Category: Guest Contributor

Lisa Herbold: Paying for Bridge Maintenance Benefits Everyone Who Uses Seattle’s Streets

By Lisa Herbold

Seattle is a city of hills and water; thus we are also a city of bridges. Our bridges are critical for mobility and both the local and regional economy.  Bridges are also critical transit infrastructure. That’s why I, along with Councilmembers Alex Pedersen and Andrew Lewis, have introduced legislation, along with a companion budget action for 2021, that would create a new $20 vehicle license fee (VLF) to pay for critical bridge maintenance throughout the city. The fee, if it’s approved by the Council this week, will be added to the existing $20 fee that funds additional Metro bus hours through the Seattle Transportation Benefit District.

The closure of the West Seattle Bridge on March 23 placed Seattle’s dependence on its bridges in stark relief. Every person and business in West Seattle, or anyone going to West Seattle, has felt the impact of this closure. Before it was closed, the West Seattle Bridge carried 17,000 daily transit riders on 13 routes making 900 daily trips. Two of these routes—the RapidRide C Line and Route 120—were among the top 10 routes for ridership in all of King County.

But the West Seattle Bridge is hardly the only vulnerable bridge in Seattle; for decades, funding for critical maintenance has fallen short, allowing the city’s bridges to fall into further and further disrepair. In September, the City Auditor released an audit, requested by Councilmember Pedersen, that focused on 77 bridges owned and operated by the Seattle Department of Transportation. That audit reported that bridge funding is well below the minimum annual $34 million level needed for the long-term health of this critical infrastructure.

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The audit notes the overall condition of SDOT’s bridges has declined during the last decade and that Seattle is “not spending enough on the upkeep and preservation of its bridges, and risks becoming out of compliance with federal regulations.” This is, unfortunately, consistent with previous findings on the state of Seattle’s bridges, including an SDOT report from 2013 that found that 43 of the city’s bridges were “functionally obsolete,” and suggested that the city had a bridge maintenance backlog of nearly $2 billion.

We must address this underinvestment and protect our Frequent Transit Network, which includes all routes that operate with frequencies of 15 minutes or less for most of the day. Continue reading “Lisa Herbold: Paying for Bridge Maintenance Benefits Everyone Who Uses Seattle’s Streets”

Guest Editorial: For a True “15-Minute City,” We Need Action, Not Rhetoric

By Mike Eliason

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has repeatedly referred to the “15-Minute City” concept as a way of recovering from COVID-19. In the September 19 Durkan Digest, the mayor said she had directed Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development  to “explore the concept of a ’15 Minute City,’ as a potential framework for the next major Comprehensive Plan.”

The 15-Minute City is a sustainable cities concept developed by Sorbonne Professor Carlos Moreno, an advisor to several government and non-governmental agencies, including Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. The concept is a city of complete, sustainable, connected neighborhoods, where every daily need can be met within a very short distance. The goals of a 15-Minute City include coordinated mobility, increased solidarity between residents, improved well-being, greener cities, more access to open space, rapid improvements to residents’ quality of life, and mitigating climate change.

As an architect deeply committed to decarbonized buildings and livable cities, I would gladly welcome a massive shift to a system this transformative and sustainable. However, Seattle’s next major Comprehensive Plan update won’t be adopted until 2024—meaning it would take over a decade to be realized. A framework that delays the transformation cities need to adapt to climate change (and COVID-19) for this long is neither climate action nor a path to economic recovery.

Seattle’s mayor, like nearly every other U.S. mayor, is not making a city for my children. Or yours.

Mayor Hidalgo, arguably one of the most visionary mayors in the world today, ran—and more critically, won—on a platform of massive ecological transformation during COVID. The ‘ville du quart d’heure‘ was a critical component of this. Under Hidalgo’s leadership, Paris installed 50 kilometers of pop-up bike lanes within a few weeks of that city’s COVID-19 lockdown in preparation for recovery. More recently, Hidalgo announced Paris’s iconic Rue de Rivoli will be car-free—permanently. The city is transforming streets from spaces for cars to places for people and nature, with plans to replace 72 percent of on-street parking spaces with public squares, playgrounds, and pedestrian and cycling zones.

I am a huge fan of pedestrian zones. These are urban spaces where cars are generally not allowed, with exceptions for deliveries, accessibility, or resident access. They can vary in size from a single block to entire neighborhoods. In European and Asian cities, they are being expanded to areas outside downtown neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, under the leadership of Mayor Durkan, Seattle still has no fully realized pedestrian zones. The closest the city has come is low-traffic “Stay Healthy Streets,” which, under Durkan’s leadership, are located mostly in single-family neighborhoods, far away from businesses, parks, and apartments. Meanwhile, bike lanes were delayed for years or eliminated completely to appease motorists, resulting in unsafe streets. The Mayor’s proposed budget for 2021 also includes cutting tens of millions of dollars for safe streets and nonmotorized transportation. This is not climate leadership. Continue reading “Guest Editorial: For a True “15-Minute City,” We Need Action, Not Rhetoric”

Sterling Harders: Proposed State Funding Cuts Would Harm Patients, Essential Health Care Workers

The 45,000 in-home and nursing home caregivers of SEIU 775 have always been on the front lines of health care. We’re the first ones to know if our clients are coughing or running a fever. We know when the person we care for seems dizzy, or when their appetite is off. We know first because we’re inside of their homes providing health care, preparing food, and cleaning surfaces, giving invaluable care to the most vulnerable people in our communities. We keep those who want to stay in their homes out of costly institutions, and care for those who require nursing home care to stay healthy.

Caregivers didn’t stop providing care during the coronavirus pandemic, despite a glaring lack of PPE in the first few months. Nelly, a caregiver in Yakima, lives with her client. When everyone in Nelly’s home, including Nelly, tested positive for COVID-19, she continued providing care and kept her vulnerable client out of the hospital.

The proposed Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) cuts would kick 10,000 seniors and people with disabilities off home care, and put more than 10,000 caregivers out of work when we can least afford to lose more jobs.

Caregiving is essential. Yet it has been consistently devalued because of systemic racism and sexism. Like farm workers and domestic workers, caregivers were deliberately excluded from the worker protection laws created after the Great Depression. We were excluded because of who we are and what we look like—predominantly women, including black women, women of color and immigrants. Caregivers had to fight to win basic standards like minimum wage, the right to a union, and even the right to protection from harassment and discrimination long after other workers won those rights.

When the coronavirus hit, the caregivers of our union immediately started negotiating with the state for COVID protections. We were the first caregivers in the country to win hazard pay. But everything we’ve won—not just hazard pay but our health care, our wages, and our jobs themselves—are at risk due to the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic.

There are about 30 million people unemployed in this country, including half a million people in Washington State. Millions more are risking their lives going to work every day—not just caregivers but grocery workers and farmworkers and delivery drivers—and these folks are often working for near poverty wages. Yet with looming budget shortfalls facing our state, what’s on the table for caregivers? Cuts. The state is trying to find revenue by proposing massive, devastating, offensive cuts.

The proposed Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) cuts would kick 10,000 seniors and people with disabilities off home care, and put more than 10,000 caregivers out of work when we can least afford to lose more jobs. The cuts to wages and benefits could result in a loss of $1,300 a year for a full-time caregiver. In nursing homes, perhaps the most dangerous place to be during a global pandemic, DSHS has proposed cutting funding by $240 million dollars per year. Continue reading “Sterling Harders: Proposed State Funding Cuts Would Harm Patients, Essential Health Care Workers”

Andrew Lewis: Ditching District Elections Would Be Bad for Democracy

By Seattle City Council Member Andrew Lewis 

I am a strong supporter of district elections for Seattle City Council. I have been ever since managing former council member Nick Licata’s re-election campaign in 2009 and seeing the deficiencies of the old city-wide alternative. 

So I read with great interest a September 2nd article by former Councilmember Jean Godden reporting on an effort to revisit districts and potentially go back to an at-large system or add more citywide positions to the council. Anonymous critics quoted in the piece raised several concerns about the current system.

First, they claimed districts enhance the power of “interest groups”. Second, they argued districts are fragmented and include neighborhoods without perceived commonality, citing examples such as Magnolia and Belltown in District 7 and Mount Baker and Rainier Beach in District 2. And third, they claimed districts result in less diversity in government and are unfair to poor and minority voters. 

In every respect, these claims are unfounded. Districts, along with democracy vouchers, have considerably enhanced our democracy in Seattle by reducing special interest influence, encouraging accountability to community concerns, and increasing diversity of representation.

Districts Diminish Special Interest Influence

Former Boston Mayor Kevin White once famously said “don’t compare me to the almighty, compare me to the alternative.” Missing from the criticism of district elections is any comparison to the old exclusively at-large system. This is probably because on every purported critique of districts, an exclusively at-large system scores far worse.   

First, a close analysis of interest group influence reveals the old at-large system was far more susceptible. I was struck, while managing Licata’s campaign in 2009, by the incentives the at-large system created for candidates to choose donors over voters. Running citywide requires raising enough resources to buy advertising and build name familiarity in a city of nearly 750,000 people, essentially as big as a congressional district. Under the old system, locking down a few dozen big donors early was essential to be competitive.

The argument that the at-large system leads to a more diverse council ignores the fact that the current council is 5-4 people of color and 6-3 women—far more diverse than the preceding 20 years of councils under the at-large system. It also ignores the fact that at-large representation has historically been used to disempower minority voters.   

Under districts, candidates go door-to-door and talk to voters directly. I personally knocked on more than 8,500 doors last year, and I know most of my colleagues did the same. On hundreds of occasions, voters told me that no candidate for city office had ever knocked on their door. I learned about chronically ignored neighborhood issues that have shaped my priorities in office. Indeed, my successful efforts to save the UpGarden P-Patch started as a doorbell conversation. These interactions cannot happen at scale under an at-large system. The only viable strategy is dialing for dollars—which, in turn, gives more access to big donors, and by extension special interests.

Moreover, there’s no evidence that “special interests” are benefiting from districts. If special interests equate to big money, then districts have considerably mitigated their advantage in Seattle elections. Of all the candidates who won last year I had the most independent money spent on my behalf, $409,887 from UNITE HERE Local 8, a union representing hospitality workers. Even so, the aggregate of support from the Chamber of Commerce, big hotel owners, and other business-aligned PACs in independent expenditures for my opponent totaled $586,456, a disparity of $176,569. 

I suspect what is really happening is that the coalition that was largely unsuccessful in the 2019 council elections thinks an at-large system would benefit them electorally.

This trend was consistent across council races: In five out of seven districts, the candidate with the least special interest money spent on their behalf went on to win. My colleague Dan Strauss was outspent by an unprecedented $747,538. That result implies districts are far less susceptible to the influence of big money, and therefore the influence of interest groups is considerably diminished.

A Return to At-Large Does Nothing to Mitigate “Fragmentation”

Another issue district critics raise is the grouping of neighborhoods perceived to have different priorities into the same district, creating a fragmentation of interests. 

The fragmentation argument is perhaps the strangest one for abolishing districts. If districts are so large that neighborhoods with divergent interests are being lumped together, isn’t that an argument for more districts? 

It also assumes a council member is incapable of attending to the various needs of different neighborhoods within their district. My staff and I have a regular presence in community council meetings in all the neighborhoods of District 7. In the case of the small Cascade Neighborhood Council, I was the first city council member to ever attend one of their meetings.

Under an at-large system, such sustained engagement with neighborhood organizations is difficult and accountability to the community is diffuse. After every census districts are redrawn, and if there truly are issues related to fragmentation they can be dealt with through that process. Reverting to an at-large system would do nothing to address it.          

Districts Have Led to a More Diverse Council

The argument that the at-large system leads to a more diverse council ignores the fact that the current council is 5-4 people of color and 6-3 women—far more diverse than the preceding 20 years of councils under the at-large system. It also ignores the fact that at-large representation has historically been used to disempower minority voters.    Continue reading “Andrew Lewis: Ditching District Elections Would Be Bad for Democracy”

Alex Hudson: The Path to a Just Transportation Recovery

By Alex Hudson

When the pandemic began and much of the world stopped moving, public transit carried on, connecting essential workers to jobs and people to food, health care, and other critical services. Bus drivers bravely continued working to get people where they needed to go, and adapted to help deliver food to seniors and patients to care. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a deep truth: public transit is, and always will be, essential.

There is worry that ridership is down now and won’t return. These fears are based on a return to pre-COVID levels of congestion and skyrocketing used car sales. But the risks of veering away from transit in a post-pandemic world are huge. If drivers get back in their cars exclusively, we’ll cut people off from opportunity and will be stuck in worse congestion than before, resulting in wasted time, more greenhouse gases and toxic pollutants that make our planet less livable, and hundreds of lives lost to preventable crashes.

The vision for public transit in a post-pandemic Puget Sound hasn’t changed: It must be fast, frequent, reliable and affordable. COVID-19 has simply underscored the urgency of addressing how we plan for and fund it. As we recover, the smart and most affordable investment we can make is in building a resilient and accessible public transit system that connects people to opportunities, creates good paying jobs, and supports our climate goals.

Here are three steps we can take to get there:

Invest in transit like it’s a key part of a just economic recovery—because it is. There can be no economic recovery without well-funded public transit. In Seattle, essential workers account for 33 percent of transit riders. These folks keep Seattle’s hospitals running, our grocery stores stocked, and provide social service, caretaking and education that all of us are depending on. In addition to getting people to their jobs, transit investments create good, green, family-wage jobs that last. An analysis of the 2009 stimulus package found that stimulus dollars spent on transit projects created more jobs than dollars spent building or maintaining highways. “To create the most jobs per dollar, invest in transit and maintenance,” the analysis concluded.

Transportation is a household’s second-highest cost, and the average household in King County spends more than $12,500 per year on their vehicles. In 2019, seven million Americans were at least three months behind on their car loans. As unemployment remains high and household finances are stretched to the breaking point, public transit is a desperately-needed affordable alternative to driving that millions of people across the country are counting on.

To keep our communities strong during this challenging economic climate, public transit must be centered in recovery plans and cannot be left out of the federal stimulus packages. All new COVID relief funding on the local, state, and federal levels must include investments for transit, teleliving, biking, walking, and rolling. To make sure this happens, we have to continue building strong coalitions across business, labor, environmental, and social justice advocates. We need everyone at the table.

Pay for it now, or pay the price later. Transit is a fundamental pillar of a functional economy, yet we have seen that the funding that keeps transit moving is fragile and overlooked at every level of government. TransitCenter estimates that across the country, transit agencies will see a $26 billion-$40 billion annual shortfall due to COVID. Declines in fare revenue, as well as the underlying supporting taxes, leave our agencies facing extreme budget shortfalls and elected leaders grappling with no easy choices.

Funding for transit in Washington has never been resilient or adequate. The 18th Amendment to our state Constitution restricts how we can spend transportation dollars. Rather than using gas tax money to create a more efficient and sustainable system overall, the state is forced to funnel money into highway projects, many of which only further pollution and congestion. This outdated restriction must be reconsidered—our social, economic and environmental future depends on it.

Washington lacks progressive revenue options for transit, and the passage of I-976 left local governments with even fewer tools. We need to move away from regressive, restrictive, and volatile sources of funding like the gas tax and replace them with sustainable and resilient funding options, like an equitably designed road user charge or congestion pricing and a statewide air quality surcharge. While working toward reform, we must continue to utilize the existing tools and support local transit ballot measures, starting by passing Seattle Proposition 1 and renewing the Seattle Transportation Benefit District, which funds transit investments in Seattle, for another six years.

Prioritize racial equity in our recovery plan and undue long standing disparities. The pandemic has exacerbated inequities that exist within and are caused by our transportation system. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) experience disproportionate impacts through exposure to air and noise pollution caused by racist planning decisions which built traffic arterials and highways in their communities, lowering home values, separating communities, and increasing exposure to air and noise pollution and preventable traffic violence. Health disparities caused by exposure to air pollution, such as higher rates of asthma, have left BIPOC communities more vulnerable to contracting COVID. Creating an equitable transportation system is literally a matter of life or death for BIPOC communities in Washington. Continue reading “Alex Hudson: The Path to a Just Transportation Recovery”

Alex Brennan: Pandemic Shows that Density Isn’t the Problem, It’s the Solution

By Alex Brennan, Futurewise

During normal times, the case for moving into an efficient apartment in a dense urban neighborhood close to work, instead of a suburban house with a long commute, is compelling and logical.  For starters, the short commute means valuable extra time at home.

Meanwhile: You don’t need your own private yard because you can walk to the park. You don’t need a big apartment because the coffee shop down the block is an extension of your living room. Being out and about in the neighborhood is part of what makes urban life great. You run into people you know, and you come across all sorts of people you don’t know.

But now the coffee shop is takeout only. Crowded streets and parks require a masked, distancing dance, especially for elders or others at high risk. And for those of us who have switched to virtual work from home (it’s important to remember that many essential workers must still commute), we are now stuck in that apartment. Maybe we squeezed in a little work desk next to our bed or added it on to the kitchen table, but that roomy house an hour from the suddenly shuttered downtown office suddenly looks a lot more appealing.

Will some jobs stay virtual? Sure. But the core innovative industries that drive our economy thrive on in-person interactions.

Since the pandemic upended our lives in March, people have been asking me if (or in many cases telling me that) the pandemic portends the end of cities and density. And I get it. Living in the city right now is hard. The pandemic surfaces old associations between cities and disease. And there are some signs in New York and San Francisco that those who can afford to move are leaving for the suburbs.

I’m not here to predict the future, but I can tell you I’m not giving up on density. To explain why, I think it’s important to start by clarifying what is not happening.

First, density is not increasing your chances of getting COVID. In King County, for example, the densest zip codes have the lowest positive test rates and some of the lowest death rates. Globally, some of the densest cities in the world—Seoul, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taipei—are models for preventing the spread of the pandemic. (The concentration of top medical facilities certainly helps.)

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Second, we are not experiencing the end of agglomeration economies, the enigmatic force that brings businesses and jobs closer together. Will some jobs stay virtual? Sure. But the core innovative industries that drive our economy thrive on in-person interactions. Amazon just leased another two million square feet of office space and announced they will have 25,000 jobs in downtown Bellevue by 2025—right across from the soon-to-open downtown Bellevue light rail station. Facebook just snatched up the headquarters office that REI let go—adjacent to the soon-to-open Spring District light rail station. And while perhaps struggling at the moment, Boeing isn’t going to start building airplanes on Zoom.

Beyond unpacking misperceptions about disease and jobs, it is important to think about the lessons we’re learning from the pandemic, the recovery that we want, and the important role dense, mixed-use, walkable cities can play.

Protecting rural areas. It might seem counterintuitive, but urbanism starts with respect for rural lands.  Remember the first time after lockdown that you left your home and went for a hike in our beautiful mountains? Remember what a blessing it was to have the great outdoors so close? Building up in the city allows us to protect our wild places and our working farms and forests. If we all take our virtual jobs and move to the countryside, it won’t be the countryside anymore. It will just be another suburb.

Climate Change.  The pandemic has taught us that we need to be better prepared for shocks, and there is no bigger shock coming than climate change. Are you angry that our leaders let our public health infrastructure waste away in good times? Well you should be furious about our inadequate efforts to mitigate and prepare for climate change. This year’s toxic smoke is only the beginning if we don’t act now.

If we all take our virtual jobs and move to the countryside, it won’t be the countryside anymore. It will just be another suburb.

Dense communities are one of the best tools for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation (Washington State’s largest source of emissions) by shortening travel distances and encouraging walking, biking and transit over driving alone. Dense cities also allow us to grow without building suburbs out on the forest’s edge, reducing human exposure to the destruction of climate-exacerbated forest fires.

Health. That increase in walking, biking, and transit, over sitting in the car, improves outcomes for cardiovascular disease and type-2 diabetes. Those two conditions also happen to be two of the biggest risk factors of dying from COVID-19. But it’s not just about COVID, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the US (diabetes is the seventh) and both ailments diminish the quality of life of millions more. Dense, walkable urban neighborhoods that incorporate physical activity into daily life are a big part of the cure.

Cost savings. When the pandemic is over, governments and households are both going to have a lot of debt. Density is part of how we can have a great quality of life and save money. Dense development cuts down on infrastructure costs, requiring fewer miles of roads and water, sewer, electrical, and internet lines. Density makes fire, ambulance, and other response-time-based services more efficient. That translates into lower taxes or better services (take your pick).

For households, less driving reduces the second biggest household cost, transportation. And while density alone cannot solve our housing affordability crisis, when land is expensive, more efficient use of land reduces building costs.

Reviving Main Streets. Density isn’t just about the big city, it’s also important for small towns. Right now, locally owned small businesses are struggling more than ever. The foot traffic that they thrive on has been decimated by COVID-19. If we let these places continue to be replaced by online shopping and big box stores out by the interchange, our small towns will lose their heart, their sense of place, and their tax base. Allowing second-story apartments above shops, and duplexes and triplexes nearby, can help bring back the foot traffic that Main Streets need to compete.

Public life. Let’s return to where we started. During normal times, dense neighborhoods are places of community and connection, places to run into friends on the sidewalk or at the coffee shop, places for festivals and marches. Right now, unfortunately, we can’t enjoy being with other people this way, and that is hard. But I believe, after the isolation of the pandemic, we will emerge more hungry for public life than ever before.

The United States of America has the lowest-density cities in the world. This isn’t because we harbor a Jeffersonian love for the suburbs. It’s because federal policies like the interstate highway act and the VA and FHA home mortgage programs have promoted sprawl for decades. Local policies also play a role: It remains true today that most low-density development in Washington State would not be financially feasible if impact fees reflected the true cost of the associated infrastructure. At the same time, single family neighborhoods in inner-ring suburbs would be transitioning to duplexes, townhomes, and lowrise apartments if the zoning allowed for it.

When the COVID-19 pandemic ends, we will need to rebuild our country. Will we continue the policies of suburban bias that has guided the last 70 years or will we learn new lessons from the pandemic and create a more urban future?

Alex Brennan is the Executive Director at Futurewise. The organization’s current campaign, Washington Can’t Wait, is fighting to build more climate-resilient, equitable and affordable communities by strengthening the Washington State Growth Management Act. 

Anne Levinson: For Real Police Accountability, Here Are Two State Laws We Must Change

By Anne Levinson

In early June, as Seattle residents protesting police brutality were being met daily with disproportionate and seemingly indiscriminate force by law enforcement, several current and former elected officials reached out to me asking what state legislators could do in the next session to strengthen accountability in law enforcement.

It was a question I welcomed. During two terms providing independent oversight for Seattle’s police accountability system, I had reviewed thousands of misconduct complaints and investigations, observed dozens of police trainings, conducted a special review of Seattle’s police disciplinary system, issued reports highlighting needed accountability system reforms, identified for the city in detail the provisions in the police contracts that had tilted the system and were detrimental to the public, and helped draft and secure passage of the 2017 police accountability ordinance.

And when a new Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) contract was ratified in the fall of 2018, over the unanimous objections of more than 30 community organizations, I provided expert witness testimony, explaining to the judge overseeing the federal consent decree the ways in which the contract threatened to corrode community trust and confidence. The judge agreed, finding the City partially out of compliance with the consent decree in May 2019 and directing the City to tell the court by that July how it planned to remedy the identified barriers to accountability.

A year later, in May 2020, the city had still not submitted its plan to the court and yet it asked the court to largely end the consent decree. Then the demonstrations began.

So when I was asked that question last June—with a governor, Senate and House leadership, committee chairs, and other legislators interested in police reform; many labor leaders no longer accepting the proposition that they couldn’t be both pro-police reform and pro-labor; and the city still out of compliance with the consent decree—it was clear that the time had come for the state to lead.

Several potential state-level reforms were already garnering public attention in our state and elsewhere, including truly independent investigations of deadly-force incidents; qualified immunity reform; demilitarization of police; reforms to the inquest process; elimination of no-knock warrants; and establishing a statewide public database on use of force.

But there are two other reforms I had  recommended that have not gotten much public attention until recently: (1) Removing police accountability from the collective bargaining process; and (2) Strengthening the law for officer decertification to address serious misconduct. Each is critically important and long overdue.

First, the state must clearly exempt police misconduct and disciplinary systems from Washington collective bargaining law so that every local and state law enforcement agency can establish strong, effective, and transparent accountability mechanisms that serve the public as they should, rather than continuing to provide only as much accountability as police unions will accept.

Police are not the same as other public sector employees. Others aren’t required to carry and use guns. They haven’t been given broad discretion to take your liberty and sometimes your life. It’s why there is a separate accountability system to address misconduct. And it’s why there is a consent decree. The provisions in police contracts can have very different impacts on the public than similar provisions in other public sector contracts.

Across the country, police contracts no longer just address wage, benefits, and other subjects traditionally thought of as “working conditions,” as other labor contracts do. Instead, police contracts have been used to shield officers from accountability when misconduct occurs, diminish transparency, and preclude or weaken civilian oversight. It’s why I so strongly opposed ratifying Seattle’s police contracts in 2017 and 2018 and weighed in on behalf of the community to the federal court.

These barriers to accountability—and others—were brought to the attention of city officials, and many were addressed in the ordinance. And yet, unbeknownst to the public, the reforms never took effect because of what the city later agreed to in the police contracts.

Here are a few examples of provisions in Seattle’s police contracts that impede accountability and walk back reform efforts.

The contracts reinstated officers’ ability to appeal discipline through multiple routes, including to an outside arbitrator. (Eliminating this ability was a priority in the 2017 accountability ordinance). As reform advocates, chiefs, and local elected officials have seen in thousands of cases across the country, arbitrators routinely substitute their own judgment on discipline, overturning chiefs’ decisions, ordering officers who committed serious misconduct to be reinstated.

This weakens the chief’s power to hold officers accountable in line with public expectations, allowing arbitrators to overturn disciplinary decisions for any number of reasons, including minor procedural issues, even in cases where the chief’s decision is supported by a preponderance of evidence. It allows hearings to be closed to complainants, the public, and the media, and allows months, if not years, of delay before appeals are resolved. As of August, Seattle has 80 appeals pending, some going as far back as 2016.

What other barriers to accountability are buried in Seattle’s police contracts? If a complaint of misconduct involving dishonesty or excessive force is not made within a certain period of time, or if a complaint isn’t fully investigated within 180 days, the officer cannot be disciplined, regardless of the misconduct or the reason for the delay. How the days are counted is filled with vague conditions constantly subject to challenge.

There’s more. The burden of proof required to prove misconduct has been raised to an undefined “elevated” standard for any termination that results from misconduct that could be considered “stigmatizing” to the officer. Only certain misconduct complaint and investigation files are retained; others must be purged. Civilian oversight is limited when the alleged misconduct is criminal, even though these cases often involve the most serious types of misconduct. Civilian oversight subpoena authority has been narrowed. Officers are allowed to use vacation and sick leave when the discipline is supposed to be days without pay. Officers under investigation – and their union representatives – are allowed to withhold relevant information during the investigation and raise it later, as evidence to challenge discipline. Officers’ names must be redacted when case information is made available to the public.

And more. The long-recommended oversight of secondary employment (off-duty work as an officer) by independent, civilian management was never implemented. Instead, it was included in the SPOG  contract and then rolled back. There are limitations on the number of civilian investigators. Different ranks are treated differently. And there are even contract provisions that require the public to pay for a large part of the union president’s salary.

These barriers to accountability—and others—were brought to the attention of city officials, and many were addressed in the ordinance. And yet, unbeknownst to the public, the reforms never took effect because of what the city later agreed to in the police contracts.

In court filings, the city argued that all these types of police contract provisions are commonplace. The success of police unions in embedding structural barriers to accountability across the country is thus ironically used as a reason to stifle reforms. The city also argues that the public and the judge should understand that police contracts continue to have these provisions because the nature of bargaining requires give-and-take. That is exactly the problem.

Police, like all employees, deserve contracts that provide for fair wages, benefits, and good working conditions. But there is no reason to continue to accept the argument that standards and practices to address police misconduct must be considered “working conditions” that cannot be determined by police management and local government leaders outside the bargaining process.

Police have been granted extraordinary powers to use discretion in a range of ways that have enormous impact on the public, including taking away liberty and the use of deadly force. Legal and procedural safeguards against police abusing these powers in ways that undermine public trust should not be subject to the give and take of bargaining. Nor should the public have to pay so that their community can receive constitutional, effective, and respectful policing.

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PubliCola is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going—and expanding!

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. I’m truly grateful for your support.

Second, the state must completely overhaul the law enforcement decertification law.

Washington is one of 45 states that require law enforcement officers to be trained and licensed (“certified”), with standards for revoking that license (“decertified”), as many other professionals must be

How and when decertification happens is fundamentally important to accountability. If an officer is fired or convicted of a crime, but not decertified, the officer can simply go to another law enforcement agency. Washington’s law for decertifying officers is limited in scope and riddled with loopholes that allow problematic officers to move from department to department with impunity or to avoid accountability if their agency does not act.

Back in early 2014, when providing independent oversight of Seattle’s police accountability system, I recommended that Seattle work with other cities and counties and the state legislature to overhaul the law. We also included reform of the decertification law in the city’s 2017 accountability ordinance. But the city never really took it on. So when asked what police reform the legislature should prioritize in the next session, significantly overhauling the decertification law was also at the top of my list. Senator Jamie Pedersen, Chair of the state Senate’s Law & Justice Committee agreed, and in early June offered to be the prime sponsor of a bill that will enact a wide range of reforms.

To really remedy the gaps and loopholes that make Washington’s law—and most all decertification laws in other states—so ineffective, improving one or two elements of the law is not enough. So I’ve recommended many changes, starting with making sure that the grounds for decertification cover the wide range of misconduct that should result in an officer losing their license.

Continue reading “Anne Levinson: For Real Police Accountability, Here Are Two State Laws We Must Change”

Girmay Zahilay: In November, a Chance to Begin Rebuilding Public Safety from the Ground Up

By Girmay Zahilay

On the evening of November 5, 2019, I stood in front of a packed room at Rumba Notes Lounge in Columbia City and delivered my victory speech. I had just been elected to the King County Council and I was overwhelmed with gratitude. I told the audience of family and friends that “we did not come here to start a movement, we came here to build on the work of those that came before us.”

As I spoke those words, I thought of all of the struggling, organizing, and advocating that prior generations had done for our benefit. I saw black and white images of people marching for Civil Rights; I saw Black students being attacked with fire hoses while protesting; I saw Native Americans fighting for their land and sovereignty.

The work of those that came before us weighed on me so heavily that my voice cracked during my speech. How could we ever live up to what our past heroes had accomplished? They had endured once-in-a-generation battles and fundamentally changed society for the better.

Back in November 2019, I could have never imagined that just months later our nation would enter its own once-in-a-generation battle. I had spent my entire campaign talking about affordable housing, zoning policies, and criminal justice reform. But the trials and tribulations of 2020 have made so much more possible than the usual reform-style policies. This year, we have a powerful opportunity to fundamentally improve our society. We have the political will to rebuild our institutions from the ground up and better serve the most vulnerable in our region.

This November, King County has the rare opportunity to begin shaping a fundamentally better system of public safety—one that is rooted in public health initiatives, community-based alternatives, and economic justice for marginalized communities.

Among these powerful opportunities is the chance to transform our vision for public safety. For King County residents, this starts with adopting Charter Amendment 6 in November. This amendment will empower the King County Council to transfer certain public safety functions, such as crisis response, away from the Sheriff’s Office and into the hands of the community organizations that should have been in charge of responding to community needs all along.

The murder of George Floyd highlighted what Black organizers and advocates had been saying and working on for decades: our systems of policing are racist, unresponsive to root causes of crime, and frequently introduce lethal force to situations that do not warrant it.

Here in King County, the police killings of Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens, Tommy Le, Charleena Lyles, and many others, were preventable. We could have saved their lives and we can save countless others moving forward. We can better serve our neighbors who have been most harmed by state action. We can put people on track to get the support they need. We can accomplish these goals not by reforming the institutions we already have, but by reimagining public safety altogether.

This November, King County has the rare opportunity to begin shaping a fundamentally better system of public safety—one that is rooted in public health initiatives, community-based alternatives, and economic justice for marginalized communities. In addition to empowering community-based organizations, it would give the groups that are already working to keep their neighborhoods safe the resources that they need to do so on a bigger scale.

Our default response to every challenge in our region should not be to deploy officers armed with guns. The future of public safety looks like a diverse toolkit of effective public health solutions. Mental health support teams can respond to mental health crises, rapid response social workers can tend to people in need, and trusted mentors and violence interrupters can help our youth. Unarmed code enforcement professionals can address noise complaints and traffic infractions.

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As our laws stand, however, the King County Council does not have the authority to transfer public safety functions away from traditional law enforcement. Our King County Charter, the local constitution governing our region, says that the King County Sheriff’s Office “shall not have its duties decreased by the county council.” This prohibition, combined with the fact that our King County Sheriff is an independently elected position, insulates the Sheriff’s Office from external policy instruction.

Rising to the promise of this moment requires us to amend the King County Charter and remove the restrictive language that ties the Council’s hands. When King County residents open their ballots this November, they will choose to approve or reject “Charter Amendment No. 6”, which if approved, would give the King County Council the authority to change the duties and structure of our regional system of public safety.

A more effective and equitable approach to safety is around the corner with Charter Amendment Number 6 as step one.

This potential change is one I would have never thought possible last year at my election night party. But in 2020, we have entered an unprecedented battle, and it has brought with it an unprecedented opportunity. Policymakers should use this momentum to go beyond surface level reforms and rebuild our systems from the ground up.

Our federal, state, and local governments have a long history of devastating Black, Indigenous, and communities of color. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that our fates as human beings are intertwined. If one group is especially vulnerable to the virus, we will all be less safe. The same holds true for the racist impact of our criminal legal systems. If Black and Brown people continue to be over-policed, criminalized, and incarcerated, with divesting longterm social and economic consequences, we will all be less safe.

Let’s rise to meet this moment. Let’s rebuild our systems to better serve the people we have most harmed, and let’s ensure safety, prosperity, and justice for all.

Girmay Zahilay is a King County Council council member representing District 2, which includes central and southeast Seattle.

The City Council Just Called for a Green New Deal. Here’s What’s Next.

Wastewater tanks at fracking site, via Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Alec Connon, an organizer with 350 Seattle, a group that has instrumental in pushing for a local Green New Deal for Seattle.

The Seattle City Council just passed a resolution calling for a transformational Green New Deal that will eliminate our city’s climate pollution by 2030, address current and historical injustices, and create thousands of jobs. So — what now? Does that mean we’ve solved even our portion of the global climate crisis? Hardly.

It does mean that the current City Council recognizes that we are in the midst of a global emergency that requires unprecedented action across all levels of government. It does mean that the City Council has recognized that unless we act Seattle greenhouse gas emissions will continue to rise, as they have in recent years. And it does mean that our city may be poised to finally do much more on climate.

The City Council should begin implementing a Green New Deal for Seattle by ensuring that we’re not making the problem even worse than it already is. We can do that by passing common sense legislation that will ensure all new buildings in Seattle get their heating from renewable sources, and not climate-destroying fossil fuels, such as fracked gas. (Seattle’s natural gas provider, Puget Sound Energy, is heavily dependent on fracking.)

Last month, the City of Berkeley passed a first-in-the-nation policy that has been widely heralded as an innovative way to protect the health and safety of its residents. The Berkeley ordinance ensures that all new residential and commercial buildings receive their heating and power sources from electricity, and not fossil fuels.

The Seattle City Council just unanimously passed a resolution calling for a transformational Green New Deal for Seattle. The first step to making that a reality is to stop making the problem worse.

It’s a common-sense policy for a number of reasons. 

The use of natural gas in our buildings causes asthma and other respiratory health issues. Half of residences that use gas for cooking with no range hood have indoor air pollution levels that exceed EPA pollution standards for outdoor air. This fact is doubly startling when you consider that air pollution kills an estimated 8.8 million people around the world every year — more than war, terrorism, and malaria combined.

In addition to threatening our health, gas in our homes threatens us with death by fireball. Gas pipelines connected to our homes explode and endanger communities. Remember that explosion that decimated several Greenwood businesses a couple of years back? That was a gas pipeline. It also wasn’t unusual. Gas pipelines explode with alarming frequency. The last deadly gas pipeline in the explosion in the U.S at the time of writing? Eleven days ago. This is of additional consequence for cities like Seattle that sit atop earthquake zones. Should “the big one” hit Seattle one thing we can be assured of is that gas pipelines will explode. Unless, of course, there aren’t any. Continue reading “The City Council Just Called for a Green New Deal. Here’s What’s Next.”

Families Come In All Sizes. Housing Choices Should, Too.

Editor’s note: This is a guest op/ed by More Options for Accessory Residences, a group that advocates for accessory dwelling units, such as backyard cottages and basement apartments. The city council’s Sustainability and Transportation committee will hold a public hearing on legislation making it easier for single-family property owners to build second and third units on Tuesday evening at 5:30.—ECB

Seattle needs thousands of homes for people of all ages, incomes and backgrounds over the next 10 years. Families come in all shapes and sizesand housing choices should, too. Some families love the convenience, coziness and price of an accessory dwelling unit. There’s a lot of names for a second home within, or next to, an existing house: Granny Flats, Fonzie Flats, Pool Houses, Coach Houses, Kitchenette Units, Backyard Cottages, Basement Apartments, and so many more.

MOAR – More Options for Accessory Residents—supports more accessory dwelling units for the following reasons:

  • Climate Change: (D)ADUs are one way to add new neighbors to areas with frequent transit service. This means that people can live closer to their jobs, cultural communities, and more—which means less sprawl and less dependence on cars. (D)ADUs are also much more energy-efficient then single-family houses, cutting carbon emissions by as much as half.
  • Walkable Communities: (D)ADUs support small businesses by making it possible for more people to live within walking, biking, and easy transit distance of local mom-and-pop shops.
  • Aging in place:  The new legislation has built-in flexibility for people who want to build a one-story backyard unit, making it much easier to create opportunities to age in place. In cities that make it easy to build backyard apartments, many people move into the backyard cottage and rent out the front home to offset rising property taxes.
  • Intergenerational Living: (D)ADUs help create additional living spaces for children who need an affordable place to stay during or after college, aging parents, a relative who can babysit or fill in for child-care needs, or a relative who might need at-home care.
  • Parking Requirements: Let’s prioritize housing for people, not storage for cars. The proposed legislation takes away the requirement that homeowners add a new parking space to build a second unit. And it doesn’t count interior parking or storage space against the size limit. 

  • Affordability: Right now 75 percent of Seattle is off limits to new neighbors who can’t rent a whole house or come up with a down payment to buy one. ADUs & DADUs are one way to induce mixed-income neighborhoods and more equity without changing the zoning.
  • Land Owners, Home Owners, and Neighbors Who Rent: Right now, 20 percent of Seattle’s single-family houses are occupied by renters. Under the current rules, property owners with ADUs must live on site six months out of every year—a biased policy that prevents renters from accessing this housing and takes away property owners’ flexibility to live elsewhere. The proposed legislation will allow anyone, including renters, to live on a property with an attached or detached ADU. 
  • Out-of-scale homes: Right now, the city incentivizes removing small houses so the largest possible house—sometimes referred to as a “McMansions”—can be constructed. Based on census data, the average household size is declining but the average square footage of a house isn’t. The legislation would limit the size of new homes while encouraging ADUs and DADUs by not counting second and third units against development limits.

Adding 2,000 additional homes over the next ten years by reforming the city’s approach to ADUs is a very small step on the path to making our region affordable for all our neighbors, including the ones who haven’t moved here yet. If you support this vision, please show up to City Hall June 11 at 5:15 pm to rally for MOAR Housing.

MOAR (More Options for Accessory Residences; @moarseattle) is a group of Seattle residents concerned with the future of the city, housing availability and affordability. We have diverse backgrounds, experiences and housing situations, but we’re all Seattleites who want our city to allow more options for accessory residences—for us, our neighbors, and future generations.