Lawsuit: New state political maps drawn during ‘secret negotiations’

The Washington State Redistricting Commission is being sued by a watchdog group over claims it broke state transparency laws during the process of redrawing political maps.

“People that are in Yakima have a real interest in, how did they reach the conclusions that they did?” said Mike Fancher, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government. “How did they design these maps the way they did? That’s what the people want and need to know and are entitled to know.”

The lawsuit put forth by the coalition claims the commissioners violated the Open Public Meetings Act several times during their virtual meeting Nov. 15 by conducting “secret negotiations” instead of debating in full view of the public.

The coalition filed the lawsuit Dec. 9 in  Thurston County against the state, its redistricting commission and commissioners Sarah Augustine, April Sims, Paul Graves, Brady Piñero Walkinshaw and Joe Fain. They’ve also filed a petition under the Administrative Procedure Act claiming the commission violated its own rules and procedures.

The meeting’s purpose was for commissioners to complete work and take a final vote on new legislative and congressional district maps that will be in place for the next decade.

Voting rights advocacy groups — including Redistricting Justice For Washington — have taken issue with the maps, claiming district lines were drawn in a way that dilutes Latino voting power in several places, including Yakima County.

RELATED: Advocates: New political maps will stifle Latino voices in Yakima County for another decade

Fancher said despite the meeting lasting for more than five hours, commissioners only appeared on-camera for about a half-hour. He said the commission reportedly spent the rest of the time in caucus meetings, where they split up according to political party to discuss their position on an issue.

“Usually, it’s just our side talks to itself, your side talks to itself and then we then we convene publicly and argue out our points of view,” Fancher said. “That didn’t take place in the public setting.”

Instead, the lawsuit claims the commission discussed important details of the new political boundaries without transparency. Fancher said while it’s unclear what occurred in those closed meetings, commissioners did summarize some of what they talked about during their brief check-ins.

“We have been in discussion and working on issues around keeping communities of interest together, thinking about city splits, really looking carefully at maps,” commissioner Brady Piñero Walkinshaw said.

The lawsuit argues those are all things that should have been discussed during the public portions of the meeting. Additionally, commissioners voted to approve resolutions about the final congressional and legislative district maps without reading them aloud or discussing them in public.

“The law is clear that open meetings means open deliberation, not just open outcome,” Fancher said.

Fancher said they want the courts to determine whether the commission’s conduct violated the Open Public Meetings Act. He said if the court rules in the coalition’s favor, it would render the commission’s decisions at that meeting null and void.

“If you don’t follow a legal process, you can’t have a legal outcome,” Fancher said.

Fancher said at that point, it would be up to the court to decide how to move forward with the new political maps. He said they could choose to fine those responsible for the violations, but keep the political maps intact.

“Or I suppose they could say, ‘We’re gonna start over and we’re gonna have a separate process and reach different conclusions,'” Fancher said.

Fancher said their lawsuit pertains only to the process by which the new political maps were voted into existence, but not the content of the maps.

Redistricting Justice for Washington plans to sue over the actual content of the political maps, claiming the commission violated federal and state voting laws by drawing district lines that dilute the power of Latino voters.