A Look Back at the Work PubliCola Contributors Made Possible in 2020

This year has been tough, terrifying, and trying in many ways. But it has also been, surprisingly, a time of exhilarating growth and change for me, personally, and for PubliCola—starting with the fact that this website got a new name and look this year, along with a new staffer, police-accountability reporter Paul Kiefer.

Those with long memories will recall that PubliCola began all the way back in 2009 as one of the pioneers of online-only local news in Seattle, so being able to publish under the name again, after five years as The C Is for Crank, felt like coming home.  Hiring a reporter to cover the movement for Black lives and the city’s fitful progress toward police accountability was another exciting change, one that required a leap of faith—would readers who come to this site to read my work respond positively to the addition of new voices, new coverage areas, and new perspectives?

Obviously, I didn’t need to worry; our readers have been immensely supportive of the changes, and have been particularly impressed by Paul’s work, which has included extensive coverage of the divest/reinvest movement, police brutality, and participatory budgeting, among many other topics that couldn’t be more timely. I want to thank everyone who reads the site regularly or occasionally, or who follows us on Twitter (@ericacbarnett, @publicolanews, and @faruq_kiefer, if you aren’t already) for reading our work, offering constructive feedback (erica@publicola.com), and keeping us accountable.

We also couldn’t do this without financial support from individual readers. I know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover the entire city of Seattle and much of King County on a budget that is funded entirely and exclusively by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, no secondary businesses behind the scenes.

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.

PubliCola truly is different. We cover the entire city of Seattle and much of King County on a budget that is funded entirely and exclusively by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, no secondary businesses behind the scenes.

Need more convincing? Here are a few of the stories PubliCola covered in depth over the past year.

• The debate over putting homeless people in hotels. As the city reeled during the early days of the COVID pandemic, Mayor Jenny Durkan and her Human Services Department resisted moving unsheltered people into the relative safety of hotel rooms. The issue wasn’t money per se, since—as PubliCola reported exclusively—the city spent millions on hotel rooms for first responders that wound up sitting empty for months on end, costing millions of dollars and helping no one.

At the same time, Mayor Durkan deflected urgent requests from programs like Co-LEAD—a COVID-era diversion program whose emergence PubliCola covered extensively this year—to allow them to use emergency dollars to relocate people from the street to hotels. 

Although the city is finally moving to lease hotel rooms for people living unsheltered, Seattle’s shelter of first resort has remained the kind of mass, or congregate, shelters the Centers for Disease Control explicitly recommends against, on the grounds that COVID spreads most readily within enclosed spaces, even when people are sleeping six feet apart. Over the year, we covered this debate exhaustively, documenting the dangers of congregate spaces as well as the city’s (and state’s) resistance to the kind of shelters recommended by health experts. The future of the city’s congregate shelters, including the downtown Morrison Hotel shelter operated by the Downtown Emergency Service Center, remains unclear.

• The city was equally slow to provide safe places for people experiencing homelessness to take a shower—a basic amenity that the city council funded in 2019, but that the executive branch didn’t act on until it was too late. By the time the city finally located two shower trailers—rentals trucked in from California, rather than the purchases the council funded last year—COVID had driven up prices to levels many times higher than other cities, and King County, were paying for similar hygiene units.

• Access to restrooms was also a serious issue for people living unsheltered this year, one that PubliCola covered obsessively in the early days of the pandemic. Many public restrooms the city claimed were open were actually closed and locked, as PubliCola discovered by driving to restrooms all over the city, and the mayor’s office initially resisted providing additional portable restrooms on the grounds that they were too expensive and that people were vandalizing them.

• Homeless encampments continued to be a major story this year, as the city grappled with how to handle large groups of unsheltered people living close together in public spaces. The Navigation Team reversed its policy of removing most encampments without notice and began to focus primarily on outreach (its ostensible purpose) but still led a number of high-profile sweeps—notably in the International District and the Ballard Commons, two areas where housed residents and business owners complained about the impact of people living in tents.

Large numbers of police showed up during both removals, holding back protesters in the larger International District sweep in a preview of the protests that would begin a few months later. PubliCola was on the scene at all these sweeps, interviewing encampment residents and officials and documenting the removals on camera. We also covered the aftermath, including a tense meeting at which the senior deputy mayor and police chief outlined a litany of reasons they believed it was necessary to remove encampments even as housed people were ordered to continue sheltering in place.

• In May and June, as protests over the murder of George Floyd sparked a reckoning about the role and actions of police in Seattle, PubliCola was on the story, covering Durkan’s and then-police chief Carmen Best’s often ham-fisted response to the demands of protesters and the city’s own police accountability bodies.

We also fact-checked the mayor and police chief during the early days of the protests, when they held near-daily press conferences to justify their use of tear gas, pepper spray, and other weapons against protesters on Capitol Hill. The excuses could be baroque: At one point, Durkan claimed that she had seen “homophobic graffiti” in the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone—graffiti that turned out to consist of slogans like “Dykes for BLM” and “fags against cops.” At another, Best claimed that access to tear gas could have saved the life of a person who died from a gunshot wound in the protest zone.

• In July, we hired Paul Kiefer to cover police accountability, and his very first big story was a major scoop. In it, he identified the victim of a police shooting that had flown under the radar, a homeless man named Terry Caver. The story led to a profile of Caver based on his family’s recollections, and a renewed interest in the case among police misconduct investigators at the city,

• More great stories from Paul followed, including an in-depth look at the potential impact of cuts to the Seattle Police Department unit that investigates domestic violence cases; a feature on a community-based violence intervention program highlighting the promise and limitations of such programs as a replacement for police; ongoing coverage of the push-pull debate over what it means to “reimagine policing” or “defund the police”; a feature on the “car brigade” that has continued protecting protesters despite arrests, impoundments, and other targeting by police; and a slew of stories about the participatory budgeting process being led by King County Equity Now.

• Meanwhile, we continued to cover the city budget debate, which became unusually heated over the summer as Mayor Durkan issued two separate vetoes of the council’s budget plans. The council ultimately overturned both vetoes).

The first attempted to undo a spending plan for the JumpStart high-earners’ payroll tax, which the council intended to fund COVID relief in its first two years, and housing and homelessness programs thereafter. As we reported exclusively on PubliCola, the mayor had other plans for that money—she wanted to use it in 2021 to fully fund $100 million for unspecified future spending “on BIPOC communities” that she had promised to Black communities, specifically, during the summer’s protests.

Ultimately, Durkan didn’t get the entire $100 million, but some other interesting things happened between the summer and fall. Durkan’s second veto would have nixed the entire 2020 rebalancing package the council adopted in August, on the grounds that the package (which was necessitated by a COVID-related budget shortfall) cut the size of the police department too much. The council reversed that veto, too, and shortly thereafter Durkan adopted a more conciliatory approach to the council and their proposed 2021 budget, including a new compromise approach to encampment outreach that will be tested as the city begins to reopen next year.

Beyond these big, ongoing coverage areas, PubliCola broke news and went in-depth on dozens of others stories, including: The sudden closure of a dilapidated hotel on Aurora Ave. North that had been housing dozens of formerly homeless residents, many of them for years; the debate over reforming fare enforcement at Sound Transit; the scramble to count unsheltered people during this year’s chaotic Census; the decision by a number of suburban cities to opt out of King County’s sales tax for homeless services, a story PublICola broke; and the city’s decision to hire a controversial activist as its “street czar” at a cost of $150,000, among many others.

And we brought in PubliCola’s original founder, Josh Feit, to write a new columm, Maybe Metropolis, focusing on urbanist issues like  nightlife, live music, and Seattle’s reconsideration of its “neo-suburban” land use model.

Again, we couldn’t have done any of this work without the support of generous readers who contributed to PubliCola’s growth and success this year. If you enjoy the breaking news, in-depth coverage, opinion and analysis, and other work we do here, please contribute what you can to help us keep going and growing next year and beyond. Thank you for reading, and for your support.

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