Morning Crank: “Chaos and Turmoil”

1. Yesterday, city council Position 8 candidate Sara Nelson held a press conference to denounce her opponent (and one of the two presumptive frontrunners in the race), Jon Grant, for what she called “unreliable, unethical and incompetent leadership that caused much of the staff to quit and led the Board of Directors to force his departure.” Nelson also said Grant “[left] behind an organization in chaos and turmoil, a mess that others had to try to clean up.

Grant resigned his position as executive director of the Tenants Union during his first campaign for this same position, in 2015, after staffers complained that he “tokenized” women of color at the organization and assigned them the menial work that he didn’t want to do. The claims, which are part of an unfair labor practice complaint by a former employee that the Tenants Union settled for $2,000 last year, paint a picture of a leader who didn’t show up to meetings, moved the tenants’ rights group away from tenant organizing and toward advocating for rent control, a campaign issue, and even, according to the allegations, asked for campaign contributions during a Tenants Union staff meeting.

In the complaint, a TU staffer (who I’m not naming to respect her privacy) claims that she was demoted in retaliation for writing a letter to the board reporting “oppressive and tokenizing” practices during Grant’s tenure. Those practices included missing meetings or “having meetings when he is ready or decides to show up”; asking staff to contribute to his campaign during a staff meeting; “tokenizing POCs [people of color] and “giving POCs titles of leadership for purposes of funding.” In the letter, the woman, and two other TU staffers wrote that “working in an environment which was not prepared to nurture the leadership of People of Color, and honor our struggle, has been tokenizing and disrespectful” and described a “toxic environment bred by an executive director who lacked leadership and accountability.” 

“This was around the time he said he was going to run for city council,” a TU employee told SOCR in her declaration supporting the unfair labor practice claim. “We were … thinking this was really unfair, because we felt like we were doing a lot of the work, [as] three women of color, for a white male, an executive director absent from his work most of the time. We were holding the organization together, and it just felt really unfair he was going to be glorified and our work was not being recognized.”

The board didn’t dispute any of the staffer’s claims against Grant. (In one email, they said they had “agree[d] to have Jon resign” in part because he didn’t explain “how he expected to remain in the Executive Director position when he was running for City Council. …Basically, what he wanted was to retain his connection to city government ad county government. … and give everything else to Liz Etta,” a staffer who became executive director after Grant resigned.) What they did dispute was that the woman was demoted in retaliation for signing the letter complaining about Grant’s leadership. They said they demoted her because Grant had never asked permission to promote her in the first place, and because Grant had set up a top-heavy structure at the Tenants Union, with four director-level positions and just three non-supervisory employees. 

In response to my questions about the unfair labor practice complaint, Grant said that while “I tried in every situation to empower my staff … I want to take responsibility for that as a person with both white privilege and positional authority, it is clear I did not meet the expectations of these staff members to support them as people of color within the organization. I take that feedback seriously and always strive to do better.” He also denied asking for campaign contributions at a staff meeting.

The documents suggest strongly that Grant was asked to leave; however, they do not directly substantiate Nelson’s claim that he was “fired.”  Asked what made her so confident that Grant was fired, Nelson responded, “the resignation was not of his own volition” and noted that according to the documents, Grant had expressed the desire to stay at TU during the campaign.

2. The apparently neverending debate over a proposed 57-unit studio apartment building on an arterial street in the Greenwood Urban Village continues to never end. A group of Phinney Ridge homeowners, calling themselves Livable Phinney (of course), have spent more than a year raising every conceivable regulatory objection to the proposal, claiming at various points that it: Will make it impossible for homeowners to park in front of their houses, because the residents will all have cars; will be unfit for human habitation, because the units won’t have individual washer/dryer units or air conditioning; won’t be adequately served by transit, despite the fact that the 5 bus line arrives every 15 minutes right outside; and will ruin the character of the neighborhood by attracting unsavory people who will “party” in the proposed small rooftop garden.

On Monday, the developers proposing the building were dealt another blow, when the city’s hearing examiner ruled in favor of Livable Phinney on a challenge involving two issues: Parking and shadows. (In addition to arguing that new renters will take up all the available street parking, Livable Phinney says the proposed building, which includes a partial story or clerestory, would cast too many shadows on adjacent houses and should have to be further away from those houses.) The ruling requires the developer to do a second transit study, this time measuring specific bus arrival times (as opposed to looking at the schedule) to see if Metro is actually hitting 15-minute headways; it also requires some changes to the building itself to prevent shadows, plus a new shadow study. Those parts of the ruling send the proposed building plan back to the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections, which means the developer will have to file a whole new land use plan—and that, in turn, can be appealed all over again.

Meanwhile, 57 units of desperately needed housing, in an urban village and directly on a major transit line, will not be built.

The attorney for Livable Phinney, Jeffrey Eustis, is the same lawyer who represented Marty Kaplan, the Queen Anne homeowner who successfully sued the city to prevent people from building backyard cottages or converting their basements into mother-in-law apartments. Eustis is also on the board of Futurewise, an environmental group that started out as a land-conservation group but now advocates for urbanist land-use policy—reflecting the 21st-century view that preserving rural farmland necessitates densifying cities. Futurewise actually does the outreach work for Seattle for Everyone, the coalition of environmental groups, developers, and social justice organizations advocating for the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, which includes citywide upzones as well as the backyard cottages Eustis has already sued to stop. If Eustis continues to represent groups that oppose HALA, he will also continue to work against the explicit agenda of the group on whose board he serves.

Futurewise board appointments are not term-limited.


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