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Originally published April 10, 2009 at 4:20 PM | Page modified April 10, 2009 at 4:26 PM

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Guest columnist

Seattle City Council is committed to open government

The Seattle City Council has a number of ways to enhance public access to city business, writes council President Richard Conlin. "We know we can do better. That's why I have convened a Special Committee on Open Government," which is reviewing ways to make sure every department is using best practices for public-records disclosure and open meetings.

Special to The Times

AS governments work with citizens to resolve some of our most pressing concerns — maintaining needed services in the face of major revenue shortfalls, creating jobs and affordable housing, and ensuring public safety — the Seattle City Council's commitment to providing an open, transparent and accessible government is more important than ever.

Open government takes many forms. All City Council meetings are open to the public and broadcast live on television and the Web. The council posts legislation on its Web site and has a model set of rules to ensure citizen access to public records. The council also regularly encourages citizens to be involved in the city's legislative process so council members can hear directly from residents on issues affecting them.

We've even taken a strong stand in favor of open government at the state level, such as endorsing legislation that requires the recording of council executive sessions and allowing a judge to review videotapes to ensure that sessions are closed for reasons provided for in state law. (Most local governments — and the Association of Washington Cities — opposed this measure.)

Recent concerns raised by The Times about budget meetings between Mayor Greg Nickels and the council highlight the need to focus on ways to increase citizen access in the most productive ways.

We know we can do better. That's why I have convened a Special Committee on Open Government, which is reviewing policies and procedures throughout the city to make sure every department is using best practices for public-records disclosure and open meetings.

Our first task has been to implement the recommendations of the state auditor and attorney general for our public-records process. I have proposed an ordinance that would require every department to adopt a "culture of compliance" for best practices for public-records management.

Our second task is to review the rules for the council and city boards and commissions to ensure all meetings are appropriately open and agendas, issues and notices for public comment are widely publicized.

Third, we will review comments and suggestions made by citizens and organizations concerned about open government, and look at the city's procedures for public hearings on major projects to ensure that these provide genuine opportunities for citizen involvement before decisions are made.

Finally, we will take up the issue of how to make government not just open, but truly participatory. There are lots of "everyday" ways the council interacts with the public — e-mails, phone calls, letters, town meetings, public hearings and visiting community organizations.

But often these interactions are not as effective as they could be, and many Seattleites either are not aware of the opportunities or don't know the most useful points in the legislative process to provide their input to affect the most change.

One way to improve communication and engage people who are not currently involved is implementing Councilmember Bruce Harrell's suggestion for an online Citizen Engagement Portal that would inform and poll citizens on city legislative issues. Other ideas include:

• Expanding notification and outreach for major policy initiatives, capital improvements and budget actions;

• Finding ways to ensure that affected parties and underrepresented constituencies have equal access to legislative and budget processes;

• Working out how to balance the input of well-organized/funded interests with those that are less aware of and engaged in the legislative process;

• Looking at other new avenues for input, such as facilitated dialogues pioneered by America Speaks and the Center for Wise Democracy, and innovative approaches being developed by the Obama administration.

Open, transparent and participatory government is an ongoing practice that must be continually reviewed and tested. We don't expect to create a perfect process, and we will probably stumble a couple of times as we work through difficult issues — considering privacy concerns alongside public records access, for example, or balancing citizen input with the responsibility of elected officials to make difficult decisions. But we are committed to working with and for the people of Seattle to strengthen our democracy.

Richard Conlin is the president of the Seattle City Council.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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