Category: City Hall

Months Into Contract Negotiations, City Unions Say Harrell Has Barely Budged On Pay

City union members roll out a petition supporting better wages and working conditions in the lobby of City Hall earlier this year.

By Erica C. Barnett

Months into contract negotiations with Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, the Coalition of City Unions—an umbrella group of 11 unions that represent about 6,000 city employees—says the two sides are no closer to agreement than they were when negotiations began 11 months ago. The biggest sticking point remains a proposed cost of living adjustment for 2024 that union members say represents a “minimal” increase over Harrell’s initial offer of 1 percent.

In the Seattle area, the consumer price index—a measure of the cost of living—increased 6.5 percent in the first half of 2023, so any pay increase below that level represents a cut to real wages.

City workers aren’t just feeling the pinch—they’re taking on second jobs, moving out of town, and considering jobs in the private sector, where wages have increased much faster. Dominique Ingram, an administrative specialist at Seattle Municipal Court, said she now works seven days a week—five at her job answering calls for the court, and two at a secondary weekend gig—to make ends meet.

“I like the work that I do.  I’m passionate about it. So that’s the type of type of sacrifice that I’m making to still be an employee of the city,” Ingram said. But the reality can be grinding. With two jobs, “there’s no work-life balance,” Ingram said. “I work, work, work. I hardly see my kids. When I started at the city, [I thought], finally, I was at a place where I had financial stability. The city is a great place to work. But now it’s it doesn’t even seem like a competitor in the game.”

As a point of comparison, Seattle police officers received a 17 percent pay increase after their last contract negotiation, with retroactive pay increases between 3 and 4 percent a year for the years they worked without a contract. The city council approved hiring bonuses of up to $30,000 for police last year. More recently, city attorney Ann Davison applauded the council and mayor for voting to increase city prosecutors’ pay by 20 percent.

“It‘s a negotiation, so you’re prepared for some give and take. But with this proposal, there was nothing to talk about. Nobody said anything. Everyone just quietly grabbed their things and left.” —Steven Pray, PROTEC17

The way contract negotiations with local governments typically work, union negotiators say, is that the union takes the most recent annual increase in the consumer price index, then comes up with a floor and a ceiling based on that amount; during the last negotiation, during the Durkan administration, the unions asked for the CPI plus one percent and ended up with 10.2 percent over three years. In contrast, they say, Harrell has spent the last 11 months insisting the city can’t afford more than 1 percent—a hardline position that prompted the union to walk out of negotiations earlier this month.

“It‘s a negotiation, so you’re prepared for some give and take,” said Steven Pray, a union representative for the Professional and Technical Employees Local 17 (PROTEC17), which represents workers in local governments around the region. “But with this proposal, there was nothing to talk about. Nobody said anything. Everyone just quietly grabbed their things and left.” 

On Wednesday, when the two sides came back to the table, Harrell himself showed up—an “extraordinarily rare” gesture, according to Pray. “He said, ‘I think there’s no trust in these negotiations,’ and that really stood out. Him showing up is a step in the right direction, but … the proof is in the actions that follow.”

Harrell’s office said they were unable to comment on ongoing negotiations.

Anne Cisney, a librarian at the Central Library downtown, said she talked with Harrell, whose mother worked as a finance manager for the library, about how the job has changed in recent years.

“We have people overdosing in the bathroom, we have people who are in a mental health crisis, and are getting into conflicts … and we have to be able to de-escalate that,” Cisney said. “We need to know that if you’re assaulted at work, you’re not going to have to use your own sick leave [to recover]. We need to know that we have [adequate] staffing levels, so that I’m not simultaneously running a storytime and responsible for checking for overdoses in the bathroom.”

In addition to a true cost of living adjustment, the unions have asked, so far unsuccessfully, for a citywide safety committee and incident recovery leave for workers who experience or witness traumatic incidents at work. 

The ability to work from home is another persistent sticking point. Earlier this year, Harrell issued a back-to-office mandate that requires most city employees to commute into downtown Seattle at least two days a week, even if they can do their jobs remotely. For some workers, the new requirement has meant a return to long commutes from the outlying areas where they can afford to live.

And there have been other challenges.

Rachael Brooks, a dam safety engineer for Seattle City Light, moved 50 miles north of Seattle during the pandemic when the cost of living in the city got so high that renting became unaffordable. Her job takes her all to hydroelectric dams across the region and is “really variable—we can’t just say, ‘this is what my day to day looks like,'” Brooks said. But she and her coworkers are still required to show up to an office in downtown Seattle on a regular “hybrid” schedule—a requirement Brooks has managed to navigate by crashing with friends in Seattle two nights a week.

Ingram, who is Black, said it’s ironic to hear Harrell talk about the need for racial equity in compensation and hiring when many public-facing and administrative jobs like hers, which are held mostly by women of color, are “significantly under market.” By lowering the real wages of workers like her, “He’s actually doing the opposite of what he says he wants to do,” Ingram said.

According to Pray, the mayor’s office has not budged on the unions’ request for more flexibility for jobs that don’t require an in-office presence.

Another issue, city employees say, is that their overall compensation—dictated by pay ranges, or “bands,” and “steps” within those bands—is far below market rate in Seattle, which means people are constantly leaving tl he city for other jobs. Pray said the coalition of unions asked for market adjustments for a “small percent” of the workers they represent, but “we’re seeing very, very little movement on that front.”

Engineers like Brooks make some of the least competitive wages in the city—about 17 percent less than their private market equivalents, a recent city-commissioned market analysis found. As a result, Brooks said, “engineers are leaving left and right,” and “we can’t hire quality new engineers, whether experienced or just out of school,” because they can make much more in the private sector. “We are not a competitive employer at this point.”

Employees with Ingram’s job classification start at around $58,000 a year and max out at $65,000; increasing their wages one percent would add just $22 to $25 to their twice-monthly paychecks. Ingram, who is Black, said it’s ironic to hear Harrell talk about the need for racial equity in compensation and hiring when many public-facing and administrative jobs like hers, which are held mostly by women of color, are “significantly under market.” By lowering the real wages of workers like her, “He’s actually doing the opposite of what he says he wants to do,” Ingram said.

Starting in 2025, the city is facing a “structural” budget shortfall—that is, a gap between revenues and projected spending—of more than $200 million a year, as temporary federal funding for programs begun during the COVID pandemic goes away. “The mayor is saying ‘I’ve got a $200 million shortfall that I need to fix,” Pray said. “But every other municipality and county in this region also went through COVID and has those same issues,” and only the city of Seattle is refusing to meaningfully raise workers’ wages.

Since he started at PROTEC17 in 2017, Pray added, “we have seen the roller coaster of the economy being really great and really bad, and I have never not heard that the city is broke.” The city council is currently considering a list of revenue options that could help close the gap, including expansion of the JumpStart payroll tax on the city’s largest high-paying companies, a capital gains tax, and a tax on companies with outsized CEO pay.

Meanwhile, weekly negotiating sessions continue—as do plans for a rally of city workers on the steps of City Hall at 3:30pm on September 19. Employees are being asked to take leave to attend the rally, but a future strike isn’t out of the question.

Even a one-day citywide strike would be unprecedented.  State law does not explicitly grant the right to strike, and former attorney general Rob McKenna issued an opinion in 2006 saying public employees “do not have a legally protected right to strike.” Nonetheless, teachers’ strikes happen regularly, often with significant public support. In LA, thousands of workers went on a one-day strike earlier this month to protest what they called unfair labor practices during contract negotiations, although the impact of the action on the contract itself remains to be seen.

Here in Seattle, “in terms of a strike,we’re just not there right now,” Pray said. “We are putting all of our energy into this rally and seeing what kind of movement we can get” from the city.

Nobody wants to be on strike,” Pray continued. “And we think we can get a fair contract without having to do that. But with that being said, you can’t just [accept] something that is super subpar.”

Former City Employee Sues for “Reverse Racism,” Rufo Tells Tall Tales to Bellevue Audience

1. A former Seattle Human Services Department employee is suing the city for alleged discrimination based on his race (white) and his gender (male).

The lawsuit, filed by a California-based libertarian group called the Pacific Legal Foundation on behalf of ex-city employee Joshua Diemert, claims that HSD failed to promote Diemert and provide him with the significant raises he was “promised” while promoting less-qualified women of color. The suit also alleges that Diemert’s immediate supervisor, a woman of color, engaged in “unrelenting coercion and racial harassment,” forcing him to quit his job instead of accommodating an unspecified medical condition that Diemert claims was exacerbated by people constantly talking about white privilege around him.

Many of the examples of “racial harassment” listed in the lawsuit appear to involve Diemert inserting himself into other people’s conversations to make comments his colleagues perceived as racist, such as an incident where he claims he was chastised for “joining” his coworkers’ lunchroom conversations about white privilege, which occurred while he was “trying to cook his food.” In another example, Diemert claims a supervisor “berated” him for “attempting to correct [a coworker’s] discriminatory behavior toward a white applicant.” In a third, he accuses the city of forcing employees to participate in “critical race theory” during a training at El Centro De La Raza, where his comments led a coworker to call him an “asshole” in an email to another person.

In addition to $300,000 in damages, the lawsuit asks the court to find that the city’s anti-racist policies violate the 14th Amendment (equal protection) and the 1964 Civil Rights Act (protection from discrimination on the basis of race or sex). The suit also claims that the city’s Race and Social Justice Initiative “aims to end American culture because it was created by ‘white, wealthy, Christian, cis-gender, straight, non-disabled men coming from Europe who wanted to protect their place within hierarchy and empire.'” That quote comes from a city document called “Building a Relational Culture,” which says nothing about “ending American culture,” but does provide a broad framework for undoing structural racism at the city—the actual project of RSJI.

Diemert’s lawsuit, which has gotten some coverage on FOX and various right-wing websites, is one of many recent lawsuits attempting to reframe racism as something that primarily happens to white people. The Pacific Legal Foundation is responsible for many of these anti-affirmative action claims, including a lawsuit challenging Women and Minority-Owned Business (WMBE) contracting goals in California; a case accusing the University of Minnesota of discriminating against men when it cut the men’s gymnastics program; and a case alleging that elite public schools in Boston discriminate against white and Asian kids.

The city’s Human Services Department did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday, and a spokesman for the City Attorney’s Office said the city has not been served with the lawsuit yet and could not comment.

2. “Critical race theory,” unsurprisingly, was also among the topics professional troll Chris Rufo brought up at a talk last month to support the Washington Policy Center. (PubliCola reviewed a recording of the event). If you aren’t familiar with WPC, it’s the libertarian think tank that was responsible for all those confusing pro-capitalism billboards you saw around town a couple years ago. (“Free markets destroy climate change,” one read, with a Tesla logo as the “T” in “climate.”) The event, which was emceed by conservative podcaster and Project 42 “brand ambassador” Brandi Kruse, also featured former secretary of state Mike Pompeo.

Rufo, a onetime Seattle City Council candidate who spun off a job at the right-wing Discovery Institute into a career as the nation’s leading purveyor of disinformation about CRT, has since turned his attention to vilifying trans women, drag queens, and LGBTQ+ people in general. Rufo’s work is part of nationwide efforts to drive LGBTQ+ people out of public life through both legal methods—such as Florida’s notorious “Don’t Say Gay” law—and violence, including increasingly violent protests against LGBTQ+ events, including drag shows).

Kids are not being taught “fisting” in schools—but, as Rufo noted, it’s the kind of “salacious” story that gets attention from people like Tucker Carlson.

Speaking to a group of “young professionals,” Rufo bragged about his efforts to spur people to act by speaking to their emotions, even when that means ignoring “data” and facts. “I had been doing this campaign on critical race theory, doing the reports, working with the Trump White House,” Rufo said. “And all of a sudden I see something really incredible happen. I started seeing all these videos of parents at school board meetings going nuts. And that’s what you want to see.”

As an example, Rufo continued, he was pushing out stories about “the teachers union—they’re the villains, right?”—he paused for boos—”which was promoting a guide book, a kind of recipe book that was in cartoon format designed for kids, that had a guide to BDSM, sadomasochism, [and] fisting.” In reality, the “cartoon guide” is a document aimed at teenagers seeking information about queer sex, produced by a Toronto Planned Parenthood affiliate and the United Way of Greater Toronto that was linked, among many other documents, on the website of an internal NEA LGBTA+ caucus. Kids are not being taught “fisting” in schools—but, as Rufo noted, it’s the kind of “salacious” story that gets attention from people like Tucker Carlson.

Rufo also claimed a victory closer to home: The reversal of calls to “defund the police” by members of the Seattle City Council. In taking credit for this change, he claimed that Nordstrom’s flagship store in downtown Seattle, he said was “burned down” to “ashes.”  Nordstrom, which is located just a few miles from the Bellevue hotel where Rufo was speaking, remains fully intact and was bustling with holiday shoppers earlier this week.

Mayor Reshuffles Office Chairs, Council Considers Fixes for Pedestrian-Hostile Third Avenue

Third Avenue downtown (image via Downtown Seattle Association)

1. Learn to trust the Fizz: As PubliCola reported last week, Mayor Bruce Harrell has just reorganized his office, including the reassignment of former Director of Public Safety Andrew Myerberg to the newly created position of special projects director, answering to Harrell’s favored public safety advisor Tim Burgess (whose own title is, confusingly, Director of Strategic Initiatives). The public safety shuffle reportedly reflects a division in the mayor’s office between Burgess (a former city council member who favored law-and-order strategies like a ban on “aggressive panhandling”), Myerberg (the former Office of Police Accountability Director) and Harrell’s niece and senior deputy mayor, Monisha Harrell, who was previously Myerberg’s boss.

The divide between all these players isn’t just about policy, but perception—Myerberg, whose experience is more in the realm of policy than politics, is reportedly getting stuck with the blame for the negative public response to an ill-conceived plan to crack down on people gathering at Third and Pine downtown by using rarely deployed laws governing behavior on buses and bus stops.

The reorganization of the mayor’s office doesn’t stop there. Jeremy Racca, Harrell’s former council aide-turned-general counsel, has taken on additional duties under the new secondary title of “chief administrative officer,” while policy director Dan Eder, a former council central staffer, now reports not to the mayor but to Racca.

Jamie Housen, the mayor’s campaign consultant-turned-communications director, has been bumped up to report directly to Harrell, while deputy mayor Tiffany Washington, the former homelessness director for the Human Services Department, gained two new direct reports, including Lisa Gustaveson, a former homelessness staffer at HSD who worked briefly for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority before returning to the city earlier this year.

So what does it all mean? As Harrell told PubliCola during a press conference last week, “moving people around” early in a mayoral term isn’t uncommon—but it does speak to who’s in and out on the seventh floor (and the mayor’s good graces). Out: Myerberg (who is, interestingly, the only person Burgess oversees), Eder… and possibly another top staffer whose responsibilities are officially the same, but who we’ve heard been relieved of some duties. In: Washington, Burgess, and Housen—whose former boss, Harrell’s political consultant Christian Sinderman, reportedly has his own office space at the city. In addition, top-level staffer Adiam Emery, the mayor’s former chief equity officer, has a heightened public presence and new title, executive general manager.

Closed-for-business vibes: Pre-pandemic snapshots of Third Avenue from the DSA report.

2. The city council’s homelessness and public assets committee considered a resolution yesterday to endorse a plan created by the Downtown Seattle Association to revitalize the Third Avenue transit corridor—currently a wide, bus-clogged expanse of pavement flanked by narrow sidewalks and many boarded-up businesses.

The DSA’s “Third Avenue Vision” has actually been around for several years, but got sidelined by the pandemic, which exacerbated some of the issues the DSA raises in its report while reducing the number of people riding buses on the street—which, as of 2019, was the busiest bus-only corridor in the nation.

DSA director Jon Scholes said the business group’s pre-pandemic surveys found “a strong consensus that Third Avenue is the street that most people don’t want to be on. … It really hasn’t recovered as a street since the … original transit tunnel was dug through and along Third Avenue in the early ’90s.” That tunnel has served light rail exclusively since buses were kicked onto surface streets, including Third Ave., in 2019. Since then, many businesses shut their doors because of the pandemic, and Third Avenue continues to be the focus of periodic crackdowns on drug sales, retail theft, and people hanging out without an obvious destination (what’s often lumped the general category of “disorder.”)

The proposal aims to reduce bus traffic volumes, provide more exposure for street-level businesses, and give pedestrians more space through four potential strategies: A “compact transitway” that would create new sidewalk space by reducing Third Avenue from four lanes to two; a “median transitway” option that would move bus stops to a new median and convert the street into a two-way transit street, using shuttles to move riders through downtown; a “transit shuttle and hub” model that would also rely on shuttles through downtown, but eliminate the median in favor of a two-lane roadway; and a “transit couplet” framework that would turn a three-lane Third Avenue into a lower-volume one-way “couplet,” with buses traveling north on Third and southbound on a parallel street such as Second Ave.

Although the DSA’s report does not explicitly mention crime or homelessness, focusing instead on ways to improve the pedestrian environment broadly, council president Debora Juarez brought it up on Wednesday, saying, “We should be honest about it how Third and other streets have changed and have become not safe. We want it to be safe for everybody, and also for addressing homelessness and getting the right people down there to handle it, but also alleviating some of what pressure from a major corridor like Third. So I think we have to be honest about that.”

Scholes did not respond to Juarez’s comments directly; however, the vision the DSA has proposed for Third Avenue appears to offer little room for poor or homeless people. Notably, two sites of frequent crackdowns on homelessness and crime—the area around the McDonald’s at Third and Pine and City Hall Park in Pioneer Square—have been reimagined in the DSA’s renderings: The park, which was closed and fenced after the removal of a large encampment, appears as the front door to a fanciful “osteria” on the south side of the King County Courthouse, and the McDonald’s has been replaced by a sidewalk cafe.

Harrell Shakes Up Top Staff, Police Accountability Office Clears Officers Accused of Extortion

NewPhoto of Deputy Mayor Greg Wong
Newly appointed Deputy Mayor Greg Wong

1. Last week, Mayor Bruce Harrell informed his cabinet that he had replaced Deputy Mayor for external relations Kendee Yamaguchi, the former executive director for Snohomish County, with Department of Neighborhoods director Greg Wong, a former Pacifica Law Group attorney who took over at DON in February. PubliCola broke the news of Yamaguchi’s departure, and Wong’s promotion, on Twitter Monday morning.

The mayor’s office did not respond to a question about the reason for Yamaguchi’s departure, and an email sent to her city of Seattle address bounced back with a message containing Wong’s contact information.

A press release set to go out today said simply, “Kendee Yamaguchi served an instrumental role during our transition to office and in our early efforts to establish sincere and enduring relationships with stakeholders, organizations, and local leaders,” said Mayor Harrell. “We are grateful for her service and wish her all the best in her future endeavors.”

Wong, who lives in southeast Seattle, was the head of the Schools First campaign for the Seattle school levy elections in 2013 and 2016. According to the mayor’s office, he will focus on economic development, community relations, and arts and culture.

2. The Office of Police Accountability declined to sustain, or uphold, any of ten separate allegations in a 2017 case in which two police officers accused another officer of running a “mini-mafia” to prevent new companies from entering the market for off-duty work. The two officers were the founders of called Cops for Hire, since rebranded as Blucadia, that also connects businesses with off-duty officers.

The OPA complaint, which attracted significant attention at the time, accused officers working for Seattle’s Finest, a security company started by a retired SPD officer, of colluding to increase the pay of off-duty officers by intimidating and extorting the companies that contract with the firm, including the owners of Columbia Tower downtown. The OPA wrapped up its investigation in October 2018 but did not release the summary of its findings until last week.

The investigation found that the officer expressed his frustration by commenting that he would put a person who worked at the company in a “carotid choke hold.” A separate, related case described an interview with the FBI in which the officer said he was “just joking around and was trying to get a rise out of his audience.”

Police officers can make thousands of dollars in additional income by taking off-duty jobs in security or directing traffic through companies like Seattle’s Finest and Seattle Security, which is affiliated with the Seattle Police Officers Guild.  In some cases, police are paid for a certain number of hours even if they work less—four hours, for example, for two hours’ actual work.

According to the investigation, the officer with Seattle’s Finest, identified by the Seattle Times as MacGregor Gordon, said one of the company’s bargaining tactics was to name a high price for their services, and then—if a building owner balked—withhold their work as parking garage flaggers and force the owners to bear the consequences until they finally gave up and paid the price Seattle’s Finest demanded.

Investigators said they were “hindered” in investigating the claims of extortion because the business owners “refused to discuss the matter unless OPA could guarantee full confidentiality

The investigation also found that Gordon expressed his “frustration with garage management’s attempts to modify his contract” by commenting that he would put a person who worked at the company in a “carotid choke hold.” A separate, related case described an interview with the FBI in which Gordon said he was “just joking around and was trying to get a rise out of his audience” with his inflammatory comments

Former police chief Kathleen O’Toole referred the case to the FBI, which decided not to prosecute. We have a call out to OPA for information about why it waited until now to release the summary of its investigation.

For Call Center Workers Who Can’t Afford to Live in Seattle, Harrell’s Return-to-Office Policy Creates New Burdens

Seattle Municipal Tower; Mkf272, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Erica C. Barnett

Starting later this year, thousands of city employees who have been working remotely throughout the pandemic will be required to come in to the office at least two days a week under Mayor Bruce Harrell’s “One Seattle” return-to-office plan. Mayoral spokesman Jamie Housen said that number is a minimum; “in some cases, some units may have to bring their employees in more days per week based off department business needs.”

In a mid-March email announcing the city’s new policy, which will have to be bargained with various city unions, Harrell offered his “deepest gratitude to the 65% of City workers who have been working in person and in the field throughout the pandemic,” adding that for the remaining workers, returning to the office “represents a momentous step forward in [the] pandemic response and in our adjustment toward a new normal.”

Among those who will have to return to work at least part-time later this year are about 85 call center workers employed by Seattle Public Utilities. The majority, according to PROTEC17 union representative Steven Pray, are women of color, many of whom “can’t afford to live in Seattle” and commute from places like Kent, Tacoma, and Renton.

An internal memo preparing employees for the transition said that the city “provides critical functions to the community that require in-person customer service and operational needs,” adding that bringing people back to the office was a way of reducing “inequities and disparities within our workforce, while building team culture through increased collaboration and relationship building.”

But many city employees who’ve been working from home for more than two years prefer things as they are—and not all of them consider working from home a “privilege,” as Harrell put it in an email recently quoted by the Seattle Times.

According to a recent survey of about 3,000 city employees represented by the Professional and Technical Employees Local 17 (PROTEC7), 68 percent of city employees “indicated that the City’s return to office plans were negatively impacting their stress level, morale and productivity,” and 23 percent said they were thinking about quitting their jobs “due to return to office plans,” according to a summary of the survey provided by the union.

Among those who will have to return to work at least part-time later this year are about 85 call center workers employed by Seattle Public Utilities. The majority, according to PROTEC17 union representative Steven Pray, are women of color, many of whom “can’t afford to live in Seattle” and commute from places like Kent, Tacoma, and Renton. Call center workers start at about $27 an hour and can make up to $35 an hour—more than private-sector call center workers, but still among the lowest 10 percent of city job classifications.

PubliCola spoke to one call center representative who said their daily commute used to be two hours each way; now, “it breaks down to five minutes or so, so that really helps.” The representative, who did not want to be identified, said, “I know very few people [at work] who live in the city.”

The representative we spoke to personally looks forward to returning to the office part-time, but knows that “a lot of people are holding out faith that they’ll continue to get to work from home. … Our morale has never been higher than since we went home. Originally, there was some shock, but now people are really, really happy.”

As for the argument that people need to be in the same physical space to “build team culture through increased collaboration and relationship building,” Pray said answering calls all day doesn’t really involve much collaborative work. “Of course they work as a team and they’ll help each other out, but it’s not like other groups in the city where there’s ten people putting their heads together, thinking about a problem, brainstorming, and putting ideas out there.”

By the city’s own standards, working from home is working for the customer contact center and utility customers. On average, call times—a measure of how quickly a caller’s problem is resolved—have gone down more than a minute, and the time it takes to answer calls has decreased dramatically. When emergency outages happen, people can start taking calls right away, instead of driving in to downtown Seattle through extreme weather or in the middle of the night.

Harrell’s new return-to-office policies won’t take effect until this fall, after labor negotiations wrap up, but any return-to-work mandate will have a major impact on the work lives of thousands of city employees, including many who prefer to work from home. According to the Seattle Department of Human Resources, around 4,500 city employees have arrangements allowing them to work from home two or three days a week. That number includes 2,300, or about 18 percent of city employees, who currently work from home four days a week or more, which would put them out of compliance with the proposed policy.

Meanwhile, down the street from the Seattle Municipal Tower and City Hall, King County Executive Dow Constantine has taken a more relaxed position on “returning to normal”; according to a spokesman for Constantine, the county has no official policy requiring employees to come back to the office; instead, individual departments are making those decisions.

The Durkan Administration Deleted the City Directory. We’re Restoring It.

By Erica C. Barnett

Former mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration was one of the least transparent in recent memory. The problems included both high-profile events—the deletion of months of text messages requested by reporters seeking insight into the mayor’s decision-making process during protests against police brutality—and systemic issues, like chronic micromanagement that disempowered city department staff.

Many of those changes can be easily undone. Subsequent mayors can adopt better text-retention policies, allow department spokespeople and staff to do their jobs instead of micromanaging them, and create an atmosphere of openness rather than fear and suspicion at City Hall.

One underreported story of the Durkan years that will have lasting consequences for transparency, however, is the administration’s decision to permanently delete the city directory, a vital resource that enabled members of the public to access contact information for city employees directly, and provided information about city departments’ Byzantine bureaucracy.

The directory was the only place ordinary citizens (and members of the press) could access contact information for the approximately 12,000 people who work at the city.

Last summer, it vanished. At the time, the excuse the city provided was that there was an unavoidable IT glitch that somehow rendered the whole directory unstable. The city’s IT department told PubliCola they were working on the problem, and that the directory would be back online by the end of the year.

That never happened. Instead, the city replaced replaced the directory with a list of links to city departments’ websites and media contacts, along with the city’s general-purpose 684-CITY phone number. (Somewhat perversely, the url for this unhelpful list remains, and the headline on the page is “City Employee Directory”).

Back in January, I wrote that PubliCola had made a public records request for a copy of the city directory and would post it when we got it. Today, we are publishing it.

According to an update posted on the city’s website in mid-December, the city’s Department of Human Resources made a “decision” at some point in 2021 that “the directory would no longer be maintained.” The city also posted an outdated spreadsheet of the directory as it existed in July 2021. “The data in these files is made available “as is” with no guarantee of accuracy,” the update said.

For members of the media, including those outside the mainstream press, a quick call to the right city staffer can eliminate the need to go through gatekeepers who may not have the time or inclination to go dig up the same information. During the Durkan administration, it was not uncommon for departmental spokespeople to respond to a question about, for example, the status of a particular construction project by referring PubliCola to the mayor’s office, who would issue a general statement that did not answer our question. Having access to the person in charge of permitting that project isn’t an academic matter; it’s often the difference between getting information and getting the runaround.

The directory was also useful to members of the general public. Anyone who has called the city’s general phone line, or attempted to contact a city department to get basic information about the status of a permit, for example, knows how difficult and time-consuming it can be to reach a person who can answer your question.

Back in January, I wrote that PubliCola had made a public records request for a copy of the city directory and would post it when we got it.

Here it is, in two parts—obtained through two separate records requests that, together, provide a more detailed list of contacts than the public directory the Durkan Administration trashed. The first part includes phone numbers and emails, but no department listings, for most city employees (excluding police officers, Seattle Public Library employees, and many employees of the fire department.) The second includes email addresses all city employees, along with their departments, but does not include phone numbers.

I will be updating these databases regularly so that they represent at least as accurate a list of city employees as the deleted city directory, which the city appeared to update every few months.

Although these two databases duplicate the former city directory, representing an accurate contact list for city employees as of January 2022, they do not provide a substitute for true transparency from the city itself, which is ultimately responsible for providing this kind of basic information to residents, as other cities do across the country. Nonetheless, I hope they’ll be useful in restoring some transparency to a city that, under the most recent mayor, steadily chipped away at Seattle residents’ access to their government.

King County Won’t Proactively Test Shelter Guests; SPD Sex Crime Case Referrals Plummet; Harrell Announces Appointments

1. King County Public Health will not provide routine COVID-19 tests for people who enter temporary winter shelters during the cold-weather emergency, a spokeswoman for the department told PubliCola. Instead, the department will test shelter guests when a shelter provider calls to report having two or more guests or staff with “COVID-like illness,” or one or more confirmed COVID cases, and will direct people to isolation and quarantine sites if they test positive. The county will also do contract tracing when there’s a confirmed COVID case at a shelter site.

“Public Health does not have the staffing capacity to provide proactive, daily testing at each of these sites,” the spokeswoman, Kate Cole, said. “As we do for all other homeless services sites in King County, if a shelter has staff or residents who appear to have COVID-like illness, our homeless services support team will provide on-site testing and consultation to help control any potential COVID spread.”

When the department gets word of a possible COVID outbreak in any homeless shelter, including winter emergency shelters, “Our testing team calls the shelter to discuss the individual symptoms to determine if it is likely COVID-like illness, in addition to providing ASAP guidance on steps to take to limit spread, and then (assuming team believes it is COVID-like illness), our team visits to conduct on-site testing for all staff and residents who agree to be tested,” the spokeswoman, Kate Cole, said.

The spread of the omicron variant has been startling, with positive rates at some testing sites nearing 50 percent. That’s for the general population; people living in crowded congregate settings, such as bare-bones mass homeless shelters, are even more at risk. Cole said the health department is not currently experiencing a shortage of rapid COVID tests.

2. The Seattle Police Department has referred roughly one-quarter fewer cases to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office’s sex crimes and child abuse unit this year than it did before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The number of felony cases that SPD referred to the prosecutor’s office dropped sharply in the first months of the pandemic. In May 2020, the office received 30 felony sex crimes cases from SPD; in June, the office received fewer than half that number. While the number of monthly referrals has fluctuated since then, the average over the past eighteen months has fallen to 19 cases, compared to an average of 26 cases per month before the pandemic.

While a reduction in SPD’s ranks after two years of high attrition—and the resultant transfer of many SPD detectives, who are responsible for criminal investigations, to patrol units since last fall—may contribute to the decline, the trend is not limited to Seattle. At a presentation to the mayors of the largest South King County cities earlier this month, the prosecutor’s office presented data showing a widespread decline in the number of felony cases referred to their office from police departments across the county. The police departments of Kent, Renton, Federal Way and Auburn, for instance, have referred nearly 30 percent fewer felony cases to the prosecutor’s office since the start of the pandemic.

Other reasons for the shift may include a decline in the number of people reporting sex crimes and child abuse. PubliCola has reached out to SPD for comment.

3. Mayor-elect Bruce Harrell announced another round of leadership appointments on Wednesday, including the sister of police-violence victim Che Taylor, a leader of King County’s No Youth Jail movement, a former state legislator and Seattle Port Commissioner, and a reality-TV producer. Continue reading “King County Won’t Proactively Test Shelter Guests; SPD Sex Crime Case Referrals Plummet; Harrell Announces Appointments”

City Attorney-Elect Fires Civil Division Chief, Homelessness Authority Gets Exemption from HUD Mandate, and More

1. Ann Davison, the new city-attorney elect, abruptly fired the head of the civil division of the city attorney’s office, Jessica Nadelman, last week, multiple sources tell PubliCola. The news came as a surprise to many inside and outside the city attorney’s office who had been under the impression that Davison planned to retain the civil chief, who provides legal advice to all branches of city government and defends the city against legal challenges, among many other responsibilities.

Nadelman sent an email to her coworkers on Saturday morning telling them, “Last night Ann and Scott [Lindsay, Davison’s deputy] informed me that I will no longer be civil chief when they take office in January.”

In her capacity as civil chief, Nadelman trained the two public disclosure officers, Stacy Irwin and Kim Ferreiro, who filed a whistleblower complaint alleging that Mayor Jenny Durkan and her legal counsel, Michelle Chen, violated state public disclosure law when they advised Irwin and Ferreiro to help cover up the deletion of several months’ worth of text messages from Durkan’s phone. The phone’s settings were adjusted to set to auto-delete in July 2020, just as the administration came under fire for its handling of protests against racial injustice sparked by George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis, an investigation by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission investigation found.

Seattle Nice is now available on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

At the time, then-city attorney Pete Holmes’ office told the Seattle Times his office considered the deletion of the texts a “deliberate act” that compounded what could end up being “tens of millions of dollars in damages and fees” to resolve lawsuits over Durkan’s handling of the protests. Lindsay, Davison’s deputy, is the son-in-law of a longtime friend and ally of Durkan, former Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Nadelman was not available to comment on her departure. Several people PubliCola contacted who worked closely with Nadelman spoke highly of her work and professionalism, but did not want to comment on the record.

On Tuesday evening, Davison informed employees that she had appointed Jack Johnson, who was civil chief under Mark Sidran from 1990 to 2001, to serve as interim civil chief. In a statement, Davison’s office said she would do a “robust national search” for Nadelman’s permanent replacement.

2. The King County Regional Homelessness Authority has received a one-year exemption from a federal mandate that requires government agencies overseeing homelessness to do an in-person “Point In Time Count” of the unsheltered homeless population every two years. As PubliCola reported last month, the decision put the agency at risk of losing up to 40 points—out of a possible 200—on its next application for federal housing funds.

KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens said HUD granted the exemption in light of the agency’s work to use different methodology to get a more accurate count of the region’s homeless population without a physical count. The new tally, which used data from several sources, suggests that the number of people experiencing homelessness in King County could be above 45,000—more than triple the tally from the latest in-person count, which advocates have always acknowledged was an undercount.

Martens said HUD gave the KCRHA an exemption for 2022 only, “with an opening to keep talking about it if we want to do something similar in future years.” On December 7, agency director Marc Dones sent a letter to King County Councilmember (and Republican congressional candidate) Reagan Dunn, responding to Dunn’s call for the agency to reconsider its decision not to do an in-person count. In the letter, Dones criticizes the methodology behind the Point In Time Count, noting that critics have said the count may not represent “an appropriate use of precious community resources.”

Advocates for the Point In Time Count have argued that the count has value beyond producing an annual number, including large-scale community engagement, and point out that they have never claimed the count represents anything other than a massive undercount.

3. Check out the second episode of Seattle Nice, where political consultant Sandeep Kaushik and I discuss what it means that Seattle elected a declared Republican, Ann Davison, as its new city attorney—and what having a Republican city attorney might mean for the city of Seattle. When we recorded, Davison had just selected Scott Lindsay—author of the “prolific offenders” report that became the basis for the infamous KOMO special “Seattle Is Dying—as deputy city attorney, and picked Natalie Walton-Anderson, a former King County deputy prosecutor popular with groups that advocate for alternatives to incarceration, to head her criminal division.

Seattle Nice is now available on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

—Erica C. Barnett

Pending Sweep Defies “New Approach to Encampments” Narrative, Ann Davison Names Top Staff, and More

1. On Monday, December 20, the city will remove a large RV and tent encampment along West Green Lake Way North, close to the lawn bowling area of Lower Woodland Park. Notice for the removal went up on Thursday and the city’s HOPE team—a group of city employees that does outreach to encampment residents in the immediate runup to a sweep—began its usual pre-sweep process of offering shelter beds to the people living there earlier this week. 

According to outreach workers in the area, most of the RV residents plan to move their vehicles about a block, to an area of Upper Woodland Park where the city has indicated they will not remove tents and RVs until next month. 

The encampment, which has persisted for many months, was the backdrop for a pre-election press conference by then-candidate Bruce Harrell, who said that if he was elected mayor, he would have the authority to “direct mental health counselors and housing advocates down here [and] bring down individualized case management experts” to find shelter or housing for the people living at the site.

Last week, City Councilmember Dan Strauss said the city planned to expand the “new, person-centered approach” used to shelter people living at the Ballard Commons into other encampments in his North Seattle district, including Lower Woodland Park. Outreach workers say that what they’ve seen instead is a business-as-usual approach that consists of putting up “no parking” signs and notices that encampment residents have 72 hours to leave.

“Every single one of these people was swept from another site, and I know that most of these people have been swept over and over.”

As PubliCola noted (and Strauss acknowledged) last week, the approach the city took at the Ballard Commons was successful thanks to an unusual flood of new openings in tiny house villages and a former hotel turned into housing in North Seattle, making it possible for outreach workers to offer something better than a basic shelter bed to nearly everyone living on site. Now that those beds are mostly full, the Human Services Department’s HOPE Team is back to offering whatever shelter beds happen to become available, including beds at shelters that offer less privacy, require gender segregation, or are located far away from the community where an encampment is located.

PubliCola contacted the Human Services Department on Friday and will update this post with any additional information we receive about the encampment removal.

Jenn Adams, a member of a team of RV outreach workers called the Scofflaw Mitigation Team, said the people living in RVs in Lower Woodland Park ended up there after being chased from someplace else. “Every single one of these people was swept from another site, and I know that most of these people have been swept over and over,” Adams said. She estimates that between 25 and 30 people will have to move when the city comes through to enforce its no-parking signs on Monday.

2. City attorney-elect Ann Davison announced two key members of her administration on Thursday. Scott Lindsay, a controversial 2017 city attorney candidate who authored an infamous report that became the basis for KOMO TV’s “Seattle Is Dying” broadcast, will be deputy city attorney. Although Lindsay, who advised Davison on her campaign, was widely expected to receive a prominent role in her office, his appointment was met with groans from allies of former city attorney Pete Holmes, who defeated Lindsay four years ago by a 51-point margin.

Lindsay has a scant record, including virtually no courtroom experience. He also tried and failed to get the job Davison won, making him a deputy who considers himself fully qualified for his boss’s position.

Lindsay’s views on crime and punishment (in brief: More punishment equals less crime) are largely in line with statements Davison, a Republican, has made during all three of her recent runs for office. As public safety advisor to Ed Murray, Lindsay was the architect of the “nine-and-a-half-block strategy” to crack down on low-level drug crime downtown; he also came up with the idea for the Navigation Team, a group of police and outreach workers who conducted encampment sweeps. (The HOPE Team is basically the Navigation Team, minus the police.) Lindsay has a scant record, including virtually no courtroom experience. Importantly, he also tried and failed to get the job Davison won, making him a deputy who considers himself fully qualified for his boss’s position.

In contrast, Davison’s pick for criminal division chief, former King County deputy prosecuting attorney Natalie Walton-Anderson, prompted sighs of relief among advocates for criminal justice reform. As the prosecuting attorney’s liaison to the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, Walton-Anderson “was instrumental in the success of the LEAD program for many years,” prosecuting attorney Dan Satterberg said in a statement. LEAD provides alternatives to prosecution for people engaged in low-level nonviolent criminal activity.

To emphasize the point, Satterberg’s office distributed an email chief deputy prosecuting attorney Daniel Clark sent around to the criminal division on Walton-Anderson’s last day earlier this year, when she left the office to join the US Attorney’s office earlier this year. In the memo, Clark called Walton-Anderson “braver, smarter, wittier, wiser, and savvier than anyone can convey in an email. And her impact on our community, our office and on the many people whose lives she has touched along the way is far greater than I can write.”

LEAD program director Tiarra Dearbone told PubliCola Walton-Anderson “has shown that prosecutors can make discretionary and creative decisions that support community based care and trauma informed recovery. She has made herself available to others across the nation who are trying to stand up alternative programs that create community safety and well-being. This is a really hopeful development.”

Davison’s announcement includes no testimonials on Lindsay’s behalf. According to the press release, Lindsay will work to “coordinate public safety strategies in neighborhoods across the city.”

3. Former City Budget Office director Ben Noble—whose departure announcement we covered last week—is staying on at the city, but moving from the CBO (an independent office that works closely with the mayor to come up with revenue forecasts and budget proposals to present to the council) to be the first director of the new Office of Economic and Revenue Forecasts, which will answer to a four-person body made up of two council members, the mayor, and the city finance director. Continue reading “Pending Sweep Defies “New Approach to Encampments” Narrative, Ann Davison Names Top Staff, and More”

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”