Category: labor

Lefty Union May Pull Sawant Support, Durkan Budget Kills RV Outreach Program, City Blames Providers for Lack of Street Sinks

1. For weeks, City Councilmember Kshama Sawant has been involving herself with a strike by members of the Pacific Northwest Carpenters’ Union, joining a group of militant carpenters in encouraging “wildcat” strikes at work sites where legally binding agreements forbid walking off the job. The splinter group, called the Peter J. McGuire Group, maintains that union leaders aren’t asking for enough in ongoing negotiations with the Association of General Contractors.

Sawant has largely dismissed union leaders and members who have asked her to stop “interfering” in the ongoing strike, accusing “top union officials” of being the ones who are actually fomenting dissent by discouraging wildcat strikes. Now, a union that has historically supported Sawant, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, says they may not contribute materially to her upcoming recall election because of her work to disrupt the carpenters’ labor negotiations. In the past, UFCW has contributed thousands of dollars to independent expenditure campaigns that have worked to elect Sawant. 

The union has endorsed a “no” vote on the recall, which UFCW 21 secretary-treasurer Joe Mizrahi calls an “undemocratic” effort they would oppose “no matter who the candidate was.” 

“[Sawant’s] treasury doesn’t get seized. She doesn’t lose her job. So the accountability that the union has to think about doesn’t exist for her.”—UFCW 21 Treasurer-Secretary Joe Mizrahi

Mizrahi says Sawant is ignoring the ways in which “her involvement puts workers’ jobs at risk and their union money at risk. … Striking is a legal act—oftentimes, these contracts have a no-strike clause and if you violate that, the worker is not protected.”

Unions and workers can pay a stiff price if wildcat strikes disrupt a company’s ability to do business, Mizrahi says. For example, in Portland, secondary strikes by the longshoreman’s union (strikes against companies that were not party to the union’s contract) resulted in a judgment that bankrupted the union’s treasury. Such judgments send money directly from workers (whose dues make up the union treasury) to the companies that employ them. “The union treasury is employee money, so it’s transferring that worker money right back to the employer, which is the last place you want it to go,” Mizrahi said.

Mizrahi says it’s good to have union members pushing leadership for more favorable contract terms, but notes that Sawant isn’t the one who will suffer the consequences if the union is penalized because its workers violate labor law. “Her treasury doesn’t get seized. She doesn’t lose her job. So the accountability that the union has to think about doesn’t exist for her.”

2. For the second year in a row, Mayor Jenny Durkan has proposed eliminating funding for the Scofflaw Mitigation Team, a private program that works to keep people living in vehicles from losing their only source of shelter. And for the second year, Scofflaw Team founder Bill Kirlin-Hackett is trying to get the Seattle City Council to restore the team’s funding, arguing that the $80,000 the team receives is crucial because it helps people living in RVs and cars pay for repairs, parking tickets, and other expenses they incur as a result of city policies aimed at preventing people from living in their vehicles.

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Kirlin-Hackett says he has already spoken to council members about restoring funds for the program, “advocating, in large part, ‘if you cut this then you will have no one doing intentional outreach to vehicle residents when half the unsheltered population lives in vehicles.'”

Mayoral spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower notes that Durkan’s proposed budget includes a transfer of funds from the Seattle Department of Transportation to Seattle Public Utilities for trash pickup, sewage pump-outs, and property removal from RV sites, in order to “solicit voluntary compliance w[ith] removing belongings, debris from ROW.” The budget itself identifies these funds, which would pay for one new “field coordinator,” as “part of the City’s efforts to increase access to the [right-of-way].”

Hightower notes that the council paid for the scofflaw program last year with one-time funds, and says this year’s cut is in keeping with that intent. However, the city council actually first funded the program in 2019 with ongoing funds, adding it back to the budget in 2020 (and funding it with one-time dollars) after the mayor’s budget eliminated funding for the program.

3. Durkan’s budget also includes no new funding for street sinks, which the council funded in 2020 so that unsheltered people could wash their hands. Since most public restrooms in the city shut down or limited access in response to COVID, diseases like shigellosis, hepatitis A, and cryptosporidiosis have rampaged through communities of people living unsheltered, who have little access to clean water and soap.

“There is deep, deep resentment that [service providers] would be responsible for the sinks: ‘Why is the city not doing this? Why is it up to us, especially [when we’re] being overwhelmed during the pandemic?'”—Tiffani McCoy, Real Change

The mayor has consistently thrown up roadblocks to the sinks, ranging from concerns about “vandalism” to demands that SPU study alternatives to soap-and-water washing, such as a “Purell on a pole” idea that would substitute a quick squirt of hand sanitizer for a thorough cleaning with soap and water. The city finally allocated funds to two organizations, Seattle Makers and the Clean Hands Collective, with new requirements: The sinks have to drain directly into a storm drain, rather than a receptacle or planter as originally proposed, and they have to be fully ADA compliant, not just wheelchair accessible.

The city does not apply similar universal accessibility standards to its own portable toilets, many of which are inaccessible to people in wheelchairs. Continue reading “Lefty Union May Pull Sawant Support, Durkan Budget Kills RV Outreach Program, City Blames Providers for Lack of Street Sinks”

City Reaches Agreement with Unions Over Vaccine Mandate Rules; SPOG Agreement Still to Come

By Paul Kiefer

On Thursday evening, a coalition of Seattle city employee unions reached a tentative agreement with the City of Seattle about the enforcement of the city’s new mandatory vaccination policy.  The agreement, which outlines rules for vaccination exemptions and offers paid time off for vaccinated employees, now needs the approval of both the unions’ membership and the city council. Union members will vote on the agreement this weekend.

On Friday, both Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and city labor leadership heralded the agreement as a key victory in the city’s fight to control the spread of COVID-19. Karen Estevenin, the executive director of PROTEC17, which represents employees across multiple city departments, told PubliCola the union coalition didn’t object to the vaccine mandate itself, but wanted to give city employees a hand in shaping how the mandate will play out in their workplace.

“One of the key benefits of having a union is that workers have a voice on policy changes that affect their workplaces and their livelihoods,” she said. “By negotiating the terms of the vaccine mandate, we wanted to ensure that this was a fair, transparent, and equitable policy for all City employees.”

Behind the scenes, labor organizers convinced nearly every public employee union to buy into the agreement, including the Seattle Police Management Association (SPMA), which represents lieutenants and captains in the Seattle Police Department. One key holdout is the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG), which represents the department’s rank-and-file officers and is still negotiating its own arrangement with the city. Public safety employee unions have negotiating options that other public sector unions lack, so it is not uncommon for SPOG and other unions representing public safety employees to bargain separately from the larger coalition.

The agreement, which the mayor’s office announced publicly on Friday, will guarantee a floating vacation day in the next year for all employees who submit proof by October 5 that they are fully vaccinated or that they will be vaccinated by the October 18 deadline. Vaccinated employees will also receive another 80 hours of paid leave to deal with COVID-related emergencies, including recovering from vaccination or taking care of newly vaccinated family members.

As negotiations wound to a close this week, the coalition ran into two sticking points: whether to replenish the sick day allowance for employees who took time off work to get vaccinated earlier this year and whether the mandate would cover city contractors. The agreement reached on Thursday will allow employees to restore three days of sick leave they used to receive the vaccine before Durkan announced the mandate, and it specifies that the city will apply the vaccine mandate to any contractors and vendors who work on city construction sites or in close proximity with city staff. Continue reading “City Reaches Agreement with Unions Over Vaccine Mandate Rules; SPOG Agreement Still to Come”

Sound Transit CEO Rogoff Out Next Year, Labor Council Wades Into Sawant Fray, 43rd Democrats Divided on Dow

1. Learn to trust the Fizz: Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff will leave the agency next spring. On Thursday, Sound Transit board members voted to approve the terms of Rogoff’s departure and queuing up a national search for his replacement.

The announcement came two weeks after the board removed what had seemed to be a standard one-year renewal of Rogoff’s contract from their regular agenda, after a nearly two-hour executive session in which board members discussed his performance as director of the agency. Board members also retreated to a lengthy executive session during Thursday’s meeting before emerging with the news that Rogoff “did not foresee continuing in his role,” in the words of board chair Kent Keel.

As PubliCola reported in early September, board members have spent the last month discussing whether to renew Rogoff’s contract, raising questions about Rogoff’s leadership style as well as large cost increases—largely for property acquisition—that forced the board to adopt a “realignment” plan for the voter-approved Sound Transit 3 package earlier this year. Mayor Jenny Durkan King County Council member Claudia Balducci, and King County Executive Dow Constantine are among the board members who brought up concerns publicly and internally.

According to a report by an independent consultant, Triunity, the cost increases were worsened by the fact that various divisions of the agency didn’t communicate with each other, thanks to a “siloed” organizational structure and a culture of keeping bad news under wraps. Another issue: Sound Transit, under Rogoff’s leadership, has been slow to make decisions that could reduce costs, such as choosing a single preferred alignment for light rail expansion instead of continuing to study many different options.

Durkan, one of two board members to vote against retaining Rogoff after allegations that he acted inappropriately around female staff, did not join in the round of praise for Rogoff that followed the board vote Thursday. After a round of effusive praise for Rogoff (Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus: “We should be very grateful as a board and a region for his expertise and skills”), Balducci’s comments focused mostly on Rogoff’s early years at the agency, calling him a steady hand when the agency was struggling to get its bearings

“We were trying… to build this incredibly ambitious and future-looking transit plan, to finally meet the promise of what we have needed and wanted in this region for over 50 years,” Balducci said. “Peter stepped in in the middle of that and quickly got his bearings and helped to bring us home.”

Rogoff will receive severance worth one year’s salary, plus unused vacation time and other benefits outlined in his contract. Speaking after the vote, Rogoff said he has found the job “simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting,” sometimes leaning more toward the latter. “I will continue to be the loudest cheerleader for Sound Transit’s staff and all of their accomplishments even after I step to the sidelines next year,” he said.

2. The King County Labor Council, which represents around 150 unions in King County, tweeted on Thursday urging Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant to stop “meddling” and “interfering” in the internal business of the Pacific Northwest Carpenters Union, which is currently on strike over a contract that a majority of members rejected over issues including pay, contract length, and parking reimbursements. “Ask how you can support instead of being a nuisance,” the Labor Council said.

Sawant began inserting herself into the debate earlier this month, when she issued statements and held a rally urging union members to vote “no” on the contract. Union leaders, including the head of the anti-Sawant Building Trades Union as well as the Carpenters’ Union itself, have repeatedly asked Sawant to stay out of their negotiations. “[N]o politician should be meddling in a private sector union contract negotiation,” Washington State Building Trades vice president Chris McClaine said. “It only helps those who want to destroy worker unions and take money out of workers’ paychecks.”

This week, Sawant issued a flurry of statements supporting the strike, touting her own promise to contribute $10,000 (up from an initial pledge of $2,000) to the carpenters’ strike fund, and showcasing a letter of support from several dozen carpenters’ union members for “stepp[ing] forward in solidarity” with the strike. The $10,000 pledge will come from the Sawant Solidarity Fund, which supports various political efforts and campaigns.

Sawant also said this week that she will introduce legislation to “require construction contractors to fully pay for workers’ parking costs, strengthen enforcement and penalties for wage theft, and restore [the] right to strike” at sites with a project labor agreement (PLA)—a bargained agreement between the union and contractors that prohibits workers from walking off the job. PLA sites in Seattle include the NHL hockey arena, the downtown convention center, and Sound Transit’s ongoing light rail construction.

It’s unclear when Sawant plans to introduce the legislation or what mechanism it would contain for requiring specific parking reimbursements, which are currently included in union contracts, not dictated by legislation.

3. The 43rd Legislative District Democrats failed to reach an endorsement for King County Executive at their endorsement meeting Tuesday night, a victory of sorts for incumbent Dow Constantine after a series of landslide votes for lefty candidates in other races. Constantine received a little over 43 percent of the vote to his challenger, state Sen. Joe Nguyen’s, 54 percent.

That may not seem like a blowout, but compared to the district’s sweeping support for other progressive candidates—city attorney candidate Nicole Thomas Kennedy, City Council candidate Nikkita Oliver, and mayoral candidate Lorena González all received first-round votes of at least 75 percent—Nguyen’s 54 percent showing looked limp.

“We cannot wait for the status quo to solve the problems that have been impacting us for decades and they especially won’t be solved by those who helped create them,” Nguyen said before the vote. Constantine responded to this by highlighting the county’s work responding to the COVID pandemic, including the imposition of a countywide vaccine mandate for indoor and large outdoor events. “This is the kind of difficult work that real leaders do. I’ve never been much for bluster,” Constantine said.

Misogynistic Attacks, Accusations of “Interference” By Sawant, as Carpenters’ Union Strikes

Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters leader Evelyn Shapiro
Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters leader Evelyn Shapiro

By Erica C. Barnett

[Content note: Misogynistic slurs]

As members of the Northwest Carpenters Union began an indefinite strike at work sites across the Puget Sound region on Thursday, union leaders raised questions about potential interference in contract negotiations—and the strike itself—by city council member Kshama Sawant and her political organization, Socialist Alternative.

Sawant and SA, they charged, encouraged people to vote against the union’s proposed contract with the Associated General Contractors and have subsequently encouraged wildcat strikes—pickets and walkouts that occur without union authorization, often on sites where project labor agreements prohibit workers from walking off the job.

“We’ve had at least one elected official who’s been a proponent of [wildcat strikes] and encouraging that, and we don’t appreciate that kind of input from politicians,” the union’s executive secretary-treasurer, Evelyn Shapiro, said Thursday.

“We don’t need outsiders coming in and agitating our members in a direction that’s going to get them in trouble or put them in a bad situation.” Unions have strict rules dictating how they can strike and where, Shapiro said; picketing at a site where the union has agreed not to strike because the union and contractor have signed a project labor agreement, for example, can lead to lawsuits and internal charges against union members.

Council member Teresa Mosqueda, who previously worked as a lobbyist for the Washington State Labor Council, told PubliCola, “Our job as elected officials is to support union members, period, not to influence how they vote or to try to whip votes in a certain direction. … We’re there to show solidarity when they vote and to make it possible for the wages and benefits that people are negotiating to go even further.”

“We’ve had at least one elected official who’s been a proponent of [wildcat strikes] and encouraging that, and we don’t appreciate that kind of input from politicians. We don’t need outsiders coming in and agitating our members in a direction that’s going to get them in trouble or put them in a bad situation.”—Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters leader Evelyn Shapiro

Much of the agitation against the contract, and in favor of wildcat strikes, has come from a group of union members who are active on Facebook, including some self-identified Marxists who believe the contract doesn’t go nearly far enough to protect workers’ wages, health care, and pensions. Nicole Grant, executive secretary-treasurer of the King County Labor Council, said she’s “never seen anything quite this serious in the course of my career, where a small faction of Marxist extremists, with the backing of an elected official, have been able to not just wreak this much havoc inside of a union but been this undermining.”

The contract, which union members rejected last week, included a 20 percent raise over four years and an increase in parking reimbursement to $1.50 an hour, among other conditions. Key points of contention included the size of the wage increase, the length of the contract, and the parking reimbursement, particularly for carpenters who work in Bellevue and downtown Seattle, where people are being “taxed to go to work,” Shapiro said.

Arthur Esparza, a union member (and a Marxist who is unaffiliated with Socialist Alternative) who runs a public Facebook group opposing the contract, confirmed that Sawant’s office did send “liaisons” to support his group but added, “They have no control over our rallies and we’re very independent from Socialist Alternative.” Sawant’s longtime staffer, Jonathan Rosenblum, said her only involvement in the negotiations was a Labor Day “solidarity letter” decrying the carpenters’ working conditions and the “millionaires and billionaires” who profit from union members’ labor. “I am committed to fight alongside you for a good union contract for all carpenters,” the letter said.

However, Sawant also promoted a rally held by contract opponents the week before the final vote, calling the proposed contract terms “substandard” and “insulting.” Rosenblum also opposed the contract publicly on Twitter, calling the terms “lousy” and praising the carpenters’ union for rejecting it after four successive votes.

Rosenblum told PubliCola that Sawant, her staff, and Rosenblum personally played no part in organizing  or rallying against the contract. “Now that the union members have democratically voted to strike, we will of course be supporting them,” he added.

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Commenters on Esparza’s Peter J. McGuire Facebook page—named after the founder of the carpenters’ union— have spent days debating whether to engage in wildcat strikes (for which Esparza received a cease and desist demand from an attorney for the union yesterday). At times, the discussion has devolved into misogynistic personal attacks against Shapiro—the first woman to lead a United Brotherhood of Carpenters regional council in US history.

Men posting on Esparza’s page have called Shapiro, a carpenter who came up through the union apprenticeship program, a “dumb bitch out there trying to take credit for our work,” a “fucking cunt,” and other slurs. One man posted that Shapiro had “agreed to blow the first 100 carpenters to picket Microsoft Monday morning,” following up with, “If I regretted the b.j. post I would delete it. But I want Evelyn to see it. … I hope it tortures and haunts her.”

Another man, posting on the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters’ page, wrote, “FUCK YOU SHAPIRO YOU IGNORANT CUNT!!! HOW ABOUT YOU DO THE FUCK WHAT WE WANT OR GET THE FUCK OUT OF THE WAY?”

Monty Anderson, executive secretary for the Seattle Construction and Building Trades Council, told PubliCola that “in 30 years I have never seen this kind of division and sexism until Facebook gave a place for a few on the fringe to be seen and heard. They do not represent labor,” he added; “some just want to watch the world burn.”

One man posted that Shapiro had “agreed to blow the first 100 carpenters to picket Microsoft Monday morning,” following up with, “If I regretted the b.j. post I would delete it. But I want Evelyn to see it. … I hope it tortures and haunts her.”

But Grant, from the King County Labor Council, said she has experienced similar treatment as a female union leader. “I feel it strongly when I see a union member calling  somebody from their union, one of their union sisters, a cunt, especially when it’s a member of standing who’s serving the union in elected leadership,”  Grant said. “It’s heartbreaking and scary—the hate crimes on job sites are absolutely real and more frequent than probably anybody would believe. So when I see somebody just being like, ‘she’s a cocksucker, she’s a cunt’, I feel it myself because I’ve had really similar experiences.” Continue reading “Misogynistic Attacks, Accusations of “Interference” By Sawant, as Carpenters’ Union Strikes”

Vaccination Resistance at SPD Continues Amid COVID Spike; Harrell Turns Down Police Accountability Debate

1. The highly contagious Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus is spreading quickly in Washington, including within the Seattle Police Department. In the past three weeks, 29 officers tested positive for the virus, marking the highest increase in cases within the department since the beginning of the pandemic. SPD also saw cases spike in April, when roughly 20 officers tested positive for the virus.

The new spike also spurred a sharp increase in the number of officers in quarantine. At the beginning of August, only one officer was in quarantine; on Monday, 33 officers were isolating themselves. The number of officers in quarantine reached its peak in late November of last year, when 80 officers quarantined after exposure to the virus; those figures plummeted at the beginning of the year, routinely falling into the single digits.

This month’s increase in infections among police officers comes on the heels of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s decision to require all city employees to receive the COVID-19 before October 18, 2021 or risk termination. The city’s vaccination mandate sparked outcry from the coalition of city unions, including the two largest unions representing Seattle police officers, who argued that any decision that affects working conditions requires the city to come to the bargaining table to negotiate how the city implements the new rule.

In a letter to interim Labor Relations unit head Jeff Clark, coalition co-chair Shaun Van Eyk wrote that the October 18 timeline won’t leave enough time for the city to “bargain in good faith”; instead, his coalition demanded that the city not enforce the mandate until it completes negotiations with the unions.

Mike Solan, the president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, is among the loudest critics of the vaccination mandate. In a letter published on his union’s blog on August 9, Solan claimed that more than half of his union’s members are vaccinated, though he suggested that mandating vaccination could prompt officers who have resisted the shot to leave the department in protest.

“SPOG is concerned for the safety and wellbeing of all of our members including those with personal vaccination beliefs,” he wrote. “Can Seattle now endure more losses of police officers due to Mayor Durkan’s vaccination order?” A week later, Solan clarified on his podcast that his objection to the mandate “isn’t about whether the vaccine works. That isn’t our lane.”

So far, SPD has been unable to track its employees’ vaccination status because of privacy rules, but the city’s vaccine mandate could provide a chance for the department to start collecting this data.

Van Eyk said Monday that intransigent conservatives aren’t the only ones who aren’t getting jabbed; some employees of color are hesitant, too, because they mistrust a medical system that has historically exploited African Americans and other BIPOC individuals.

2. The state auditor’s reported Monday that the city council’s controversial contract with the nonprofit Freedom Project to oversee the Black Brilliance Research Project last year was built on questionable foundations.

While the council’s decision to award the $3 million no-bid contract to the same organizations that lobbied for the funding didn’t technically break any state rules, state auditor Pat McCarthy wrote in a press release on Monday that “the city exercised only the bare minimum of accountability and transparency” while handling the contract.

The city council initially set aside dollars to pay for research about public safety spending priorities last fall at the urging of a fledgling coalition called King County Equity Now (KCEN); according to the auditor, the council decided long before awarding the contract that KCEN would receive city dollars to lead the research. But because KCEN wasn’t technically a nonprofit at the time, the council turned to South Seattle-based restorative justice nonprofit Freedom Project to handle finances while KCEN led research teams.

The arrangement allowed the council to award the contract to Freedom Project without a bidding process; in turn, KCEN hired Freedom Project as a sub-sub-contractor. But the collaboration between Freedom Project and KCEN collapsed shortly before the contract’s end in February of this year, driven partially by disputes about late payments to researchers.

In the review, the auditor’s office criticized the council for shaping the $3 million contract to fit KCEN’s proposals before awarding the contract. McCarthy also argued that the council agreed to accept deliverables that were too broad to be meaningful, leaving room for questionable spending and a final research report that didn’t provide a clear blueprint for launching the highly anticipated participatory budgeting process. “The City did not specify how the money would be spent, including requirements on administrative costs; a method for compensating community participants; research methodology requirements; and details on how the City would use the results,” McCarthy wrote in a letter to the council and Mayor Jenny Durkan last week.

McCarthy’s letter included recommendations for avoiding a repeat of the widely criticized Black Brilliance Research Project contract, including improving how the council documents its decisions about awarding contracts.

Meanwhile, budgetary and administrative disagreements about how to move forward with participatory budgeting have delayed the project—originally intended to begin in the spring of 2021—until next year.

3. Mayoral candidate and former city council member Bruce Harrell turned down an invitation from the Community Police Commission to participate in a general election debate that was supposed to happen in September, prompting the CPC to cancel the debate. The CPC is one of the city’s three police oversight bodies; among other duties, it recommends reforms and weighs in on policy proposals related to policing and police accountability.

Jesse Franz, the spokesman for the CPC, told PubliCola Monday that the CPC had planned to focus specifically on the mayoral election this year, and had no current plans to host debates in the races for city attorney and City Council positions 8 and 9.

As we reported last month, the CPC held a spirited debate over whether to host a candidate forum at all. Some members, including the Rev. Harriett Walden, contended that elections are outside the commission’s scope, while others, such as commission co-chair LaRond Baker, argued that the CPC’s role includes informing the public about potential leaders’ positions on public safety issues.

In a statement issued after PubliCola reported on Twitter that the debate was canceled, the CPC said that although “Bruce Harrell has declined our invitation to participate,” the commission “still hopes to find the best ways to educate and facilitate a community dialogue about the critical issues Seattle’s future mayor will face regarding public safety and police accountability. We hope to share those plans with you at a future date.”

Harrell’s campaign did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Monday.

Federal Judge Doesn’t See Path Yet Toward Ending Consent Decree

By Paul Kiefer

For the first time since the pandemic began more than a year ago, representatives from the US Department of Justice, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, and other police oversight figures gathered for a status update on Seattle’s consent decree—a nearly decade-old agreement empowering the DOJ to oversee police reform in Seattle.

Though the city has spent years re-working Seattle Police Department policies and training to satisfy several of the court’s key expectations including reductions in the use of deadly force by police officers, Seattle’s progress slipped in the past three years—in part because of a widely-criticized 2018 Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) that undercut landmark improvements to the city’s police oversight system. That reversal on reforms, along with the SPD’s heavy-handed response to last Summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, raises the prospect that Seattle will remain under the consent decree for much longer than expected.

Federal District Court Judge James Robart, who has overseen the consent decree since its conception in 2012, is grappling with two key questions as he tries to determine the path forward: First, whether the city and police department has successfully re-implemented police oversight reforms that the (SPOG) contract wiped out; and second, whether SPD’s response to massive citywide protests in 2020 will set back the city’s progress towards ending the consent decree.

Tuesday’s hearing at the US District Courthouse in downtown Seattle did not provide Robart with clear answers on either front. While making a case that the city has made progress towards meeting the court’s demands, City Attorney Pete Holmes pointed to some notable accountability victories in the past three years. Unfortunately, he offered no promises that the upcoming SPOG contract negotiations won’t upend the city’s commitment to accountability. Meanwhile, Dr. Antonio Oftelie, the court-appointed consent decree monitor who acts as Robart’s eyes and ears on police oversight, told the judge that his team is still reviewing last summer’s SPD response to protests; they won’t decide whether SPD’s actions during the Black Lives Matter protests put the city out of alignment with the consent decree until the end of 2021, he said.

The hearing came at a critical point for the future of the consent decree. In its tenth year, a growing number of community activists argue that the consent decree has become an obstacle to efforts to downsize SPD and invest in alternatives to traditional policing. But an array of unknown variables—including the next contract with SPOG, which the city will likely begin negotiating in the next six months—raise the possibility that the consent decree could end up shaping Seattle’s police reform efforts for years to come. “This was supposed to be a five-year gig,” Judge Robart quipped; instead, come January, Seattle will inaugurate its fifth mayor since the consent decree began.

“My role is to tell you when you don’t get things right,” he said, “not how to do things.” —Federal District Court Judge James Robart

During Tuesday’s hearing, Robart took time to criticize the Community Police Commission (CPC), a civilian group that acts as a quasi-think tank on police accountability, for filing a request on July 27 to direct Oftelie’s monitoring team to take a more active role in SPD accountability, including in negotiations with police unions. Edgar Sargent, an attorney representing the CPC, told Robart that union negotiations are really just “a black box,” and suggested the monitoring team should be privy to union contract negotiations and provide progress updates directly to the court.

Continue reading “Federal Judge Doesn’t See Path Yet Toward Ending Consent Decree”

Fact-Checking Pro-Harrell Mail, Poll Tests Arboreal Opinions, Union’s Role at Homeless Authority Still Unclear

1. The King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s governing board approved a bare-bones initial staffing plan for the agency on Thursday, but not before a lengthy conversation about the future of labor unions at the new agency—and the future of city employees who currently do the work that’s supposed to move over to the authority next year.

The city’s Homeless Strategy and Investment division, which is part of the Human Services Department, is currently represented by the PROTEC17 union, which also represents county human services workers. KCRHA director Marc Dones has said that they want to hire a whole new team for the agency, and that anyone at the city who wants to keep doing their current work will need to apply for the open positions just like everyone else. Dones has also said that although they support unions in general—saying on Thursday, for example, that “we would be delighted to have one or more unions represent our staff”—union reps and at least one city council member want more reassurances.

On Thursday, Seattle City Council president Lorena González told Dones that the law the city passed agreeing to join the new authority requires “a plan for transitioning staff positions to the new authority.” 

Shaun Van Eyk, the labor representative for PROTEC17, told PubliCola that the union wants any succession plan (an agreement that gives the union the right to represent anyone at the new authority who job falls within the “body of work” that existing union-repped employees are already doing) to include a right of first refusal for employees who remained at their city jobs even as the city repeatedly pushed their layoff dates forward. Although permanent HSI employees have been assured jobs elsewhere in the city, many of the jobs in the division are currently filled by long-term temporary workers, who have no job guarantee once the division shuts down.

“Marc has the ability to not only acknowledge PROTEC17 as the exclusive bargaining representative for those bodies of work, but to offer a right of first refusal for those folks doing that work currently,” Van Eyk said. “Part of my duty in this role is to advocate for our members [who have been] keeping the work going, especially with the delays.” The authority is currently about seven months behind schedule, and it’s far from clear that it will be prepared to take over hundreds of contracts from the city’s homelessness division in January as planned.

The larger question is how the new authority, and Dones in particular, will work with organized labor. King County Executive Dow Constantine appeared unnerved enough by the conversation about succession to add, “If I could just be completely frank, it is unlikely, approaching a zero likelihood, that the county or the city would fund a non-union successor to its union operations. That seems inconceivable.”

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2.  A flyer promoting mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell that arrived in voters’ mailboxes last week included what looked like an unusual disclaimer: “No corporate money paid for this mail piece. Hundreds of local residents gave their own personal money to send you this message.” The mailer, produced by an independent expenditure group called Bruce Harrell for Seattle’s Future, says Harrell, who played for the Huskies, will “go on the offensive to move Seattle forward.”

The claim is a stretch. While Bruce Harrell for Seattle’s Future is funded by individual donors, the top donors to the IE are employed by, or in charge of, corporations with billions in assets and a huge vested interest in pro-business policies. Among the biggest contributors: Goodman Real Estate CEO George Petrie and his wife, Alyssa ($100,000); Hunters Capital owner Michael Malone and his wife, Barbara ($25,000); and retired seventh-generation banker Joshua Green III ($10,000).

In fact, the top seven employers of people who contributed to Bruce Harrell for Seattle’s Future (after “not employed”—people who listed their occupation as “retired” or “homemaker,” many of them formerly in real estate or married to real estate bigwigs, made up $98,000 of the group’s approximately $300,000 in contributions) were real estate firms, accounting for $117,750 of the group’s total contributions. So while it’s true that the people who gave money to the pro-Harrell group are “individuals,” their interests could hardly be more corporate if they were writing checks from their company accounts.

Finally: The IE campaign doesn’t have contributions from “hundreds of local residents”; it doesn’t even have 100 contributions, much less 100 from Seattle. About a third of the 79 donors listed at the Public Disclosure Commission live outside city limits, mostly in Eastside suburbs.

3.  An odd new online poll goes far beyond election questions, asking respondents about everything from their support for a future Seattle-only light rail measure to earthquake safety along I-5 to detailed questions about the city’s tree canopy. It’s unclear who’s behind the poll, but the specific issues it highlights dovetail with priorities articulated by council members Lisa Herbold (using bonds to fund bridge maintenance over bike lanes and sidewalks) and Alex Pedersen (bridge money, plus restricting development by preventing tree removal on private property.) Continue reading “Fact-Checking Pro-Harrell Mail, Poll Tests Arboreal Opinions, Union’s Role at Homeless Authority Still Unclear”

Public Safety Fizz: “Less-Lethal” Weapons Restrictions Move Forward, Heat Wave’s Impact on Prisons Examined, County Searches for New Police Oversight Head

The Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County (Flickr: Brewbrooks; Reproduced with a Creative Commons License)

1. The Seattle City Council’s public safety committee voted out the latest version of legislation limiting the Seattle Police Department’s use of ‘less-lethal weapons’ on Tuesday, sending the embattled bill to the full council with a ‘do pass’ recommendation. If adopted, the bill would prohibit SPD from using five ‘less-lethal’ weapons, including blast balls, and place new restrictions on officers’ use of tear gas, pepper-ball launchers and pepper spray.

Last summer, the council passed an ordinance that would have prohibited police officers from using tear gas, pepper spray, blast balls and other ‘less-lethal’ weapons for crowd control.

After the US Department of Justice warned that the bill might lead officers to resort to more serious uses of force to control protests, Federal District Court Judge James Robart—who oversees reforms to SPD as part of an ongoing agreement between the US Department of Justice and the city of Seattle known as the consent decree—issued a temporary restraining order preventing it from taking effect. The version of the bill that passed on Tuesday reflects months of input from Seattle’s police oversight bodies, the DOJ, and the monitoring team appointed by Judge Robart to act as the eyes and ears of the consent decree.

Responding to the monitoring team’s concerns that the original bill would prevent officers from targeting small groups of people committing acts of violence at protests, the new bill outright bans less-targeted weapons such as blast balls and ultrasonic cannons while allowing officers to use more targeted weapons against individual people. The ordinance would also allow SPD to use pepper spray and tear gas to move crowds when twelve or more people in the crowd are engaging in violence—a legal standard that SPD might be able to skirt because of the difficulties of measuring the scale of violence within a crowd after the fact.

Although the committee voted to send the bill to the full council, that won’t happen immediately. Instead, Herbold opted to wait for the results of a hearing before Judge Robart on August 10 to review Seattle’s compliance with the consent decree, giving the council an opportunity for the council to hear more feedback on the bill.

2. Washington’s Office of the Corrections Ombuds (OCO), the oversight agency for the state’s Department of Corrections, issued a brief report on Tuesday describing conditions inside the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County during the record-breaking heat wave two weeks ago.

Meanwhile, the DOC is also preparing to address Washington’s falling prison population—4,000 empty beds statewide, and a more than 50 percent decline in new prisoners since last year—by closing some units.

An OCO staffer who visited the prison on June 28 found substantial differences between conditions in the four different units they visited. In the prison’s Intensive Management Unit, temperatures in hallways remained below 80 degrees; in contrast, the investigator, Matthias Gydé, found cells in the Twin Rivers Unit, which houses more than 800 people, in which some surfaces reached nearly 100 degrees.

The unit-to-unit variations in temperature were partially the result of inconsistent cooling systems across the prison system. The Intensive Management Unit is outfitted with an HVAC system, whereas the Twin Rivers Unit relies on a vent that pumps air from the building’s roof to cool its common areas and cells. Gydé also noted that the Twin Rivers Unit’s skylights and cell windows contributed to the high temperatures. The DOC relaxed rules to allow inmates to cover their windows, but the skylights in the building’s common areas remained uncovered during the heat wave. Continue reading “Public Safety Fizz: “Less-Lethal” Weapons Restrictions Move Forward, Heat Wave’s Impact on Prisons Examined, County Searches for New Police Oversight Head”

Appeals of Police Discipline Resume After Long Silence

Disciplinary appeals by SPD officers dropped sharply in 2020 (Source: Office of Police Accountability)

By Paul Kiefer

This month, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office is processing the first wave of challenges to Seattle Police Department disciplinary actions since last fall of last year—the longest stretch without a police disciplinary appeal since 2016, despite a spike in reprimands, suspensions and terminations of police officers since Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz took the job last September.

In May and early June, four officers who led an out-of-policy high-speed chase in South Seattle last year challenged the written reprimands they received from SPD leadership for the incident; the city attorney’s office didn’t make three of those appeals public until Tuesday afternoon. Although a written reprimand is a less severe type of discipline than other options like suspension or termination, a mark on an officer’s record can lead to a harsher discipline if the officer violates department policy again.

According to an Office of Police Accountability (OPA) investigation of the incident, the out-of-policy chase began when four pairs of SPD officers responded to a 911 call about a stolen pickup truck. Although the man who stole the truck hadn’t committed a violent crime—under SPD policy, a prerequisite for a high-speed pursuit—a South Precinct sergeant allowed the small convoy of cruisers to chase the suspect through a residential area, occasionally driving at more than 80 miles per hour. The officer in the passenger seat of the last cruiser was a 19-year SPD veteran and a field trainer; his driver was an officer-in-training. Six minutes later, a police lieutenant intervened and ordered the officers to end the pursuit; the South Precinct captain later referred the incident to the OPA.

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We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different: We’re funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

The OPA only held the four most senior officers—including the field training officer and the sergeant who approved the chase—responsible for breaking department policy; all four have appealed the written reprimands they received from Diaz with the support of their union, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG). Their cases will now go before an arbitrator: a type of attorney who reviews labor disputes and can determine whether to overturn or reduce the discipline.

The last SPD officer to appeal a disciplinary decision was Todd Novisedlak, whom former SPD Chief Carmen Best fired in 2020 after an OPA investigation found that he had beaten his ex-girlfriend and repeatedly used racist, sexist and homophobic slurs, including calling his Black sergeant a “monkey,” calling a fellow officer a “lazy Mexican” and referring to a third officer as “that crazy SPD whore.” Continue reading “Appeals of Police Discipline Resume After Long Silence”

Can the the Seattle Police Department Consent Decree Be Fixed?

Dr. Antonio Oftelie speaks to the Seattle Community Police Commission in May 2021.

By Paul Kiefer

On Tuesday, the Seattle City Council rejected a proposal to cut $2.83 million from the Seattle Police Department’s budget, bringing an end to a months-long debate and raising questions about whether federal oversight is the right path toward reforming the department.

For almost a decade, SPD has been under federal oversight through an agreement with the US Department of Justice called a consent decree. The consent decree, which Seattle entered in 2012, was supposed to ensure that SPD corrected a pattern of using unjustified force and racially biased policing, among other reforms.

But after nearly a decade, a growing contingent within city government and activist circles are questioning whether the consent decree is capable of changing SPD for the better.

Earlier this week, Councilmember Lisa Herbold was unable to pass legislation cutting millions from SPD’s budget thanks in large part to opposition from SPD and the court-appointed monitor tasked with tracking reforms, Dr. Antonio Oftelie. Herbold initially prosed cutting $5.4 million from the police budget to offset SPD overspending in 2020, and to channel resources to next year’s participatory budgeting program. 

When the plan finally fizzled on Tuesday, many who support additional cuts to the department’s budget blamed Oftelie and the consent decree. “We are seeing the consent decree being wielded as an obstacle to community demands to divest from policing and invest in community safety,” said Angélica Cházaro, a University of Washington professor and organizer with the activist group Decriminalize Seattle, “when in reality the surest way to address issues of racial profiling, use of force, and other violations of constitutional rights by cops is to reduce police power and contact and ensure that communities have what they need to be safe, survive, and thrive.”

“Seattle, as a city, has never come forward to the monitoring team to offer a new solution to a problem. My sense is that if the city could design some alternative response solutions and had plans to show how those were real solutions, then the court and DOJ would be amenable to that.”—federal monitor Antonio Oftelie

Herbold has occasionally joined those critics. During a public safety committee hearing on May 25, for example, she commented that she “often feels hampered by the consent decree because it requires us to get court approval before making any changes.”

Oftelie, however, argues that dismissing the consent decree as an obstacle overlooks its unused potential. At its most basic level, Oftelie told PubliCola, the agreement establishes “a floor” for new policies, better training, and more “constitutional” policing. “Everything can be built on that floor. If Seattle wants to be innovative and transformative, there’s room,” he said. Those reforms could include the creation of a larger-scale civilian unit to respond to mental health crises, or stricter regulation of police officers’ off-duty work.

And while the consent decree outlines a way to add new language to agreement that reflect newer priorities for reform, Oftelie says that Seattle hasn’t taken advantage of that provision.

“Seattle, as a city, has never come forward to the monitoring team to offer a new solution to a problem,” he said. “Some parties in Seattle say, ‘we can’t do something because the consent decree won’t allow it. Or they’ll say, ‘we want the consent decree to do something that it’s not doing at the moment.’ My sense is that if the city could design some alternative response solutions and had plans to show how those were real solutions, then the court and DOJ would be amenable to that.”

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

In order to propose a revision to the consent decree, the mayor and the council would need to agree about the goals and details of the change. Some simpler changes, like replacing out-of-date and ineffective technology used to flag officers who are more likely to use excessive force, would only require the city to identify better software; others, like adjusting the consent decree to require a large-scale civilian crisis response program, would require lengthier debates and pilot programs to produce a workable proposal for the court and DOJ.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office did not respond to PubliCola’s request for comment about whether her office would support any changes to the consent decree. Herbold, however, said that she is open to proposing changes to the consent decree—so long as the changes aren’t up to the council or the mayor’s office.

Continue reading “Can the the Seattle Police Department Consent Decree Be Fixed?”