An ad hoc committee created to research options for Tacoma’s 110-year-old totem pole should have been treated as an open meeting – including advance public notice – based on a pair of state court decisions.
The committee, formed by Tacoma historic preservation officer Reuben McKnight and arts administrator Amy McBride, included two of the 11 members of the city Landmarks Commission. It also included city staffers from public works and planning as well as a consultant, Native American carver Sean Peterson.
The group recommended that the historic pole be taken down rather than restored and laid to decompose in a park or woods. Interpretive displays telling its history would be included, the group proposed. But the discussion and conclusion was done in a meeting that was not announced to the public.
UPDATE: Reached today in Olympia, Assistant Attorney General Tim Ford, who serve as the agency’s open government ombudsman, said case law suggests the meeting should have followed the Open Public Meeting Act.
“It sounds like it was a subcommittee subject to OPMA,” Ford said.
Whether such subcommittees or ad hoc groups are covered by the OPMA has been interpreted by two recent court decisions. In 1999, the state Supreme Court created a four-part test for deciding whether a particular entity is the functional equivalent of a public agency under the law. The so-called Telford Test (the case is Telford v. Thurston County Board of Commissioners) asks 1) whether the entity performs a governmental function, 2) the extent of government funding, 3) the extent of government involvement or regulation, and 4) whether the entity was created by government.
That court ruled that membership organizations of counties and county officials passed the test and are covered by the public disclosure act and were prohibited from using their resources for political purposes.
A second case applied the Telford Test to the open meetings law. That case, West v. Washington Association of County Officials, said entities that meet the test must also abide by open meeting rules such as advance notice of meetings and public access. The court of appeals, Division II, made that decision in 2011.
The totem pole work group seems to meet all four tests in that it was created by city officers, used tax dollars to compensate staff who attended and used government facilities and performed a government function. The state OPMA applies to an entity that “acts on behalf of the governing body, conducts hearings or takes testimony.
McKnight said the group wasn’t subject to open meetings rules because it was “not tasked with making a recommendation.” But nothing in the law or the court rulings require that it do so, only that it perform a government function by acting on behalf of the government body.
McKnight’s comments indicate that it indeed was acting on the Landmark Commission’s behalf.
“We were trying to follow up on the questions that were asked by the Landmarks Commission and generate answers for them,” he said.
“… the idea really was trying to figure out what we needed to know so we could report back to the Landmarks Commission and to the Arts Commission about the pole and what some of the potential things to consider and what next steps might be.”
Even if making recommendations was a test for whether it was subject to the law, the group definitely arrived at only one conclusion – that the pole should be taken down and laid on the ground somewhere to decompose. That, concluded the group, is what Alaskan tribes would do with similar poles once they had begun to deteriorate
“So sort of the recommendation was to find a more permanent location for this pole, to take it down and to find a home for it,” said JD Elquist, an arts commissioner who serves as an ex-officio member of landmarks and was part of the ad hoc committee. “… I think it would be nice if it found a resting ground somewhere in Tacoma, so it’s still part of our history.”
McKnight himself called the work of the ad hoc committee a consensus and a recommendation. While the Arts Commission will have a process to take the pole out of the city’s art collection, he told commissioners on May 8 that they too have jurisdiction.
“And so you’ll receive written materials on this, sort of summarizing the research that’s been done, and the recommendations or the results from the group of people working on this,” he told commissioners.
McKnight later said the report is just part of a process and that the decision will be made by the full commission. But the discussion at the group’s May 8 meeting indicated that most had made up their minds based on the report of the ad hoc group.
“Then I believe there’s probably some sort of hearing from our standpoint, for the Landmarks Preservation Commission, we’ve got to get public comment and that sort of thing, so these are the next steps that I know of right now,” Elquist said. “And then obviously it’s about finding the next location and having a conversation with Metro Parks about where it can end up.”
Commissioners directed McKnight to write a report on what to do, but most of the direction surrounded explaining the decision to the public, to head off – as one arts commissioner put it – a backlash from the public.
It seems that the real work was done by the ad hoc group, that a plan of action was arrived at and other options such as saving the pole were discarded. All that was done in private without public participation and outside the strictures of the open meetings law.
Here is a transcript of the May 8 meeting during which commission members discuss the report of the ad hoc committee:
Totem pole discussion
Landmarks Preservation Commission.
If the commission recalls, at the last meeting, the public works staff was here to talk about the totem pole, how during the course of some investigative work on the condition of the totem pole, and what it’s needs were, it became apparent that there was a risk of failure. And so the totem pole’s temporarily braced. At that meeting, the sort of the tentative course of action presented was that we’re looking for a more permanent shoring solution. And the direction we took from the commission was to look into this a little further, because maybe restoration of the pole, or preservation of the pole in place was not the most culturally appropriate or best course of action for something like this; that poles have a lifespan. And, that when it’s over, it’s over. And the tradition, there are different ways of treating this, and to do some additional research, both on the cultural context and what the traditional practices would be, and contacting some experts. And so, Amy McBride, the Tacoma Arts Commission administrator and me kind of threw together an ad hoc working group that included JD, Commissioner Elquist and Commissioner Echtle, and to sort of work through some of these issues. And so, I think at this point, we had a meeting actually, yesterday, was it? – so I thought maybe JD, if you want to fill us in on your perspective.
So as Reuben said, it was just kind of like an impromptu committee meeting. Basically, we talked about the pole from more of a cultural context. And kind of the consensus of the committee as a whole was to take the pole down. Right? A couple of reasons is that totem poles aren’t culturally of this region. And you know, the big reason for that totem pole for being there was sort of like the race between Seattle and us to have a bigger totem pole, but more importantly because we’re sort of like gateway to Alaska for the Gold Rush. This pole itself was more of a tourist attraction, more of an advertisement for going to the Yukon Territory to mine gold, more than anything else.
And then kind of going further from there, you know, the look at the overall condition with Shaun Peterson, you know the guy who carved the pole or the welcome statue at the other end of downtown, you know, from his standpoint that the overall skill-level and the quality of the pole itself wasn’t of museum quality. Obviously, it’s a great pole, but there’s much better carved poles in the world than this one.
Then obviously the last thing from a cultural standpoint, I personally spoke with the Sea Alaska Heritage Institute in Juneau, and I know Shaun did his research as well, and it seemed to be kind of the case that totem poles do have a natural life span. And what happens when a totem pole basically decay at some point is that they go back to the earth. So, in an Alaskan village what will happen is that a pole will just fall to pieces there, or if it becomes a hazard, they will take it down, take it to the hillside, lay it down in the ground and let it go.
So sort of the recommendation was to find a more permanent location for this pole, to take it down and to find a home for it. Obviously, I think its important seeing that the City of Tacoma paid $3,000 for this thing in 1903, I think it would be nice if it found a resting ground somewhere in Tacoma, so its still a part of our history.
I think there’s something very beautiful about the idea of this pole laying in the ground decaying and becoming part of the earth again. And I think the recommendation was it being in one of our parks, somewhere in the city. So we’ll see how that comes about. The big aspect of that was to really focus on the story of this pole.
The St. Paul Tacoma Lumber pole donated in 1903, so it has that lumber, that railroad significance to the city, as well. But obviously, there’s the whole story behind the Klondike Gold Rush and sort of the race between Seattle and us and all the other context that I think that telling the whole complete history of this pole as its basically laid to rest. I think it would be very interesting. And it becomes not so much about preservation of the thing, but making it a part of living history, which I think is an interesting approach to history in general.
So the next steps, Amy and I are going to update the arts commission about this, because it’s a part of the public arts collection. And we’re basically put together the (ascension?) committee, so that we can pull it out of the public arts collection to allow this thing to come down and to find its new home. Then I believe there’s probably some sort of hearing from our standpoint, for the Landmarks Preservation Commission, we’ve got to get public comment and that sort of thing, so those are the next steps that I know of right now. And then obviously it’s about finding the next location and having a conversation with Metro Parks about where it can end up.
And I think overall from my opinion standpoint what it means to me really is a changing of the guards. With the Tacoma Art Museum, what’s happening there, there’s a new Tacoma emerging. I think this 110-year-old pole kind of coming to the end of its llife really signifies and represents a new city, so I think there’s a way to really build the story and make it a positive, more than a negative. So I think its really about how to present it to the public and really tell the whole story so that they realize that this is just the force of nature of this thing, no fault of its own. It’s not about taking the pole away from the city but about making sure we be respectful.
So that’s sort of the general consensus of what we sort of discussed at this meeting.
Again, my personal opinion as well, but obviously it appears to be well backed.
I wasn’t able to attend the meeting. I agree with the committee so far.
But I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and one of the things I’ve been thinking about more too, is that there’s a lot of facets to the history of this pole. I agree that you know it’s not, Shaun and others say its not very well crafted. I would take their word for that. However, there’s also a period in like the late 19th-early 20th Century where this woodcarving was nearly a lost art. And most of the poles, a lot of poles carved at that time weren’t of a very good quality, as the people who were the traditional carvers died from disease or they dispersed because of economic reasons, you know going after work. And so, I think part of the story that needs to be told if, when we interpret this thing is that, you know, the story of the people who carved it. It may not have just been a purely financial thing, it may have been a way for them just to preserve this cultural aspect. Even though it’s not of this area, even though it’s not like I said, not very well done, it may be significant for those reasons.
I think, really quickly, I think one of the things that Shaun was checking in on was taking photos of each icon and basically send them north to where basically we think the carvers came from to see if anybody could bring up the significance of each icon, what that actually meant.
The other thing that was discussed that I forgot to mention was the concept of from the standpoint of when a pole comes down, something went up and replaces it.
So we talked about again, this pole not being of cultural relevance to this area, but doing something that may be more relevant to the Salish people or the actual local Native American people of this area. Maybe not Fireman’s Park necessarily, but commission a new work that would basically represent the new piece that would rise in turn for taking this pole down.
If I could jump in just to make sure everyone knows, that at this point, this is the discussion that has occurred or is occurring right now. And there seems to be pretty good consensus on that. And I think everybody is also in agreement that it is a pretty broad historical story here, both from the meaning of the totem pole itself, the iconography on it, how it came be here, why it was here, the ramp up to the Alaska Yukon Exposition, the migration from the North Coast to Washington and back and forth, and sort of the mixture of cultural exchange that occurred during this time period, civic boosterism, these popping up over night gateway to the north kind of thing – it’s all part of a pretty big story. And so, one thing that was brought up during this discussion was that there’s really an opportunity here to sort of heighten the awareness of Tacoma citizens about this story and how it fits in, it’s not just a totem pole sitting in a park. So that’s kind of my one little piece on this. So there may are many opportunties to kind of let that history be known in a better way than it actually kind of is known.
The process piece … the accession process. This commission also has jurisdiction. And so you’ll receive written materials on this sort of summarizing the research that’s been done, and the recommendations or the results from the group of people working on this.
There also will be opportunity for public comment on this and the opportunity for the commission to weigh in from now forward, but also as a formal process.
So its not something that’s decided. It’s just sort of a following up on some of the issues that were discussed at the last meeting. This is sort of the response or action to that.
Just to know there will be after this meeting, it’s not the end of the discussion at all.
In addition to all that due diligence that’s being done in terms of the future forward to this, I think what might be helpful for the public to understand how this decision was reached is an assessment of the physical condition of the pole, as well as the cost of what restoration may entail, and what the impact to the actual artifact may be through that restoration process. So that there’s clear understanding … on why the plug is being pulled on the life line of this thing, you know? It’s sort of like we’re letting go a family member and I think from what I’ve read online of some of the comments that I probably shouldn’t be reading on The News Tribune and other places, there is a lot of people who have a very personal reaction to the pole – their childhood, you know, those kinds of things. And I think it would be very helpful if we had clear reasons for why we were letting this pole go, so to speak. So an assessment providing that information, sure would be helpful.
And one thing that we need to remember, in one way or another something has to be done at this point. So that’s sort of the course of decision following the presentation to the commission two weeks ago about, you know, an armature of some sort to hold the pole up. You know, we can do this, we can pile it in and build a foundation – and the question is whether or not it should be done. And so I agree with you.
And I think also, this is something that’s been discussed, there’s the story of totem poles in the Northwest and the regional and geographic appropriateness of these things, but there’s another huge story there too – about the relationship of this pole to the community is. It’s been a landmark, it is a landmark. And a lot of people have strong feelings about that, too. So, it’s not just a totem pole, its not a context of it all. So there’s many layers to it.
I would add that when you’re writing up, not the cost-benefit piece, but why you’re pulling the plug, to really focus on the cultural aspect of it. Because if you look at this compared to like the Luzon Building, it’s a completely different thing. Like why we would probably not want to pull the plug on the Luzon Building, but this is a completely different cultural context. And so, more explanation…
I think a big part of that is just a clear communication of the process, right? Because everybody is going to have their stories, their memories with this pole. But the biggest thing is culturally, this is sound practice. This is what happens with these things. I think as long as everything is spelled out and thought out, that obviously people can have their opinions, but when you have sound education and can back that up, I think it’s a decision that makes good sense.
I think also back to the costs for taking it down versus supporting it in its current state, but interpretive work also costs money. So telling that story is very important, but we don’t want to forget that that costs money too, and being aware of that and having a plan in place so that it just doesn’t get dumped somewhere and forgotten. Because I think that that also alleviate fears in the public that something is going to be done to tell this story, not just – oh, we’ll get to it later.
I don’t disagree with the findings from your meeting and kind of the historic poetry of the end that we’re talking about. But working in engineering, I approach structural damage from an engineer’s line of thought, regardless of the cultural, or I guess that native cultural relationship and more related to the Tacoma historical relationship, I mean there are ways to preserve the thing in place. Generally, there’s ways – you’d have to obviously modify it in some way or another, but I don’t think it should be ignored that there are ways to keep it in place. Whether that be in segments or whether that be a core inserted or guides, things like that. So I think we have to have a strong argument against sort of all those things also in order to pursue the more culturally respectful approach.
I don’t think I’m the only one who looks at it that way first.
Thanks for a thoughtful, sensitive discussion. Are their more comments on the pole?