Who’s Up, Who’s Down, and What’s Changing as the City Council Returns

The city council, now headed up by council president Lorena Gonzalez, announced its roster of standing committees on Thursday. While committee structures are far from the only power map for the council, a few things are clear from the leadership and membership of the council’s new committees, starting with the fact that there are now eight regular committees—for nine council members. Andrew Lewis, who was just elected to represent District 7 (downtown, Magnolia, Queen Anne) is the odd man out, with the chairmanship of the council’s select committee on homelessness as a consolation prize. It’s worth noting that the homelessness committee met less than once a month in 2019, when the council was negotiating the details of a regional homelessness authority, and will have even fewer duties once the city’s homelessness response transfers to that authority this year.

More highlights of who’s up, who’s down, and who gets to spend more time away from Seattle in a moment, but first, it’s worth looking at the broader context for some of this year’s committee changes. Last year, open government activists sued the city for violating the state Open Public Meetings Act when Mayor Jenny Durkan and eight council members privately negotiated the repeal of the controversial “head tax.” The open meetings act prohibits a quorum of a governing body like the city council or one of its committees from deliberating privately. Under the previous committee structure, each committee had just three members, meaning that any discussion between two or more committee members could constitute an open meetings act violation.

The new rules will force council members to actually show up at meetings, and it will discourage one-off special meetings like council member Kshama Sawant’s frequent “pack city hall” rallies, at which Sawant was often the only council member present.

The new committee rules address this issue in a couple of ways. First, every committee must have at least four members (and, in practice, each current committee has five), increasing the size of a quorum from two members to three. Second, the new rules require that at least three members of a committee be present just to hold a committee meeting, a significant shift from previous years, when council members frequently held meetings with only the committee chair present and voting. This will force council members to actually show up at meetings, and it will discourage one-off special meetings like council member Kshama Sawant’s frequent “pack city hall” rallies, at which Sawant was often the only council member present.

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The rules offset these new attendance requirements in a couple of ways as well. First, half of the committees will meet just once a month, a change that reduces the total number of monthly meetings from 18 to 12. Second, regular meetings will be confined to two days a week, giving council members two days free of mandatory public meetings. Finally, the rules bar council members from just showing up at committees they don’t belong to. Non-committee members can only attend committee meetings at the request of the chair, and can’t vote—a change that eliminates the incentive for council members to simply drop by committees when they want to influence an issue on the agenda.

Returning to the details, the new committees are imbalanced in a couple of obvious ways. First, newcomer Alex Pedersen is starting his term with an unusually large portfolio, overseeing three of the city’s biggest departments (transportation, City Light, and Seattle Public Utilities) as chair of a single mega-committee called Transportation and Utilities. Advocates for transportation alternatives have raised alarms that Pedersen—a Sound Transit opponent who also backed efforts to kill a long-planned bike lane on 35th Ave. NE—will be heading up transportation. But it’s also worth noting that his fellow committee members include newcomer Dan Strauss and Gonzalez, who could serve as moderating influences. Gonzalez may also be wagering that it’s best to keep Pedersen busy.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Sawant, who—despite being the council’s most senior member—will oversee just two issue areas, sustainability and renters’ rights, and will head up a committee that meets monthly rather than twice a month. (Housing is the subject of another committee headed up, along with budget, by Teresa Mosqueda.) It’s easy to interpret this as a diminishment of Sawant’s power on the council, but bear in mind that holding regular committee meetings has never been the way Sawant has exercised her influence; in 2019, she held just nine regular meetings of the human services committee (out of 24 scheduled), fewer than any other committee chair. Instead, she used her chairmanship to call special meetings on single issues important to her political base, such rent control (which is prohibited by state law) tiny house encampments. Sawant’s new assignment, along with the rule changes, will make it harder for her to hold such meetings through the council’s official committee structure; on the other hand, the changes could free her up to spend more time holding rallies, events, and  outside the confines of city hall, or to do more work building her party, Socialist Alternative, outside the city.

The new committees give new power to other (relative) council veterans such as Mosqueda, who will go head to head with Durkan during this year’s budget process, and police reform advocate Lisa Herbold, who will head up the public safety committee. Strauss, who identifies as an urbanist, will oversee land use and neighborhoods, while the council’s other newcomer, District 2 (South Seattle)’s Tammy Morales, will head up a smaller committee overseeing community economic development that meets just once a month. One additional factor to be determined is how much power vice chairs and committee members will have over the committees on which they serve; with the new attendance requirements, council members could decide to share duties more broadly than they did under the previous structure.

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