Tag: seattle ethics and elections commission

A Brief Guide to Seattle’s New Lobbying Rules

This post originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

By Erica C. Barnett

Last week, the Seattle City Council quietly adopted legislation that will have far-reaching implications for groups that mobilize ordinary people to lobby the mayor, city council, and other city officials.

The bill, proposed by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC) and shepherded by council president Lorena González, will require so-called grassroots lobbyists to register with the city and disclose their contributions and expenditures.

Although the proposal passed with little opposition, it makes a number of significant changes to Seattle’s campaign disclosure law that will impact groups on every part of the political spectrum. Here’s a closer look at the legislation and some of the ways it will change how campaigns operate in Seattle — and what the public knows about them.

First, what was the impetus for this legislation?

According to González, the SEEC decided to take a closer look at its lobbying rules in 2019, after the Seattle Times reported that a consulting firm that worked on Mayor Jenny Durkan’s campaign, Sound View Strategies, also advised her on issues after she was elected. “There was a lot of ambiguity around who had to disclose [that they were lobbying],” González said.

As the SEEC discussed who is and isn’t a lobbyist, they decided to ask the council to define “lobbying” more broadly, to include efforts to influence not just elected officials but city employees in influential positions, such as deputy mayors and department heads. And they decided to tackle the definition of “lobbyist” itself, redefining the term to include people and organizations that mobilize members of the public to advocate for or against legislation.

So how does the bill change the definition of “lobbying” and “lobbyist”?

Any group or person that spends $750 a month or more on a campaign to mobilize the public on an issue — for example, a group that works to convince people to make public comments opposing the demolition of a nightclub important to the Seattle music scene in the ‘90s — is now considered a grassroots lobbyist and must register with the city and disclose where their money is coming from and how they’re spending it. The SEEC recommended this change because of the rise in what’s known as indirect lobbying — using the public, rather than direct pressure on elected leaders, as a lobbying tool.

The other change to the definition of lobbying impacts traditional lobbyists — the 300 or so people who have already registered with the city and who already report their contributions and expenditures. These folks will now have to report when they’re being paid to lobby not just elected officials but their deputies, top staff, department heads, and anyone who reports directly to any of those people. The idea is to acknowledge the fact that people who aren’t at the top of the org chart still have the power to influence policy and legislation — that meeting with the deputy mayor or the chief of staff for a council member, in some cases, is as good as meeting with the mayor or council member herself.

This “grassroots lobbying” concept is confusing. Can you give a couple more examples?

Other examples of grassroots lobbyists might include an organization that pays a former city candidate to write reports denouncing a proposed new misdemeanor defense or a political organization that runs email and social media campaigns to “pack city hall” in favor of legislation imposing new taxes on big businesses. An elected official, however, can’t be a grassroots lobbyist, because they’re categorically exempt from the lobbying regulations. So while Socialist Alternative might have to register if they spend their own money stapling “Tax Amazon” posters to light poles around town, Council Member Kshama Sawant is free to use her office to rally the public for or against legislation without signing up as a lobbyist.

The  idea of “grassroots lobbying” isn’t new, by the way — the city bill is modeled on existing state law that imposes similar requirements on state-level lobbyists and influence groups.

How does the legislation address the original problem the SEEC set out to solve — the issue of campaign consultants turning around and lobbying the people she worked for?

The new law will require those lobbyists to disclose that they also worked for campaigns. This will most likely impact a handful of prominent lobbyists whose work for campaigns and on behalf of interest groups that lobby the city is already a matter of public record. Although the Seattle Times suggested a nefarious cover-up by the consultants who worked on Durkan’s campaign and then turned around and lobbied her on behalf of other clients, the story was basically a headline in search of scandal.

How many people and groups might this impact — and why aren’t they pissed?

It’s hard to know exactly how many individuals and organizations will have to register as grassroots lobbyists under the new law. Registration itself is free, but as a staff memo attached to the legislation notes, groups could have to shoulder administrative costs to stay in compliance, and the SEEC reserves the right to fine people and groups that violate the city’s lobbying laws.

It’s likely that many groups that do grassroots lobbying are unaware of the new rules, but they’ll find out soon enough. The legislation will take effect around June of next year.

Anything else I need to know?

It’s important to remember that this legislation won’t impact individuals making public comment or writing emails to the city council or organizations with all-volunteer or no-budget lobbying arms. The point of the bill is to increase transparency to the public about who is trying to influence legislation and who’s paying for it, not to create burdens on individuals or nonprofits that rarely or never lobby the city.

Continue reading “A Brief Guide to Seattle’s New Lobbying Rules”

City Will Require More Transparency from Public Influence Campaigns

By Erica C. Barnett

The Seattle City Council’s governance committee moved forward legislation drafted by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission that would require “grassroots lobbyists”—defined as people or organizations that spend at least $750 a month trying to influence the public to lobby public officials on legislation—to register with the city and disclose their contributions and expenditures.

According to council president Lorena González, who spoke with PubliCola about the proposal last week, “if you’re a small operation that isn’t spending any money to present a public influence campaign, then nothing’s going to change for you. It is going to change the regulations and the environment for people who are well-organized, well-funded, and are spending the required mat of money on presenting public-facing campaigns that are designed to influence legislation.”

Importantly, the new requirements wouldn’t impact regular people contacting the city directly, even if that contact is prompted by a grassroots lobbying effort—like a social media campaign that urges you to contact your council members. If a socialist organization holds a rally to drum up support for a new tax proposal, for example, that group would have to register as a lobbying organization and report the cost of the rally to the city, but a person who shows up at the rally and decides to testify in favor of the proposal would not. The lobbying rules wouldn’t apply to elected officials, who are allowed under the city’s ethics rules to lobby the public to their heart’s content.

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The legislation, which González is sponsoring, would also expand the definition of direct lobbying to include communications with department directors and staff for elected officials, and require public disclosure when a lobbyist also works on campaigns for politicians or ballot measures—henceforth known as the Sandeep Kaushik rule.

As PubliCola reported last month, one group that would be impacted by the legislation is Change Washington, which has attempted to influence the public using email campaigns, op/eds, and a series of misleading “reports” by former city attorney candidate Scott Lindsay that have argued against police funding cuts and legislation creating a new defense to misdemeanor charges for people with severe mental health or drug dependency issues. Currently, the public has little insight into who’s behind Change Washington or how much Lindsay and its staff are being paid to indirectly lobby the council. The grassroots lobbying legislation would ensure that groups like this are subject to the same transparency requirements as other lobbyists. Continue reading “City Will Require More Transparency from Public Influence Campaigns”

Prospect of “Musical Chairs” in 2021 Elections for Mayor, Council Prompts Debate Over Democracy Vouchers

By Erica C. Barnett

The 2021 election in Seattle could be the first in recent history where one or more city council candidates who are up for reelection decide to switch positions and run for mayor. The prospect of council members Lorena González or Teresa Mosqueda running against Mayor Jenny Durkan—or, if Durkan decides not to run, seeking an open mayoral seat—is interesting for election watchers, but a potential headache for the election watchdogs at the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.

That’s because it’s unclear what the commission, which oversees the democracy voucher public campaign funding program, is supposed to do if a candidate raises money and collects signatures to qualify for the program while running for one race, then switches to another. For example, if a council member collected all or most of the 400 signatures and $10 contributions required to qualify for public funding (democracy vouchers) while running for her council seat, could she transfer that support and funding over to a mayoral run, or would she need to start all over? Or should there be some kind of middle ground, allowing a candidate to keep the money and signatures if she got written permission from each supporter?

This stuff is catnip to process wonks (guilty). But decisions over whether and how to let candidates move between races is the kind of thing that can change who runs and who doesn’t, which impacts the outcome of elections.

These are some of the hypotheticals the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission discussed at its meeting this week, in a preview of recommendations and new election rules that will take shape over the next two months. Commission director Wayne Barnett issued a memo, titled “Musical Chairs,” that described the voucher qualification conundrum along with two other hypothetical seat-switching scenarios.

In one, a candidate has already raised and spent $50,000 to run in one race before she switches to another; the question is whether that $50,000 should count against her total campaign fundraising limit, or if she gets to start running for the new position with “a clean slate.”

In the other, a candidate has already qualified for vouchers and raised $100,000 in public funding; the question, as in the first hypothetical, is whether she gets to transfer that money, whether she can transfer it with donor permission, or whether she has to start from scratch.

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Within all these hypotheticals, there are also sub-debates about whether the requirements should be different if a candidate switches within the same “class” of positions—from one citywide council seat to another, for example—rather than from one “class” to another, like a city council candidate who decides to run for city attorney or mayor. It’s easy to imagine a scenario in which a donor supports a candidate for city council, but not for mayor, or where a donor supports a candidate for one position but supports a different candidate already running for another. In those cases, the donor might want to withdraw their funding.

In short: It’s complicated! And election officials feel a sense of urgency to come up with rules before the hypotheticals become very concrete. “With the three positions on the ballot this year”—mayor and city council Positions 8 and 9—”we feel like we would be remiss if we didn’t have a plan in place if and when it happens,” Barnett said during Wednesday’s meeting. “We don’t want to be making this up on the fly.” Continue reading “Prospect of “Musical Chairs” in 2021 Elections for Mayor, Council Prompts Debate Over Democracy Vouchers”

Morning Fizz: Homeless Tax Preemption and Election Speculation

Homeless advocates see a hotel in Renton that was converted into a temporary shelter as a major success story. Some local politicians see it differently.

Today’s Fizz:

1. This week, cities across King County will be voting on measures that could reduce the size of a proposed countywide sales tax for very low-income housing by millions. On Monday night, Renton, Tukwila, and Issaquah were among first few cities to decide whether they wanted to pass their own 0.1 percent sales tax, as authorized by the state legislature earlier this year, to pay for housing inside the city for people making up to 60 percent of the area median income. Renton’s council voted “yes” unanimously; Issaquah’s approved it on a 4-3 vote; and Tukwila’s rejected the proposal on a 5-2 vote.

I first reported on the proposals last week. Since then, items to supplant the countywide sales tax, which the King County Council will likely vote on next week, have appeared on city council agendas across, primarily South King County—from Maple Valley to Federal Way to Kent. Every city that opts out of the tax—that is, every city that opts to pass a local version of the tax, with proceeds the city can keep to itself—takes some money away from the potential size of the countywide proposal.

On Monday night, proponents of local taxes argued that suburban cities deserved local autonomy to decide what to build in their communities, and specifically cited an emergency shelter for chronically homeless people in Renton—a hotel that has been touted by advocates and service providers as a major success story because it has enabled people to stabilize and begin to deal with underlying conditions that contribute to their homelessness—as an example of what the county would impose on cities if they didn’t act first, and fast.  “By passing this” local tax, Renton council member Valerie O’Halloran said, “we are retaining 100% of the say of how our money is spent within our community.”

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Opponents of going it alone argued that the whole point of being part of a regional solution to homelessness was to think regionally, because homelessness doesn’t end at any single city’s borders. Tukwila council member De’Sean Quinn pointed out that the countywide proposal, which could raise up to $400 million to purchase existing buildings and convert them to supportive housing for chronically homeless people, is a big pot of money that allows the county bond for an even bigger pot of money; collecting smaller amounts on a local-only basis, he argued, would inevitably lead to slower and smaller developments.

The King County Council will vote on the countywide tax next week.

2. Speaking of the county council, rumor is that longtime Republican council member Pete von Reichbauer (who represents much of South King County) does not plan to run for reelection. Possible contenders for the position include former Democratic state representative Kristine Reeves, Federal Way city council member Lydia Assefa-Dawson, Auburn mayor Nancy Backus, and current Republican state rep Drew Stokesbary. Continue reading “Morning Fizz: Homeless Tax Preemption and Election Speculation”

Morning Crank: Streetcar Questioned, Sawant Challenged, and Fort Lawton Moves Forward

1. Ever since Mayor Jenny Durkan announced she was moving forward with the stalled First Avenue streetcar last month, supporters and skeptics have been honing their arguments. Fans of the project, which a recent report costed out at $286 million, say it will create a critical link between two disconnected streetcars that each stop on the outskirts of downtown, boosting ridership dramatically while traveling swiftly in its own dedicated right-of-way; skeptics point to a $65 million funding gap, the need for ongoing operating subsidies from the city, and past ridership numbers that have been consistently optimistic.

Today, council members on both sides of the streetcar divide got their first chance to respond publicly to the latest numbers, and to question Seattle Department of Transportation and budget staffers about the viability of the project.  I covered some of the basic issues and streetcar background in this FAQ; here are several additional questions council members raised on Tuesday.

Q: Has the city secured the $75 million in federal funding it needs to build the streetcar?

A: No; the Federal Transit Administration has allocated $50 million to the project through its Small Starts grant process (the next best thing to a signed agreement), and the city has not yet secured the additional $25 million.

Q: Will the fact that the new downtown streetcar will parallel an existing light rail line two blocks to the east be good or bad for ridership? (Herbold implied that the two lines might be redundant, and Sally Bagshaw noted that “if I was at Westlake and I wanted to get to Broadway, I would jump on light rail, not the streetcar.” Rob Johnson countered that “redundancy in the transportation system is a good thing,” and suggested the two lines could have “network effects” as people transferred from one to the other.)

A: This is a critical question, because the city’s ridership projections for the two existing streetcar lines were consistently optimistic. (Ridership is important because riders are what justify the cost of a project, and because the more people ride the streetcar, the less the city will have to subsidize its operations budget). The city’s answer, basically, is that it’s hard to say. Lines that are too redundant can compete with each other; on the other hand, the existence of multiple north-south bus lines throughout downtown has probably helped ridership on light rail, and vice versa. SDOT’s Karen Melanson said the city took the existence of light rail (including future light rail lines) into account when coming up with its ridership projections, which predict about 18,000 rides a day on the combined streetcar route, or about 5.7 million rides a year.

Q. Can the city afford to operate the streetcar, especially when subsidies from other transit agencies run out? King County Metro has been paying the city $1.5 million a year to help operate the existing streetcars, and Sound Transit has kicked in another $5 million a year. Those subsidies are set to end in 2019 and 2023, respectively. If both funding sources do dry up (city budget director Ben Noble said yesterday that the city could make a case for the Metro funding to continue), the city will have to find some other source that funding as part of an ongoing operating subsidy of between $18 million and $19 million a year.

A: It’s unclear exactly where the additional funding for ongoing streetcar operating costs would come from; options include the commercial parking tax and street use fees. Streetcar supporters cautioned against thinking of the ongoing city contribution as a “subsidy.” Instead, Johnson said, council members should think of it as “an investment in infrastructure that our citizens support,” much like funding for King County Metro through the city’s  Transportation Benefit District—or, as O’Brien chimed in, roads. “Roads are heavily subsidized,” O’Brien said. “When we talk about roads, we don’t talk about farebox recovery, because we don’t have a farebox.”

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2. In response to reporting by Kevin Schofield at SCC Insight, which revealed that the Socialist Alternative party decides how District 3 Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant will vote and makes all the hiring and firing decisions for her council office, an anonymous person has filed an ethics complaint against Sawant at the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.

The complaint, signed, “District 3 Resident,” charges that Sawant:

• Violated her obligation to represent her constituents by allowing Socialist Alternative to determine her actions on the council;

• Misused her position as a council member by allowing SA to make employment decisions for her council office;

• Improperly “assisted”  SA in matters involving her office by allowing them to determine her council votes;

• Accepted gifts in exchange for giving SA special access and “consideration,” including extensive travel on the party’s dime; and

• Either disclosed or withheld public information by discussing personnel matters on private email accounts, depending on whether that information turns out to have been disclosable (in which case, the complaint charges, she withheld it from the public by using a private account) or confidential (in which case Sawant violated the law by showing confidential information to outside parties, namely the SA members who, according to SCC Insight’s reporting, decide who she hires and fires.)

“Sawant is not independent, not impartial, and not responsible to her constituents,” the complaint concludes. “Her decisions are not made through the proper channels, and due to her actions, the public does not have confidence in the integrity of its government.”

It’s unclear when the ethics commission will take up the complaint, which was filed on January 8. The agenda for their committee meeting tomorrow, which includes a discussion of the rule requiring candidates who participate in the “democracy voucher” public-financing program to participate in at least one debate to which every candidate is invited, does not include any discussion of the complaint against Sawant.

According to the Seattle Ethics and Elections website, “Seattle’s Ethics Code is a statement of our shared values — integrity, impartiality, independence, transparency. It is our pledge to the people of Seattle that our only allegiance is to them when we conduct City business.”

3. On Monday, the city’s Office of Housing published a draft of the redevelopment plan for Fort Lawton, a decommissioned Army base next to Discovery Park in Magnolia, moving the long-delayed project one step closer to completion. For years, the project, which will include about 200 units of affordable housing, has stagnated, stymied first by a lawsuit, from Magnolia activist Elizabeth Campbell, and then by the recession. In 2017, when the latest version of the plan started moving forward, I called the debate over Fort Lawton “a tipping point in Seattle’s affordable housing crisis,” predicting, perhaps optimistically, that Seattle residents, including Fort Lawton’s neighbors in Magnolia, were more likely to support the project than oppose it, in part because the scale of the housing crisis had grown so immensely in the last ten years.

The plan is far more modest than the lengthy debate might lead you to expect—85 studio apartments for homeless seniors, including veterans, at a total cost of $28.3 million; 100 one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments for people making up to 60 percent of the Seattle median income, at a cost of $40.2 million; and 52 row homes and townhouses for purchase, at a total cost of $18.4 million. Overall, about $21.5 million of the total cost would come from the city. Construction would start, if all goes according to the latest schedule, in 2021, with the first apartments opening in 2026—exactly 20 years, coincidentally, after the city council adopted legislation designating the city of Seattle as the local redevelopment authority for the property.

Morning Crank: “Preparations are Underway for a Litigation Budget” on Fort Lawton

1. Elizabeth Campbell, the Magnolia neighborhood activist whose land-use appeals have helped stall the development of affordable housing at Fort Lawton for so long that the city now has to pay to secure the former Army base out of its own budget, says she isn’t giving up yet on her effort to stop the plan to build 415 units of affordable housing, including 85 apartments for formerly homeless families, in its tracks.

Campbell filed a complaint alleging that the city’s Final Environmental Impact Statement for the affordable-housing plan failed to adequately consider all the potential environmental impacts of the project; that  seeking and receiving several postponements, Campbell failed to show up at recent hearings on her appeal of the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the development, prompting city hearing examiner Ryan Vancil to say that he would be justified in dismissing the case outright but would give Campbell one last opportunity to hire a lawyer and make her case on strictly legal grounds. Vancil’s order stipulated that Campbell could not introduce any new evidence or call any witnesses.

Late on Friday afternoon, Campbell’s new lawyer, a fairly recent law-school graduate named Nathan Arnold, filed a new brief asking Vancil to re-open discovery in the case, which would allow her to interview and cross-examine witnesses from the city. (Campbell and the Discovery Park Community Alliance were represented until at least this past January by an attorney at Foster Pepper, to whom the group paid about $15,000 for their services, according to Campbell.) The city has until next Friday, November 9, to respond, and Campbell has until the following Wednesday, November 14, to respond in turn.

Meanwhile, Campbell is preparing to sue the city. In a message to the DCPA email list, she writes: “It is not known how soon after November 2nd the examiner will issue his decision. However, when it is issued and if it affirms the adequacy of the City’s FEIS then DPCA will need to promptly shift gears and prepare for a judicial appeal and review of the FEIS. In fact, given the probability that this will be the outcome preparations are already underway to establish a litigation budget and to start exploring the grounds, the causes of action, for a lawsuit in either King County Superior Court or in U.S. District Court.”

Campbell’s email also mentions an alternative “workaround plan” that she says would turn Fort Lawton into part of Discovery Park—without housing—”while deploying a network of currently-owned properties that meet and exceed housing objectives crafted for Fort Lawton land.” The email also says that the DCPA has already met with interim Parks directory Christopher Williams and deputy mayor David Moseley to discuss this alternative.

2. Rebecca Lovell, the tech-savvy former head of the city’s Startup Seattle program, stepped down as acting director of the city’s Office of Economic Development this week after nearly a year in limbo under Mayor Jenny Durkan. Lovell, who was appointed acting director by former mayor Ed Murray, is joining Create33, an offshoot of Madrona Ventures, which Geekwire describes as “a unique hybrid of co-working space and a community nexus.” OED’s new interim director is Karl Stickel, a city veteran who most recently was OED’s director of entrepreneurship and industry.

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In addition to OED, the city’s departments of  Transportation, Civil Rights, Human Services, Parks, Human Resources, and Information Technology are all headed by acting or interim directors.

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3. City council member Kshama Sawant, who used the city council’s shared printer to print thousands of anti-Amazon posters during the head tax debate, spent as much as $1,700 in city funds on Facebook ads promoting rallies and forums for her proposed “people’s budget” (and denouncing her council colleagues) between the end of September and the beginning of this month.

The ads, which include the mandatory disclaimer “Paid for by  Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s Office,” denounce Mayor Jenny Durkan, Sawant’s colleagues on the council, and the “Democratic Party establishment.”

“Seattle is facing an unprecedented affordable housing crisis,” the Sawant-sponsored ads say. “And yet, Mayor Durkan and the majority of the Council shamefully repealed the Amazon Tax that our movement fought so hard for, which would have modestly taxed the largest 3% of the city’s corporations to fund affordable housing.”

Because Facebook only releases limited information about its political ads, the cost of each ad is listed as a range. Of the five ads Sawant’s office has funded since September 28, two cost less than $100 and three cost between $100 and $499.

Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission director Wayne Barnett  says that “since these are about the budget process, she can use city funds to pay for them without violating the ethics code. There’s no electioneering here that would trigger the need to pay for these with non-public funds.” I have contacted Sawant’s office for comment and will update this post if I hear back.

 

Afternoon Crank: Public Land Sale Materials Tout Restrictive Zoning, Barriers to Homeownership; Details on Bike Lane Mediator’s Campaign Contributions

1.The official request for proposals for developers interesting in buying the so-called Mercer Megablock—three sites that total three acres in the heart of South Lake Union—includes some revealing details about how the city is pitching itself (via JLL, its broker) to potential property buyers. Alongside standard marketing language about the city’s booming economy, growing tech base, and wealth of cultural and natural assets, the Megablock marketing materials tout the fact that Seattle has restrictive zoning and “high barriers to entry for homeownership,” along with some of the highest and fastest-rising rents in the nation, as positive assets that make the city a great place to build.

From the RFP:

This area is also one of the most dynamic real estate investment markets in the country, benefiting from a combination of strict land use planning, topographical constraints on supply, and employment growth that consistently ranks above the national average. Favorable “renter” demographics, positive job numbers, strong population projections and a low unemployment rate, together with high barriers for entry in home ownership, also position the region as a strategic market for multifamily investment gains.

 

What, exactly, constitutes “a strategic market for multifamily investment gains”? A pull quote in the RFP puts a finer point on it: “Housing prices have grown at the fastest rate in the country for the past 17-consecutive months. The 12.9% year-over-year growth is more than double the national growth rate. Multifamily rents increased by 3.1% year-over-year and vacancy is just 4.2%. ”

Obviously, when you put artificial constraints on housing supply (such as zoning laws that make multifamily housing illegal in most parts of a city), housing prices increase. Usually, we think of that as a bad thing, because it means that all but the wealthiest renters (and those who can afford to buy $800,000 houses) get priced out of neighborhoods near employment centers, transit, and other amenities. But the city’s marketing materials turn this idea on its head: Restrictive zoning, “high barriers” to homeownership, and spiraling rents make Seattle the perfect place to buy one of the city’s last large parcels of public land—a parcel which, if housing advocates had their way, would be used for affordable housing that might help address some of those very issues.

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2. After I reported yesterday on the city’s decision to hire a mediator with the Cedar River Group to facilitate a series of conversations  with groups that support and oppose a long-planned bike lane on 35th Ave. NE, architect/intrepid YIMBY Mike Eliason dug through the city’s elections website and discovered that the mediator, John Howell, has given money to both Mayor Jenny Durkan (who directed SDOT to initiate the mediation) and onetime city council candidate Jordan Royer (who, along with attorney Gabe Galanda, is representing the Save 35th Avenue NE anti-bike-lane group in mediation). Howell, who is a principal and founder of Cedar River Group, contributed $275 to Durkan last year and $250 to Royer in 2009.

Rules adopted after the passage of Initiative 122 in 2015 bar contributions from contractors who made more than $250,000 from city contracts over the last two years; according to the city’s contractor list, Cedar River Group made $399,757 from city contractors between 2016 and 2018. However, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission last year dismissed a similar case involving contributions from Paul Allen, who owns a large stake in City Investors (the real estate arm of Allen’s Vulcan Inc.) , concluding that restricting Allen’s ability to donate to local candidates would violate his right to free speech. The “rationale,” according to SEEC director Wayne Barnett, was that “giving a campaign contribution is protected speech under the First Amendment.”  I asked Barnett if that finding might also mean that (under Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruling that unleashed unlimited political spending by corporations) that the contractor contribution restrictions themselves were unconstitutional. Barnett said that was an interesting legal question but that it hasn’t been tested (yet).

 

Sawant’s City Printer Usage: 26 Hours, One “Tax Amazon” Rally, 4,000 Copies

A little over a week ago, during the council debate over the head tax, council member Sally Bagshaw called out her colleague, council member Kshama Sawant, for using the legislative department’s shared printer to print out a huge number of bright red posters advertising a rally Sawant was holding over the weekend to protest Amazon and create public pressure on the council to support the highest possible tax. “I just don’t think it is right for us to be using city resources or the copy machines to promote something that not all of us agree to,” Bagshaw said.

I wondered just what kind of resources Bagshaw was talking about, so I filed a records request to find out how Sawant’s printer usage compared to other council offices’. (Each office has its own printer, but big jobs—like, say, 11-by-17 color posters for political rallies—must be done on a large color printer in the second-floor printer room).

Unfortunately, the city wasn’t able to provide the most recent month’s invoice to its printer company, Ricoh, because that invoice wasn’t available yet. Printer costs have accelerated steadily through the year, however, growing from $493.86 in January to $1,231.46 in February to about $1,300 in March (the exact total is hard to extrapolate because the March bill includes rent for the copier itself, plus various taxes whose rates are unspecified).

Fortunately, the printer itself does save records for the most recent several days, broken down by document name and the name of the staffer requesting the print job. I made my request on May 14, the day  Bagshaw chided Sawant for using the council’s shared, city-funded printer to create her rally posters, and got records showing all print jobs between 11:02 am on May 10 and 10:19 am on May 14. (According to the council’s public disclosure officer, the printer does not store print records long-term.) Sawant’s “Tax Amazon” rally was on Saturday, May 12.

The documents show that Sawant’s office—specifically, her legislative assistants Ted Virdone and Adam Ziemkowski—printed several thousand posters and other documents related to the rally, including hundreds of chant sheets to guide rally participants during the “March on Amazon.” The printing jobs dwarf other council office’s print requests; moreover, the council offices that did relatively large print jobs during the time when Sawant’s office was using the city printer to produce her rally posters were printing presentations, copies of studies, and agendas for council meetings—not posters for weekend demonstrations against Amazon aimed at pressuring council members to adopt a larger tax.

Between around 2:00 in the afternoon on May 10 and 4:00 in the afternoon on May 11, the day before the rally, Sawant’s office printed:

  • 1,004 copies of a document called “March On Amazon.doc.”
  • 50 copies of a document called “fight bezos bullying.pdf”
  • 75 copies of a document called “tax amazon, no loopholes, no sunset.pdf”
  • 50 copies of a document called “tax amazon – fund housing and services.pdf”
  • 50 copies of a document called “tax amazon, 75 million, no extortion2.pdf”
  • 50 copies of a document called “150m EHT.pdf” (Sawant was pushing for a head tax, or Employee Hours Tax, that would raise $150 million a year)
  • 50 copies of a document called “tax amazon, no bezos durkan deal.pdf”
  • 400 copies of a document called “Tax Amazon chantsheet2.doc”
  • 2,198 copies of a document called “may 11 (two sided).pdf.

It’s unclear, given the limited period of time the records cover, whether Sawant’s office printed other posters and rally-related before 11am on May 10, the earliest time for which printer records are available. It’s unclear from the records which documents were large 11-by-17 posters and which were in full color. However, demonstrators at last Monday’s council meetings on the head tax held signs bearing the same slogans as those in the file names Sawant’s office printed out the previous Friday, and Sawant herself defended her use of the city’s official printer to produce anti-Amazon materials, telling Bagshaw, “You can choose not to use your office for really fighting for the interests of working people and to build movements. I strongly believe that council resources absolutely should be used to further social movements and not for the protection of the interests of the chamber of commerce.”

Overall, Sawant’s office printed out more than 4,000 copies in the approximately 24 hours between the afternoon of May 10 and the afternoon of May 11. (After the rally, their printing needs returned to a normal level—about 40 pages between May 12 and May 14).  No other office came close. Council member Rob Johnson’s office was in second place, with just over 600 copies in the same period (none of them posters), but that was skewed by a single 465-page printout—copies of a PowerPoint presentation on the Families and Education Levy for council members.

Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission director Wayne Barnett told me that he considered Sawant’s use of the city’s printer to produce her rally signs acceptable under city ethics rules, because she was using the posters “to pass legislation.”

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: From Homeless Camp to Graffiti Fence

1. Back in February, the Seattle Department of Transportation put up a temporary chain-link fence around the Ballard Bridge underpass at Leary Way Northwest in an attempt to deter homeless people from trying to take shelter under the bridge. Several weeks later, the fence was replaced by a more permanent structure, topped with metal spikes and standing some ten feet tall. The city argued that the $100,000 fence was necessary because if homeless people were allowed to sleep under the bridge, they might set the bridge on fire, causing it to collapse. Whatever the city’s motivation, the fence also answered the wishes of many neighborhood activists who took umbrage at having to look at homeless people through their car windows on their way home from work.

Now, they get to look at this:

And this:

And this:

About half the fencing is currently covered with graffiti, a problem made possible, in part, by the wall-like semipermanent fencing the city chose to enclose the area under the bridge. Asked when or whether the city plans to clean up the graffiti, SDOT spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said SDOT’s first priority is maintaining the safety of the bridge; in a followup, she said graffiti removal is the responsibility of Seattle Public Utilities, which plans to clean up the graffiti four times a year, at a cost of about $1,900 per cleanup. Given that the fences appear to be an appealing target for taggers, I asked Hobson if the city might step up its efforts to keep the fence tag-free; I’ll update this post if I get more information.

2. The Rental Housing Association of Washington—a group that advocates on behalf of landlords—filed a lawsuit today challenging the city’s “fair chance housing” law, which says that landlords can’t ask about potential tenants’ criminal history when deciding whether to rent to them. The lawsuit is one of several RHA has filed against the city in recent months; the group has also challenged laws capping the amount of move-in fees landlords can require tenants to pay and the so-called first-in-time law, which requires landlords to rent to the first qualified candidate. (A King County Superior Court judge  agreed with RHA, ruling in March that the first-in-time law violated landlords’ property rights). In its complaint, the group argues that the law infringes on landlords’ “constitutionally protected right to choose whom they will house and work within these often lengthy and interpersonal landlord-tenant relationships. The inability to access valuable information about potential tenants increases various risks faced by plaintiffs when renting their property.”

At a press conference Tuesday morning, RHA president William Shadbolt argued that the city’s tenant protection ordinances make the housing affordability crisis worse. “Making criminals a protected class and other ordinances like it makes the city council directly responsible for increasing people’s rent,” he said. Shadbolt suggested that the city should instead adopt a law that would give renters with criminal records (of any kind) the option of going before an “impartial panel” to get a “restoration of opportunity” certificate that could allow them to rent from some “willing small landlord[s].”  Several landlords said they had drastically increased their screening criteria—requiring higher income or credit scores, for example—in an attempt to prevent “the criminals” from qualifying to rent from them.

In reality, criminal background checks allow landlords to screen out people who have merely been arrested or accused, but found not guilty, of committing a crime—one reason that criminal background checks disproportionately impact people of color, who are far more likely to be targeted, detained, and charged for crimes they did not commit. (Overall, roughly one in three Seattle residents has some kind of criminal history). On the other end of the spectrum, people who do commit crimes and serve their time have a much easier time reintegrating into their communities if they have stable housing.  And of course, people with stable housing are much less likely to commit crimes that stem from poverty, isolation, lack of services, and economic desperation.

City council member Lisa Herbold, who sponsored the fair-chance legislation, says, “One of the fundamental tenets of our justice system is that only a court of law can punish someone accused of a crime.  Blocking people from accessing stable housing based upon their criminal background violates this fundamental tenet of our justice system and is inconsistent with the rule of law.” Herbold also disputes the idea that renting to people with criminal backgrounds puts landlords and tenants without criminal history at rick. “Blocking people from accessing stable housing is a recipe for recidivism and less safety for our communities,” she says. “With housing, a person is seven times less likely to reenter the criminal justice system.  I would expect anyone in favor of a safer Seattle to support this law.”

3. A report by BERK Consulting on Seattle’s “democracy voucher” program, which provides four $25 vouchers to every Seattle resident to contribute to the local candidates of their choice, concludes that while more people contributed to candidates in last year’s elections compared to previous years, the people who used democracy vouchers skewed whiter, wealthier, and older than the city as a whole. The report also found that while more candidates decided to run last year, only a handful managed to qualify for vouchers, and made recommendations for improving the system and increasing access to vouchers in the future.
A few highlights of the 51-page report:
• Democracy vouchers did little to prevent “big money” from dominating Seattle politics, as total spending in city council campaigns increased 60 percent between 2015 and 2017, as candidates asked to be released from campaign spending limits when their opponents’ spending, plus spending by outside groups on their behalf, exceeded the limits set by the legislation that established the voucher program. Independent expenditures, which the city does not have the authority to limit, jumped 55 percent over the same two-year period, leading the consultants to conclude that “the role of big money in Seattle elections persists.”
• Because candidates can be released from spending limits if their opponent’s total contributions (including both direct contributions and independent expenditures) exceeded those limits, the report found, the program may unfairly penalize candidates who have no say over whether an outside group does an independent expenditure on their behalf. Conversely, the trigger for releasing campaigns from spending limits might create a perverse incentive for candidates to encourage or solicit small IEs against their opponents in order to boost their combined campaign spending above the threshold and triggering a release from spending limits. “
• For candidates, the biggest barrier to participating in the democracy voucher program was the difficulty of getting signatures and contributions of at least $10 from 400 registered voters and verifying their information with the city, with the result that “most candidates did not receive any public funding, or qualified to receive public funding too late in the election cycle to make a difference.” To fix that problem in the future (and, presumably, to help prevent democracy voucher fraud in future elections), the consultants recommend “significantly streamlining the verification process – particularly when it comes to qualifying contributions,” by allowing people to verify their identities electronically when they make their contributions.
BERK will present its report to the Ethics and Elections Commission on the 40th floor of the Seattle Municipal Tower today at 4.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: The Motion Did Not Include a Plan B

1. Embattled King County Democrats chair Bailey Stober, who has refused to step down after an internal investigation concluded he sexually harassed and bullied his sole employee, Natalia Koss Vallejo, before firing her last month, has called a special meeting of the group’s executive board for March 19 to discuss what to do now that efforts to recruit a five-person panel to do a new investigation into Stober’s conduct as chair have failed. Stober is also accused of misappropriating the organization’s funds; among other things, he reportedly spent $14,000 more on campaign contributions than was allocated in last year’s budget.

At a meeting late last month, the King County Democrats’ executive board decided that an initial investigation by the group’s three vice-chairs was inadequate, and decided to let Stober himself appoint two of the members of a five-member panel to investigate the charges against him. The board also decided to expand the investigation to include an investigation of the original investigation, as well as an investigation into who “leaked” information about the complaints to the media, including me. Two of the five members would be appointed by the group’s vice chairs, and the fifth would be approved jointly by Stober and the vice-chairs, giving Stober himself effective control over the makeup of half the group investigating him for workplace misconduct.

Over the course of the investigation, two of the group’s three vice chairs have resigned, and the third, Orchideh Raisdanai, has apparently been unable to find anyone who will serve on the panel. Several potential members reportedly declined because they did not want to lend credibility to the process.

In an email to the executive board, Stober quoted from a note sent by the King County Democrats’ Democratic National Committee representative David McDonald—a Stober ally who oversaw the closed-door executive board meeting that led to the decision to form a new five-member panel—outlining the purpose of the meeting. (Stober and one of his allies, state committeeman Jon Culver, have begun monitoring and controlling the flow of emails to and from the general executive board address, according to group members who have tried to email the board, so that board members don’t see every email sent to their address and outgoing messages are reportedly monitored and approved by Stober or Culver.) “The motion adopted at the February 27 meeting did not specify a plan B in the event that the requested Committee could not be constituted in the time frame specified,” McDonald wrote. “Accordingly, the Chair was requested to call a special meeting of the Executive Board for the purpose of adopting a plan B procedure or taking other appropriate action in light of the events.” What that “Plan B procedure” will be remains unclear.

Tim Farrell, who chairs the Pierce County Democrats, will oversee the meeting. Last year, the Pierce County Democrats were fined $22,600 for breaking campaign-finance laws by repeatedly failing to properly report donations and spending over the course of three years. The King County Democrats are currently negotiating their own fine over similar charges, and Stober is now the subject of two new, separate complaints charging that he and other party officers concealed the group’s dire financial situation from the public, failed to report pledges and expenditures, and failed to file other reports properly and promptly.

On Wednesday, members of the 34th District Democrats who want Stober to step down will propose a resolution calling on Stober to resign. Several other Democratic groups across King County, including the 43rd, 11th, 45th, and 36th Legislative District Dems, have passed or are considering resolutions withholding funds from the King County Democrats until Stober steps down, but the 34th has not yet done so. The group is chaired by David Ginsberg, a stalwart Stober supporter who told the Seattle Times that he didn’t believe Stober had harassed Koss Vallejo because they had socialized and seemed “chummy” before Stober fired her.  Meanwhile, another group that has been silent so far is the 37th District Democrats; their chair, Alec Stephens, evocatively compared the investigation into Stober to a lynching at last month’s meeting.

An open letter calling on Stober to resign now has nearly 200 signatures from Democratic leaders, precinct committee officers, and elected officials.

2. The Seattle Ethics and Elections commission will release its first postelection report on the Democracy Voucher program today, featuring information about which voters took advantage of the opportunity to allocate public funds to which candidates, and how; how much money the program cost; and how (and when) Seattle residents spent their vouchers.

Some highlights from the SEEC’s report:

• Not surprisingly, most people allocated their vouchers—a total of $100 per registered voter, divided into four $25 increments—just before the primary and/or general elections. In July, prior to the August 1, 2017 primary election, the city received 11,548  vouchers; in October, leading up to the November 7 general election, voters returned 14,288 vouchers to the city. However, quite a few vouchers were returned well before the May 19 deadline for candidates to declare they were running—11,530 vouchers came in between January, when vouchers landed in mailboxes, and April, suggesting that candidates who filed early (like unsuccessful Position 8 candidate Jon Grant) had some success locking down voucher contributions before other candidates had a chance to get in their races. Voters returned a total of just over 72,000 vouchers in all.

• About one in five vouchers came in to the city directly from the campaigns, which solicited voucher contributions from voters; the rest came in through the mail (78 percent) or were emailed or delivered to the ethics board by hand.

• The overwhelming majority—76 percent—of people who returned their vouchers to the city gave them to just one candidate, rather than distributing the four $25 vouchers to different candidates.

• The requirement that candidates secure at least 400 signatures and 400 contributions of $10 or more appears to have been a significant barrier to voucher program participation. Only six candidates ultimately qualified for public funding with vouchers, and one, Hisam Goeuli, has pointed out that it took him so long to collect the required signatures—27 weeks—that by the time he had access to voucher funding, it was too late in the campaign for him to benefit from it. However, the other five candidates who qualified all appeared on the general election ballot, most of them after making it through the August primary.

• In 2017, the voucher program came in about $787,000 under its $3 million budget; under the initiative that authorized the program, unused funds are reserved for spending in future years.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.