PubliCola Picks: Lorena González for Mayor

In this critical, post-COVID election year, Seattle needs a mayor who understands the job, has a plan to translate their progressive values into policy, and can jump into the job with both feet on day 1. City Council president Lorena González will come to the mayor’s office with a well-defined agenda, a solid track record, and a set of achievable plans for addressing the city’s thorniest issues..

González has set a standard for not just talking a good game—but getting things done. In her two terms as a council member, she has pushed for—and passed—protections for hourly workers, such as the secure scheduling bill; established a permanent legal defense fund for immigrants facing deportation; and passed a number of underreported but important election reforms, including a ban on some corporate contributions, new transparency requirements, and restrictions on indirect lobbying, in which lobbyists seek to influence the public without revealing who’s paying them. She has also been a pragmatic and savvy advocate for police accountability, spearheading a police accountability ordinance in 2017 that advocates hailed as a groundbreaking step for reform.

And, in a lone dissent that got little coverage at the time but telegraphed her understanding of the challenges inherent to a “regional approach to homelessness,” she voted against a plan for the new regional homelessness authority that handed significant power over to suburban jurisdictions that pay nothing to support the authority, but wield outsize influence over its policies.

A lot has happened since 2018, including a nationwide movement to hold bad cops accountable and demilitarize and defund police departments across the country. González recently told PubliCola that if she was voting on the same contract today, “I’d vote very different[ly].”

González noted before her prescient vote that “politics have already taken hold in this structure.” She was right. We’re already seeing the ramifications today, with suburban cities adopting anti-homeless policies and insisting on their own, locally unique “sub-regional” plans. The former co-chair of the city’s Progressive Revenue Task Force is also right about how to tackle homelessness in the future; she’s committed to adopting new progressive revenues to fund the billions of dollars the city will need to truly address homelessness instead of passing a ballot initiative that she has called an “unfunded mandate” designed to cement the “status quo.”

González has caught some flak from the left for voting, along with seven of her eight council colleagues, to approve a 2018 police contract that nullified some elements a historic 2017 police accountability ordinance. But activists who want to castigate her for this vote should consider a bit of context. At the time, the police union had been without a new contract since 2014, after members rejected a negotiated contract in 2016. Meanwhile, Mayor Jenny Durkan was working overtime to convince the public and the council that police would quit en masse if they didn’t get the raises promised in the contract. Most council members, including dogged police accountability advocate, council member Lisa Herbold, agreed that the new contract, though inadequate, was an improvement on the existing 2014 contract, keeping parts of the accountability law intact and preserving a law requiring cops to wear body cameras on duty.

Finally, a lot has happened since 2018, including a nationwide movement to hold bad cops accountable and demilitarize and defund police departments across the country. González—a former civil rights attorney who secured a $150,000 settlement for a Latino man who sued the city after a Seattle police officer threatened to “beat the fucking Mexican piss out of” him—has expressed support for this core agenda. She recently told PubliCola that if she was voting on the same contract today, “I’d vote very different[ly].”

González has a real vision for Seattle’s recovery—one that doesn’t rely on clichés or empty promises (how exactly will philanthropic giving fund the $450 million to $1 billion the region needs to spend every year to address homelessness, Bruce?) For starters, she wants to make it easier for renters to stay in their homes, providing rental assistance as well as caps on move-in costs that can add thousands of dollars to the price of an apartment. Continue reading “PubliCola Picks: Lorena González for Mayor”

In Victory for Families of People Killed by Police, State Supreme Court Allows Inquest Reforms to Proceed

A portrait of Charleena Lyles on Capitol Hill in June 2020 (Flickr: Derek Simeone; reproduced under a Creative Commons license)

By Paul Kiefer

The Washington State Supreme Court sided with the families of people killed by police officers in a unanimous decision Thursday, restoring reforms to King County’s inquest process that have stalled since 2018 under pressure from law enforcement agencies.

The ruling brings a close to a lawsuit filed against King County Executive Dow Constantine last year by the families of Damarius Butts, Isaiah Obet, Charleena Lyles and seven other people killed by law enforcement officers in the county in 2017. It also opens the door for inquests—a type of fact-finding hearing in which a jury reviews the details of a death and decides who is responsible—to resume in King County after a four-year hiatus. 

Tiffany Rogers, Charleena Lyles’s sister, told PubliCola the four-year legal battle was exhausting for her and other family members of people killed by police. “It was painful, and it was painful for a long time, but we’re doing this so that other families don’t have to,” she said.

King County first overhauled its inquest process in 2018, when, under pressure from police accountability groups, Constantine implemented a slate of changes intended to improve transparency and give victims’ families a say in what information inquest juries hear. The changes allowed attorneys representing victims’ families to take part in inquest hearings for the first time and empowered juries to determine not only what happened in a police shooting, but whether the officers involved complied with their department’s policies and training.

In the ruling, the court concluded that all of the reforms supported by the families, including the changes introduced in 2018 and the reforms the families sought in their lawsuit, can move forward. In fact, the court noted that state law not only allows, but requires, inquest juries to consider whether an officer committed a crime.

Before announcing the reforms, Constantine had placed a hold on three pending inquests into the deaths of Butts, Obet, and Lyles. But when reforms took effect and the county began preparing to start the three inquests, a problem emerged: Under the executive order, the officers’ attorneys couldn’t participate if the officers themselves refused to testify. When the officers involved in Butts’ death declined to testify, the inquest couldn’t move forward.

The families filed a lawsuit in 2020, hoping to fill the gap in Constantine’s reforms by compelling the officers to testify. The families also called for another change to inquest procedures: allowing jurors to consider whether the officers involved in a shooting broke the law. “The inquest can be a useful tool to investigate police killings of community members, but the panel must answer whether the officer committed a crime for the process to have any teeth,” said Amy Parker, an attorney with King County’s Department of Public Defense who represented Obet’s family.

Meanwhile, several law enforcement agencies—the Seattle Police Department, the King County Sheriff’s Office and municipal police departments in Auburn, Renton, Kent and Federal Way—also sued Constantine, aiming to invalidate all of the recent changes to the inquest process. According to the agencies’ attorneys, the inquest reforms already underway in King County would put police officers at a serious disadvantage when facing a jury. The lawsuits forced the county to suspend the new reforms and put a stay on any new or ongoing inquests.

When the case came before King County Superior Court Judge Julie Spector in July 2020, the law enforcement agencies prevailed; Spector ruled that Constantine’s reforms threatened officers’ rights to counsel and struck down most of the changes to the inquest process. By that point, SPD had backed out of the lawsuit under pressure from members of the city council and the public, leaving the other agencies to carry on the suit.

The state supreme court entirely reversed the course of the case on Thursday, dismissing Judge Spector’s ruling as “wrong as a matter of law.” Continue reading “In Victory for Families of People Killed by Police, State Supreme Court Allows Inquest Reforms to Proceed”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PubliCola Questions: Nikkita Oliver

Image via nikkitafornine.com

As PubliCola prepares to endorse candidates in the August 3 mayoral and council primary elections, we reached out to the leading candidates for mayor and City Council Position 9 with questions about homelessness, housing, police accountability, and economic recovery.

Their answers to these questions will help inform our endorsements, coming out next week. Endorsements will be based on each candidate’s record of action, public statements, interviews with PubliCola and other media outlets, and responses at the many candidate forums that have taken place over the summer.

Today, we’re highlighting Nikkita Oliver and Brianna Thomas, two of the leading candidates for Seattle City Council Position 9, the seat currently held by council president Lorena González, who’s running for mayor.

A third candidate for this position, Sara Nelson, is the only candidate in any race who did not respond to our questions.

Nikkita Oliver, an attorney, organizer, and performer who rose to prominence during their unsuccessful but well-publicized run for mayor in 2017, runs a nonprofit, Creative Justice, that offers arts programming as an alternative to jail for young people. As an activist, they helped lead efforts to stop King County from building a new youth jail, and were deeply involved in last year’s Black Lives Matter protests as an advocate for divesting from the police department and investing in community safety, including housing, child care, and intervention programs. They also support ending exclusionary zoning, investing in municipal broadband (one way of enabling more people to work from home), and scaling up participatory budgeting, a way of allowing people to vote on what gets funded in the city budget.

Here’s what Oliver had to say in response to the eight questions PubliCola posed to the Position 9 candidates.

When responding to people living outdoors, the city has historically focused on large or highly visible encampments, and reserved resources and enhanced shelter or hotel beds for people at encampments removed by the city. This focus on large, visible encampments tends to exclude many unhoused people of color, such as Native Americans, from access to the most desirable services. What would you do to improve equity in access to services for unsheltered people of color, particularly the Black and Native homeless populations?

We need to be creating radical accessibility throughout the city for our unhoused residents. We propose ending sweeps and utilizing those dollars for garbage pick-up, mobile hygiene stations (including showers and clothes washing), accessibility of public restrooms and water stations, and mobile clinics and supports that include dental and physical health. Where possible, we would like to see mobile units that provide haircuts, undergarments, and other hygiene needs.

More of the services we utilize need to be led by communities of color, especially Black and Native communities, so that they are culturally responsive and representative of the communities with the least accessibility to services. These services and supports, including the above radical accessibility plan, need to be low-barrier. Black and Native communities experience the highest rates of criminalization and have historically (and presently) been brutalized by the government; therein having a rightful distrust of government supports and services. When people access city-based or city-funded services, they should not fear being further criminalized or brutalized while accessing those supports or being forced to commit to things like religious services, addiction services, or other types of services while receiving basic needs supports.

Meeting the basic needs of our unhoused residents cannot be dependent upon compliance with receiving other types of services. Such requirements make it hard to build trust and rapport, especially in Black and Native communities, and often “turn people off” to receiving such support later, if needed. Having mobile units also allows the City to respond to different needs throughout the city and target our supports towards those most marginalized and vulnerable community members, such as the Black and Native communities. It also allows us to be flexible about how and where we show up, as many residents without homes may not always remain in the same place. Having the ability to be flexible and evolve with the needs of community members without homes is key to meeting these initial basic needs.

“More dollars to the Seattle Police Department will not make Seattle safer. It will only further entrench a violent and reactionary response to harm. It is also fiscally irresponsible, as increased investments in SPD continuously fail to deliver on the false promise of public safety through policing and punitive systems.”

It cannot stop there though. The racial wealth gap, exclusionary zoning and red lining, the lack of affordable housing and low-barrier shelters and supportive transitional housing, the continued rising cost of living in our region, and the lack of access to high-wage employment are all largely to blame for why so many of our unhoused resident are Black and Native. We need low-barrier permanent and transitional supportive housing that is, again, led by Black and Native communities because we are able to respond to the cultural and spiritual needs of our community members. The expertise to run these facilities well and sustainability may not exist throughout all Black and Native communities and so the City must commit to providing the technical support needed to build and sustain these spaces. For example, we could start by working with the Africatown Community Land Trust regarding the Keiro Building so that [the Africatown Land Trust] can launch culturally rooted supportive housing in the Central District.

Lastly, the Race and Social Justice Initiative requires the RSJI toolkit be employed in assessing our work and implementation as a City. We must take seriously utilizing all tools at our reach to ensure our work is actually aligning with our vision for the City as it pertains to RSJI. In this regard, we should employ full-time staff in each applicable department whose only role is to ensure that we are to our very best aligning with the principle and values outlined by RSJI.

In 2020, a majority of the city council said they supported defunding the police by at least 50 percent. Was it a mistake for them to make this commitment? What gaps in Seattle’s non-police public safety network can be filled on the shortest timeline, and which are the most pressing priorities?

No, this was not a mistake. I do not believe that we would have won the 18 percent defund without the movement pressure for 50 percent and the commitment of council to at least try. Additionally, Seattle Police Department’s budget has doubled since 2010 when John T. Williams was murdered. In the last 10 years we have seen a DOJ investigation, a consent decree (which we are still under), the murders of many more residents, the development of three offices related to the accountability legislation, the 2017 accountability legislation passing unanimously, the 2018 CBA [Collective Bargaining Agreement], which prevented the accountability legislation from being fully implemented, multiple uprisings in defense of Black lives, and the 2020/21 protests where thousands of protestors were brutalized.

Some would say 50 percent was not a well thought out number. I would say, considering the above, the continued outsized growth of SPD’s budget, and the lack of true public safety for all, 50 percent is well thought out and reflective of the lack of change we have seen in SPD and public safety generally since 2010 despite much investment in SPD. More dollars to the Seattle Police Department will not make Seattle safer. It will only further entrench a violent and reactionary response to harm. It is also fiscally irresponsible, as increased investments in SPD continuously fail to deliver on the false promise of public safety through policing and punitive systems.

Big picture: The City should see as many functions as possible moved out of the hands of armed officers or from being supervised and overseen by SPD officers. With some retraining away from the culture of SPD, the parking enforcement officer (PEO) workforce could take some of these tasks as outlined below. This will likely have to be tackled in the new CBA because it would be taking aways tasks currently assigned to officers.

Defund and remove all military equipment designed for crowd control and remove SPD’s responsibility for crowd control. Crowd control is a broad category which does not just include protests. There are other groups that could be accessed to do this work. When it comes to sporting events, we could work with our partners in organized labor to have trained flaggers help people and cars move effectively around the stadiums, partner with the community safety hubs (funding in the 2020 rebalance package with $4 million), bike brigade, and trained de-escalators and peacekeepers for rallies.

Lastly, to ensure some brevity in my answer, Decriminalize Seattle, who I’ve been organizing with since 2019, in our 2020 blueprint presented to the Council a blueprint for police divestment and community investment that I think is still useful as a guiding document for this work. I will still outline a few things below that I believe can happen quickly.

“As officers continue to leave the department, new hiring should be frozen, all salary savings should be recaptured and moved into funding and scaling up non-police responses to harm and meeting basic needs.”

Civilianized 911: As of June 1, 911 was no longer housed with SPD. It is now a part of the Community Safety and Communication Center—a new, independent city department. This department should house other civilian crisis response and program safety programs. We can quickly make sure the new dispatch has new training and operating instructions so that they are sending calls to non-police responders when possible. We need to expand HealthOne so that it can receive a larger volume of calls. The city is investing $10 million in an 18-month expansion of community-based responses. We need to assess those who received funding, what kinds of calls or referrals can they receive, what is the connection between other HSD programs and supports and our new civilianized 911, and what other programs or infrastructure needs to be built (based on types of calls 911 typically receives) to provide the best supports when residents are in need or crisis. As officers continue to leave the department, new hiring should be frozen, all salary savings should be recaptured and moved into funding and scaling up non-police responses to harm and meeting basic needs.

Parking Enforcement Officers (also supposed to be transferred): PEOs were supposed to be transferred on June 1st, but there is a debate about whether they should go to CSCC (the new department) or to SDOT. The PEOs want to go to CSCC, their supervisors (and the mayor) want them to go to SDOT. This move will not happen until September while the City figures out where PEOs should go. The PEOs want to take on more work that police currently do, and they think moving to CSCC will make that possible: “SPEOG union president Nanette Toyoshima, on the other hand, wrote in a letter to council last year that parking enforcement officers could take over some duties usually handled by sworn police officers, like responding to minor car crashes and enforcing red light violations, if they were in the new CSCC, according to PubliCola.”

Local elected officials and candidates have often emphasized the need to revitalize downtown Seattle as the primary focus of post-COVID recovery. What is one specific action you would take in Seattle’s non-downtown neighborhoods to promote economic recovery and neighborhood vitality?

The Seattle City Council has already passed legislation for commercial rent control for small businesses in Seattle affected by COVID-19. This ordinance provides protections for Seattle small businesses in the form of rent control, repayment plan requirements, and prohibition on late fees, interest, and other charges. One issue with the legislation is that prohibitions outlined in the legislation only remain in effect until the civil emergency proclaimed by Mayor Jenny Durkan on March 3, 2020 is terminated. Commercial rent control in a city as expensive as Seattle is generally a good thing for small businesses; I recommend we keep this ordinance in place even after the emergency proclamation has been terminated.

Continue reading “PubliCola Questions: Nikkita Oliver”

PubliCola Questions: Brianna Thomas

Brianna Thomas 2021 Questionnaire – Seattle City Council Pos. 9 | The  Urbanist
Image via peopleforbrianna.org

As PubliCola prepares to endorse candidates in the August 3 mayoral and council primary elections, we reached out to the leading candidates for mayor and City Council Position 9 with questions about homelessness, housing, police accountability, and economic recovery.

Their answers to these questions will help inform our endorsements, coming out next week. Endorsements will be based on each candidate’s record of action, public statements, interviews with PubliCola and other media outlets, and responses at the many candidate forums that have taken place over the summer.

Today, we’re highlighting two of the leading candidates for Seattle City Council Position 9, the seat currently held by council president Lorena González, who’s running for mayor. First up, González’s lead staffer, Brianna Thomas. Stay tuned for candidate Nikkita Oliver.

A third candidate for this position, Sara Nelson, is the only candidate in any race who did not respond to our questions.

Brianna Thomas worked on campaigns to raise the minimum wage in SeaTac and fund public financing in Seattle—and ran for office herself, losing in the crowded 2015 primary for the District 1 council seat that ultimately went to Lisa Herbold—before joining council president González’s office in 2016.

Since then, she’s gained an insider’s perspective on how the council operates, working on police accountability legislation, proposals to reduce corporate influence on elections, and a “secure scheduling” law that provides more predictable schedules for hourly workers. Thomas talks almost reverently about leadership and service, and her answers to policy questions often contain a reality check about process and political capital. If elected, she says she’ll work to pass “legally defensible progressive revenue” to address homelessness, reform cumbersome design review and permitting processes, and work toward 24-hour affordable child care, among other priorities.

Here’s what Thomas had to say in response to the eight questions PubliCola posed to the Position 9 candidates.

When responding to people living outdoors, the city has historically focused on large or highly visible encampments, and reserved resources and enhanced shelter or hotel beds for people at encampments removed by the city. This focus on large, visible encampments tends to exclude many unhoused people of color, such as Native Americans, from access to the most desirable services. What would you do to improve equity in access to services for unsheltered people of color, particularly the Black and Native homeless populations?

Maintaining the hoteling program would be a great way to get people off the streets and into a temporary indoor location. There they can have access to toilets, showers, clean water, and privacy, whereas outdoors on streets they couldn’t. Allowing people to live on streets as a permanent solution is inhumane. As Black and Native people are overrepresented in homeless populations, we must focus on wraparound services that will prioritize them (i.e. the Chief Seattle Club), including working with partners that are dedicated to serving these specific communities, in a way that isn’t predicated on such onerous/micromanage-y requirements that take away from the time needed to do the actual WORK.

I am prepared to work with all stakeholders in the region to ensure our budget reflects the urgent need for housing and wraparound services. Programs like JustCARE center getting folks out of tents, and into appropriate shelter that restores our community and our neighbors’ dignity.

In 2020, a majority of the city council said they supported defunding the police by at least 50 percent. Was it a mistake for them to make this commitment? What gaps in Seattle’s non-police public safety network can be filled on the shortest timeline, and which are the most pressing priorities?

I had a front row seat to last year’s discussion, debate and subsequent action around the movement to Defund the Police. I do believe that this commitment was well intentioned, and that the commitment was made in earnest. Unfortunately, the realities and restrictions on our current ability to fulfill this promise made it an empty one.

I stand by the council’s decision to divert millions of dollars from the general fund and SPD budget to reinvest in community based alternatives. The Council also identified approximately $30 million for a participatory budgeting program, which is unprecedented in the City’s history.

“As a Black woman, I deeply understand the call to dismantle the current carceral system, reinvest in community, and right generations of race based violence suffered by my community.”

One of my top priorities is criminal justice reform, beyond the police department’s budget. I was part of many of the difficult conversations and resulting council actions around police funding, informed by community. As a Black woman, I deeply understand the call to dismantle the current carceral system, reinvest in community, and right generations of race based violence suffered by my community. As a public servant and policy advisor that has been working on issues surrounding the reform and reimagining of policing since 2016, I feel trapped between the limitations of our continued monitoring by the [Department of Justice], which community called for, and a Collective Bargaining Agreement that patently refused to accept many of the calls for accountability set out in the City’s 2017 Police Accountability Ordinance.

I don’t believe there is a magic number that we can commit to until we do the thorough work of looking at what the police should actually respond to. What I am certain of is that we don’t need a gun and badge holding officer to respond to things like folks facing houselessness needing help, mental health calls, or giving out parking/speeding tickets.

Local elected officials and candidates have often emphasized the need to revitalize downtown Seattle as the primary focus of post-COVID recovery. What is one specific action you would take in Seattle’s non-downtown neighborhoods to promote economic recovery and neighborhood vitality?

Due to the impacts of the pandemic, hundreds of Seattle businesses have permanently shut their doors, including many with BIPOC owners. That is why I will propose a temporary abatement of B&O taxes for new small businesses, so we quickly fill empty storefronts. The Council should continue to work to simplify and improve permitting processes for businesses, like we saw with the extension of outdoor dining and Safe Street permits. I will also lead on expanding the Office of Economic Development’s budget, as it has the potential to become an incredibly important resource for BIPOC business owners, as well as creating a small business liaison. This is something I’ve heard would be beneficial directly from small business owners.

“I deeply and truly support our continued work to turn our upside down tax structure around, but I have done this work long enough to know that passage of legislation isn’t enough. We must find solutions that not only meet our most pressing needs, but will also withstand the inevitable legal challenges that we have become accustomed to after passage.”

Our zoning laws also play a role in economic recovery and neighborhood vitality. I’m a firm believer in 15-minute neighborhoods that are walkable and transit accessible. COVID highlighted the importance of having healthcare, childcare, grocery stores, recreation, small businesses, and work close to home. We have to prioritize changes to our restrictive zoning that currently keeps businesses and housing density out of our neighborhoods.

Assuming Charter Amendment 29 becomes law in Seattle, what city programs would you cut or deprioritize in order to dedicate 12 percent of the city’s general-fund budget to human services, and how would you go about adding 2,000 new shelter or housing spots by the end of next year?

I would like to take a good hard look at the current commission structure in the City. With over 80 commissions currently, many of which have disparities on technological access, requirements for inclusion of those with subject matter expertise (including lived experience) and staffing shortages, the system as built simply isn’t delivering. However, this sort of restructuring will not lead to the additional $16M needed to cover the investment gap laid out in the proposed amendment. Continue reading “PubliCola Questions: Brianna Thomas”

The C Is for Crank: Correcting the Record on Compassion Seattle

Image via seattle.gov

By Erica C. Barnett

In November, Seattle voters will (almost certainly) vote on whether to adopt Charter Amendment 29, an initiative that would require the city to divert public funds to add 2,000 new shelter beds while keeping parks and streets “clear of encampments,” according to the text of the amendment. The campaign is called Compassion Seattle, a name that suggests that by passing the initiative, voters will be supporting a compassionate approach to the crisis of unsheltered homelessness across the city.

In reality, the measure is an unfunded mandate that would force the city to create 2,000 new shelter “units” (beds) at the lowest possible cost, by diverting money from other city functions into a new fund aimed at moving unsheltered people out of places where they are visible and into places where they can’t be seen—”clearing” parks for housed people to use while spending the usual pittance to house, treat, and serve people with complicated needs.

Because initiative supporters are claiming that the measure will finally fix homelessness in Seattle, it’s extremely important to distinguish between what the charter amendment actually says and what supporters claim it would do. Here’s a cheat sheet to help inform your vote this fall.

Claim 1: Charter Amendment 29 will require the city to build housing and provide needed services, including addiction treatment and mental health care, for thousands of unsheltered Seattle residents.

Compassion Seattle leader Jon Scholes, director of the Downtown Seattle Association, said during a recent forum that the amendment “mandates…  that we invest in treatment, mental health and emergency housing and the set of services that we know are important to bringing people inside.”

This claim is simply false.

In fact, Charter Amendment 29 does not mandate any city spending on treatment, mental health care, or any specific “set of services.” Instead, it says the city “shall help fund low-barrier, rapid-access, mental health and substance use disorder treatment and services” in conjunction with King County—something the city already does through its annual budget and will continue to do as a major funder of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority.

Claim 2: We don’t need additional funding to fix homelessness; it’s just a matter of priorities.

Not only does Charter Amendment 29 fail to prescribe any specific solutions, it provides no new funding to address homelessness. Instead, it requires the city to set aside 12 percent of its existing general fund, which works out to a reallocation of about $18 million a year based on recent budgets, to support “the human services and homeless programs and services of the City.”

That’s right—all of the human services programs the city runs, which include youth and community safety programs, programs to combat domestic violence, services for elderly and disabled people, child care programs, funding for the Nurse Family Partnership, and, starting this year, a new division that will take over some functions of the police department. So if you hear an initiative supporter saying it will add another $18 million to homelessness programs, tell them it doesn’t—it creates a generic “human services” fund that can be spent for any human services purpose.

And even if every penny of the reallocated $18 million went to homelessness, it would barely scratch the surface of the problem. Nonetheless, initiative proponents continue to claim that $18 million would be enough to pay for comprehensive care, including individual housing and shelter.

DSA director Jon Scholes has even claimed the amendment would enable the city to expand JustCARE, a gold-standard program that provides hotel rooms and intensive case management to unsheltered people who are having a negative impact on neighborhoods, to every part of the city. That’s an empty promise.

Claim 3: Compassion Seattle will fund hotels and evidence-based, high-quality services throughout the city.

DSA director Scholes has even claimed the amendment would enable the city to expand JustCARE, a gold-standard program that provides hotel rooms and intensive case management to unsheltered people who are having a negative impact on neighborhoods, to every part of the city. That’s an empty promise, because JustCARE isn’t cheap—certainly not cheap enough to provide hotel rooms, case management, and comprehensive wraparound services on a budget of $18 million a year.

Do the math: At $50,000 a person (the amount JustCARE supporters say the program would cost “at scale“), annual funding of $18 million would be enough to serve an additional 360 people. The initiative claims it will get 2,000 people off the streets in the first year alone. There’s simply no way supporters can justify the promises they’re making about the quality of care their budget-adjusting measure will pay for.

Claim 4: Charter Amendment 29 will require the city to finally invest in real housing solutions for unsheltered people.

Supporters, including several mayoral candidates, have said they’re backing the initiative because it represents a new commitment to housing, forcing the city to provide individual shelter rooms and permanent supportive housing to people living outdoors. Mayoral candidate Jessyn Farrell, for example, told the Seattle Times she considers the measure “the consensus path of what we need to do around homelessness,” because it would require “interim housing, more services, more permanent supportive housing.”

Looking just at the prescriptive language of the measure, it’s clear that what it actually requires is new shelter—which the measure euphemistically describes as “emergency housing”—not housing.

This is a common misinterpretation of what Charter Amendment 29 would do. The amendment includes a lot of words about providing appropriate services and permanent, individualized housing options, but that language is aspirational (“it is City policy to…”); it doesn’t implement any actual policy. In fact, much of what’s in the amendment is already city policy, including a section stipulating that the city supports housing and services that are “tailored to individual needs and cultural differences.” (For example, HSD already has policies in place committing the department to provide culturally responsive services to diverse populations.) Saying that something is city policy and mandating spending on specific solutions are very different things.

Looking just at the prescriptive language of the measure, it’s clear that what it actually requires is new shelter—which the measure euphemistically describes as “emergency housing”—not housing.

Thousands of shelter beds might put homelessness out of sight for groups like the DSA that are concerned about the impacts of tents on businesses, but it doesn’t solve the problem, which is that thousands of people in our region lack a permanent place to live. City and regional leaders have known for many years that the old shelter-first model is an ineffective way to get people housed, which is why “housing first” is now considered a best practice. And the proposal doesn’t mandate spending on services beyond what the city is already doing. Continue reading “The C Is for Crank: Correcting the Record on Compassion Seattle”

Is It Time for Free Transit?

Image of Metro’s Route 99, a free waterfront bus that ran until 2018, by Atomic Taco

By Katie Wilson

Last week, PubliCola reported a “surprising consensus” among Seattle mayoral candidates on the subject of free public transit. Jessyn Farrell, Lorena González and Andrew Grant Houston have all displayed enthusiasm for pursuing this vision, while Colleen Echohawk and Bruce Harrell have expressed more cautious interest.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, when local transit agencies stopped charging fare and implemented back-door boarding, transit riders who kept on riding got a taste of what a fare-free system might be like. No more fumbling for change, no tapping a card, just hop on the bus or the train. But even before the pandemic, free transit was having a moment.

On January 1, 2020, Intercity Transit, which serves Olympia and the rest of Thurston County, went fare-free. In the first month, ridership jumped up 20 percent. Bobby Karleton, a community organizer and daily bus rider in Olympia, noticed the change: “More people of color, elderly and disabled people and families with small children appear to be using the system,” he said. “For IT’s most impoverished riders—many who are homeless—free service means saving $1.25 every bus ride. That may not sound much, but it adds up.”

But even before the pandemic, free transit was having a moment.

Olympia wasn’t alone. In December 2019, Kansas City, Missouri became the first major U.S. city to dispense with fares. A few months earlier, Lawrence, Massachusetts began a two-year pilot. It was starting to look like a trend, but it wasn’t entirely new—in fact, the Pacific Northwest has long been something of a quiet national leader on free transit. A number of smaller cities and rural areas in Washington, Oregon and Idaho have operated fare-free systems for decades. Visiting Whidbey Island? Put away that wallet. Traveling around Mason County? Welcome aboard.

For Seattle, a city accustomed to being on the leading edge of progressive policy, this is all a little embarrassing. How could we let other parts of our own state—including some that vote Republican!—get so far out ahead? Why are many of us still paying $2.75 to stand, crammed in like sardines, on buses crawling down car-choked streets? Why do we submit to the indignity of fare inspections, with steep fines that punish poverty and disproportionately harm Black riders? In a global climate crisis, why are we still erecting barriers to choosing sustainable transportation? In short, when is fare-free transit coming to Seattle and King County?

Sadly, it’s not quite that simple — but it’s not an impossible dream, either. Let’s take a look.

The transit agencies that have recently hopped on the fare-free bandwagon all have one thing in common: They’re smaller systems, and their revenue from fares is small both absolutely and as a portion of their total budget. Kansas City had to scrape together a modest $9 million per year. In the case of Intercity Transit, fares covered less than 2 percent of operating costs, and the agency was facing an expensive upgrade to the ORCA card system. For some rural systems the calculus is even more extreme: The ancillary costs of collecting fares exceed the fare revenue itself. In both cities, fare-free just makes sense.

The notion that fare-free transit somehow pencils out without a massive infusion of new tax revenue is a pipe dream.

By contrast, in a large, dense urban system like ours, fares bring in real money. Pre-pandemic, farebox revenue covered about a quarter of the operating costs for King County Metro’s bus system. Metro’s annual haul from fares was somewhere in the neighborhood of $175 million. Sound Transit, which operates Link light rail, regional Express buses and the Sounder line, brought in another $100 million. While it’s true that collecting and enforcing fares also costs money—a 2018 audit found that Metro spent $1.7 million per year on fare enforcement, for example—the amounts simply aren’t comparable. The notion that fare-free transit somehow pencils out without a massive infusion of new tax revenue is a pipe dream.

That’s not the only challenge for fare-free transit. While it’s undeniable that the cost of fares is a hardship for many and a disincentive for many more, the bigger problem for most people—including those with low incomes—is the service itself. Public transit doesn’t come frequently enough or get people where they need to go fast enough. Buses and trains are overcrowded and don’t run at all times of the day and night. So even if the transit agencies found a quarter billion dollars on the doorstep every year, eliminating fares might not be the highest and best use of those funds—especially since people would respond to this change by riding still more, further increasing the demand for service.

Recognizing these realities, over the past decade community organizers, advocates and transit riders have taken a needs-based approach to fare-free transit. Through pressure and work with elected officials and agency staff, they’ve won and expanded a suite of reduced- or no-cost transit programs serving specific populations: the Human Services Ticket program, ORCA LIFT reduced fare program, Seattle Youth ORCA program, and, as of last fall, a no-cost annual transit pass program for people below 80 percent of the federal poverty level. I have been involved in all these efforts through my work with the Transit Riders Union. Continue reading “Is It Time for Free Transit?”

Homeless Service Providers, City Employees Told to Use Encrypted App

By Erica C. Barnett

One of the members of the HOPE team, a Human Services Department-led group that coordinates outreach work at encampments, directed city staff and nonprofit outreach contractors earlier this year to stop using text messages, which are subject to public disclosure, to communicate about homeless encampment outreach and removals.

Instead, the HOPE team member, Christina Korpi, wrote in an April 8 email, staffers should use Signal, an encrypted private messaging app commonly used by activists, journalists, and others who want to shield their messages so that they can’t be read by anyone except the intended recipient. Signal can be set to auto-delete messages on both the sender and the recipient’s phones, making them impossible to recover.

In Korpi’s email, which went out to dozens of outreach providers and at least eight city staffers, including the members of the HOPE team, she wrote, “We are planning to start using the Signal app instead of text message thread for field communications. Please download this app on your phone, or let me know if you have concerns or questions about using it.”

Mayor Jenny Durkan has come under fire for deleting text messages and failing to disclose communications that are subject to the state Public Disclosure Act, a potential felony. Unlike using ordinary text messages, sending messages on Signal and other encrypted private messaging apps are effectively exempt from public disclosure.

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A spokesman for the Human Services Department, Kevin Mundt, said it was actually an outreach provider who first suggested using Signal as an alternative to the text message chains the city and outreach providers have traditionally used to coordinate shelter and services referrals from encampments, which Mundt said is currently limited to 20 users. (Signal group texts can include up to 1,000 users). Regardless, the fact remains that a city staffer directed both nonprofit service providers and other city employees to download and use Signal to communicate with each other in the field.

The city of Seattle’s IT department does not allow employees to install Signal on their phones, according to a spokesman for City Attorney Pete Holmes’ office. “Downloading mobile messaging services for encrypted messaging is not approved for City devices,” the spokesman said. The state Public Records Act requires public officials and government agencies to retain all records that are not specifically exempt from disclosure under the law.

According to Mundt, after consulting with the IT department, HSD decided not to use Signal for “case conferencing, the shelter referral process or any related City business “due to the need to maintain records for public disclosure.” Instead, they are using the Microsoft Teams app. Case conferencing is the process by which service providers connect their clients to housing based, among other criteria, on their “vulnerability,” which includes criteria like age, length of homelessness, and disability. Continue reading “Homeless Service Providers, City Employees Told to Use Encrypted App”

PubliCola Questions: Colleen Echohawk

As PubliCola prepares to endorse candidates in the August 3 mayoral and council primary elections, we reached out to the leading candidates for mayor and City Council Position 9 with questions about homelessness, housing, police accountability, and economic recovery.

Their answers to these questions, which we’ll be sharing over the next several days, will help inform our endorsements, coming out next week. Endorsements will be based on each candidate’s record of action, public statements, interviews with PubliCola and other media outlets, and responses at the many candidate forums that have taken place over the summer.

Colleen Echohawk has said she decided to run for mayor to address the “humanitarian crisis” of homelessness. As director of the Chief Seattle Club, a nonprofit organization that works to address and prevent homelessness among Seattle’s Native community, she has tried to navigate between advocating for Native people living outdoors while working within systems that often fail people experiencing homelessness. After Mayor Jenny Durkan’s election in 2017, for example, Echohawk served on Durkan’s transition team and received a mayoral appointment to the Community Police Commission, one of the city’s three police-accountability bodies; she also served for many years as a board member for the Downtown Seattle Association, which has proposed a charter amendment that would require the city to redirect existing funds to pay for 2,000 new shelter beds. After initially supporting the amendment, Echohawk came out against it, saying it isn’t “grounded in the lived experience of people who’ve been experiencing homelessness.”

The centerpiece of Echohawk’s agenda is a 22-point plan to reduce homelessness by, among other actions, hiring 100 outreach workers with lived experience of homelessness and ending the 72-hour parking rule that allows the city to impound vehicles, including cars and RVs where people are living, if they stay in one place for more than three days.

Here’s what Echohawk had to say in response to the eight questions PubliCola posed to every mayoral candidate.

Assuming Charter Amendment 29 becomes law in Seattle, what city programs would you cut or deprioritize in order to dedicate 12 percent of the city’s general-fund budget to human services, and how would you go about adding 2,000 new shelter or housing spots by the end of next year?

First, I would not cut programs. We would prioritize funding from the JumpStart tax to fund additional shelter as well as a capital campaign I will initiate as soon as the election results are certified. I just want to also emphasize that bringing people living outside inside is not just a matter of finding shelter or housing spots. I will also immediately begin hiring 100 outreach workers needed to do the outreach work necessary to work with our homeless relatives while securing additional housing, which will require an “all of the above approach” meaning: tiny homes, hoteling, pallet homes, safe lots for RV camping, modular housing, etc.

“Activation is also critically important in our neighborhood business districts for recovery and revitalization which is why as mayor I will invest in artists and cultural activity, and in particular in BIPOC artists and previously underinvested and marginalized cultural communities, to lay the foundation for a more equitable and inclusive creative recovery.”

I have years of experience of working with the homeless provider network, the Office of Housing, builders of low-income housing as well as the leaders in the Regional Homelessness Authority. I will work with these leaders to identify the real estate that is necessary to get emergency housing up and running in 14 months. Here is my plan to bring the roughly 5,000 people living outside inside in the first 15 months.

Local elected officials and candidates have often emphasized the need to revitalize downtown Seattle as the primary focus of post-COVID recovery. What is one specific action you would take in Seattle’s non-downtown neighborhoods to promote economic recovery and neighborhood vitality?

Every neighborhood in Seattle is unique, including downtown Seattle. The City of Seattle can play a key role in supporting the recovery of our diverse neighborhoods, but needs to look to the expertise already in place to help lead neighborhood appropriate efforts. Just as I am committed to listening to community and lifting up the expertise of those closest to our biggest problems and challenges, I am committed to the leadership of those organizations charged with the care and trajectory of our most valuable assets.

As Mayor I will encourage investments in programs that are led by the neighborhoods they serve with the city providing for events and programs. I will also seek to significantly expand the impact of Small Business support efforts currently housed in the Office of Economic Development. This will include increasing capacity for Small Business Advocates and empowering lead staff in the areas of business development and construction impacts to take action to address issues quickly and respond with the agility Seattle’s dynamic economy demands.

Multiple neighborhoods in Seattle don’t currently benefit from the strong, dedicated organizations like the DSA. With Downtown Seattle as a standard bearer, I will seek to forge partnerships between downtown and our most underrepresented neighborhoods to build strength in organizational and neighborhood governance. This could take the form of new [business improvement districts], new neighborhood associations or new Public/Private stewardship of vital assets like the Pike Place Market [public development authority] and [Community Roots] Housing.

Activation is also critically important in our neighborhood business districts for recovery and revitalization which is why as mayor I will invest in artists and cultural activity, and in particular in BIPOC artists and previously underinvested and marginalized cultural communities, to lay the foundation for a more equitable and inclusive creative recovery. In Seattle I have seen our arts and cultural communities taking this year’s existential issues head-on. The centering of BIPOC creatives in the programming and leadership of many Seattle arts organizations this year has been a welcome, if long overdue, shift.

“Much like how the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 demonstrated why a public water supply should not be left up to private industries who exist to make a profit, internet access and online connectivity should be no different.”

The degree to which arts and cultural organizations have invested in the economic survival of their staff and artists this year has been inspiring. Brand-new modes of distanced, safe arts presentation were invented almost immediately and refined into a new form overnight. In the arts, as in all things, we need to take with us the best of what we’ve built in this past year, these tools we’ve used to transcend the solitude and distance, as we reimagine our new Seattle.

And finally, I will work with the City Council to create a new utility on municipal broadband. An estimated 250 public employees will be needed to run and manage this utility, creating positive jobs for the City. Much like how the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 demonstrated why a public water supply should not be left up to private industries who exist to make a profit, internet access and online connectivity should be no different. Just like how electric power, water, drainage & wastewater, and garbage utilities are created, run, and used by the residents of Seattle, broadband can and should be a basic public utility.

More than 750 cities across the country have already invested in municipal broadband services. It is time Seattle does too. Stable and reliable broadband offered and significantly lower prices than current for profit providers will be a significant help to small businesses across the city.

There is general consensus around the need to replace some functions of the police department with non-policing alternatives, such as civilian crisis responders. What gaps in Seattle’s non-police public safety network can be filled on the shortest timeline, and which are the most pressing priorities?

We must devote resources that actually address the need for public safety across our City. Innovative programs like the Fire Department’s Mobile Integrated Mental Health response unit Health One pilot program and the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) [now known as Let Everyone Advance with Dignity] take public health approaches to violence prevention by strengthening evidence-based strategies at the local level.

An armed response is almost never required for mental health crises. I want to go one step further than the City’s current crisis response team by creating a 24/7 mobile team of community paramedics and trained crisis workers. The gaps in Seattle’s non-police public safety network will be addressed by our plan for a crisis response team. Mental health response has been inadequate for years in Seattle but post-pandemic it is reaching a breaking point. An Echohawk administration will prioritize funding for mental health and work with our local experts and community leaders to find real solutions that meet the needs of the community. Continue reading “PubliCola Questions: Colleen Echohawk”