Researching Legislative History

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See our Researching Legislative History
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Sometimes background information on ordinances is helpful.  You can learn what options might have been discussed, who was involved, and how much time the item was under discussion.  Committee records, Central Staff records, Councilmember subject files, and audio recordings are all resources that can shed light on how decisions were made and who participated in making them.

Committee Records and Bill Books

For ordinances from about 1985 forward, the best place to start is Council committee records, as the committee is often (but not always) presented with background information for their discussion about whether or not to forward a Council Bill to Full Council.

For Ordinance 121174/Council Bill 114559, the ordinance record tells us that we're looking for Neighborhoods, Arts and Civil Rights Committee records from 2003.

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Committee records are described in SMA's Finding Aids database. Searching series on "Licata," you will find a record for:

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These are paper records held in the archives, which can be viewed in the research room.

Now we need to need to find the agenda(s) for any meeting where the bill was discussed. It was introduced and referred to the committee on May 12, 2003 - so let's look at the agendas for the next couple of committee meetings after that. Using the agenda database, we find our bill on the agenda for the May 30 committee meeting. Remember that before it is passed, it will be referred to by its council bill number.


Now that we know when the committee discussed the bill, we can look at the records from that date. In the committee file for the May 30 meeting, we find supporting materials included with the agenda, including two presentations given at the meeting.

For full council meetings, bill books (Record Series 1801-77) serve a similar purpose. SMA holds bill books back to 1997. The ordinance record tells us that this bill was passed at the June 9, 2003, council meeting. The bill book for that meeting includes supporting materials as well as a related resolution.

Legislative Department Central Staff Records

Central Staff Records (Record Series 4603-01) are a good place to check for additional supporting materials for legislation. The City Council's Central Staff was created in the mid-1970's to significantly enhance the independent research and analysis capability of the legislative branch of City government.

Searching for information on Ordinance 122734 / Council Bill 116208, relating to taxicabs, the ordinance database tells us that it was introduced to the Finance and Budget Committee in May 2008 and passed by Full Council in July 2008.

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Searching the finding aids for folder titles on this topic, the search can be limited to only folders created by Central Staff by using the series number 4603-01 and any additional words. Adding a “*” after the word taxi works as a wild card. In this case, adding 2008 narrows the search to items from that year. (See example below.)

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The search result brings up folders in box 454, all from 2008.

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To request this box, the archivist needs to know you’d like to see Record Series 4603-01, Box 454.

Reviewing this box uncovers a memo in folder 8 from Michael Jenkins in June 2008 providing background:


Councilmember Subject Files

Councilmember Subject Files can contain additional information such as constituent correspondence or interdepartmental and intergovernmental correspondence. It is important to note that files for sitting Councilmembers are not available through the Archives.

Searching the ordinance database for the ordinance on the ban on disposable shopping bags, one learns it is Ordinance 122752 and Council Bill 116251. It was sponsored by Richard Conlin and came through the Environment, Emergency Management and Utilities Committee in 2008.

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Searching Finding Aids, we learn that Conlin's Subject Files are Record Series 4621-02.

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Searching within Conlin's subject files on "bag OR bags" brings up three folders. Reviewing these files, researchers will find memos from Central Staff on expanding the ban to business use of polystyrene and plastic food ware, a report on both disposable shopping bags and "to-go" food service items, a list of pros and cons for a ballot measure on the issue, and other reports, newspaper articles and correspondence.

Audio Recordings

Audio recordings can be helpful when little other documentation is available. At the very least one can learn whether or not there was any discussion on a specific item. When the discussion is rich, it is like being in the same room and attending the meeting.

Audio recordings are available for most meetings from 1970 to the present, but not all are digitized yet. The best approach when looking for an audio recording of a meeting is to talk to someone in the Clerk’s Office, either Information Services staff or an archivist.

Meeting agendas can help to identify the meeting you need. For example, using the agenda database to look for meetings of the committee that met regarding Yesler Terrace in 2012, you can put "Yesler Terrace" in the committee name field.

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Which brings up this search result:

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Let's say you're interested in the July 26 meeting. You can then go to Digital Collections to see if a copy of the audio is online. Use the advanced search and select "audio" under Type at the top. Two search strategies to try:

  1. Enter "Yesler Terrace" in the Body Name field, or
  2. Search by meeting date, using the format #7/26/2012

The search results show that the July 26 meeting has a digitized copy of the audio available online. You can play or download the file from the catalog record. Ask an archivist for assistance if the audio file you are looking for is not digitized.

Some notes about legislative research:

  • SMA was founded in 1985 and does not generally have background records for bills passed before that date.
  • Very little council audio exists in the archives from before 1969.
  • Records don't come to the archives immediately, so if you're looking at very recent legislation, the background materials likely will not be at SMA yet.
  • Most of SMA's textual records are not digitized; using them will involve a visit to the research room.

Municipal Archives, City Clerk

Anne Frantilla, City Archivist
Address: 600 Fourth Avenue, Third Floor, Seattle, WA, 98104
Mailing Address: PO Box 94728, Seattle, WA, 98124-4728
Phone: (206) 684-8353

The Office of the City Clerk maintains the City's official records, provides support for the City Council, and manages the City's historical records through the Seattle Municipal Archives. The Clerk's Office provides information services to the public and to City staff.