Saturday, April 5, 2008

Just another Dumb Housewife --

"Public servants can be successful only if the people know what we do and actively participate with us in conducting their business. The public should be able to trust that we, as elected leaders, will act on behalf of the greater good, without arbitrary exercise of power or secrecy. To build this precious trust and stimulate public involvement in decision-making, we must perform our duties in the light of day, where the merits of our work and the effectiveness of our policies can be seen and judged. To make a real difference, we must be visible, because by being visible we become accountable and credible in the eyes of the public." -- John Russo. City Attorney for Oakland CA. April 2004.
On April 2nd, I submitted a public disclosure request to Tim Stewart, Director of Planning and Community Development requesting documentation of any written delegation of State Environmental Protection Act (SEPA) Responsible Official responsibilities to another city staff person during his tenure as the Planning Director.

In response to my request, Mr. Stewart's staff forwarded me a copy of a blanket "Delegation of Authority."

Why did I specifically address my request to Tim Stewart? Bellingham Municipal Code 16.20.050 designates the Planning Director as the City's Responsible SEPA Official. A copy of the "Delegation of Authority," is posted below. I have posted my comments as to why this is not an appropriate response to my public disclosure request below the City's response. To date, I have submitted seven public disclosure requests to various state agencies and the City in an attempt to document the City's compliance with the WA State Environmental Protection Act (SEPA) law review process.

It's important to note that each of the state agencies I contacted promptly and cheerfully responded to my public disclosure requests, as required by law. No stonewalling, no games.
Planning and Community Development Department
Delegation of Authority
And Emergency Managment Succession Plan
December 17, 2007

The purpose of this document is to establish a standard Delegation of Authority and Emergency Management Succession Plan for the Department of Planning and Community Development, including the Building Division.

1. When the Planning Director (Stewart) is absent, the Assistant Planning Director (Thomas) has the full authority of the Director, including the authority to sign any and all documents.

2. In the absence of both the Planning Director and the Assistant Planning Director, the Building Official (Burris) has that authority.

3. In the absence of the Director, Assistant Director, Building Official and both Program Managers, the most senior Program Managers (Cahill, T. Sundin in order of seniority) has that authority.

4. In the absence of the Director, Assistant Director, Building Official, and both Project Managers, the most senior Senior Planner (Aucott, Vogel, Nabberfeld, in order of seniority) has that authority.

5. In the absence of all members of S&P, the next most senior employee of the Department shall have this authority.

"Absent" shall mean not physically available when a physical activity (such as a signature) is required. "Absent" shall also mean out of touch electronically (phone and email) when any other decision making authority is required.

Additional authority of the Director may be delegated in writing on a case by case basis.

Signed, Tim Stewart

As Director of Planning and Community Development Department, Tim Stewart is the Designated SEPA Official for the City of Bellingham. I submitted a pubic disclosure request for copies of any and all correspondence in which he delegates any SEPA authority to a city employee during his tenure as Planning and Community Devlopment Director.

Mr. Stewart's blanket "Delegation of Authority" does not apply to my public disclosure request for the following reasons:

1. The "Delegation" form relates to the Director's absence in emergency situations. SEPA is an on-going responsibility with specific time frames so that decisions are not forced into an "emergency mode."

The state mandated SEPA process establishes ample time frames to ponder the impacts of permits and non-projects that are long-term in their implementation and impact, it is not designed for spur of the moment emergency situations.
Mr. Stewart's "Delegation of Authority policy" seems to relate to daily decisions (all codes) that may need immediate turnaround if the Director is not available within a 24 hour period.

2. I do not believe the SEPA Responsible Official can delegate SEPA responsibilities within a blanket administrative protocol like the one presented to me. The SEPA delegation must be specific, either for a specific time frame or a specific project, but in both cases to a specific individual.

The reason is the SEPA process is greater than 24 hours and requires continuity of the person reviewing the information so that the analysis is directly linked to the decision (or lack of decision).
Absent any specific written SEPA delegation, my opinion is that Tim Stewart is the Responsible Official and is obligated to perform all the tasks specified within the BMC.

Consequently, I am submitting a third public disclosure request:

April 5, 2008

Mr. Tim Stewart
City of Bellingham
Planning and Development Director
210 Lottie
Bellingham, WA 98225

Dear Mr. Stewart:

I’m writing in response to the attached “Delegation of Authority” that you sent me in response to my public disclosure request dated April 2, 2008. I have included a copy of my original request for your review.

My April 2 letter requested documentation of any delegation of the SEPA Responsible Official role. In response to my request, your staff forwarded a blanket "Delegation ofAuthority.......(December 17, 2007). Although this may be a general protocol for daily management and communication, the form you provided me does not address the specificity of my original request.

I will re-state my request in detail to assist your understanding of the question.
Bellingham Municipal Code 16.20.050 designates the Planning Director as the City's SEPA Responsible Official. Please provide documentation of any written delegation of the SEPA Responsible Official responsibilities to another City staff person during your tenure as the Planning Director. A roster of the SEPA decisions made per your delegation of Responsible Official role is also requested. Absent any documentation delegating the Responsible Official role or absent a roster of SEPA decisions made by the delegated Responsible Official, please provide written confirmation that you have not delegated the Responsible Official responsibilities to another person during your tenure.

Thank you in advance for your time and thoughtful consideration of my request.


cc: City Attorney for Bellingham
Washington State Attorney General's Office

Brief FAQ: Courtesy of Washington Coalition of Open Government.

Q. Can a person get public information by phone or by fax?

A. Short of a public disclosure request, the law does not provide for such access, but governmental agencies often provide it to be helpful.

Q. What is a "public record"? What constitutes a "meeting" of a public agency?

A. A record is defined in broad terms of documents and information in government's possession. The concept of a public record covers "all records, document, tape, or other information stored or preserved in any medium" -- including on a computer -- "of or belonging to" a government agency. A government agency is considered to be "meeting" when a majority of its members are talking about or taking action upon any matter within the scope of the governmental body's policy-making duties. That, too, is a broad definition, consistent with the law's emphasis on openness. Many city councils, for example, have committees whose membership constitutes fewer that a majority of the council. These meetings are open public meetings, however, even though the "decisions" or "recommendations" from the committee to the full council are not final. In Washington, the deliberative process of government, at all levels, is public.
Q. Does a person have a right to speak at a meeting of a government agency?
A. No. School boards, city councils, etc., routinely invite comments and discussion from the general public, but they can say "No" to requests to talk and can place the time limits on comments.
I hope the above questions and answers provide you with insight as to why the public disclosure request process is important to citizens and journalists.

Additional Information regarding public information requests can be located at:

Open Government Manual:

Washington Coalition for Open Government:

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