Last-Minute Bill Would Limit Police Traffic Stops

State Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34)
State Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34)

By Paul Kiefer

When video of Brooklyn Center, Minnesota police officer Kim Potter killing 20-year-old Duante Wright during a traffic stop started to circulate across the country, Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34, West Seattle) realized that the slate of police reform legislation that went before the Washington State Legislature this year had a noticeable hole. “We talk all the time about driving while Black,” he said, “and for some reason, it just didn’t connect with me that we should just prevent cops from using minor violations as a way to stop and question people.”

In a last-minute effort to build momentum for next year’s legislative session, Nguyen wrote a new bill—just one page long—that he hopes will curtail opportunities for minor traffic stops to escalate into arrests or shootings. In its current form, the bill only prevents police officers from stopping drivers for eight common moving violations, including improper turns, driving with expired tags, and driving without a valid license. “A lot of the work that we’ve been doing has been focused on police tactics and accountability measures,” said Nguyen, “but this bill is about trying to stop the confrontations in the first place.”

“If an officer approaches every stop with the mindset that they are looking for dangerous people, they will act in ways that potentially confirm this ‘danger bias’ during the traffic stop—potentially leading to deadly consequences.”—Seattle Inspector General Lisa Judge

The bill is based on similar legislation that Virginia’s legislature passed last year, which lawmakers in that state said would effectively end the use of so-called “pretext stops”—traffic stops in which a police officer uses a minor moving violation as an excuse to detain a driver they suspect of a more serious crime.

The Washington state supreme court initially ruled pretext stops unconstitutional in 1999. However, in a related decision in 2012, the court backtracked by recognizing so-called “mixed-motive stops,” wherein an officer may stop a driver whom they suspect of a more serious crime if they have a serious, “independent” intent to also address a moving violation. The introduction of the “mixed-motive stop” effectively reversed the court’s 1999 decision, because disproving an officer’s claims about the motives for a traffic stop is exceedingly difficult.

Seattle Inspector General Lisa Judge, who leads audits of Seattle Police Department tactics and discipline, told PubliCola that minor traffic stops are “inherently dangerous,” both for the officer conducting the stop and for the driver, and particularly for drivers of color. “Given the significant concerns all around, it begs the question why police continue to stop vehicles for low-level, oftentimes civil, violations,” she wrote in a text. “Is the inherent risk of that encounter devolving to use of force or a death worth writing a ticket for expired registration or a broken taillight?” Continue reading “Last-Minute Bill Would Limit Police Traffic Stops”

Lawsuit Challenges State and Counties to Refund Financial Penalties for Drug Charges

Pierce County residents attend a 2019 event to receive legal assistance in reducing their LFO debts (Civil Survival Project)

By Paul Kiefer

A nonprofit representing formerly incarcerated Washington residents is suing the state and its 39 counties in an attempt to address one of the loose ends left by the state supreme court’s landmark opinion in February ruling all simple drug possession charges unconstitutional.

The Seattle-based Civil Survival Project filed the class action lawsuit on Thursday in an effort to stop the state, county superior courts and private contractors from collecting Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs) tied to simple drug possession convictions. An LFO is a financial penalty that a court imposes when convicting a person of a crime; the penalty is broken into components, including a fee to cover the costs of filing the criminal case and a fee to cover the collection of a DNA sample.

The lawsuit also asks the state and its counties to provide refunds to those who have already paid court-mandated LFOs at any time since 1971, when the state’s strict liability drug possession law—now unconstitutional—went into effect.

“There may be at least hundreds, and possibly thousands, of people who still owe [legal financial obligations] towards convictions that are no longer constitutional.”— Prachi Dave, Public Defender Association

Courts and prosecutors statewide are still scrambling to respond to the state supreme court’s decision, known as State of Washington v. Blake, leaving the Civil Survival Project without a clear picture of how many people owe LFOs for simple drug possession convictions.

“We’re estimating there may be at least hundreds, and possibly thousands, of people who still owe LFOs towards convictions that are no longer constitutional,” said Prachi Dave, one of the attorneys bringing the lawsuit and the policy and advocacy director of the Public Defender Association. “The lawsuit is a first step towards learning more about exactly how many people are impacted, and exactly how many people are owed refunds.”

LFO debt can vary greatly. Before a 2018 change in state law in 2018, every LFO—which can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars—carried a 12 percent annual interest rate. Christina Zawadieh, a peer counselor at a social service agency in Everett who joined the lawsuit as a plaintiff to represent those with LFO debts, told PubliCola that she owes more than $3,000 for possession charges in Snohomish County. Even as the interest fees outgrew her original debts, she has continued to send money to the county’s superior court. “I have to do it to avoid having a warrant issued for failure to pay,” she said.

Dave added that there is currently no clear way to determine whether any counties in Washington have continued to collect LFOs after the state supreme court’s decision in February. The King County Superior Sourt has already stopped collecting LFO payments; according to the court’s clerk, the county now returns LFO payments it receives.

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Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

An additional complexity, Dave said, is the checkerboard of regulations governing the private collections agencies that often contract with county courts to collect unpaid LFOs. Unlike the courts themselves,  the collections agencies can garnish the wages of people with unpaid LFOs. Additionally, depending on the county, collections agencies charge between 18 and 100 percent of their original LFO as a “collection fee”—in addition to the interest payments expected by the court. Once the state can ascertain how much money private collections agencies have extracted in the form of collection fees from people with simple drug possession convictions, Dave said that the plaintiffs hope “to ensure that the collections agencies return that money in addition to the LFOs themselves.”

At the moment, the Washington Association of Counties roughly estimates that the Blake decision will require more than $80 million in refunds to people cleared of their drug possession convictions. Counties will also have to carry the estimated costs of re-sentencing current inmates to reflect the state’s updated drug possession laws—roughly $65 million.

Police Officer Who Made City’s Encampment Cleanup Crew Haul Her Trash “Retires” in Lieu of Firing

By Erica C. Barnett

The Seattle Police Department lieutenant who headed up the Navigation Team has retired in lieu of termination after an investigation concluded she not only had the trash pickup contractor for the team, Cascadia, drive to her home in West Seattle and haul away her personal trash but attempted to cover up her misuse of the team by lying, deleting text messages, and directing staff to conceal their actions.

PubliCola was first to report on the actions of the lieutenant, Sina Ebinger, in February 2020.

The Navigation Team was a group of police and Human Services Department outreach workers who removed encampments and offered shelter beds to their displaced residents. The Parks Department took over the job of encampment cleanups—the removal and disposal or storage of tents, trash, and personal property—earlier this year.

Sili Kalepo, a field coordinator for the Navigation Team, reportedly directed Cascadia to drive out of their way to haul off a pile of bulky trash, including furniture, from Ebinger’s home in West Seattle in February 2020. Text messages PubliCola obtained through a public disclosure request show that Kalepo texted Ebinger immediately after we contacted Kalepo to ask about the incident. (Ebinger’s response: “Dam!!”) Neither Kalepo nor Ebinger ever responded to our requests for comment.

“As a senior SPD supervisor, [Ebinger] knew or should have known that she was not allowed to access City services intended to clean up homeless encampments.”

The Office of Police Accountability, which investigates allegations of police misconduct, confirmed details of our reporting in its case file on the investigation, which includes additional information about the scope of Ebinger’s attempts to conceal her misconduct.

The OPA and a separate, subsequent investigation sustained (upheld) findings that Ebinger was dishonest, acted unprofessionally, and used her authority for personal gain; another charge, that she intentionally deleted communications about the incident to conceal her culpability, was ruled inconclusive because it wasn’t clear that she knew deleting emails and texts violated the state Public Records Act.

“OPA interviewed [t]he Cascadia employee who conducted the pickup,” the OPA case file says. “He said he was dispatched by the HSD supervisor specifically to conduct this pickup. He confirmed that he had no other jobs or pickups in West Seattle that day.”

After the city launched its investigation—and, as the case file notes, after PubliCola requested cell phone photos of the trash pickup—Ebinger apparently deleted her entire text and Internet history along with her phone log.

“I want to go on record by pointing out this is not an issue with lack of training but with a lack of character and integrity,” one witness to the incident wrote.

However, PubliCola obtained copies of the text messages Kalepo sent directing the Navigation Team to go out of its way to pick up Ebinger’s trash. “Can u all grab this?” Kalepo said. “Litter pick. No photos needed.” A “litter pick” is the city’s term for trash removal at encampments.

The incident did not go unnoticed. In addition to PubliCola’s reporting, a different Navigation Team field coordinator emailed HSD’s human resources director to complain about what he considered a “blatant misuse of power and misuse of tax payers money.”

“These texts clearly show that Sili was doing something that he knew was wrong,” the field coordinator wrote. “We document every litter pick and removal we do and take pictures of everything at all  times. Him saying ‘no photos needed’ is a huge red flag for me and shows he was trying to hide this trash pickup.”

“I want to go on record by pointing out this is not an issue with lack of training but with a lack of character and integrity,” the field coordinator wrote.

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We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

According to the case file, Ebinger told investigators several different versions of her story—claiming at one point that she had called Seattle Public Utilities to pick up her trash but they had been unresponsive, for example, and later claiming that she had heard through “word of mouth” that SPU’s website was “down for maintenance.” Continue reading “Police Officer Who Made City’s Encampment Cleanup Crew Haul Her Trash “Retires” in Lieu of Firing”

Seattle Proposal Would End “No-Cause” Evictions

Councilmember Tammy Morales speaking at her April 14 press conference to announce a “revamped” Tenants’ Bill of Rights. (Photo by Jack Russillo)
Councilmember Tammy Morales announces a “revamped” Tenants’ Bill of Rights at Plaza Roberto Maestas on Beacon Hill. (Photo by Jack Russillo)

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the South Seattle Emerald, and is reprinted here under an agreement.

by Jack Russillo

On Wednesday, Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales proposed legislation to close a legal loophole that allows landlords to evict tenants without providing a justification. 

The legislation, which Morales is calling the first in a series of “Tenants’ Bill of Rights” legislation, would bar landlords from evicting tenants without giving a reason, and would automatically convert all fixed-term leases (those that last for a specific period, such as six months or a year) into month-to-month leases once they expire.

Under Seattle’s Just Cause Eviction Ordinance, which passed in 1980, landlords must provide one of 18 reasons, or “just causes,” to terminate a month-to-month tenancy, but those who have a fixed-term lease are not protected. This means that if a lease is about to expire, the landlord does not need to provide a reason to not renew the tenant’s lease. Landlords can exploit this loophole by offering short-term leases that they can fail to renew without giving any reason, leaving the tenant legally unprotected.

“Something that was designed to protect tenants has in fact missed the mark, leaving many vulnerable to discriminatory and retaliatory behaviors,” said Tram Tran-Larsen, the community engagement manager for the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project. Although Seattle was the first city in King County to adopt just-cause legislation, Tran-Larsen said, the city has the second highest rate of no-cause evictions in King County. 

Morales’ legislation would eliminate the loophole, requiring landlords to either renew a lease or convert the initial lease to a month-to-month contract once the initial lease expired.

“We know that when this moratorium ends, there will be thousands of people getting kicked out and through no fault of their own,” Morales said. “Nobody expected a pandemic and nobody expected that so many people would be losing their jobs, their incomes, and their health insurance, which could be tied to their employer. There’s a real crisis coming if we don’t do something to make sure that people are protected.”

Arianna Laureano is a Seattle renter who has been evicted multiple times. Speaking at Morales’ event, Laureano said she has only managed to stay in her University District apartment thanks to the statewide eviction moratorium. Her lease expired during the pandemic, she said, and “once the eviction moratorium is lifted, [my landlord] will give me an eviction with no cause and I will have to go to court. But if they don’t close that just-cause loophole then it won’t matter.”

More than half of Seattle’s residents are renters. Losing Home, a 2018 report by the Housing Justice Project and the Seattle Women’s Commission, found that just 12.5 percent of people who were evicted in Seattle in 2017 were able to eventually find stable housing, with more than 55 percent ending up unsheltered or in transitional housing. Eviction also forced low-income tenants out of Seattle: 43.5 percent of people evicted in 2017 ended up moving outside the city leaving the city. The report also found that evictions disproportionately affected BIPOC and LGBTQ communities. 

“Right now, there’s a lot of discrimination that exists in the system just because there isn’t a system of accountability set up for the landlords,” said Laureano. “People like me can’t hold them accountable so it happens all the time. 

“Our housing market is a brutal arena and disenfranchised Americans are often the victims of that arena,” said Laureano. “Between a solid just-cause protection and a broader tenants’ bill of rights, we’re establishing a framework of a system that allows disenfranchised Americans to actually stand up for their rights and I couldn’t be happier about that.”

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately affected BIPOC communities, two out of three Black or Indigenous renters in Seattle were rent-burdened, according to a study from Prosperity Now. According to the study, in Seattle, Black and Native American households make less than half as much, on average, as white households. 

“Access to safe housing and the security of [housing] should not be discarded as a matter of landlord versus tenants’ rights. It’s a racial justice issue,” said Tran-Larsen. “The majority of landlords are white and people of color disproportionately face eviction.” Black, Indigineous, immigrant, and other communities of color have been hardest hit by the pandemic, Tran-Larsen said, and now they are most at risk as the eviction moratorium comes to an end.

Morales said she hopes to pass the legislation by the end of May—one month before the statewide eviction moratorium is scheduled to expire. 

State Wealth Tax Proposal Derailed in Olympia

State Rep. Noel Frame
State Rep. Noel Frame

by Leo Brine

With Democrats firmly in control of all three branches of state government, lefty tax reform advocates hoped for bold legislation this year. Indeed, with newly-elected President Joe Biden—and the crushing COVID-19 recession—making old-fashioned liberal tax policy viable for the first time in a generation, progressive taxation is in vogue in the state legislature.

Kinda. While both the House and Senate included the capital gains tax (SB 5096), a longstanding progressive goal, in their operating budget proposals, a proposed wealth tax (HB 1406), the first of its kind in the nation, is not on track to pass this session.

The wealth tax would require any state resident with more than $1 billion in intangible financial assets, such as stocks and bonds, to pay a one percent tax on their worldwide wealth. The Department of Revenue estimates only 100 Washington taxpayers would pay the tax, which would generate $5 billion annually.

Rep. Noel Frame (D-36, Seattle), the wealth tax’s prime sponsor and chair of the house finance committee, said if Republicans don’t agree to move the bill, she doesn’t want to waste the committee’s time with political theater on a bill that still has a long way to go. 

House Democrats passed the bill out of the Finance Committee on March 31 and sent it to the Appropriations Committee.

Republicans have made it clear they do not support the tax and some Democrats have shown opposition to the bill –two Democratic representatives voted against the bill in House Finance Committee on March 31. While Democrats may still have the votes to move the bill out of Appropriations committee, they’re not sure they’ve got the time, given that it’s this far behind in the process and the committee has Senate bills to consider.

Rep. Noel Frame (D-36, Seattle), the wealth tax’s prime sponsor and chair of the house finance committee, said if Republicans don’t agree to move the bill, she doesn’t want to waste the committee’s time with political theater on a bill that still has a long way to go.  “We’ve asked a lot of our staff, and I’m not inclined to ask them to do more in service of a bill that I don’t, at this moment in time, with 13 days left, see getting across the finish line this session,” Rep. Frame said.

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Rep. Timm Ormsby (D-3, Spokane), the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said that at this point, bills “are going to need to be agreed to by both sides in order to make it through the process, so we don’t have a show hearing, as opposed to using our time most efficiently for bills that will pass.”

Misha Werschkul, the executive director of the Washington State Budget and Policy Center, said the legislature likely prioritized the capital gains tax because the bill was “developed over several years to have that strong support to move forward.” Continue reading “State Wealth Tax Proposal Derailed in Olympia”

Maybe Metropolis: The Sweeps and Shelter Initiative

by Josh Feit

When I think about the charter amendment on homelessness that’s making its way to the November ballot, I’m reminded of the “Roads and Transit” debates that roiled Seattle progressives back in the late 2000s. In order to pass transit expansion at the polls, transit advocates felt compelled to couple their light rail vision with a roads package to ensure universal buy-in.

Yeah. No. Voters soundly rejected the 2007 measure, and it wasn’t until transit advocates came back a year later with a light rail-only measure that voters approved this region’s historic transit expansion plan. The 2021 version of “Roads and Transit” appears to be the charter amendment on homelessness, which boils down to “Sweeps and Shelter.”

In this instance, housing advocates, such as Downtown Emergency Center, the Public Defender Association, and Chief Seattle Club have signed on with “Compassion Seattle,” the Tim Burgess-led campaign behind the initiative; former council member Burgess, who once pushed anti-panhandling legislation, is the chief proponent of the sweeps and shelter combo. (Actually, it’s even less than that because although it requires the city to spend money on shelter—or housing, but let’s be real about which is cheaper and therefore more likely to happen—it doesn’t provide any new funds to balance sweeps with the shelter half of the equation.)

Housing advocates seem to believe voters won’t back a housing solution without the un-compassionate sweeps component. Admittedly, this time, they’re likely right. Polling is reportedly off the charts in favor of removing homeless encampments from around the city.

But this should raise a question for progressives: Why the need to couple the issues? If the polling is so definitive, and the establishment doesn’t need the do-gooders, why has Compassion Seattle gone out of its way to enlist them and present itself as a smiley coalition?

For starters, the establishment wants to avoid a divisive campaign; a broad coalition is good karma, even if they don’t actually need one. That’s one interpretation. Here’s another, not mutually exclusive from the earnest one: Compassion Seattle has pulled one over on the left: It’s not that the housing advocates need the “Seattle is Dying” vote, it’s that the pro-sweeps people need the housing advocates.

It’s not that the housing advocates need the “Seattle is Dying” vote, it’s that the pro-sweeps people need the housing advocates.

Given the pro-sweeps polling, how can this be? Like this: Yes, a sweeps initiative would likely pass without the homeless advocates signing on. For now. But given the U.S. Supreme Court’s December 2019  decision not to reconsider the 9th Circuit ruling in Martin v Boise saying cities cannot punish homeless people for sleeping outside without offering adequate alternatives, any sweeps law is vulnerable to a challenge from homeless advocates. So, while the current political zeitgeist seems to favor a sweeps-only program, the legal reality does not.

By co-opting homeless advocates into their cause now (or scaring them with polling numbers), Compassion Seattle has given themselves insurance against a substantive future challenge to sweeps. Consider: The city already has the legislative authority to remove encampments if they offer people adequate alternatives to sleeping outside. One way to inoculate sweeps against a future Martin v Boise challenge is to formally tie them to the compassionate idea of housing and shelter by bringing housing advocates on board.

To be clear: Most homeless advocacy groups (as opposed to groups that receive city funds for their own shelter and housing programs) have not weighed in on this initiative. But the ones that are on board, largely institutional players that often work with the mainstream political class and who arguably have something to gain if the city commits to funding housing, are enough. Their presence gives the general public the impression that the sweeps and shelter agenda—the notion that the city shouldn’t build low-income housing unless it also adopts a punitive sweeps policy— has gotten a stamp of approval from the left.

Homeless advocates shouldn’t fall for this. They’ve been right all along. Funding shelter and housing as a standalone policy is the way to address the current crisis.

Homeless advocates should call sweeps proponents’ bluff and let Compassion Seattle run an initiative without them, so they’ve got the political credibility to challenge sweeps when the city starts using the initiative’s overly broad language to make “public spaces open and clear of encampments” via sweeps.

Otherwise, once sweeps and shelter become intertwined, and the stigma of sweeps is removed (“Oh, don’t worry, the city also has to spend money on housing”), the inhumanity of an overly aggressive policing to address homelessness will become the norm. If the left signs off on this carrot and stick paradigm, they will cede the point that sweeps are an inherently logical policy.

Ever since the call for sweeps started turning into a political movement, proponents of sweeps haven’t been able to ignore the compelling argument from the left: Sweeps are unjust if there isn’t any housing available. Funding housing is already a compassionate policy in its own right. Sweeps are not.

In other words, a shelter (and, more importantly, housing) policy does not need a sweeps policy to be worthy of the name “Compassion Seattle.” Let’s not blur these divergent approaches to homelessness by joining them at the hip. Simply providing adequate shelter and housing will do away with the need for encampments (and thus sweeps).

You’ll notice, the initiative’s housing component doesn’t come with any money.

Housing advocates should let the resentment against homeless encampments dissipate as the pressures of the pandemic begin to recede, and follow the lessons of the “Roads and Transit” story by supporting a “housing only” program that actually puts up the money to help the homeless; that’s what the right is afraid of and that’s why they’ve co-opted the idea and strategically tied it to their sweeps agenda. I repeat: The initiative’s housing component doesn’t come with any money.

Again, the city already has the legislative wiggle room to sweep homeless people. Why run the risk of fortifying it against a legal challenge by enshrining it in law as a moral twin of housing?

Durkan Revisits Push to Move Parking Enforcement from Police to SDOT

Seattle Parking Enforcement Vehicle (Creative Commons License)

By Paul Kiefer

Six months after the Seattle City Council voted to move the city’s parking enforcement officers from the police department to a new Community Safety and Communications Center by June, Mayor Jenny Durkan and Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) Director Sam Zimbabwe hope the council will revisit their decision. On Tuesday, Durkan’s office transmitted legislation to the council that would move the roughly 100 parking enforcement officers to SDOT instead, arguing that SDOT is better equipped to manage parking enforcement.

But the proposal is an unwanted case of déjà vu for the Seattle Parking Enforcement Officers’ Guild (SPEOG), the union that represents the officers. When the council was considering opportunities to shift some positions and responsibilities away from the Seattle Police Department as part of the larger conversation about defunding SPD last fall, SPEOG leadership lobbied the council to move them into the Community Safety and Communications Center, arguing that the placement would signal the parking officers’ role in the city’s re-imagined approach to public safety.

SPEOG’s lobbying efforts worked on the council, which passed legislation in November creating the Community Safety and Communications Center to house both the city’s 911 call center and the parking enforcement unit. But they didn’t convince Durkan or SDOT, which maintained that SDOT would be a more appropriate home for parking enforcement and assembled a team of staff members to prepare for the “technical, operational and human resource” challenges involved in absorbing the parking enforcement unit into their own department.

In a letter to council members on Tuesday, Zimbabwe reiterated his arguments from last year, arguing that SDOT can offer its existing human resources staff, safety office, and budget staff to the parking enforcement unit, as well as the department’s “fleet management infrastructure,” including electric car charging stations that could serve parking enforcement vehicles. “No comparable resources will be as readily available to Parking Enforcement should they not come to SDOT,” he wrote.

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Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

 

But convenience is not the main reason Zimbabwe says he wants to move the parking enforcement unit to SDOT, he told PubliCola. “First and foremost, I think the most important thing is the alignment of our policymaking about curbside management and the enforcement of those policies,” he said—in other words, the people who create the policies should also be in charge of enforcing them. Housing the two functions in separate departments, he added, “leaves a lot more gray areas about who is supposed to be doing what.”

In his letter, Zimbabwe wrote that consolidating parking enforcement into SDOT is a matter of conforming with “national best practices,” citing nearly a dozen examples of cities that successfully shifted parking enforcement from police to their transportation departments.

Though conversations within SDOT about renewing the push to absorb parking enforcement began months ago, SPEOG president Nanette Toyoshima told PubliCola that her union was caught off-guard when they learned about Zimbabwe and Durkan’s intentions. “We didn’t know until maybe a week and a half ago,” she said. “It came as a shock, but maybe it shouldn’t have. We got an ordinance that said, ‘set up parking enforcement in the Community Safety Communication Center,’ and then we saw not one bit of work done towards moving that plan forward.”

Continue reading “Durkan Revisits Push to Move Parking Enforcement from Police to SDOT”

Records Shed Light On How Much City Overpaid for “First Responder” Hotel

By Erica C. Barnett

The Executive Pacific Hotel in downtown Seattle is currently serving as a temporary shelter for vulnerable homeless people, under an $3.1 million contract with the Low-Income Housing Institute. (The remainder of the contract, $5.2 million, is to rent the hotel itself for about 10 months.)

But before it was a shelter, as PubliCola has reported, the hotel had another contract with the city, providing isolation and quarantine rooms for first responders, health care workers, and a handful of homeless service providers).

The three-month contract benefited the hotel to an almost comical degree: Instead of renting out rooms individually, the city agreed to pay the hotel’s owner, Vancouver-based Executive Hotels and Resorts, full price for all 155 rooms.

Now, records the city provided in response to a PubliCola records request shed additional light on how much the city (and, ultimately, the federal government) overpaid for the rooms. In one representative four-week period, from March 23 to April 21, the hotel was occupied for a total of 127 room-nights (a room-night is one room occupied for one night), at a cost to the city of $332,440, or the equivalent of $2,618 per room, per night. Rooms at Executive Hotels’ flagship hotel in downtown Vancouver are currently available on Expedia for $144 a night.

Overall, the city ended up spending about $1.9 million on the initial, three-month contract for all 155 rooms. We’ve reported before on how empty the hotel was during the early going; now, the newly available invoices reveal that the hotel remained largely empty throughout the three-month contract, peaking at an rate of no more than a dozen or so occupied rooms per night.

The invoices do not reveal precisely how many people were in the hotel during any specific period; however, they do show how many meals the city paid for in each billing period, which can serve as a proxy for the number of rooms that were occupied in any period and for how many nights.

But the city wasn’t just paying for empty rooms; it was paying an increasing price for those rooms every month.

In the early days after the hotel opened, the city paid a flat $45 fee for three meals a day, so the number of meal payments equaled the number of guests. Later, when it became clear that not everyone was eating all three meals at the hotel, the city started paying $15 per meal instead.

In April, when the city was paying for three meals a day, the total number of room-nights was 188—an average of about six people per night, or the equivalent of just over one night of a totally full hotel.

The number of meals increased slightly in May, when the city started paying for each meal individually instead of all three at once, to 611 meals total; however, even assuming that each of these meals represents a person who ate just one meal on-site per day, that still works out to fewer than 20 guests per night, or about four nights during which the hotel was full.

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But the city wasn’t just paying for empty rooms; it was paying an increasing price for those rooms every month. For the month of April, for example, the city paid the Executive Pacific $332,440 for the hotel’s 155 rooms; a month later, the exact same rooms cost the city $556,708. The reason? The rates increased as summer approached, in keeping with the start of the usual tourist season. Of course, there were no tourists in 2020. According to the contract, signed last March, the monthly price for the entire hotel ranges from $222,000 in January to $794,000 in August.

In August, one month after the city paid the final $851,918 invoice on its three-month contract, the hotel submitted two new bills for the use of its rooms by Seattle police and fire personnel. The total bill: $1,580.

According to Melissa Mixon, a spokeswoman for the city’s department of Finance and Administrative Services (FAS), “the contract was negotiated and agreed to at the very beginning of the pandemic when the City had limited information about the duration, level of impact, and longevity of the pandemic” and when dozens of city workers had contracted COVID-19.

In August, one month after the city paid the final $851,918 invoice on its three-month contract, the hotel submitted two new bills for the use of its rooms by Seattle police and fire personnel. Between July 12 and August 8, three people stayed in the hotel. The total bill: $1,580.

Mixon said the city had no idea at the time when the pandemic would end or if tourism would recover quickly. The Executive Pacific, she said, was the only hotel that was “willing to partner” with the city that also had an appropriate HVAC system and individual restrooms so that people who had been exposed to COVID could quarantine if necessary.

Given the stigma around COVID-19 when the outbreak was still unfolding, not very many hotels were interested in partnering,” Mixon said. “Given the still unknown properties of the virus and public sentiment at the start of the pandemic, by agreeing to house COVID positive or exposed individuals we recognized the hotel’s ability to rent rooms to regular guests was severely impacted both by potential liability for an unknown duration.”

The final indication of how much the city overpaid for the Executive Pacific is what happened after the initial contract ended and the city began contracting with the hotel for individual rooms. In August, one month after the city paid the final $851,918 invoice on its three-month contract, the hotel submitted two new bills for the use of its rooms by Seattle police and fire personnel. Between July 12 and August 8, three people stayed in the hotel. The total bill: $1,580.

Morning Fizz: Downtown Business Cash Funds Homelessness Initiative, Council Funds Hate-Crime Prevention Position

1. The campaign for a proposed charter amendment on homelessness, Compassion Seattle, just filed a batch of contribution reports that show who is funding the campaign so far. The donors, a laundry list of developers, downtown businesses, and deep-pocketed private equity firms and investors, reveal who is really supporting the initiative, which began its life as a Tim Burgess-backed proposal to reinstitute homeless encampment sweeps.

The latest version of the charter amendment (which may not be the last) would impose a new, unfunded mandate on the city to provide 2,000 new shelter beds in the next year. It would also require the city to spend 12 percent of the city’s general fund on homelessness and human services in perpetuity, and to “ensure that City parks, playgrounds, sports fields, public spaces and sidewalks and streets (“public spaces”) remain open and clear of encampments.”

The top donors to the initiative campaign so far include:

• Developer Martin Smith ($50,000)

• Downtown (and Weyerhaeuser building) developer Greg Smith ($50,000)

• Vulcan, Inc. ($25,000)

• Mariners owner and retired Microsoft guy Christopher Larson ($25,000)

• Pioneer Square-based timber company Weyerhaeuser ($20,000)

• Property management firm Vance Corporation ($20,000)< • Clise Properties ($20,000) • 4th Ave. Associates, a property management firm ($20,000) • Consolidated Restaurants/E3 Restaurants, which include the Metropolitan Grill and Elliott's Oyster House and others ($10,000) • Private equity firm Five Point Capital, ($10,000) • Investors Mikal & Lynn Thomsen ($10,000) The campaign also reported a $5,000 in-kind donation from political consultant Tim Ceis, a former deputy mayor who was heavily involved in drafting the charter amendment (and is the partner of Seattle Chamber CEO Rachel Smith); and a $182,050 expenditure to Landslide Political, a Salt Lake City-based signature gathering firm. Compassion Seattle's filings do not include any work or contributions by homeless advocates, homeless service providers, or any members of the supposed "unlikely coalition” that is backing this sweeps-and-shelter measure. 

2. In a unanimous vote, the Seattle City Council voted to slightly alter the course of a $1 million spending bill intended to address the past year’s increase in hate crimes targeting Asian Americans during Monday’s council meeting.The original bill, which Mayor Jenny Durkan presented to the council in March with support from Council President Lorena González and Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, proposed allocating $150,000 from the city’s general fund to create at least one civilian “bias crime prevention coordinator” position within the Seattle Police Department.

Though the bill also added investments in community nonprofits that provide mental health resources and advocacy services, the proposal to finance a new position inside SPD drew vocal opposition from advocates of police abolition. Most speakers during Monday’s public comment session testified against the bill; some seemed to be reading from a similar script. “This legislation exploits tragedy to push expansion of policing and the criminal legal system,” one commenter said.

Behind the scenes, both González and Mosqueda were also skeptical of the proposal to finance an ill-defined civilian position within SPD. Ahead of Monday’s meeting, the council members and their staff reached an agreement with Durkan’s office to the bill to direct the $150,000 to a “public safety coordinator” position in the Department of Neighborhoods.

González told PubliCola on Monday that a “public safety coordinator” model would not be new to the Chinatown-International District. After Donnie Chin, the director of the International District Emergency Center, was murdered in 2015, González said she championed a similar program “after community leaders expressed the deep need to call someone other than the Seattle Police Department to report safety concerns.” The initial public safety coordinator program, she added, later spread to other neighborhoods, including South Park and Georgetown. The Chinatown-International District’s current public safety coordinator works for the neighborhood’s Business Improvement District.

Rosanna Sze, an organizer with the Massage Parlor Outreach Project, was one of the few commenters during Monday’s meeting to highlight the amendment. “If this position is supposed to be housed under the Department of Neighborhoods,” she said, “the funding [for the position] should still come from SPD’s budget and not the general fund.”

Sze’s suggestion did not spur any action by council members: a separate plan to cut $3 million from SPD’s budget has stalled under pressure from the federal court that supervises reforms to the department, which all but precludes any additional cuts to the department’s budget. Instead, the council passed the amended bill without argument.

Cap and Trade Moves Forward Over Republican and Some Democratic Opposition

Photo by Dimitry Anikin on Unsplash

By Leo Brine

After a five-hour debate, the Democratic majority in the state Senate narrowly passed a cap-and-trade bill (SB 5126) last Thursday night on a 25-24 vote. The bill taxes large companies that emit large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by requiring them to buy permits from the state to compensate for every ton of carbon dioxide they produce.

The proceeds from the permits would go into a new Climate Investment Account that would fund things like greenhouse gas mitigation, clean transportation and transportation alternatives, and clean energy programs.

Republican senators prolonged the debate with 45 amendments; they passed three of them.

Later in the night, and with much more ease, Democratic senators passed the House’s clean fuels bill (HB 1091). Governor Jay Inslee had requested both bills.

Three Democrats voted no: Bob Hasegawa (D-11, Seattle); Liz Lovelett (D-40, Anacortes); and Kevin Van De Wege (D-24, Sequim). Every Republican voted against the bill.

None of the three amendments Republicans passed alter the underlying framework of the bill. One directs the Department of Ecology to create a website showing which companies are participating in cap-and-trade program; another requires the department to notify the legislature when a company is no longer part of the program—a political move by Republicans to demonstrate that cap and trade doesn’t work.

Republican senators spent most of the five-hour floor debate giving speeches about how much the bill, in their view, would ultimately cost working-class Washingtonians.

Republicans such as Senator Doug Ericksen (R-42, Bellingham), said the bill—which he referred to exclusively as “cap-and-tax”—would force companies to raise the prices on their goods, specifically on gas, and pass the cost on to consumers. Judy Warnick, another Republican senator (R-13, Moses Lake), said she was taking a stand for mom-and-pop farms and ranchers who would also need to lower the emissions in their production process under the bill.

Moderate Democratic Senator Mark Mullet (D-5, Issaquah) added an amendment that gives industries that are vulnerable to foreign competition, like steel and oil refineries, more time to reduce the amount of carbon emissions in their production process. The amendment also gives the companies free emissions permits while they make their adjustments. But the companies will have to lower their emissions at pro-rated, faster rates once the adjustment period ends.

Some Democratic senators, like freshman Senator T’wina Nobles (D-28, Tacoma) had issues with the bill, arguing that it does not lower emissions fast enough or low enough and is unclear on how it will invest in and assist communities who have been negatively impacted by air pollution because of their proximity to highways. Continue reading “Cap and Trade Moves Forward Over Republican and Some Democratic Opposition”