Category: Morning Fizz

Ruling on Tree Regulations Coming Soon, City Attorney Filed Charges in Just Over Half of Cases This Year

1. The Seattle Hearing Examiner is expected to rule as soon as next week on a case in which the Master Builders Association of King County and Seattle—a business group that represents housing developers—is seeking a more thorough review of a new tree ordinance that would make it harder to remove trees on private property. The goal of the new restrictions, MBAKS argues, isn’t to protect Seattle’s tree canopy (which includes many trees on public property that wouldn’t be subject to the new restrictions); it’s to prevent new housing in historically exclusive single-family neighborhoods.

“There are people and groups in our City that care deeply about trees and about the health of Seattle’s urban forest,” MBAKS wrote in a letter to Mayor Bruce Harrell last week. “Those are the people and groups we’d like to work with. However, the loudest voices are anti-development groups that have weaponized tree protection to support their singular goal of stopping development in their beloved single-family neighborhoods.”

The new tree ordinance would lower the size threshold for regulated “significant” and “exceptional” trees and make them harder or illegal for private property owners to remove; removing a tree larger than 12 inches in diameter, for example, would require a developer to either replant the tree on site or pay a fee based on the value of the tree.

Technically, the appeal questions the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspection’s “determination of non-significance” under the State Environmental Policy Act—essentially a conclusion that imposing new restrictions on tree removal (and thus development) will have no significant impact on the city’s environmental policies or its Comprehensive Plan, which guides future development and land use decisions in the city. SDCI and TreePAC are the two groups opposing the Master Builders’ appeal.

The comprehensive plan encourages density inside neighborhoods as a bulwark against suburban sprawl and social inequity, since Seattle’s tree canopy is heavily concentrated in wealthier neighborhoods that were historically redlined to keep people of color out. In addition to more analysis that looks at density, not just privately owned trees, MBAKS has asked the city to consider requiring street trees when developers build new detached houses in single-family zones.

Chart showing Seattle City Attorney's Office Case Filing decisions (filed or declined), January-June 2022

2. City attorney Ann Davison, who announced in February that she would decide whether to file charges in her office receives from the police department within five days, decided to file charges in just over 56 percent of cases between the day she announced the new policy and late June of this year, records PubliCola obtained through a disclosure request show.

This represents a significant uptick in the percentage of cases Davison’s office filed compared to her predecessor, Pete Holmes’, filing rate during the pandemic, but is similar to Holmes’ pre-COVID filing rates when compared to data provided (in chart form) in a report from Davison’s office earlier this year. The overall number of cases coming in from SPD is lower than before 2020 because of a number of factors, including SPD’s decision to stop pulling people over for some minor traffic violations; Davison’s report suggests the cause is “the loss of a significant number of SPD officers.”

The charges Davison declined to file most frequently after announcing the close-in-time filing policy on February 7 included assault, assault with sexual motivation, theft, and property destruction; the charges she has filed most frequently also included assault and theft along with trespassing, harassment, and charges that involve driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

Case filings declined during the pandemic, in part, because the court shut down during COVID, creating a massive backlog that the municipal court is still struggling to work through. King County’s jails, meanwhile, remain understaffed even as jail populations rise, leading to conditions that both jail staffers and defense attorneys have described to PubliCola as inhumane. The more misdemeanor cases Seattle sends into this system, the greater the downstream backlog becomes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Council IDs Funds for 911 Alternative Pilot, Prosecutor Won’t Pursue Charges Against Police Who Killed Lyles

1. City council members Lisa Herbold and Andrew Lewis, who have advocated for creating an alternative response system for 911 calls that do not require police, sponsored a change to the city’s 2022 budget that sets aside $1.2 million originally budgeted for former mayor Jenny Durkan’s “Triage One” program to pay for a future “alternative response model” for these calls.

Although the money is currently frozen—Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office wants to reserve it to help backfill an anticipated budget shortfall next year—the amendment moves the money out of the Seattle Fire Department in case the council and mayor’s office can agree on a pilot proposal this year.

As we’ve reported, the city has backed away from its initial commitment to quickly fund alternatives to traditional police-based 911 response, made in the immediate aftermath of citywide protests against police violence sparked by the murder of George Floyd in 2020, and recently outlined a process for standing up a new public safety department in 2024. Council members have expressed frustration about the slow timeline, arguing that the city could create a pilot program now and see how it goes, rather than waiting years to start.

Using the cost estimates for Triage One, Lewis had council staff create a spreadsheet with a very rough estimate of what a pilot civilian response program, along the lines of CAHOOTS in Eugene, OR or the STAR program in Denver, would cost. The total for a three-person pilot—”basically one van,” Lewis said—came out to about $940,000, or about one-quarter of one percent of the $355 million the city budgeted for the police department last year.

Lewis noted that the cost could be lower if, for example, the new team used existing city cars instead of buying a $100,000 new custom Ford F150 (Durkan’s Triage One budget called for three) or if they found space that cost less than the previous estimate of $20,000 a month.

Ultimately, it will be up to Harrell’s office to decide whether they want to spend the money on a pilot program for new responders, or to help fill the city’s budget gap, which could total well over $100 million. The city budget office will release its latest revenue forecast next month.

2. King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg announced Thursday that he would not prosecute the two police officers who shot and killed Charleena Lyles in her apartment in 2017, citing the fact that the law in place at the time effectively exonerated officers who acted “without malice and with a good faith belief that [a shooting] is justifiable.”

In a memo explaining his decision not to prosecute, Satterberg cited testimony during the inquest from experts who agreed “that the use of deadly force was necessary given the circumstances.” Hearing similar testimony, Satterberg wrote, “a criminal jury would likely conclude that the use of deadly force was necessary.”

An inquest earlier this month found that the officers did not violate the law or SPD policies on use of force when they killed Lyles, a 31-year-old Black woman whose history of mental illness was known to both officers, in 2017.

After voters passed Initiative 940 in 2018, the state legislature removed the “malice” standard and required officers to go through additional training in de-escalation and mental health.

In a memo explaining his decision not to prosecute, Satterberg cited testimony during the inquest from experts who agreed “that the use of deadly force was necessary given the circumstances.” Hearing similar testimony, Satterberg wrote, “a criminal jury would likely conclude that the use of deadly force was necessary.”

The inquest process itself is designed to make very narrow determinations about responsibility; in Lyles’ case, the six-person jury was only instructed to answer “yes,” “no,” or “unknown” to a list of 170 factual questions. King County reformed its inquest process in 2018 to give families access to an attorney and to give inquest juries more latitude in deciding whether officers followed department policy. The inquest into Lyles’ shooting was only the second inquest, and the second to find a police shooting justified, since the state supreme court allowed inquests to restart under the new rules last year.

Labor Fizz: Homelessness Agency Workers Unionize, State Vaccine Requirements Go Above and Beyond, City Accuses Parking Officers of Bad-Faith Bargaining

1. Employees of the King County Homelessness Authority have joined the Professional and Technical Employees Local 17 (PROTEC17)—the first step toward negotiating a contract that will establish mandatory standards for wages, hours, and working conditions at the agency, which has about 75 employees. The KCRHA, which oversees contracts with nonprofit homeless service providers around the region, has been operating without a union since last year.

KCRHA evaluation and analytics coordinator Claire Guilmette, who led the push to unionize, said she’s optimistic that the union will be able to reach an agreement quickly and collaboratively with KCRHA director Marc Dones, who will be on the other side of the bargaining table. Both non-managerial employees and some supervisors will have union representation; the state Public Employee Relations Commission is currently considering the agency’s argument that two employees, intergovernmental affairs manager Nigel Herbig and Dones’ executive assistant, Katherine Wells, should be excluded from the bargaining unit.

In a statement, Dones, who has expressed support for unionization in the past, said, “Our people are our greatest strength and we will continue to support our employees with what they need to be successful.” KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens said the agency could not comment on current organizing efforts. In response to PubliCola’s question about whether KCRHA has a human resources department, Martens said, “We do indeed,” but did not provide a list of employees in this department. The agency’s staff list is no longer available on its website.

PROTEC17 organizer Jessica Olivas said KCRHA’s employees are “extremely mission-driven,” sometimes to the detriment of advocating for themselves. “I’m actually happy that they took a step back and said, We deserve a voice on the job to help retain and recruit staff, and that’s what’s best in helping to advance their mission,” Olivas said.

As we reported last month, a number of high-level staff have left the agency in recent months, including peer navigator program director Dawn Shephard, senior advisor Lisa Gustaveson, special assistant Naomi See, and chief community impact officer Denille Bezemer.

2. Earlier this month, Governor Jay Inslee announced a new COVID-19 vaccination policy that will require all state employees to be not just vaxxed and boosted but up to date with current recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control, now and in the future, beginning next July. The new mandate goes beyond what the city of Seattle and King County require; for city and county employees, “fully vaccinated” means having received an initial one- or two-shot course of the Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson and Johnson vaccine.

A spokesman for the state Office of Financial Management, which will be responsible for drafting a formal policy and negotiating with the unions that represent state employees about that policy, said that after July 1, 2023, “employees would need to be up-to-date on any recommended COVID-19 shots/boosters,” subject to bargaining with the unions that represent state workers. PubliCola has reached out to the Washington Federation of State Employees for comment on the new requirements and will update this post if we hear back. 

CDC recommendations change periodically and are different for people of different ages. Currently, for example, the CDC recommends that everyone 50 or older get two booster shots. In a proclamation last year, Inslee defined “fully vaccinated” the same way the oity and county do: One full course of a single vaccine, with no booster requirements.

The complaint alleges that the Seattle Parking Enforcement Officers’ Guild bargained in bad faith with the city by proposing a one-year extension to its existing contract that the union knew its members would reject

3. Last month, we reported that the city’s parking enforcement officers filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint against the city for taking away their access to a system that provides instant information about vehicle owners, such as whether they have a warrant and for what offense, when the officers moved out of the police department and into the Department of Transportation. Three months later, the Seattle Parking Enforcement Officers Guild (SPEOG) filed a second complaint related to union participation on a special safety committee.

As that complaint moved forward, the city filed its own Unfair Labor Practice complaint against the parking enforcement officers’ union—an unusual step, since most labor complaints are made by employees against their employer, not the other way around. Continue reading “Labor Fizz: Homelessness Agency Workers Unionize, State Vaccine Requirements Go Above and Beyond, City Accuses Parking Officers of Bad-Faith Bargaining”

Council Could Place Ranked-Choice Voting On Ballot; Ballard Commons Still on Slow Track to Reopening

Ballard Commons
Ballard Commons

1. On Tuesday, Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis is expected to introduce legislation that would put ranked-choice voting—a type of election in which voters rank candidates according to their preference—on the November ballot alongside an existing initiative, I-134, that would allow voters to choose as many candidates as they want, a process called approval voting.

When presented with a validated initiative proposal, the council can put the measure on the ballot as-is, pass it as law themselves, or place an alternative measure on the ballot alongside the original initiative; if they put two measures on the ballot, the one that receives the most votes above a majority wins.

Ranked-choice voting, or instant-runoff voting, has been implemented in cities across the country, though in a slightly different form; in places with partisan like New York City, voters from each party use ranked choice voting to choose one person to move forward to the general election. In Seattle, which doesn’t have partisan elections, the top two candidates in the primary move forward to the general. Approval voting, in contrast, has only been implemented in two places in the US: Fargo, ND, and St. Louis, MO.

Advocates for ranked-choice voting argue that it elects leaders who are more representative of the general electorate. According to Fair Vote Washington spokesman Ben Chapman, ranked-choice voting produces “more civil, more issue-based campaigns, more voice for the voter and better representation for previously underrepresented communities.”  Advocates for approval voting say their system gives a fair chance to candidates who tend to languish in a winner-takes-all system where voting for the candidate you really like can feel like “throwing away your vote.”

Cannabis store owner and former city council candidate Logan Bowers, a member of the Seattle Approves campaign, says the council should put Initiative 134 on the ballot as-is, without introducing a second measure that would impose a totally different system. Under its ethics rules, the council is not allowed to discuss I-134 (or any alternative) publicly until it starts formally considering legislation to put the proposal on the ballot, which it will do next week. Because of the ethics constraint, Lewis declined to comment on his potential competing initiative.

Bowers says the council is rushing through an alternative measure without giving it the kind of scrutiny approval voting received through its campaign and signature gathering process. “I don’t think they need to rush this; they should just let approval voting go through or not, and they can always [put forward] another proposal later,” Bowers said. “We shouldn’t push this through as a two-week summer project.” Chapman counters that ranked choice voting is already a “known quantity” in use in more than 50 places across the US. “We don’t want Seattle voters to be an experiment,” Chapman said.

2. Since last December, the Ballard Commons—a 1.4-acre park surrounded by apartments and kitty-corner from the Ballard library— has been closed, its skate bowl, spray park, and grassy fields just out of reach behind the tall metal fence that has kept unsheltered people from setting up tents in the area for the last seven months. 

In a memo to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office April, the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation recommended “fully reopening the park by summer,” but added that they recognized “we cannot be successful without strong, sustained support of the obstruction process” by the city’s Unified Care Team, a group of about 60 Parks, Department of Transportation, and Human Services Department employees that is in charge of removing encampments, including those that obstruct the use of public spaces.

The memo went on to recommend fully reopening the park by Memorial Day, with assistance from the Unified Care Team to “implement the… obstruction [removal] process.” Continue reading “Council Could Place Ranked-Choice Voting On Ballot; Ballard Commons Still on Slow Track to Reopening”

Harrell Veto of Rent Transparency Bill Stands, JustCare Will Transition to Focus on Highway Encampments

1. The Seattle City Council voted not to overturn Mayor Bruce Harrell’s veto of legislation that would have directed a research university, such as the University of Washington, to collect information from landlords about the size of their units and how much they charge. City Councilmember Alex Pedersen sponsored the proposal because, he said at Tuesday’s meeting, it would help the city “validate [the] affordable benefits of smaller mom and pop landlords,” informing the city’s upcoming Comprehensive Plan rewrite; Councilmember Tammy Morales (District 2) co-sponsored it because she said it would give renters better information to make housing decisions and could ultimately bolster support for rent control.

“This could mean, for tenants, that they finally have the ability to make an informed decision and to make a choice between units when they’re searching for a new home—something that landlords have been able to do with background checks on tenants for decades,” Morales said. “We would finally have concrete data that dispels the illusion that private-market, trickle-down economics is the solution to our affordability crisis.”

Renters, unlike homeowners, lack access to crucial information to help them make informed housing decision. While home buyers can easily access public information about what a house sold for most recently, the assessed value of adjacent and nearby houses, and (through data maintained and published by the Multiple Listing Service) the average prices of houses in a particular area, renters have to rely on sites like Apartment Finder and Craigslist to get a general idea of local rents. Searches for the “median rent” in Seattle yield numbers that vary by hundreds of dollars, making it impossible to know whether the rent a landlord is charging is reasonable. 

In vetoing the legislation, Harrell argued that the bill would violate landlords’ rights by revealing “proprietary” information.

Overturning a mayoral veto requires a minimum of six council votes; as in the original vote, just five councilmembers supported the legislation this time.

2. JustCare, the COVID-era program that engaged with people living in encampments and moved them into hotel-based shelter, will no longer continue in its previous form. The program, run by the Public Defender Association, ran out of city funding at the end of June. Its new iteration, which will focus exclusively on encampments in state-owned rights-of-way, will be funded using state dollars allocated in a supplemental state budget for shelter and services tied to encampment removals on state-owned property.

“In the sense of a response to the conditions in the specific neighborhoods we served, there is no more JustCare. That era is over – it’s been superseded. The City of Seattle and KCRHA are now in charge of that response.”—Lisa Daugaard, Public Defender Association

The funding is only available to groups that focus on encampments in sites “identified by the department of transportation as a location where individuals residing on the public right-of-way are in specific circumstances or physical locations that expose them to especially or imminently unsafe conditions, including but not limited to active construction zones and risks of landslides.”

By moving its focus to encampments in state rights-of-way, such as highway overpasses, JustCare will lose its geographic, neighborhood-based focus, PDA co-director Daugaard acknowledges. 

“In the sense of a response to the conditions in the specific neighborhoods we served, there is no more JustCare,” Daugaard said. “That era is over – it’s been superseded. The City of Seattle and KCRHA are now in charge of that response.” Continue reading “Harrell Veto of Rent Transparency Bill Stands, JustCare Will Transition to Focus on Highway Encampments”

Bike Board Member Asks for Encampment Ban Near Bike Lanes, Poll Tests Streetcar Popularity; Council Clarifies “Z-Disposition” for 911 Calls

1. Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board member Dr. Doug Migden wrote to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office earlier this year to complain about the homeless people he sees while riding his bike, and to suggest legislation that would ban people from sleeping within up to 200 feet of any bike facility or sidewalk.

“First, I voted for Mr. Harrell and the primary reason is that crime and encampment related filth in Seattle is now totally unacceptable,” Migden’s letter begins. “I have lived on the north end of Queen Anne, in a house I own, since 1997. Unfortunately I’ve never seen Seattle in such a mess.”

Council member Alex Pedersen installed Migden on the bike board earlier this year, rejecting a different nominee the board identified through a months-long recruitment and nomination process. The bike board advocates for and advises the city on policies to make Seattle safer and more welcoming to cyclists from all backgrounds, including low-income and homeless people.

Given that “bicycle commuters in West Seattle can’t even safely get to downtown because of encampments and illegal activity such as IV drug use on or adjacent to bicycle pathways,” Migden continued in his letter, “how about a policy whereby nobody can camp on public sidewalks, on bicycle paths, or within 100 or 200 feet of such public spaces. This is not too much to ask and it’s certainly doable. Enforcement would be needed though. Perhaps more police officers on bicycles would help with this and other crime related issues in Seattle.”

“How about a policy whereby nobody can camp on public sidewalks, on bicycle paths, or within 100 or 200 feet of such public spaces.  Enforcement would be needed though. Perhaps more police officers on bicycles would help with this and other crime related issues in Seattle.” —Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board member Doug Migden

Yes, Migden wrote, it’s important to “take care of” truly “vulnerable populations,” but a lot of the homeless people he sees around are able-bodied men who “are not mentally ill,” are “in no distress,” and are well-off enough to “indulge” in cell phones. “[S]tratification and picking apart which illegal campers truly need assistance and which ones are basically freeloading off of responsible citizens who pay taxes etc., is crucial,” Migden wrote.

The mayor’s office, in a standardized response, told Migden they would forward the information about the encampments he reported (including “disgusting RVs” in Fremont and Ballard) to the city’s encampment cleanup squad.

2. A recent poll tested voters’ opinions about completing the long-delayed downtown Seattle streetcar project, along with various local funding options, such as increasing the commercial parking tax, increasing the local vehicle licensing fee, and increasing local sales taxes, already among the highest in the country.

The poll, conducted last week, seems to favor streetcar completion—stating, for example, that federal funding could cut the $350 million estimated cost of the streetcar almost in half, but is only available for a limited time. (Federal funding for the streetcar is far from certain, although, as the Urbanist pointed out earlier this year, a potential $75 million request for federal funding still gets a “high” rating from the Federal Transit Administration.)

“Connecting Seattle’s two existing streetcar lines just makes sense,” one of the poll’s test messages begins. (Many polls test messages that could be used for or against a proposal or person during a future campaign.) “This project will link our busiest transportation hubs serving people coming downtown by bus, light rail, ferry, Sounder, and Amtrak train creating a more seamless and convenient transportation system.”

Former mayor Jenny Durkan paused work on the downtown streetcar connection in 2018, citing cost overruns. Before and since then, streetcar skeptics have argued that the downtown line is redundant with existing bus and light rail service and would not serve enough riders to justify the ballooning cost. Last year, the city council gave the long-moribund streetcar a kickstart by providing $2.4 million in funding to resume work on the project.

It’s unclear who’s behind the poll; local political consultants, transit advocates, business groups, and streetcar proponents all told PubliCola it wasn’t them.

3. During an update on the city’s efforts to established an alternative response system for 911 calls that don’t require an armed response, city council public safety committee attempted to clarify an issue that recently confounded a prominent local columnist: The so-called “Z disposition” the Seattle Police Department gives to certain low-priority calls.

Previously, committee chair Lisa Herbold noted, dispatchers would routinely put the 911 system into “priority call status,” meaning that calls that didn’t rank in SPD’s top two “priority” designations (which include violent crimes and crimes in progress) would not get any response at all. Now, an officer reviews lower-priority calls before deciding whether they merit a response before dismissing them. “In my mind, that’s that’s a better approach, because at least you’re having somebody on the ground with law enforcement expertise making that decision,” Herbold said.

In April, she added, the city’s Office of Police Accountability recommended establishing a clearer system for assigning low-priority calls, in response to a high-profile complaint about two officers who ate breakfast near the Ballard library rather than responding immediately to a call about a person asleep inside their car.

Councilmember Sara Nelson said that in her view, the new system is actually worse, because under “priority call status,” police would at least tell low-priority callers to call back or give them a general estimate of when they might hear back about their call. “There is a customer service issue going on with the call with the system right now with no communication and that’s why people are getting upset,” Nelson said.

Efforts to replace police with civilian responders for some 911 calls remain largely stalled, and the Seattle Police Officers Guild has demanded to bargain any changes to the SPD-centric 911 response system.

Social Housing Initiative Pushes Forward, Fact-Checking Harrell on Homelessness

1. The campaign for Initiative 135, which would create a new public development authority to build publicly owned “social housing,” announced on Wednesday that it had just turned in 29,000 signatures to qualify their citywide initiative for the November 2022 ballot.

The House Our Neighbors campaign, led by the advocacy group Real Change, used paid signature gatherers to give their effort a boost in its final weeks, but the final count leaves little room for chance: To get on the ballot, a measure must be backed by signatures representing 10 percent of the voters in the last mayoral election, or about 26,500 names. Because many signatures are typically invalid, campaigns often try to collect as many signatures as possible; House Our Neighbors had hoped to collect around 35,000 names.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Real Change policy director Tiffany McCoy said the campaign combed over its signatures to eliminate as many as possible with non-Seattle addresses or information that was otherwise unclear. “If for some reason we come up five [signatures] short or 100, we do have a 20-day window to gather those requisite signatures and turn those in get on the ballot,” McCoy said. “Even if we don’t succeed this time, we will succeed in the future,” McCoy added. “This is happening one way or another.”

2. During a question-and-answer session sponsored by the business-backed homelessness nonprofit We Are In Tuesday evening, Mayor Bruce Harrell stuck to talking points about “treatment,” “data,” and “compassion” in response to questions about his administration’s progress on homelessness. Instead of covering all his responses to We Are In director Felicia Salcedo’s friendly questions, we thought it would be useful to provide a short fact check on a few of the mayor’s key talking points from Tuesday’s event.

“Housing and Treatment”

As he has at many press events involving homelessness, Harrell said the city’s response to homelessness would focus on ensuring people get the “treatment” they need. Responding to a question about the increase in encampment removals, Harrell said, “I lead with housing and I lead with treatment.”

In fact, even in the handful of cases where the city has done months of focused outreach before sweeping an area, sweeps almost never lead directly to housing or treatment. Instead, the city’s HOPE Team provides referrals to available shelter beds, which include everything from congregate “enhanced” shelter to tiny house villages. (Less than half of shelter referrals, generally speaking, result in someone actually showing up and staying at a shelter for at least one night). The city of Seattle provides very limited funding for programs that can lead to treatment, such as community court, with the overwhelming majority of local treatment dollars coming out of the King County budget.

“An unprecedented level of transparency” 

Earlier this month, Harrell rolled out what he described as an unprecedented public dashboard containing information about where people are living unsheltered, what kind of shelter or housing the city is offering people prior to encampment removals, and new shelter and housing units that are opening up.

Asked about the dashboard, Harrell said that it includes not just “a heat map” of “where people are living [and] where we’re offering people shelter” but a detailed breakdown of what the city is spending on homelessness and information to help the public “as we track our police and fire responses” to encampments.

In reality, the website Harrell announced shows only very high-level and partial information about the state of homelessness in Seattle. For example, the information on emergency responses consists of three high-level, citywide numbers representing information available through April, and the “heat map” includes an obviously incomplete count of tents and RVs by neighborhood; as an example, the map says there are no tents or RVs in the entire University District, and just one in Beacon Hill and South Beacon Hill combined. The information is also incomplete (many former encampments the map highlights include the note “outreach data not available”) and out of date; the most recent update came from information available in mid-May, and the website does not allow viewers to download any data themselves.

Information about what the city spends on homelessness, meanwhile, is misleading; a pie chart and several slides meant to illustrate the city’s contribution to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s budget includes tens of millions of dollars in federal emergency funds that do not come directly from the city, which contributed just under $70 million—not $118 million—to the authority last year.

Suburban Cities

Asked about the role suburban areas can or should be playing in addressing homelessness, Harrell said he would continue helping people who are “not from Seattle” but are moving here because the areas where they live are less “compassionate” toward people experiencing homelessness. Continue reading “Social Housing Initiative Pushes Forward, Fact-Checking Harrell on Homelessness”

City Resumes RV Sweeps; Another High-Level Staffer Leaves Homelessness Authority

Yellow eco-blocks line a street in West Seattle where RVs used to park.
After sweeping an RV encampment in West Seattle, someone installed bright-yellow “eco blocks” to prevent people from returning.

1. After the city announced it would begin enforcing the long-suspended “72-hour rule”—which requires vehicle owners to move their car, truck, or RV every three days—back in May, it was only a matter of time before the Harrell Administration started cracking down on people living in their vehicles. Less than two weeks later, workers arrived to clear out a group of people living in their RVs at Ruby Chow Park in Georgetown, towing away vehicular homes that could not be moved and sending some residents off to emergency shelters across town.

Last week, the same story played out at a longtime RV encampment on SW Andover Street in West Seattle, when the city gave residents 72 hours to leave the site. According to a spokeswoman for Seattle Public Utilities, which conducts what the city calls “RV remediations,” there were 15 RVs, 11 vehicles, one tent, and one trailer on site when the removal signs went up.

On Thursday, when workers showed up to clear the site, the SPU spokeswoman said “six RVs, three trailers, one box truck, three vehicles, two tents and 13 people” remained. Overall, three people accepted referrals to shelter, in addition to nine who left with shelter referrals over the previous month. That leaves nine people who were on site when crews came out who “self-relocated” to unknown locations.

In a recent newsletter, West Seattle city council representative Lisa Herbold noted that when people lose the RVs where they have been living, they lose not just a parking space but their actual home; emergency shelter, where people live in close proximity with no privacy or space to store personal belongings, isn’t an equivalent substitute for a private space with a locking door. “RV residents are a different group, with different needs, from other folks experiencing homelessness. They quite literally already have a home,” Herbold wrote.

A sign provides information about how RV owners can retrieve their impounded vehicles.
A sign provides information about how RV owners can retrieve their impounded vehicles.

Once the city towed the last remaining vehicles and hauled off what SPU describes as more than 50,000 pounds of trash, workers  replaced the RVs with large concrete “eco-blocks” meant to prevent RVs from parking at this location in the future. According to the West Seattle Blog, nearby Nucor Steel installed the blocks (illegally) in the public right-of-way. We have asked the city why they have not removed the blocks or required Nucor to remove them.

Parking an oversize vehicle on public streets overnight is illegal almost everywhere in the city, with the exception of small swathes of industrial land in Ballard, Georgetown, Interbay, and West Seattle.

Last week, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority awarded $1.9 million to the Low-Income Housing Institute, which operates most of the city’s tiny house villages, to open a safe parking lot for up to 50 RVs later this year. The funding, and the spaces themselves, represent a very small umbrella against a deluge of need: According to the most recent census of people experiencing homelessness, about 2,700 people were living in cars or RVs in King County in 2020, before the COVID pandemic.

The city has scheduled six RV removals in June; the next two on the schedule are on N Northlake Way, near Gasworks Park on June 28 and 4th Ave. S. in Georgetown on June 29. So far, seven RV sweeps are on the schedule for July.

2. Dawn Shepard, a former outreach director at REACH who took a high-profile job as co-director of the KCRHA’s peer navigator program earlier this year, has left the agency after just three months—the latest in a wave of high-level departures from the homelessness authority.

Peer navigators, now known as “system advocates,” are case managers with lived experience of homelessness who will work with people living unsheltered in downtown Seattle, with the goal of connecting them to services and appropriate shelter or housing—and “drawing down” the number of people living in tents downtown to “functional zero.” The privately funded effort got underway earlier this year.

As one of four co-directors of the system advocates program, Shepard shared her personal story at public meetings and to press outlets like Crosscut, which presented the concept of hiring people with lived experience as a unique new approach to unsheltered homelessness. Shepard is hardly the only KCRHA employee to describe her traumatic experiences in public; agency director Marc Dones frequently talks about their past struggles with mental illness and brushes with homelessness.

Some longtime direct-service providers and others doing on-the-ground work with homeless people in Seattle have quietly criticized this approach, noting that most of their employees also have lived experience with the homelessness and criminal justice systems. They’ve also objected to the idea that lived experience in itself is the most important qualification for jobs working with vulnerable people, and raised concerns about the need to protect employees from being retraumatized by telling their stories publicly as part of their jobs.

KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens acknowledged that most homeless service providers “hire many people with lived experience, and lived experience is often what draws people to wanting to do the work of helping others and creating change.” Although several KCRHA employees do share their past experiences publicly as part of their jobs, Martens says it’s entirely their choice to do so. “It’s important to recognize that people self-identify as people with lived experience,” Martens said. “We are very sensitive to people’s individual comfort levels and conscious of the risks of re-traumatization—I would never push people on that.”

Shepard did not return a call for comment, and Martens said she couldn’t provide any details about why she left. REACH program director Chloe Gale, Shepard’s former boss, noted that REACH has several open positions at the director level and recently increased its salaries to a level closer to what the KCRHA offers its own outreach workers. The pay differential between the new government agency and nonprofit service providers has been a bit of a sore spot, since most nonprofits can’t compete with the salaries KCRHA can offer.
Other high-ranking KCRHA employees who have left this year include senior advisor Lisa Gustaveson, who returned to the Seattle Human Services Department; special assistant Naomi See, who left for a position in Washington, D.C.; and chief community impact officer Denille Bezemer, who headed up the agency’s new interview-based homeless population count and returned to the Seattle Housing Authority. “Given that we are a start-up, some turnover is to be expected and I don’t think it’s out of the ordinary,” Martens said.

Proposal Would Prevent Mayors from Burying Complaints Against Police Chief; Nelson Cherry-Picks Study to Claim Forced Treatment Works

1. The actions of Seattle Police Department officers during the protests against police brutality in 2020 led to more than 19,000 complaints against officers and then-police chief Carmen Best, which the city’s Office of Police Accountability subsequently consolidated into just 143 cases.

Most of those cases are now resolved. About 10 are still being processed, with “completion” rates, according to the OPA’s Demonstration Complaint Dashboard, between 75 and 90 percent. Just three complaints remain stalled at 50 percent complete. All are from 2020, and all three name former police chief Carmen Best as a subject.

City law empowers the OPA, which is an independent office within the police department, to decide whether investigating a complaint would create a conflict of interest, which the office did in these three cases involving Chief Best. Because the three complaints would have essentially investigating the boss, OPA referred them to then-mayor Jenny Durkan, who initially wanted the Office of the Inspector General, an independent police accountability agency, to do the investigation.

When the OIG declined, the case went back to the OPA, which asked to assign the investigation to an outside agency. Instead of acting, Durkan apparently sat on the complaints against Best, leaving them to languish until her successor, Bruce Harrell, forwarded them to an outside agency. Harrell’s spokesman, Jamie Housen, said the administration found out about the languishing cases in January and referred them to an external investigator late that month.

Legislation filed by city councilmember Lisa Herbold would prevent the mayor and OPA director from burying complaints against the police chief in the future by setting up a formal process, and deadlines, for the OPA to refer complaints against the police chief to an outside investigator.

Under the proposed new process, which Harrell supports, if the OPA decided a complaint against the police chief merited an investigation, the bill would require the OPA director to decide whether the complaint should be investigated by the city’s Department of Human Resources or an entity completely outside the city.  The OIG would review OPA’s recommendation and decide where to route the complaint, based on a process laid out in the legislation. The proposal would also give the OIG a stronger oversight role in complaints and investigations involving the police chief.

The first of the three cases the city failed to investigate involves Chief Best’s claim (later retracted) that armed people were running an extortion racket at the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) during the protests. As the South Seattle Emerald reported this week, Best apparently knew the claim was a hoax when she repeated it to officers in a videotaped statement to officers working at the protests.

The second unresolved case accuses Best of lying about errors made by Seattle police and fire officials that prevented emergency responders from reaching a man who had been shot in the protest zone; Best told reporters (falsely, according to reporting by KUOW) that protesters had blocked the path of emergency vehicles, contributing to the man’s death.

The final case involves the police department’s use of tear gas against demonstrators in early June, 2020, after Seattle Federal District Judge Richard Jones granted a temporary restraining order against the department.

One goal of the bill is to “protect against any abuse of discretion that might occur if the Mayor or OPA Director are involved in the complaint or seek to conceal the complaint” in the future, according to the bill text.

A spokesperson for the OPA declined to comment for this story. The outside investigation into the three cases is reportedly wrapping up.

2. City Councilmember Sara Nelson told a constituent in an email last week that her own experience going to treatment convinced her that mandatory treatment is an effective response to homeless people who commit crimes because of their addiction—and “less expensive than most housing options,” too.

The email, which Nelson forwarded to all her council colleagues, came in response to a constituent who sent a link to a study finding that out of 160 people in an employment-based treatment program, the 131 who were required to go to treatment by a court were more likely to complete treatment than the 29 who went voluntarily.

“If a person stays sober for even six months, that’s less expensive than most housing options and far less deleterious to a person’s ability to find future housing and employment than having a record.”—City Councilmember Sara Nelson

“I’m not surprised by its argument that mandating (or ‘stipulating’ as used in the paper) treatment is more effective than commonly thought because I’m in recovery myself and when I went to a residential treatment program, I met many people who were in treatment for the first time and only because court-ordered,” Nelson wrote, adding that about half of the people she kept up with from treatment were still sober.

“A month of private in-patient or 6 months of outpatient treatment costs about $10,000,” Nelson continued. “If a person stays sober for even six months, that’s less expensive than most housing options and far less deleterious to a person’s ability to find future housing and employment than having a record. And treatment leads to better health outcomes than jail.” Continue reading “Proposal Would Prevent Mayors from Burying Complaints Against Police Chief; Nelson Cherry-Picks Study to Claim Forced Treatment Works”