By Erica C. Barnett
The 2023 election will dramatically reshape the Seattle City Council. Four council members are not seeking reelection, while a fifth, Teresa Mosqueda, is running for King County Council and will be replaced by an appointee if she wins. Even if all three of the incumbents who are running win reelection, the council will probably have at least five new members next year—a new majority of freshmen on a council whose most experienced members will, at most, be entering their second terms. If all eight seats turn over, it would make Sara Nelson, an at-large council member who started her first term last year, the most senior member of the council.
Debates over issues and ideology are understandably front and center in campaigns. But with eight of nine council seats up for grabs, I want to focus for a moment on an often overlooked question that impacts how the city council makes decisions and functions on a daily basis: Can these people work together? Among the current council, the answer is frequently no. At best, there’s a sense that council members aren’t talking to each other outside public meetings, which are still largely virtual. At worst, the hostility bursts out into the open—as it has during this election, when one council member, Sara Nelson, is actively campaigning against three of her incumbent colleagues.
In this setting, five—and up to eight—new council members could provide a needed reset and eliminate some of the bad blood that has built up over the past several years.
Less optimistically, an inexperienced council could leave Mayor Bruce Harrell’s exercise of executive power unchecked, allowing the mayor to push through any number of priorities that the current council has shot down—like raiding the JumpStart payroll tax, which is supposed to be spend on housing and equitable development, to pay for general city obligations.
The next council will have to get up to speed fast, because they’ll soon face challenges that are only growing in scope—from homelessness, gun violence, and addiction to a looming $250 million budget deficit that will require tough decisions and could mean significant service cuts.
To get a better sense of how council incumbents, challengers, and first-time candidates would tackle these challenges, PubliCola spoke with 10 of the 14 council candidates, representing every council district.
Two candidates—Rob Saka in District 1 and Tanya Woo in District 2—ignored our emailed requests to sit down for an interview and did not follow up after I asked again in person. One candidate, District 3’s Joy Hollingsworth, set up an interview but then canceled, and did not respond to my request to reschedule. Maritza Rivera, running in District 4, would not sit down for an interview but did provide emailed responses to written questions. And Cathy Moore, in District 5, declined my request in an email.
The number of candidates who declined, canceled, or ignored our requests for an interview is unusual. While PubliCola isn’t shy about expressing our views on issues, that has rarely been an impediment to dialogue in the past. These candidates’ refusal to sit down for an in-depth conversation about the issues they will have to address if elected could bode poorly for transparency on the new council; in our experience, candidates who refuse to talk to members of the press they perceive as critical rarely become more tolerant of tough questions under the pressure of public office.
I’ll be rolling out interviews with the council candidates in every race over the next two weeks. I hope readers will learn more about the candidates from these in-depth conversations and use them to inform your vote.
Our final interview is with Bob Kettle, a Navy veteran and longtime Queen Anne Community Council leader who has positioned himself as a moderate alternative to incumbent Andrew Lewis. Kettle has focused on Lewis’ support for reducing the police department in 2020 and what he sees as a culture of “permissiveness” that allows people to break laws with impunity.
PubliCola [ECB]: You’ve talked a lot about there being a “permissive environment” in Seattle. Can you elaborate on what you mean by that? Who do you believe is permitting people to live unsheltered and who is permitting people to use drugs on the streets—and what do you propose as solutions?
Bob Kettle [BK]: In March of this year, [Lewis] said that he was shocked that drug dealers can operate with impunity on Third Avenue. And I was like, what? They’re able to do that because of the permissive environment, and the permissive environment comes from the fact that we’ve lost, for example, so many police officers—and that comes back to the council’s work on Defund the Police. There’s no police presence to go after that drug dealer on Third Avenue. And that permissive environment also kind of creates this idea that anything can happen. So that kind of promotes these random acts of violence, this lawlessness piece that that plays out in different ways.
And it’s furthered when the city council says no, we’re not going to line up the municipal code with state law on public drug use and possession. The drug dealers, they feel a bit more comfortable, because they know that there’s going to be restrictions and the city government is going to be on its heels in terms of dealing with them. And that wrecks havoc on so many lives.
So that is the permissive environment that I’m talking about. And I think that we can arrest it—pardon the pun—hold it, stop it, and have it go on retreat, so that we can create a safer environment for not just my daughter at school, or the people who are small business owners and employees, but also those people that are in these encampments. Because ultimately, they’re inhumane.
ECB: It seems to me, having lived here for a long time, that the situation on Third Avenue kind of ebbs and flows, and that the number of people dealing and using drugs does not correlate directly with the number of police who are out there. And the jail is full, so booking people post-arrest is rarely an option.
BK: That’s why I say that we can’t succeed in public safety if we don’t also succeed in public health, and that primarily means behavioral health and addiction issues. And I know that homelessness has many root causes. It could be domestic violence, it could be medical emergencies, there could be dislocation. Helping out with behavioral health and addiction has been harder because we don’t have that capacity. You know, we’ve been talking about having alternative responses for years here. Mental health is a state function, and then public health service is a county function. So where are we at with capacity on that? And we need the city government’s engagement, because the last thing we need is we pass this [crisis] care levy that says we’re going to get five care centers, and then in the county says, ‘No, we’re only getting three.’ That’s gonna be horrendous, because it’s so important to have that capacity on the public health side. Because if we don’t, we can’t succeed.
“We do need to have the [appropriate] number of officers based on city of our size. So I support the mayor’s goal [of 1,400 officers], in terms of the number. And we need a conducive, constructive relationship with SPD. Right now, we’re not there.”
ECB: I want to press some more, though, on the question of police presence in places like Third Avenue. What is the impact of that, if the goal is not to arrest or jail people? Is it just a matter of having a presence there so that people don’t feel comfortable dealing drugs there?
BK: Yes, that’s part of it. And there’s a little bit of a challenge in terms of playing whack-a-mole. To your earlier point, I would say, yes, there’s certain parts of the city where this has been an ongoing issue. But now we’re seeing it in other parts of the city that you didn’t see it before—Ballard, Queen Anne, Nickerson, or parts of 15th or Elliott Avenue, the U District—I mean, all across the city. Whereas before, we had a couple places downtown, a few places, that had the ebb and flow like you’re talking about.
Again, I do believe that we need to build up the public health side of things. It’s public health as much as public safety. But we do need to have the [appropriate] number of officers based on city of our size. So I support the mayor’s goal [of 1,400 officers], in terms of the number. And we need a conducive, constructive relationship with SPD. Right now, we’re not there.
ECB: What about the need to ensure accountability for some of the abhorrent behavior some police officers have been caught engaging in recently, like the phone call between Officer Auderer and Mike Solan, the head of the police union? Do you see a need to address the overall culture of SPD, as opposed to cracking down on individual officers for their actions?
BK: I think we’re moving in a positive direction with the consent decree reforms and Chief [Adrian] Diaz’ leadership. If you spend time, like I have, with the Before the Badge team, with these young recruits, I think it’s fantastic in terms of their desire for public service. They’re going around and they’re learning [things] like, in this neighborhood, there’s a lot of [people who speak] English as a second language and they may not respond to you the same way that you might expect if you’re looking at somebody who looks like me. And there’s different reasons for that, based on past practices and what’s happened to those communities over the years, over the decades. And so they’re learning about this to help change the culture. And the challenge is that it’s kind of like turning an aircraft carrier—you can’t do that on a dime. It takes time and effort. And so I think we’re definitely moving in that positive direction.
ECB: In the case of Officer Auderer, do you think Diaz should fire him or take some other kind of disciplinary action?
BK: Yes, Diaz can take action. I’m not sure about firing, but definitely take action. And by the way, then it’s on his record. And I think then [other officers] can see the repercussions and see that they need to do better in terms of conduct.
ECB: Officer Auderer has a long record of complaints about professionalism, though, so I don’t know that having another one on his record will change his behavior.
BK: It might be a consideration for Chief Diaz to take that stronger step, maybe to to fire him or to really change his career, where he’s not going have any public-facing role anymore. I mean, he’s not going to be able to go as an expert witness before any jury. So his ability to be an officer is now hindered, particularly given his role and his expertise [in determining if someone is driving under the influence].
ECB: Do you think the city needs to remove accountability measures from future contracts with the police guild?
BK: Yes, I believe accountability should be separate. Disciplinary measures, maybe— like, you can receive this punishment for this or that. But accountability cannot be bargained. Accountability is accountability. And so I don’t think it should be part of the contract in that sense.
ECB: When I was talking to Andrew Lewis, he had a good soundbite: ‘The tax for single-family zoning is chronic homelessness.’ His point was basically that if we’re not going to allow more housing deeper into the neighborhoods, it’s going to be really hard to address homelessness. How do you, as a Queen Anne Community Council guy, respond to that?
BK: The Queen Anne Community Council and the Queen Anne community, we’ve always been for densification. So I kind of push back on that premise. Because look at the densification that’s been happening already—for example, in the Queen Anne urban village, like what’s happening right now with 21 Boston [Safeway] project. That’s a perfect example, by the way, of the community and developer working together, except where there was an appeal. In the community sense, that’s just an appeal. On the other side, that’s basically a lawsuit, and it goes over poorly. It’s thought of as a loss. Which is unfortunate, because in that effort, we got densification—we got 59 townhomes. Plus if you go down there, there’s a cedar on 10th, there’s elms on 9th, there’s different fir trees that have been saved. It’s like a win-win.
But the problem was we didn’t get the affordable housing. Because all those townhomes are a million dollars. So we’ve been doing the densification piece, but we shifted the affordability aspect of that densification to other parts of the city.
“We used to have a district council system. That system had major issues, but Mayor Murray just got rid of it. That was a mistake.”
I remember being on the Queen Anne Community Council when Mayor Murray’s team came to us and briefed us on the homelessness crisis and said, here’s the plan. I was like, sitting there going, Oh, my God, this is not going to work. We had no span of control, it was all over the place. It’s the same kind of reasons, I think, the KCRHA had such a false start. We need to have that organization, that structure, that management piece, to partner with the outreach. We need MSWs, but we also need MBAs. We need to have oversight to make sure that these programs are accomplishing goals. And we need accountability and transparency.
Yes, we are creating affordable homes. But we’re not really seeing them in Queen Anne, unless they’re part of the Seattle Housing Authority or Plymouth Housing. You’re not seeing in the more general sense, because those are always going to the south end.
ECB: Mayor Harrell has focused really heavily on bringing people back to the office. What do you think of those efforts? Is urging people to return to their downtown offices, in itself, going to revitalize downtown?
BK: I support the mayor’s efforts to activate downtown, and a key component is bringing people [back] there and to build up on commercial side—the small businesses or medium size businesses. We don’t want that Target [at Second and Union] to close down, for example. I will work downtown, as will my staff. If we can activate downtown, that will help alleviate some of the challenges that downtown has. But every business has its own policies. If there’s a company that wants to go two days a week, one day a week, whatever, fine. But ultimately we should know that we need people downtown. And this goes, by the way back to the idea of permissive environment. Creating a permissive environment is saying yeah, we don’t mind if we have secondhand fentanyl smoke on the buses.
ECB: Every study has shown that secondhand fentanyl smoke can’t make another person high or sick. I’m not saying it’s acceptable. I don’t think it’s acceptable. But at the same time, I also think that we need to be realistic and not alarmist about the science.
BK: Well, I definitely believe in science. But I also believe that we have to be consistent—we don’t allow cigarette smoke pipe smoke and the rest of it, but somehow fentanyl smoke is okay? I don’t understand that. The other thing is, I know what [research] you’re referring to, but at the same time, and I’ve talked to people who were on the bus [next to someone smoking fentanyl] and suddenly he’s got a massive headache. That is testimony.
ECB: What other priorities do you have for the district that you don’t generally get asked about?
BK: We used to have a district council system. That system had major issues, but Mayor Murray just got rid of it. That was a mistake. So what I want to do is create a District Seven Neighborhood Council, where I bring in Magnolia Community Council, the Queen Anne Community Council, the Uptown Alliance, the East[lake], South [Lake Union], Westlake, and Belltown Community Councils. And I think we really need to have a Downtown Community Council. If we meet at least quarterly, and we learn the issues that each are dealing with, that makes me a better councilmember. But very importantly, they learn from each other. So, Magnolia can learn from Belltown, Uptown can learn from downtown. And that builds community. And I think that building community in all those different forms is something that we need to foster, and we shouldn’t be afraid of it. And it goes to the good governance piece, that we need to have positive, engaged leadership. This is why I like the mayor’s One Seattle [slogan]—it’s positive, it’s engaged, it’s simple, it’s clear.
ECB: If elected, you’ll be on a council with a majority of newcomers. Do you have a mentor, or someone you hope will be a mentor, on the council?
BK: I really respect Alex [Pedersen] and his departure is a loss for the council. Sara [Nelson] will be there, obviously, and I believe in what she’s been doing on so many fronts, and obviously she’s been supportive of my campaign. And we will have the central staff, which is [made up of] smart people. But then we can also bring in people on our personal staffs that have that expertise in terms of the workings of city government. And as you mentioned, we may be able to vote for an eighth. And so that would be an opportunity to bring another incredible, different perspective.