By Erica C. Barnett
The 2023 election will dramatically reshape the Seattle City Council. Four council members are not seeking reelection, while a fifth, Teresa Mosqueda, is running for King County Council and will be replaced by an appointee if she wins. Even if all three of the incumbents who are running win reelection, the council will probably have at least five new members next year—a new majority of freshmen on a council whose most experienced members will, at most, be entering their second terms. If all eight seats turn over, it would make Sara Nelson, an at-large council member who started her first term last year, the most senior member of the council.
Debates over issues and ideology are understandably front and center in campaigns. But with eight of nine council seats up for grabs, I want to focus for a moment on an often overlooked question that impacts how the city council makes decisions and functions on a daily basis: Can these people work together? Among the current council, the answer is frequently no. At best, there’s a sense that council members aren’t talking to each other outside public meetings, which are still largely virtual. At worst, the hostility bursts out into the open—as it has during this election, when one council member, Sara Nelson, is actively campaigning against three of her incumbent colleagues.
In this setting, five—and up to eight—new council members could provide a needed reset and eliminate some of the bad blood that has built up over the past several years.
Less optimistically, an inexperienced council could leave Mayor Bruce Harrell’s exercise of executive power unchecked, allowing the mayor to push through any number of priorities that the current council has shot down—like raiding the JumpStart payroll tax, which is supposed to be spend on housing and equitable development, to pay for general city obligations.
The next council will have to get up to speed fast, because they’ll soon face challenges that are only growing in scope—from homelessness, gun violence, and addiction to a looming $250 million budget deficit that will require tough decisions and could mean significant service cuts.
To get a better sense of how council incumbents, challengers, and first-time candidates would tackle these challenges, PubliCola spoke with 10 of the 14 council candidates, representing every council district.
Two candidates—Rob Saka in District 1 and Tanya Woo in District 2—ignored our emailed requests to sit down for an interview and did not follow up after I asked again in person. One candidate, District 3’s Joy Hollingsworth, set up an interview but then canceled, and did not respond to my request to reschedule. Maritza Rivera, running in District 4, would not sit down for an interview but did provide emailed responses to written questions. And Cathy Moore, in District 5, declined my request in an email.
The number of candidates who declined, canceled, or ignored our requests for an interview is unusual. While PubliCola isn’t shy about expressing our views on issues, that has rarely been an impediment to dialogue in the past. These candidates’ refusal to sit down for an in-depth conversation about the issues they will have to address if elected could bode poorly for transparency on the new council; in our experience, candidates who refuse to talk to members of the press they perceive as critical rarely become more tolerant of tough questions under the pressure of public office.
I’ll be rolling out interviews with the council candidates in every race over the next two weeks. I hope readers will learn more about the candidates from these in-depth conversations and use them to inform your vote. Ballots go out on October 18.
Today’s conversation is with District 4 candidate Maritza Rivera, most recently deputy director at the city’s Office of Arts and Culture and a former staffer for ex-mayor Jenny Durkan, the national Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and former President Bill Clinton. Rivera has said she decided to run for office after a shooting at Ingraham High School, where her two daughters go to school, in 2022. Rivera did not agree to sit down with PubliCola but her campaign did respond to written questions; the following is a lightly edited version of what we received.
PubliCola [ECB]: The next council will take up the SPOG contract and participate in ongoing negotiations with the police union. What are one or two specific items that will be on the top of your agenda?
Maritza Rivera [MR]: We must take accountability for law enforcement off the negotiation table in our next SPOG contract. I’m concerned with how the previous contract undermined the effectiveness of the Office of Police Accountability. The current contract limits staffing levels for investigators, puts arbitrary time constraints on investigations, and requires an “elevated standard of review” that exceeds a preponderance of the evidence in arbitration. These restrictions have the effect of preventing our department from disciplining or firing individuals and exercising agency in establishing the kind of culture and standards that match our City’s values.
“The city should develop a new therapeutic court focused specifically on addiction. Unlike the previous failed community court model, which was built on abolitionist principles of total permissiveness and zero meaningful sanctions for those who did not participate, this court should take a more balanced approach that combines incentives to seek help and treatment with some penalties for those who fail to fulfill their obligations.”
ECB: Do you believe recent revelations about specific officers’ behavior (comments by Seattle Police Officers Guild vice present Daniel Auderer laughing with SPOG President Mike Solan over the death of 23-year-old Jaahnavi Kandula; the mock tombstone found at the East Precinct) represent endemic cultural challenges at the department, and if so, how would you work to address them? If not, why not?
MR: We keep seeing unacceptable and racist behavior from some police officers in our community—even those at leadership levels. I am angry and frustrated, both for our entire city that is deeply affected by these disturbing acts, and for the many officers who share our values and whose work is undermined.
In particular, the audio of the vice president of SPOG joking about the death of a 23-year-old woman is beyond disturbing. It decimates the trust and credibility in the community that is necessary for law enforcement to do their work. It is critically important that the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) conduct a speedy, transparent and thorough investigation. Community deserves a Seattle Police Department that affirms this is wrong, against policy, and holds officers accountable.
Again, this is a reminder that we cannot afford another Seattle police contract that negotiates away accountability. These negotiations are occurring right now, and represent the best opportunity our city has to improve our department, and start to address cultural change.
Incidents like this one also make it challenging to recruit and retain the right kind of police officers. The right kind of officers, who may decide it is simply not aligned with their values to work somewhere where their colleagues joke about the death of a 23-year-old woman or where a fake gravestone of a young Black man shot and killed is featured prominently in their office.
ECB: You supported the law criminalizing public drug use at the municipal level, which expresses the city’s support for diversion instead of arrest and jail. Now that it has passed, what are some forms of diversion or treatment that you would advocate for funding as part of the city’s budget in future years?
MR: Diversion and treatment are the first priority to address substance abuse. Arrest and enforcement is a method of last resort, to be used when necessary for the safety of our community and individuals. That’s why I support the Mayor’s plan to create a drug overdose unit modeled after Health One, build a post-overdose diversion facility, and pilot new research-based drug-abatement programs.
Additionally, I strongly support pre-filing diversion programs like our mobile methadone clinic, JustCARE, LEAD and CoLEAD. I also believe the city should develop a new therapeutic court focused specifically on addiction. Unlike the previous failed community court model, which was built on abolitionist principles of total permissiveness and zero meaningful sanctions for those who did not participate, this court should take a more balanced approach that combines incentives to seek help and treatment with some penalties for those who fail to fulfill their obligations.
“In order to continue, [the King County Regional Homelessness Authority] must demonstrate an ability to successfully plan, execute, and measurably impact homelessness. I do not think we should give up on KCRHA or the promise of a regional approach to homelessness at this point, but the agency is at a critical juncture and must demonstrate better results soon.”
ECB: The King County Regional Homelessness Authority has experienced a number of major setbacks recently, including the end of the Partnership for Zero program downtown and the departure of its founding CEO. Do you believe the KCRHA can be successful, and if so, what are some steps you would take as a council member to get the agency back on the right track?
MR: The recent and major setbacks have proven that in order to continue, KCRHA must demonstrate an ability to successfully plan, execute, and measurably impact homelessness. We also need to ensure buy-in from other nearby cities throughout our region, not just Seattle. Regional efforts must bring a renewed focus to oversight, accountability, and transparency. We need to be clear about the function of the KCRHA and how it will achieve proven results. I do not think we should give up on KCRHA or the promise of a regional approach to homelessness at this point, but the agency is at a critical juncture and must demonstrate better results soon. In this regard, a lot rides on the results of the search currently underway for a new CEO.
ECB: The city council could, at some point in the next several years, take up revisions to the Mandatory Housing Affordability program, which provides millions of dollars for affordable housing (and also has resulted in some on-site affordable units). What changes would you push for the program?
MR: I support the existing MHA requirements, but I also believe we need to determine whether the current requirements are working—or if they need to be amended to incentivize building affordable units faster. Particularly by ensuring more neighborhoods in our city receive the benefits of our MHA program and that what is considered affordable by MHA is truly affordable for the people that live here.
ECB: What, beyond vehicle electrification, should the city be doing to reduce our overall reliance on fossil fuels, including single-occupancy commutes?
MR: Every neighborhood should have access to safe, reliable, and quick multi-modal transportation options, including foot, transit, bike, or car. While our leaders have campaigned on making Seattle a “15-minute city” for almost a decade, we’ve not made significant progress in connecting our communities and integrating our transportation system with land use and housing. Transportation is the single largest source of climate emissions in Seattle. The best investment in fighting climate change is creating connected communities where you can live close to transit, green space, amenities and community hubs.
In addition to scaling up investment in transportation options, we need to collaborate with downtown businesses to create a real plan for net-zero [emissions] buildings that could cut carbon emissions in Seattle by as much as 10 percent. The Building Emissions Performance Standards proposed by Mayor Harrell are an excellent start and the most significant policy proposed to meet our climate goals in the last two decades. Now, we need to work with community and business leaders to support this policy and create pathways for businesses to exceed expectations and meet the standards set before 2050. At the same time, Seattle must also bring higher standards to new construction and to residential zoning as well, which collectively contribute to over 20 percent of our city’s emissions.
What issue specific to District 4 do you wish people were more aware of?
Public safety. It’s not particular to D4, but when I knock on doors it is THE issue that people want to talk about. We experience public safety issues in D4 as much as anywhere else in the city. While it may seem that there are issues that are more prevalent in one district than another, there are more similarities in what Seattleites care about than differences. All people want to feel safe in their homes, on the streets and transit, and in their schools.