U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour granted a preliminary injunction Friday morning to stop the sale of the National Archives property in Seattle.
He pointedly asked Brian Kipnis, an assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle, if anybody on the five-person Public Buildings Reform Board was from the Pacific Northwest.
That’s the little-known entity that in January 2020recommended the Archives be shuttered in Seattle. The board was created in 2016 to find what it deems excess federal property.
Kipnis said he didn’t know.
Coughenour said the feds could have avoided a “public relations disaster” if they had “displayed some sensitivity” to how the closure affected the Northwest.
Coughenour also asked Kipnis what he knew about this quote in a Thursday Seattle Times story from a spokesperson for the White House Office of Management and Budget: “Tribal consultation is a priority for this administration, and we will further assess the extent to which tribes were consulted under the previous administration on this proposal.”
Kipnis answered, “I can tell you there is truth to that statement.”
He also said that “in a week or so” he expected to learn the Biden administration’s position on the archives here.
Coughenour said he’d issue a written decision this week.
Going forward, said Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, “Unless the federal government formally reverses course, at some point we’ll be asking for a final decision on the merits of the case.”
Ferguson’s office, along with 29 tribes and other groups, filed a lawsuit Jan. 4 seeking to declare the sale to developers illegal. But that lawsuit could take a while to wind its way through the courts, prompting the request for the preliminary injunction.
Having declared the 10-acre site on Seattle’s Sand Point Way Northeast as surplus, the federal government plans to move 800,000 cubic feet of archival records from here to facilities in Kansas City, Missouri (1,840 miles away), and Riverside, California (1,200 miles away). The archives hold millions of boxes of documents, and only a tiny fraction of them have been digitally scanned.
Set to be moved are the histories of 272 federally recognized tribes in Washington, Alaska, Oregon and Idaho, as well as all federal records generated in the Pacific Northwest, including military, land, court, tax and census documents. The collection also includes more than 50,000 original files related to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
The archives in Seattle would have stayed open for another three years after any sale of the property. It is currently closed to the public because of the pandemic.
Ferguson said about Coughenour’s decision, “I hope these agencies have gotten the memo that their conduct isn’t acceptable and is illegal.”
The U. S. Attorney’s Office here had no comment about the ruling.
Adam Bodner, executive director of the buildings board, also had no comment Friday on the ruling.
The Seattle facility is one of 12 surplus properties identified by the board. The original plan was to sell them individually, which would have given opponents until July 2021 to fight the move.
But on Oct. 1, the board said it was rushing through the sale.
The board announced that “given the impact of COVID” and “the commercial real estate market,” the properties would be bundled and sold in one single portfolio by a broker.
On Feb. 4, the General Services Administration, which is handling the sale, signed a contract with Savills, which touts itself as “one of the world’s leading” property advisers.
When asked if now, given the court ruling, the Seattle property would be pulled out of that bundle, a spokesman for the GSA said the agency “cannot comment at this time due to ongoing litigation.”
Lloyd Miller, an Anchorage attorney representing the tribes that entered the lawsuit, said he had hopes the planned sale would all end with the Biden administration.
“At the risk of saying the obvious, this was done by the prior administration, and many of the prior administration’s decisions are coming under scrutiny,” he said.
Kipnis’ brief included a declaration from a National Archives engineer, who said that bringing the Sand Point facility up to standard would cost $52 million to $71 million, and it would cost $90million to $92 million to build a new facility in the Seattle area.
Such funding, he said, “is simply not available in the foreseeable future.”
Said Miller, “Rarely has there been a federal building that didn’t have maintenance issues.”
For a homeowner, he said, such a dollar figure is massive.
But, he said, “These are not numbers that should frighten anyone. For military bases, federal buildings, this is standard fare.”
Charlene Nelson, 81, chairwoman of the Shoalwater Bay Tribe in Pacific County, also said she had hopes the Biden administration would reverse the decision to sell the archives here.
She remembered the Obama administration years, when each year the president invited representatives from the 547 federally recognized tribes to meet with him in Washington, D.C.
“We had very good discussion. They listened, and that always helps,” she said.
Did the Trump administration issue a similar invitation to the tribes?
“Not that I know of,” said Nelson.