Category: City Council

Single-Issue City Attorney Backs Candidates Who Support Drug Prosecutions; District 1 Candidate Rob Saka Benefits from Bagel Mailers

1. In a last-minute endorsement (of sorts), Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison sent out a mass email on Saturday urging voters to support the city council candidates who have consistently supported legislation—which will almost certainly pass later this summer—that would empower her to prosecute drug users for simple possession and for using drugs, other than alcohol and marijuana, in public. The law would incorporate a new state law into city law, granting the city attorney the authortiy prosecute misdemeanor-level drug use and possession.

The letter painted an apocalyptic picture of the city where Davison serves as chief local prosecutor.

“Parents should be able to take their kids on the bus without inhaling plumes of fentanyl smoke. We all should be able to walk in our parks and sidewalks without stepping over needles and drug paraphernalia. We should be able to get to work without dodging a gauntlet of drug deals,” Davison wrote.

“Unfortunately, some members of City Council voted not to allow Seattle to adopt our new State law on drugs. For me to have authority to prosecute and intervene, the new state law must be put into our city code by City Council.”

Although Davison’s letter, sent from her campaign email address, claims the proposed law would empower her to “intervene” in drug users’ cycle of addiction, the law itself is silent on intervention and diversion. In reality, according to a city council staff analysis, the legislation only gives the city attorney the authority to prosecute.

The city council candidates who unequivocally said yes to a Seattle Times survey question about prosecuting drug users, according to a survey conducted by the Seattle Times, are, in order of district: Rob Saka and Phil Tavel (District 1); George Artem and Ken Wilson (District 4); Boegert Bibby (District 5); Pete Hanning, Victoria Palmer, and Shea Wilson (District 6); Bob Kettle, Olga Sagan, Aaron Marshall, Wade Sowders, and Isabelle Kerner (District 7). District 7 incumbent Andrew Lewis also told the Seattle Times he supports prosecuting drug users, but because he cast the tie-breaking vote against the bill before saying he would support it, he does not meet Davison’s criteria.

2. Meta attorney Rob Saka, a frontrunner in District 1, may be the primary beneficiary of billboards and mailers advertising Eltana Bagels, the company founded by another D1 candidate, Stephen Brown. As we’ve reported, Brown has insisted the mailers and billboards, which look strikingly similar to his campaign materials, were just ordinary advertising for the Montreal-style bagel stores.

That didn’t stand up to scrutiny by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, however: The mailers, which featured the phrase “Seattle Deserves Better…—Stephen Brown” and offered $25 in free bagels, look like campaign literature, and the billboards—which also featured Brown’s name—were mostly located in District 1, which does not have a single Eltana store. After conferring with Ethics and Elections director Wayne Barnett, the Brown campaign filed an amended campaign report that included $33,000 for the West Seattle portion of the mailing and billboards.

Last week, the ethics commission went even further, voting—in response to a request from Saka—to allow him to raise and spend more than $93,750, the maximum allowed under Seattle election law unless another candidate goes above the spending cap. Ordinarily, this happens when a candidate’s own campaign spending, plus independent expenditures on their behalf, breaches the cap, but the city also allows candidates to spend more than the mandatory maximum if another candidate violates election law.

Ironically, Saka himself has already benefited from tens of thousands of dollars in spending from an independent expenditure campaign backed by real estate moguls and a Trump-donating billionaire, putting him over the limit himself. Maren Costa, a labor-backed candidate, requested a lift on the cap for her own campaign and received it last week.

Because last week’s hearing was about Saka’s motion to lift the cap, the Brown campaign’s $33,000 valuation for the mailers was not in question. The commission will likely seek a new valuation, but hasn’t yet, so as of now, the old, under-the-limit valuation stands. This creates a bizarre Schrödinger’s cap situation in which the Brown campaign has both spent more than the legal limit (according to the ethics commission) and is within the limit (according to the commission’s executive director and the campaign itself).

Rules Change Would Mandate In-Person Council Meetings; Port Candidate Was Sued for Alleged Role in Ponzi Scheme

1. City Councilmember Sara Nelson has proposed changes to council rules that would require all members to attend council meetings in person except in a limited list of circumstances, such as: If a council member has an infectious disease, if the meeting is at night or off-site, or if they are taking care of a sick family member or friend. Nelson’s proposed rule change would also require members who attend a meeting remotely to turn their video on during votes.

During a meeting of the council’s governance committee last week, Nelson said she appreciated the convenience of remote meetings but worried that they violated the spirit of the state Open Public Meetings Act. “Witnessing one’s representative or the governing body on screen is is not the same as seeing them in person, watching interactions among members, being able to share a glance or a smile with someone at the dais, and maybe even interact before the meeting,” Nelson said.

Remote attendance also discourages people from coming to see council meetings in public, Nelson added, “because why would somebody schlep all the way to City Hall when they could just watch a meeting on on Seattle Channel and then make a make public comment by phone?”

Committee chair Debora Juarez, who is immunocompromised and has attended council meetings remotely for most of the pandemic, said she agreed that in-person meetings are ideal but noted that exposure to COVID is still a safety issue, especially for people who are at higher risk of serious illness. “As a matter [of] principle, I don’t think that I can physically make eight people physically come to work every day and physically show up on the dais,” Juarez said. “I’m going to have to appeal to their judgment and defer to them.”

Juarez also noted that remote attendance has made life easier for council members with young children to balance their kids’ needs with their obligations as public officials, and has made public comment accessible to a more diverse group of voices, including people who are disabled, those with jobs they can’t leave in the middle of the day, and people who don’t want the hassle and expense of paying to park or using public transit to get downtown.

A work group that considered the proposed rule changes, including another rule (backed by Juarez) that would restrict public comment in council committees to items on the agenda, kept Nelson’s proposal on the table but did not include it in the underlying legislation, meaning Nelson would need to convince her colleagues to put the language in the bill. The committee rejected outright a separate proposal that would have required the Seattle Channel to broadcast the faces of people who comment remotely.

2. The campaign website for Jesse Tam, a former banker who’s running for the Port of Seattle Commission seat currently held by Fred Felleman, touts Tam’s financial and banking experience, noting that he “successfully organized and launched the first international private banking practice in the State of Washington” and “provided services for his banking clients between the Pacific Rim and many European nations” before “departing from the banking industry” for a new career in real estate.

In an email to PubliCola, Tam called the lawsuit a “frivolous civil lawsuit that was filed by a foreign unknown organization” and noted that it was dismissed with prejudice. The terms of the settlement are still confidential.

That description omits the incident that preceded Tam’s departure from banking: A massive lawsuit, filed on behalf 4,200 Indonesian investors, alleging that the bank Tam founded, Regal Financial Bank, helped promote a massive Ponzi scheme that defrauded clients of up to $600 million. The investors sued Tam and his bank for $175 million for their alleged involvement in the scheme. Tam’s bank settled for an undisclosed amount, and Tam has consistently denied any wrongdoing.

In an email to PubliCola, Tam called the lawsuit a “frivolous civil lawsuit that was filed by a foreign unknown organization” and noted that it was dismissed with prejudice. The terms of the settlement are still confidential.

According to a report from the Seattle P-I in 2009, Tam founded Regal Financial Bank in 2001, aided by money from a firm called Dressel Investments, which won over clients, many of them new to investing, by promising incredible returns of 24 to 28 percent. But “during the six years that followed, nearly all of the at least $300 million taken in by the company was used to repay other investors,” the P-I reported—a classic Ponzi scheme.

The lawsuit claimed that Tam “had full and complete knowledge” of the Ponzi scheme, traveled to Indonesia with a Dressel partner, and used the money Dressel took in from these investors to start his bank in 2001. “Dressel continued to be an important client at the bank until 2006, when the alleged Ponzi scheme began to collapse,” Northwest Asian Weekly reported in 2011.

Tam left the bank in 2009 and says his departure came “during the midst of the global financial crisis and had no association with the lawsuit. Regal Financial Bank was merged with Northwest Bank in Seattle in January of 2015 and it is currently operating in downtown Seattle,” he said. Tam currently runs an financial management consulting firm.

Campaign Fizz: The Case of the Carbon-Copy Mailers

1. Elliott Bay Neighbors and University Neighbors, two independent expenditure groups funded by local real estate developers and Republican donors, including Trump 2020 contributor George Petrie, sent out mailers supporting District 1 city council candidate Rob Saka and District 4 candidate Maritza Rivera. The identically worded mailers include the same factual errors about the history of homelessness in Seattle.

One one side, the Saka/Rivera mailers both promise “[Saka/Rivera] is endorsed by people you know and trust,” followed by a quote from a supporter (Community Police Commission member Harriett Walden and Attorney General Bob Ferguson, respectively) and a snippet of the Seattle Times’ endorsement for that candidate.

On the flip side, both feature the headline “After years of failure on homelessness…” followed by a list of six points in time (plus “2023: UTTER FAILURE”) that are supposed to represent that failure.

The timeline—whose only job is to be a timeline—includes two dates that are wrong. Mayor Ed Murray declared a homelessness emergency in 2015, not 2016, and the JumpStart payroll tax (“additional taxes for housing”) passed in 2020, not 2021. Perhaps more substantively, Murray’s declaration, King County’s Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness; the “failure” of that plan; and the establishment of the original Nickelsville encampment have nothing to do with the city council; they were the responsibility of Ed Murray, King County, King County, and a group of unsheltered people, respectively.

Although the mailer describes JumpStart as “additional taxes for housing,” the fund was (pretty famously) crippled in its first few years as former mayor Durkan and current Mayor Harrell used it to backfill shortfalls in other spending areas, and does not exclusively pay for housing.

According to campaign finance reports, the mailers were designed by a consultant in Wisconsin.

Direct campaign donations are limited in Seattle, but independent political committees can spend unlimited amounts supporting or opposing candidates and ballot measures. Two of the chief supporters of the pro-Saka and -Rivera campaigns, George Petrie (and his wife Alyssa) and John Goodman, contributed a total of $190,000 to a pro-Bruce Harrell campaign and $100,000 to Compassion Seattle, the unfunded shelter and encampment-clearing mandate that a judge struck from the ballot for going beyond the scope of a local initiative.

2. Stephen Brown, the founder of Eltana Bagels and a candidate for City Council Position 1 (West Seattle), reported spending $33,577 to reimburse Eltana for billboards and mailers that appeared to promote Brown’s campaign. The mailers read “Seattle Deserves Better…—Stephen Brown” on the outside and opened to reveal an offer for $25 in free bagels. Brown maintained that the billboards and mailers, along with a Youtube video that concluded, “Stephen Brown fixed the bagel problem in Seattle—who knows what’s next?” had nothing to do with his campaign.

The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission disagreed, sending Brown a list of questions about the ads and warning him that his campaign could no longer access public funding if he did not “resolve this issue.”

Had Brown not resolved the issue by paying for the ads, the ethics commission could’ve added his official campaign mailers to the pile of evidence suggesting the Eltana ads were meant to support his campaign. The design of the Vote Stephen Brown ad is extremely similar to the Eltana ad, from the fonts to the striking deep-purple-and-yellow color scheme to the photos of bagels to the choice of fonts.

3. Saka, who is one of Brown’s competitors, has asked the elections commission to lift spending limits for his campaign, arguing that Brown understated the true value of the ads and mailers and has actually spent more than the $93,750 limit for candidates using the city’s democracy voucher program. The ethics commission will hold a meeting tomorrow to consider his request.

UPDATE: Turns out our prediction (that the commission wouldn’t grant Saka’s request because they had already accepted a $33,000 estimate for the Eltana billboards and mailers) was wrong: The commission voted to grant the request on Thursday, agreeing with Saka’s campaign that the Brown campaign should have included the full value of all the money Eltana spent advertising bagels/Brown citywide, and not just in District 1.

During a lengthy discussion, commission director Wayne Barnett argued that it wouldn’t make much sense to advertise a West Seattle campaign in, say, Ballard. Commissioner Zach Pekelis, an attorney at Pacific Law Group, countered that ordinarily “we don’t think of campaign expendtures being discounted based on the efficacy or the inefficacy of the campaign expenditure,” and noted that if a District 1 campaign directly spent money on ads in another district, it “would definitely count” as a campaign expense.

Audit: Police Could Do More, Without Hiring Extra Cops, To Address Retail Theft Rings

By Erica C. Barnett

A report from the city auditor’s office on the city’s response to organized retail theft concluded that the city, particularly the Seattle Police Department, is not doing everything it can to combat local commercial fencing operations that resell goods stolen by individual “boosters,” typically “”people who are homeless and people with substance use disorder,” who receive drugs or small amounts of money in exchange for bearing most of the legal risk for organized theft operations.

The audit, pointedly titled “The City Can Do More to Tackle Organized Retail Crime in Seattle,” points to a number of actions the department could take, without hiring additional staff or increasing its budget, to target people organizing thefts and directing the resale of stolen retail goods. City Councilmembers Andrew Lewis and Lisa Herbold announced the audit last year, and its chief author, the City Audit Office’s Research and Evaluation Director Claudia Gross Shader, presented its findings to Herbold’s public safety committee Tuesday morning.

Cities, like Auburn, that have been successful at reducing organized theft have succeeded by taking down the organizers of fencing operations—”cutting off the head of the snake,” as Gross Shader put it Tuesday.

The police department and City Attorney Ann Davison have rolled out numerous initiatives to crack down on the people at the bottom of the fencing food chain—Davison’s “high utilizers” initiative, for example, imposes extra penalties on people arrested repeatedly for stealing from stores—but have not taken meaningful steps to disrupt theft rings by focusing on the people actually running them, the report concludes.

According to the Washington Organized Retail Crime Association, organized retail theft refers to operations in which street-level shoplifters steal items in exchange for drugs or small amounts of money on behalf of fencers, who resell the items in markets that range from sidewalk setups to international theft and resale rings.

Under state law, however, a single shoplifting incident is considered “organized” if a person steals merchandise worth $750 or more in a single incident. As PubliCola has documented, the city has used the organized theft statute to prosecute people stealing valuable items without determining whether they are actually part of any organized theft ring.

The audit puts a number on this tendency to focus on cases that do not appear to be “organized” in any meaningful sense: Of the 49 “organized retail theft” cases SPD referred to the King County Prosecutor’s Office in 2022, 45 involved thefts that qualified because they were above the $750 threshold, while only the remaining four indisputably involved fencing. The 45 people in the former category were disproportionately Black (38 percent) and included people who were homeless and had substance use disorders.

According to the audit, responding to calls from just the top 100 retail locations in the city used up almost 19,000 hours of police time, equivalent to the work of nine full-time officers—”a significant body of work” that could be streamlined, the report suggests, by using tools like “rapid video response” (essentially a police version of Zoom) to interview store employees instead of sending officers all over town.

Although the report says nothing about police hiring, City Councilmember Sara Nelson said it validated her efforts to secure more funding for police recruitment, and suggested (for the second time in a week) that if the council would  “just lift” a budget restriction that requires council approval before SPD can spend salary savings from unfilled positions, “they could spend that those resources on whatever they need to help with the crime situation.”

Although a report on place-based strategies specifically called for eliminating “extreme measures” like the razor-wire-topped fences the city installed to prevent people from accessing a parking lot at 12th and Jackson, the fences remain, giving the area the feel of a prison camp.

Chiming in a few minutes later, Councilmember Alex Pedersen said the “defunding movement against the police” movement had led to the loss of more than 400 police officers, which he said contributed to the spike in retail theft that began in 2020.

The audit found that although the city does participate in a number of collaborative efforts to address organized theft rings—including state and federal task forces focused on the issue—SPD could be doing a lot more to access existing resources outside the department. For example, the US Department of Justice offers free assistance implementing a strategy called Problem Oriented Policing, or POP, that addresses the conditions that lead people to do things like working for fencers with the goal of preventing crime rather than just reacting to it.

“Although POP has existed since the 1980s, SPD has not systematically implemented it,” the audit says. “In fact, SPD’s lack of experience with POP was seen as a limiting factor in a federally funded pilot project designed to address two downtown Seattle crime hot spots.”

The city should also invest in “place-based strategies”—better lighting, activating vacant lots, and other non-law-enforcement approaches—to make “hot spots” less appealing places for people to operate illegal street markets. SPD proposed 68 such strategies last year for the intersection of 12th and Jackson, a frequent target of aggressive “hot spot” policing operations, but the city has only implemented three of them.

Although the SPD report specifically called for eliminating “extreme measures” like the razor-wire-topped fences the city installed to prevent people from accessing a parking lot at 12th and Jackson—specifically because they make the area feel “unsafe”—the fences remain, giving the area the feel of a prison camp.

Another problem the auditors identified is that when police arrest shoplifters who work for fencing operations, they rarely interview the people they arrest to find out how the operations work, squandering opportunities to disrupt the market for stolen goods.

Last year, as part of an effort to build cases they could actually prosecute, the prosecutor’s office created a checklist of information SPD needed to provide before sending a case to the county. According to the audit, none of the five cases SPD filed after getting the checklist had all the required information, and all five are currently on hold because they lack information the prosecutor needs to move forward. The audit recommends training detectives in how to use the checklist, which includes four items and detailed instructions on how to obtain them.

City Council District 5: PubliCola Picks Nilu Jenks

District 5—far North Seattle—includes some of the wealthiest, most homogenous single-family neighborhoods in the city along with areas, like Lake City, that are dense, diverse immigrant hubs. Politically, the district tends to favor centrist candidates like incumbent Debora Juarez, a moderate who has supported punitive responses to encampments and drug use and was the target of protests when she opposed efforts to reduce police funding by 50 percent in 2020.

PubliCola Picks graphicThat’s all preface to say that neither of the top two candidates in this race—Nilu Jenks and Cathy Moore—set PubliCola’s progressive heart aflame.

A third candidate, equity consultant Christiana Obeysumner, would bring her own lived experience and long resume  as a housing navigator, clinical support specialist, and equity consultant to the job of addressing homelessness. When we spoke with Obeysumner, she demonstrated a detailed understanding of what it will take to house thousands of people experiencing different kinds of homelessness, from people with addiction and other disabilities to those who are couch-surfing or living in motels; she is also an impassioned advocate for the rights of sex workers.

For District 5, PubliCola picks Nilu Jenks—a climate and pedestrian safety advocate who we believe will take a thoughtful, nuanced approach to headline-grabbing issues, like police hiring and public drug use, while fighting for safe streets, climate resiliency hubs, and expanded access to shelter.

Like every candidate, Jenks came to our interview prepared to answer questions about police hiring and homelessness. (For the record, she thinks the goal of 1,400 officers is unrealistic, supports civilian alternatives to police for crisis calls, and thinks the city should establish a right to shelter.) But what really got her animated was talking about how Seattle needs to change over the coming decades to accommodate the thousands of people who will move here, many of them “climate refugees” from other parts of the country.

“Every other major city has sidewalks,” she said. “Why can’t we figure this out?”

The best way to respond to this growth, Jenks told us, is to plan for it now, by turning underdeveloped parts of the city—like the area around the future 130th Street light rail station—into dense, appealing neighborhoods. That means increasing height limits, planting trees, widening sidewalks, and slowing traffic so that people can cross the street without risking their lives.

Acknowledging that sidewalks are expensive, Jenks said she would start with areas that have the highest fatality rate, like Aurora Ave. N just south of Shoreline., neighborhoods with large immigrant and BIPOC populations, and areas that lack even one safe route for kids to walk to school. “Every other major city has sidewalks,” she said. “Why can’t we figure this out?”

Jenks also impressed us with her creative, district-level approach to achieving the city’s climate goals. One of her first priorities, Jenks said, would be establishing a climate resilience hub in North Seattle, which would serve as both a community center and a place where people could escape from increasingly severe weather caused by climate change. The city will open its first resilience hub in Beacon Hill, but Jenks says the north end—whose obsolete Lake City Community Center closed in April after a fire—would benefit from a new community center that doubles as a refuge from smoky summers.

She has also proposed providing free heat pumps—a cleaner source of central heating and cooling—to landlords who agree to limit rent increases, along with a right to shelter that would include locations where people could escape summer heat and wildfire smoke during the day.

To pay for some of these priorities, Jenks said she would propose a land-value tax—a tax on the value of a piece of property, regardless of what’s on it—because it would encourage property owners to maximize their land use (housing instead of empty parking lots) and would be more stable than a tax on vacant properties, which is designed to reduce vacancies.

Cathy Moore, a retired judge and former public defender, offered some intriguing ideas during our interview—for example, she said she would oppose any contract for police officers that did not include the same concessions made by the Seattle Police Management Association last year, including a reduced standard of proof for police misconduct and new restrictions on arbitrators, who frequently reverse disciplinary decisions.  But on most issues, from density (she supports the outdated urban village strategy) to police funding (she wants more of it), her views tracked closely with the council’s most conservative members, Alex Pedersen and Sara Nelson, and the Harrell Administration.

For District 5, PubliCola picks Nilu Jenks.

PubliCola’s editorial board is Erica C. Barnett and Josh Feit.

Midyear Budget Proposal Adds Funding for Streetcar Study, Police Overtime—and $19 Million for Unanticipated Lawsuit Payouts

By Erica C. Barnett

The city council got a first look at a proposed mid-year budget package that would fund a graffiti cleanup team that Harrell recently rolled out as part of his Downtown Activation Plan; add funding to revive the delayed downtown streetcar connector; increase SPD overtime spending to pay for downtown emphasis patrols, expanded online crime reports, and public disclosure officers; and put an additional $19 million into a fund that pays out for lawsuits and claims against the city, many of them the result of alleged police misconduct.

Every year, the city council has to adjust the budget to reflect new priorities, as well as what the city has actually spent so far that year, in a midyear supplemental budget that’s often hundreds of pages long.

The council denied Harrell’s request to nearly double what the city spends on graffiti removal last year, increasing annual graffiti cleanup spending to almost $4 million. According to council staff, Harrell’s office reversed their decision by using unspent funds from Seattle Public Utilities public hygiene budget, including pump-outs for trailers that provide showers for unsheltered people, to fully the graffiti cleanup crews. Harrell announced the new spending earlier this month as part of his Downtown Activation Plan. Because the city has already executed the contracts, a council staffer explained Wednesday, the council now has little choice but to fund the expanded graffiti program.

To fund other Downtown Activation Plan programs, a central staff memo notes, Harrell has proposed using the JumpStart fund, which includes funding earmarked for small businesses. Ironically, it was the Downtown Seattle Association, along with the Seattle Metro Chamber and other business groups, that proposed temporarily suspending the JumpStart tax—which only applies to the city’s largest businesses—earlier this year.

The memo outlines all the other proposed midyear budget adjustments, which also include $1 million “a delivery assessment of the Center City Cultural Connector”—as the proposed downtown streetcar was recently rebranded—”to determine if the design needs to be updated to reflect the intent of the project.”

“My original idea was, just lift the proviso and let them spend the salary savings on emergent needs,” Councilmember Sara Nelson said Wednesday, adding that the funding limitation “prohibit[s] the uses of salary savings on on expenses that are really important right now for the for Seattle Police Department.”

The council will also have to approve a $19 million increase to the city’s judgment and claims fund—including $14 million from the city’s planning reserves fund and $5 million from insurance—to pay for “higher than anticipated expenses” from lawsuits against the city. A spokesperson for the city’s budget office told PubliCola the city “cannot accurately predict how much money will be spent if the request is approved,” and said the city may not end up using all the money.

Still, the allocation represents a significant increase to the fund, which the city already expanded by $11 million in the 2023 budget last year, when it increased the fund from $30 million to $41 million “to pay for extraordinary settlements against the City.” Last year, lawsuits against the police department accounted for almost half of the $36 million the city spent on settlements, defense attorneys, and other litigation-related expenses, according to a report released in April.

The midyear budget also releases some funding to SPD to pay for improvements to the department’s online reporting system and unbudgeted overtime expenses the department has already made, along with position authority for four new public disclosure officers. Currently, SPD has to get council approval to spend funding allocated to vacant positions, including sworn officer positions the department is unable to fill, on unrelated purposes.

Although the spending SPD is requesting is fairly limited—about $815,000—budget chair Teresa Mosqueda noted that whenever the city creates new SPD positions—on top of the hundreds of vacant positions that are included in the budget every year—”it compounds our increased costs year over year,” because the new positions become an additional SPD expense in future budget years.

“If there [are] positions that are vacant, that the department intends to hold vacant, that are no longer needed or are not part of the near term planning, it is okay to abrogate positions in order to put funding into other priorities,” Mosqueda said.

Councilmember Sara Nelson, who argued vehemently against restrictions on SPD’s spending authority last year, said another way to solve the annual funding problem would be to just allow SPD to spend salary savings on whatever they want. “My original idea was, just lift the proviso and let them spend the salary savings on emergent needs,” Nelson said Wednesday, adding that the funding limitation “prohibit[s] the uses of salary savings on on expenses that are really important right now for the for Seattle Police Department.” (In fact, it just requires the council to approve those expenses.)

Immediately after suggesting the council has made it too hard for the department to spend salary savings however it wants, Nelson spent 15 minutes questioning a $50,000 expenditure on a “living hotel” pilot that would create sustainable development standards for new hotels. Currently, the city has no way of endorsing or verifying that a hotel that calls itself “green” is actually adhering to green standards such as limiting water usage.

Suggesting that Mosqueda, who proposed the expenditure, was dropping the idea on the council out of the blue, Nelson said, “You make it sound like there’s a lot of talk going on between departments, but I’m the vice chair of the sustainability and renters rights committee, I’m on land use, I’m the chair of City Light, and  the first time I’ve heard about this policy is through some of those form emails coming in.”

“I appreciate that you might know a lot about it,” Nelson continued. “Again, talking about money, that transparency in budgeting ,and making sure that when we allocate money, it’s actually getting spent. So is it premature to be funding this work, given those factors?”

No one took the bait on the glaring contradiction between supporting a blank check for police and scrutinizing a tiny expense for the environment, but Councilmember Lisa Herbold did chime in on behalf of Mosqueda’s add, noting that “it’s really important to guard against greenwashing” by companies operating in the city.

As the central staff memo notes, Harrell’s Downtown Activation Plan includes a special land use change for a proposed hotel in Belltown that will not have to adhere to any green standards, and would extend master use permits for existing downtown hotels, prolonging their exemptions from current environmental rules.

City Council District 4: PubliCola Picks Ron Davis

The race to replace anti-housing activist and one-term councilmember Alex Pedersen provides a clear contrast between an urbanist with a clear plan to build a city where people of all incomes can live in safe, vibrant, walkable neighborhoods, and a candidate whose campaign centers on hiring an unrealistic number of police and a business-as-usual approach to growth that would keep Seattle stratified and unaffordable.

PubliCola Picks graphicRon Davis, our pick for council District 4, would represent a massive upgrade for the district, which has been represented for the past four years by a guy whose most lasting achievement is a rule allowing council members to sit out votes on resolutions they find distasteful. Davis, in contrast to both Pedersen and the other frontrunner in this race, Office of Arts and Culture deputy director Maritza Rivera, is a real-deal urbanist who knows what makes successful cities work—frequent transit, abundant housing, and community-based public safety that includes bustling, vibrant neighborhoods—not just police.

Davis isn’t satisfied with the state legislature’s timid vision for fourplexes and the occasional six-unit apartment building directly adjacent to transit. In fact, he considers this vision—a light edit of the existing “urban village” strategy that confines renters to busy arterials and preserves leafy enclaves for single-family homeowners—anathema to equity and affordability. “To lock up that land, is really an act of economic and social vandalism to people around us and climate,” Davis told us. “The 15-minute city concept”—the idea that everyone should be able to access what they need within 15 minutes without a car—is ”supposed to be that every person lives in a 15-minute city, not little 15-minute neighborhoods that are stuck on arterials everyone can drive through.”

In contrast to his opponent, who says she “won’t rest” until there are enough police officers to reduce 911 response times to 5 minutes or less, Davis is realistic about police hiring and supports focusing on alternatives, including automated traffic cameras and civilian behavioral health crisis responders, while the city continues to hire police.

Instead of building walls around neighborhoods (or, as Rivera has proposed, imposing new design standards to ensure multi-unit buildings resemble nearby single-family houses), Davis wants to encourage development everywhere, by adopting a community-backed “Alternative 6” version of the Seattle Comprehensive Plan, eliminating parking mandates for new housing. He also wants to plant trees in historically disadvantaged communities, rather than using “tree protection” as a cudgel to prevent new housing, as Pedersen did; provide development bonuses (additional height and density) in new buildings that include affordable housing; target affordable housing in high-opportunity neighborhoods while creating a right to return for people displaced from gentrifying areas; and impose new taxes on vacant buildings and surface parking lots, which take up space that could be used for housing.

Davis is a tech guy whose does enterprise sales consulting for startups, but he comes from a working-class background and often talks about the personal experiences that helped shape his views. Instead of prosecuting and jailing drug users, Davis supports supervised consumption centers staffed with medical workers who can reverse or prevent overdoses and help people access treatment when they’re ready—an approach that has proven far more successful than mandatory and jail-based approaches. Speaking about a friend he lost to addiction, Davis said that if jail was actually a solution, “I would have hauled him there myself.”

In contrast to his opponent Rivera, who says she “won’t rest” until there are enough police officers to reduce 911 response times to 5 minutes or less, Davis is realistic about police hiring and supports focusing on alternatives, including automated traffic cameras and civilian behavioral health crisis responders, while the city continues to hire police. “We do need to increase police responsiveness times,” Davis said at a recent forum, but “we need to do this without magical thinking”—a reference to his opponent’s campaign pablum vow to hire 400 new police officers at a time when SPD’s actual staffing plan predicts a net gain of 15 new officers this year.

Rivera has a clear and admirable commitment to reducing gun violence by investing in community-based violence interruption programs and enforcing laws that are meant to prevent people who commit domestic violence from owning firearms. But her proposed solutions to other pressing issues is to simply double down on approaches that haven’t worked, such as addressing the fentanyl addiction crisis by prosecuting “repeat offenders” and dedicating even more of Seattle’s budget to the police department, which already receives a quarter of the city’s annual spending.

Rivera has repeatedly claimed, falsely, that the city council “voted to defund the police”—an unsubtle dog whistle that suggests she’s more interested in winning over Pedersen’s fan base than solving the very problems of public safety, addiction, and homelessness in this district.

PubliCola picks Ron Davis.

PubliCola’s editorial board is Erica C. Barnett and Josh Feit.

PubliCola Picks: Maren Costa for District 1

The crowded race to replace City Council veteran Lisa Herbold in District 1 (which now includes Pioneer Square and Georgetown along with all of West Seattle) features two candidates from the tech world, a bagel store owner who got in hot water with the city’s ethics commission for offering free bagels to district residents, and a three-time candidate who received a tortured endorsement from the Seattle Times in 2019. (They called him “articulate” and “an attorney.”)

PubliCola Picks graphicFrom this decidedly mixed bag, PubliCola picks Maren Costa, a former Amazon user experience designer who founded Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, where her organizing helped lead to Amazon’s “climate pledge” to reduce the company’s net emissions to zero by 2040. In 2020, she was fired after circulating a petition on behalf of warehouse workers organizing for better workplace conditions. Although she hasn’t worked directly on city issues, we believe Costa will be a fast learner with progressive but pragmatic instincts, much like Herbold.

Taking up one of Seattle’s most politicized issues—police funding—Costa has said she wants to “make Seattle the best place in the world to be a police officer” and supports increasing the size of the police force to 1,400 officers. However, in a nod to ongoing efforts to take some responsibilities out of armed officers’ hands, she has also supported standing up civilian crisis response teams that could, in the long run, reduce the need for police. (At a recent forum, she held up a sign at a forum indicating she didn’t believe the city council’s 2020 commitment to reduce police spending by half was “a mistake,” a photo op that will undoubtedly come back to bite her if she makes it through the primary).

Costa supports “upzoning almost everywhere” and pursuing a sixth Seattle Comprehensive Plan alternative that would dramatically increase the maximum allowed density in all neighborhoods—an unusually bold pro-housing move for a candidate in West Seattle, which has long been an epicenter of the battle between anti-growth homeowners and urbanists.

We’re glad to see Costa highlight the need for short-term funding to implement last year’s social housing ballot measure, which split the district along class and racial lines. She’s pinpointed the growing need for affordable housing in this rapidly gentrifying district, proposing that the city impose a vacancy tax on homes that sit idle more than half the year. Although vacancy taxes have mixed results in practice—in Vancouver, B.C., where many apartments are owned by foreign investors, the tax produced significant revenue but does not seem to have lowered rents—the idea is worth exploring, especially at a time when forecasts suggest the city will have to make drastic cuts if it doesn’t find new sources of (ideally progressive) revenue. Costa also wants to consider “turning up the dials” on the JumpStart tax, which funds affordable housing, and looking at options for a local capital gains carbon tax.

As a more immediate, practical proposal, Costa proposes providing direct subsidies to help tenants at risk of eviction pay their rent—an idea also championed by District 3 candidate Alex Hudson—and investing heavily in tiny houses to help reduce the number of “highly established” encampments where crime and predatory behavior are common. She also supports “upzoning almost everywhere” and pursuing a sixth Seattle Comprehensive Plan alternative that would dramatically increase the maximum allowed density in all neighborhoods—an unusually bold pro-housing move for a candidate in West Seattle, which has long been an epicenter of the battle between anti-growth homeowners and urbanists.

The other frontrunner in this race is Rob Saka, a Meta attorney who has a compelling life story (he spent the first nine years of his life in and out of foster care and was raised by a working-class, single dad), but has proven almost impossible to pin down on any issue. Comparing our conversation with Saka in February to his many interviews and public appearances since, we’re hard-pressed to find an instance where he has veered from generic, vaguely centrist talking points, which include “building a ton of affordable housing”; hiring “good, honest police”; removing encampments to ensure parks are clean and “open”; and using arrests as a tool to ensure that drug users “have the the support and treatment services they need.”

When pressed for specifics, Saka tends to change the subject or obfuscate. For example: At a recent forum, candidates were asked whether Sound Transit should scrap its plans to build light rail to West Seattle. Saka’s non-response: “I think we actually need to expand our flexible transit options. Keyword: Options. We should not seek to impose transit or anything onto people. And so, yes, we need to expand our transit options and expand biking options and also create space for people to travel in cars if they so need and choose.”

In this race, where every candidate faces a steep learning curve, we’d rather vote for an independent-minded candidate willing to take  big policy swings than an equivocator who answers yes/no questions with “all of the above.” For District 1, PubliCola picks Maren Costa.

PubliCola’s editorial board is Erica C. Barnett and Josh Feit.

PubliCola Picks: Alex Hudson for City Council District 3

For the first time in a decade, self-promotional socialist Councilmember Kshama Sawant will no longer represent District 3—a swath of central Seattle that includes Eastlake, Capitol Hill, and the Central District.

The newly open seat is an opportunity for voters who deserve a proactive, progressive district representative who listens to constituents’ concerns and gets to work. That candidate is Alex Hudson, and she receives our enthusiastic endorsement for City Council District 3.

PubliCola Picks graphicHudson is the most qualified candidate for any of this year’s open seats, blowing the rest of the field away with her political acumen, policy chops, and deep history of activism in the district.

Hudson has been on our radar for years as a Seattle activist and transportation advocate who consistently scores policy wins and funding for equitable transportation, housing, and neighborhood-level improvements. Nearly a decade ago, as head of the First Hill Neighborhood Association, Hudson—a longtime renter—defied stereotypes about neighborhood activists. Instead of trying to “protect” First Hill by keeping low-income people out, she advocated for hundreds of units of affordable housing at a Sound Transit-owned property on East Madison St., organizing to bring two new homeless shelters to the neighborhood, and leading efforts to secure $80 million in public benefits from the construction of the new downtown Convention Center, just across the freeway from First Hill.

Hudson wants to double the maximum housing density allowed within a half-mile of planned or existing light rail and bus-rapid transit stations, creating room for up to 270,00o new homes while getting rid of the old “urban village” strategy that concentrated dense housing on large, busy arterial streets to preserve homeowners’ exclusive single-family enclaves.

She was been equally effective for five years as Executive Director of the Transportation Choices Coalition, which lobbies at the state and local levels for investments in transit, bike, and pedestrian safety and mobility. Last year, for example, TCC helped secure $5.2 billion for transit and multimodal transportation as part of the Move Ahead Washington transportation package—a critical victory at a time when local transit systems are struggling to recover from the pandemic. Under Hudson’s leadership, TCC has also lobbied against both the state ban on “jaywalking” and efforts to make Sound Transit’s fare enforcement policies more punitive—policies that disproportionately target people of color and low-income people with fines and penalties.

On a council that will soon feature at least four new faces, Hudson will provide necessary policy expertise, negotiating skills, and a  steadfast voice for progressive policies on transportation, housing, homelessness, and public safety. Unlike other candidates who speak in generalities, Hudson can rattle off a wonky list of specific policies she’s eager to get to work on.

For example, where candidates often pay lip service to the need for more affordable housing, Hudson wants to implement zoning changes that would double the maximum housing density allowed within a half-mile of planned or existing light rail and bus-rapid transit stations, creating room for up to 270,00o new homes while getting rid of the old “urban village” strategy that concentrated dense housing on large, busy arterial streets to preserve homeowners’ exclusive single-family enclaves.

She also wants to increase the amount of funding from the JumpStart tax, which is perpetually being raided for other priorities, that has to go directly to housing; allow the owners of existing buildings (not just new ones) to take advantage of a tax exemption in exchange for providing affordable housing, a plan she estimates would add about 3,000 new affordable homes; and concentrate new affordable housing construction in neighborhoods with high access to opportunity (like South Lake Union and Queen Anne) rather than the lower-income neighborhoods where the city has traditionally placed affordable housing.

Fittingly for a transit wonk, Hudson has a list of immediate, low-cost ideas for improving road safety and access to the city for people who walk, bike, and use transit. For example, she told PubliCola, the city could prioritize simple safety improvements like curb bulbs, spaces between parking and bike lanes, and crosswalks without going through years of public process. Longer term, she wants to complete the stalled downtown streetcar and build a lid over I-5 between Capitol Hill and downtown, among other ambitious transportation and economic development priorities.

We’d love to see her go toe to toe with Mayor Bruce Harrell on his proposal to eliminate a planned Midtown light rail station just across the freeway from First Hill in favor of a “North of Chinatown/International District” station across from City Hall.

We’d love to see Hudson head up the transportation committee, which has been helmed for the last four years by old-school neighborhood NIMBY Alex Pedersen, and sit on the Sound Transit board seat currently occupied by retiring District 5 council member Debora Juarez.

She demonstrated political tenacity when she challenged Mayor Bruce Harrell on his proposal to eliminate a planned Midtown light rail station just across the freeway from First Hill in favor of a “North of Chinatown/International District” station across from City Hall. (First Hill got screwed out of its original station in 2005, with a slow streetcar on Broadway as consolation.)

Challenging the both Mayor Harrell and King County Executive Dow Constantine, the two establishment heavies who orchestrated the decision to move two Sound Transit stations away from the CID and First Hill,  Hudson helped build a coalition that visibly irked Constantine in the board room and forced Harrell and Constantine to keep the popular Fourth Avenue station option on the table. By helping organize the opposition in the middle of her own campaign, Hudson demonstrated how willing she is to challenge the city’s power brokers—and showed off her talent as a grassroots organizer.

Hudson acknowledges that she’ll have a learning curve on other issues, including police funding and public safety (for the record, though, she supports creating a new alternative response team along the lines of the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon. She also says District 3 would be an ideal location for one of five crisis care centers King County voters approved in April. And—in an issue close to PubliCola’s heart—she said she would take action to remove illegal obstructions from the public right-of-way, including the concrete “eco-blocks” many business owners have placed on public streets to prevent RVs from parking near them.

“The public right-of-way is for everyone, and so we can’t just [let businesses] drop hostile architecture all over the place, and call it good,” Hudson told us earlier this year. “Forklift comes, picks them up and moves them away. I don’t think it’s that complicated.”

For District 3, PubliCola enthusiastically picks Alex Hudson.

The PubliCola editorial board is Erica C. Barnett and Josh Feit.

Fentanyl Task Force Agrees on Need for Evidence-Based Court Alternatives—With One Notable Exception

Photo by Andrew Engelson

By Erica C. Barnett

A task force convened by Mayor Bruce Harrell to come up with proposals to address illegal drug use in public spaces has been meeting for several weeks to discuss how Seattle’s court system can address a potential influx of cases from the City Attorney Ann Davison’s office. This summer, the council is expected to pass a new law empowering Davison’s office to prosecute people who use drugs in public by aligning Seattle’s municipal code with a new state law making public drug use or simple possession a gross misdemeanor, rather than a felony.

The city council rejected the proposal last month; Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who cast the deciding vote, plans to bring the measure back this summer and vote for it, a switch he says he feels comfortable making now that the task force’s work is underway. Only one of three sub-groups had met as of last week: The one focused on how the court will respond to a potential influx of new drug cases.

After just a couple of meetings, there appears to be broad consensus (with one exception that I’ll get to in a moment) in favor of expanding the Vital program, which provides intensive services to people with behavioral health issues, including addiction, and LEAD, a program run by Purpose Dignity Action (formerly the Public Defender Association, or PDA) that offers services and case management to people before they are arrested.

Even Davison, who unilaterally withdrew the city from community court earlier this year—ending a program that allowed some people to avoid charges by participating in short-term programs—is reportedly open to expanding programs that divert drug users away from jail.

The idea, according to Councilmember Andrew Lewis, is to focus on “things that fall way short of the court” level and “keep things as far away from the court as possible,” since the court has essentially no extra capacity to take on a flood of new drug cases.

The task force includes representatives from Davison’s office, the PDA, Seattle Municipal Court, and—since last week—the King County Department of Public Defense, which was excluded from Harrell’s initial list.

The group, according to Lewis, generally agrees the city should focus on “things that fall way short of the court” level and “keep [cases] as far away from the court as possible,” since Seattle Municipal Court has essentially no extra capacity to take on a flood of new drug cases.

“This conversation is really laying bare that a lot of policy discussions are based on assumptions that aren’t true,” Lewis said. “It really did call out that we could arrest everyone downtown for smoking fentanyl and the King County Jail wouldn’t be able to book them—so where does that leave us?”

The exception to this consensus, according to multiple sources, is City Councilmember Sara Nelson, who has expressed support for a new local misdemeanor drug court that would push people into long-term treatment instead of diversion or services based on harm reduction, such as medication assisted treatment and focused case management. Nelson—who has objected to funding PDA-run programs in the past—supports an abstinence-only approach to addiction and has argued that programs that provide methadone and suboxone to opiate addicts are “not aimed at long-term recovery.”

King County has a special drug court for people facing felony drug-related charges; defendants who opt in must go through a rigorous, abstinence-based program that includes mandatory treatment, frequent drug testing, and regular court appearances. The program is high-risk and high-reward: If a defendant completes the program, which lasts a minimum of 10 months, the charges are dropped. If they don’t, the judge can find them guilty and sentence them for their original felony, which could mean a long jail sentence.

For misdemeanors, the reward at the end of the process would be comparatively minuscule—the dismissal of low-level charges that don’t usually lead to jail sentences in the first place. It’s unclear how many, if any, misdemeanor defendants would opt in to such a court; currently, every drug court in Washington state is focused on felony-level offenses.

The group Harrell announced last month includes two other task forces, in addition to the one focused on the courts, that will discuss treatment and enforcement.

Lewis said that now that the work groups are meeting to discuss the best way to respond to public drug use, the legislation making public use a gross misdemeanor in Seattle is “almost a Macguffin”—a device that gets the plot going, but isn’t particularly significant in itself.

PDA co-director Lisa Daugaard agrees with that assessment. In an op/ed for PubliCola last month, she said the city’s primary focus should be on investing in evidence-based approaches to drug use and homelessness, regardless of whether the council gives Davison the authority to prosecute drug users.