Tag: seattle ethics and elections commission

Campaign Fizz: The Case of the Carbon-Copy Mailers

1. Elliott Bay Neighbors and University Neighbors, two independent expenditure groups funded by local real estate developers and Republican donors, including Trump 2020 contributor George Petrie, sent out mailers supporting District 1 city council candidate Rob Saka and District 4 candidate Maritza Rivera. The identically worded mailers include the same factual errors about the history of homelessness in Seattle.

One one side, the Saka/Rivera mailers both promise “[Saka/Rivera] is endorsed by people you know and trust,” followed by a quote from a supporter (Community Police Commission member Harriett Walden and Attorney General Bob Ferguson, respectively) and a snippet of the Seattle Times’ endorsement for that candidate.

On the flip side, both feature the headline “After years of failure on homelessness…” followed by a list of six points in time (plus “2023: UTTER FAILURE”) that are supposed to represent that failure.

The timeline—whose only job is to be a timeline—includes two dates that are wrong. Mayor Ed Murray declared a homelessness emergency in 2015, not 2016, and the JumpStart payroll tax (“additional taxes for housing”) passed in 2020, not 2021. Perhaps more substantively, Murray’s declaration, King County’s Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness; the “failure” of that plan; and the establishment of the original Nickelsville encampment have nothing to do with the city council; they were the responsibility of Ed Murray, King County, King County, and a group of unsheltered people, respectively.

Although the mailer describes JumpStart as “additional taxes for housing,” the fund was (pretty famously) crippled in its first few years as former mayor Durkan and current Mayor Harrell used it to backfill shortfalls in other spending areas, and does not exclusively pay for housing.

According to campaign finance reports, the mailers were designed by a consultant in Wisconsin.

Direct campaign donations are limited in Seattle, but independent political committees can spend unlimited amounts supporting or opposing candidates and ballot measures. Two of the chief supporters of the pro-Saka and -Rivera campaigns, George Petrie (and his wife Alyssa) and John Goodman, contributed a total of $190,000 to a pro-Bruce Harrell campaign and $100,000 to Compassion Seattle, the unfunded shelter and encampment-clearing mandate that a judge struck from the ballot for going beyond the scope of a local initiative.

2. Stephen Brown, the founder of Eltana Bagels and a candidate for City Council Position 1 (West Seattle), reported spending $33,577 to reimburse Eltana for billboards and mailers that appeared to promote Brown’s campaign. The mailers read “Seattle Deserves Better…—Stephen Brown” on the outside and opened to reveal an offer for $25 in free bagels. Brown maintained that the billboards and mailers, along with a Youtube video that concluded, “Stephen Brown fixed the bagel problem in Seattle—who knows what’s next?” had nothing to do with his campaign.

The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission disagreed, sending Brown a list of questions about the ads and warning him that his campaign could no longer access public funding if he did not “resolve this issue.”

Had Brown not resolved the issue by paying for the ads, the ethics commission could’ve added his official campaign mailers to the pile of evidence suggesting the Eltana ads were meant to support his campaign. The design of the Vote Stephen Brown ad is extremely similar to the Eltana ad, from the fonts to the striking deep-purple-and-yellow color scheme to the photos of bagels to the choice of fonts.

3. Saka, who is one of Brown’s competitors, has asked the elections commission to lift spending limits for his campaign, arguing that Brown understated the true value of the ads and mailers and has actually spent more than the $93,750 limit for candidates using the city’s democracy voucher program. The ethics commission will hold a meeting tomorrow to consider his request.

UPDATE: Turns out our prediction (that the commission wouldn’t grant Saka’s request because they had already accepted a $33,000 estimate for the Eltana billboards and mailers) was wrong: The commission voted to grant the request on Thursday, agreeing with Saka’s campaign that the Brown campaign should have included the full value of all the money Eltana spent advertising bagels/Brown citywide, and not just in District 1.

During a lengthy discussion, commission director Wayne Barnett argued that it wouldn’t make much sense to advertise a West Seattle campaign in, say, Ballard. Commissioner Zach Pekelis, an attorney at Pacific Law Group, countered that ordinarily “we don’t think of campaign expendtures being discounted based on the efficacy or the inefficacy of the campaign expenditure,” and noted that if a District 1 campaign directly spent money on ads in another district, it “would definitely count” as a campaign expense.

Candidate Says Bagel Giveaway Is Strictly Business; Big Business PACs Back Harrell-Allied Candidates; “Books Unbanned” Still Open to Minors In Library Book Ban States

1. Stephen Brown, the president of Eltana Bagels and a candidate for City Council in District 1 (West Seattle), said a mailer emblazoned “Seattle Deserves Better… – Stephen Brown” that included an offer for free bagels was just a routine promotional pitch for his local wood-fired bagel chain, not a campaign expenditure.

The flyer (which opens to the word “Bagels!”) offers a half-dozen free bagels and a “spread of your choice”—a “more than $25 value!” to anyone who comes in to either of Eltana’s two locations, which are both located outside District 1. In small print below the offer, the mailer says the offer expires at the end of August and has “no cash value.”

Contacted by email, Brown said the flyers were part of Eltana’s routine direct-marketing strategy and went out “to various addresses in the city that are close to retail grocery stores selling Eltana bagels. … As part of its promotions, Eltana regularly gives bagels away in an effort to garner trial and acquire customers.”

“The intention was to use a banal, stereotypical message as a parody—to use humor to sell bagels,” Brown added.

“This effort is not a campaign expense—it is not electoral in nature.” —District 1 city council candidate Stephen Brown

Eltana has also purchased four billboards, including at least one in West Seattle, prominently featuring Brown’s name.

“Eltana has never bought billboards in the past but the incredibly low price for billboards this summer ($1000 a month) made this promotional offer too attractive for Eltana to pass up,” Brown said. “We have used me, as the founder, in the past to promote Eltana[.] …. This effort is not a campaign expense—it is not electoral in nature.”

If the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission determines that the mailers, giveaway, or billboards do promote Brown’s candidacy, the campaign would be in violation of Seattle election law, which bars candidates who participate in the democracy voucher program (as Brown is) from accepting more than $300 in cash or in-kind contributions from any campaign donor. The commission declined to comment.

Brown said “the campaign will not be reporting on the performance of the Eltana trial promotion,” as “the offer is made and distributed by Eltana, is city wide, and doesn’t promote any candidate for public office nor does it mention any elections or geography.”

2. A developer-funded independent expenditure campaign poured more than $27,000 into the effort to elect Maritza Rivera—whose campaign focuses on hiring more police—to City Council District 4, where urbanist Ron Davis is the other top contender.

“University Neighbors Committee” received its largest donations from developers John Goodman and George Petrie—two frequent Republican donors who bankrolled the failed Compassion Seattle campaign and poured $150,000 into the political committee that helped elect Bruce Harrell in 2021. The other donors backing the pro-Rivera PAC include developer Jordan Selig, developer Martin Smith, developer Matt Griffin, and Amazon bigwig David Zapolsky.

The PAC’s first pro-Rivera mailer says that as a parent of a child at Ingraham High School, where a 17-year-old was shot last year, she “decided to run for city council because our current council isn’t doing enough to keep us safe. “If voters elect Rivera, the mailer promises, they’ll get “More cops. Better training. Faster response times”—Rivera has said wants to reduce Priority 1 911 response times to five minutes, which would require hiring hundreds more officers—a goal SPD has acknowledged isn’t realistic—and making Seattle the exception to a nationwide trend.

The exact same group of donors has contributed more than $32,000 to the “Elliott Bay Neighbors” PAC supporting Rob Saka—another Harrell-allied candidate—in District 1 (West Seattle).

If you’ve seen any mailers and want to send them our way, email erica@publicola.com. 

3. Earlier this month, the state of Mississippi effectively banned people under 18 from accessing e-books or audiobooks through any of its public libraries—part of the growing trend of book bans and other restrictions aimed at preventing young people from accessing information about gender, sexuality, race, and anything else Republican lawmakers consider objectionable.

The law requires vendors of digital materials like Libby and Hoopla to ensure that no minors can access anything the state deems “sexually explicit,” which includes everything from textbooks that include human anatomy sketches to “descriptions [of] homosexuality or lesbianism.”

Seattle Public Library spokeswoman Laura Gentry said the library will continue to offer Seattle library cards to people with Internet access living in Mississippi, whose ban on online materials for minors only extends to public and school libraries in that state, through its Books Unbanned program. Currently, she said, the program has 17 participants from Mississippi, including a 23-year-old teacher who submitted this comment: 

“Living in Mississippi, a lot of books with vital information/stories/perspectives are banned or being banned. Being a Black woman in the city with the highest population of Black people, I know how important it is for us to protect our history. Also, being a teacher, I see how certain books being banned has already affected the younger generation. There is a lot that they don’t know and may never know so it’s extremely helpful to have access to this catalog.”

“Authentic” Harrell Doubles Down, Public Safety Director Myerberg Reassigned, Baseless Complaint Claims PubliCola Engaged in Pro-Cop “Quid Pro Quo”

1. Mayor Bruce Harrell doubled down yesterday on comments he made during a Seattle Police Department roll call that were subsequently leaked to Jason Rantz, a host at the conservative station KTTH, telling reporters he stood by “whatever people said I said.” According to quotes from the meeting, Harrell blamed at “inexperienced” city council members, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, and service providers for the “mess” the city has become—calling out the KCRHA, in particular, for “working against” Harrell by publicly opposing encampment sweeps.

“I’ve been in the city my entire life. And there’s one thing about me, is I am authentic,” Harrell said. Gesturing toward his wife, Joanne, who was standing behind him, he continued, “[I’ve] been with my best friend and wife, we’ve known each other for close to four decades. By the way, she’s a tough critic. But she’s seen me say the same things over and over and over again. So it’s time to stop playing small ball. Let’s play big ball. Let’s attack racism. Let’s attack police reform. Let’s revitalize our downtown. That’s big ball.”

Harrell declined to say whether he would actually propose defunding the regional homelessness authority, which receives the bulk of its funding, about $70 million, from the city through its annual budget process. “We’ll present our budget in a few weeks, but you will see our clear recognition of a lot of the great work they are doing,” Harrell said. “You will see continued support. What I owe to the leaders in RHA is my expectations. And I think they share my concern that we have to get this work done. … I’m still very optimistic. I’m very optimistic. But I’m not going to look at any of the work we’re doing in the city through rose-colored glasses.”

Harrell has been publicly and privately critical of the KCRHA and its director, Marc Dones—complaining publicly, for example, about the agency’s request for city and county funding that would nearly double its existing budget to fund a slew of new projects. Privately, Harrell has reportedly questioned the need for the authority, which still lacks meaningful buy-in from suburban cities and is entirely funded by Seattle and King County.

On Wednesday, Harrell said removing Myerberg from his position was just part of a six-month evaluation that involved “moving people around,” but declined to say more about what Myerberg will do in his new role. “He’s still part of our strong part of our administration and literally sits 40 feet from my desk. We’re looking forward to our continuing partnership,” Harrell said.

2. Harrell’s erstwhile director of public safety, former Office of Police Accountability director Andrew Myerberg, has been reassigned to a vaguely defined new position—”director of special projects”—where he will reportedly head up efforts to get the city out from under a consent decree between the US Department of Justice and the Seattle Police Department.

Harrell has reportedly criticized Myerberg for his lack of connection to communities impacted by police policy, such as the ill-advised decision (supported by Harrell’s other chief public safety advisor, strategic initiatives director Tim Burgess) to crack down on “disorderly conduct,” including music, smoking, and shouting, at Third Avenue and Pine St. downtown.

On Wednesday, Harrell said removing Myerberg from his position was just part of a six-month evaluation that involved “moving people around,” but declined to say more about what Myerberg will do in his new role. “He’s still part of our strong part of our administration and literally sits 40 feet from my desk. We’re looking forward to our continuing partnership,” Harrell said.

Asked what qualities he’s looking for in Myerberg’s replacement, Harrell said, “We want a person who understands constitutional policing, seven minute response times, [and is] willing to do the hard research on what’s working in other cities, issues dealing with gun regulations, just a good director of public safety.”

3. Local police accountability gadfly Howard Gale has filed a formal complaint with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission alleging a “quid pro quo” conspiracy between me (Erica Barnett) and City Councilmember Lisa Herbold and/or the city’s Office of the Inspector General, which reviews police misconduct investigations to publish information flattering to the OIG and Herbold and, by extension, the Seattle Police Department.

The “whistleblower complaint” asserts that either Herbold or someone at the Office of Inspector General leaked a copy of a report to me, and only me, in advance, in exchange for my agreement to provide flattering coverage. My straightforward piece describing the contents of the external report, which included recommendations for avoiding improper certification of investigations into police misconduct, is here.

“I believe this is a clear ethical violation because it was done with the intent to avoid negative coverage for both the OIG and CM Herbold, and done for professional mutual benefit (quid pro quo),” the complaint says.

The only evidence for this utterly baseless claim is that Gale contacted nine unidentified “journalists” and “none can find any notice of the independent audit being released/available.”

The reality, as it often is with conspiracy theories, is much more mundane. The OIG released an embargoed copy of the report to a list of reporters, including me, on the afternoon of July 27, one day before the office released the report publicly.

An embargo is an agreement between journalists and a person or entity releasing information, such as a government agency or advocacy group, that journalists will get the information in advance in exchange for agreeing not to publish it until a certain time; such agreements are extremely common and allow journalists to absorb the information (for example, details in a technical briefing or lawsuit), ask clarifying questions, and write their stories before something gets released publicly. I may have been the only one who wrote about the report when the embargo lifted, but lack of coverage is not evidence of a conspiracy.

County Invests in Hotel-Based Shelter, SPOG Campaigns for Sawant Recall, Durkan Records Requests Raise Disclosure Questions

1. In his State of the County address Tuesday, King County Executive Dow Constantine announced that the county would purchase the Inn at Queen Anne, which has been serving as a temporary shelter operated by Catholic Community Services since April of last year.

The 80-room hotel, which CCS will continue to operate, will cost the county $16.5 million; the money will come from the new “health through housing” sales tax that the county council passed—with some notable abstentions from suburban cities—late last year. The county plans to purchase “several more properties in several more cities … in the coming weeks,” Constantine said in his address.

Even as the county moves to buy hotels, the city of Seattle is pushing in the opposite direction.

In an interview yesterday, Constantine said he saw the hotels as “stops on the way to permanent supportive housing or independent housing, including affordable housing—places where you could live for a while and stabilize and take advantage of services.” Traditional, congregate shelters, including “enhanced shelters” like Seattle’s Navigation Center, don’t offer the kind of privacy and stability hotel rooms provide; “the difference between being able to come inside for the night and having a place of your own with a lock on the door seems to be everything,” Constantine said.

Even as the county moves to buy hotels, the city of Seattle is pushing in the opposite direction. Between now and June, Seattle plans to close down a temporary shelter at Exhibition Hall and relocate the people living there into shelters whose populations were “redistributed” last year, including the Navigation Center. After resisting calls to move Seattle’s homeless population into hotel-based shelters, the city finally rented about 200 hotel rooms this spring—a temporary solution (the rooms will be occupied for 10 months) and one that represents a fraction of the need. At the same time, Seattle is ramping up homeless encampment sweeps.

Asked about the apparent contrast between the county’s approach and Seattle’s, Constantine said, “first off, we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If people need a place to be inside at night, we have to figure out a way to make that happen.” However, he added, “If you’re going to move people out of an encampment, at a bare minimum, you can’t just chase people from one street corner to another or one park to another. That is tremendously unhelpful.”

Constantine is up for reelection this year; his challenger, state Sen. Joe Nguyen, told PubliCola he supports the regional homelessness authority that the county is setting up but thinks the county has failed forge partnerships with the leaders of cities within the county.

The email, which the police union sent to its members last Friday, asked off-duty officers to appear in plain clothes to collect signatures and wave anti-Sawant signs at four Capitol Hill intersections on Saturday and Sunday.

2. The Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) asked its members to participate in signature-gathering events for the Recall Sawant campaign over the weekend, according to an email from SPOG leadership.

The email, which the police union sent to its members last Friday, asked off-duty officers to appear in plain clothes to collect signatures and wave anti-Sawant signs at four Capitol Hill intersections on Saturday and Sunday.

Recall Sawant campaign manager Henry Bridger II told SPOG members in the email that their presence would help “beef up” an otherwise meager group of volunteers. “Our goal is to have about 40+ people each day and we have about 15 right now and many probably won’t show for fear of retaliation,” he wrote, warning that “Sawant’s people will be there in mass [sic] to interfere.”

“We are just wanting to have plain-clothed volunteers to help hold signs and gather signatures so we look like we have a lot of coverage,” Bridger added. He also asked officers to bring their family and friends to boost turnout.

SPOG’s push for turnout seems to have fizzled: Twitter chatter about campaign volunteers at the intersection of Broadway and Denny suggests that few recall supporters showed up at the campaign event.

3. On Monday, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission held a brief discussion on a report that prompted outrage from major-media outlets last week because it revealed that Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office had failed to produce many of her text message in response to records requests in 2020.

Specifically, the report—produced by independent public disclosure expert Ramsey Ramerman in response to a whistleblower complaint by two longtime mayoral public disclosure officers—found that 10 months of Durkan’s texts were missing, and that the mayor’s office had routinely excluded Durkan’s texts from requests for text messages from mayoral staff, on the grounds that the requests didn’t explicitly include the mayor.

The report, posted on the city’s website last week, was a bombshell, but it seemed to hit major media outlets somewhat differently than it hit us at PubliCola, for a simple reason: While we have filed dozens of records requests for text messages and other forms of communication, such as messages on internal City messaging systems, during the Durkan administration, we have routinely received only emails in response—a fact that suggests Durkan and her entire staff don’t use text messages, internal communications systems, or any other form of written communication other than email at all.

Since we know this is not the case (in fact, a quick text history search found a number of messages that would have been responsive to some of our requests), the only conclusion we can reach is that the mayor’s office did not provide records that would have been responsive to our requests, despite having the ability to do so and despite apparently filling other media outlets’ requests for text messages and other forms of communication. (A full list of PubliCola’s records requests to the mayor’s office since August 2018 is available here.) Continue reading “County Invests in Hotel-Based Shelter, SPOG Campaigns for Sawant Recall, Durkan Records Requests Raise Disclosure Questions”

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.

Support PubliCola

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely and exclusively by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

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.

Support PubliCola

If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter. Earlier this month, we took a look back at just some of the work we’ve been able to do thanks to generous contributions from our readers, but those pieces represent just a handful of the hundreds of stories we’ve published this year.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely and exclusively by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

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.”

Support PubliCola

PubliCola is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going—and expanding!

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. We’re truly grateful for your support.

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.”


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.


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.

Screen Shot 2018-11-05 at 11.44.17 AM.png

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.