Category: State of Washington

Two Bills on Cop Discipline Illustrate Limits of Labor Support for Police Reform

Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34) presents before the Washington State Senate’s Labor, Commerce and Tribal Affairs Committee on Thursday

By Paul Kiefer

Labor leaders, police accountability activists and elected officials from across the state, including Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, testified Thursday in Olympia about two state senate bills intended to restructure or streamline the disciplinary process for police. The testimonies from the labor leadership revealed the sharp divide between Seattle’s labor movement, which distanced itself from police unions in June, and the statewide labor movement, which continues to defend police union membership—in their words, both out of solidarity and for self-preservation.

The first bill, sponsored by Senator Joe Nguyen (D-34) and a dozen of his colleagues, would streamline the arbitration process that police union members use to challenge disciplinary rulings by empowering the state’s Public Employee Relations Commission (PERC) to choose the attorneys who decide the outcomes of appeals. Under the current statewide system, both employers and police unions have to agree on an arbitrator from a pool of private attorneys; that system is rife with delays.

The bill would also prohibit police union collective bargaining agreements from including conditions that violate or nullify state or local laws; that clause would prevent a repeat of the 2018 contract between Seattle and the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) that nullified key elements of the sweeping police accountability ordinance the city council passed in 2017.

The second bill, sponsored by Senator Jesse Salomon (D-32) and five of his colleagues, would eliminate the arbitration process altogether and require officers to appeal disciplinary decisions to quasi-judicial bodies called civil service commissions, whose members are mostly appointed by mayors and city councils. Seattle already has its own Public Safety Civil Service Commission, but officers only appeal disciplinary decisions to that commission if their union has declined to support their appeal, which is rare.

The bill would also require departments to automatically fire any officers found guilty of a set of extreme offenses—including excessive force, hiding or falsifying evidence, and engaging in sexual contact with anyone in custody. And it would prohibit police union contracts from restricting accountability and oversight by, among other means, limiting the subpoena authority of civilian oversight bodies and allowing the sealing or destruction of officers’ misconduct records.

At their core, both Nguyen and Salomon’s bills would make law enforcement bargaining rules more distinct from the rules that govern any other employees. But to most of the labor representatives who testified at the hearing, the two bills are night and day. While Nguyen’s would limit the input of both unions and management in the arbitration process, Salomon’s would specifically limit the powers of police unions and the disciplinary appeal options for law enforcement officers.

Statewide labor leaders, including representatives from the Washington State Labor Council, argued Thursday that police accountability reforms that restrict the powers of police unions could have dire consequences for the power of organized labor in the state as a whole, threatening the due process and collective bargaining rights of all workers. Shaunie Wheeler James, the political director for Teamsters Joint Council 28 (and a member of the Port of Seattle’s Commission on Port Policing and Civil Rights), called the bill a “stalking horse for those with an agenda to undermine all workers.”

Several labor leaders dismissed the notion that the collective bargaining process and arbitration stood in the way of meaningful police reforms. State labor council president Larry Brown, for example, argued that the real barrier to reform is police management, who oversee training, hiring, and data collection about misconduct and use of force, rather than rank and file officers.

“Nothing in this bill addresses the police leadership—the chiefs, the sheriffs, and the training programs—that have allowed these culture problems to persist,” he said.

Only one labor representative testified in favor of Salomon’s bill: David Parsons, the president of UAW 4121—a union representing graduate, doctoral and postdoctoral student employees at the University of Washington.

Seattle-area labor leadership joined forces with police accountability advocates last summer, mostly notably in June, when the Martin Luther King County Labor Council expelled SPOG from their organization. That local shift was visible on Thursday, when representatives from the ACLU of Washington and Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County joined Parsons in supporting the bill, as did prominent police accountability expert and retired municipal court judge Anne Levinson and Fred Thomas, the father of a man killed by police officers in Fife in 2013 who is now a leader in police accountability lobbying group Next Steps Washington.

In contrast, both law enforcement and non-law enforcement labor lobbyists seemed cautiously optimistic about Nguyen’s bill. Joseph Kendo, the government affairs director for the WSLC, only balked at the proposal to limit the pool of arbitrators to nine members, which he said was too few to meet the statewide need. Washington State Fraternal Order of Police president Marco Monteblanco said the bill would provide officers a more consistent, unbiased arbitration process.

Report on SPD Destruction of DNA Evidence Reveals Serious Problems in Department’s Evidence Storage

SPD Evidence Storage Warehouse in January 2018

By Paul Kiefer

More than a year ago, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office (CAO) contacted the Seattle Police Department about a backlog of post-conviction DNA samples held in the department’s evidence warehouse. SPD had started storing DNA samples—each enclosed in a manila envelope and tagged with a case number—in their warehouse in 2016 as a temporary solution to an obscure glitch in state law.

Seattle law requires the city to collect DNA samples in a broader array of situations than state law requires. At the time, the Washington State Patrol wasn’t permitted to enter DNA samples collected from people convicted of certain crimes—particularly sex offenses—into the state’s DNA database, which is used to cross-reference DNA samples from crime scenes to identify suspects. To save the samples from the state patrol’s incinerator, SPD volunteered to store the existing samples beginning in 2016 while the legislature and city council resolved the issue.

By 2019, the state patrol was once again able to accept DNA samples from Seattle—the CAO only needed to gather the stored samples and hand them off to the state for processing and cataloging.

But when SPD’s evidence unit went looking through the warehouse, they discovered a problem: a year earlier, they had mistakenly destroyed 107 of the DNA samples, or 16 percent of the total samples in SPD’s storage, along with evidence from an unknown number of homicide investigations.

After their discovery, SPD contacted Seattle’s Office of the Investigator General (OIG) to review the policies and practices that led to the destruction of the DNA samples. The OIG’s final report on the incident, released in late December, revealed that the mistake was a symptom of much more widespread problems in SPD’s evidence collection, storage and disposal policies. That confluence of problems has left the department with a patchwork of evidence storage systems across its four precincts and a warehouse filled from floor to ceiling.

The evidence warehouse, tucked away on a side street in SoDo, has been a worsening headache for the department for nearly a decade. In November 2020, it was at 94 percent capacity. And even that was an improvement from three years earlier, when pallets of evidence stacked in the warehouse’s aisles prompted the Seattle fire marshal to find the building in violation of the city’s fire code. Some of that evidence may be significant for ongoing criminal investigations; in other cases (including homicide, sex offenses and stalking), the King County Prosecutor’s Office asks SPD to keep evidence after the conclusion of an investigation in case it becomes useful for prosecuting future crimes. But it also includes plenty of seized items that serve very little investigative purpose, including a fleet of bicycles that crowded the aisles alongside the pallets.

SPD doesn’t hold the precincts to any standard for evidence storage, leaving OIG auditors to discover that one precinct—which they left unnamed in the report—eschewed evidence lockers and security cameras in favor of a filing cabinet with no security cameras.

According to the members of SPD’s evidence unit cited in the report, one reason for the overcrowding is that some officers weren’t sufficiently trained on what to collect as physical evidence, as opposed to taking photographs or samples. The OIG report pointed to a shopping cart held at the warehouse as an example of evidence that could easily be replaced with a photograph to save space. Evidence unit staff also pointed out that officers and detectives themselves are responsible for determining which older evidence no longer needs to be in storage; because those officers and detectives rarely have time to revisit their old case files and fill out the paperwork to release or destroy evidence, the evidence unit couldn’t clear enough space to make way for new evidence.

But the fire code violation jolted the evidence unit into action. Under direction from the fire marshal to clear the warehouse’s aisles by February 2018, the evidence unit’s leadership directed staff to create a “batch list” of evidence related to cases from 2013 to 2016: a short list of stored items that the evidence unit thought it could destroy without undermining any ongoing criminal investigations. Facing a storage crisis, the evidence unit bypassed the requirement that detectives and officers sign off on the destruction of evidence; as a result, SPD detectives didn’t know that the evidence unit marked DNA samples related to their old case files for destruction. According to the OIG report, evidence unit staffers didn’t check SPD’s case file database, which would have shown them that the department was storing the DNA evidence for future processing.

The OIG also discovered that during the rush to clear space in the evidence warehouse, SPD’s evidence unit had also moved 92 pallets of evidence—much of it gathered by the homicide unit—to the adjacent vehicle storage garage.

Most of the destroyed DNA evidence came from people convicted of harassment, sexual exploitation and patronizing sex workers; a smaller amount was connected to people convicted of assault or stalking. SPD’s own auditing team also found that the purge had destroyed an unknown amount of evidence from “reasonably recent” homicide cases.

The OIG report, written by auditor Matt Miller, did not excoriate SPD’s evidence unit for their mistakes, though Miller did write in the report that even in a crisis, the unit should have “establish[ed] proper safeguards” to avoid carelessly destroying valuable evidence.

During its review of SPD evidence collection and storage practices, the OIG also visited the department’s five precincts, each of which has been storing evidence temporarily since 2019, when SPD adopted a new records-management system that requires a member of the evidence unit staff to physically place evidence in the warehouse. While officers used to deliver evidence to the warehouse themselves, they now have to store it in their precincts until a member of the evidence unit is available to pick it up; as a consequence, the precinct captains have each developed their own evidence storage areas. SPD doesn’t hold the precincts to any standard for evidence storage, leaving OIG auditors to discover that one precinct—which they left unnamed in the report—eschewed evidence lockers and security cameras in favor of a filing cabinet with no security cameras. Continue reading “Report on SPD Destruction of DNA Evidence Reveals Serious Problems in Department’s Evidence Storage”

Afternoon Fizz, Part 2: Durkan Explains Odd Votes, City Funds Alternatives to Policing

The details of Sound Transit’s plan to lower fares on its Sounder commuter trains, which Mayor Jenny Durkan cast the lone vote against. 

1. Sound Transit’s full board voted unanimously on Thursday to approve a resolution updating the agency’s fare enforcement policies while keeping fare enforcement squarely within the courts and criminal justice system, after a dramatic discussion one week earlier, which PubliCola covered most recently here

Durkan, along with the rest of the board, voted for the fare enforcement motion, after noting that it was only a first step toward decriminalizing fare nonpayment entirely. 

Oddly, Durkan made exactly the opposite argument after casting the lone “no” vote on a proposal to lower fares for low-income, disabled, and elderly Sounder riders. Initially, Durkan cast the vote without comment, but revisited it several minutes later, saying that she wanted to clear up any confusion about why she voted against the fare reduction. (Her staff pays close attention to Twitter). “The reason I voted against that,” she said, “is, I believe that people should have free transit and not pay anything, and we should follow [the lead of] Seattle and give students and low-income people” access to free transit passes.

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Durkan has not proposed such a measure in her three years on the Sound Transit board. The reasoning Durkan gave for her vote also contradicts her own previous vote in favor of lowering fares on more widely used Sound Transit Express buses, as well as her vote in favor of the fare enforcement resolution just moments earlier, which she justified by saying, essentially, that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.

Contacted after the vote, mayoral spokeswoman Kelsey Nyland said, “The Mayor believes that Sound Transit has the infrastructure and ability to make transit free for youth, low-income, older, and disabled riders, and she will continue to vote according to that belief and principle.”

2. During the same meeting, Durkan voted against an amendment to Sound Transit’s 2021 legislative agenda calling on legislators to “adopt legislation to base vehicle taxes on a more accurate and current value of a vehicle” for purposes of determining the Motor Vehicle Excise tax on which Sound Transit relies. Sound Transit’s valuation schedule was the subject of a lawsuit by vehicle owners who believe it unfairly overvalues more expensive, late-model used cars.

Durkan did not give the depreciation schedule as her reason for voting against the amendment—which county executive Dow Constantine voted for. Instead, she said she believes the MVET itself is inherently “regressive,” because many low-income people have no choice but to drive long distances to get to work, including those who commute to Sound Transit’s park and ride lots.

This claim that taxes on driving are inherently regressive has been made for decades, usually by people who have not owned a cheap used car for many years, if ever. Sound Transit’s valuation schedule may overvalue late-model used cars—the kind people buy for $30,000 at a dealer, for example—but it also appears to undervalue the older used cars that low-income people tend to actually drive. In this sense, it is actually a progressive tax—people who can afford to buy almost-new cars pay more, and those who buy 20-year-old cars for cash pay less. 

3. On Friday morning, the Seattle Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announced $1 million in grants for community organizations to “develop alternatives to and address the harms created by incarceration, policing, and other parts of the criminal legal system.”
Continue reading “Afternoon Fizz, Part 2: Durkan Explains Odd Votes, City Funds Alternatives to Policing”

Despite Eviction Moratorium, Renters Are Still Being Evicted

By Erica C. Barnett

Renters across Washington state have existed in a kind of financial and legal limbo since mid-March, when Governor Jay Inslee issued the first statewide eviction moratorium, declaring that the temporary measure would “help reduce economic hardship and related life, health, and safety risks to those members of our workforce impacted by layoffs and substantially reduced work hours or who are otherwise unable to pay rent as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

At the time, no one knew how long the pandemic would continue or the impact it would have on the state and national economy. Since then, Inslee has extended the moratorium four more times, most recently in October, when he set a new expiration date of December 31.

But despite the moratorium, commonly referred to as an “eviction ban,” renters are still being evicted. Last month, nearly 40 people were evicted through the court system in King County, up from just 8 in April. (We know the numbers for King County because they’re tracked by the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project, but a similar trend is almost certainly happening across the state). Added to that are an unknown number of people who are informally evicted through methods that, while not technically evictions, still have the same effect, their numbers never counted in the total of people forced to move—or made homeless—during a worldwide pandemic.

One reason more renters are being kicked out, tenant advocates say, is that Inslee has gradually added more and more exemptions to the “ban.” Most consequentially, in June, Inslee added a section to the moratorium in June allowing landlords to give tenants’ 60 days notice that they plan to sell a unit or move into it.

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Jim Baumgart, a senior policy advisor to the governor, said the exemption is intended to help people who own multiple properties and need to move into one or sell “because they don’t want to be a landlord anymore, or because their family’s been materially affected by COVID and they need that money.” For example, people in the military, who move around often, might need to move back to their hometown and have no choice but to move into a house they had been renting out, or a landlord who owned just one or two rental units might need to sell a property to stay afloat.

The Rental Housing Association of Washington, which represents rental property owners and has been critical of the eviction moratorium, argues that the sale or move-in exemption provides a necessary escape hatch for the smallest landlords. Kyle Woodring, RHA’s director of government affairs, says the RHA has been hearing from “more people working through the process of selling their property” than usual, because their income (from rent or other sources) has dried up and “they need to get some cash out of that property.

“It’s easy for local governments and state governments to protect tenants, and much harder to protect people who pay mortgages and the lending institutions, because those are generally federally regulated,” Woodring said. “Short of giant bailouts, I think we’re going to see more and more people looking to sell.” Continue reading “Despite Eviction Moratorium, Renters Are Still Being Evicted”

Guest Editorial: Seattle’s Restaurants Can’t Wait for COVID Relief

Photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash

By Debra Russell and Jessica Tousignant

The lockdown was a necessary step in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, but we couldn’t predict what it would mean for businesses. Restaurant owners didn’t know what to expect.

We were so grateful when Seattleites stepped up and supported us by ordering food for takeout. You were patient and generous as we built an entirely new business model. It was a bumpy transition, but you reminded us that we’re all in this together. Even now, your takeout orders are keeping many of us afloat.

But we can’t forget that our members who are hanging on are the lucky ones. One of the most frustrating aspects of the current economic downturn is that we don’t have enough data to understand exactly how bad things really are. It’s unclear how many neighborhood businesses have closed permanently since March.

The clearest overview of the economic impact on businesses nationwide arrived in a recent report from Yelp, which showed that of all the businesses that closed since March , about 61 percent have now closed permanently. That’s 97,966 businesses wiped out nationwide. Due to the customer-driven nature of Yelp’s reporting, this almost certainly represents an undercount—and in Washington, the numbers are likely even worse.

When ordinary people don’t have enough money to spend at local businesses, those businesses don’t make enough money to stay open.

The Yelp data confirms what we have suspected to be true: We’ve already lost half the businesses that had to temporarily close for lockdown, and the rest are imperiled. A majority of Seattle’s neighborhood restaurants will likely close by the end of the year.

Let’s be clear: this isn’t on our customers. They’ve done more than their part to keep us afloat. But the people and organizations who are supposed to use their resources and visibility to stand up for and protect small business have been entirely absent.

Local leaders claimed we should wait for the federal government to lead the way in the economic response to the pandemic. But the US Senate adjourned for vacation until September 8 without any agreement on a new stimulus plan. Since the additional $600-per-week unemployment benefits written into the last stimulus package were allowed to expire, some of our members report business has dropped by as much as 25 percent. When ordinary people don’t have enough money to spend at local businesses, those businesses don’t make enough money to stay open.

For years, powerful business interests like chambers of commerce, the Washington Hospitality Association, and others have used small businesses as a political football. Today, small businesses are shuttering around Seattle, people are losing their jobs, and these same organizations have quietly looked the other way.

The federal government told states and cities that they’re on their own, and local leaders have failed to step up to fill the void. Mayor Jenny Durkan, for instance, vetoed the expenditure of emergency funds—as though this economic collapse isn’t the biggest emergency most Seattleites have ever seen. (The city council subsequently overturned that veto, but Durkan’s budget would reallocate the money for other purposes.)

Continue reading “Guest Editorial: Seattle’s Restaurants Can’t Wait for COVID Relief”

Evening Crank Part 1: Hunker Down Edition

Cracks visible in the girders supporting the West Seattle Bridge. SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe says the discolored areas visible around the damage are “a result of the preventive maintenance we’ve done over the past few years, so don’t in and of themselves illustrate all of the issues we are concerned about right now.”

1. How long has the COVID-19 epidemic been going on? Only six years, you say? Well, in the words of Gov. Jay Inslee, hunker down…

It was a big news day, and not just because Gov. Jay Inslee finally told us all to go to our rooms and not come out until he said so. (Find a list of “essential” businesses that will stay open, which includes everything from veterinarians to food banks to recreational pot stores, here). Earlier in the day, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that the high West Seattle Bridge will be completely closed to traffic until further notice, due to cracks in the concrete girders that support the bridge’s weight. Durkan said the new discoveries mean that the bridge “cannot safely support vehicular traffic.”

During a press conference conducted via Skype, Seattle Department of Transportation director Sam Zimbabwe said the closure could last weeks or months. Zimbabwe said there hadn’t been a single incident or catastrophic event that led to the new damage; rather, crews inspecting the bridge last night discovered that cracks in the girders that had already allowed “incursions” of water and air had grown dramatically wider. Most of the weight of the bridge—about 80 percent—consists of the bridge itself, but heavier vehicles, and more of them, may have contributed to the damage, Zimbabwe said.

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Drivers hoping to use the lower West Seattle bridge are out of luck; the secondary bridge will be open only to first responders, transit, and freight. People who choose to commute by car will have to go far afield of their usual routes, using West Marginal Way, First Ave. S., or SR 509 to get off the peninsula.

The announcement was so sudden that the two city council members who live in West Seattle, Lisa Herbold (District 1) and Lorena Gonzalez (Position 9) found out about the closure just a few hours before the public did. (The same was true of King County Council member Joe McDermott, who said in an email to constituents  this evening that he just found out about the closure “this afternoon.”) Mayor Durkan did not specify exactly why the closure had to happen with so little notice.

In a statement, Herbold, who represents West Seattle, questioned the decision to completely shut down the lower bridge to private auto traffic, saying she wanted  to know “how soon it can be opened for traffic given lower traffic volumes in Seattle” because of the COVID-19 epidemic and stay-at-home order. “My office has requested that SDOT appeal to the Coast Guard to make fewer bridge openings of the lower level bridge to allow for more buses and cars to cross, like they did in early 2019 when the Alaskan Way Viaduct closed and the SR99 tunnel was not yet open.”

A spokeswoman for Kimpton Hotels, which owns the Alexis and and Palladian—two hotels that have been in contact with the city—said that “neither has agreed to set up any isolation rooms nor is either equipped to do that.”

2. At a city council briefing this morning, Position 8 city council member Teresa Mosqueda expressed optimism that “downtown boutique hotels” would soon begin offering rooms to people who were healthy but needed to self-isolate because they are members of a vulnerable group. “I really want to thank some of the hotel owners, especially some of the downtown boutique hotel owners,” for offering to help house people impacted by the COVID epidemic, Mosqueda said.

Council member Andrew Lewis, whose district (7) includes downtown, also said he hoped that downtown hotels would be able to offer rooms “to get people off the street and get people inside quickly on a temporary basis,” an arrangement that could also “give a boon to our struggling hospitality industry that has suffered from a massive dropoff in tourism” because of COVID-19. Kimpton Hotels, which owns the Alexis and Palladian hotels downtown, has reportedly been in contact with city about providing rooms for this purpose.

The city’s Office of Labor Standards has seen an uptick in labor complaints this month—from 78 in the entire month March last year, to 85 in the first three weeks of this March alone.

However, it was unclear Monday whether any hotels had actually stepped up and offered rooms, either for people experiencing homelessness or for first responders and others who need to be isolated because of potential COVID-19 exposure. A spokeswoman for Kimpton Hotels, which owns the Alexis and and Palladian—two hotels that have been in contact with the city—said that “neither has agreed to set up any isolation rooms nor is either equipped to do that.” The spokeswoman, Brandyn Hull, added that the hotels “have offered to support the city with very low rates” for first responders, medical workers, and representatives of the CDC.

3. After getting reports that restaurants and other businesses that had to lay off workers during the COVID crisis had failed to pay employees for time they’d already worked, I contacted the city’s Office of Labor Standards to see what recourse people in this situation might have. After initially writing that “All media inquires must go through the Mayor’s office,” they got back to me with more specific responses  this morning.

If you’ve been laid off and your employer did not pay you for time you worked—for example, if your boss told you they couldn’t pay your last paycheck—that “may be considered administrative wage theft,” so try contacting OLS or the state Department of Labor and Industries to see if they can resolve it. If you didn’t get paid for vacation or sick time you accrued, you’re probably out of luck, unless you can prove that getting paid out was a condition of your employment.

OLS has seen an uptick in labor complaints this month—from 78 in the entire month March last year, to 85 in the first three weeks of this March alone.

 

No Shelter In Place Order, But More Admonishments for Grandma, From Gov. Inslee as COVID Crisis Continues

Gov. Jay Inslee declined once again on Friday to issue a legally binding “shelter-in-place” order requiring all Washingtonians to stay at home and avoid going to work or the store unless absolutely necessary, but said that if people continue to defy the existing direction to avoid gathering in groups, self-isolate when possible, and stay six feet away from other people, he will consider taking stronger action. Earlier this week, Inslee ordered all restaurants, bars, and other nonessential businesses to close except for takeout customers; banned gatherings of more than 50 people; and urged everyone over 60 or with compromised immune systems to stay inside and avoid contact with other people.

“I won’t be issuing any legally binding orders today, but that does not mean that we might not be back here soon to make further legally binding orders,” Inslee said. “And we understand that perhaps the force of law will not be necessary if Washingtonians act with the force of compassion, with the force of responsibility [and with] the sense that we are all in this together.”

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During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

Some groups—and some parts of the state—appear to be hearing that message louder than others. Using traffic on toll roads as an easily verifiable proxy for how many people are carrying on life as usual, Inslee noted that while traffic on SR 99 (through downtown Seattle), SR 520 (Seattle to Bellevue) and I-405 (the Eastside suburbs) were down, traffic on SR167 (Renton to Auburn), I-5 through Lakewood, on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, and through Spokane had barely budged. “We remain concerned that some in our state are not taking the measures that are absolutely necessary to preserve health and life and limb in the state of Washington,” he said.

“We are all potential transmitters of this virus and we all, to some varying degree, are potential victims of this virus, and if anyone is living a normal life today, you are not doing what you need to do to save the lives of people in this state.”

The governor repeated his admonition that “grandma” and “your 18-year-old” need to be told that they can’t go out and get together with friends even if they want to. On Monday, Grandma was not supposed to go to “art galleries” or come in close contact with her grandkids; today, Inslee warned against “coffee klatches” and “sewing needle get-togethers.”

Friday’s announcement did not include any news about financial assistance for small businesses or renters, who will still be on the hook for rent as soon as the 30-day statewide eviction ban expires. (In Seattle, the eviction ban is for 60 days). Nor did Inslee mention any new social-distancing measures for homeless people living in shelters or people confined to mental hospitals and jails.

Inslee did make one brief mention of the state’s prison population. Among the supplies that are slowly making their way to Washington’s hospitals, Inslee said, will be 650,000 disposable gowns, “and we think we’re going to be able to make some of these gowns in our prison industry, actually,” Inslee said. His office did not immediately respond to a followup question about the use of prison labor—which has been controversial in other states—to respond to the COVID-19 epidemic.

 

What Eviction Reform Means for You

This piece originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

Last month, the Washington state legislature passed a sweeping eviction reform bill that gives tenants more time to pay rent before they can be evicted; gives judges new discretion when deciding whether to give tenants more time to pay or how much to penalize evicted tenants financially; and creates new financial incentives for landlords to rent to tenants using financial subsidies.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Nicole Macri, was a response to the problems outlined in a report by the Seattle Women’s Commission, “Losing Home,” earlier this year. That report revealed that tenants in Seattle are frequently evicted for failing to pay extremely small amounts of rent (as little as a few dollars), and that the county superior court judges—who determine whether tenants will be evicted—have little discretion to consider mitigating factors (like a one-time medical emergency) that cause people to fall temporarily behind on their rent. In a story about King County’s eviction court for the February 2019 print edition of Seattle magazine, one woman described receiving an eviction notice while in the hospital for late-stage kidney disease. Another case, described by Housing Justice Project attorney Edmund Witter, involved a man who was hospitalized for a degenerative spinal disease; the landlord refused to allow HJP to pay his rent because HJP was not the tenant.

The legislation makes several statewide reforms:

  • It increases the number of days a tenant has to pay his or her rent once a landlord puts a “pay or vacate” notice on their door from 3 days to 14.
  • It gives judges the ability to consider mitigating circumstances when a tenant falls behind on their rent, such as unanticipated one-time expenses, a history of timely payments, and hardship to the tenant if they’re evicted. This provision also allows tenants to negotiate payment plans with landlords.
  • It requires landlords to put any payments a tenant does make toward rent first, rather than toward fees the landlord has charged the tenant for paying late. The “Losing Home” report found that late fees often added hundreds of dollars to tenants’ arrears, often outstripping the original amount they owed.
  • It limits the amount of attorneys’ fees judges can award to landlords, which were previously unlimited.
  • It expands an existing program that reimburses landlords for damages caused by tenants using rent subsidies. If a judge uses his or her new discretion to forgive rent or give a tenant more time to pay, and the reason is that the tenant is low-income or experiencing hardship, a landlord can now petition the Department of Commerce for reimbursement for that loss.
  • And it requires that 14-day eviction notices be written in simple language (and offered online in 10 different languages) so that tenants understand what is happening and how to respond.

The legislation is now on Governor Jay Inslee’s desk, and will become law (if Inslee doesn’t get around to signing it) on May 22.

The J is for Judge: It Takes One to Know One

Critics of Seattle’s out-of-whack zoning scheme—two-thirds of the city is zoned exclusively for single-family housing—have been arguing for decades now that Seattle needs to grow up (or build up, actually) and function like an actual city, not a suburb.

This isn’t an argument about aesthetics. It’s an argument for housing affordability and environmental sustainability, both urgent issues given the homelessness crisis and the latest climate change data from the U.N., respectively.

The blunt argument from pro-city urbanists is this: The Magnolia First ideology that single-family zoning stalwarts adhere to  (or Laurelhurst First ideology or Wallingford First ideology or Phinney Ridge First ideology) selfishly defends an unsustainable lifestyle of privilege and exclusion (including the delusion that people have a constitutional right to free parking in front of their houses).

In short: The NIMBYs’ aesthetic position—that we must preserve the “character” of exclusionary neighborhoods—is undermining Seattle’s livability and affordability for the rest of us.

If you think the urbanist critique of single-family zoning lacks credibility because hipster urbanists supposedly don’t have kids or haven’t lived here long enough or are too young or don’t own houses (most people in Seattle are renters, by the way), let me introduce you to the latest critic of Seattle’s refusal to grow up and act like a city: An actual suburbanite, who lives in an actual suburb, state Sen. Guy Palumbo (D-1, Maltby).

Palumbo is proposing a bill  that would make Seattle do something it refuses to do on its own: Upzone its suburban-style landscape to take on more density.

The 45-year-old state senator argues that Seattle’s failure to play its designated urban role in our region is undermining the state’s anti-sprawl Growth Management Act.  Palumbo’s point: Seattle’s refusal to accept more growth is causing sprawl, the very opposite of what smart cities are supposedly about. (Maltby is northeast of Kirkland and Woodinville, and due east of Lynnwood.)

Sen. Palumbo’s state legislative district (which largely overlaps with Snohomish County Council Districts 4 and 5 on the charts below) has, in fact, seen  growth on par with Seattle’s, at least as a percentage of population—around 14 percent, including 17.4 percent growth in portions of the district. It’d be one thing if that spike in growth simply represented small-town numbers growing to slightly bigger small-town numbers. But we’re talking an extra 40,000 people added to a population of 285,000. It’s as if everyone on Mercer Island picked up and moved to Palumbo’s district. And then a couple of years later, half of Mercer Island picked up and did it again.

Seattle itself has grown 17.2 percent over the same time (2010 to 2017). But Palumbo isn’t arguing Seattle hasn’t grown significantly; he’s pointing out that it should be growing a lot more than the suburbs if the region is going to grow sustainably.

“They are taking growth,” he says of Seattle. “The problem is the growth they aren’t taking is moving at too high a level to places that aren’t equipped to deal with it and service it. Snohomish is taking the growth that should be in Seattle,” he reasons. “If Seattle only built the types of housing people wanted and needed,” he adds, it would also increase housing supply, slowing the increase in housing prices that are nudging people out to the remote suburbs. Sprawl.

Palumbo condemns Seattle’s rigid zoning because, he says, it’s forcing families who would actually prefer to live in the city to move into his suburban southwest Snohomish County district instead. “Seattle is zoned low-density, single-family,” he says.  As a result, “people can’t even afford one of the few and overpriced houses there, and they have to move. And they move out to the suburbs. ”

Why, there oughta be a law!

Lucky thing Palumbo is a state senator.

According to Palumbo, his draft bill (which the Urbanist first reported earlier this month),  would require increased density within a mile of frequent transit service—areas near light rail stations or near bus stops where buses arrive at least every 15 minutes. Although the details of the bill could change, Palumbo envisions a mandatory density that slopes down as development fans out: 150 dwelling units per acre within a quarter-mile of frequent transit; 45 units per acre within half a mile of transit; and 14 units per acre within a 1 mile radius. (Asked whether cities could build more densely than the minimums required by his bill, Palumbo said he hadn’t thought of that.)

Palumbo tells me his legislation isn’t a one-size-fits-all bill, and those particular numbers are only intended for Seattle. Different numbers would apply to transit-friendly neighborhoods in smaller cities and towns where transit is less frequent and where target densities are lower. (He also acknowledged that his “units per acre” metric was a bit backwards—that is, you can’t logically prescribe units-per acre rules on an individual development without a universal picture of all the proposed developments in the upzoned area.)

He said his metric was simply meant to describe the ultimate density he envisions, and that Seattle could apply units per lot and floor area ratio metrics to achieve the 14 units per acre within his 1-mile radius performance standard, for example.

Seattle is already (sorta) moving in this direction, though as cautiously as a cat burglar tip-toeing up the stairs.

This year, the council is taking up a plan that’s been in play since 2015 to upzone a tiny percentage of the city’s vast single-family neighborhoods. Focusing on the edges of single family zones that are near designated residential urban villages, the city proposal, known as  Mandatory Housing Affordability (it simultaneously makes developers fund affordable housing), would upzone six percent of single family zoned land into slightly denser residential small lot zones, low-rise zones, and Neighborhood Commercial zones. The changes would help create  what pro-housing urbanists call the “Missing Middle.”

The density increase Palumbo’s proposing within a half and quarter mile of frequent transit service—45 and 150 units per acre, respectively—would already be allowed (though not required) under both current Seattle zoning and under MHA changes to Lowrise zones and Neighborhood Commercial zones.

Meanwhile, two-thirds of the MHA rezone area  in strict single-family zones (so about four percent of that current zoning)—the   Residential Small Lot upzone—would permit density of about 20 units per acre, according to some back-of-the-envelope math city staffers did after they read about Sen. Palumbo’s proposal for comparison’s sake.

Again, while not required (as it is in Palumbo’s formula), that would actually be slightly more permissive than the density Palumbo is proposing a mile away from transit stops (his 14 units per acre). But that’s only in the sliver of single family areas rezoned under MHA; under Palumbo’s mandate, the larger swath of single family areas left untouched by MHA would face a significant upzone.

In other words, when it comes to the majority of Seattle’s single family zones, Mr. Palumbo of Maltby is far more woke about requiring dense, sustainable land use than Seattle and its leaders—even though today’s leading climate scientists are demanding dramatic action to address pending environmental calamity.

Seattle leaders do not have a good track record when it comes to standing up to the Magnolia First faction and making this change. Back in 2009, former Mayor Greg Nickels initially backed  a Futurewise/Transportation Choices Coalition state bill that would have promoted more density around transit hubs. But when traditional neighborhood activists said the proposal would turn Seattle into Mumbai, intimidating Nickels’ wary deputy mayor Tim Ceis, Nickels stepped away from the bill as his reelection loomed. (The legislation failed.)

And, of course, former Mayor Ed Murray folded on his original proposal to upzone all single family zones in 2015, watering his proposal down to the current six percent plan when the NIMBYs at the Seattle Times protested on behalf of their home-owning readers.

I contacted the Seattle City Council and Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office to see if they supported Palumbo’s urgent push for more density. A spokeswoman for the mayor’s office said she hadn’t seen the bill, which is still in early draft form.

Meanwhile, Seattle City Council Member Rob Johnson, who’s leading the city’s limited MHA upzone effort, responded. Johnson, who was the director of TCC back in 2009 when the pro-transit  group went to the mat for the state upzone legislation, cautioned: “Been there done that.” He did note, though, that Palumbo was starting “an interesting conversation.”

Ultimately, Johnson argued that Palumbo’s statewide approach isn’t likely to succeed, pointing out that some suburban cities, such as Sammamish, Issaquah, and Federal Way, have gone so far as to impose moratoria on new development. (After a year, the Sammamish City Council effectively lifted the moratorium  as did the Issaquah City Council. )

However, Johnson has a point. Several Puget Sound cities have enacted development bans, making it clear that A) they’re queasy about more density and B) they’re not going to take kindly to some dude from the state legislature telling them how to manage growth.

Seattle is behaving like a suburb when the state is relying on it to be a city.

Johnson says the local approach he’s now heading up as a Seattle City Council member is more likely to work, although—recalling how Nickels backed away from the Futurewise/TCC bill—he acknowledged there’s dedicated resistance to new development in Seattle as well.  For example, he lamented the fact that single-family home owners are currently funding a legal effort to tie up the MHA upzone in a  battle in front of the City Hearing Examiner.

Resistance to development in Seattle has already undermined the rezones Johnson passed in 2016 and 2017 as part of MHA Part 1, when the city upzoned five (already) densely populated commercial/residential Urban Centers,  including downtown, plus one Residential Urban Village at 23rd & Union-Jackson.

To wit: After unanimously passing the downtown upzone, the city council halted one of the first proposed developments proposed under the new zoning (even drafting talking points for the opposition) when a developer wanted to tear down the talismanic  Showbox music venue to build more housing.

Johnson does have a point about state legislation: The merits of Palumbo’s bill are likely to be overshadowed by a meta question of governance that could stall the state senate legislation: Should the state have the right to micromanage local land use issues?

But Palumbo has a point too. When local policies spill over legislators’ borders to threaten a green and progressive state law like the Growth Management Act, which was intended to combat regional problems like sprawl, then yes, the state has a role to play.

It takes one to know one. Suburbanite Palumbo is telling it like it is: Seattle is behaving like a suburb when the state is relying on it to be a city.

Morning Crank: “Unprecedented” Bipartisan Testimony

1. The state Public Disclosure Commission, which enforces campaign finance rules, keeps tabs on lobbyists, and provides a library’s worth of public information about every campaign in the state, has been inundated over the past year by citizen complaints. One very particular citizen, actually: Glen Morgan, the former Freedom Foundation fellow and director of the Citizens Alliance for Property Rights, who has filed nearly 300 complaints with the agency against Democrats and progressive groups in the past three years. (He has filed a smaller number of complaints with the attorney general’s office, which has 45 days to respond before a citizen filing a complaint can indicate their intent to file a lawsuit; if another 10 days go by with no action from the state, the citizen complainant can sue the person or campaign he feels is violating campaign-finance law.)

Some Democratic organizations have spent down their treasuries and dissolved their political arms in response to the onslaught; others are facing fines of tens of thousands of dollars for violations ranging from  late reports to reports they failed to file at all. This is less of an issue for large, well-funded organizations like the state Democrats or unions like SEIU 775 than it is for small, volunteer-run district party organizations, which often have only a few hundred dollars in the bank and can scarce afford to pay attorneys, much less cough up $10,000-plus fines. The complaints Morgan files are often about violations most observers would find trivial—failing to report the number of copies that were made when paying a printer, for example, or filing a required report one day late.

Morgan, who started filing complaints after local Democrats alleged he violated campaign finance law in a series of misleading robocalls against Democrats running for Thurston County Commissioner in 2016, has only filed complaints against Democratic groups, but he contends his point isn’t that Democrats are uniquely bad at following the law—it’s that the whole system is broken. “Nobody cares about a conservative activist saying all this. It’s irrelevant,” Morgan says. “So you have to demonstrate it by proving that there’s a problem with the widest variety of people possible.”

But Dmitri Iglitzin, a Seattle attorney who has represented several of the Democratic Party groups Morgan is pursuing, says that while Morgan “says he wants to create a crisis and show how screwed up the system is—which he’s done—the fact that he’s only gone after progressive groups and is a former Freedom Foundation Fellow and head of a right-wing organization (the Citizens Alliance for Property Rights) shows that his agenda is to wipe out Democratic party organizations and progressive organizations from the political sphere.”

Whether or not that’s the case, reforming the original law that led to the current, rather byzantine system of campaign-finance reporting—and that turned the Attorney General’s office into a useful bludgeon for activists like Morgan—is a bipartisan issue. Yesterday, the heads of the King County Democrats, Bailey Stober, and the King County Republicans, Lori Sotelo, testified together before the House State Government, Elections, and Information Technology Committee about a bill proposed by Rep. Zach Hudgins that would force complainants like Morgan to file their complaints at the PDC first instead of filing simultaneous complaints with the attorney general’s office. The PDC would have 60 days to take action on a complaint before a citizen could escalate it up to the AG, and the AG would have a longer time—60 days, not 45—to decide whether to take action. The bill would also bar citizens from filing complaints with the AG’s office for violations that amount to less than $25,000.

In his testimony, Stober said the PDC had been “weaponized” against political parties. Sotelo added that the two party leaders had taken the “unprecedented action” of appearing together to demonstrate how important it was to reform the state public disclosure law. They were less sanguine about a separate provision in the bill that would increase the maximum the PDC can fine a candidate or committee from  $10,000 to $50,000.

Morgan testified too, calling the bill an inadequate response to the problems with the public disclosure law. He did not say whether he was on board with the provision quintupling the fine for violating the law.

2. The last major hurdle preventing the city from completing the “Missing Link” of the Burke-Gilman trail in Ballard fell yesterday, when Seattle deputy hearing examiner Ryan Vancil decided that the city’s environmental impact statement is adequate and rejected opponents’ arguments against building the trail. “The weight of the evidence presented supports the determination of the [final environmental impact statement] that the Preferred Alternative will improve safety for non-motorized users over existing conditions,” Vancil wrote in a 20-point, 21-page opinion dismantling every argument the opponents made.

It has been a long road for trail proponents, who have been battling to complete the 1.4-mile gap in the trail for nearly three decades. Currently, cyclists heading through Ballard on the Burke-Gilman must detour through a path that is poorly maintained and crisscrossed by multiple railroad tracks; accidents and injuries are common. Missing Link opponents, including Salmon Bay Sand and Gravel and the King County Labor Council, argued that the presence of cyclists in an industrial area would threaten businesses’ viability and endanger jobs.

In a tweet posted right after the decision came down, council member Mike O’Brien—a daily cyclist and Missing Link proponent since before his election to the council, in 2009—said, “At last! We can move forward to complete the missing link of the Burke-Gilman Trail. I look forward to [Mayor Jenny Durkan] and [the Seattle Department of Transportation[ taking quick action to complete the Burke-Gilman, providing a safer and sound alignment for pedestrians, bicyclists, cars and trucks.”

3. The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce picked a new leader to replace outgoing CEO (and former deputy mayor) Maud Daudon yesterday: Former Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, who will be the first black woman (and the second woman ever) to lead the business group. As Sound Transit board vice-chair, Strickland was a vocal advocate for light rail and a cautionary voice against legislation, just passed by the state  House, that could cut funding for ST3 by more than $2 billion.

By business-establishment standards, Seattle’s business community is unusually progressive, often endorsing measures (like the recent Sound Transit 3 ballot measure and the recent housing levy) supported by the left. The choice of Strickland over other potential leaders (former deputy mayor and Downtown Seattle Association head Kate Joncas was rumored to be in the running) may help assuage fears that the Chamber would respond to recent tax talk in Seattle (including discussion of the employee hours/”head” tax, which they oppose) by choosing a more conventional or conservative leader to take the chamber in a more conservative direction.

 

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