A “Filibuster” on City Layoffs, a Resolution on Resolutions, an Accusatory Letter, and More

Acting HSD director Jason Johnson and mayoral advisor on homelessness Tess Colby

1. City council member Lisa Herbold struggled Wednesday to get Human Services Department Director Jason Johnson to answer her question about future layoffs from HSD’s Homeless Strategy and Investment (HSI) division, which is merging with King County’s homelessness division as part of the creation of a new regional homelessness authority. At a meeting of the council’s special committee on homelessness, Herbold asked Johnson repeatedly how many HSI employees would be moving to new offices in the county-owned Yesler Building as part of a temporary “co-location” of city and county staff, and how many are expected to have jobs with the new authority. “I’m hearing a lot of speculation about which positions are going to be eliminated,” Herbold said. “Given that the entire HSI division is being relocated [in March and we aren’t making final decisions about who will stay at the regional authority until much later, is there something happening that we should be aware of?”

Johnson responded first by describing the history that led to the current organizational structure of HSI, then talked at length about the successive organizational structures that will be put in place over the next year. “What is going to occur is colocation in March 2020, then after the hiring of the CEO, we will begin what is termed a loan period where day to day decisions are made by the CEO, but there will also be existing lines of authority back to the city and the county…”

“I’m frustrated that Interim Director Johnson seemed to filibuster in a way that made it very difficult for me to ask my specific question and he definitely didn’t answer it.”—Council member Lisa Herbold

His explanation—which did not include an answer to Herbold’s question about layoffs—went on for so long that council member Kshama Sawant jumped in to say that she hoped the council could wrap up talking about the regional authority quickly so that the committee could move on to “the most substantive issue” on the agenda, her proposal to vastly expand tiny house villages in the city, since she had somewhere else to be. (Council member Debora Juarez said that while she appreciated Sawant’s desire to move on to her own item, “I want to point out that we spent 90 minutes on a resolution that we didn’t even pass”—Sawant’s resolution condemning India’s National Register of Citizens and Citizenship Amendment Act—and “I, for one, want to hear how this is going to get implemented.”)

After the meeting, Herbold told me that she never did get answer to her question: “If the entirety of HSI staff are colocating and layoff decisions aren’t being made final until either a 2020 supplemental or 2021 proposed budget, when exactly between those two points in time will HSI staff learn their jobs are proposed to be eliminated?” Herbold says she was “frustrated that Interim Director Johnson seemed to filibuster in a way that made it very difficult for me to ask my specific question and he definitely didn’t answer it.”

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2. Juarez was hardly the only council member casting shade on Sawant’s nonbinding resolution on India, which—along with a resolution opposing war in Iran—took up most of the council’s two-hour-plus regular meeting on Monday. Freshman council member Alex Pedersen said he would propose a resolution condemning all forms of oppression everywhere, just to cover all possible bases. “There’s many disturbing issues going on today for which we do not have resolutions, and my resolution is broad enough to capture instances of oppression that we might be missing,” Pedersen said. “Allow me to ask that we try to not craft a city council council resolution for every horrible thing that our president or any world leader does.”

Pedersen’s resolution, if it ever does see the light of day, is unlikely to find traction among his colleagues, who seemed to consider it a stunt designed to embarrass Sawant. Sawant, for her part, immediately used the proposal as an opportunity to drag her colleagues for lacking the “moral and political courage” to address housing and homelessness. “Passing resolutions is not the barrier. The barrier is lack of courage,” she said.

3. Tomorrow afternoon, Beyonce St. James—the formerly homeless drag artist who spoke and performed at All Home King County’s annual conference last year—will appear in court to seek an injunction against the release of public records that include her legal name and other identifying information. I received a notice of the hearing because I requested St. James’ invoice for the event, for which she charged $500. (Attendees reported that they were told St. James was volunteering her time and performing for tips; video of the event shows attendees tossing and handing her cash.) St. James (not her legal name) is asking that all her personal information be kept private because she has already been threatened and harassed over her performance and fears further harassment if her address and other details are made public.

Journalists, as a matter of general policy, do not publish personal information like the addresses and phone numbers of private citizens.

Not all of the people who requested information about St. James’ performance appear to be journalists. One requester asked for the contact information of every person who attended the All Home conference; another asked for “information on the total amount of spending by King County on strippers either directly or indirectly,” “the amount of spending on strippers for all department [and] details of all events for which strippers were hired,” and “any communicating regarding the procedure to determine which stripper and how many strippers be hired, and the suitableness of hiring strippers.”

St. James identifies herself as a burlesque drag performer, not a stripper.

4. Seattle’s budget director, Ben Noble, one of the highest-ranking members of the Durkan administration, emailed all nine city council members earlier this month to accuse me of publishing a “false” story about several homelessness programs that are undergoing additional scrutiny by the mayor’s office after the council voted to fund them in last year’s budget.

Noble wrote his letter to council members in response to a recent C Is for Crank item about three agencies—the Chief Seattle Club, the Low Income Housing Institute, and the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness (SKCCH)—whose spending requests were approved in last year’s adopted city budget but are which currently undergoing what the mayor’s office calls “a bit more analysis and planning.” (I found out about the agencies’ situations during the course of my reporting on LEAD, the pre-arrest diversion program, whose council-added funding is also on hold pending an external review).

In his letter to the council, Noble wrote: “This morning, a blog post from Erica Barnett indicated that several related budget adds from council are suspiciously ‘under review’ by the mayor’s office and might not receive funding. I know this funding is important to a number of you, so I want to assure you directly that this reporting is false.” The letter goes on to say that “city-funded contracts with external parties can take months” to execute, and that “needing time to work out those details, both internally and with external parties, does not equate to the funding being at risk or there being intentional delays to getting this funding out the door.”

This mischaracterizes my reporting, suggesting that I misunderstood the normal contract process that happens every year, in which some contracts aren’t executed right away. In fact, I wrote that unlike typical funding delays, which happen as the result of ordinary schedule issues, for example, these three programs are “under review by the mayor’s office” and “might not receive operational funds that were approved last year.” The word “suspicious” is Noble’s invention; it appears nowhere in my story.

Specifically, LEAD is being scrutinized by an outside consultant, the Chief Seattle Club may be required to compete for the funds it requested, and the Homes for Good pilot program to provide rental assistance to people with federal disability benefits may not receive funding without a longer-term plan beyond the one-year pilot. Advocates for these programs are concerned that they will lose funding precisely because this year’s process is unlike previous years

Noble did not reach out to request a correction or clarification from me before emailing the council; nor did he respond to calls or emails after the letter went out.

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