FACT CHECK: City Council “Public Hearing” into Death of Charleena Lyles; Sawant, Gonzalez Clash and Contradict
Last week, multiple local news outlets reported the Seattle City Council had scheduled what would be an “emergency” hearing looking into the fatal shooting of Charleena Lyles by Seattle Police just over a week ago. News of the hearing spread quickly on social media, garnering more attention when Councilmembers also shared and commented on social media.
The wording of the news and social media headlines, as well as information sent out by Councilmembers, garnered a range of reactions: excitement, relief, organizing, and confusion, particularly in the wake of OPA’s scheduled, and then hastily canceled, public meeting last week.
In general, communities across Seattle are looking for facts, information, and accountability. They want swift, decisive action, and strong leadership with the ability to make demands and get results.
But for many who received notice of Tuesday’s event (tomorrow) through social media, mainstream media, or directly from Councilmembers, the information was confusing and called into question exactly what community members should expect at Kane Hall.
What is a Town Hall?
A Town Hall meeting is an opportunity for people to come together at an event hosted by, in this case, Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez (with community based organizations) regarding the police killing of Ms. Lyles just over a week ago. It provides All Seattle residents an opportunity to publicly express concerns and ask questions, whether specific to the death of Ms. Lyles, or, related concerns.
Councilmember Gonzalez (Pos. 9) is the Chair of the Gender Equity, Safe Communities & New Americans Committee. Other members of the committee are:
Councilmember Debora Juarez (Alternate Member)
Councilmember Sally Bagshaw (Member)
Councilmember Tim Burgess (Vice-Chair)
What is a Public Hearing?
Generally, a public hearing is an open, public meeting held, or hosted, by state or local government agencies, as well as local and community based organizations. The purpose of public hearings is to meet the requirements of presenting information to the public on any given issue or forthcoming decision. For example, The Seattle City Council held public hearings in what became known as “Block the Bunker”; as well as “No New Youth Jail”.
The Council had to make a decision about funding and permit approval for police and youth jail facilities. Both matters were met with strong community opposition, and as required, the City Council held public hearings to present information and listen to community members concerns and questions, on record. Such hearings typically coincide with regularly scheduled, public, meetings of the full City Council in downtown Seattle.
It must be noted that the schedules of elected and appointed officials are busy, and due to prior obligations members are unable to attend every meeting, forum, or hearing. However, typically the more controversial and public the issue, the more likely residents (and the media) are to see the attendance of all members of the Council. Given the magnitude of the death of Ms. Lyles and the current state of policing and public safety overall in Seattle, it is reasonable for one to assume all Councilmembers would attend any public hearings on the topic.
More critically, there are rules and procedures for public hearings; sign-in, order of testimony, public testimony time limits, hearing time limits, and so on. Generally, public hearings result in the Council taking a vote or other definitive action on a specific issue , which is why the public tends to see greater or full representation of the Council.
What is a Public Forum?
A public forum is a community meeting, open to the public and held, or hosted, or sponsored, by anyone; state or local government agencies, elected or appointed officials, community based organizations, school or school districts, and so on. A public forum or community meeting can focus on anything,but in this case, it is the killing of Charleena Lyles by Seattle Police.
Generally, public forums or community meetings are an opportunity for officials to hear from the public. They are not necessarily required to answer questions or present information; they are there to listen to the public and track concerns. Public forums and community meetings are critical in the process of governance and decision making, whether the topic is environmental, academic, fiscal, or police and public safety.
Is Tuesday’s Event a Public Hearing by the City Council?
It is not.
Members of the Seattle City Council are not required to attend public forums. Each Councilmember serves on various committees within the Council, as Chair, Vice Chair, Member, or Alternate. Like the full City Council, these committees also meet regularly, and as a result, inform the public and the full Council of their efforts and progress as required or needed.
Councilmember Gonzalez, as the Chair of the Gender Equity, Safe Communities & New American Committee of the Seattle City Council is hosting “A Town Hall For Charleena Lyles,” at Kane Hall on UW Campus (see photo).
Here is where things have become confusing for the public, outraged by the killing of Ms. Lyles and demanding answers, account
ability, and justice.
Councilmember Kshama Sawant created a Facebook Event called “Justice for Charleena! Come to Public Hearing Tues, 6/27.”
In the description of the event (see photos) Councilmember Sawant writes, in part, “Our movement demanded that the City Council hold a public hearing where Charleena’s family and community members can directly question Seattle Police Chief O’Toole. Because of our movement, the City Council has been forced to hold a hearing.”*
Based on this, many have been left with the expectation that Seattle Police Chief O’Toole will be at the event, publicly answering questions asked by the family, the community, and presumably, Councilmembers. There have also been rumors that OPA will attend, and also take questions from the public. But is that an accurate description of what Ls. Lyles’ family, friends and the greater community should expect if they attend?
Adding to the confusion, and referring back to Councilmember Gonzalez’s description (see photo), the “Town Hall” also serves as “A Public Hearing for the Equity, Safe Communities & New American Committee of the Seattle City Council
We made several contacts for this reporting, to provide accurate and current information, including the Councilmember Gonzalez’s office, and the office of the City Council; the Office of Professional Accountability, and the Seattle Police Department.
Councilmember Sawant: According to her staff, in the weekly briefing of the Council this morning, there was vigorous debate and disagreement about the purpose of Tuesday’s event, most notably, whether Chief O’Toole will attend, as Sawant has publicized previously. According to a statement from her staff, “Councilmember Gonzalez refuses to bring Chief O’Toole to the table.” Councilmember Sawant is not a member of the Committee which Gonlzalez chairs, and which is hosting the forum.
Councilmember Gonzalez: Clarifying questions about the event and how it will be conducted. We have asked the Councilmember to define “Public Hearing for the Equity, Safe Communities & New American Committee of the Seattle City Council. She provided the following statement, which we are publishing in full:
The purpose of tomorrow’s Town Hall is to provide a safe place for community members to engage with elected officials. In the wake of this tragedy this space is necessary for healing and creating change,” said Councilmember M. Lorena González (Position 9, Citywide). “It will be facilitated in a way that allows for a productive opportunity to identify next steps. I’m not under any illusion that this will be the answer to every issue on the table. This is not designed to be a public deposition of Chief O’Toole or the Seattle Police Department, but it is the opportunity for community to come together and engage with the elected officials that oversee the Police Department, write police policy and create police accountability structures. To be clear, I extended an invitation to Chief O’Toole to attend this town hall as an observer but she was unable to accept my invitation as of last week. Tomorrow I aim to deepen community conversations and to help healing as a city. -Councilmember Gonzalez
City Council: Which members of the Council are confirmed to attend? Which members of the Council will attend? We have not yet confirmed this information and will provide updates as that information comes in.
Office of Professional Accountability (OPA): Has the Director or another representative of OPA confirmed to attend this meeting for the purposes of publicly providing information or answering questions? We are awaiting additional contact from OPA with that information and will provide updates once we have it.
Seattle Police Department: Is Chief O’Toole or a Department representative confirmed to attend this event to publicly answer questions from the family of Ms. Lyles and the community at large, about the death of Ms. Lyles? We are waiting to hear back from SPD’s Media Relations to confirm whether Chief O’Toole or representative will in fact attend the Forum and answer publicly, questions from the family or the community and will provide updates when they respond.
What Will Happen Tuesday Night?
Given the investigation of the shooting of Ms. Lyles is ongoing, it is unlikely, indeed it would be unprecedented for the Chief of the Police Department to publicly take and answer questions of the victim’s family, friends, or the general public. Councilmember Gonzalez’s statement clarifies that the Chief was asked to attend as an observer. We are still awaiting confirmation from SPD and OPA as to whether either or both will have representatives at the Tuesday evening event. We will update as we know more.
*Councilmember Herbold was first to respond to community concerns with a promise of Council Hearings into the death of Ms. Lyles.