The Legislative Building at the Capitol in Olympia. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

The Legislative Building at the Capitol in Olympia. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Reform, penalties settle lawsuits over state redistricting

The Redistricting Commission’s secret negotiations over maps violated the open meeting law, according to a consent decree.

OLYMPIA — Members of the state Redistricting Commission agreed Wednesday to pay a $500 penalty and undergo additional training to settle lawsuits accusing them of violating the state open meeting law when they adopted new political maps last year.

They unanimously approved a consent decree to resolve lawsuits that challenged the validity of those final votes to redraw boundaries for the state’s 10 congressional and 49 legislative districts.

The Washington Coalition for Open Government and Arthur West of Olympia alleged commissioners negotiated secretly for hours on Nov. 15 before hurriedly voting before midnight on maps that were not publicly displayed or debated.

The decree, which requires approval by Thurston County Superior Court, leaves the maps in place. It also requires changes to ensure future commissions act with greater openness to avoid a repeat of the secrecy and chaos preceding the current commission’s final votes.

“We took no position on maps but pursued an outcome that ensures this commission and future commissions will not repeat the same mistakes,” said Mike Fancher, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government. “We feel this outcome achieved that aim.”

“This decree provides certainty with the maps this year and resolves these challenges,” Commissioner Paul Graves said after the vote.

As laid out in the consent decree, the commission’s four voting members — Democrats April Sims and Brady Walkinshaw Pinero, Republicans Joe Fain and Graves — conducted negotiations at a Federal Way hotel on Nov. 14 and 15.

Commissioners met in groups of two, or dyads, for talks. While doing so didn’t violate the law, the talks often were substantive in nature. As a result, some of the deliberations and decisions arising from them should have been in public, according to the decree.

Commissioners engaged in “serial meetings” and took “official action without a public vote” in violation of the open meetings law, according to the decree.

The decree notes that commissioners said they did not believe their actions broke the law. But it states that they “failed to act in a manner consistent” with the law and the commission’s own rules.

Each of the four commissioners, plus the nonpartisan chair, Sarah Augustine, will pay $500. That $2,500 will be split between the Washington Coalition for Open Government and West. In addition, West will receive $15,000 from the commission under a separate financial settlement.

Under the consent decree, future commissions will be barred from negotiating a framework for a final redistricting plan in private. Also in the future, any final redistricting plan must be made publicly available before it is voted on.

There is legislation currently pending in the state House that would put those requirements into law.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623;; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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