Tag: King County Council

Seattle Cop Mocks Trans People, Blames Jan. 6 Riots on Pelosi; County Council Plays It Safe by Proposing Flat Levy Renewal

1. Seattle police captain Keith Swank, a 33-year department veteran who is currently out on long-term paid leave, has posted dozens of tweets that appear to violate SPD’s social media policy, which says SPD employees “shall not post speech that negatively impacts the department’s ability to serve the public,” including any post that “ridicules, maligns, disparages, expresses bias, or disrespect toward any race, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or any other protected class of individuals.”

In the past several months, for example, Swank has posted tweets that are that are transphobic (March 24: “Transwomen are men. #KeepTheRepublicSafe”), racist (March 24: “Democrats let violent animals like this [Black attacker] back out on the streets to kill Americans”) and conspiratorial (March 21: “It’s time for Republican prosecutors across the country to start investigating Pelosi, Schumer, Swalwell, etc. I’m giving you the names, now find the crimes.”)

In addition to denigrating trans women and promoting conspiracy theories about—among other things—election fraud and Paul Pelosi, Swank has repeatedly expressed his support for the rioters who stormed the US Capitol on January 6, calling the killing of Ashli Babbitt—a woman who was shot while breaking into the US Capitol—”state-sanctioned murder.”

“Pelosi coordinated the deadly attack, and Ashli Babbitt was murdered,” Swank wrote in March. “Would be great to see this criminal face accountability for her crime.”

At least six SPD officers went to the pro-Trump rally that preceded the attack on the Capitol, and two who trespassed on Capitol grounds were fired in 2021 after an Office of Police Accountability investigation in 2021. Shortly after the attacks, Seattle Police Officers Guild director Mike Solan faced calls for his resignation after blaming Black Lives Matter for the attacks, which were coordinated and carried out by Trump supporters.

When PubliCola inquired about Swank’s tweets attacking marginalized people and defending the January 6 rioters, a spokesman for the police department, Sgt. John O’Neil, said the “department will evaluate any policy violating statements that we become aware of and refer them to OPA as appropriate.” Asked if SPD does believe Swank’s tweets violate SPD’s social media policy, O’Neil responded, “It’s the view of the Seattle Police that any employee that violates social media policy will be referred to OPA.  There is a process. We have no further comment on this.”

UPDATE May 4: The Office of Police Accountability confirmed that SPD did not file a complaint about Swank’s posts, indicating that SPD does not believe his comments violated its social media policy. OPA disagrees; after PubliCola contacted the office, the OPA opened a complaint into Swank’s social media behavior.

2. The King County Council rejected a measure that would have asked voters to increase the size of the Veterans, Seniors, and Human Services Levy by 2 cents per $1,000 of property value, or about $17 a year, opting instead for a flat renewal at an initial 10 cents per $1,000 that will result in cuts to services and build only half as many housing units as the most recent levy renewal.

“Going to the ballot with a property tax increase opposed by the suburban cities puts at risk the funding for the underlying levy, and I’m not willing to do that.” —King County Council Chair Dave Upthegrove

The seven-year VSHSL levy pays for housing, domestic violence prevention, senior centers, and supportive services for low-income and homeless veterans, seniors, and other King County residents. Over the last six years, it has raised around $350 million. Because property values have increased dramatically, the next seven-year levy will raise an estimated $565 million and cost the owner of a median (in 2024 dollars) $838,000 home around $100 a year.

Council members who supported the higher levy, including North King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski, noted that a flat 10-cent renewal will severely constrain the uses of the levy for the next seven years. “Ten cents is a cut,” Dembowski said. “It’s a cut because of inflation, [and] because of increased demand for the services that exist and for things we might want to do.”

Suburban council members said they feared a higher levy would lose outside Seattle, potentially dooming it. Eastside Councilmember Claudia Balducci, voted for the 12-cent rate, noted that the levy to build mental health crisis centers, which passed countywide in April, fared poorly in suburban districts, including hers.

Council chair Dave Upthegrove, said he had “no political problem” with the higher, 12-cent rate, but added, “I do worry about passage. … Going to the ballot with a property tax increase opposed by the suburban cities puts at risk the funding for the underlying levy, and I’m not willing to do that.”

After rejecting the larger levy proposal on a 5-4 vote, the council unanimously voted to put the 1o-cent levy on the ballot in August.

After Ambiguous Election, Council Will Decide Whether to Expand Human Services Levy

Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus

By Erica C. Barnett

The nine-member King County Council is expected to vote this afternoon to place the Veterans, Seniors, and Human Services Levy renewal on the August ballot, although the size of the levy was still up for debate going into Tuesday’s meeting.

The two options on the table are a flat renewal at 10 cents per $1,000 of property value—the plan King County Executive Dow Constantine sent the council for approval back in February. A levy renewal at that level would raise about $565 million over six years, but—due to inflation and increased construction costs—would produce only about half as much housing as the expiring levy and require 45 percent cut to housing-related services. The other option on the table is to increase the levy to 12 cents per $1,000, which would raise about $678 million over the same period. The higher levy would cost the owner of a median ($838,000) home about $17 more per year.

The levy pays for housing, domestic violence prevention, senior centers, and supportive services for low-income and homeless veterans, seniors, and other King County residents. Over the last six years, it has raised around $350 million. Placing a levy on the ballot requires a six-vote supermajority, which means that in order to pass a higher, 12-cent tax, at least six of the county council’s seven Democrats will need to be on board.

In a special meeting last Friday, the county’s 12-member Regional Policy Committee, which makes recommendations to the county council, failed to reach agreement on the appropriate size for the levy, with five members voting for the lower rate and four holding out for the 12-cent option. (Because county council members on the RPC get two votes each, a 5-4 vote in favor of the smaller levy option resulted in a 6-6 vote).

Originally, the RPC was supposed to make a recommendation at its regularly scheduled meeting last Monday. Instead of voting then, the RPC decided to hold off on a recommendation until after Tuesday’s election on another countywide property tax levy—the King County Crisis Centers Levy, which will build five mental health crisis centers across the county, restore some residential mental health care beds, and increase behavioral health workers’ pay.

“Sadly, there is a bond measure for the Kent School District that failed by almost the same percentage, if not more, than [the crisis centers levy passed by] I think that is a pretty good indicator that there are individuals in our communities that have tax fatigue and are not looking for adding any new taxes.”—Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus

That levy is currently passing with nearly 57 percent of the vote. However, both County Councilmember Claudia Balducci, who represents Bellevue, and Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus noted last week that the levy was failing in parts of rural and suburban King County—suggesting a lack of appetite for higher property taxes outside Seattle.

“Sadly, there is a bond measure for the Kent School District that failed by almost the same percentage, if not more, than [the crisis centers levy passed by],” Backus said. “I think that is a pretty good indicator that there are individuals in our communities that have tax fatigue and are not looking for adding any new taxes.”

“I have to say that I hear very clearly the message that Mayor Backus is sending,” Balducci said. “We need to look at what our voters are telling us.”

Last week, around the same time that the RPC was meeting, King County Executive Dow Constantine posted a “community survey” asking voters to pick which services to cut in light of a $100 million projected 2025-2026 shortfall Constantine said was “due to the state’s arbitrary one percent limit on property tax collection.” Constantine’s announcement noted pointedly that services for domestic violence and sexual assault survivors, gun violence prevention, programs for BIPOC youth, and public health clinics were all among the options on the chopping block.

In the legislative session that just concluded, lawmakers proposed, but did not pass, a bill that would have raised the cap to 3 percent. The bill never got a hearing. A fiscal analysis by legislative staff found that it would increase local tax revenues statewide by about $480 million during the 2025-2026 biennium. According to an analysis of the legislation by Constantine’s staff, however, a 3 percent cap would have increased property taxes for the median King County homeowner by $7.96 a year, an amount that would not make up for the $100 million biennial shortfall Constantine blamed on the legislature.

Alison Eisinger, the executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, said it was absurd for Constantine to blame the legislature for the county’s budget shortfall, especially when he chose to leave money on the table by proposing a flat renewal of the levy.

“Are people supposed to think that government can actually be part of the solution if, on the one hand, government is saying we have a $100 million shortfall and we’re going to have to cut critical services, and on the other hand, they’re debating something that would cost the average homeowner pennies?” Eisinger said. “This is about elected officials not having the courage of their convictions and taking the necessary votes to let the public decide whether or not we are going to house veterans and seniors and support our communities.”

The services identified in the county’s survey are funded with the general fund, not the veterans’ levy, and the county can’t legally use levy dollars to supplant items that would ordinarily be paid for by the general fund; Eisinger’s comments were about the contrast between Constantine’s complaint about the county’s taxing authority and his support for the smallest version of the levy under consideration.

The last time the veterans, seniors, and human services levy was on the ballot, in November 2017, it passed with 69 percent of the vote.

Over Protests, King County Prepares to Transfer 60 to Des Moines Jail

Former city attorney candidate and public defender Nicole Thomas-Kennedy testifies: “The people that are [in jail] cannot afford to buy their freedom. That is why they are there. “
By Erica C. Barnett

Last week, the King County Council held off on a decision on whether to approve a contract that would move up to 150 men living at the downtown jail to the South Correctional Entity (SCORE), a non-county-owned jail in Kent, after several council members said they had concerns about the scope of the agreement, access to visitors and attorneys at SCORE, and the use of additional jail space to address persistent problems at the downtown jail, where the population and average length of stay have increased.

As PubliCola reported last year, the county’s approved 2023 budget includes $3.5 million for a contract between the county and SCORE. The agreement to move an initial 60 people, which the council will vote on tomorrow, April 4, is that contract.

During a lengthy public comment period at last week’s council meeting, attorneys, advocates, and people who had been incarcerated asked the council to reject the agreement, arguing that moving people from one jail to another would not address the underlying problems at the jail, where six people died—four of them by suicide—last year.

The proposed agreement includes a list of conditions that would make a person ineligible for transfer to SCORE. Several commenters, including a former psychiatric evaluations specialist at SCORE, said it was easy for people to fall through the cracks or develop mental health conditions in jail.

“Your choice is not between overloading SCORE and overloading the King County Jail,” public commenter Madeleine Pfeiffer said. “Just three years ago, you were faced with a public health crisis and the King County Jail and you reduce the population by 50 percent in a matter of days—why not now? Why aren’t the deaths in the King County jail a crisis now that warrants the reduction of population there?”

Several commenters noted that SCORE has also seen its share of high-profile deaths, including that of Damaris Rodriguez, a woman with mental illness who died after four days in solitary confinement; her family received $2 million in a partial settlement with the jail. According to a staff memo, the county “intends to contract with SCORE to house people who do not have serious mental or physical health issues … low-level, healthy people[.]”

The proposed agreement includes a list of conditions that would make a person ineligible for transfer to SCORE, including people who have attempted suicide in the past or shown suicidal ideation in the 72 hours before booking and people displaying a “current psychotic episode.” But several commenters, including a former psychiatric evaluations specialist at SCORE, said it was easy for people to fall through the cracks or develop mental health conditions in jail.

County budget director Dwight Dively told the council the executive branch had issues with several amendments council members proposed to make the agreement more palatable, including restrictions on how many people could be moved to SCORE without additional council approval and an amendment that would require SCORE to meet the conditions the Department of Public Defense says it requires to adequately represent their clients housed there. Dively called these amendments “problematic”—in the first case, because the county is continuing to jail more people for longer periods, and in the second, because “different jails operate in different ways.”

The council will meet and vote on the agreement at its meeting at 1:30 Tuesday afternoon.

Amid Lawsuit Over Jail Conditions, County Moves Forward With Controversial Inmate Transfer Plan

By Erica C. Barnett

A King County Council committee tentatively moved forward on an agreement to move up to 150 men currently incarcerated at the downtown King County Correctional Facility to the South Correctional Entity (SCORE), a jail owned jointly by six south King County cities. The contract, which will cost the county around $3.5 million over two years, is supposed to “help King County mitigate the impact of the unprecedented levels of employee vacancies on staff in the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention,” according to a letter from King County Executive Dow Constantine that accompanied the legislation. Under the agreement, DAJD would initially transfer about 50 men to SCORE starting in April.

PubliCola first reported on the county’s decision to fund the SCORE contract last year.

The county council’s Law, Justice, Health and Human Services Committee moved the agreement forward without recommendation, citing the need to balance concerns raised by attorneys who represent incarcerated people with the abbreviated timeline laid out by Constantine and the county’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, which runs the jail. The council plans to work out the details over the next two to three weeks and adopt the agreement by the end of March.

The union that represents employees at King County’s Department of Public Defense, SEIU 925, believes the proposed agreement fails to address their concerns that moving defendants to SCORE will impede attorneys’ access to their clients and put them at a disadvantage during court proceedings; the union sent a letter to the council laying out their concerns with the contract last night.

Currently, SCORE only allows inmates to access court hearings virtually, and has just one booth where attorneys can talk to their clients and pass documents back and forth, along with several booths where one member of an inmate’s defense team (which might include investigators, paralegals, and mitigation specialists) can communicate with them at a time.

“We frequently have to get documents signed; we frequently have to work through documentation; we frequently need interpreters. Trying to do this over video will be impossible.”—Department of Public Defense union president Molly Gilbert

SCORE also has video visitation booths where visitors can speak with incarcerated people virtually; the jail, unlike those operated by King County, has no in-person visitation.

“Once you get above the misdemeanor level and start talking about felonies, you’re talking about really convoluted court hearings and legal concepts that are difficult to explain,” DPD union president Molly Gilbert told PubliCola. “We frequently have to get documents signed; we frequently have to work through documentation; we frequently need interpreters. Trying to do this over video will be impossible.”

Last November, the union filed a demand to bargain over the proposal to move inmates to SCORE, arguing that the agreement creates changes to their members’ working conditions; the county has not agreed to negotiate with the union.

“I don’t want to be an alarmist here, but we are at a critical stage. Delaying simply creates one more day, one more moment where the opportunities for people in our custody won’t get met.”—Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention director Allen Nance

At Tuesday’s meeting, interim DAJD administrative division director Diana Joy said SCORE had assured the department that it would transfer defendants to court and that attorneys as well as other DPD staff, such as investigators and paralegals, will have direct access to clients.

However, the contract itself says only that “SCORE will provide a minimum of one transport to a King County designated facility every twelve hours for King County inmates newly booked at SCORE or housed at SCORE and requested by King County to be returned.” It says almost nothing about defendants’ access to attorneys and others working on their cases; the sole reference to these rights in the contract is a line stipulating that “confidential telephones or visitation rooms shall be available to a Contract Agency Inmate to communicate with his or her legal counsel.

At Tuesday’s meeting, DAJD director Allen Nance said it was important for the county to move forward on the contract quickly because conditions at the jail have continued to deteriorate amid an ongoing staffing shortage.

“I don’t want to be an alarmist here,” Nance said, “but we are at a critical stage … Delaying simply creates one more day, one more moment where the opportunities for people in our custody won’t get met.”

Understaffing at the jail reached unprecedented levels during the pandemic, as the jail struggled to hire and retain applicants for high-stress jobs that pay less than other law enforcement positions and lately have required frequent mandatory overtime. Currently, according to King County Corrections Guild president Dennis Folk, the jail is 111 guards short of its staffing target—an improvement since last year, when the shortage reached 129 absent guards.

“This is [DAJD’s] way of trying to decrease our numbers [of people] that are in custody, which ultimately results in us having less posts that we need to fill,” Folk said. Removing 50 people from the jail, for example, could eliminate the need to staff one floor of the jail, for example. “I don’t think it will make that big of a dent, but they seem to think it will.”

Guard shortages, combined with a dramatic increase in the number of people housed at the downtown jail, have led to untenable and sometimes dangerous conditions in the jail. In February, the ACLU of Washington filed a lawsuit against the county, alleging that conditions at the jail violate an agreement known as the Hammer settlement, which requires the jail to meet minimal health and safety standards, including adequate access to behavioral and physical health care.

The contract says the inmates who will be transferred to SCORE will be men accused of Class C and “non-violent B level” felonies, such as burglary, auto theft, and  stalking. “SCORE would not be used for people doing service work in King County jails, who have frequent court appearances, or who have significant medical or mental health needs,” the agreement says. Gilbert says a stable group of inmates without “frequent court appearances” doesn’t really exist; everyone in the jail, except people waiting to go to Western State Hospital for competency evaluations, has to appear in court. “We don’t understand what population it is they’re talking about,” she said.

“Yes, it’s challenging, yes, there are tradeoffs, but I think we owe it to the folks who are trying to make the best of a very dangerous situation, to take up their request … and give the best answer we can within the timeline they have asked for.”—King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci

King County Councilmember and committee chair Girmay Zahilay said Tuesday that while “on the one hand, we want to be able to relieve pressure on… the downtown jail,” which is facing “crisis” conditions, “on the other hand, we’ve heard some some downsides,” including the need for defense attorneys to travel to a third jail, on top of the downtown jail and the Norm Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent (which has suspended new bookings) , in order to meet with clients.

Councilmember Claudia Balducci, who worked for DAJD for 15 years and directed the department from 2011 to early 2014, countered that both DPD and the jail itself have asked the county to do something to improve conditions inside the facility. “So yes, it’s challenging, yes, there are tradeoffs, but I think we owe it to the folks who are trying to make the best of a very dangerous situation, to take up their request … and give an answer the best answer we can within the timeline they have asked for.”

Folk, from the jail guards’ union, said that once the jail has 473 guards on staff—the point at which guards who volunteer for extra shifts are no longer eligible for overtime pay at 2.5 times their regular wages—”I want that contract canceled.” Hiring more than 100 new guards presents challenges that go beyond recruitment. One issue, Folk said, is that many new recruits can’t pass the state law enforcement academy’s physical fitness test; in a recent batch of 13 new guards, he said, “over half failed” and had to be let go. Still, he said, the jail has 19 new hires coming on board this month.

In July 2020, King County Executive Dow Constantine pledged to close the downtown jail “in phases” after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the intervening years, the county’s overall jail population has rebounded, reaching about 1,600 (compared to a pre-pandemic average of around 1,900) last year.

City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda Will Run for King County Council

By Erica C. Barnett

Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who’s in the middle of her second four-year term, will run for the King County Council seat longtime County Councilmember Joe McDermott is leaving at the end of the year. (PubliCola first reported that Mosqueda might run for this position on Monday). In an interview, Mosqueda said she was “pulled” by the appeal of serving on the county council rather than “pushed” out of her current job by the factors—public hostility, divisiveness, and personal attacks—that have contributed to several colleagues’ decisions not to run for reelection.

“Throughout my career, but especially on council, it is evident that I can rise above the fray, that I can pull people together who have diverse perspectives, and we can pull solutions together and pass them with near unanimous or near-unanimous support,” Mosqueda, a former labor lobbyist in Olympia, said.

As an example, she pointed to the JumpStart payroll tax, which succeeded where previous “Tax Amazon” efforts by her council colleague Kshama Sawant had failed, thanks in large part to Mosqueda’s efforts to win at least tacit consensus from groups that opposed previous efforts to raise taxes on large businesses.

“I think there really needs be a shift from thinking about ‘peak hours” to thinking about what workers need and what accessibility truly means to families,” Mosqueda said. “Also, making sure that our light rail is going to communities and not through communities.”

Similarly, Mosqueda said, she would have handled the siting of a controversial homeless shelter expansion in SoDo—which King County abandoned under pressure from advocates in the Chinatown-International District who said the county never consulted them—differently.

“Folks who were concerned about the siting [of the shelter] there are also interested in solutions— they’re concerned about people not having a place to use the bathroom or sleeping outside business establishments,” Mosqueda said. “We have shared interests… but we have to start with talking to the community first—especially in the CID and the [Asian and Pacific Islander] population who have also been on the receiving end of other services over the years.”

If voters pass a ballot measure to build six behavioral health crisis centers around the county in April, the council will play a role in deciding where those are located, a decision Mosqueda said “has to start with community conversations” about “where those six sites are going to be.”

In addition, Mosqueda said, she wants to support efforts to build “workforce housing” in places like Vashon Island (one of several parts of the district outside Seattle), improving participation in apprenticeship programs and broadening their scope, and bolstering the infrastructure that supports high-paying jobs—everything from funding to “create a career pathway for child care workers” to restructuring King County Metro’s bus system to better serve people who work outside standard office hours.

“I think there really needs be a shift from thinking about ‘peak hours” to thinking about what workers need and what accessibility truly means to families,” Mosqueda said. “Also, making sure that our light rail is going to communities and not through communities.”

If Mosqueda wins, she will be the first Latinx person to ever serve on the King County Council, and one of only four council members of color in county history—one of whom, Girmay Zahilay, represents what has historically been the council’s only majority-minority district.

Mosqueda wouldn’t take the bait on a question about whether she, like the four council members who have announced they’re leaving this year, is actually fleeing the council, rather than being “pulled” toward the county. After all, I noted, if the county council was more compelling than the city council, she could have run for that position in the first place.

Instead, she chalked up the city council exodus to the fact that seven of the nine council seats are all on the ballot at once—a recipe, she said, for instability. If elections were split more evenly—with half the district seats and one citywide seat on the ballot every two years—”then you wouldn’t see that kind of instability,” Mosqueda said. That’s something she said she plans to work on this year, whether she wins or not.

Since the Durkan administration, Mosqueda has over multiple city budget cycles to prevent the mayor from raiding proceeds from the JumpStart tax to fill a general budget hole. Without her vigilance, will JumpStart—which is supposed to fund housing, small businesses, and equitable development—become a slush fund for other priorities or a permanent emergency reserve to fill funding gaps?

Mosqueda said she was confident that it wouldn’t, citing “structural requirements” the council has codified as well as future revenues, to be identified by a new progressive revenue tax force, that will address long-term budget gaps. Even so, Mosqueda had to negotiate a deal this year that allowed some JumpStart revenues to help backfill a massive general-fund shortfall—and even with new progressive revenue on the table, there’s no guarantee that the mayor, or a future mayor, won’t try to use JumpStart taxes for purposes outside the scope of its adopted spending plan.

Mosqueda has already rounded up more than c80 endorsements, including that of current Mayor Bruce Harrell, and her decision to run seems to have neutralized some potential opponents, including West Seattle attorney Rob Saka, who was reportedly considering a run for the county council seat but now appears likely to run for the West Seattle seat being vacated by Lisa Herbold.

King County Council Approves Body-Worn Cameras, Puts Popular LEAD Program on Notice

King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay
King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay

This post has been updated to include comments from King County Council budget committee chair Joe McDermott.

By Erica C. Barnett

The King County Council’s budget committee adopted the county’s two-year budget Thursday, including a controversial amendment that would require King County Sheriff’s deputies to wear body cameras on the job—while providing ample leeway for officers to turn their cameras off and review camera footage before giving a statement in most cases.

The King County Police Officers’ Guild agreed to the $4 million body-worn camera program as part of its latest collective bargaining with the county, adopted this week. While the proposal would finally bring King County in line with the Seattle Police Department, whose officers began wearing body cameras five years ago, it also provides broad leeway for officers to turn off their cameras whenever they perceive an “exigent circumstance” that could justify their decision, or when they’re going into a location where a person might have a “reasonable expectation of privacy,” such as someone’s home.

The policy also gives officers unusual latitude to review bodycam footage before providing their version of events in all cases except allegations of “serious force”—opening up the possibility that an officer could use video footage to craft a more consistent or convincing story.

The list and breadth of the exceptions in the policy are dangerously close to swallowing the [body-worn camera] rule.”—King County Office of Law Enforcement Oversight director Tamer Abouzeid

On Wednesday, Tamer Abouzeid, director of the county’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight, sent a letter to county county members urging them not to adopt the proposed policy. “The list and breadth of the exceptions in the policy are dangerously close to swallowing the rule,” Abouzeid wrote, citing both the “exigent circumstance” exemption and the proposal to let officers turn off cameras in any location where there’s a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” The privacy exemption, Abouzeid argued, could empower officers to “stop recording inside someone’s home, which is often essential to establishing an accurate account of what happened.” 

Councilmember Girmay Zahilay said he would prefer to renegotiate the body camera policy with the sheriff’s union than adopt a policy that didn’t make stakeholders, including community groups, “feel like there’s going to be accountability.”

Councilmember Claudia Balducci said she agreed the policy was far from perfect, but argued that a flawed policy was better than having no body cameras at all. “I don’t think all of this is baked by us moving forward. I think that we can change some of these things together working with the executive and the sheriff’s office,” Balducci said.

“I think the [new] policy is a good policy that we should implement, and by all means evaluate as we move forward,” council budget chair Joe McDermott told PubliCola. “Legislative bodies have an obligation, also, to evaluate and make sure we have the policy implications we intended and we don’t have unintended consequences.”

Zahilay ended up casting the lone vote against the body camera proposal.

The council also agreed to fund five new investigators for OLEO, which had requested funding for 12 new staffers, not all of them investigators.

In an unrelated budget amendment that caught its target by surprise, King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci proposed requiring the Public Defender Association to go through a competitive procurement process next year if it wants to retain county funding for the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) diversion program, which is active in Seattle, Burien, and White Center. LEAD provides case management and services to people who are involved in the criminal legal system due to poverty or behavioral health conditions, including people experiencing homelessness. King County provides LEAD with about $5 million a year through its Mental Illness and Drug Dependency program.

Explaining her decision to single out LEAD for special scrutiny, Balducci said, “I think regular re-procurement is a best practice and it is regularly used for county programs exclusively. I think that fundamentally what you get out of this is that there’s a formal process, supported by the council in the budget, that will efficiently communicate between [the Department of Community and Human Services] and the providers about the cost of the programs, ensuring an open and fair process, and will springboard an updated contract that creates a clear basis for continued work in this area.”

Balducci did not immediately return a call seeking more information about her amendment.

But DCHS, which falls under the jurisdiction of King County Executive Dow Constantine, has reportedly clashed with the PDA in the past over how the group runs LEAD, which started in the Belltown neighborhood in 2011. Alluding to this “tension,” Councilmember Rod Dembowski asked why the council would want to start down a path that could lead to the complete defunding of LEAD in 2024—for a body of work that was developed by the PDA and is unique to that organization.

“Are we unhappy with the contract today? What’s going on?” Debowski asked. “This is a very important project. These folks have been instrumental in getting folks help and turning them out of the traditional arrest-prosecute-jail model.”

PDA co-director Lisa Daugaard told PubliCola the organization was unaware of Balducci’s proposal until midway through today’s council meeting, when PubliCola contacted her for comment. “There may be a misunderstanding,” Daugaard said. “LEAD funds go through the project manager [historically and currently, the PDA] to multiple service providers—who were all already selected through a competitive process that the county participated in.” Those service providers, which do the on-the-ground work that makes up the bulk of the LEAD program, are REACH and Community Passageways.

Daugaard also noted that the PDA manages LEAD under the direction of a multi-jurisdictional coordinating group, of which King County is just one member. “The Policy Coordinating Group could decide to conduct a competitive process for the project management function” currently filled by the PDA, Daugaard said. “But King County is not the sole stakeholder in that process, and cannot unilaterally make decisions for this multi-partner initiative. We are reaching out to Councilmembers, and will attempt to sort this out in advance of the 2024 budget process.”

The amendment putting LEAD on notice passed, with only Dembowski and Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles voting “no.” The full council will take up the overall county budget next Tuesday, November 15.

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

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

By Erica C. Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

County Proposal Would Expand Right to Counsel Before Warrantless Searches

King County CouncilBy Erica C. Barnett

The King County Council is considering draft legislation that would give adults the right to consult with a defense attorney before being searched by officers with the King County Sheriff’s Office, a right the county and the city of Seattle extended to youth in 2020, and that state legislators expanded statewide last year.

King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, a Republican who’s running for Congress in the 8th Congressional District, claimed in a letter to King County Department of Public Defense director Anita Khandelwal  release that the draft bill would “tie the hands” of police, “take away hundreds of hours of deputy time,” and “harm public safety and ultimately cost lives.”

“If police are required to call a defense attorney every time they talk to a subject, criminal investigation would grind to a halt,” Dunn’s letter says.

The bill, which is still in draft form (and has changed since Dunn wrote his letter), would require officers seeking a person’s consent for a search to provide access to a defense attorney before searching them or their belongings. The new requirement wouldn’t apply when police have a warrant; when police have a “reasonable suspicion” that the person has committed or is about to commit a crime; or when police have reason to believe delaying a search would result in a loss of evidence or harm to the public or police, among several other exemptions. A person could also decline a search outright and walk away without consulting with a defense attorney.

Anita Khandelwal, director of the King County Department of Public Defense, says the proposed legislation would help ensure that people understand their constitutional rights when an officer is asking them to waive those rights. “Studies show that most adults, regardless of race, aren’t aware that they have the right to refuse a search, do not feel free to refuse police requests to search, and frequently ‘interpret questions or suggestions as orders when they come from a person of authority.'”

In Seattle, Khandelwal said, Black people are stopped five times as often as white people, and Native Americans are stopped nine times more frequently.

Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, the head of the council’s law and justice committee, is the most likely sponsor for the legislation. On Thursday, he said he was still considering whether to sponsor the bill, and criticized Dunn for releasing an early draft that had been circulating among council members in a letter that incorrectly implied that it was “leaked.”

“If he had just asked the public defender to share it with him, they would have,” Zahilay said. “It’s not some secret conspiracy.”

The intent behind the bill, Zahilay continued, is to address the imbalance of power and information between officers and people who may not understand that they have the right to say no to being searched, or who may be intimidated by police. “People already have the right to consent or decline a search, and this gives them an added level of protection of being able to talk to a public defender,” Zahilay said. The law providing young people the right to speak to an attorney has been in place for more than a year, Zahilay added, and council members “haven’t heard of any complaints or issues” about the law creating an undue burden on officers.

County Councilmember Claudia Balducci, the former head of King County’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, noted that the county is currently searching for a new sheriff, and is considering the recommendations of an advisory committee to improve public safety across the county.”I would rather us have a bigger plan that looks at all sides of the issue before we start making big changes, and I’d rather have the new sheriff on board,” Balducci said, but if the legislation is introduced, “I will honor that process. … I wouldn’t say I won’t consider this until we have a bigger plan in place.”

Poll Tests Messaging on Pro-Density Bill, Dunn Blasts Program He Voted For, Seattle Nice Debates Eviction Ban

1. Supporters of a bill that would legalize small multifamily buildings in residential areas across the state were testing messages for and against the legislation in a telephone poll last weekend.

The bill would eliminate the kind of exclusionary zoning that has preserved three-quarters of Seattle’s residential land exclusively for detached single-family houses, allowing very modest density (between two and six units, depending on proximity to housing and employment centers) in residential areas.

Although the bill is complex, selling it politically will boil down to messaging, which is where polls come in. This one tests how a number of positive messages impact a respondent’s support for the bill, including:

– Bans on homes like duplexes and triplexes make it more difficult for people of color to live in high-opportunity neighborhoods;

– Making more home types available and affordable helps protect our climate and prevent sprawl;

– The housing crisis spans municipal borders, which is why we need statewide solutions.

The poll also tests a number of messages opponents may use against the bill to see which ones are most convincing, such as:

– Traffic here is already terrible. It is impossible to live without a car here. This plan for massive new development will put more cars on the road and some units will not have to have off street parking. Our region is already growing too fast. Let’s not make it worse.

-We need to preserve the character of local neighborhoods. This is blanket fix that eliminates local control of development. It’s a one-size-fits-all mandate, even where new housing does not fit local character and the infrastructure isn’t there. Middle-income housing should not be burdened with fixing the housing crisis.

– This bill will accelerate and increase gentrification. too many working people, especially people of color, have already been forced to move and the solution should be rent control. This is another attempt by politicians in Olympia to line the pockets of wealthy property owners.

Although voters won’t get a direct say on HB 1782 or other legislation aimed at increasing access to affordable housing, a successful messaging campaign could put pressure on wavering density supporters to solidify or back off on their support for pro-housing bills. As happened last year, density opponents are already rolling out competing bills that are riddled with loopholes and designed to preserve the single-family status quo.

Although Dunn voted to fund Restorative Community Pathways’ $5 million budget at the end of 2020, he told PubliCola it turned out to be a bait-and-switch

2. King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn introduced a motion on Tuesday to pause a new juvenile diversion program, arguing that the program softens the consequences for crimes he considers too serious for diversion.

In a press release, Dunn cited similar complaints from the mayors of Kent, Auburn, Federal Way and Renton, who said the program could exacerbate the recent uptick in gun violence.

Dunn is challenging Democrat Kim Schrier to represent Washington’s 8th congressional district—a historically Republican seat. His criticism of Restorative Community Pathways is the latest in a series of high-profile provocations that position Dunn as a law-and-order stalwart on the council; he also led the charge to condemn City Hall Park, adjacent to the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle, as a public safety hazard.

Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell, the only other person quoted in Dunn’s press release, is campaigning to replace outgoing King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, also on a law-and-order platform.

Restorative Community Pathways, launched at the end of 2021, relies on nine nonprofits—including well-known organizations like East African Community Services—to provide counseling and supportive services to young people charged with low-level crimes, ranging from car thefts to some assaults. Most of the roughly 70 people referred to the program so far were arrested for misdemeanors, but the program is also open to young people charged with felonies. Continue reading “Poll Tests Messaging on Pro-Density Bill, Dunn Blasts Program He Voted For, Seattle Nice Debates Eviction Ban”

Business, County Leaders Say Land Trade Won’t Fix Problems Around Downtown Park

By Erica C. Barnett

The area around City Hall Park in downtown Seattle—a rough rectangle of rare urban green space located across an alley from the King County Courthouse on Third Avenue—has never been a shiny tourist destination. Located at the heart of one of the city's most historic districts, Pioneer Square, the area is also home to many of the city's homeless shelters and day centers, the King County Jail, several bus stops, and, of course, the courthouse itself. The city-owned park—for decades, a place for people who are homeless, marginally housed, or low-income to hang out—became the site of a homeless encampment that grew larger and more chaotic as the city of Seattle swept unsheltered people from other parts of downtown.

Periodically, judges at the courthouse have led the charge to implement new security measures in the area, arguing that the presence of so many visibly poor people and people involved in the criminal justice system presents a danger to innocent passersby and non-criminal courthouse users. A Seattle Times story from 2005, for example, began with a litany of the kind of people who use the courthouse: "Rapists, murderers, drug addicts and wife beaters." (As that same Seattle Times story noted, the park was known as "Muscatel Meadows" as far back as the 1960s).

More recently, an attempted sexual assault inside the courthouse itself prompted a work-from-home order and demands from King County Superior Court judges to shut down the park, which had become the site of a large, often chaotic encampment that grew dramatically as unsheltered people were swept there from other parts of downtown Seattle.

"If you address issues on one block, they're going to be across the street—literally. We’ve already funded additional sheriff's patrols to have our own sheriff’s deputies in the park and around the block, and that hasn’t solved it. It’s going to require a much bigger solution the neighborhood, not acquiring one park."

This past August, the judges got their wish: The park is now walled off by a high chain-link fence, accessible to no one. Earlier this month, the King County Council voted 7-2 to take it over, arguing that they could succeed where the city "failed" to keep the park safe and clear of encampments. If the Seattle City Council adopts similar legislation next year, the city will hand the park over to King County in exchange for several county-owned properties, and the county will get the final say over what becomes of the space. Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine announced the swap last month.

Joe McDermott, one of two county council members who voted against the land transfer (the other was South King County council member Girmay Zahilay), says his colleagues are misguided if they believe a county takeover will solve the decades-old issues in and around the park.

"It’s a false sense of security," McDermott said. "If you address issues on one block, they're going to be across the street—literally. We’ve already funded additional sheriff's patrols to have our own sheriff’s deputies in the park and around the block, and that hasn’t solved it. It’s going to require a much bigger solution the neighborhood, not acquiring one park."  

"The park has been closed since August. People still need to go outdoors. They can't jump in Uber and go to one of the larger parks around the city. This is their public space."—Lisa Howard, Alliance for Pioneer Square

While the county could decide to retain the park's use as a park, the legislation also leaves open the possibility of turning it into part of the larger "civic campus" that includes the county jail, the courthouse, and the King County Administration Building, depriving hundreds of people who live in and around the area of the only piece of urban green space in the neighborhood. Some council members, including East King County representative Reagan Dunn, have even suggested—in McDermott's view, fantastically—reorienting the courthouse to the south and "restoring" its original entrance on Jefferson Street.

Lisa Howard, executive director of the Alliance for Pioneer Square, said shutting down the park will deprive hundreds of low-income neighborhood residents of access to green space. "In the two blocks surrounding the park, there are 600 extremely low-income units, and in the next six to eight months, there will be 760, and most of those individuals are very low-income, high-needs individuals who need access to outdoor space," she said. "The park has been closed since August. People still need to go outdoors. They can't jump in Uber and go to one of the larger parks around the city. This is their public space."

The Downtown Seattle Association, which represents downtown businesses and has worked to activate a number of downtown parks, including nearby Occidental Square, also opposes closing down what DSA director Jon Scholes calls "precious" and irreplaceable public space downtown. "We've been ineffective at creating a space that is welcoming to all and delivering on its intended use," Scholes said, but closing the park permanently would be "a big mistake. We could have done that 10 years ago in Westlake Park too, and put in all kinds of uses and buildings and structures that were not consistent with the regional vision for [Westlake] as a publicly accessible park, but we didn't." Continue reading "Business, County Leaders Say Land Trade Won’t Fix Problems Around Downtown Park"