Tag: Seattle Public Utilities

No Charges Against Cops Who Violated Voting Law; City Finally Buys Shower Trailers

1. Eight Seattle police officers who registered to vote using the addresses of Seattle Police Department precincts instead of their home addresses—including Seattle Police Officers’ Guild President Mike Solan—will not face criminal charges. Instead, after an investigation by the Office of Police Accountability (OPA), two of the officers (including Solan) received one-day unpaid suspensions and three received oral reprimands; the remaining three officers retired or resigned before the investigation ended.

The South Seattle Emerald first reported that eight SPD officers had registered to vote using their precinct addresses in July 2020, after a search of county voting records found at least one officer registered at each of the department’s five precincts. Because registering to vote using an incorrect residential address is a felony in Washington—one punishable by a five-year prison sentence or a $10,000 fine—the OPA initially referred the case to SPD for a criminal investigation.

The department decided not to investigate; according to the OPA’s report on the case, an SPD captain justified the decision by noting that the officers were already under investigation by the King County Department of Elections, and by claiming (incorrectly) that all of the officers lived in Seattle.

While all acknowledged that they had used their precinct addresses when registering to vote, most argued that they did so to avoid making their home addresses a public record for safety reasons. In response, OPA Director Andrew Myerberg advised the officers to lobby the state legislature to pass tighter privacy protections instead of breaking state law.

In lieu of an investigation, the OPA began its own investigation of the officers’ alleged policy violations, ultimately ruling that all eight officers violated SPD’s professionalism policies, as well as a policy prohibiting officers from using their precinct addresses for personal business. OPA Director Andrew Myerberg didn’t say whether he believed the officers knowingly violated state law, though he noted that King County Elections’ investigation will eventually resolve the question. “Ignorance of the law is not a defense,” he wrote in his report. “This is especially the case for police officers who are entrusted with the responsibility of enforcing it.”

If the elections department does rule that the officers knowingly broke state law, county election officials told the OPA they are unlikely to press charges—the law targeting incorrect voter registration addresses is frequently broken and rarely enforced.

Only five of the officers agreed to interviews with OPA investigators. While all acknowledged that they had used their precinct addresses when registering to vote, most argued that they did so to avoid making their home addresses a public record for safety reasons. In response, Myerberg advised the officers to lobby the state legislature to pass tighter privacy protections instead of breaking state law.

2. The city will replace two rented shower trailers, which have been stationed at Seattle Center and King Street Station in Pioneer Square since last fall, with trailers it bought from a Pittsburgh-based company called Restroom2Go Restroom Trailers. According to a Seattle Public Utilities spokeswoman, the trailers cost the city just over $188,000.

As the COVID pandemic abates, the city has begun closing down and relocating facilities and services for people experiencing homelessness, including “de-intensified” mass shelters and hygiene facilities like the two shower trailers. For now, the spokeswoman said, people will still be able to shower at King Street Station, but the shower trailer at Seattle Center will have to move as summer programming returns to the former World’s Fair grounds. A temporary shelter run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center at Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall has already started shutting down, with residents moving back into the Navigation Center (a congregate shelter in the International District).

Another DESC shelter whose residents moved to Exhibition Hall during the pandemic, the Queen Anne Shelter, remains closed.

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As PubliCola has reported over the past year, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration was reluctant to provide mobile showers for people experiencing homelessness even before the pandemic. Although the city council provided funds to purchase shower trailers in 2019, SPU, under Durkan, didn’t spend the money, forcing a mad scramble to rent trailers at an exorbitant cost once the pandemic began. (Even then, the city took months to actually deploy the trailers.) Eventually, the city ditched its gold-plated trailer provider for a more affordable service.

According to SPU, the city is still looking for a place to move the Seattle Center trailer “on the campus,” and is also working out what to do with the two trailers in the long term. “City staff are considering exploring the best options for the trailers, including making them mobile, keeping them stationary or a hybrid approach, to meet the needs of our clients and maximize utilization.”

Even with the two trailers remaining in service, there are very few options for people living unsheltered to take a shower citywide. Lack of access to hygiene is a major quality of life issue, and a barrier to accessing public facilities like transit and libraries, not to mention applying for a job. According to the city’s current hygiene map, there are just 14 places in the city that offer free showers, most of them concentrated near the downtown core; neighborhoods south of I-90, including all of West and Southeast Seattle, have just one shower location each.

3. Someone—perhaps the same brave long-lens photographers who add images of unsheltered people to Google Maps results for various Seattle parks—took the time recently to rename the Ballard Commons Park “Straussville” in Google Maps.

Dan Strauss is the city council member for District 6, which includes the Commons; unsheltered people have lived and congregated in the park, which is next to the Ballard branch library, for many years, but have become more visible during the pandemic as the city decreased encampment sweeps. As of Monday morning, the fake park name had been removed.

Compassion Seattle Predictions, Street Sink Challenges, and Another Durkan Task Force Releases Recommendations

1. At a panel discussion hosted by GeekWire last week, two prominent supporters of the “Compassion Seattle” charter amendment on homelessness said voters should not read anything into the fact that the group does not, as they initially claimed, have widespread support from Seattle homeless service providers.

Late last month, in a story first reported by PubliCola, the group was forced to take down its endorsement page because many of the homeless service providers listed on the site have not actually endorsed the measure. The charter amendment would require the city to fund new shelter beds and behavioral health care from existing resources while enshrining the city’s authority to sweep encampments in Seattle’s constitution.

“Not one of those nonprofit leaders has retracted the statements they made talking about the charter amendment and why it’s a good thing,” Compassion Seattle founder Tim Burgess said. Rachel Smith, CEO of the Seattle Metro Chamber, added, “Many organizations have a process to go through [for endorsements] so I don’t think that is indicative of where they may be. … All those organizations have made statements about how they informed the language, and I think their own words are what we should lean on when we talk about about how they think about this.”

Several service providers, including the Public Defender Association, the Downtown Emergency Service Center, and the Urban League of Seattle worked with Compassion Seattle to soften the language of the initiative, which originally focused primarily on removing unsheltered people from public spaces. However, it’s far from clear that any of these groups will formally endorse the measure.

2. One of the many challenges the city has cited to explain the slow rollout of public handwashing sinks is the difficulty of disposing “graywater”—the runoff from sinks, washing machines, and showers. Unlike stormwater runoff, which flows directly into Puget Sound through the city’s storm drains, graywater (like raw sewage) has to be cleaned and processed through the city’s sanitary or combined sewer system—there’s even a federal consent decree saying so.

If the street sinks program founders, it may be because the city chose to be inflexible not just on optional requirements, like graffiti-resistant materials, but on how it empowers street sink providers to comply with the law.

The city has awarded contracts to two groups, both contingent on solving the issue of graywater disposal along with a host of other issues. The Clean Hands Collective, led by Real Change, has proposed a simple basin, fed by a regular garden hose, that would drain into a planter filled with soil; Seattle Makers, a South Lake Union makerspace, has proposed letting the water in its “handwashing station” prototype drain into a 50-gallon tank, which they would either clean with chlorine tablets or haul away to an SPU facility for disposal.

“Basically, for version 1 of this, we’re going to have to take out the [dirty] bucket and replace it and we have to figure out where the city wants us to drive that bucket of water,” Devin Barich, a volunteer with Seattle Makers, said. Barich also said Makers was considering adding “cleaning tablets” to the dirty water in the hope that that would make the water clean enough to pour down the storm drain. Continue reading “Compassion Seattle Predictions, Street Sink Challenges, and Another Durkan Task Force Releases Recommendations”

Parking Enforcement Stays at SPD For Now, Memo Outlines City’s Objections to Street Sinks, Cops’ Vaccination Rate Remains Unknown

1. The Seattle City Council voted Monday to keep the city’s parking enforcement unit in the Seattle Police Department until September, approving an amendment to legislation moving the 911 call center and parking enforcement from SPD to a new Community Safety and Communications Center. Their hope is that that the unions representing the parking unit’s management and rank-and-file will use the next three months to resolve their disagreements about which city department should absorb parking enforcement.

Last fall, council public safety chair Lisa Herbold proposed moving the unit to the CSCC in response to lobbying by the Seattle Parking Enforcement Officers’ Guild, which represents the unit’s roughly 100 rank-and-file members. Nanette Toyoshima, the union’s president, told PubliCola in October that she hoped to give parking enforcement officers a larger role in the city’s efforts to civilianize public safety.

At the time, other council members didn’t oppose the move. But Mayor Jenny Durkan, Seattle Department of Transportation Director Sam Zimbabwe, and parking enforcement unit management argued that parking enforcement would operate more efficiently in SDOT than the new community safety unit. In a letter to the council in April, Zimbabwe argued that transportation departments manage parking enforcement in other cities, including Denver and Houston, and said SDOT is better prepared to absorb parking enforcement than the still-untested CSCC.

Zimbabwe’s arguments, and lobbying by parking enforcement management, convinced Council President Lorena González, who is now the council’s most vocal supporter of moving the unit to SDOT. But Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who has communicated with leadership in both unions, urged the council to delay moving the unit out of SPD until parking enforcement management and officers can reach an agreement about which city department would make a better home for their unit.

“It is always hard for us as a pro-labor council when two members of our broader labor family have a disagreement,” he said during the council’s weekly briefing on Monday. “I think this would benefit from additional time to better understand a way to resolve this equitably and without dividing the labor community.”

The 911 call center will still move to the CSCC by June 1.

2. On Monday, Seattle Public Utilities provided responses to a list of questions posed by Councilmember Lewis about a long-delayed program to provide temporary handwashing stations while public buildings are closed due to the pandemic. The council provided $100,000 for public sinks last year in response to repeated outbreaks of communicable diseases among people living unsheltered, who have had little access to soap and running water since businesses and public buildings closed their doors in March 2020.

The memo includes photos of a sink that was vandalized, with the warning, “Durability and vandalism resistance is critical. Extreme vandalism should be expected in most locations.”

In the memo, SPU reiterated their many objections to a proposal by the Clean Hands Collective, including the fact that it is not technically ADA-compliant, uses hoses instead of direct sewer connections to provide water, and have hookups that are vulnerable to freezing in the winter. “These sinks cannot legally operate from approximately October through April,” the memo says, because they filter graywater through soil.

“The design requirements, considerations, City procurement requirements and technical challenges SPU discussed with proposers at technical assistance sessions and with the committee are the same standard SPU as a regulated and regulating agency must adhere to,” the memo continues. “They are also intended to ensure that public expenditure is geared towards ensuring quality functioning, healthful, and accessible solutions that meet the needs of the community they are designed to serve and the outdoor conditions into which they are deployed.”

The memo includes photos of a sink that was vandalized, with the warning, “Durability and vandalism resistance is critical. Extreme vandalism should be expected in most locations.”

Some of the diseases that have spread through homeless encampments during the pandemic include hepatitis A and B, shigella, and cryptosporidiosis; the latter pair of diseases can cause major gastrointestinal symptoms such as extreme and constant vomiting and diarrhea. Such diseases are spread mostly through fecal-oral transmission, which is easily preventable through handwashing.

The city has opened a handful of its own sinks around the city, some of which are operated by a foot pedal. Unlike the proposals the city has received, which are wheelchair accessible but not fully ADA compliant, foot-operated sinks are not usable by many people with disabilities.

3. As the Seattle Office of the Inspector General begins a new investigation into a surge of complaints about unmasked police officers, the Seattle Police Department’s compliance with public health recommendations is under a microscope.

But while SPD can require masks, they can’t track how many Seattle police officers are vaccinated; according to the department, unless the city requires all city employees to get vaccinated, SPD can’t ask its officers about their vaccination status. Continue reading “Parking Enforcement Stays at SPD For Now, Memo Outlines City’s Objections to Street Sinks, Cops’ Vaccination Rate Remains Unknown”

County Exec Candidates Spar Over PACs, City Finally Funds Street Sinks

1. During a campaign debate sponsored by the King County Young Democrats on Saturday, King County Executive Dow Constantine and his challenger, state Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34), had a testy exchange about the issue of corporate PAC contributions.

It started when Nguyen said he didn’t accept any money from “corporate PACs.” Constantine said he was “interested to hear [Nguyen] say that he doesn’t take corporate PAC money,” given that he has received thousands of dollars from political committees for credit unions, health care, dentists, beer and wine distributors, and auto dealers, as well as individual lobbyists from industry groups. “I’m fine if you want to say  you’re not taking any corporate PAC money, but just make sure that you actually weren’t taking corporate PAC money, which you clearly were,” Constantine said. 

Nguyen, sputtering a bit, responded, “I’m happy to explain the difference between an association and a PAC … and in fact, if that’s the bar, then if you did the same thing, then that’s totally fine. So feel free to do the exact same thing that I am doing, that’s totally fine.” 

Later, Constantine brought up the PAC issue again, Nguyen responded: “Are they PACs? Were they PACs?”

“Yeah,” Constantine replied.

“They’re not. So look again. Look again,” Nguyen said. “They were associations… not the corporations themselves. But if you think that’s an issue, do the same. I’m happy to have you follow my lead, so don’t take corporate PACs and call it good.”

For the record, both candidates have accepted money from PACs, although Constantine—as the more established candidate—has accepted more. Nguyen’s PAC money came during his run for state senator in 2018.

SeattleMakers’ street sink model.

2. Six months after the city council allocated $100,000 to “develop and implement a publicly-accessible sink program that utilizes the Street Sink style handwashing station model developed by the Clean Hands Collective,” Seattle Public Utilities has finally chosen two vendors to receive the money.

Slightly more than half, $60,000, will go to the Clean Hands Collective, an organization founded by Real Change that includes landscape architects and public health experts; the rest, $40,000, will go to SeattleMakers, a South Lake Union “makerspace” that designed a prototype “handwashing station” at an estimated cost of $7,250 per unit—about ten times the price of Clean Hands’ Street Sink. According to SeattleMakers’ website, the city reached out to them to design the sink. Continue reading “County Exec Candidates Spar Over PACs, City Finally Funds Street Sinks”

Still No Street Sinks, Pedersen Tone-Polices Council Colleague, No Discipline for Cop who Retaliated Against Whistleblower

1. The nearly year-old debate over street sinks for people without access to indoor plumbing boiled over at last week’s meeting of the city council’s homelessness committee, as Seattle Public Utilities director Mami Hara outlined some of the Durkan Administration’s many objections to providing cheap, accessible places for people experiencing homelessness to wash their hands.

As PubliCola has reported, the city council funded street sinks last November, with a goal of quickly installing more than 60 simple sinks at key locations around the city. Access to clean running water and soap—not just hand sanitizer, which the city is currently considering as an alternative to sinks—is essential to preventing the spread of communicable diseases such as shigella, hepatitis, and cryptosporidiosis, which have spread among Seattle’s homeless population since the COVID-19 pandemic led to the closure of most publicly accessible sinks last spring.

Six months later, there are still no sinks on Seattle’s streets. Instead, the mayor’s office, SPU, and the Department of Neighborhoods have expanded the scope of the funding to include food waste disposal, “options for accessing safe drinking water,” and new ways to “reduce illegal dumping and litter.” Last month, the city put out a request for proposals for a new “Seattle Water & Waste Innovation Pilot” with the goal of picking two or more contractors later this month.

Council member Teresa Mosqueda, who chairs the council’s budget committee, said the council’s budget directive wasn’t “to evaluate what kind of additional programs or services should be investigated … it was, how fast can we get these dollars out the door for very low-cost, already proven handwashing strategies. So I would like to ask…. where are the handwashing facilities and why is it taking so long?”

The city also needed to ensure that the sinks are “really durable and resilient against lots and lots of things that can happen to them,” SPU director Mami Hara said, and to make sure they don’t present “a tripping hazard or another hazard.”

Andres Mantilla, Durkan’s DON director, responded the city had expedited the grant application process to move more quickly than usual. Hara added that although the council might find it “counterintuitive when your’e trying to get things out quickly to consider public health requirements,” the utility has an obligation to think about people’s safety. For example, she said, people could “cross-contaminate” sinks with germs if the water isn’t “continuous, reliable, and adequate.” The city also needed to ensure that the sinks are “really durable and resilient against lots and lots of things that can happen to them,” Hara said, and to make sure they don’t present “a tripping hazard or another hazard.”

“The point isn’t to build super sinks and only be able to afford five of them; the point is to be able to get sinks out throughout the city so that folks [can] have access to running water.”—Councilmember Tammy Morales

“I understand the frustration—it’s like, ‘Let’s just put a sink out there,’ versus making sure that it’s done in a way that does not cause injury or harm to folks as well,” Hara said.

In response, Mosqueda pointed out that the city expedited temporary permits for restaurant owners to put tables on sidewalks in response to COVID, and council member Tammy Morales noted that while she was glad to hear that the executive branch now wants to open up the application process to small groups besides the Clean Hands Collective, such as mutual aid groups, “this work was intended to be out the door months ago and we are entering the fourth wave now of COVID.”

“The point isn’t to build super sinks and only be able to afford five of them; the point is to be able to get sinks out throughout the city so that folks [can] have access to running water,” Morales said.

2. Later in the same meeting, Morales addressed public commenters, saying they should direct their anger about ongoing sweeps of homeless encampments at the mayor’s office (which oversees encampment removals) rather than the council (which has adopted legislation opposing them). After following that comment with a number of calm but pointed policy questions, Morales got a dressing-down from Durkan ally Alex Pedersen, who suggested she was being rude to executive department staff.

“I just want to implore my colleagues to strive to treat our city government colleagues with respect and to not question their intentions,” Pedersen said, admonishing Morales to “take the temperature down and treat our colleagues with respect.” 

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Pedersen’s tone-policing comments prompted Mosqueda to jump in. Morales, she said, had been “respectful and in order,” and her questions were “very much appropriate for the situation that we’re in—a year into the pandemic, when the CDC has continued to say that we should not be sweeping people if we had no alternative non-congregate options available.” We’ll have more on the state of outreach and encampment removals this afternoon.

3. Two officers who filed a complaint against Navigation Team director (and former SPD lieutenant) Sina Ebinger subsequently complained that a friend of Ebinger’s followed them in her police cruiser, cut them off, and threatened them with professional retaliation after Ebinger lost her assignment on the team, a newly released Office of Police Accountability case file reveals. Continue reading “Still No Street Sinks, Pedersen Tone-Polices Council Colleague, No Discipline for Cop who Retaliated Against Whistleblower”

City Says It’s Too Risky to Turn On Drinking Fountains, First-Time Candidate Sees Fundraising Surge, Capital Gains Tax Passes

Freeway Park water fountains. Photo by Joe Mabel via Wikimedia Commons.

1. Seattle Public Utilities confirmed that the city has only turned on 10 public water fountains downtown (and is working to repair a handful of others in the area), leaving the rest of the city’s public drinking fountains out of service during a pandemic that has greatly reduced access to clean drinking water for people experiencing homelessness.

According to a joint response to questions provided by the Parks Department and SPU, King County Public Health only asked the city to turn on its downtown fountains and “did not recommend turning on the rest of the city’s drinking fountains. Currently they are providing additional guidance about the rest of the city’s drinking fountains, and we will continue to follow their guidance.”

A spokesperson for King County Public Health said that in fact, the health department did ask the city to turn on drinking fountains citywide in response to an outbreak of shigella in late 2020 (which we covered here.) However, the spokesperson said, “When we talked to SPU and SPR about turning on the drinking fountains, they expressed concerns as to how many drinking fountains were fully functioning and the logistics involved in providing routine maintenance and cleaning.”

“Therefore,” the spokesperson said, “we recommended they use a phased approach to turning on the drinking fountains, starting with the drinking fountains in downtown Seattle.

“We’ve seen success in the downtown drinking fountains having been turned on and are now exploring with SPU/SPR having them turn on drinking fountains in additional parts of the city.”

The CDC guidelines the city provided do not appear to contain any recommendation that cities turn off public drinking fountains if they can’t clean them after each use. Instead, they note that there is no evidence COVID-19 can spread through drinking water and suggest cleaning frequently touched surfaces such as drinking fountains once a day.

Public Health director Patty Hayes told the Seattle/King County Board of Health earlier this month that providing access to potable water was one of the health department’s “top priorities,” along with providing access to soap and running water for people to wash their hands, water bottles, and other items. Thirst leads people with no other options to drink water from unsanitary sources, which leads to outbreaks of communicable diseases.

The Community Advisory Group of Seattle/King County Healthcare for the Homeless has been beating the drum about drinking water since the beginning of the pandemic, when they noted in a letter to Mayor Jenny Durkan that “[w]ithout access to clean drinking water, many of our unhoused population are drinking non-potable water which can lead to other public health crises such as the proliferation of Hepatitis A and giardia.” Since then, those concerns have been borne out over and over again.

Asked why the city hasn’t turned on its public drinking fountains outside downtown, Parks and SPU wrote, “SPU and SPR have been following the CDC guidance for drinking fountains safety during the pandemic that recommends cleaning them between uses, and turning them off if this is not possible.”

The CDC guidelines at the link the city provided do not appear to contain any recommendation that cities turn off public drinking fountains if they can’t clean them after each use. Instead, they note that there is no evidence COVID-19 can spread through drinking water and suggest cleaning frequently touched surfaces such as drinking fountains once a day.

The only reference the CDC guidelines make to shutting down drinking fountains comes in a section about large public events. That section says that event planners should “[c]lean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces within the venue at least daily or between uses as much as possible—for example, door handles, sink handles, drinking fountains, grab bars, hand railings, and cash registers.” If drinking fountains, “cannot be adequately cleaned and disinfected during an event,” the guidance continues, event planners should “consider closing” them.

2. Andrew Grant Houston, a first-time candidate who wants to defund the Seattle Police Department, build 2,500 “tiny houses” for people experiencing homelessness, and institute rent control, is currently in second place in the mayoral fundraising race, after a $129,050 contribution drop last week brought the campaign’s total fundraising to $266,758, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission. The vast majority of that—$214,050, according to the city—came in the form of democracy vouchers, a form of public campaign finance in which voters receive $100 to spend on the candidate or candidates of their choice.

Financial momentum like that is unusual for a little-known candidate without connections to the city’s political establishment; it’s also exactly what the democracy voucher program was designed to promote. PubliCola asked Houston why he thought so many people were giving to his campaign. Houston told us he credits his consultant, Prism West, and a strategic plan that places the campaign on track to max out its primary-election vouchers by the end of this week. Under the city’s election law, mayoral candidates can redeem a total of $800,000 in democracy vouchers—half in the primary, half in the general.

Houston said he wasn’t surprised by the haul. “I knew it was going to happen at some point,” he said. “I am someone who is focused on not just hiring the best people, but also really being committed to understanding how we meet our goals.”

That strategy, Houston continued, has included a lot of (masked, socially distant) in-person canvassing, with a focus on several key issues. Police defunding, for example, is a polarizing issue but one that Houston says galvanizes people to give. “Being very clear about defunding the police to invest in community really resonates with people—either you’re for it or against it, and people who are in the affirmative [tend to give],” he said.

According to the PDC, Chief Seattle Club director Colleen Echohawk is the only mayoral candidate who has raised more than Houston; her latest total, according to the PDC, is $297,072.

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3. Senators passed the the state’s first-ever capital gains tax (SB 5096) on Sunday, the last day of the session, after rejecting the bill the previous Thursday. The bill would impose a 7 percent tax on capital gains above $250,000, subject to some exemptions, raising more than $400 million in its first year. The bill passed on the same narrow margin as the initial vote in March, 25-24.

Before the state can begin collecting the tax, it will have to face a near-certain legal challenge from business groups. (Republicans have said they will not file the lawsuit themselves but expect an outside organization to do so._ While Republicans want the tax stopped, they fear that if the state supreme court rules that the capital gains tax is constitutional, it will open the door for a state income tax.

“Purell on a Pole” Could Replace Planned Street Sinks, Sweeps Ramp Up, and Mayor’s Advisor Will Head Troubled Homelessness Division

1. Last year, the city council set aside $100,000 in the 2021 budget to “develop and implement a publicly-accessible sink program that utilizes the Street Sink style handwashing station model developed by the Clean Hands Collective.” The idea was to rapidly install dozens of sinks in public places around the city where people experiencing homelessness could wash their hands, a simple way to prevent the spread of communicable diseases such as hepatitis and COVID-19.

As PubliCola reported back in February, the sink program has since stalled, as several city departments that answer to Mayor Jenny Durkan have raised concerns about runoff from the sinks going into planters rather than storm drains (will children eat the soil?), whether the pipes will function in cold weather, and ADA compliance—a concern that apparently does not extend to many of the city’s existing public restrooms.

Now, after the Clean Hands Collective has gone through another round of design in collaboration with the Department of Neighborhoods and Seattle Public Utilities, the city has decided to open the whole process up for bids by any group that wants to apply. The rebranded “Seattle Water and Waste Innovation Funding Program” now includes an additional $50,000 for “waste prevention solutions focused on food and other materials.” According to the city’s handout on the two “innovation areas,” food waste prevention proposals could include things like “sharing, reusing, repairing, and repurposing.”

“The hand sanitizer idea was one of several ideas that came up during an internal brainstorm session focused on finding low cost and impactful ways to best meet the goals of the CBA: to improve access to hand hygiene resources.” —SPU spokeswoman Sabrina Register

We think it is important to provide a fair and equitable process for distributing funds and ensure the public receives the greatest benefit for its funding,” said Sabrina Register, a spokeswoman for SPU. The city is holding an informational webinar for groups interested in applying on (UPDATED) April 22; Register said eight groups have signed up so far and “We are excited to see what community groups propose!”

The additional process means it will be even longer before sinks are available for people to access running water, something that has been necessary since pandemic-related shutdowns began more than a year ago. Street sink proponents—whose initial demonstration sink, outside the ROOTS young-adult shelter in the University District, opened almost a year ago—are starting to wonder if the mayor’s office is actually interested in helping homeless people wash their hands.

“Some of these arguments are arguments against hygiene services” in general, said Real Change policy director Tiffani McCoy. “One of them was, ‘We’re worried about vandalism and feces being spread around.’ That’s an argument against any hygiene model.”

SPU spokeswoman Register said the city is “eager to partner with community to provide hygiene options for the public that meet health, safety, and accessibility requirements, and that the new application process “helps guide applicants through these public health requirements to ensure their designs are meeting community needs.”

McCoy and others familiar with the meetings between the Clean Hands Collective and the city said one suggestion from the city was something proponents referred to as “Purell on a pole”—which is exactly what it sounds like. If the problem is disposing of the water, the argument went, why not just get rid of the water?

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Although street sink proponents pointed out that people experiencing homelessness have expressly expressed a need to wash their hands under running water, not squirt them with sanitizer (nor is sanitizing a best practice when water is available), the idea refused to die and is, according to Register, “not off the table.”

“The hand sanitizer idea was one of several ideas that came up during an internal brainstorm session focused on finding low cost and impactful ways to best meet the goals of the CBA: to improve access to hand hygiene resources,” Register said.

Ironically, “theft of hand sanitizer” was one of the reasons the city was initially reluctant to provide portable toilets for people experiencing homelessness when the pandemic began.

2. The city’s Parks Department removed a small encampment in the dugout at Rainier Playfield in South Seattle Friday morning, after identifying the site as a “high priority location for engagement,” according to a joint statement from Parks and the Human Services Department provided to PubliCola Thursday. (The statement was identical to the response sent to at least one city council member who also asked about the sweep).

Kevin Mundt, a spokesman for HSD, said six people at the site received referrals into the Executive Pacific Hotel, about five miles from the site, from REACH, and “one individual voluntarily left the area.” The five men, all of them Spanish speakers, “were provided Uber rides to the hotel,” Mundt said.

It’s unclear why the city decided to prioritize Rainier Playfield specifically. On Thursday evening, the park was full of people playing tennis and football, walking dogs and strollers, and using every corner of the park. The dugout is tucked away at the edge of the park and no tents or trash were visible.

The city is also reportedly planning three more encampment removals in the coming weeks—a sign that sweeps, which had largely paused during the pandemic, are ramping up again in response to neighborhood complaints. The upcoming locations for encampment removals are: Miller Park on Capitol Hill (on or around April 13), Gilman Playground in Ballard, and the University Playground near the University District.

The city also recently removed tents at Fourth and Yesler, where, according to HSD, they were blocking access to the sidewalk. People living unsheltered downtown are reportedly being channeled into City Hall Park next to the King County Courthouse, which is so crowded now that it resembles a densely packed shantytown, with dozens of tents instead of permanent structures. The city provides three portable toilets to serve all the people living in the park.

Efforts to provide places for people experiencing homelessness to wash their hands—a basic need that has been largely unmet throughout the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic—continue to stall, as Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office and executive departments have raised objection after objection to proposals to create a street sink program that would help prevent the spread of disease.

3. Tess Colby, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s longtime advisor on homelessness, will take over as interim deputy director of the Human Services Department overseeing homelessness after the current deputy, Audrey Buehring, departs for a job in Washington, D.C. next week. Continue reading ““Purell on a Pole” Could Replace Planned Street Sinks, Sweeps Ramp Up, and Mayor’s Advisor Will Head Troubled Homelessness Division”

Found: One City Shower Trailer, Not Quite Open, In Secluded Location With Minimal Foot Traffic

UPDATE: Seattle Public Utilities got in touch to say that, at some point between Friday (when I took and posted photos of the King Street trailer) and today, “SPU evaluated the trailer’s lower level location at King Street Station and determined that the upper plaza is a better location. It has since been moved and is serving clients.” A spokeswoman for the utility also said that the trailer was open and served five clients on Friday. The trailer was not open at 3:30pm, when the photo above was taken, despite the fact that its official hours of operation are 10am to 4pm. I’ve asked SPU which hours the trailer was open and will update this post when I heard back.

As I reported last week, the city has been renting two hygiene trailers from a California-based company called VIP restrooms for the last two months without deploying them to provide showers to people experiencing homelessness. The city’s estimated cost to operate both trailers is just under $500,000 a month, which would work out to around $500 a shower if the trailers were providing 16 showers a day (the city’s estimate for a trailer operating for eight hours, once cleanings and pump-out periods are factored in), seven days a week.

The day after my story ran, the city announced the trailers would start providing showers on Friday, May 22, at King Street station and, on a “roving” basis, at the Lake City Community Center and Seattle Center. Instead of the full-time schedule the city initially proposed, the King Street trailer will be open from 10-4, Monday to Friday, and the Lake City/Seattle Center “roving” trailer will be at Seattle Center “typically on Tuesdays and Wednesdays” and at Lake City on Saturdays and Sundays, also from 10 to 4. Cutting hours by one-quarter will also reduce the number of showers the trailers, which will be operated by Seattle Public Utilities, by a similar percentage each day.

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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.

On Friday, I walked down to King Street Station to see the trailer in operation. Initially, I thought it wasn’t there. But after some searching, I found it, fenced off and not in operation, in a parking cul-de-sac down a set of stairs from the station entrance and not visible from any street. There was no signage at the station to indicate that showers were or would be available in the area.

In an March 20 memo to Mayor Jenny Durkan about the location of the trailers, SPU director Mami Hara and deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller wrote that the city had chosen Occidental Park for the Pioneer Square trailer “based on trends of where unsheltered people congregate in the downtown core.” Now it’s in an area that gets no foot traffic. Much like the four library restrooms that the city reopened earlier this month, these trailers may see low use without concerted efforts to advertise their existence.

The City Has Been Renting Two Shower Trailers Since March. If They Open, Each Shower Could Cost $500.

Image via VIP Restrooms.

This post has been updated to reflect the fact that the city’s estimate of 16 showers per day was for each trailer, not for both trailers combined. This changes the total cost per 15-minute shower to $500 each, not $1,000, a change that has also been reflected in the headline. 

On March 10, Seattle Human Services Department director Jason Johnson sent a memo to Mayor Jenny Durkan proposing to spend $1.3 million from the city’s 2020 budget to “rent up to five” mobile shower and restroom trailers to  serve people experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic. The city council added the money to Durkan’s proposed budget last year to buy five shower trailers outright, but the mayor’s office didn’t take action until the COVID-19 pandemic was well underway. By the time the city started looking for trailers, many other cities were doing the same.

Eventually, the city rented two three-stall units from a California company called VIP Restrooms, securing a last-minute credit limit increase to charge the first week’s rental fee of $28,700 on a city credit card. That eclipsed what King County was paying for similar, but much larger trailers, and the city’s outlay continue to rise week after week, while the trailers sat unused. As of this afternoon, both trailers remain in storage, and have not provided a single shower since the city first started paying for them back on March 26, nearly two months ago.

A series of emails shows city staffers scrambling to increase the credit limit on a city MasterCard to pay for the trailers before another city could snag them. “We are trying to both rent and procure sanitation trailers, along with every other major city,” SPU director Mami Hari wrote. “Suppliers are demanding cash/credit card/check and will not accept PO’s. The available pool diminishes each day and we have a bead on 2 trailer rentals and a couple for purchase.”

Last month, I reported that the trailers would  “likely cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars a month,” based on an estimated cost of $36,000 per month just to rent the trailers, plus a range of potential costs to pump out wastewater and an unknown cost to hire security and staff for each unit.

The documents from SPU show that this estimate was, if anything. According to memos and spreadsheets created by the city to estimate costs for FEMA reimbursement, the monthly cost for rental, wastewater, and materials will be around $159,000, with pumpout costs at the low end of the city’s original range. Staffing the trailers, according to the city, will add another $333,000. That’s a total cost of $484,000— nearly half a million dollars a month for two rented hygiene trailers that will provide, according to the city, between 16 and 24 individual showers per day. If the showers operate every day (not a given), and provide 16 showers each per day, that works out to a cost of about $500 per shower.

 

This spreadsheet has been altered to remove unrelated costs for portable toilets. The unaltered spreadsheet, with the additional numbers in place, is available here.

Since the city has not actually used the trailers since paying for them on March 26, of course, the actual cost has been lower. But that’s the same logic that enables the city to claim that it is paying less than expected for the 155 rooms it has rented out at the Executive Pacific Hotel in downtown Seattle. As long as the rooms are empty, the city doesn’t have to pay for food. As long as no one is using the showers, the city doesn’t have to pay for water and staffing.

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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.

SPU’s records show that as the pandemic began shutting things down from coast to coast, the city became increasingly desperate to get their hands on showers—any showers. A series of emails on March 26 shows city staffers scrambling to increase the credit limit on a city MasterCard to pay for VIP’s trailers before another city could snag them. “We are trying to both rent and procure sanitation trailers, along with every other major city,” SPU director Mami Hari wrote in a mass email to mayoral, council, and city finance staff. “Suppliers are demanding cash/credit card/check and will not accept PO’s.  The available pool diminishes each day and we have a bead on 2 trailer rentals and a couple for purchase.”

Three hours later, the city’s charge had gone through, and the trailers were on their way to Seattle.

SPU spokeswoman Sabrina Register confirmed, “There was a shortage of available hygiene trailers for purchase because of the pandemic and we couldn’t secure any trailers without prompt payment. In order to move more quickly, we used a City-issued credit card to secure two trailers in Southern California.”

Since the city has not used the trailers since paying for them on March 26, the actual cost has been lower. But that’s the same logic that enables the city to claim that it is paying less than expected for the 155 rooms it has rented out at the Executive Pacific Hotel in downtown Seattle. As long as the rooms are empty, the city doesn’t have to pay for food. As long as no one is using the showers, the city doesn’t have to pay for water and staffing.

The city considered many potential locations for the trailers, documents obtained through a records request reveal, including Wallingford, City Hall Park, the downtown library, and Regrade Park in Belltown. (Much of the information reported here comes from documents provided by Seattle Public Utilities in response to a records request. The Human Services Department, which was initially in charge of the shower program, has not yet provided records in response to a similar request.) The city’s latest plans would place the trailers outside the Exhibition Hall at Seattle Center and in front of King Street Station in Pioneer Square. It’s unclear exactly when and whether this will happen, although recent chatter indicates that the Seattle Center site could finally open in the next week.

City maps show one shower trailer at Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall, which is currently functioning as a shelter.

Not everyone was on board the mobile shower bandwagon,. On April 2, one day before the trailers were schedule to arrive, Hara and SPU strategic advisor Danielle Purnell sent a memo to Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller raising questions about whether the shower trailers were really the best option. “As SPU researched shower trailer operational plans, it was discovered that experienced mobile shower providers in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Oakland and Denver have suspended operations due to COVID-19 siting pandemic safety and transmission concerns,” the memo said. (Emphasis in original).

Instead of opening showers, the memo continued, the city could consider handing out “enhanced hygiene kits” with body wipes and sanitizer, doing more outreach about the existing showers that remain open, or offering “safe, controlled shower and hygiene services utilizing large scale locker room and shower facilities at volunteering universities, public high schools, health clubs, churches, etc.”—something advocates for people experiencing homelessness have pushed for.

The list of alternatives to mobile showers is listed from least to most expensive, with the most expensive being “seeking emergency sheltering agreements with major hotels (i.e. Westin, Hyatt, Sheraton) similar to efforts in Oakland, Chicago, UK and others.”  However, it should be noted that hotels offer a few more amenities besides showers, including a bed and a safe, secure place to stay. Mayor Durkan has rejected this option repeatedly, preferring to move people into “de-intensified” mass shelters where they sleep six feet apart but share bathrooms and common areas.

SPU also expressed concern that showers, as well as portable toilets, would be magnets for illegal activity, such as “drugs, prostitution, [and] vandalism.”

The city plans to seek FEMA reimbursement for the cost of the shower trailers as well as portable toilets that were rolled out in April. About $1.5 million in funding will come from the original budget line item for mobile showers, plus about $250,000 that was supposed to expand shower services for homeless people at community centers.

One In Five “Illegal Dumping” Reports Recategorized as Illegal Camping, Triggering Navigation Team Visits

Next time you file a report for illegal trash dumping through the city’s Find It, Fix It system, look around: If there happens to be a homeless encampment or RV nearby, the vicinity, the city is likely to recategorize your report as “unauthorized camping” and send in the Navigation Team to investigate—and potentially remove the encampment, The C Is for Crank has learned. This is true even if the items you reported were not left there by unsheltered people, a common phenomenon that Seattle Public Utilities refers to as “opportunistic dumping.”

Ordinarily, SPU responds to reports of illegal dumping by going out to a site within 10 days of the initial report and, when appropriate, removing the trash. But in about  one out of every five cases, they refer the report to the Navigation Team, which is responsible for removing unauthorized encampments, the city’s department of Finance and Administrative Services confirms.

“I reported needles on the street and rather obvious drug dealing, and attached a picture of the street which included a shabby RV,” one FiFi user, Emily Spahn, told me. “A few days later, I got an email telling me they forwarded the issue to the police department, with ‘Subject: SPD – Car camping.’ That was a surprise, since this was in an area that allows for RV parking.”

The same thing happened to another Seattle resident named Sean Roulette-Miller, who posted about the recategorization on Twitter. “I have never seen any encampment on this property so it seems like a waste of resources,” Roulette-Miller told me.

Cyndi Wilder, a spokeswoman for FAS (which oversees the Find It, Fix It program) says that whenever SPU determines that an illegally dumped item or items is “part of or near an encampment,” they “assume” that “the items in the report might be the personal belongings of unsheltered individuals. Because illegal dumping inspectors cannot remove personal belongings that may be part of or near an encampment, in these cases SPU transfers the report to the Customer Service Bureau (CSB), who then forwards the report to the Navigation Team for an encampment inspection, as the Navigation Team has the training and resources to identify and store personal belongings.”

Of all illegal dumping reports the city receives, Wilder says 19 percent are routed to the Navigation Team. “Some illegal dumping calls intersect with the Navigation Team’s work to remove unsafe encampments and break down barriers by providing storage for personal possessions.”

The Navigation Team has the authority to remove encampments that it considers “obstructions” or “hazards” without providing notice, outreach, or offers of shelter. In recent months, under Mayor Jenny Durkan, the team has begun to focus primarily on removing “obstruction” encampments, a definition justified in the team’s weekly reports by, among other criteria, “large amounts of garbage.”

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