Opinion

Right decision for wrong reason

First, let us commend city Administrator Lee Walton for reversing his decision of last week, and re-inviting Bainbridge Concerned Citizens to host a council candidate forum in City Hall.

And we commend Walton’s candor in simply admitting that he had made a mistake by accepting hearsay assertions that BCC was a political action committee and therefore could not qualify as the sponsor of a “neutral forum,” which he believed would be required before city facilities could be made available.

Walton determined that BCC is registered as an issue-oriented group that does not endorse candidates, and therefore could qualify as “neutral” (an assertion promptly disputed by a third party who has since challenged BCC’s status with the state Public Disclosure Commission).

In our view, though, the question shouldn’t be whether only “neutral” groups may use City Hall.

The state law on which Walton relied does state that city facilities, personnel and equipment can only be used in neutral fashion, and cannot be used “for the purpose of assisting a campaign.” The statute defines “facilities” as including “stationery, postage, machines, and equipment, use of employees of the office or agency during working hours, vehicles, office space, publications of the office or agency, and clientele lists of persons served by the office or agency.”

Nothing in the law directly addresses the question of whether that prohibition applies to public meeting space, as opposed to private offices. But an accompanying regulation addresses the question explicitly, saying the statute “does not prevent the agency from making facilities available on a nondiscriminatory, equal-access basis for political purposes.”

That option – nondiscriminatory access – is the preferred course. In the first place, it’s the policy followed by both the school and fire districts, which have opened their buildings for explicitly political gatherings. Second, the policy avoids debates about who is “political” and who is “neutral.” We don’t suppose for a minute that BCC is really neutral about council election outcomes (any more than the nominally apolitical Association of Bainbridge Communities or like groups), but the forum BCC co-sponsored before the primary election was certainly fair enough. And let’s not open up questions about whether appearances by Jay Inslee, for example, are political or not.

And non-access, like access, has to be non-discriminatory. If BCC is barred from City Hall for being political, then everyone has to be barred. That would be an unfortunate decision, with so few private places on the island large enough to hold a political event.

At bedrock, we think there is no better place for political discourse than public buildings. They are, after all, built to conduct the people’s business, and there is nothing that is more the people’s business than politics.

Open, non-discriminatory access to City Hall, the Commons and other public spaces should be the city’s policy.

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