The 2019 City Council Candidates: Phil Tavel

Image via Phil Tavel campaign.

This year’s council races include an unusually high number of open seats, an unprecedented amount of outside spending, and eight first-time candidates. To help voters keep track, I’m sitting down with this year’s city council contenders to talk about their records, their priorities, and what they hope to accomplish on the council.

Today: District 1 candidate Phillip (Phil) Tavel. Tavel, an attorney, is making his second run at the West Seattle seat, after being defeated in 2015 by Lisa Herbold. Like last time, Tavel was endorsed by the Seattle Times; this time, he also has backing from groups like the Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce and former council member Tim Burgess’ People for Seattle PAC.

The C Is for Crank (ECB): You’ve talked about being someone who will listen to everyone, not just the “vocal minority.” What vocal minority do you think has too much influence, and who do you believe they’re drowning out?

Phil Tavel (PT): That comment actually came from some of the times I’ve been down at city hall. There was one particular time, I think it had to do with the police contract, when Sawant had had a lot of followers in their T-shirts, and they waited to put out the table for signups until their crowd kind of jumped right in and got in front of a lot of people. And so they were able to stand up and yell and shout and get very vocal in city hall. And it seems like they get listened to as the other people just sort of get pushed out and when they stand up, they get shouted down.

And a lot of times it’s the very energetic activist crowd that will be there, be in front and they will champion their issue, which is a wonderful thing. You want it to be that way. But the way Seattle can be sometimes is, the voice that just wants to say, ‘What’s going on?’ or ‘I don’t agree with this,’ but they don’t do it in that same vocal manner, kind of gets pushed to the side.

ECB: You think it’s kind of intimidating?

PT: Well I know from talking to some of those people, they literally feel intimidated out of the room. I don’t bring up Sawant for any reason other than that she is that poster child for the loud voice, which I’ve got to admit, when she ran against Richard Conlin, I thought it was awesome. But what I think has happened is that loud crowd takes over, and then a lot of the more moderate voices and a lot of the people who are just citizens that care because their life’s been affected, but that’s not their entire life, [aren’t heard]. They still have a job and a family and other things. And so it feels like those people kind of get pushed to the side.

ECB: At the Human Services Coalition forum, you said that you think the city has enough funding for homelessness; they just need to spend it better. Can you elaborate on where you think the city could find efficiencies?

It’s not that they have enough, so much as that it feels like there could be enough, but until we know what’s actually spent and what’s returned and what’s that gap, we don’t know. This is partially from my own sense as just a citizen, not as a candidate. And then the people I talk to say, come on, we have $6 billion, and we’re not talking about caring for a quarter of a million people living on the street or even the size of LA’s problem. It seems that if we marshaled our resources better, that would go farther.

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ECB: When you say $6 billion, you’re referring to the total size of the city’s budget?

PT: Yes, $5.9 billion.

ECB: But a lot of that is capital spending that the city council can’t touch and that has nothing to do with services.

PT: Yeah, and I do recognize that. But again, this is just from that general public standpoint of, we are a very rich city. The amount of money we have to spend on these things does keep growing and we just need to have a better understanding of what’s there. What are we getting back? It was [National Alliance on Mental Illness founder] Eleanor Owen, actually, at the NAMI panel that we did, who sort of chastised all the candidates [by] saying, ‘You do realize who’s making out in this whole thing? It’s the providers. Look at how much money we spend on administration and bureaucracy that doesn’t get to that person who’s really in need.’ And that resonated with me and I had a really long conversation with her about that.

Go take a look at the  and look at the number of providers that are not meeting the county standards. And you know, a lot of it is self-reported. When Tim Burgess was mayor briefly, I remember reading an article that he wanted to see the service providers give quarterly reports as to what are their targets, what are their goals? Are they meeting them? And that type of thing has not happened. We haven’t seen that followup. After having gone through some of the things with the SCALE group [which filed multiple appeals to stop the Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, and of which Tavel was a member], we weren’t getting accurate information back from the city. And also I hear it from people in city departments. I mean, I get people from multiple departments coming to me saying, we spend our money badly and they give me examples of how much we’ve wasted.

I’ve been in meetings where I’ve had the city throw up statistics, then tell us they won’t answer questions, and then walk away. And you know, you’re sort of left with this [feeling of], ‘Well, wait a minute, okay, there are stats and numbers, but I’m dubious about where they comes from.’ I mean, I worked at the National Science Foundation, where every time you did a press presentation about a program, you had to make sure you’d triple checked everything. And I don’t get that same sense out of Seattle.

“For the last couple of years, I’ve been primarily doing private [cases]. But I’ve still got a handful of public [conflict] cases. I identify as a public defender because for 13, 14 years, that was 95% of the legal work I did.”

ECB: You’ve been supported by the Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce, which opposes the employee hours tax that your opponent supported. How closely do you align with the Chamber on taxes, and would you propose an alternative to raise revenue for homelessness?

PT: I’m opposed to the way [the head tax] was put out. I’m for talking to [businesses] first about contributing to this issue.  I don’t feel that any conversations ever took place between the council and the largest, most successful companies to say, Hey, you know, we’ve got a choice. We can either attack you or maybe we can step up and work on something together. A couple of the larger food distributors said, ‘Our margins are pretty thin, we will pass 100 percent of this on’ [to consumers] and we’ll end up with a $25 hamburger in Seattle. I think we should looked for a higher threshold. And if we had gone out to those large companies and they were like, ‘No, we’re not going to chip in,’ fine, then let’s pick a good number and tax their net profits because clearly they’ve got enough to spend. I just didn’t like the fact that there was no real plan for how that money was going to be spent, what it was specifically needed for, and no early conversations with those people to say, would you work with us first?

ECB: You went on Saul Spady’s show and agreed with his idea of putting people on “regional homeless farms.” [Editor’s note: On his show, Spady praised the Malaysian government for its approach to “really, really low-level crime,” including prison farms. After summarizing the Malaysian policy as he understood it, Spady asked Tavel if he supported this approach. Tavel replied, “Oh, absolutely, in fact, I do,” then went on to describe the program he described to me.] I want to give you a chance to elaborate or explain what you meant, in case something got lost in translation.

PT: So a friend of mine down in southern Oregon, they had a really successful program where there was a neighborhood farm that took families where the parents were having real substance abuse issues and brought them into this cooperative model. This was just a program that where you get services, you get classes, you get daycare, you participate in this farm, you learn the farming side of things, you learn about sustainability and conservation and you’re dealing with your substance abuse issues. And if there’s associated mental health issues, they’re also taken care of. So it was basically that idea of the cooperative community model for helping people, where it was providing some work and some fresh food for the neighborhood.

I think I remember that Saul had mentioned his idea, which was like a foot-long [idea]. And he said, how do you feel about farms, which was one inch long. And so as I answered that question. It made me think about what my friend had been involved with and so I said, yeah, that’s cool. I wasn’t supporting his entire idea. I was saying that I actually do think you could have these cool cooperative models that do things that are really good for both the community and for the environment and for the people.

“My feeling is, you break the law, you get arrested for committing a crime, you are then charged with a crime you’ve committed. Because if you don’t arrest and you don’t charge, you’re sending a message that all of these things are just no longer crimes.”

ECB: You also proposed a transitional program for people coming out of jail, which sounds similar to what the city and county have proposed for responding to so-called prolific offenders downtown. Why does there need to be a program inside the criminal justice system, and would this be in lieu of expanding Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion [LEAD]?

PT: Over the years I have had literally hundreds of clients in this position where, you know, they end up getting arrested for something they’ve done attached to kind of the life that they’ve gotten on the street and impacted by the people they’re surrounded by. So they go to jail for a week to a couple of months, they come out, and they’re still in that same position. And so instead of having that cycle, the jail would [offer] a place for you to go that is close enough to social services, where there’s case manager, where there’s someone who is going to become your support mechanism. So you would either have housing available near the jail or enhanced shelter.

We have to find a way to help the people that want help. The ones that have those moments where they’re like, yeah, if there was a bed for me tonight, I would take it and I would get into services to start that path. Because once you take care of those people who will voluntarily take this assistance and get into that path going up, you’re going to then be left with that group of the longterm substance abusers, the longterm undiagnosed mentally ill, the longterm people with criminal problems. The program I’m talking about is something that would take everybody that wants a chance [and say] they get a chance.

I think we missed the opportunity to use the criminal justice system as the safety net. We’re pretty good with the cooperative courts, but they could be expanded. But it’s that when someone’s released that moment is such an opportunity to help people because all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Aw, man, I did something wrong. I ended up in jail. I don’t want to be here. I’ve been released. I want something better for myself.’

ECB: Would you also expand LEAD?

PT: I would definitely like to see it expanded. I would love to see a public defender being out with the nav teams. I would like to see more people in the public defense side getting involved with these programs. They’re our clients. I mean, we have to spend so much time getting their trust so they can actually work with us.

ECB: You often refer to yourself as a public defender, but you don’t work for any public defense organization. From what I understand, you’re an occasional conflict attorney [a private attorney who takes on cases when public defenders have a conflict of interest]. Why do you call yourself a public defender?

PT: So when I started out, I volunteered with [the Associated Counsel for the Accused]. I then got offered a job as an attorney with ACA. So for a little over two years, I worked primarily at the southwest district court and became the lead attorney there. I then left and I became a conflict attorney. So then for most of the next 13 years, that was what I did. For the last couple of years, I’ve been primarily doing private things. But I’ve still got a handful of public cases. And I also do a lot of pro bono work and a lot of accidental pro bono work where I tried to charge for my work, but I just don’t get paid.

But I identify as a public defender because for 13, 14 years, that was 95% of the legal work I did. I have a friend, a pastor in Burien, and every time he gets someone who’s curious about a case, I’ll sit and talk to them and I’ll review their file. And that’s work. I don’t get paid for it. So that’s why I say that. I mean, sometimes I’ll say, I’m a trial lawyer and for much of the last 15 years I’ve been a public defender. And also it’s just, I love that [work].  I worked in the video game industry and I’ve got to admit, I had more fun as a public defender,  being able to be that one voice for someone. You know, when you go into court it’s  like you’re on an island, there’s nobody telling you what to do. You’re just protecting the rights of that one person. So I liked that job.

“As an officer, [the problem with morale comes from] not feeling like you have a clear directive, not feeling supported, never getting a ‘Good job. Thank you.’ Starting off a press conference where the first is something very critical. Kshama Sawant calling the police officers murderers. Wondering, are there going to be new pressures put on, having to do certain bits of paperwork you never did before. And if you fill it out improperly you get suspended for filling it out improperly.”

ECB:  You’ve said that you believe the police aren’t authorized to enforce the laws that exist. Can you give some examples?

PT: I know from knowing sitting on the Southwest Precinct Advisory Council, just talking to the lieutenants, talking to the officers, talking to the captain, they do feel that their directive changes in a very fluid manner —that this month, they’re allowed to contact people and the next month they’re not allowed to contact people. This month, if you see someone shooting up, they’re not going to arrest because they won’t be prosecuted, so it’s not worth their time.

If you or I sped through a red light and hit a parked car, there’s a chance you would get arrested for that because you have broken several laws. I feel like we have the laws on the books, and you can clearly see that there are a lot of times that crimes are committed [by people who] are not arrested or prosecuted. And I don’t think that’s helpful for the city as a whole. My feeling is, you break the law, you get arrested for committing a crime, you are then charged with a crime you’ve committed. Because if you don’t arrest and you don’t charge, you’re sending a message that all of these things are just no longer crimes. So if, as a city, we want to say that heroin and meth are no longer illegal, defecating on the sidewalks is not illegal, camping in a place where it’s illegal is not illegal anymore, trespass is not illegal, then let’s vote and if we have a majority that says these things shouldn’t be crimes, then we change it. As of now, we’ve got your criminal code, so you violate it, you get arrested. If you get arrested, you get charged. Unless there’s a good pre charging diversion program, which I’d love to see put in place.

ECB: What would you do about the issues of retention and morale in the Seattle Police Department?

PT: As an officer, [the problem with morale comes from] not feeling like you have a clear directive as to what you’re doing, not feeling supported by the local government, never getting a ‘Good job. Thank you.’ Starting off a press conference where the first is something very critical. Kshama Sawant calling the police officers murderers.  And then also operating under a consent decree and not knowing what’s going to happen in your job. Wondering, are there going to be new pressures put on, having to do certain bits of paperwork you never did before. And if you fill it out improperly you get suspended for filling it out improperly. So it’s all of those pressures as opposed to feeling that you’ve got mayor and a council that says, ‘Thank you,’ and ‘You’re doing a great job,’ and, ‘We know how hard it is. We want to support you.’

Now, the flip side of that is we got to the consent decree because of their problems. And especially doing criminal defense work, when a police officer violates our trust and they violate that ideal of protect and serve and they beat someone up, they shoot someone, they racially profile, in those situations, I want real accountability. I just want them to be effective, which means feeling supported, feeling like the government’s got their back and you’re working with them to get them out from under the consent decree.

Editor’s note: This story originally said that Tavel made it through the 2015 primary, which was in error. 


District 1

Lisa Herbold

District 2

Tammy Morales

District 3

Egan Orion

(Kshama Sawant did not respond to multiple requests.)

District 4

Shaun Scott

(Alex Pedersen did not respond to multiple requests.)

District 6

Heidi Wills

Dan Strauss

District 7 

Jim Pugel

Andrew Lewis