Category: City Council

Critics Say Bombastic Podcast that Replaced Police Union Newspaper Represents Strategic Shift at SPOG

The Guardian, March 2015

By Paul Kiefer

The Guardianthe official newspaper of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), went out of print a few months into the pandemic. The paper’s disappearance was a sign of an important shift within Seattle’s largest police union, and one that closed a window into the guild’s interior life.

The print-only newspaper, which had a circulation of about 3,000 at its peak, was read mostly by police officers, retired police officers, labor organizers and city hall staffers. When articles from the paper did make it into the public eye, they were generally buoyed by controversy, like a 2011 opinion piece in which an officer called a training course on racial profiling an attack on “American values” and described Seattle’s elected leaders as a “quaint socialist cabal.”

Among SPOG members and retirees, however, The Guardian’s demise was a sign of a strategic and generational shift. The new guild president, Mike Solan, had recently defeated the incumbent, Kevin Stuckey, by promising to aggressively and publicly defend Seattle police officers against criticism from the public and elected city officials. Solan’s dramatic campaign video, featuring footage of riot police clashing with protesters, drew tens of thousands of views. Stuckey’s video, which focused on the guild’s stability and relationships with other unions, drew only a few hundred views.

After his victory, Solan began reshaping the guild’s approach to public relations. A few months after he took office in February 2020, Solan dismissed former SPOG president Rich O’Neill—who had retired from SPD and returned to SPOG to handle contract negotiations and media relations for Stuckey—and quietly shuttered The Guardian. In December of that year, he introduced a replacement: A bombastic monthly podcast called “Hold the Line with Mike Solan“, produced in the style of conservative talk radio shows.

“On the podcast, we hear the president’s opinion. Where’s the rest of the [SPOG] board? What forum does an officer have now to get their opinion out? There isn’t one.”—Former SPOG President Rich O’Neill

Typically, Solan uses his podcast to criticize the Seattle City Council, who he argues have sacrificed public safety and the well-being of police officers to appease an “activist mob.” The details of this criticism vary. In one 90-minute episode, Solan decried Seattle’s “Homeless Industrial Complex”; in another, he condemned the vaccine mandate for city workers as an ill-advised blow to SPD’s already shrinking ranks. In contrast to The Guardian, few other guild members have appeared on “Hold the Line”; instead, Solan relies on guests from outside the police department, ranging from former mayoral candidate James Donaldson to encampment removal activist Andrea Suarez.

While Solan’s allies pointed to The Guardian’s shrinking readership among younger officers as a reason to replace the paper with a podcast, O’Neill does not believe that younger officers were to blame for the paper’s demise. Instead, he said Solan made the change as “a way to give the president more control over the guild’s voice. On the podcast, we hear the president’s opinion. Where’s the rest of the [SPOG] board? What forum does an officer have now to get their opinion out? There isn’t one.”

SPOG published the first issue of The Guardian in 1970 as a venue for editorials about the state of SPD and city politics, announcements about deaths and retirements, updates on contract negotiations, and the occasional recipe. Although the guild appointed officers with writing experience to edit the paper, SPOG’s president had the final say on what made it into print. The paper was mostly written by officers themselves.

“It afforded officers a place to get their frustrations out,” Stuckey said. “If there was a training they didn’t like, they could write about it in the paper.” O’Neill said that he tried to strike a balance between allowing officers to air their opinions and avoiding direct criticism of elected officials or SPD command staff. He did, however, make some exceptions: The paper regularly criticized former city attorney Pete Holmes. Holmes did not return a call for comment.

O’Neill viewed The Guardian as a centerpiece of SPOG’s public relations strategy, and an opportunity for transparency. “It made officers more accessible,” he said. “The department has a policy that says you can’t speak to the press without permission, and if you try to talk to the press anonymously, you can get in trouble. But if you wrote something in the union paper, that was considered protected union speech.”

Some former readers outside the guild, however, believe publishing contentious articles actually harmed SPOG’s mission as a union. Continue reading “Critics Say Bombastic Podcast that Replaced Police Union Newspaper Represents Strategic Shift at SPOG”

Woodland Park, Site of Seattle’s Largest Encampment, Now “Highest-Priority Site In the City”

Then-candidate Bruce Harrell at a press conference near the Woodland Park encampment in summer 2021.
Then-candidate Bruce Harrell at a press conference near the Woodland Park encampment in summer 2021.

By Erica C. Barnett

A large, longstanding encampment in Upper Woodland Park has now become “the highest-priority [encampment] site in the city,” City Councilmember Dan Strauss, whose district includes the park, told PubliCola yesterday. Strauss and Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office said city officials are meeting weekly with outreach providers to come up with a strategy for the encampment, which includes about 70 tents and as many as 100 people, including some who had been living in a nearby encampment the city’s Parks Department removed late last month.

The encampment is on the city’s official “priority list” for January, a designation bestowed on encampments the city is about to sweep.

Ordinarily, when an encampment is on the priority list, a group of city outreach workers called the HOPE Team goes to the site and offers the people living there whatever shelter happens to be available. Although the HOPE Team has exclusive access to some beds that are not available to other outreach providers, there are often no more than one or two beds available across the city, and those beds may not be suitable for every person living at an encampment.

Practically speaking, it would be impossible to move everyone living in even a midsize encampment into shelter in the few days the HOPE Team usually spends doing outreach before a sweep, even if the shelter that became available that week happened to be appropriate for those specific encampment residents. As a result, encampment sweeps tend to earn their name—encampment residents describe being swept from one site to another and then swept again, moving around neighborhoods in an endless round robin of sweeps.

“The mayor is … acting with a new urgency in aggressively pursuing alternative shelter options, considering a wide range of options from leasing or buying existing buildings to standing up tiny house villages.”—Jamie Housen, spokesman for Mayor Bruce Harrell

Strauss says the Woodland Park removal will be different. Like the recent successful effort to remove a smaller encampment at the Ballard Commons park, he said, the city will send service providers into the encampment to collect the names of everyone living there, assess their needs, and assign each person to appropriate housing or shelter as it becomes available. “Our ability to place people in shelter will depend on two things: One, throughput for people who are in shelter into affordable housing” so that existing shelter beds become available, “and then, secondly shelter expansion.”

Strauss acknowledges that the Ballard Commons was successful precisely because several brand-new shelter facilities became available all at once, creating temporary excess capacity in the shelter system so that people actually had places to go. With Woodland Park, the situation is different; it’s impossible to move people into shelter that doesn’t exist.

Mayoral spokesman Jamie Housen said Harrell is “acting with a new urgency in aggressively pursuing alternative shelter options, considering a wide range of options from leasing or buying existing buildings to standing up tiny house villages.” Harrell, Housen added, “is committed to ensuring progress at the site and is doing so by engaging the City with community, providers, and stakeholders in a constructive, methodical, and effective approach that drives visible change and improved outcomes for encampment residents and Woodland Park community members as quickly as possible.”

Low-Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee said LIHI—the city’s primary tiny-house village provider—has not heard anything about a proposal for new tiny houses to shelter people living in Woodland Park. Typically, standing up a new tiny house village is a process that requires funding from the city through the budget process, which happens annually with “supplemental” budget changes every three months, followed by a request for proposals and selection process.

During a meeting of the King County Homelessness Authority’s governing board on Thursday, KCRHA director Marc Dones said the biggest challenge to standing up new shelters and tiny house villages isn’t funding but staffing. Recently, they said, “we have had shelters operate overnight shifts with a single person, which is simply not advisable.” The authority’s budget, which is primarily supplied by the city of Seattle, includes funding to expand Camp Second Chance in West Seattle.

In the meantime, Strauss said during a meeting of the Greenlake Community Council Wednesday night, the city will begin working on “short-term supports like trash mitigation and hygiene mitigation. So if you see a port-a-potty go up, or a handwashing station, or a Dumpster, this does not indicate a sanctioned encampment. It is a temporary placement. It will go up and it will go down.” The specific timeline for this process, Strauss said, will be “based on shelter capacity.”

SPD Staffing Hits Historic Low, Police Oversight Leader Addresses Protest Ruse, 911 Call Center Outage Explained

1. After a second year of high attrition, the Seattle Police Department now has about 950 officers in service, down from 1,282 in 2019. Meanwhile, the department’s efforts to boost recruitment haven’t produced results, leaving SPD with no clear path out of its staffing predicament.

The decline of SPD’s ranks to fewer than 1,000 active officers marks a new milestone for the department, which now has fewer officers than it did in 1970, when Seattle had two-thirds its current population. An additional 170 officers are currently on leave, including more than two dozen unvaccinated officers who are burning through their remaining paid leave before they leave the department.

The Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), which represents the department’s rank-and-file officers and sergeants, has not reached an agreement with the city about the vaccine mandate for city employees, which went into effect on October 18. SPOG is the only city union that has not reached an agreement with the city about the mandate, and its negotiations appear to have stalled.

The shortage of officers has gutted SPD’s detective units, and “augmentation emails”—requests for non-patrol officers to volunteer for patrol shifts to meet minimum staffing requirements—have become a near-daily feature of departmental operations.

The department’s new hiring incentive program, which former mayor Jenny Durkan introduced in October, hasn’t resulted in “any uptick in applications,” SPD spokesman Sergeant Randall Huserik said. The bonus program offers up to $10,000 for new recruits and $25,000 for officers who transfer from other departments.

Interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz maintains that the department needs at least 1,400 officers. During the city council’s budget deliberations last fall, SPD set a hiring goal of 125 new officers in 2022. Although the council voted to accept that assumption when adopting SPD’s 2022 budget, some council members, including budget chair Teresa Mosqueda, expressed doubt that SPD will see a net increase in officers this year.

2. Office of Police Accountability (OPA) Director Andrew Myerberg offered more details about the Seattle Police Department’s policies on ruses during Tuesday morning’s meeting of the Seattle City Council’s public safety committee, responding to questions about a widely criticized disinformation campaign an SPD captain launched during protests in June 2020.

On the night of June 8, 2020, then-captain Brian Grenon instructed a group of his officers to transmit a series of radio messages that would give protesters listening in on police radio channels an inflated impression of the number of SPD officers patrolling the city. Some of the officers concocted a story about a group of far-right extremists wandering through downtown, possibly with weapons, in search of a clash with Black Lives Matter demonstrators. The transmissions sparked anxiety among protesters gathered near Cal Anderson Park on Capitol Hill, putting many on edge.

In September, Myerberg’s office determined that Grenon and a fellow supervisor were to blame for “improperly add[ing] fuel to the fire” during a tense month of protests. The OPA absolved the lower-ranking officers of wrongdoing, citing the lack of supervision they received from Grenon; on Tuesday, Myerberg commented that the officers were “set up to fail” by their supervisors. Higher-ranking SPD commanders, including Assistant Chief Tom Mahaffey and then-chief Carmen Best, told OPA investigators that Grenon didn’t ask for permission to use the ruse. Grenon and the other supervisor resigned from SPD months before the OPA concluded its investigation, which didn’t become public until last week.

While SPD policy and Washington state law allow police officers to use ruses while working undercover or to address “an exigent threat to life or public safety,” the same law prohibits ruses that are so “shocking” that they lack “fundamental fairness.”

Myerberg also pointed out that SPD policies don’t currently require officers to document ruses—a challenge exposed by the June 2020 ruse, which neither Grenon nor any lower-ranking officers documented. While Myerberg expects that SPD will soon update its policies to require officers to keep records of their ruses, he does not anticipate that the department will ban the tactic.

Councilmember Andrew Lewis took the opportunity to point out a pattern of the highest-ranking SPD commanders absolving themselves of responsibility for high-profile mistakes during the 2020 protests, citing the abandonment of the East Precinct—for which the OPA held Assistant Chief Mahaffey responsible—as a corollary example. “I’m tired of reading the news about the latest thing that came out of 2020, and everyone in the mayor’s office and the front office of SPD says they didn’t know about it, and everything gets dropped on some guy in the middle,” he said. “I don’t think that’s an effective way to run a hierarchical organization.”

Committee chair Lisa Herbold also raised criticisms of the investigation, questioning Myerberg’s decision not to rule that the lower-ranking officers violated department policy.

3. A series of technical failures and human errors snowballed into an hour-long 911 outage in Seattle last month, the interim director of Seattle’s Community Safety and Communications Center (CSCC) told the council’s public safety committee on Tuesday.

The outage began in mid-afternoon on December 9 when the company that provides an internet connection for Washington’s 911 operating centers was doing routine maintenance. For unknown reasons, the backup network failed, disconnecting 911 lines across the state.

According to CSCC Director Chris Lombard, emergency calls automatically re-routed to his center’s alternative phone line. Responders didn’t realize initially that the flood of calls to the secondary phone number included emergencies; when they noticed the problem, supervisors instructed call-takers to treat calls on the alternative number as priorities.

The chaos intensified when the CSCC attempted to send a push alert to Seattle residents instructing people to call the alternative phone number for emergencies. Instead, Lombard said, the message went “well beyond” Seattle, reaching people as far away as Kitsap County. “Many, many” people misread the message, Lombard continued, and called the CSCC’s backup phone number to test if it was working. Within minutes, calls to the CSCC increased by more than 1,200 percent, overwhelming call-takers.

In the future, Lombard said that he would like King County’s 911 center to handle emergency alerts, and that he hopes emergency alerts will direct people to a website, not a phone number.

Even without unexpected outages, the CSCC is struggling to keep up with call volumes: According to Lombard, between December 20 and January 3, CSCC staffers were unable to pick up 15 percent of calls to their non-emergency line. The 911 call center has struggled to recover from two years of high attrition that left more than half of its call-taker positions empty, although Lombard reported that applications for call-taker positions have increased five-fold since the city introduced a hiring incentive program for the CSCC.

—Paul Kiefer

Proud Boys Hoax Only Most Recent SPD Disinfo Effort, Council Member Deflects Questions About Anti-RV Eco-Blocks, and More Questions about Police Dogs as “Less-Lethal” Weapons

A person rests on top of a concrete ecology block, one of thousands used to prevent RVs from parking on the street in industrial areas throughout the city
A person rests on top of a concrete ecology block, one of hundreds used to prevent RVs from parking on the street in industrial areas throughout the city

1. A series of fake radio transmissions by Seattle police officers in June 2020 that described a group of armed, far-right extremists wandering through the downtown core “improperly added fuel to the fire” during a tense summer of citywide racial justice protests and clashes with police, according to Office of Police Accountability (OPA) Director Andrew Myerberg, whose office released its investigation of the incident on Wednesday.

The transmissions were a part of a misinformation campaign conceived by Brian Grenon, then the captain of the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct. The transmissions came only hours after officers evacuated the precinct at the instruction of Assistant Chief Tom Mahaffey. In an interview with the OPA, Grenon explained that the ruse was intended to convince demonstrators that the department had “more officers out there doing regular stuff” at a time when SPD was stretched thin. Grenon didn’t seek approval for the campaign from then-police chief Carmen Best or Mahaffey, nor did he tell his subordinate officers what to say.

The lower-ranking officers chose to describe a group of armed Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group known for street brawls that featured prominently in the attack on the U.S. Capitol last January, gathered near Seattle City Hall. In interviews with the OPA, the officers said that they had never taken part in a disinformation campaign before.

City council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold noted, however, that SPD has faced scrutiny over disinformation in the recent past. In 2019, the OPA launched an investigation into an officer who lied to a driver suspected of a hit-and-run; though the incident only damaged a group of parked cars, the officer claimed that the crash left a person in critical condition. Less than a week later, the driver died by suicide after agonizing over the incident, believing he had killed someone.

While Washington state law allows police officers to use a ruse while undercover, to gather information for investigations and to address “an exigent threat to life or public safety,” the same law prohibits ruses that are so “shocking” that they lack “fundamental fairness.” In the 2019 case, Myerberg ruled that the officer’s ruse was not necessary or appropriate, and that it likely led directly to the driver’s suicide. SPD suspended the officer responsible for the ruse for 6 days, and Myerberg recommended that SPD begin training officers on ruses, “including when they are appropriate and when they shock fundamental fairness.”

On Wednesday, Herbold noted that SPD has yet to fully implement Myerberg’s recommendation, and said she has asked Myerberg to issue a new recommendation, specifying that officers need to document any ruses so that investigators can review their appropriateness.

Although Myerberg noted that the Proud Boys ruse likely contributed to some protesters’ decisions to arm themselves, it appears that none of the officers involved in the ruse will face discipline. Grenon and another commander who supervised the effort have since left SPD, and Myerberg held that while the four lower-ranking officers who took part in the ruse exercised poor judgment, their supervisors were to mostly to blame.

“I stepped down from my responsibilities at Fremont Brewing to run my campaign and, to avoid conflict of interest, I formally separated from Fremont Brewing after the election.”—City Councilmember Sara Nelson, in response to an email from Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett, Vehicle Residency Outreach program

2. When new Position 9 City Councilmember Sara Nelson took her oath of office Tuesday afternoon, she emphasized her experience as the co-owner of Fremont Brewing, referring to herself as “the first small business owner on City Council since 2009.” (Jan Drago, who owned a Häagen-Dazs franchise on the Ave, retired that year).

In an email responding to a homeless service provider’s concerns about Fremont Brewing’s use of large concrete “ecology blocks” to obstruct parking on the streets surrounding its Ballard brewing facility, however, Nelson said she no longer has anything to do with the business, which she co-owns with her husband, Matt Lincecum, and could not respond to any requests for Fremont Brewing to remove the obstructions.

“I stepped down from my responsibilities at Fremont Brewing to run my campaign and, to avoid conflict of interest, I formally separated from Fremont Brewing after the election,” Nelson said in an email to the Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett, head of the city-funded Vehicle Residency Outreach program. “This is why I haven’t spoken to any reporters about this matter and why I must decline to engage in discussion with you now. For current information about SDOT’s enforcement of complaints of street use violations, I have referred inquiries to [the public information officer] at SDOT (copied).”

Kirlin-Hackett’s initial letter asked Nelson to “now abide as a sitting Councilmember [with] what the law requires; that is removing the ecology barriers that surround your brewery.” In his response to Nelson’s email, Kirlin-Hackett wrote, “I know it is a very usual thing for those elected to want to wash their hands. But it’s clear by your response you know this is a problem and violation of the law. If you read the letter from SDOT I sent, you’ll know their very problem is their inability to have the support of the Executive or Council in how to apply the law.”

Many property owners in industrial areas, including several in the blocks immediately adjacent to Fremont Brewing, have placed ecology blocks in the public right-of-way to prevent people living in RVs (which, under Seattle law, can only park overnight in industrial areas) from parking on the street. The use of ecology blocks to obstruct parking is illegal, but SDOT has not enforced the law, opting instead to send warning letters to businesses, including Fremont Brewing, that use the blocks to deter RV parking.

SDOT’s laissez-faire approach to street use has not extended to RV owners themselves; shortly before the most recent snow and ice storm, the city showed up with tow trucks to remove a group of RVs from West Green Lake Way, part of a sweep that also forced people camping in the area to move their tents to a different part of the park.

Nelson did not immediately respond to questions Thursday about what her “formal separation” from Fremont Brewing entails.

3. A Seattle police officer shot and killed a man suspected of burglarizing a South Seattle home on Wednesday afternoon after the man killed a police dog and stabbed the dog’s handler, Officer Anthony Ducre, in the face.

The dog, named Jedi, was previously at the center of a lawsuit against the city of Seattle by a woman he attacked during a training exercise in a Tukwila parking lot in January 2020. At the time, SPD was using the parking lot as part of a training course for K-9 units. Ducre was leading Jedi through the course on a long lead and lost sight of him around a corner; there, Jedi found a woman taking a break from her job in a nearby building and—acting on training—bit her leg. The woman, Valerie Heffernan, later settled with the City of Seattle for $225,000. Continue reading “Proud Boys Hoax Only Most Recent SPD Disinfo Effort, Council Member Deflects Questions About Anti-RV Eco-Blocks, and More Questions about Police Dogs as “Less-Lethal” Weapons”

New Leadership on Every Floor of City Hall as 2022 Begins

1. Incoming city Attorney Ann Davison painted a dire portrait of Seattle in her official swearing-in speech on Tuesday morning, framing her plans to crack down on misdemeanor offenses as a fight to “stand up for victims” who have been unrepresented at City Hall.

“Communities are afraid to use their parks, people are afraid to walk down 3rd Avenue, and parents are afraid to send their kids to wait for the bus,” Davison said, pointing to the Seven Stars Pepper restaurant at the intersection of S. Jackson Street and 12th Little Saigon as a case study in the consequences of rising petty crime. The owner, Yong Hong Wang, warned last fall that her restaurant is on the brink of failure because customers are afraid of the ad hoc street market — a group of vendors selling everything from shampoo to narcotics — at an adjacent bus stop.

“She will lose her life savings because criminal activity has gone unchecked,” Davison said of Yong. “She should not have to pay the price.”  

Davison also raised the specter of gun violence, citing the May 2020 shooting of 18-year-old Connor Dassa-Holland in Rainier Beach. “It is the duty of the city attorney’s office to prosecute weapons charges and take guns off the streets so that misdemeanor gun offenses don’t lead to felony homicides,” Davison said.

Only a handful of gun-related crimes are misdemeanors under Washington law, including “unlawfully displaying” (or brandishing) a firearm as an intimidation tactic and carrying a concealed handgun without a permit. Davison’s office can only prosecute misdemeanors; the King County Prosecutor’s Office is responsible for filing felony gun possession charges.

Davison did not mention her office’s civil division, which defends the City of Seattle in lawsuits and advises the city council and mayor’s office as they develop new legislation.

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Davison’s tough-on-crime rhetoric prompted the city council to consider adding diversion to the city attorney’s charter duties in 2021. The council demurred in December, opting instead to require the city attorney to notify the council within 90 days of making any changes to, or eliminating, the office’s diversion programs, and provide quarterly reports to the council about the effectiveness of diversion programs. Davison was critical of the reporting requirement, accusing the council (six women, three men) of holding her to an unfair standard because of her gender. Davison is the first woman to hold the city attorney’s office—a detail she underscored in her remarks on Tuesday. Her general-election opponent, Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, is also a woman.

2. Shortly after Davison wrapped up her speech, new mayor Bruce Harrell held his own ceremonial swearing-in at City Hall. In an optimistic, mostly lighthearted speech that offered few policy details, Harrell pledged to work with people who opposed his election,  and make quick progress on major issues including homelessness, health care, and the selection of a permanent police chief.

Harrell previewed a handful of upcoming executive orders and decisions, including one order that will direct the city’s public utilities “to proactively provide us information on utility shutoffs, which is often an indicator of homelessness vulnerability or human service needs.” No utility customer has lost power or water since mid-2019, thanks to a combination of legislation and a moratorium on utility shutoffs during COVID.

Asked about the practical impact of the order, a Harrell spokesman said it would identify “people most at risk of homelessness or housing instability, as those facing arrearages or utility shutoffs—enforced or not—are often those most in danger of losing their housing. So the order is focused on driving greater coordination between SPU, City Light, and Offices of Housing and Human Services to prevent homelessness.”

Alluding to the longstanding debate over police funding, Harrell said that a “safe city needs the right kind and right number of police officers.”

In his speech, Harrell also vowed to review barriers to affordable housing construction, such as reducing permitting delays—a common obstacle that can add thousands to the cost of housing construction. During his campaign, Harrell made it clear that believes dense housing should be confined to specific areas (the longstanding “urban village” strategy), but reducing barriers to development is a pro-housing step—as is Harrell’s appointment of Marco Lowe, a City Hall veteran who worked for mayors Greg Nickels and Mike McGinn before taking a position at the Master Builders Association, where he advocated for pro-housing policies.

Harrell, responding to a reporter’s question, said he would not immediately launch a national search for a permanent police chief, instead giving interim Chief Adrian Diaz “real measurement criteria by which I can see what he’s doing” before deciding whether to “lift the ‘interim’ or do a national search” at some point before the end of March.

Alluding to the longstanding debate over police funding, Harrell said that a “safe city needs the right kind and right number of police officers.” Deputy mayor Monisha Harrell, who served as the interim police monitor overseeing the federal consent decree, will oversee policing policy for Harrell’s office and will play a key role in determining what the administration believes “the right number” is.

3. After weeks of behind-the-scenes drama, the city council elected District 5 Councilmember Debora Juarez the first Indigenous council president on Monday. (Backstory here). The council also approved a new list of committees and committee chairs that reflects the relative power (and individual interests) of the eight other councilmembers. (Council presidents, who oversee the business of the legislative branch, generally don’t take on high-profile committees). Continue reading “New Leadership on Every Floor of City Hall as 2022 Begins”

Council Chooses Juarez, Library Explains Systemwide Closures, “Seattle Nice” Debates Durkan Legacy

1. District 5 City Councilmember Debora Juarez will serve as the next city council president, PubliCola has learned, after an intense and unusually public campaign for the position.

In addition to a lobbying campaign by Juarez’ supporters (including the leaders of a dozen Native American tribes), the Seattle Times weighed in on Juarez’s behalf, arguing for Juarez over her chief rival for the position, District 1 Councilmember Lisa Herbold, on the grounds that Juarez would strip Herbold of her position as chair of the council’s public safety committee. (The Times’ editorial board, which usually talks about “the council” as an undifferentiated mass, seems to believe that  Herbold is far to the left on police funding; in fact, she fought consistently for reductions to the budget cuts her colleagues proposed).

The city council president is in charge of committee assignments, presides over regular council meetings, and is nominally in charge of the entire legislative department. In the past, council presidents have used the role to represent the interests of the council in negotiations with the mayor’s office, to mixed success. The usually low-profile job typically goes to a senior council member.

2. Seattle Public Library branches, which were supposed to serve as places where people could get warm during the cold and snow emergency last week, were mostly closed last week. Over the course of a weeklong emergency, the entire library system shut down for two full days because of weather (in addition to previously planned closures on Christmas and New Year’s Days), and opened between 9 and 12 of its 27 branches during the other four days of the emergency.

“It requires a certain number of staff in certain job classifications to safely and effectively open each branch, and we need to feel confident that those staff can make it in to work and make it back home safely,” SPL spokeswoman Laura Gentry said. “[W]hile we can change an employee’s work location, we cannot change their scheduled shift or their job classification. Contractually, we also cannot ask someone like a Security officer to staff our Circulation desk, or ask a Children’s Librarian to shovel and de-ice our walkways.”

While library branches across the city were shuttered, more than 150 executive department staffers of all job classifications signed up to work paid shifts staffing shelters or driving vans to transport unsheltered people from encampments to shelters and warming centers.

Both these examples are fairly implausible; a more likely real-world scenario would be one in which several library staffers of various classifications showed up to open a branch’s doors during a weather emergency, leaving libraries without a full complement of job classifications but enough to open safely at a time when most housed people were stuck at home. The lack of a children’s librarian or circulation desk staffer at any given branch would be significantly less urgent if the library decided that, for just a few days during a temporary weather emergency, the primary purpose of library branches was to give unsheltered people a to get warm.

This kind of flexibility might be rare for a government agency, but it isn’t impossible; for example, while library branches across the city were shuttered, more than 150 executive department staffers of all job classifications signed up to work paid shifts staffing shelters or driving vans to transport unsheltered people from encampments to shelters and warming centers—duties for which the city offered between $150 and $250 in bonus pay.

In recent years, physical public library buildings have become havens for unhoused or unsheltered people who are not allowed in most other indoor public spaces during the day; during severe weather, libraries are among the only places unsheltered people (or those staying at nighttime-only shelters) can come indoors.

The issue of whether library workers should have to deal with homeless people has been a subject of debate in practically every major city, but the question of whether they do have to deal with homeless people has long been resolved; if you work in a public-facing role in a public library system, you will encounter unhoused and unsheltered people. In fact, “experience working with people who are unstably housed and/or with individuals who have mental health challenges” is one of the “desired characteristics” for entry-level positions at the Seattle Public Library.

3. If you haven’t tuned in yet to Seattle Nice, the new half-hour podcast where political consultant (and my longtime pal) Sandeep Kaushik and I spar about local news and politics (with producer David Hyde as moderator), this week’s episode, in which we discuss the legacy of ex-mayor Jenny Durkan, is a great place to start.

How did Durkan do on homelessness, COVID response, police accountability, and transparency? Find out what we have to say on those subjects and more and subscribe so you won’t miss a single week.

—Erica C. Barnett

Business, County Leaders Say Land Trade Won’t Fix Problems Around Downtown Park

By Erica C. Barnett

The area around City Hall Park in downtown Seattle—a rough rectangle of rare urban green space located across an alley from the King County Courthouse on Third Avenue—has never been a shiny tourist destination. Located at the heart of one of the city's most historic districts, Pioneer Square, the area is also home to many of the city's homeless shelters and day centers, the King County Jail, several bus stops, and, of course, the courthouse itself. The city-owned park—for decades, a place for people who are homeless, marginally housed, or low-income to hang out—became the site of a homeless encampment that grew larger and more chaotic as the city of Seattle swept unsheltered people from other parts of downtown.

Periodically, judges at the courthouse have led the charge to implement new security measures in the area, arguing that the presence of so many visibly poor people and people involved in the criminal justice system presents a danger to innocent passersby and non-criminal courthouse users. A Seattle Times story from 2005, for example, began with a litany of the kind of people who use the courthouse: "Rapists, murderers, drug addicts and wife beaters." (As that same Seattle Times story noted, the park was known as "Muscatel Meadows" as far back as the 1960s).

More recently, an attempted sexual assault inside the courthouse itself prompted a work-from-home order and demands from King County Superior Court judges to shut down the park, which had become the site of a large, often chaotic encampment that grew dramatically as unsheltered people were swept there from other parts of downtown Seattle.

"If you address issues on one block, they're going to be across the street—literally. We’ve already funded additional sheriff's patrols to have our own sheriff’s deputies in the park and around the block, and that hasn’t solved it. It’s going to require a much bigger solution the neighborhood, not acquiring one park."

This past August, the judges got their wish: The park is now walled off by a high chain-link fence, accessible to no one. Earlier this month, the King County Council voted 7-2 to take it over, arguing that they could succeed where the city "failed" to keep the park safe and clear of encampments. If the Seattle City Council adopts similar legislation next year, the city will hand the park over to King County in exchange for several county-owned properties, and the county will get the final say over what becomes of the space. Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine announced the swap last month.

Joe McDermott, one of two county council members who voted against the land transfer (the other was South King County council member Girmay Zahilay), says his colleagues are misguided if they believe a county takeover will solve the decades-old issues in and around the park.

"It’s a false sense of security," McDermott said. "If you address issues on one block, they're going to be across the street—literally. We’ve already funded additional sheriff's patrols to have our own sheriff’s deputies in the park and around the block, and that hasn’t solved it. It’s going to require a much bigger solution the neighborhood, not acquiring one park."  

"The park has been closed since August. People still need to go outdoors. They can't jump in Uber and go to one of the larger parks around the city. This is their public space."—Lisa Howard, Alliance for Pioneer Square

While the county could decide to retain the park's use as a park, the legislation also leaves open the possibility of turning it into part of the larger "civic campus" that includes the county jail, the courthouse, and the King County Administration Building, depriving hundreds of people who live in and around the area of the only piece of urban green space in the neighborhood. Some council members, including East King County representative Reagan Dunn, have even suggested—in McDermott's view, fantastically—reorienting the courthouse to the south and "restoring" its original entrance on Jefferson Street.

Lisa Howard, executive director of the Alliance for Pioneer Square, said shutting down the park will deprive hundreds of low-income neighborhood residents of access to green space. "In the two blocks surrounding the park, there are 600 extremely low-income units, and in the next six to eight months, there will be 760, and most of those individuals are very low-income, high-needs individuals who need access to outdoor space," she said. "The park has been closed since August. People still need to go outdoors. They can't jump in Uber and go to one of the larger parks around the city. This is their public space."

The Downtown Seattle Association, which represents downtown businesses and has worked to activate a number of downtown parks, including nearby Occidental Square, also opposes closing down what DSA director Jon Scholes calls "precious" and irreplaceable public space downtown. "We've been ineffective at creating a space that is welcoming to all and delivering on its intended use," Scholes said, but closing the park permanently would be "a big mistake. We could have done that 10 years ago in Westlake Park too, and put in all kinds of uses and buildings and structures that were not consistent with the regional vision for [Westlake] as a publicly accessible park, but we didn't." Continue reading "Business, County Leaders Say Land Trade Won’t Fix Problems Around Downtown Park"

Harrell Announces Key Staff, Veteran Budget Director Departs, Council Adopts New Rules and Transparency Requirements

1. Mayor-elect Bruce Harrell announced a list of top staff on Monday headlined by his campaign manager, niece, and now incoming senior deputy mayor Monisha Harrell.

But the biggest throughline in Harrell’s list of appointees wasn’t family—Harrell, who was omnipresent during her uncle’s campaign, was widely expected to take on a key role in his administration—but the elevation of so many longtime insiders to top roles in the new administration.

Of the ten appointments announced yesterday (and an eleventh, Chief of Staff Jennifer Samuels), all but one are current or recent city of Seattle staff, and half are current appointees or allies of outgoing Mayor Jenny Durkan.

Tiffany Washington, the former head of the city’s Homelessness Strategy and Investment division, is currently Durkan’s deputy mayor, and will continue in that role under Harrell. Julie Dingley, the incoming interim budget director (more on that in a minute), is Durkan’s interim Innovation and Performance director and the former lead budget staffer in Durkan’s office. Adiem Emery, the new Chief Equity Officer (“tasked with delivering on the mayor-elect’s vision to make tangible progress embedding equity across City departments and programs,” according to a a press release), is currently a division director at SDOT.  Pedro Gómez, the incoming head of external affairs, is currently director of Small Business Development for the Office of Economic Development. Harrell’s longtime council aide Vinh Tang works in the city’s IT department.

And former city council member Tim Burgess, who will head “strategic initiatives” in a position listed just below Harrell’s two announced deputy mayors, is a longtime Durkan ally—and, of course, Harrell’s former colleague.

Filling out the list are several longtime insiders who worked elsewhere in the city or are returning after an absence. Chief operating officer Marco Lowe (who will focus “on driving efficiencies in Seattle’s public utility agencies, making Seattle government more transparent and accessible, and streamlining housing and infrastructure construction,” per the press release) worked in two mayoral administrations; policy director Dan Eder is deputy director of the city council’s central staff; and chief of staff Samuels worked for Harrell’s council office.

In fact, besides Monisha Harrell—who serves as deputy monitor overseeing the federal consent decree over the Seattle Police Department—the only City Hall “outsider” on Harrell’s team is former Seattle/King County NAACP leader Gerald Hankerson, who will be Harrell’s external affairs liaison.

“One of the issues over the past few years on the council is that it hasn’t always been completely clear when a deputy of the mayor is speaking for the mayor, and I don’t think there will be any ambiguity at all that when Monisha speaks, she is speaking for her uncle. I think that’s one of the advantages of having a family member in a position like that.”—City Councilmember Andrew Lewis

City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, a member of the public safety subcommittee of Harrell’s transition team, said he has “a lot of confidence in [Monisha Harrell’s] commitment” to pursue non-police responses to emergency and crisis situations. “That’s the real nucleus for moving forward on this intractable argument that we’ve had around what the future of policing is going to be—how can you set up response alternatives?” Lewis said.

The city’s ethics code only raises conflict-of-interest alarms when a city employee supervises an “immediate family member,” which does not include nieces or nephews. (King County’s law is both more prescriptive—the Harrells would be considered each other’s “immediate family”— and slightly more vague.) Former mayor Charley Royer, who served three terms, appointed his brother Bob deputy mayor in 1978, a position the younger Royer held for more than five years.

Lewis said he believes having a mayor and deputy mayor who are related could be an asset. “One of the issues over the past few years on the council is that it hasn’t always been completely clear when a deputy of the mayor is speaking for the mayor, and I don’t think there will be any ambiguity at all that when Monisha speaks, she is speaking for her uncle,” Lewis said. “I think that’s one of the advantages of having a family member in a position like that.”

2. Seattle City Budget Office director Ben Noble announced last week that he is leaving the city after more than 20 years. A longtime city council central staffer who became central staff director in 2006, Noble took over the reins at the budget office in 2014 under Mayor Ed Murray and continued in the position under Durkan, where he often found himself on the opposite side of testy exchanges with his former colleagues over Durkan’s approach to budgeting.

In recent years, Durkan repeatedly attempted to fund her own annual priorities using funds that had already been committed to other purpose (in one case, by Durkan herself), sparking heated debates between the council and the budget office. Last year, Durkan vetoed both the budget and legislation funding COVID relief, both times unsuccessfully.

City Councilmember Alex Pedersen prevailed Monday on a change to the city council’s rules that will allow him (and other council members) to abstain rather than vote on council resolutions unrelated to city business, like the one praising Cuba for its response to the COVID pandemic last year

In a letter to city staff, Noble provided little detail about why he is leaving, calling it “very much a personal decision.” Whatever prompted it (former colleagues speculated burnout, but Noble demurred), his departure opens up a major position in the Harrell administration—and represents a significant loss of institutional knowledge, brainpower, and longstanding relationships between the executive and legislative branches.

3. City Councilmember Alex Pedersen prevailed Monday on a change to the city council’s rules that will allow him (and other council members) to abstain rather than vote on council resolutions unrelated to city business, like the one praising Cuba for its response to the COVID pandemic last year. The legislation was part of a package of council rule changes that will, among other things, move City Council meetings to Tuesdays and limit the amount of time council members can speak to a pending motion. The new rule, which Councilmember Lisa Herbold opposed as vague and open to “unintended consequences,” says that council members can abstain from any resolution that, according to the council president, “does not pertain materially to the City of Seattle.”

Pedersen has long complained that nonbinding resolutions, many of them proposed by his ideological opposite Kshama Sawant, are pointless wastes of the council’s time; in early 2020, he proposed and passed a sarcastic resolution condemning “all forms of oppression affecting communities throughout the world—a response to a Sawant resolution in on national policy in India and Iran.

4. Pedersen cast the lone “no” vote against legislation that will require incoming city attorney Ann Davison to notify the council within 90 days of making changes to, or eliminating, the city’s pre-filing diversion programs, and provide quarterly reports to the council about the effectiveness of diversion. Continue reading “Harrell Announces Key Staff, Veteran Budget Director Departs, Council Adopts New Rules and Transparency Requirements”

A “New Approach to Encampment Removals” Is Limited by a Lack of Places for People to Go

By Erica C. Barnett

Last week, sanitation crews and Parks Department employees showed up to remove the remains of a large, persistent encampment at the Ballard Commons park. From the outside, the removal looked exactly like every other encampment sweep: Tents, furniture, and household detritus disappeared into the back of garbage trucks as workers wandered around directing anyone still on site to leave. Hours later, crews installed a tall chain-link fence, identical to the ones that have become ubiquitous at former encampment sites around the city. Huge red “PARK CLOSED” signs emphasized the point: This park, once disputed territory, has been claimed. It will remain closed for at least six months for renovations, remediation, and, as District 6 City Councilmember Dan Strauss put it last week, “to allow the space to breathe.”

But the removal of the encampment at the Commons actually was different, because—for once, and contrary to what the city’s Human Services Department has always claimed is standard practice—nearly everyone at the encampment ended up moving to a shelter or housing, thanks to months of work by outreach providers and a hands-off approach from the city. At a press conference outside the Ballard branch library last week, Strauss heralded the results of the city’s “new way of doing encampment removals.” 

While a humane approach like the one the city took at the Ballard Commons should serve as the baseline for how the city responds to encampments in the future, its success won’t be easy to replicate. That’s because there simply aren’t enough shelter beds, permanent housing units, or housing subsidies to accommodate all the residents of even one additional large encampment, much less the hundreds of encampments in which thousands of unsheltered people live across the city.

Before explaining why it would be premature, and potentially harmful, to praise the city for abandoning its “old” approach to encampments, it’s important to understand how the approach to this encampment really was different, and why it’s simplistic (and unhelpful) to refer to the removal of the encampment, and the closure of the park, as just another “sweep.”

Ordinarily, when the city decides to remove an encampment, the Human Services Department sends out an advance team, known as the HOPE Team, to offer shelter beds and services to the people living there and to let them know the encampment is about to be swept. The HOPE Team has exclusive access to some shelter beds, which makes it possible for the city to credibly claim it has “offered shelter” to everyone living at an encampment prior to a sweep. However, even the HOPE team is limited to whatever beds happen to be available, which tend to be in shelters with higher turnover and fewer amenities, like the Navigation Center in the International District. Mobility challenges, behavioral health conditions, and the desire to stay with a street community are some common reasons people “refuse” offers of shelter or leave shelter after “accepting” an offer. If someone needs a wheelchair ramp or a space they can share with their partner and those amenities are not available at the shelters that have open beds, the sweep will still go on.

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At the Commons, in contrast, city outreach partners, including REACH and Catholic Community Services, spent months getting to know the 85 or so people living in the encampment, learning about their specific needs, and connecting them to resources that worked for them. More than 20 percent of the people living at the Commons had “significant medical issues” that many conventional shelters are not equipped to address, including Stage 4 cancer, emphysema, paralysis, and seizure disorders, REACH director Chloe Gale said last week. Eighty percent had serious behavioral health conditions, including addiction. One had been the victim of gender-based violence and did not feel safe going to shelter alone.

Eventually, outreach workers were able to find placements for nearly everyone living at the Commons, working with people on a one-on-one basis and building trust over months. The approach is time-consuming, costly, and resource-intensive—and it only works if there is sufficient shelter and housing available.

At last week’s press conference, Councilmember Strauss said that by “using a human-centered approach” the city is “giving [outreach providers] time for them to get get people inside, we’re finding and creating adequate shelter and housing. And [that approach] results in people getting inside rather than displaced.” On Monday, Strauss said during a council meeting that he had “begun working to bring a similar outcome to Lower Woodland Park,” where residents have been complaining about a large RV and tent encampment for months.

The problem—and a likely point of future friction for the city—is that the single biggest factor enabling this “human-centered approach” was the opening of dozens of new spots in tiny house villages and a Downtown Emergency Service Center-run hotel in North Seattle, which will provide permanent housing for dozens of people with severe and persistent behavioral health challenges. Those new resources, more than any outreach strategy or “new approach” by the city, enabled people to move, not from one park to another, but to places they actually wanted to go. Now that those shelter and housing slots are occupied, the city will revert to the status quo, at least until more shelter and housing becomes available.

The issue preventing the city from taking a person-by-person approach to encampments is only partly that Seattle fails to consider the individual needs of people living unsheltered; it’s also that the city has never taken seriously the need to fund and build shelter and housing that serves those needs on the level that will be necessary to make a visible dent in homelessness. This is changing, slowly—as Strauss noted last week, 2021 was the first year in which the city met its goal of spending $200 million a year on affordable housing—but the process of moving people inside will inevitably be slow and partial, especially if the city does not do significantly more to fund both shelter and housing.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, according to data provided by the Human Services Department, the city has only added about 500 new shelter beds, and even that number is misleading, because it includes nearly 200 rooms in two temporary hotel-based shelters that will close down next month, sending providers scrambling to find placements for hundreds of people in the middle of winter. 

Strauss acknowledged last week that the reason the city could declare the Ballard Commons a success story was that so many tiny house village units became available at once. “The reason that we were able to remove the encampment about our comments now over the last two and a half months is because the shelter availability has come online,” Strauss said.

A few hours later, at a meeting of the Ballard District Council, King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones tried to inject a dose of realism into a conversation with homeowners who expressed frustration that they continue to see unhoused people in the area, including “one of the biggest car camping problems in the city.”

For example, one district council member asked, would the homelessness authority provide a person or team of people, along the lines of the Seattle Police Department’s community service officers, for Ballard residents to call when they see “someone repetitively harassing a business” or sleeping in their car?

 

Instead of offering meaningless reassurances, Dones responded that the job of the KCRHA is not to respond to individual neighborhood concerns about specific homeless people—nor would creating a special homeless-monitoring force for a neighborhood help anyway, in the absence of resources to help the people whose behavioral health conditions manifest as public nuisances. “For a lot of folks who have intense behavioral health needs, we don’t have any place for them to go. … It’s my job to not bullshit you on that,” Dones said.

What’s more, they added, sometimes the authority will outright reject community ideas that are bad. “The broad constituency here wants to solve this problem in a healthy and really compassionate way,” Dones said. “And that’s one of those places where if we’re telling people the honest truth about what can and can’t be done with what we have, it’s gonna go a lot further.”

Telling the truth about what works and what doesn’t seems like a simple thing. But it’s so contrary to the Seattle way of doing things that it’s almost shocking to hear an authority figure tell a traditional homeowners’ group that they can’t have what they want, and, moreover, that what they want won’t solve the problem they’ve identified.

Telling people what they want to hear is an ingrained political strategy, particularly when it comes to homelessness. When she first came into office, one-term Mayor Jenny Durkan promised she would build 1,000 new “tiny house” shelters in her first year in office. By the end of her term, only about 200 had opened. Her successor, mayor-elect Bruce Harrell, has similarly promised to add 2,000 new “emergency, supportive shelter” beds, using “existing local dollars” to fund this massive expansion. If this effort, modeled directly on the failed “Compassion Seattle” charter initiative, succeeds, it will almost certainly result in the kind of relatively low-cost “enhanced” shelter many people living in encampments reject, for reasons that outreach workers (and perhaps, now, come council members) understand well.

The question for Seattle isn’t, or shouldn’t be, “How will we add as many shelter beds as cheaply as we can so we can remove homeless people from public view?” It is, and should be: “How can we shelter and house unsheltered people in a way that prevents them from returning to homelessness while creating realistic expectations for housed residents who are frustrated with encampments in parks?” As the Ballard Commons example illustrates, it takes more than “X” number of shelter beds to get people to move inside. It takes time, effort, money, and a willingness to view unsheltered people as fully human.

Council Changes Course, Won’t Require City Attorney to Run Diversion Programs

City attorney-elect Ann Davison
City attorney-elect Ann Davison

By Paul Kiefer

The Seattle City Council is backpedaling its plans to add diversion to the Seattle City Attorney’s list of mandatory responsibilities.

Earlier this year, city council president Lorena González said she would propose legislation to require the city attorney to send some misdemeanor cases to diversion programs instead of filing charges. Instead, on Thursday, González introduced a pared-down bill that would require the city attorney to notify the council 90 days before making any changes to, or eliminating, the office’s diversion programs, and provide quarterly reports to the council about the effectiveness of any diversion programs.

Diversion programs typically replace punishment, such as fines or jail time, with counseling and mandatory check-ins; in recent years, the city attorney’s office has begun relying on diversion programs to address crimes ranging from shoplifting to misdemeanor domestic violence.

González, along with committee chair Lisa Herbold and the bill’s co-sponsor, Councilmember Andrew Lewis, made clear on Thursday that the proposal would not require the city attorney’s office to run any programs that offer alternatives to prosecutions. “Nothing in this legislation impedes the city attorney’s discretion,” González said.

UPDATE Friday, December 10: In an email to all council members on Thursday morning, Davison suggested that the watered-down bill was a sexist act against Davison, who will be the city’s first female city attorney, writing, “none of my male predecessors faced a single preemptive move by the council to establish additional reporting requirements and restrictions on operations in the two months before they took office… I encourage my esteemed colleagues on City Council to question whether they are enforcing a double standard and what message that sends our daughters who one day may seek elected office.”

Davison also accused the council of ignoring “real public safety crises” in Little Saigon, the downtown core and north Seattle and instead “rush[ing] through” a bill to increase reporting requirements for the city attorney’s office. Citing a Seattle Times editorial that blamed the council for an uptick in crime in Little Saigon and the office’s 3,885-case backlog, Davison said she would “re-center the victims in our city’s public safety conversation.” She added that she was committed to transparency and “bolster[ing] the city’s diversion programs.”

The new legislation represents a dramatic turnaround from October, when González said she intended to introduce legislation by December to require the city attorney’s office to devote resources to diversion programs. Next year, thanks to a budget amendment also sponsored by González, $2 million of the city attorney’s budget will be earmarked for diversion programs, although city attorney-elect Ann Davison could choose not to spend those dollars.

Diversion programs have become a familiar feature of Seattle’s criminal justice system. The city attorney’s office is a key participant, referring defendants to nonprofit diversion programs and providing attorneys to work alongside defendants’ case managers in those programs. In the past two years, for example, the office sent more juvenile cases to the youth diversion nonprofit Choose 180 than it filed in court. Continue reading “Council Changes Course, Won’t Require City Attorney to Run Diversion Programs”