“A disservice to the audience, the 37th, 11th, himself, and democracy. WTFx5.”
That’s how one audience member described moderator John Burbank’s performance at last week’s forum for council positions 8 and 9, where ten candidates are competing for the council’s two open seats. The texter could have added the 34th to that list, rounding out the total of three legislative districts that sponsored the forum, which featured Burbank, the director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, a lefty economic think tank, as moderator.
Seven of the candidates for the two seats—incumbent council member Tim Burgess, former Tenants Union director Jonathan Grant, musician John Roderick, and longshoreman John Persak in Position 8, and former Ed Murray legal counsel Lorena González, neighborhood activist Bill Bradburd, and urban planner Alon Bassok, in Position 9—showed up for the forum at the South Seattle Community College campus in Georgetown. The marquee agenda item was preceded by a mini-forum for two Seattle School Board seats, during which Burbank actually skipped over one of the two (emphasis: Two) candidates in one of the races and moved on to the next question.
Burbank’s confusion over the rules of engagement only became more pronounced during the city council portion of the forum, when he initially decided to call on candidates alphabetically, then quickly abandoned that plan after several missteps (note for future candidate forum moderators: Write the candidates’ names down) and went to a left-to-right system. Within a few questions, Burbank tossed that system in the air and decided to go random, meaning that an arrangement that was already confusing into, basically, chaos. (Candidates’ ID cards weren’t labeled by position, so the only way viewers could keep track of who was running in each position was by checking the names against their notes or relying on the moderator, whose many systems didn’t include grouping questions by position).
Additionally, Burbank broke a couple of the basic rules of moderation (the rules, at least, as I understand them after moderating at many events hosted by Democratic organizations): 1) Don’t make up your own questions, and 2) Don’t promote your own agenda.
At least twice, Burbank broke the first rule by tossing out questions apparently concocted on the fly, including a question about whether we should help poor people afford to drive, whether the city should repeal the voter-approved $20 low-income rebate on the $60 vehicle license fee, which pays for transit, to subsidize low-income ORCA cards instead. Both questions were also clearly a violation of the second rule, promoting Burbank’s own personal agenda (the idea that poor people will always “need” to drive because they live far away from the inner city, and the notion that the low-income rebate would be better spent elsewhere.)
The candidates didn’t actually get to answer the first question, which Burbank effectively withdrew after explaining the concept at length and then failing to address the question to the candidates a second time. After the second question, the audience actually booed and hissed, suggesting that Burbank had perhaps overstepped the bounds of acceptable moderator decorum.
All of this is not to say the candidates didn’t get some time to address actual city issues. They did (for 45 seconds each, or 10 seconds if they waffled on a yes-no lightning round question), and here’s a little of what they said.
On bike licenses, the very mention of which inspired a chorus of “yes”es from the audience, Bradburd waffled and said he liked the idea of requiring cyclists to get special licenses (Bike licenses are generally supported by cycling opponents who say cyclists break too many rules and should “pay their fair share” of road costs, ignoring the fact that cyclists do pay the general taxes that pay for most road construction and repair, that bikes cause no road damage at all compared to cars and buses, and that most cyclists also own cars and thus pay gas, car-tab, and license fees, among many other counterarguments).
Roderick, meanwhile, stepped in it a bit when he said that he supported bike licenses for the same reason he supports licensing guns, because “we should be encouraging people to license as a general principle.” Seattle urbanist Twitter went ballistic over that one, and a chagrined Roderick told me after the forum that he didn’t know a lot about the issue and didn’t realize the kind of animus a comment like his would inspire. (Sample tweet: “remember kid who found dad’s bike (unlocked, of course), accidentally killed his friend with it?”)
On virtually every question, but especially on police accountability and universal preschool, Burgess retreated into the role of elder statesman and council fixture, pointing out past achievements as “your city council president,” including the wage theft law, sick and safe leave, universal pre-K, and the King County/Seattle Nurse-Family Partnership. Eventually, during a discussion of police accountability, Grant turned Burgess’ “experience” argument on its head, by pointing out that he was head of the public safety committee during the period when woodcarver John T. Williams was shot and killed and when the U.S. Department of Justice put Seattle under a federal consent decree.
After waffling on whether he supported Mayor Ed Murray’s $930 million Move Seattle transportation levy, Bradburd said the proposal fails, like 2006’s Bridging the Gap levy before it, to be “honest with people about the enormous backlog” in road maintenance projects. “We’re just kicking the can down the road.” That’s a bit of an odd metaphor—wouldn’t failing to address the backlog at all, by rejecting a levy that fills potholes and repairs bridges in addition to funding new projects, be a more apt description of “kicking the can down the road”?
The so-called nine-and-a-half-block strategy, which launched with the arrest of 140 people the city said were drug dealers or wanted on other criminal charges, drew mixed reviews. Burgess defended the strategy by saying it only targeted really bad criminals, like those wanted on gun charges and heroin and meth dealers, and tried to steer people into treatment. (Fact check: Many small-time dealers are also users, and deal to support their habit; and the city’s law-enforcement assisted diversion program, or LEAD, only directed 20 of the 140-plus arrestees toward treatment or any other services.)
Roderick, meanwhile, rejected the premise of the strategy, calling it “basically the War on Drugs by a different name, which we’ve been practicing for 35 fruitless years.” And González, who noted separately that as a woman of color, “I fundamentally understand the burden you carry as a person of color when you walk into a room and nobody looks like you,” said the strategy would only work if coupled with an aggressive focus on LEAD. Otherwise, she said, “It will not be sustainable, and we will be incarcerating people instead of helping them figure out how to get the help they need.”
The last bit of confusion came during the brief closing statements, which Burbank said should address how the city should develop and grow in the future as well as why voters should support the candidate—in one minute or less. Of the eight, only Bradburd seemed unfazed by the confounding question, launching immediately into a tight closing statement that could be summarized as “developers bad, neighborhoods good.”
The forum ended about 20 minutes early, despite the fact that it included two city council races and two school board races, in part because the candidates were given just 45 seconds (rather than the usual minute) to answer questions. Burbank cut off applause at the end to plug his blog at the Huffington Post.