Tag: Seattle Public Library

Seattle Library Finalist at Center of Remote-Work Controversy

Seattle Public Library finalist Chad Helton. Image via Hennapin County
Seattle Public Library finalist Chad Helton. Image via Hennapin County

By Erica C. Barnett

The Seattle Public Library announced two finalists for its chief librarian position on Wednesday: Current interim chief librarian Tom Fay, and Hennepin County, MN library director Chad Helton. Fay has headed up the library on an interim basis since former chief librarian Marcellus Turner left to head up the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library system last March.

The Hennepin County library hired Helton in May 2020, apparently believing he would relocate to Minnesota. Helton did live in the state for about a year, but last summer, according to the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune, he informed employees via email that from then on, he would do his $183,855-a-year job remotely from his home in Los Angeles, where he has lived ever since.

Helton’s decision to run the 42-branch system from 2,000 miles away made national news, prompted at least one scathing editorial, and prompted a new county policy last month requiring county supervisors whose employees interact with the public, including the library director, to live in the state unless they receive special dispensation from the county administrator.

Last summer, Helton informed employees via email that he would do his $183,855-a-year job remotely from his home in Los Angeles, where he has lived ever since.

Seattle library board chair Carmen Bendixen told PubliCola that while she couldn’t “share anything that Mr. Helton shared with us in his first-round interview… it is important to me that a successful candidate shows a commitment to the Library’s community focus in the final round of interviews with the Board.”

The job description the library used during its national search, Bendixen added, was “intentionally community-focused, making it important that the successful candidate be able to conduct community-centered work, including staying connected to our physical facilities and interacting in-person with Library patrons, partners, staff and other stakeholders.” When Helton was first hired in Hennepin County, he said he had an “inexplicable love for Minnesota,” according to the Star Tribune.

Helton told PubliCola, “I am in compliance with the directive of Hennepin County Administration in regards to its Future Ready Hennepin plan,” which outlined standards for county employees to work remotely or on hybrid in person/remote schedules. “Should I be hired as the next Chief Librarian, I will be in compliance with all directives set forth by the SPL Board,” Helton added.

The library board will hold one public forum on each of the finalists in February; information about the forums is available on the library’s website.

Omicron Hits Police, Library Workers Hard; Longtime City Union Rep Will Head Labor Relations Office

1. In the past month, the COVID-19 virus tore through the Seattle Police Department, placing dozens of officers in quarantine and adding a new strain to the department’s already-depleted ranks.

On January 12, SPD reported that 124 officers were isolating after testing positive for the virus: more than at any other point during the COVID-19 pandemic, easily surpassing the previous record of 80 officers in quarantine in November 2020. As of last Friday, the number of officers in quarantine had fallen to 85. Nearly 200 SPD employees have tested positive for the virus since the beginning of January, doubling the department’s total number of infections since the start of the pandemic.

The surge of COVID-19 infections, driven by the highly infectious omicron variant, intensifies a staffing shortage at SPD that has whittled away the department’s detective units and left some precincts with only a handful of officers to patrol large areas of the city. With fewer than 1,000 available officers—the lowest number in decades—SPD now routinely relies on non-patrol officers to volunteer for patrol shifts to meet minimum staffing requirements.

Another 170 officers are currently on leave, including more than two dozen unvaccinated officers who are burning through their remaining paid leave before they leave the department. The Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), which represents the department’s rank-and-file officers and sergeants, has not reached an agreement with the city about the vaccine mandate for city employees, which went into effect on October 18. SPOG is the only city union that has not reached an agreement with the city about the mandate, and its negotiations appear to have stalled.

In contrast, the King County Sheriff’s Office is still working with some unvaccinated officers to find accommodations that will allow them to return to work. Sergeant Tim Meyer, a sheriff’s office spokesman, told PubliCola that his office hasn’t seen enough new COVID-19 cases to pose a challenge for their patrol shifts.

2. The omicron variant is also impacting other city departments where staff interact directly with the public, including the Seattle Public Library, which last week reduced opening hours at branches across the system. For now, many branches will be open only sporadically, starting as late as noon on weekdays, and some will be open just a few partial days each week.

According to SPL spokeswoman Elisa Murray, 63 library staffers, or about 10 percent of the library’s staff, were on a leave of absence (through programs such as the Family and Medical Leave Act) for at least one day during the last two weeks of 2021; in addition, 32 employees were out due to COVID infection or exposure.

Compounding the problem, the library was already short-staffed before omicron hit; compared to 2018, the system had about 8.5 percent fewer staffers overall last year. According to Murray, “With a hiring push in the fall of 2021, we were able to restore pre-pandemic hours at most libraries by Dec. 6, just before the Omicron surge began impacting our staffing numbers once again.”

The library is trying to keep at least two branches in each of its six geographical regions open six or seven days a week so that no one has to travel too far to reach an open branch. Patrons of smaller branches, like Wallingford, Montlake, New Holly, and Northgate may have to travel to other neighborhoods to access services in person.

There is no standard pattern for closures across the city: Some branches are closed on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, for example, while others are closed on Saturday and Sunday. Murray suggests checking SPL’s website every morning to see which branches are open; the library requires a specific mix of staffers to open a branch, which means that one person calling in sick can be enough to close down a small branch for the day.

3. Shaun Van Eyk, the longtime labor representative for the city of Seattle’s largest union, PROTEC17, will soon be on the other side of the bargaining table as director of Labor Relations for the city’s human resources department. Van Eyk reportedly beat out Adrienne Thompson, former mayor Jenny Durkan’s chief labor advisor, for the position.

As a representative for PROTEC17, Van Eyk advocated for Human Services Department workers facing an uncertain future as the city’s homelessness division dissolved; argued against proposed free-speech restrictions that would limit what city employees could say online; and tangled with city leaders, including those at the Seattle Police Department, over the enforcement of Seattle’s vaccine mandate. (While police officers are represented by the Seattle Police Officers Guild, PROTEC17 represents civilian SPD employees.) In an email to union members announcing Van Eyk’s new position, PROTEC17 director Karen Estevenin credited Van Eyk with negotiating a COVID-era teleworking agreement and a recent wage increase for union members.

The labor relations division has undergone significant churn since the untimely death of its longtime director, David Bracilano, in 2017.

Paul Kiefer, Erica C. Barnett

Seattle’s Winter Homelessness Response: A Look Back (and Forward)

By Erica C. Barnett

On Christmas Eve 2008, after a series of snowstorms paralyzed the city for most of a week, then-mayor Greg Nickels made an offhand comment that became a major factor in his election loss the following year. Asked to grade his administration on its response to the winter weather, Nickels gave himself a “B,” praising his transportation department and its director, Grace Crunican, for performing admirably during several successive snowstorms that hampered the city’s ability to clear roads and sidewalks.

Nickels was roundly derided for his blithe self-assessment. Since then, mayors have been reluctant to publicly reckon with their performance during weather emergencies, even as those emergencies have become more frequent.

Jenny Durkan presided over Seattle’s response to the most recent weather emergency; Bruce Harrell, and the new King County Homelessness Authority, will oversee the region’s next one. And while the city has undoubtedly become more savvy and prepared when it comes to clearing snow and slush from streets, its efforts to keep unsheltered people alive and warm during the harshest weather have not kept up with the growing need. Here’s a look at how the city’s systems for keeping unsheltered people alive in the cold held up during the winter weather emergency, and some thoughts about how they could do better in the future.

Shelter

As PubliCola reported last month, under Mayor Jenny Durkan, the city ended its past practice of funding winter-only shelters, saying that they have “replaced” these seasonal shelters with year-round options that are open 24 hours a day. While 24-hour, year-round shelters are undoubtedly an improvement on shelters that close in the spring, they are not a substitute. And the number of new shelter beds represented a tiny fraction of the growing need over the last four yers. In total, the Durkan Administration added just 350 permanent shelter beds during Durkan’s time in office (a number that does not include 150 hotel-based COVID shelters that will shut down at the end of this month).

In lieu of winter-only, 24-hour shelters, the city set aside funds to open two short-term, nighttime-only shelters for up to 15 days each, with an initial capacity of just over 200 beds. The two bare-bones shelters, run by the Salvation Army at Seattle Center and the Compass Housing Alliance in Pioneer Square, respectively, opened at 7pm and closed 12 hours later. Compass runs a day center at the same site as its nighttime shelter and allowed clients and shelter guests to stay there until the center closed at 4pm each day, while Salvation Army guests had to walk to the Seattle Center Armory and wait for it to open at 10am each day.)

“We hear a general disinterest in leaving personal property unattended or behind, a preference for use of the 24-hour year-round locations with services specific to people experiencing homelessness like hygiene services or other supportive services, a preference for any locations open to have food, a preference to shelter in place with request for harm reduction warming supplies.” —Jenna Franklin, Human Services Department

Once it was clear there would be more demand for overnight shelter than the city originally anticipated, officials acted quickly, expanding the size of the Salvation Army shelter and opening City Hall as an overnight shelter run by the Urban League, with initial room for about 30 people. (City Hall expanded to 24 hours on December 27.) Three additional shelters opened outside downtown, two in Lake City and one in West Seattle, with a total capacity of about 70 people, on December 27 and 28. Only one, a 16-bed shelter at a VFW hall in West Seattle, was open 24 hours a day.

Although hundreds of people did go into shelter at night, the shelters were not completely full, and those outside downtown Seattle were especially underutilized. One common reason people do not come into emergency nighttime shelters, as opposed to 24-hour shelters with storage and (in some cases) semi-private sleeping quarters, is that they don’t want to risk losing all their stuff by abandoning their tents, including survival gear and sleeping bags that can be difficult to haul from place to place.

“.We hear a general disinterest in leaving personal property unattended or behind, a preference for use of the 24-hour year-round locations with services specific to people experiencing homelessness like hygiene services or other supportive services, a preference for any locations open to have food, a preference to shelter in place with request for harm reduction warming supplies like blankets, hand warmers, hats, gloves, etc. (which we continue to order and provide),” Jenna Franklin, a spokeswoman for the Human Services Department, told PubliCola last week. These barriers to shelter are longstanding and ongoing, and familiar to the city from its experience with previous weather emergencies.

Transportation

Another reason people frequently don’t come indoors during harsh winter conditions, according to the city and service providers, is that they lack a way to get from wherever they ordinarily stay (an encampment in a public park in Northwest Seattle, say) to a temporary shelter or daytime warming center across town.

While the city did send out a handful of vans to pick up unsheltered people and bring them to shelters, their offers of transportation consisted primarily of Metro bus tickets, which were useless on routes that were canceled or only running sporadically because of the snow and ice. People with mobility impairments were particularly challenged—those who use wheelchairs or walkers can’t easily get into vans without lifts, and larger vans with lifts can only be operated by drivers with commercial driver’s licenses, who were also needed to run snow plows.

“There has been some reticence about, if go to this particular shelter right now and it closes, and don’t have the opportunity to get to the warming shelter, what will I do?”—Jon Ehrenfeld, Health One

The fact that the city’s primary form of outreach was through the HOPE Team probably didn’t help. The team, which ordinarily does outreach to people living in encampments the city is about to remove, was out looking for people throughout the week, but encampment residents often mistrust a team that, for the majority of the year, is directly associated with sweeps.

The city’s decision to open separate daytime and nighttime shelters, instead of ensuring that people could stay inside, in one location, for the duration of the winter emergency, also created transportation issues. Although Franklin said many of the warming centers were “adjacent” to nighttime shelters, this was only true in the case of the Pioneer Square (Compass) and Seattle Center (Salvation Army) shelters; the Lake City Community Center warming center was located a half-mile away from the nearest shelter, and the other four community center-based warming centers were nowhere near any nighttime shelter at all.

“From what I’ve heard, it’s the discontinuity between daytime and nighttime shelters” that led many unsheltered people to decline shelter offers during the emergency, Jon Ehrenfeld, a program manager with the Seattle Fire Department’s Health One program, said. “There has been some reticence about, if go to this particular shelter right now and it closes, and don’t have the opportunity to get to the warming shelter, what will I do?”

Ehrenfeld said Health One focused mostly on handing out blankets and other survival supplies, thermoses filled with hot water for soup, and food. The mobile units, like other city departments responding to the emergency, were short-staffed due to COVID and still responding to non-acute emergency calls unrelated to the weather, Ehrenfeld said.

Daytime Warming Centers

In addition to the daytime warming centers at the Compass and Salvation Army shelters, the city opened up four community centers and one park building as warming sites—Lake City, Northgate, Rainier Beach, International District/Chinatown, and Building 46 at Magnuson Park. Almost no one used these locations. On several days, the Rainier Beach, International District, and Magnuson locations stood empty (according to the city’s Parks Department, the “average” usage at the Magnuson site was zero), while the other locations served one or two people at a time. The most-utilized site, Lake City, peaked at a total of eight people over the course of one day. Continue reading “Seattle’s Winter Homelessness Response: A Look Back (and Forward)”

Council Chooses Juarez, Library Explains Systemwide Closures, “Seattle Nice” Debates Durkan Legacy

1. District 5 City Councilmember Debora Juarez will serve as the next city council president, PubliCola has learned, after an intense and unusually public campaign for the position.

In addition to a lobbying campaign by Juarez’ supporters (including the leaders of a dozen Native American tribes), the Seattle Times weighed in on Juarez’s behalf, arguing for Juarez over her chief rival for the position, District 1 Councilmember Lisa Herbold, on the grounds that Juarez would strip Herbold of her position as chair of the council’s public safety committee. (The Times’ editorial board, which usually talks about “the council” as an undifferentiated mass, seems to believe that  Herbold is far to the left on police funding; in fact, she fought consistently for reductions to the budget cuts her colleagues proposed).

The city council president is in charge of committee assignments, presides over regular council meetings, and is nominally in charge of the entire legislative department. In the past, council presidents have used the role to represent the interests of the council in negotiations with the mayor’s office, to mixed success. The usually low-profile job typically goes to a senior council member.

2. Seattle Public Library branches, which were supposed to serve as places where people could get warm during the cold and snow emergency last week, were mostly closed last week. Over the course of a weeklong emergency, the entire library system shut down for two full days because of weather (in addition to previously planned closures on Christmas and New Year’s Days), and opened between 9 and 12 of its 27 branches during the other four days of the emergency.

“It requires a certain number of staff in certain job classifications to safely and effectively open each branch, and we need to feel confident that those staff can make it in to work and make it back home safely,” SPL spokeswoman Laura Gentry said. “[W]hile we can change an employee’s work location, we cannot change their scheduled shift or their job classification. Contractually, we also cannot ask someone like a Security officer to staff our Circulation desk, or ask a Children’s Librarian to shovel and de-ice our walkways.”

While library branches across the city were shuttered, more than 150 executive department staffers of all job classifications signed up to work paid shifts staffing shelters or driving vans to transport unsheltered people from encampments to shelters and warming centers.

Both these examples are fairly implausible; a more likely real-world scenario would be one in which several library staffers of various classifications showed up to open a branch’s doors during a weather emergency, leaving libraries without a full complement of job classifications but enough to open safely at a time when most housed people were stuck at home. The lack of a children’s librarian or circulation desk staffer at any given branch would be significantly less urgent if the library decided that, for just a few days during a temporary weather emergency, the primary purpose of library branches was to give unsheltered people a to get warm.

This kind of flexibility might be rare for a government agency, but it isn’t impossible; for example, while library branches across the city were shuttered, more than 150 executive department staffers of all job classifications signed up to work paid shifts staffing shelters or driving vans to transport unsheltered people from encampments to shelters and warming centers—duties for which the city offered between $150 and $250 in bonus pay.

In recent years, physical public library buildings have become havens for unhoused or unsheltered people who are not allowed in most other indoor public spaces during the day; during severe weather, libraries are among the only places unsheltered people (or those staying at nighttime-only shelters) can come indoors.

The issue of whether library workers should have to deal with homeless people has been a subject of debate in practically every major city, but the question of whether they do have to deal with homeless people has long been resolved; if you work in a public-facing role in a public library system, you will encounter unhoused and unsheltered people. In fact, “experience working with people who are unstably housed and/or with individuals who have mental health challenges” is one of the “desired characteristics” for entry-level positions at the Seattle Public Library.

3. If you haven’t tuned in yet to Seattle Nice, the new half-hour podcast where political consultant (and my longtime pal) Sandeep Kaushik and I spar about local news and politics (with producer David Hyde as moderator), this week’s episode, in which we discuss the legacy of ex-mayor Jenny Durkan, is a great place to start.

How did Durkan do on homelessness, COVID response, police accountability, and transparency? Find out what we have to say on those subjects and more and subscribe so you won’t miss a single week.

—Erica C. Barnett

Hostile Architecture at the Library, Needle Exchange Ban in Federal Way, and a Roads-Heavy Transpo Bil

1. The Seattle Public Library spent nearly $40,000 installing slanted steel sculptural grate covers above the grates outside its Ballard library branch to prevent unsheltered people from sleeping there. The grates open onto the parking garage, and are a warmer place to sleep than the nearby concrete sidewalks or the grass in Ballard Commons Park, a nearby park and plaza where homeless people also live.

According to library spokeswoman Laura Gentry, the new grate covers, which consist of steel plates pitched at a steep angle to the ground, are meant to “prevent people from placing items or sleeping on the grate due to the public safety risks involved.

“In particular,” Gentry continued, “the Library sought to prevent two regularly recurring incidents: 1) unsafe items, trash and human waste falling through the grate into the parking structure below and 2) the grate getting completely covered so that air could not flow through it, which creates serious safety hazards. Proper air flow is critical for fire safety, and is especially important during a pandemic.”

The sidewalks around the library, and the nearby park, have been a constant source of complaints by housed neighbors who argue that tents in the park are unsightly and that the people inside them pose a danger to children and others who use the park.

Two years ago, SPL took a similar action to deter people from congregating near the Ballard library, installing a series of bent metal pipes at a cost of $10,000 to serve a similar purpose. (At the time, library communications director Andra Addison said the purpose of the pipes was to address “unattended items left overnight in those areas, smoking, food and beverage waste, feces, urine and discarded needles” in response to neighborhood and patron complaints.)

Both installations are examples of “hostile architecture”—elements, such as the “anti-homeless spikes” some cities install on railings and benches, designed to prevent people from lingering in a space or using it for something other than its intended purpose, such as sleeping. In a 2019 photo essay, the New York Times described hostile architecture as “ways of saying ‘don’t make yourself at home’ in public.”

According to Gentry, “the Library has no additional plans to install similar elements at other libraries.”

2. After nearly an hour of public comment, much of it from residents arguing that needle-exchange programs encourage addiction by providing clean needles to injection drug users (an argument that makes about as much sense as claiming the availability of glassware encourages alcohol abuse), the Federal Way City Council voted Tuesday night to suspend a 10-year-old program that provides overdose-reversal drugs, counseling, and access to treatment in addition to clean needles.

As a needle exchange opponent put it during public comment, “If you give them needles, they’re gonna shoot up and they’re gonna die—it’s not the AIDS or all the other things that’s killing them, it’s the drugs.”

The resolution, which refers to needle exchanges as “hypodermic needle giveaway programs,” extends a voluntary suspension of the program by King County Public Health give an 11-person committee time to meet and decide whether to allow the program to operate and, if so, under what conditions. “It is our collective belief that handing out needles in parking lots does not further the goal of treatment or helping those they serve,” the resolution says.

Hysteria over the program ramped up, according to reporting in the Federal Way Mirror, after a local woman did a “stakeout” of a needle exchange van operated by the South County Outreach Referral and Exchange (SCORE). The van responds to people who call the program requesting service. The woman said she requested, and received, 100 needles without turning any in—proving, at least to some residents who oppose the program, that the “exchange” program is really just a needle giveaway.

As an opponent put it during public comment, “If you give them needles, they’re gonna shoot up and they’re gonna die—it’s not the AIDS or all the other things that’s killing them, it’s the drugs.”

Needle exchange programs prevent the spread of communicable diseases such as HIV and hepatitis and provide health-care workers an opportunity to meet with drug users who may be isolated and lack access to health care and other services. (It is beside the point that, as another anti-needle exchange speaker said last night, that “the thing with AIDS is that AIDS is treatable now, and hep C is curable.”)

Since the 1990s, needle exchanges have been common (and are no long especially controversial) in cities; the programs King County funds in Seattle also offers medical care including vaccinations, hepatitis and HIV testing, and abscess treatment in addition to clean needles and Narcan.

Back in 2016, a countywide task force recommended that the county work quickly to stand up two safe consumption sites for drug users, including one outside Seattle. Nearly five years later, the county and city have made no visible progress toward that goal; banning a longstanding needle exchange program marks a significant step in the opposite direction.

3. Last week, environmental and transit access groups were disappointed by the House’s proposed transportation package. This week, their disappointment continued when the Senate Transportation committee unveiled an even more conservative plan on Tuesday. While the House package dedicated just 25 percent to multimodal projects, the Senate allocates even less to that side of the ledger, with just 1.7 percent of the total going to multimodal projects.

The Senate Transportation committee unveiled its new transportation package, “Forward Washington,” at a work session Tuesday. The Senate’s package will generate $17.8 billion in tax revenue over the next 16 years, most of it coming from gas taxes, a new cap-and-trade program, and electric/hydrogen fuel cell vehicle tax, and state bonds.

Transportation accessibility groups and environmental groups say the plan is only a slight improvement over previous packages, like 2015’s roads-heavy “Connecting Washington,” and doesn’t advance the state’s transit infrastructure in a meaningful way

City leaders from around the state showed up to the session to support the package, including the mayor of Issaquah, Mary Lou Pauly; the package includes $500 million to widen SR 18 through the city.

Continue reading “Hostile Architecture at the Library, Needle Exchange Ban in Federal Way, and a Roads-Heavy Transpo Bil”

City Plans to Reopen Restrooms at Six Library Branches (UPDATED: Five )

 

UPDATE: Late Tuesday afternoon, the city announced that it is opening five library restrooms; the Chinatown/International District branch, which was on the initial list of proposed branch openings, is no longer on the list. I’ve asked the city why this branch was omitted and will update this post if I receive more information.

The Seattle Public Library, which closed down all of its 26 branches on March 13 to protect patrons and employees during the COVID-19 epidemic, is planning to partially reopen a handful of branches to provide access to restrooms for people experiencing homelessness. Discussions are still ongoing about safety protocols, staffing levels, and hours, but an announcement could come as soon as this week.

The six branches where the city is considering restroom-only openings are the central library downtown and neighborhood branches in Ballard, Capitol Hill, the University District, the International District, and Beacon Hill. People using the restrooms would be required to line up outside, and patrons would not have access to other parts of the libraries.

Seattle City Council members Andrew Lewis, who chairs the council’s homelessness committee, and Dan Strauss, whose district includes the Ballard library branch, first publicly suggested opening the library restrooms in early April, after deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller revealed that the city is paying $35,000 per month for each hygiene center, including the three Honey Buckets (pictured above) that are currently posted just across the street from the Ballard branch.

“I don’t set the prices, so I can’t speak for other people,” Sixkiller said at a meeting of the council’s homelessness committee on April 8.

Even if each library branch pays several staff members to keep the restroom area open and prevent patrons from wandering into the stacks, opening the libraries will still almost certainly cost less than what the city is paying for portable toilets. This is rough math, but three staffers who cost the city $50 an hour would cost around $25,000 a month, or $10,000 less than a single hygiene center.

Support The C Is for Crank
During this unprecedented time of crisis, your support for truly independent journalism is more critical than ever before.

The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation supported entirely by contributions from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job. Every supporter who maintains or increases their contribution during this difficult time helps to ensure that I can keep covering the issues that matter to you, with empathy, relentlessness, and depth.

If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank.

Besides the cost, which Sixkiller attributed to “simple supply and demand” at a time when many cities are looking for hygiene solutions, a recurring issue with portable toilets is that their handwashing facilities frequently run out of water and require constant maintenance. Alison Eisinger, the director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, argue that people need access to a toilet within a half mile of where they live, and has suggested partially reopening both libraries and community centers for this purpose.

After I reported that up to a third of the restrooms the city said were open were actually locked, the city opened up most parks restrooms and added new 24/7 “hygiene centers” (portable toilets with handwashing stations) at 12 locations . However, restroom closures continue to occur at unpredictable intervals; over the weekend, for example, restrooms at Volunteer Park were locked, and one of the restrooms at Leschi Park lacked both soap and any kind of toilet paper or paper towels.

It’s unclear precisely when the city plans to open the library restrooms, and what hurdles remain. Kamaria Hightower, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan, said, “I can’t confirm any details or specifics at this time as we are continuing conversations with labor, management and city employees and developing potential operational plans including locations, staffing, and hours.”

Library Closures Leave Homeless Patrons Stranded, Safe Consumption Sites See Support, and a MAGA Bill Reveals State GOP Priorities

University branch library, two hours before closing time on Friday.

1. Of all the drastic changes to daily life announced last week in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the closure of all Seattle Public Library branches may have the most profound impact on the city’s most vulnerable people—those without places to go to during the day, either because they’re completely unsheltered or because they stay in shelters that are only open at night. For people experiencing homelessness, libraries are a haven—warm places to be, but also places to charge phones, get online, and be in the company of other people.

The library’s 27 branches are also places where people without homes or offices can wash their hands and use the restroom, making them a critical resource during daytime hours in a city where publicly accessible restrooms are few and (literally) far between. Without access to libraries, more people will be forced to use public spaces as makeshift restrooms. The fact that people urinate and defecate in public has an easy explanation and a simple solution: When restrooms are available, people use them.

The city has long been aware of this. In 2015, when then-mayor Ed Murray declared a state of emergency on homelessness, the civil proclamation he signed specifically identified the lack of access to restrooms and hand washing facilities as a problem that needed to be addressed. Four years later, the city auditor issued a scathing report slamming the city for failing to address the problem; among other findings, the report noted that UN standards for refugee camps would require about 224 toilets that are accessible 24 hours a day; instead, the city has just six 24/7 restrooms and about 100 locations that provide restroom access during limited hours. 

When I’ve asked about the lack of public restrooms in the past, the Human Services Department has pointed me to this interactive map, which shows every location in the city where theoretically public restrooms are located. But many of these sites are open only during limited hours (some only a few hours a week), or are only accessible to specific populations, such as women or youth. The city will keep community center and parks restrooms open during daytime hours for the time being, but those are of limited utility to people who aren’t already in those parks and near those community centers. Additionally, one great thing about a library is that it’s a place where people can use the restrooms and spend time without having their presence questioned. Without libraries, people lose access to both those things.

Obviously, I’m not saying the libraries should have stayed open during the pandemic; they had to close, because they bring people into close proximity and because library materials are ideal vectors for the virus to spread. What I am saying is that if the city had done more a long time ago to meet people’s immediate needs—like opening more public restrooms instead of spending resources creating defensive interactive maps that suggest no problem exists—this aspect of the crisis might have been averted.

2. On Saturday, King County identified three new locations for people at high risk for coronavirus complications and for those who need to be isolated or quarantined because they have contracted the novel coronavirus:

• The Arrivals Hall at the King County International Airport is now being used as a shelter for the men (most of them over 55) who usually stay at the St. Martin De Porres shelter in Seattle.

• A county-owned parking lot at Eastgate in Bellevue, where “a fully self-contained tent, with flooring and heat, has been purchased for use as an isolation and recovery location,” according to the county. The tent will open next week.

• A Holiday Inn in Issaquah, which the county will lease and use either to provide medical support to vulnerable populations or isolate people “who do not require significant social support services.” Yesterday, after a homeless man who was being isolated at a county-owned motel left the facility against medical advice, the county changed its policy so that only people who do not need social services will stay at hotels.

Support The C Is for Crank
The C Is for Crank is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the 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, ad-free site going. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for making The C Is for Crank sustainable. I’m truly grateful for your support.
3. A recent poll of Seattle voters found that 61 percent support the idea of supervised drug consumption sites—a strong margin for an idea that has been continually sidelined despite a unanimous endorsement from the King County Heroin and Prescription Opiate Task Force in 2016. Supervised consumption sites, which are common in many European countries, offer safe spaces for drug users to use under medical supervision. The goal of these sites is to prevent deaths from overdose, provide basic services such as wound care; and link people with supportive services, including recovery support and treatment for those who are interested in quitting or reducing their use.

Continue reading “Library Closures Leave Homeless Patrons Stranded, Safe Consumption Sites See Support, and a MAGA Bill Reveals State GOP Priorities”

New Hires and a New Draft of the “Compromise” Homelessness Plan

The Seattle Public Library has rented its downtown auditorium to a controversial group that works against the civil rights of transgender people. Image via Pixabay.

1. Learn to trust the Crank: As I reported she would on Sunday night, Mayor Jenny Durkan has hired a new deputy mayor to replace David Moseley, who is leaving the city on January 15: Casey Sixkiller, who’s been the chief operating officer for King County since last year. Sixkiller has spent most of his career as a DC-based political consultant working for a variety of clients, some of which lobby the city and state on issues such as homelessness, deregulation, and privacy. He also worked for several years as a legislative assistant to US Sen, Patty Murray.

According to FEC records and his LinkedIn profile, Sixkiller started a firm called Sixkiller Consulting in 2010. According to his LinkedIn profile, Sixkiller is still a managing partner at the company, along with his wife Mariah Sixkiller, who is still active as a consultant. Last year, Sixkiller Consulting had eight clients who paid the firm a total of $650,000, including Microsoft, the Software Alliance, Noble Energy (a Houston-based oil and gas firm), Motorola, and Virgin Hyperloop One.

Mayoral spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower says Sixkiller will recuse himself from working on issues involving Sixkiller Consulting’s clients, in compliance with rules saying “that City personnel are ‘disqualified from acting on City business’ where an immediate family member of the covered individual has a financial interest.” Moseley, who is married to consultant and sometime city contractor Anne Fennessy, officially recuses himself from issues Fennessy is working on.

According to an internal email from senior deputy mayor Mike Fong, Sixkiller will take over Moseley’s portfolio, which includes housing and the city’s response to homelessness. Fong’s email to staff touts Sixkiller’s “collaborative leadership approach” at the county and his “unique blend of public policy, business, and management experience.”

Asked about Sixkiller’s experience working on homelessness , Hightower pointed to his work “coordinating the delivery of [the county] Executive’s initiatives as it related to increasing shelter capacity in King County,” including the new shelter in the west wing of the downtown jail, a new day center in Pioneer Square, and “accelerating conversion of Harborview Hall into a 24/7 enhanced shelter.” (Harborview Hall, which was originally supposed to be an enhanced shelter, opened as a basic shelter in 2018 and was just upgraded to an enhanced shelter late last month.) Hightower also said Sixkiller advised Murray on housing and transportation “As such, he’s familiar with federal programs and funding streams supporting housing and homelessness, and the complexities around financing of affordable housing projects,” she said.

Support The C Is for Crank
The C Is for Crank is supported entirely by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the 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, ad-free site going. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.

2. As the city prepares to merge its homelessness efforts with the county’s, Seattle’s Human Services Department has a new spokesman: Will Lemke, a member of HSD’s communications team, will replace former spokeswoman Meg Olberding, who left last month. Lemke will make about $116,000. The job posting for the position, which called for a person who “value[s] the opulence of a diverse workforce with authentic perspective,” lists a starting salary of $95,000 to $142,000. Lemke will make around $116,000.

3. Speaking of the homelessness reorg, the city council posted the latest amended version of legislation establishing a new regional homelessness authority on Monday, but the proposal will likely be amended further on Thursday, when the council’s special committee on homelessness takes it up again.

As I’ve reported extensively in this space, Durkan, King County Executive Dow Constantine, and most members of the King County Council agreed late last month to toss out a plan developed over the past year, which would have put a board of experts in charge of the new agency’s policies, budget, and executive director, and replace that structure with one governed by a board of elected officials from across the county. (The 12-member board would include three people with “lived experience,” but their votes could be overruled in all cases by the elected supermajority). The new “governing board” would have ultimate say over the direction of the authority. Continue reading “New Hires and a New Draft of the “Compromise” Homelessness Plan”

Morning Crank: A Dramatic Turnaround

1. All Seattle Public Library restrooms will soon be equipped with containers for needle disposal, following a six-month pilot program at the library system’s Ballard, Capitol Hill, University, and downtown branches. The library initiated that pilot after an employee at the Ballard branch was stuck with a needle while removing the trash from the women’s restroom, as I exclusively reported in March.

The decision marks a dramatic turnaround in library policy from just seven months ago, when library spokeswoman Andra Addison said that the library had no plans to install sharps containers for drug users (and diabetics) to dispose of used needles, because “We don’t allow illegal drug use in the library.”  The King County Public Library system preceded the Seattle library in installing sharps containers at branches in Burien, Renton, and Bellevue—branches where library staffers kept finding used needles on the floor, in toilets, and in trash bins.

Addison says it will cost about $2,000 to install the containers—the same ones used in the King County system—in all 60 library restrooms., and about $7,000 to empty and maintain them.  “The Library has ordered the additional sharps containers and we hope to have them installed over the course of November,” Addison says.

According to data provided by the library, the sharps containers at the downtown, Capitol Hill, Ballard, and University branches continue to be the most heavily used. Between the week of April 20 and the week of October 12, 912 sharps were discarded at the Central branch library, 348 on Capitol Hill, 234 in Ballard, and 194 in the University District.

Support

2. The city of Seattle won on two counts in the lawsuit filed by the owners of the Showbox on Friday, when King County Superior Court judge Mary E. Roberts ruled that legislation expanding the Pike Place Market Historic District to include the music venue did not constitute an illegal land use decision or a taking of private property. However, Roberts did agree to hear claims on two other, arguably more substantive, questions: Did the “Save the Showbox” legislation violate the state appearance of fairness doctrine, which requires officials to keep an open mind on so-called quasi-judicial land use decisions (like zoning changes for a specific property)? And did the city violate the property owners’ constitutional rights by dictating the use of the building as a music venue?

The owner of the building in which the Showbox is located, Roger Forbes, sued the city last month after the city council passed, and Mayor Jenny Durkan signed, “emergency” legislation making the two-story building part of the Pike Place Market Historical District. (The Showbox itself—that is, the venue that rents the building—is owned by the international behemoth Anschutz Entertainment Group).  The law, known as the “Save the Showbox” bill, prevented Forbes from selling the property to a developer, Onni, that had planned to build a 44-story apartment tower on the block. (The city had in fact just upzoned the block, along with the rest of First Avenue, specifically to encourage this type of development).

If the city violated the use of fairness doctrine, it will mean that all the public hearings and rallies and open discussions about the importance of  “Saving the Showbox” as a music venue—of which there have been many—were illegal, because the council should have remained neutral and refrained from holding public hearings. (Not only did the council hold public hearings, its members made signs, staged concerts, and even drafted public comments for private citizens in favor or the proposal.) If the court finds that the city violated Forbes’ rights by dictating the use of the Showbox property it will mean that the legislation thwarting Forbes’ plan to sell and develop the property was unconstitutional, and could open the city up to monetary claims.

The city is arguing that the “Save the Showbox” legislation—whose first section calls the Showbox “a significant cultural resource to Seattle and the region” whose loss “would erode the historical and cultural value of the Pike Place Market neighborhood”—in no way prevents Forbes or any future owner from shutting the Showbox down and using the property for another purpose. Forbes, pointing to the plain text of the legislation and the fact that the law gives the Pike Place Market Historical Commission the right to dictate every aspect of how the building is used, from the tenants down to the font, size, and materials used in its signage, says that’s absurd.

Forbes’ attorney noted that the city has only responded to one of the attorney’s ten public disclosure requests, making it difficult, he argued, to know “all the violations of the appearance of fairness doctrine.” For example, he said, “we just learned by happenstance that the cc staffers were writing public comments”—because of information that I obtained through my own disclosure request and reported on this site.

In dismissing the Showbox owners’ takings and land use claims, Roberts said that neither claim was ripe for consideration—in the case of the land use claim, because the owner of the property and the developer, Onni, had not filed a permit to develop the property by the time the legislation passed, and in the case of the takings claim, because the city has not issued any final decision about what kind of development is allowed on the property.

Roberts also rescheduled the remaining counts for early next fall.

Morning Crank: Potential for Conflicts

1. The Seattle Times ran a story this weekend about the Move Seattle Levy shortfall, including the latest on “recalibrated expectations” for what the $930 million, voter-approved plan will cover. (I broke the news about the Move Seattle Levy “reset” at the beginning of April.) The story, by David Gutman, includes the news that the firm Cocker Fennessy will be paid about $34,000 to do an assessment of SDOT, on top of about $30,000 to “coordinate the city’s next steps” on the streetcar project. Anne Fennessy, one of two partners in the firm, has known Durkan for decades.

There are a few details about Fennessy that Gutman didn’t mention. First: Fennessy is married to David Moseley, one of Durkan’s three deputy mayors . The contracts thus constitute a potential conflict of interest: Not only is Fennessy an old friend and colleague of Durkan’s, she is married to Durkan’s second-in-command. (Both Cocker Fennessy and Moseley maxed out to Durkan’s campaign last year, giving $500 each.)

There are ways to address this kind of potential conflict. Previously, when Moseley was director of Washington State Ferries, Cocker Fennessy simply agreed not to represent the ferry system. However, as deputy mayor, Moseley’s duties are broader than they were at WSF, making potential conflicts of interest harder to track. Moseley has taken the lead for the mayor’s office on a few specific issues—homelessness and issues related to utilities, such as the appointment of a new City Light director—but has met with city council members about other issues, including transportation. (And, of course, utilities make up a huge part of the streetcar construction project, which is already underway on First Avenue).

Stephanie Formas, Durkan’s spokeswoman, says Moseley “has not participated in any aspect of the streetcar review nor the broader review of SDOT. Deputy Mayor Moseley and Anne Fennessy have also previously consulted with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.”

Second: Fennessy is a board member at the Transportation Choices Coalition, whose former director, Shefali Ranganathan, is another one of Durkan’s deputy mayors. Transportation for Washington, TCC’s political arm, maxed out to Durkan last year and endorsed her over her opponent Cary Moon. (TCC signed a letter supporting the streetcar earlier this year.) Ranganathan is the key point of contact for the streetcar project, according to Formas.

And third: Fennessy and Moseley live directly on the streetcar route, where the street has already been ripped up for construction.

None of these connections, on its own, necessarily constitutes an insurmountable ethical issue. But the fact that the mayor has given two high-profile contracts to an old friend and colleague who also has deep ties to two of her deputy mayors—an old friend who happens to live right next one of the projects she is being paid to help review, a project of which Durkan herself has been critical—certainly reads like a throwback to the cozy, insular governance of old Seattle. Tim Ceis, anyone?

2. The Ballard branch of the Seattle Public Library—which, as I reported last week, excludes a larger number of people for sleeping or lying down on library property than most other branches—has installed a series of bent metal pipes to deter people from sitting on flat surfaces outside the library. The pipes, according to library spokeswoman Andra Addison, cost about $10,000 for “fabrication and installation” and were installed after “patrons and neighbors …  expressed concern about security and hygiene issues, citing unattended items left overnight in those areas, smoking, food and beverage waste, feces, urine and discarded needles, which fall through the grates into the parking garage below.

“The purpose of the metal work is to limit access to those areas to ensure an outdoor environment that is safe, clean and welcoming to patrons and passersby,” Addison said.

Hostile architecture is a type of urban design in which public spaces are constructed or altered to make them uncomfortable or unpleasant places for people to sit, lie down, or linger. It includes things like armrests in the middle of benches, spikes on windowsills, bike racks where homeless people used to camp, and “metalwork” that prevents anyone, homeless and housed alike, from perching on flat surfaces outside public buildings.

3. The search to find a permanent replacement for former Seattle Department of Transportation director Scott Kubly, who resigned last December, continues to creak forward, with the appointment earlier this month of a panel of experts to help Mayor Jenny Durkan select a new SDOT leader. The committee reportedly includes: Former Washington State Department of Transportation director Paula Hammond, Transportation Choices Coalition policy director Hester Serebrin, Seattle Metro Chamber director Marilyn Strickland, King County Metro general manager Rob Gannon, and Port of Seattle regional transportation manager Geri Poor.

Durkan has not announced a new interim director to replace Sparrman, who will leave at the end of August to take a job at HNTB Corporation, a consulting firm that has a large engineering contract with Sound Transit as well as numerous open contracts with the city of Seattle. Meanwhile, Andrew Glass Hastings—who, as SDOT’s transit and mobility director, has been an advocate for multimodal transportation, including pedestrian and bike infrastructure as well as the controversial downtown streetcar—is out. His deputy, Christina Van Valkenburgh, will reportedly replace him.