In Surprise Vote, Seattle City Council Overrides Mayor’s 2020 Budget Veto

This story first appeared in the South Seattle Emerald.

The Seattle City Council voted 7-2 to override Mayor Jenny Durkan’s veto of the 2020 midyear “rebalancing” budget package they adopted in August, setting the stage for a showdown with the mayor in the upcoming 2021 budget discussions, which kick off formally next Tuesday.

The vote essentially reinstates the midyear budget the council passed back in August, after several feverish weeks of work to come up with a proposal that could win a veto-proof council majority. That budget included fairly modest cuts to the Seattle Police Department (a reduction of 100 positions, many achieved through attrition) and investments in community organizations that work to reduce violence and improve community safety, as well as a $3 million down payment on participatory budgeting.

Council members Alex Pedersen (D-4, Northeast Seattle) and Debora Juarez (D-5, North Seattle) voted to sustain the mayor’s veto. Pedersen said he supported most elements of a “compromise” bill that council president Lorena González introduced in case the veto override vote failed, and said he believed that “we get more done in a faster and more sustainable way when we work together.” Juarez, who frequently votes with Pedersen, was the only council member who didn’t offer any public explanation of her vote.

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Council members who voted to overturn the mayor’s veto said that community members had made clear that they want the city to reduce police spending and reinvest in community-based programs more quickly than Durkan is willing to move. “There is broad agreement in the community that there is an urgent need to divest [from] the systems that have acted” against the interests of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities, council member Teresa Mosqueda said.

After the vote, King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle, two groups that have been at the virtual council table during their budget discussions, issued a statement applauding the council for its vote and urging them not to backslide during budget negotiations this fall. “It should not take such prolonged, sustained community efforts for this minimal change but we recognize that Council’s move to override the Mayor’s anti-Black veto marks an urgent break from the decades of votes to expand racist policing,” the statement said. “Going forward, we expect Councilmembers to continue to resist the Mayor’s attempts to rewrite legislation that has already passed.  

The mayor immediately denounced the vote. In a statement, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office said Durkan thought she and the council had reached a compromise—the backup “compromise,” which PubliCola described in detail this morning—but that “they chose a different path.”

Votes do have consequences,” the statement continued. “Because of Council’s actions today, the Navigation [T]eam will be eliminated, severely restricting the City’s ability to move people out of homelessness and deal with encampments for the rest of this year. The City will move forward with layoffs for the City staff who are coordinating and helping individuals experiencing homelessness at encampments across the City.” 

The mayor’s statement appears to refer only to the civilian members of the Navigation Team—the field coordinators who manage encampment removals and cleanups, and the three “system navigators” who do direct outreach to people living in encampments. The team also includes 14 police officers, whose positions are subject to bargaining through the Seattle Police Officers Guild.

Durkan has the ability to direct the Human Services Department to lay off these workers, but if she does so unilaterally, without funding alternative outreach strategies and equipping them to succeed, the result could be some level of chaos. The council’s budget didn’t just call for slashing the team—it also directed the mayor to spend the money saved through staffing cuts to expand existing contracts with outreach providers, such as the nonprofit outreach nonprofit REACH, and to transfer the Navigation Team’s outreach function to those providers.

The transition wouldn’t just be a matter of shifting personnel. Currently, the Navigation Team has exclusive access to hundreds of shelter beds, which team members can access through a proprietary program called NavApp. The Human Services Department would need to hand over access to this system to any new outreach provider if it wanted to prevent a disruption in services, and to comply with a council requirement that the team report regularly on referrals and other data.

Of course, the mayor’s statement could be bluster. (Her office did not immediately respond to an email asking if it was). Durkan’s 2021 budget announcement, coming next Tuesday, reportedly includes a proposal to transition the Navigation Team into a smaller group focused on outreach and engagement rather than encampment removals; the new-look Nav Team would also work with encampment residents to reduce their impact on surrounding communities instead of routinely declaring encampments “obstructions” and removing them without notice, according to people familiar with the document. 

Legislation that isn’t signed by the mayor takes 30 days to take effect. Durkan could wait until next week, roll out her proposal, and negotiate a new deal with the council that would keep the Navigation Team in a different form. Or she could stick with her initial statement, start sending out pink slips, and eliminate the changes to the Navigation Team from her budget. The council indicated today that they’re still open to amending the budget they adopted, which is now the official budget for the rest of 2020. The next move will be the mayor’s.

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