they consider “vexatious,” including one in particular who was considered a nuisance.

For instance, “In the past four years a single individual has filed over 100 lawsuits against agencies across Washington, costing taxpayers millions of dollars in settlements, legal costs, penalties, and other payments,” according to the association.

But instead of reaching out to open-government groups or others who might be impacted by the proposed law change, the Association wrote its own proposal. That’s because state lawmakers can authorize lobbyists or organizations to draft bills. In this case, House Deputy Majority Leader Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, authorized the Association to write the transparency bill, House Bill 1597. In the Senate, Republicans, who are in the minority, sponsored a companion bill, Senate Bill 5571.

The bill would set up an appeals process within a local or state agency in the event a citizen believes they have been denied public records from the government, according to a copy of the bill text.

That new, non-independent process must first be exhausted before a citizen can ask a judge to review whether records are being denied improperly. In order to get judicial review, the bill requires citizens to sign a certification that they are not requesting government records “for any improper purpose,” according to the text.

While lawmakers and the Association described the proposal as a way to reduce the burden of public-records requests to local governments, the bill would also apply to the Legislature.

In an interview earlier this year, Springer, whose wife is currently the mayor of Kirkland, said he sympathized with the local governments that must spend time and dollars on the records requests considered burdensome.

“It had to do with frivolous requests, the dollars and the time spent is astronomical, and so we were trying to curtail that,” said Springer. The Association “wrote it, they brought it to me, and so I said, ‘Sure, I’ll drop it.’”

It’s unusual to know when a lobbying organization has written a bill for legislators, because that information doesn’t have to be disclosed under the Public Records Act. Accordingly, the Legislature denied a request by Crosscut and McClatchy seeking the list of outside parties asked to draft any of the roughly 1,600 bills introduced for this past legislative session.

The Legislature doesn’t keep a running list of bills that have been drafted by lobbyists or citizens, according to Secretary of the Senate Sarah Bannister.

In this case, the Association didn’t give any advance notice to the Washington Coalition for Open Government. The bill as written could “significantly delay getting records” requested by citizens or the media “when time is of the essence and there’s a key date approaching, such as an election or public hearing,” according to Toby Nixon, a former president of the Coalition, which recently partnered with Crosscut to produce a public event.

“Agencies who don’t want to release politically embarrassing records or simply don’t want to do the work of producing records can ‘game the system’ by aggressively denying access to records, knowing they will get a ‘second bite at the apple’ to make a potential lawsuit go away by producing the records later if the requester appeals …” Nixon wrote in a memo shortly after the bill was introduced.

“There was no advance notice – at least not to me or anyone at WACOG – that the bill was going to be dropped,” Nixon wrote to Crosscut and McClatchy in an email. “No stakeholder meetings from the requester side, no opportunity to review and comment or suggest revisions. Complete surprise.”

Transparency advocates quickly protested the bill and the process used to develop it, and Nixon – himself a Kirkland City Council member – said he was surprised to be blindsided by Springer, Bock and another co-sponsor, Rep. Amy Walen, a Democrat from Kirkland and a former mayor of that city.

“I liked to think that I have good working relationships with Larry, Amy, Candice … so this was a big disappointment,” Nixon added. “I’m still hoping we can have a discussion about their concerns and see if we can develop solutions acceptable to everyone …”

In a news bulletin shortly after the bills were introduced, the Association dismissed concerns being raised: “Already the news media and open-government groups are railing against this proposal, claiming that it will limit access to records.”

In an interview, Bock said she is scheduled to meet with Nixon soon.

Local governments have strong lobbying presences in statehouses, according to Jeffrey Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. At the same time, there isn’t much of a lobbying power supporting the public’s right to know and government transparency, he added.

That uneven dynamic is further helped by the fact that many state lawmakers used to work in local government, according to Roberts, who tracks transparency issues and related lobbying at the Colorado Legislature.

That holds true in Washington. A review of all 147 lawmakers’ biographies by Crosscut and McClatchy found that nearly one in five legislators currently in office describe themselves as former or current city council members.

“You have a lot of people in statehouses who used to be city council members, and that’s the perspective they often come with,” Roberts said. “I don’t want to come across as saying that people in government don’t care about openness and transparency, but they often think from that perspective.”

Public records laws must always balance the public’s right to know what government is doing with other interests, like privacy or security issues if some records were released. But “Sometimes the requestor is left to wonder whether the person in charge of the records just wants to create obstacles,” said Roberts. “And there are ways they can do that.”

“Access to information about government is really important for the way our democracy is supposed to work,” Roberts said, adding: “It really goes back to James Madison and the other founders who articulated that for [the] self-governing democracy that they were creating, why it was important for the public to know something about what their government was doing.”

Crosscut is a service of Cascade Public Media, a nonprofit, public media organization. Visit crosscut.com/donate to support nonprofit, freely distributed, local journalism.
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