Category: Parks

Seattle Center, Which Will Run Waterfront Park, Issued Dozens of Year-Long Parks Exclusions; City Will Let Private Buses “Share” Up to 250 Bus Stops

1. On Wednesday afternoon, the Seattle City Council’s public assets committee approved plans to have Seattle Center take over management of, and security at, the new waterfront park—an agreement that will bring stricter enforcement of park rules to the waterfront than at other parks throughout the city.

Under a “parks exclusion” ordinance dating back to 1997, the city’s parks department has the authority to ban anyone from a park for violating parks rules for up to a year. Since 2012, however, the department has voluntarily agreed not to trespass violators for more than a day, except when their actions threaten public safety. 

As PubliCola reported last week, Seattle Center operates under different rules, excluding people from the campus for longer periods and for lesser violations. Last year, outgoing director Robert Nellams told us, Seattle Center barred 37 people for periods ranging from a week to a year.

In response to questions from Councilmember Lisa Herbold, Seattle Center provided a more detailed list of those exclusions. Of the 37, the vast majority—24—were for 365 days, for violations ranging from showing up again while barred from the campus for a shorter period to serious criminal allegations, such as arson and assault. One person was banned for six months after passing out in the bathroom of the Armory building; another person, who had at least seven previous run-ins with Seattle Center security, was barred for a year for being intoxicated and panhandling. 

Four people received seven-day trespass notices for “camping” after “multiple warnings.” Nellams said Seattle Center’s policy on people sleeping at Seattle Center is to “respectfully and graciously ask people to move along.”

The committee approved the proposal unanimously; Herbold said she was convinced to support the plan after REACH, the outreach agency, endorsed the proposal in a letter to council members. Friends of the Waterfront, the nonprofit group that has led much of the planning for the new park, pays for two REACH staffers to provide outreach along the waterfront; the group will also pay for four “ambassadors” to answer questions and respond to minor issues once the park is open. Seattle Center will also provide 15 security officers.

2. Also this week, a council committee approved plans that could dramatically expand the number of public transit stops that King County Metro buses will “share” with private shuttle services run by companies like Microsoft and Children’s Hospital. The private buses parallel existing bus routes, using limited city-owned curb space for a system that only their employees can use.

Since 2017, Children’s and Microsoft have paid $300 per vehicle each year to share a total of 12 bus stops with the county’s public transit provider. The new rules, which the full council will consider Monday, would increase the potential number of new shared stops to 250 citywide, with no more than 50 stops reserved for any single employer.

During the meeting, Councilmember Tammy Morales asked rhetorically whether it makes sense to hand over limited curb space so that private companies could exempt themselves from the public transit system. “I see these shuttles everywhere,” Morales said. “I would much prefer that people ride a shuttle rather than drive a single-occupancy vehicle, and I would prefer to see that our public system was serving these folks instead of having a private system.”

Morales also asked, less rhetorically, why the city couldn’t just remove a couple of parking spots near transit stops so that buses and shuttles wouldn’t have to compete for space. SDOT planner Benjamin Smith responded that removing parking might harm nearby businesses—a familiar argument that assumes people won’t use transit to get to businesses even if the city makes it more convenient.

The new rules would limit which bus stops the private shuttles can use, excluding those “with the highest potential for conflicts with transit and other modes.” They would also require employers to pay a nominal fee of $5,000 per stop, per year, ora total of up to $250,000 per employer.

Ultimately, Morales voted to approve the new rules, which passed 4-1, with Councilmember Dan Strauss abstaining because, he said, he hadn’t had a chance to look at the rules in detail. The full council will also take up the bus stop sharing plan on Monday.

Seattle Center Plans Stricter Rule Enforcement at Waterfront Park

By Erica C. Barnett

A new linear park on Seattle’s downtown waterfront won’t be fully open until 2025, but the plan to enforce rules and maintain security in the park is already causing consternation at City Hall.

Last week, City Councilmember Lisa Herbold questioned the city’s public safety plan for the new park, which will—unlike the 430 parks that fall under the jurisdiction of the Parks Department—be managed by Seattle Center. That agreement, along with funding for the equivalent of 11.5 security staff, will be on the council’s agenda later this month.

Since 2012, as we’ve reported, the Parks Department has voluntarily agreed not to kick people out of parks for more than a day except for serious law or rule violations, even though they have the authority to issue “parks exclusions” for up to a year. When Seattle Center does not have a similar agreement, and has excluded dozens of people from its campus for periods ranging from 7 to 365 days in the past year.

“The Parks Department voluntarily constraining itself evolved over time… because of the research that was done on the use of parks exclusions,” Herbold said. The parks exclusion ordinance, one of many “civility” laws passed in the late 1990s under former city attorney Mark Sidran, essentially gave police and parks rangers carte blanche to prohibit people from using public spaces without any due process. The policy led to cruel and sometimes absurd results.

“When you think about the millions of people who come here, if I tell you that 37 people were excluded, I think that that’s a pretty damn good record.”—Seattle Center director Robert Nellams

In a conversation with PubliCola, retiring Seattle Center director Robert Nellams and incoming interim director Marshall Foster, who previously led the city’s Office of the Waterfront, said Seattle Center has been judicious about enforcing its rules against bad behavior. Before issuing an exclusion, Nellams said, “We to work with people, we try to get them to comply. And even if they only comply a little bit … we don’t go down that path” toward kicking people out.

“When you think about the millions of people who come here, if I tell you that 37 people were excluded, I think that that’s a pretty damn good record,” Nellams said.

If a person is trespassed from Seattle Center, though, it’s always for at least seven days, Nellams added. “If everybody understands and knows that that most that they can be excluded for is for one day, then that usually leads to some behavioral issues.”

According to the operations plan Foster and Office of the Waterfront Tiffany Melake presented to the city council’s public assets committee last Wednesday, the Friends of the Waterfront—a nonprofit that works with the city on waterfront planning, funding, and programming—will be responsible for social services along the waterfront through a contract with the outreach nonprofit REACH, and will employ “park ambassadors” to respond to minor issues.

Foster said the city has already tested out the public safety model it plans to use in the waterfront park on Pier 62, which reopened in 2020. What they found is that while “the vast majority of folks using it are following the code of conduct and everybody’s having a great time… you do need some rules which [allow you to] remove people from the space for a period of time. … If we’re not willing to enforce those things that have consequences [for other park users], it’s very hard for us to help people follow the right behavior in the park.”

Other nearby parks, such as Victor Steinbrueck Park just to the east of the waterfront, will still be subject to the Parks Department’s exclusion policy, meaning that someone could be excluded from the waterfront park for a rule violation that would not get them kicked out of a park next door.

Because the waterfront is directly adjacent to downtown—an area with a large number of unsheltered people and nonprofits that serve them—I asked Nellams how his department planned to deal with encampments in the area. (The Parks Department is chiefly responsible for responding to and removing encampments in other parks). Nellams said it was too soon to say, but noted that there are no tents at Seattle Center. “At Seattle Center, camping is not allowed,” Nellams said, “so we respectfully and graciously ask people to move along.”

Harrell Picks Diaz for Police Chief; Council Park District Alternative Would Keep Park Rangers, Raise Tax

Mayor Bruce Harrell, Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz, and supporters
Mayor Bruce Harrell, Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz, and supporters at Tuesday’s announcement

1. After a City Charter-mandated process that led to a list of three finalists, Mayor Bruce Harrell announced Tuesday that interim police chief Adrian Diaz will become Seattle’s permanent police chief, pending confirmation by the City Council.

Diaz expressed his desire to become permanent chief as early as 2020, when he replaced former chief Carmen Best, and was widely viewed as the most obvious choice for the position. Harrell’s office announced the finalists for the position less than two weeks ago, and the public had its first look at all three finalists in a live Seattle Channel interview five days before the mayor announced his selection.

The compressed recent timeline, combined with Harrell’s choice of the most widely predicted candidate, gave the chief selection the air of a fait accompli, prompting questions Tuesday about whether the city r revisit how it picks police chiefs in the future. Harrell defended the process, calling it “an extremely effective and efficient use of dollars” that involved “all communities in the city. “There was nothing broken in this process. The process was a good process. And so nothing out of this process suggested to me [that] we needed to fix or change anything,” Harrell said.

The police department currently has fewer than 1,000 officers on duty, a number Diaz and the mayor have said they want to increase to more than 1,400 over the next five years. Diaz said the public is demanding “action on crime, on gun violence, on perceived and real issues of safety,” and vowed to continue efforts to hire hundreds of new officers while committing to accountability, diversity, and new types of policing, including co-responder models, in which police partner with social service workers when responding to some crisis and non-emergency calls.

This approach, like the choice of Diaz itself, represents a commitment to the status quo: Reform, not a radical rethinking of the relationship between police and the communities they serve. Aggressive hiring, rather than redistributing some duties to non-police responders. More and better officer training, rather than example-setting discipline for cops who abuse their power. Even Diaz’s characterization of the 2020 protests outside the East Precinct, which he repeatedly referred to as “riots” both yesterday and during his Seattle Channel interview, represents a pre-2020 perspective in which police are the only bulwark against everything from violent crime to people protesting against police violence.

2. On Tuesday City Council member Andrew Lewis presented his budget proposal for the upcoming six-year Metropolitan Parks District plan, which PubliCola previewed earlier this week. Lewis’ proposal amends and expands on the plan Mayor Bruce Harrell proposed earlier this month, increasing the proposed property tax to 39 cents per $1,000 of home valuation (up from Harrell’s 38 cents/$1,000), adding two new off-leash areas, funding the electrification of additional community centers, planting more trees, and renovating four more restrooms than Harrell’s plan, among other changes.

Climate advocates have argued that the city needs to invest more heavily in decarbonizing the city’s 26 community centers. Lewis’ proposal would add $4 million in 2025 and 2026 to accelerate this process, along with $18 million in debt, which the city would begin paying off near the end of the park district cycle, in 2027, with a goal of decarbonizing 13 community centers by 2028.

The plan would also fund $5 million for additional maintenance at the planned downtown waterfront park, which would come out of the existing park stabilization fund and reserves.

Lewis noted Monday that his proposal also includes spending restriction meant to ensure that parks rangers can’t remove encampments or exclude people from parks for anything other than felony-level crimes. As we reported on Monday, although a 1997 law empowers parks rangers to exclude people from parks for violating park rules, a more lenient policy adopted in 2012 has effectively superseded that law. Lewis’ proposal would make funding for 26 new rangers contingent on following the 2012 rule, and would require the mayor to “immediately inform the Park District should these park rules be modified.”

Two public commenters were extremely upset about nudity they’d witnessed at Denny Blaine Park, an unofficial nude beach on Lake Washington, and said they hoped the new park rangers would put a stop to it and, as one speaker put it, make the park a “family friendly place again.” One outraged speaker, who seemed to be a frequent visitor, said she had witnessed people “walking down Lake Washington Boulevard naked, in the middle of Denny Blaine Park, naked, in trees, naked, displaying themselves, naked, on the low walls in the park, [and] naked people swimming, paddle boarding, laying on rafts, etc.”

The parks district board, which is made up of all nine members of the city council, will meet this Friday, and the council itself could vote on a final proposal as soon as Monday, September 27.

Harrell’s Proposal to Expand Park Ranger Program Sparks Controversy

Victor Steinbrueck Park
Victor Steinbrueck Park in downtown Seattle; photo by Wknight94; CC-by-SA 3.0 license

By Erica C. Barnett

Mayor Bruce Harrell’s proposal to restart the mostly moribund Park Ranger program by hiring 26 additional rangers to patrol Seattle’s downtown parks has run into opposition from advocates who have argued that the rangers will be “park cops” deputized to kick homeless people out of public spaces.

But some city council members say the rangers are meant to be a civilian alternative to police, and point to measures the city has taken to ensure that rangers can’t facilitate arrests or exclude people from parks except in extreme situations—specifically, a 2012 policy that restricts park rangers’ authority.

Councilmember (and parks district board chair) Andrew Lewis said that during a recent “ridealong” with one of the city’s two park rangers, “it was made really, really clear to me that they are greatly dissuaded from using their authority to trespass or exclude—their job is to tell people what the rules in a park are, and usually that’s enough.”

On Monday, Lewis will release his own parks district plan, which will include Harrell’s park ranger proposal. “But,” he added, “we want to make sure we put some fetters on what they can do,” in the form of a resolution accompanying the parks district spending plan “acknowledging the current policy and making it clear rangers will not participate in removals of encampments.”

The debate over park rangers is only the latest salvo in a battle over behavior in parks that goes back decades.

Back in 1997, the city adopted a controversial law called the Parks Exclusion Ordinance, which allowed police to ban people from parks for violating local laws—anything from skating too fast to public inebriation to “camping”— could get a person excluded from all parks in one of 12 geographic “exclusion zones.” If a person was caught in any parks in that area during their exclusion period, they would face an escalating series of exclusions; on the third offense, they would be banned from every park in the city. Thousands of people were excluded from parks under the law, usually for minor offenses; during the first year the law was in effect, 53 percent of exclusions were for public inebriation and 22 percent were for sleeping in parks overnight.

Advocates like the ACLU and the Public Defender Association opposed the program, noting that it disproportionately impacted people who were homeless or poor; it also led to some absurd results.

The park ranger program started in 2007, when the city hired six rangers to “rove downtown parks and alert police to any illegal activity,” according to a Seattle Times report. The rangers also had the ability to enforce the exclusion ordinance.

The parks exclusion ordinance remains on the books. However, in 2012, it was superseded by a new “trespass warning” policy. Under that policy, park rangers or police can issue a warning when they see someone violating park rules or a state or local law; if they’re caught violating a law or park rule again, they can be arrested and prosecuted for criminal trespassing, a misdemeanor. People can also be excluded from a park zone—they still exist!—for up to a year for committing a felony or weapons-related violation. In 2015, the PDA wrote a letter to interim parks director Christopher Williams applauded the department for using the law judiciously and asking him to take a similar approach to the ban on smoking cigarettes in parks.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold, whose onetime boss, former councilmember Nick Licata, opposed the original parks exclusion law, said current efforts to paint parks rangers as anti-homeless cops diminishes the hard work of activists who pushed for the 2012 policy change. “Advocates fighting for their clients did something important, with principled persistence, that we couldn’t accomplish legislatively…and it’s lasted for ten years,” Herbold said. “This opposition campaign is devaluing that victory.”

So far, according to the Public Defender Association, the city has abided by its commitment not to indiscriminately trespass people from parks over minor issues. In the last year, according to the parks department, the two parks rangers issued 388 informal verbal warnings, one written warning, one citation for trespass, and two exclusions, both related to people shooting guns at Discovery Park.

The city’s interpretation and use of the law can change. Codifying some version of the 2012 policy in ordinance would be the most effective way to ensure that park rangers and police use their powers judiciously.

“The City Parks Ranger program was created during a time when we’d achieved an agreement to dramatically reduce the use of criminal penalties for minor parks use issues and for camping,” PDA director Lisa Daugaard said. “Their role is rarely to exclude—and then only for immediate legitimate safety threats—and mainly to be problem-solvers and caretakers. It’s obviously important to watch how an investment like this actually plays out on the ground, but to date, rangers have not catalyzed parks bans or arrests.”

A policy is less binding than a law, and open to interpretation by the mayor and his advisors; Harrell’s top public safety advisor, former Councilmember Tim Burgess, proposed criminalizing “aggressive panhandling” as a councilmember and, more recently, backed an aborted effort to have police use an obscure law governing behavior on buses to crack down on “disorderly conduct,” such as drinking, gambling, and amplified music around a former bus stop at Third and Pine. In other words: The city’s interpretation and use of the law can change. Codifying some version of the 2012 policy in ordinance would be the most effective way to ensure that park rangers and police use their powers judiciously.

Initially at least, the 28 park rangers would only work in parks downtown, under a 2008 agreement between the city and the Seattle Police Officers Guild that prohibits them from operating elsewhere. According to Harrell spokesman Jamie Housen, “The initial focus on the park ranger program would be on downtown parks as rangers are hired, additional capacity is built, and the program is scaled up. While expanding beyond downtown is something we would like to consider after the program is reestablished— dependent on bargaining—there are plenty of parks downtown where rangers could provide needed services.”

More Details On Proposal to Double Parks District Funding: Encampments, Park Security, and Pickleball

Interim parks director Christopher Williams speaks at a parks district press conference last week.

By Erica C. Barnett

Seattle voters approved the Seattle Metropolitan Parks District, a special taxing district that enables the city to raise property taxes by as much to .075 percent without a public vote, in 2014 over the objections of the Seattle Times editorial board and other anti-tax advocates who argued that it would create a “permanent tax” with no accountability.

The parks district, which imposed an initial property tax of 0.02 percent (or 20 cents per $1,000 of a home’s assessed valuation) replaced a system that required Seattle residents to vote on a parks levy every six years. If they didn’t, the city would forfeit much of its ongoing funding for things like community center and pool maintenance, landscaping, and new park acquisition. The Times didn’t like the old system much, either, but they really hated the idea of a tax that couldn’t be defeated at the polls.

So it’s interesting, this time around, that usual suspects aren’t lobbying the council at top volume to reject Mayor Bruce Harrell’s proposal for the second cycle of parks district funding, which would almost double the size of the levy from 20 cents per $1,000 to 38 and increase Seattle parks’ reliance on funding from the tax from 20 percent of the total parks budget to about one-third.

Harrell’s proposal would add 29 permanent positions in the parks department to expand the Clean City Initiative, which cleans up debris around encampments, as part of the new Unified Care Team, which responds to and removes encampments.

Maybe that’s because the Times supports Harrell and his vision. In addition to more funding for things like renovating and decarbonizing community centers, keeping parks restrooms open year-round, and pickleball, Harrell’s proposal would add 29 permanent positions in the parks department to expand the Clean City Initiative, which cleans up debris around encampments, as part of the new Unified Care Team, which responds to and removes encampments. (The funding mechanism is a money swap that puts the program in the base budget for parks while swapping money that pays for parks utilities from the city budget into the parks district).

The Clean City Initiative was originally funded with federal COVID response dollars as a “surge” program to clean up trash and litter, but it has always been strongly associated with encampment removals. By bringing this work under the UCT and making it part of the department’s base budget, the mayor is proposing to make a temporary response to encampments in parks permanent.

Similarly, Harrell’s proposal would revive the moribund Parks Ranger program by deploying 26 new rangers in city parks. The rangers, who are uniformed but unarmed, have historically patrolled parks in downtown Seattle and on Capitol Hill, providing security and occasionally helping the Seattle Police Department remove encampments, issue trespass warnings, or kick protesters out of public spaces, as they did at Westlake Park during the Occupy Seattle protests in 2011.

City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who chairs the parks district board, said he hasn’t heard any opposition to the size of the tax increase during the town halls the board held this summer around the city. “I think it’s just a reflection of how much need there is for investment in our parks and how our old system was not sufficient to meet it,” Lewis said. Having the certainty of an ongoing tax, he added, enables the city to bond against parks district revenues for longer periods, because the city doesn’t have to worry about funds running out if voters decide not to renew the tax.

“We can do more community centers and climate resiliency [projects], because we can bond more of this,” Lewis said. The proposal includes funding for a number of capital projects that wouldn’t be affordable without longer-term bonds, including renovations and upgrades at four community centers.

Harrell’s office, in contrast to his historically secretive predecessor Jenny Durkan, provided a detailed preview of his parks district proposal that included information about some parks-related adds in his upcoming city budget proposal. This appendix provides a good high-level summary of the plan, which, flower enthusiasts will be bummed to learn, will “not include the [Board of Parks and Recreation Commission] recommended investment of approximately $270,000 to fund hanging baskets and other park beautification efforts.”

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”

Council Begins Debate on Parks District Expansion, Tax Increase

People playing pickleball. (Image credit: Jesus Abizanda from Barbastro, Huesca, Spain, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Erica C. Barnett

The city council, meeting as the board of the Metropolitan Parks District, raised questions last Friday about a plan to increase expand funding for the district by about $50 million, nearly doubling the size of the tax and funding more than $30 million in new projects and initiatives, plus funding for “pre-commitments” that the city promised in the past but has not delivered, including the Green Lake Community Center.

Currently, the median homeowner in Seattle pays about $155 a year toward the levy; the increase the city is considering would raise that to $307 a year, an amount the city expects to rise to $411 by 2028, assuming a 4 percent annual inflation rate. In addition to inflation, the median cost to taxpayers is influenced by home prices, which have continued to skyrocket in recent years.

The decision to raise park district taxes, and by how much, rests entirely in the hands of Mayor Bruce Harrell (whose proposal this is) and the council, acting as the parks district board. (For ease of understanding, I’m going to refer to the Metropolitan Parks District board as the council from now on, since the membership is the same) That’s because of the way the parks district is structured.  In 2014, voters approved the creation of the parks district to fund park programming above and beyond what the city’s previous voter-approved levy was authorized to fund—for example, operating programs and maintaining parks and community centers. The 2014 measure capped parks district spending at 75 cents per $1,000 of property valuation—anything above that amount, and the MPD board would have to send the plan to voters.

The increase the council is considering is still less than the 75-cent cap, but it does represent a significant property tax hike at a time when many homeowners (and renters, to whom property taxes get passed along) are still recovering from the impact of the pandemic—and on the brink of a potential recession.

It was that potential recession park district planners had in mind, interim Seattle Parks director Christopher Williams told the council Friday, when they proposed including $10 million in ongoing annual funding for parks projects that would ordinarily be funded by the city’s general fund. The city has been supplanting its parks budget with $10 million in levy funds during the pandemic, but this situation was supposed to be temporary; the parks district was created, in fact, specifically to add to existing parks funding, not to pay for ongoing needs.

Explaining the proposal to continue shoring up the parks budget with levy dollars, Williams said the intent was “to anticipate, I think, the situation the city could be in in 2023 and how the park district could provide post COVID relief to the city’s general fund situation,” Williams said. The city is facing an estimated $117 million budget shortfall next year, followed by diminishing but still significant shortfalls for several years after that.

“I am a skeptic of supplementation through the Metropolitan Park District, and that is a no way to say that we don’t have a challenging looming budget cycle,” Councilmember Andrew Lewis, the president of the MPD board, said. “I do think we need to be cognizant of the fact that …crises will come, and we need to be really careful of the precedent we set on when we we do and don’t dip into the MPD to help balance the general fund situation.” Continue reading “Council Begins Debate on Parks District Expansion, Tax Increase”

Saving Invasive Tree Cost City $45,000; Hiring Bonuses Would Have Blown Up SPD Budget; Assaults at Sweeps Involved Pine Cones, “Veiled Threats”; Get Ready for Even-Year Elections?

1. Last week, Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington told PubliCola that the city has to make sure police are present at every encampment removal because Parks Department workers, who are in charge of removing tents and disposing of unsheltered people’s belongings, were being “assaulted” by “protesters” who show up at sweeps. The parks workers’ union raised the issue, Washington said, because the workers didn’t feel safe without police in the area.

Although we’ve been present at many encampment removals, PubliCola couldn’t remember seeing or hearing about any physical assaults by mutual aid workers who show up at sweeps—including from local TV news reporters, who are generally eager to jump on any drama related to homelessness.  Asked for clarification, a Parks Department spokeswoman said Parks employees had been both threatened and physically assaulted.

For example, the spokeswoman said, “a staff person was pushed during a removal, protestors have thrown rocks and pinecones at staff, a protestor grabbed the arm of staff while they were posting removal notices, protestors have screamed in staff members’ faces, and protesters have written veiled threats toward specific staff including naming their family members.”

The Seattle Police Department has lost about 400 officers since the beginning of 2020, and continues to lose more officers than it hires.

The Parks Department did not directly respond to a question about whether the Parks union requested and received a contract modification or other written agreement to ensure police would be present at all encampment removals. “When our labor partners came to us with employee safety concerns, we worked together to address them and act,” the spokeswoman said.

“A staff person was pushed during a removal, protestors have thrown rocks and pinecones at staff, a protestor grabbed the arm of staff while they were posting removal notices, protestors have screamed in staff members’ faces, and protesters have written veiled threats toward specific staff including naming their family members.”

2. As the West Seattle Blog reported last week, the Seattle Department of Transportation decided to “spare” a large, multi-trunked horse chestnut tree in West Seattle whose roots have caused the sidewalk to buckle, making it unsafe for pedestrians. SDOT said it had not decided what to do about the tree, which is at least several decades old, but was glad to have found a solution that doesn’t require cutting down the tree. 

The solution, which the Seattle Times summarized as “a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” comes at a cost to the city: About $45,000, according to a spokesman for SDOT, to build a new “parallel/corner curb ramp with minimal tree root trimming that should not harm the tree” and move a fire hydrant across the street.

It’s unclear what impact the success of this tree protest will have on future attempts to remove trees that are damaging public infrastructure or are in the path of development. Historically, “Save the Trees” has been a rallying cry in Seattle (and elsewhere) for laws that prevent the construction of new housing—particularly in North Seattle’s tree-lined, largely white single-family neighborhoods, where people of color were historically barred from living.

Horse chestnut trees are a rapidly growing invasive species that, along with mountain ash, “make up the majority of the non-native deciduous species” in the city, according to the city of Seattle. That quote comes from a report recommending the removal of these trees from a natural area in Southeast Seattle that is “infested” with them, hindering the growth of native species.

3. The Seattle Police Management Association, which represents fewer than 100 police captains and lieutenants, have negotiated changes in their contract that, if implemented (the full contract is on the city council’s agenda next week), would cost the city about $3.39 million this year for retroactive and current wage increases. This extra cost would come out of SPD’s salary savings for 2022—$4.5 million the city saved because SPD was unable to hire all the officers the council funded in SPD’s budget last year. (The council could also decide to fund the contract costs from some other source, but that would require new legislation; paying for salaries out of the salary savings does not require legislation.)

Back in May, the city council and Mayor Bruce Harrell agreed to a “compromise” proposal that released $1.15 million in unspent salary savings to boost recruitment at SPD, after Councilmember Sara Nelson spent several weeks arguing that the city should just hand the entire $4.5 million to SPD for hiring bonuses. Conveniently enough, that $1.15 million, plus the money it will cost the city to fund SPMA’s contract in 2022, adds up to right around $4.5 million—money that would not have been available if Nelson had gotten her way and released the full $4.5 million.

Harrell spokesman Jamie Housen said “it was purely coincidental that those two figures lined up.”

We’ll have a more detailed report on the SPMA contract later this week.

4. Last week, the King County Council agreed to delay a vote on a proposal by Councilmember Claudia Balducci to give voters the chance to decide whether to move county elections, including the races for county executive, county council, and county elections director, to even years. Balducci, echoing many progressive groups, has argued that even-year elections would boost turnout over the current system, in which many local races (including Seattle elections) are conducted in “off” years, meaning those without statewide or national elections. Continue reading “Saving Invasive Tree Cost City $45,000; Hiring Bonuses Would Have Blown Up SPD Budget; Assaults at Sweeps Involved Pine Cones, “Veiled Threats”; Get Ready for Even-Year Elections?”

Controversial Officer Gets Short Suspension for Shattering Driver’s Window; Woodland Park Sweep Houses Four People; County Councilmember Dunn Votes “No” on Choice

1. Last month, Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability, which investigates allegations of officer misconduct, dismissed most of a complaint filed by a police lieutenant against SPD officer Andrei Constantin, who deliberately shattered the window of a car parked at a gas station while the driver and a passenger were inside. Of five allegations, including charges of retaliation and dishonesty, the OPA upheld only two—failing to document the smashed window and behaving unprofessionally. As a penalty, Police Chief Adrian Diaz issued an eight-day suspension.

If Constantin’s name sounds familiar, that’s because this isn’t the first time his actions have landed him in the press. In 2020, Constantin was outed as the person allegedly responsible for an anonymous Twitter account that, among other inflammatory statements, mocked victims of police violence, including George Floyd, promoted violence against protesters, and called for donations to a defense fund for a driver who killed a demonstrator on I-5 in the summer of 2020.

Since that controversy, police accountability watchdogs have unearthed at least four other OPA complaints against Constantin, many of them containing multiple misconduct allegations, in the last five years. Many of those resulted in referrals for training rather than suspensions or more serious punishment. The complaints identified on the SPD.watch website, a joint project of DivestSPD and Tech Bloc Seattle, included: Pulling over a driver without justification, pointing a gun at him, and handcuffing him; threatening to use his Taser on a man who was not being threatening; stopping a homeless Black bike rider and detaining him for nearly an hour because he wasn’t wearing a helmet; and a use-of-force allegation that the OPA hasn’t yet resolved.

According to the OPA report on this latest incident, Constantin saw a car parked at a gas station, ran driver’s plates and determined that the title to his car hadn’t been transferred when it was sold. When Constantin approached the car, the driver, who was Latino, got back in the car and rolled up the window, according to the report. At that point, Constantin “used a hard object to strike and shatter the driver’s side window” while the driver and a passenger were inside. In his own report on the incident, Constantin withheld the fact that he had smashed the person’s window.

A disciplinary action report recommending the suspension noted that Constantin had been disciplined for misconduct twice before. “[Y]ou did not have probable cause to arrest or any basis to engage in a vehicle pursuit. Despite this, you destroyed a community member’s property,” the report says. “That is an act akin to vandalism done under the purported color of law.”

2. The site of a longstanding encampment in Lower Woodland Park was quiet and mostly empty on Tuesday afternoon, save for a group of volunteers trying to start a vehicle and push it out of the park. Piles of pallets, tarps, and trash were the only evidence that dozens of people had been living on site for months, many of them as recently as a few hours earlier.

More than 95 percent of the Woodland Park encampment residents who accepted referrals from the HOPE Team were offered emergency shelter, not housing.

By 2pm, workers with the city’s Parks Department had surrounded most of the former encampment site with caution tape and posted large “PARK TEMPORARILY CLOSED” signs at the entrances to the area; parks employees stationed at the east end of West Green Lake Way asked drivers entering the area where they were going.

The city has spent five months doing outreach at the park and offering shelter beds to people on a “by-name list” of those who were living on site back in February. Since then, dozens more have arrived who were not on that original list, including at least some who moved to the park because they heard it was scheduled for a sweep, effectively unlocking city services that are not available at other encampments. The HOPE Team, run by the city’s Human Services Department, has exclusive access to about a third of the city’s shelter beds, which it offers to people living in encampments in the runup to sweeps.

According to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, the city’s HOPE Team made 83 offers of “shelter or housing” to people living in the park, including most of the people on the original 61-person list. Seventy-nine of those offers were for shelter; just four people moved into permanent supportive housing. Other than the four housing referrals, the city does not have data on how people actually enrolled in shelter.

The goal since the onset of this coordinated engagement was to ensure that everyone residing onsite received an offer of shelter and that the vast majority were  connected to the best-suited shelter and support services,” Harrell spokesman Jamie Housen said. As of Tuesday morning, the city had 42 shelter beds available for those who remained on site; 27 accepted referrals, including 20 referrals into tiny house villages run by the Low-Income Housing Institute. 

As always, people who receive “referrals” do not necessarily show up and stay at a shelter, and people who enroll in a shelter within 48 hours—”enrollments,” in the city’s nomenclature—do not necessarily stay there. (More on the HOPE Team’s low shelter enrollment rate here). And media reports, like this one, that claim dozens of people moved into “housing” are, at best, misleading, since more than 95 percent of the Woodland Park encampment residents who accepted referrals from the HOPE Team were offered emergency shelter, not housing.

One reason the city was able to offer so many shelter beds—particularly tiny house village spots, which are in high demand—is that they reserved spots specifically for this encampment removal; the referral rate is not representative of the number of beds available to the HOPE Team on a typical night, nor is it close to the number accessible to nonprofit outreach groups like REACH, which access shelter beds through a separate pool.

According to HSD spokesman Kevin Mundt, the Low-Income Housing Institute made about 30 of its shelter beds available to people living in Woodland Park, including 16 spots at tiny house villages.

The park will be closed until next Monday, according to Housen, so that Parks employees can “focus on returning the park to its intended use (access to recreation, hosting events and sports, and sustaining critical natural area).”

3. King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, currently running as a Republican against Democratic US Rep. Kim Schrier in Washington’s 8th Congressional District, cast the lone “no” vote against a resolution supporting women’s right to choose and affirming the validity of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which the US Supreme Court is poised to overturn. Even the council’s other Republican, Pete Von Reichbauer, voted to support the measure after several council members, including women and gay men, spoke passionately about their support for the right to abortion as well as other rights that could be threatened if Roe goes away, such as the right to same-sex marriage.

Dunn did not explain why he voted against the measure, which “declares [the council’s] support of a woman’s right to reproductive freedom and of Roe v. Wade as settled law of the land” and asks the health department to “actively enforce” existing law regulating so-called “crisis pregnancy centers”—sites run by religious groups that attempt to talk pregnant women into going through with their pregnancies.

Dunn, a moderate by contemporary Republican standards, is up against several more conservative primary-election challengers peddling conspiracy theories and touting their support for Trump. Still, his vote against a nonbinding pro-choice resolution places him out of the mainstream of Washington politics, and could alienate many voters in his district; Schrier, a Democrat, ran against anti-choice Republican Dino Rossi and won on an explicitly pro-choice platform.

Proposal to Trade Away Troubled Pioneer Square Park Questions About Park Access, Land Value

City Hall Park, fenced and closed
City Hall Park, a rare piece of green space in downtown Seattle, has been closed and fenced off since last year.

By Erica C. Barnett

King County and the city of Seattle are moving forward with a plan, negotiated under former mayor Jenny Durkan, for the city to trade City Hall Park in Pioneer Square for 12 smaller pieces of county-owned property around the city.

The park, which has been closed and fenced off since last year, was the site of a large encampment through much of 2021, prompting calls to remove the park from city control by King County officials and some superior court justices who work in the adjacent King County Courthouse. Although the park was neglected during the pandemic, pre-COVID efforts to “activate” the space had been largely successful, and the city had planned to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars expanding those programs before the pandemic began.

On Wednesday, the city council’s public assets and homelessness committee had its first discussion about the proposed land swap, which will also require the city to vacate (give or sell to the county) a short stretch of road that passes through the park.

Although the trade currently feels like a fait accompli—a spokesman for Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office said Harrell supports the trade as long as it includes a covenant that ensures the park remains a park “in perpetuity”—parks and Pioneer Square neighborhood advocates questioned whether trading the land to the county would actually accomplish the dual goal of improved public safety and open space for the neighborhood.

Rebecca Bear, president of the Seattle Parks Foundation, called City Hall Park a “complex” location with “a lot of issues,” but told council members that “closing off the park and even transferring the park to another jurisdiction is not going to solve that problem.” For hundreds of low-income people living in the area, the park serves as an important green space in a highly urban area—or did, before it was fenced off last year. “The park does need love now while this process is going on, and so I’d encourage you all to you know, work with the [county] to see if there’s a way we can get the park open and activated before any land transfers happen,” Bear said.

Parcels King County has proposed transferring to the city in exchange for City Hall Park include a 2,300-foot wedge of the Cheasty Greenspace overlooking Columbian Way S; a 251-square-foot fragment of the Duwamish Greenspace overlooking I-5 ; and a 291-square-foot triangle near the Admiral District in West Seattle.

Legislation adopted by the King County Council last year says the deed for the land swap will include a covenant guaranteeing that the land “shall continue to be used for public open space, a park, a recreation and community facility, the expansion of existing County facilities, or other public benefit purpose, provided that any such purpose shall be for use by the general public and primarily noncommercial in nature.”

King County external relations director Calli Knight told the council that placing covenant on the land would “make it clear that it is going to be substantially used in perpetuity for open space, with the nuance that we really would like to look at opening the historic south entrance of the park”—the historic front entrance of the courthouse, which was reoriented to face Third Avenue in the 1960s.

Representatives from the county noted that the city and county previously agreed to a land swap based on acreage, rather than land value, since the fair-market value of City Hall Park would be in the tens of millions if it could be developed as high-rise housing or office space. “We settled upon a an area negotiation because … the location of the park, if it was unrestricted property, would render that completely outside the scale, which is one of the reasons we also have about three times as much property being conveyed in terms of area,” King County Facilities Management Division Tony Wright told the council.

Initiative 42, passed in 1997, says that if the city wants to trade away park land, it must “receive in exchange land or a facility of equivalent or better size, value, location and usefulness in the vicinity, serving the same community and the same park purposes.”

Collectively, the 12 parcels represent more square footage (1.33 acres) than City Hall Park, which is just over half an acre, but many are tiny triangles or squares contiguous to or across the street from city-owned property. But some council members wondered if the city is getting a fair deal out of the proposed land swap. “Many of these [parcels] are really small—you know, there’s a couple that are less than 300 square feet,” Councilmember Tammy Morales noted Wednesday. “I’m not sure what the city’s gain would be in terms of being able to use these parcels.”

In addition to the park, the county is asking the city to vacate a public street, allowing the county to use that space for another purpose, for free—a departure from previous policy. For example, when the city vacated streets on First Hill to allow expansion of the Harborview Medical Center, the county paid for the land, Lewis said.

The land transfer can’t move forward without city council approval and analysis under the State Environmental Policy Act, from which the Durkan administration argued the land swap was exempt. Committee chair Andrew Lewis told PubliCola he and other council members have a number of outstanding questions about the land swap, including the street vacation, which amounts to as much city-owned property as the park itself.

“I don’t think any of us particularly feel bound by whatever secretive process the Durkan administration engaged in” with the county, Lewis said, “because it was not one the council was privy to. The council started our process yesterday, and I don’t, frankly, feel bound by any concession the Durkan Administration made. We’re going to look at this from top to bottom.”