1. During the Seattle City Council’s Monday morning briefing, budget chair Teresa Mosqueda responded to a Seattle Times editorial published last week charging that the council’s proposals for the Seattle Police Department’s 2022 budget could plunge the city into another confrontation with the federal district court.
The editorial, which called on mayor-elect Bruce Harrell to hold a “public safety summit” soon after he takes office in January, challenged Mosqueda’s claim that the council’s amended SPD budget had been vetted by the court-appointed monitor who acts as the eyes and ears for Judge James Robart—the federal judge responsible for overseeing reforms to SPD as part of a decade-old arrangement called the “consent decree.” The Times’ source: An email to the editorial board from the monitor himself, Dr. Antonio Oftelie, who said that no one on the council had spoken to him directly about their plans for SPD’s 2022 budget.
“I understand that it must continue to be an inconvenience to the Seattle Times editorial board to acknowledge that we did indeed continue to engage with the court monitor directly, as we have done in the past,” Mosqueda said, adding that Greg Doss, the council staffer who specializes in SPD’s budget, “reached out and directly engaged” with Oftelie on behalf of the council. “The court monitor is very aware that Greg [Doss] works on behalf of all council members,” Mosqueda said.
During his meeting with Doss and a representative from the City Attorney’s Office, Oftelie did not offer direct feedback on the council’s budget proposals. A week later, he sent a memo to Mosqueda, along with public safety chair Lisa Herbold and council president Lorena González, raising concerns about the council’s plans to scale back SPD’s budget data analysis. Specifically, Oftelie described two programs—one that would identify 911 call types that could go to non-police emergency responders, and another that could identify officers with a pattern of using force during crisis calls—as vital to the department’s progress. If the council went through with plans to cut SPD’s data analysis budget, he added, the federal court might intervene. Despite his warning, Oftelie emphasized that “it is not the monitor’s role or intent to dictate City budget decisions.”
Mosqueda’s office debuted the council’s changes to Durkan’s budget proposal a day after receiving Oftelie’s memo; during the quick turnaround, Mosqueda said that she worked with the council’s central staff to ensure that the proposed budgets for the two data analysis projects Oftelie flagged would remain untouched. The council’s proposed budget now only omits funding for two of SPD’s proposed technology programs, totaling around $1.3 million.
During the council’s budget discussions last week, Mosqueda called the first—a body-worn video analysis software used to assess racial disparities in policing—a “nice-to-have” item that the council could support in the future. The second technology is a wearable biometric monitor that would track police officers’ vital statistics to flag officers at risk of using excessive force or acting erratically because of stress.
After Mosqueda’s rebuttal on Monday, Oftelie reiterated his frustration with the council’s communication style. His meeting with Doss, he told PubliCola, “was a one-hour briefing and in no way was meant or implied to be any type of ‘approval’ of the budget.” And after he raised his concerns about the council’s budget proposal in his memo, he added, “no one from City Council acknowledged receiving the memorandum or connected with me to discuss it before their Tuesday meeting.”
In the past year, the consent decree has loomed large over Seattle’s budget discussions; in June, the council abandoned plans to cut $2.83 million from SPD’s 2021 budget under pressure from the federal court. Oftelie, who advises the court about Seattle’s progress on police reforms, has argued that SPD needs to be able to rebuild its ranks after two years of record-breaking attrition in order to comply with the consent decree.
Meanwhile, the council could soon run into problems with the federal court on another front: an ordinance that the council passed in August restricting SPD’s ability to use so-called “less-lethal” weapons like tear gas for crowd control. Two weeks ago, Diaz reached out to Oftelie for legal guidance as his department prepares to update its policies to comply with the new law. In his letter to Oftelie, Diaz wrote that the ordinance may be at odds with the consent decree, setting the stage for another potential fight over the council’s power to pass police reform laws while SPD is under federal oversight.
2. Crosscut, the nonprofit news website that merged with Seattle’s PBS affiliate, KCTS, six years ago, is eliminating its opinion section, leaving Seattle with one less source of editorial views to counter the Seattle Times’ generally conservative opinion and editorial pages. Crosscut’s new executive editor, M. David Lee III, announced the decision in a memo to all staff last week. Lee replaces Victor Hernandez, who joined the site in 2018.
The section, which features Knute Berger’s “Mossback” history column along with regular opinion pieces by Transit Riders Union director Katie Wilson and former Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Bryant, will be replaced by a “new process of engaging community voices,” according to an internal memo from Lee. Berger told PubliCola he would continue writing for Crosscut and referred all other questions to Lee, who did not respond to an email Monday.
“There are a lot of priorities that need to be attended to and one of the top ones is the ‘Opinion’ section of Crosscut.com, which has been a fixture of the organization since its inception in 2007,” Lee, who joined Crosscut last month, wrote in the memo. “With the section, the goal, at the time and to this day, is to engage our community in conversation regarding important issues. Listening to the communities that we serve is one of the most important things we need to do as a non-profit public news organization. We must reflect the landscape in which we live and serve. Change is also important. Adapting and retooling how we engage with the community is what we must do moving forward and, because of that, we will be sunsetting the traditional ‘Opinion’ section of Crosscut.com effective November 30th.”
As a “project” of a 501(c)3 nonprofit, Cascade Public Media, Crosscut can’t endorse candidates or advocate for positions on issues itself, but it can run opinions by people outside the organization. In the recent past, those pieces have included opinions by former Washington state Republican Party chair Chris Vance, Republican congressman Dan Newhouse, right-wing radio host John Carlson, and Bryant. Nonetheless, board members have reportedly raised concerns over the years that the opinion page slants left. The governing board that oversees the site includes a former Seattle Times editorial board member, former Republican attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna, and Amazon global real estate VP John Schoettler.
Lee, a former television news director and sportscaster in markets including Tallahasee and Green Bay, is also an independent filmmaker. In a post on Crosscut, Lee described himself as “a lifelong, self-proclaimed, ‘Star Wars Geek'” who was drawn to Crosscut by “the talent here” and “the commitment here to public non-profit journalism.”
“The beauty of Crosscut is that we can go deeper, offer unique insight to a story or issue that other outlets are unable to do, or just choose not to do. As I said above, this is something new for me. And I expect that Crosscut will change me, and I’m excited about it,” Lee wrote. For now, he concluded, he’ll “be exploring the city, getting to know the talented staff here and doing the work for you, our readers, while heeding words of Yoda: ‘Do or Do Not. There is no Try.”
Crosscut’s local news reporter, David Kroman, recently decamped for the Seattle Times. After a lengthy struggle to unionize, the Crosscut Union still lacks a contract, after rejecting a proposal from management earlier this fall that the union said would lower their annual pay increases provide no improvements to retirement, vacation benefits, or health care. Cascade Media’s CEO, Rob Dunlop, made more than $500,000 in 2019.
—Paul Kiefer, Erica C. Barnett