Morning Crank: “Not On Track” for “Even Seattle’s Insufficient Climate Action Plan”

1. Mayor Jenny Durkan’s legal counsel, Ian Warner, has left the mayor’s office for a job as public policy director  at Zillow, the  mayor’s office confirms. His replacement, who started Monday, is Michelle Chen, most recently a deputy city attorney who worked on land use. With Warner out, the mayor’s office retains just two high-level staffers from the Ed Murray era—legislative affairs director Anthony Auriemma and deputy mayor Mike Fong.

2. Speaking of departures: Moxie Media, the political consulting firm that ran Cary Moon’s unsuccessful (and costly) campaign for mayor in 2017, just lost four of its key staffers, including two veteran local political consultants who are striking (back) out on their own: John Wyble, whose firm, Winpower Strategies, merged with Moxie almost exactly one year ago, and Heather Weiner, who has been with the firm since 2016. Wyble was a partner at Moxie for most of the 2000s; when he rejoined the firm, which was founded by Lisa MacLean, last year, I wrote that “A look at Winpower’s local electoral record suggests this is not a merger of two equal partners—as does the fact that the firm will retain the Moxie name.” Wyble’s clients have included include two-time city council candidate Jon Grant and former mayor Mike McGinn, and numerous campaigns for Democratic state legislators, who run in even years. Weiner previously did work for Honest Elections Seattle (the pro-public campaign financing campaign) and several union-backed statewide campaigns.

Asked about the mass departure, both Weiner and Wyble gave versions of the same response: Campaigns are cyclical, it was time to make a change, consulting firms sometimes split up and sometimes come back together. “For me personally, I ran my own company, and I liked that better. That’s what I learned this year,” Wyble said. Weiner put it this way: “Political firms are kind of like boy bands, where they break up and get back together. It makes more sense for me to [go into the slow 2019 campaign season] as an independent consultant.”

Other possible reasons for the breakup: Personality conflicts (MacLean: “I’m not going to get into all of that in this conversation”), or financial difficulties, which MacLean denies. In fact, MacLean said Moxie had “an incredible cycle,” financially speaking, in 2018—”probably our biggest ever”—and explained the split as “typical end-of-cycle, shuffling the deck, musical chairs kind of stuff—people moving on.” The departures—which also include account executive Maria Leininger, who is going to work for Congresswoman-elect Kim Schrier, and Delana Jones, another partner at the firm—will leave Moxie at about half the size it was during the 2017 and 2018 campaigns.

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3. The city council will reportedly get its first look at the bids for the Mercer Megablock redevelopment in executive session on Monday morning, with the possibility for some public discussion before the closed-door meeting. The three-acre site is the largest remaining piece of city-owned land in South Lake Union; the city put it on the market earlier this year, in a request for proposals (RFP) that asks potential buyers to include at least 175 rent-restricted apartments in their bid. Affordable housing advocates have suggested that the city hang on to the property and build affordable housing on the site. On the open market, the combined megablock property is likely worth in the range of $90 million; but because the land was purchased, in part, with gas and commercial parking taxes, more than half of the proceeds of any sale or long-term lease will, under state law, have to go to the city’s transportation department.

4. Move All Seattle Sustainably, a new coalition made up of transit, bike, and pedestrian advocates—including the Cascade Bicycle Club, Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, and the Transit Riders Union—is demanding that Mayor Jenny Durkan take concrete actions before the end of 2018 to prioritize transit, biking, and walking during the upcoming “period of maximum constraint,” when construction projects and the closure of the Alaskan Way Viaduct are expected to create gridlock downtown. The coalition’s list of priorities includes completing the stalled Basic Bike Network downtown; implementing transit speed and reliability improvements (like bus bulbs, longer hours for bus-only lanes, and queue jumps) on 20 transit corridors across the city; and keeping sidewalks open for pedestrians during construction.

In recent weeks, advocates have expressed concern that Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office is shutting members of Cascade and Seattle Neighborhood Greenways out of positions on advisory groups like the Seattle Bike Advisory board, whose former chair, Cascade board member Casey Gifford, was abruptly replaced by Durkan last month.  The mayor’s office denies this (in an email to a group of advocates late last month, deputy mayor Shefali Ranganathan said there was “no truth” to the rumor and asked for help in “quashing” it) and notes that Cascade director Richard Smith was on the committee that is helping to select the new Seattle Department of Transportation director. In any case, it’s clear that the transit, bike, and environmental activists on the coalition don’t see eye to eye with the mayor’s office on transportation. On the new MASS website, the group declares the city “off track” and unprepared not only for the upcoming traffic crunch, but “to achieve Vision Zero”—the goal of reducing the number of deaths and serious injuries from traffic violence to zero— “or even Seattle’s insufficient Climate Action Plan.”

The Case for Scooters

File:Lime Scooter - LimeBike App (31454588488).jpg

Image via Tony Webster on Flickr

Bike shares have found a welcome home in Seattle, but don’t expect to see another form of shared transportation– electric scooters–in Seattle any time soon. Mayor Jenny Durkan is on record saying she considers the zippy, candy-colored contraptions—which travel up to 15 miles an hour and are as ubiquitous in some US cities as bicycles are in Copenhagen—too dangerous for Seattle streets. At a recent CityClub Civic Cocktail event, Durkan enumerated the many reasons she thinks scooters are a bad idea. Too dangerous: “Every mayor who’s got ‘em comes up to me and says, ‘Don’t take ‘em and, the reason is … every city that has scooters has significant traumatic injuries.” Too frivolous: “I know some people think scooters can be fun, but… ” Too likely to lead to lawsuits: “A couple of cities now are paying out millions of dollars in judgments for people who are hurt.”

Let me offer some counterarguments: Scooters get people from point A to point B really quickly, without firing up a carbon-spewing engine or breaking a sweat. Scooters are easy to ride—if you can walk, you can probably ride a scooter—and have the lowest barrier to entry of any shared mode of transit. Mock if you want, but not everyone wants a workout on their way from one meeting to the next. Previously, people who prefer a cardio-free commute would have jumped in their cars. Now, they can make those short trips on their zero-emission scooters instead.

Critics point out that many of the environmental claims from scooter proponents (usually focused on the reduction of carbon emissions) remain unproven. Fair enough—it’s possible that a significant number of the thousands of people using scooters to get around Austin, San Diego, and Washington, D.C. would have otherwise used public transportation, walked or ridden bikes to their destinations. But it’s almost certain that scooters take at least some vehicles off the road—and doesn’t every little reduction in emissions help, particularly in a region where transportation is the single largest contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions?

You know what else we don’t know about scooters? Whether they’re actually as dangerous as opponents claim. Durkan cited unspecified mayors and cities that are turning against scooters, but the truth is, no city has had scooters on its streets long enough to have any real idea whether they’re more dangerous than walking, or biking, or—for that matter—driving a car. Anecdotal evidence suggests a rise in emergency room visits for injuries sustained by people riding e-scooters, but that’s not the same as statistical proof of danger: The rate of injuries on e-scooters used to be zero, because they weren’t legal in any city, and now it has risen. Similarly, a few people have died riding shared e-scooters. That represents an increase in deaths of hundreds of percentage points, because the previous number—when scooter-sharing didn’t exist—was zero. One frequently cited Washington Post story claims that there has been a “161 percent spike in [ER] visits involving electric scooters.” Buried in the story is the fact that the increase, at a single hospital in Salt Lake City, was from eight injuries to 21. Cyclists sustain a lot more injuries, and are more likely to be killed while riding, than scooter riders. That isn’t an argument to ban bikes. It’s an argument to make roads safer. 

And speaking of that: You know what the common denominator is in most of those deaths and injuries? Cars. Cars hit cyclists, and pedestrians, and people on scooters, far more often than those people get into accidents on their own. Pedestrians and cyclists accounted for 22 percent of traffic deaths in Washington State last year; a report from the Washington State Department of Transportation blamed speeding drivers, not inattentive pedestrians and cyclists, for most of those deaths. So far, three people have been killed riding scooters—all by people driving cars. There’s certainly a safety argument for regulating the speed scooters can go, but that’s a problem with an easy fix: Lime and Bird, the two biggest scooter-sharing companies, have regulators that limit their scooters to 15 miles an hour, and some cities have proposed lowering that limit further, to 12 mph, or even eight. Meanwhile, cars continue to be allowed on city streets, driving 30, 40, even 50 miles an hour, despite the fact that they cause more than 40,000 fatalities every year.

Durkan is right about one thing: Scooters are fun. Recently, I was in Portland, where scooters are allowed in bike lanes and on city streets, and I warily agreed to try using the Lime scooter my housemate brought home with him one afternoon. After a shaky start, I got the hang of it, and before long, I was zipping all around the city—from the conference venue, to my Airbnb, and to meetups everywhere in between. When there wasn’t a scooter around, I used one of the many bikesharing services. My rental car—which I’d driven down from Seattle and planned to use when I needed to get across town fast—sat in its spot on the street for four straight days. Why drive when there are so many better alternatives?

Morning Crank: Bike Board Chair Abruptly Dismissed; Safe Seattle Sues; and More

Photo from 2015 Seattle Bike Master Plan Implementation Plan

1. Last month, about an hour before the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board’s was scheduled to hold its monthly meeting, board chair Casey Gifford got a call from Evan Philip, the boards and commissions administrator for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office. Philip told Gifford that he was calling  to let her know that the meeting she was about to chair would be her final meeting—the mayor had decided not to reappoint her for a second term.  Then, Gifford recalls, he asked her if she had any questions.

Gifford, who works as a  planner with King County Metro and serves on the Cascade Bicycle Club board, was in shock. “I said that I was surprised to be receiving that information so close to the meeting and that I would need some time to process it,” she says. A few days later, she recounts, “I called him and left several voice mails” requesting a meeting or a phone call to discuss some questions she had about Durkan’s decision. Philip responded on November 16 with a terse email, explaining that “other Seattle residents had expressed interest in serving on this Commission and in the spirit of expanding civic engagement, we offered the position to another applicant.” In a subsequent email, he elaborated—sort of. “As mentioned earlier, the Mayor is committed to bringing in new voices and appoint those that have a lived experience to our Boards. As you may be aware, reappointment to a Board or Commission is not guaranteed.”

Like every mayor, Durkan is remaking the city’s bureaucracy, including the volunteer boards and commissions, in her own image.  But several advocates told me they’re worried that Durkan is pushing bike advocates affiliated with activist groups like Cascade and Seattle Neighborhood Greenways aside as part of a transportation agenda that prioritizes transit (and driving) over cycling. The mayor’s office denies this, and points out that Durkan appointed Cascade’s executive director, Richard Smith, to serve on the committee advising the mayor’s office on the Seattle Department of Transportation director selection.

Durkan’s new appointee, Selina Urena, is a former fundraiser for BikeWorks who now works for the Transportation Choices Coalition, a group whose former executive director, Shefali Ranganathan, is now deputy mayor. Urena was nominated by Durkan directly, without going through the usual application process, which includes one-on-one interviews with members of a bike board committee established explicitly for that purpose.  In an email responding to my questions about the mayor’s decision not to appoint Gifford, Durkan spokesman Mark Prentice said, of Urena (who uses they/them pronouns), “they are a multimodal transportation user and enjoys exploring the City by bike” and referred me to Urena’s TCC bio.

 “I  don’t think that the board is being set up for success. … There a lot of institutional knowledge that has been lost.” – Casey Gifford, former Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board chair

Gifford says Philip never explained why Durkan did not reappoint her to the board, nor what he meant by “lived experience.” (Gifford is a young woman of color who uses a bike as her primary form of transportation.) She adds that in her experience, it’s unusual for the mayor’s office to take such a direct role in the appointment process, which usually involves an application and interview process with members of the board itself. “I know that the mayor’s office was more involved in the process than they ever have been in the past, and that they they knew who they wanted and pushed those people forward even without the recommendation of the board members who were reviewing apps with a set criteria and a set process,” Gifford said. “It didn’t sound like the mayor’s office was using those criteria, and it wasn’t really clear what criteria they were using.”

Gifford’s departure means that the bike board will be made up almost entirely of newcomers at a time when the fate of the city’s planned bicycle infrastructure is very much up in the air. Just one member, city council appointee Amanda Barnett, is continuing into a second term.  “I  don’t think that the board is being set up for success,” Gifford says. “There are now seven of 12 [board members] that are brand new, and it takes a while to get up to speed on how the board works and how to be effective. … There a lot of institutional knowledge that has been lost.”

Gifford may have another opportunity to serve on the board yet. City Council member Mike O’Brien, who says he considered the way Gifford was informed her term was ending “kind of unprofessional and not worthy of someone [Gifford] who’s doing really good work,” says he’ll nominate her himself if she wants to continue to serve. “It’s important to have new perspectives and new energy, but it’s also important to have some people who have been around,” O’Brien says. Gifford says she has talked to O’Brien about the possibility and that “it is something that I am considering.”

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2 .Safe Seattle, an online group that recently filed paperwork to become a 501(c)4 political nonprofit (via), is suing the city and the Low-Income Housing Institute to force the closure of a LIHI-operated “tiny house village” in South Lake Union, using many of the same arguments that a statewide anti-labor group, the Freedom Foundation, made when it filed a land use petition to to prevent the facility from opening back in June. (That case is still ongoing, although the Freedom Foundation itself is no longer a named plaintiff). The Freedom Foundation’s attorney, Richard Stephens, is representing Safe Seattle in the new lawsuit, which—like the earlier complaint—charges that LIHI does not have the correct permits to operate its encampment. Unlike the earlier, dismissed complaint, which claimed that LIHI’s encampment violated the city’s self-imposed limit of three transitional encampments at at time, this complaint claims that LIHI lacks both residential permits (on the grounds that the tiny houses are residences) and  a required encampment operations plan. The complaint also claims that the encampment constitutes an “assisted living facility” (on the grounds that LIHI provides housing and services to vulnerable people) for which it lacks a permit.

The amount of scrutiny that has landed on this one encampment—as well as the Freedom Foundation’s motivation for focusing on a single encampment in South Lake Union—is hard to explain. In addition to the lawsuits by the Freedom Foundation, Safe Seattle, and the individual plaintiffs (all represented by Stephens), a group called Unified Seattle has spent thousands of dollars on Facebook ads opposing tiny-house encampments, with an emphasis on the South Lake Union encampment.

3. A recent email from Queen Anne neighborhood activist Marty Kaplan, who has spent years locked in a legal battle to keep backyard and basement apartments out of single-family areas, included a telling line. After lavishing praise on the Seattle Times and its anti-density columnist Danny Westneat for joining him in the fight against missing-middle housing, Kaplan concluded: “Our ultimate goal: to negotiate a fair compromise that better meets the needs of all of Seattle’s homeowners.” Left out of Kaplan’s (and the Times’) equation? The majority of Seattle’s population, who rent their homes and are probably less concerned with “meeting the needs of all of Seattle’s homeowners” than they are with being able to stay in a city where laws designed to boost homeowners’ property values are making the city unaffordable for everyone else.

Can We Toll Our Way Out of Congestion?

This story originally appeared in the print and online editions of Seattle magazine.

Downtown Seattle rush hour traffic

Image credit: Alex Crook, Seattle magazine

January 2020: The downtown Convention Center is under construction, kicking almost 600 buses out of the downtown transit tunnel and closing down the ramps that now give buses direct access to the Interstate 5 express lanes. Those buses now share city streets with more cars than ever, as hundreds of drivers divert to the street grid, avoiding the new Alaskan Way tunnel, which has a $2.50 toll (during nonpeak hours) and no downtown exits. Meanwhile, the old Alaskan Way Viaduct is still being demolished, KeyArena reconstruction is creating traffic chaos in South Lake Union, and a growing number of commuters are choosing Uber and Lyft over buses that are often off schedule or full, adding to congestion.

But what if there was a way to alleviate all this predicted chaos—a period the city refers to, drily, as the “period of maximum constraint”—without forcing people to get up at 4 a.m. to beat traffic, or work from home? Some city leaders, including Mayor Jenny Durkan, think they may have found a solution in a concept called congestion pricing. The idea is simple: Charge people to drive into the center city during the times when congestion is worst, and use the revenues to fund alternatives to driving, such as increased bus service. Voilà: fewer vehicles, faster transit, improved air quality (car and truck trips account for half of Seattle’s greenhouse gas emissions), and safer streets for bicyclists and pedestrians.

“Most people have already made the decision [not to commute downtown by car],” says City Council member Mike O’Brien, referring to the fact that the majority of those who work downtown don’t get there by driving alone. O’Brien, with the mayor, is leading the congestion-pricing charge. “For those who haven’t [decided], this will give you more options, and for those who want to keep driving, you can keep driving, and your commute’s going to be faster—it’s just going to cost you more.”

In practice, of course, it isn’t so simple. In 2017, the Seattle City Council authorized $200,000 for a study on the effects of tolling downtown streets—an idea that will require voter approval to move forward—as well as other options, such as taxing Uber and Lyft rides, that would not require a public vote. In September, Durkan released a budget that provides another $1 million for the city to study congestion-pricing options in more detail and to conduct outreach to community members and businesses, with the goal of implementing congestion pricing by 2021, when the mayor’s first term ends.

While tolling may be controversial—a 2015 poll by the Puget Sound Regional Council found that 54 percent of King County residents opposed the idea of universal highway tolls—Durkan pointed out that in other cities that have implemented tolling, such as London and Stockholm, “People who have to drive [found] that it’s actually more efficient and more effective” than the previous free-for-all system. However, Durkan warned that before the city puts a tolling plan on the ballot, “We have to engage people deeply…and make sure that it is paired up with meaningful transit, because we can’t ask people to get out of their single-occupancy vehicles until there are meaningful alternatives.”

Technologically, congestion tolling is pretty simple: The city would create a cordon of virtual checkpoints at the edges of the tolling area and charge drivers, using special car-mounted transponders, whenever they enter the area during the times when tolls are in effect. This is exactly the system most states, including Washington, already use to toll state highways, such as the State Route 520 bridge across Lake Washington.

Where it gets more complicated, according to Mark Hallenbeck, director of the University of Washington–affiliated Washington State Transportation Center, is when the city starts making choices about who to charge, and when, and where. If South Lake Union is included in the tolling area, should people who live on Queen Anne get a free pass because they need to go through the neighborhood to get to I-5? If some low-income workers have no choice but to drive downtown, should the city create a low-income or nighttime exemption to the pricing scheme? All of these choices have consequences, and costs.

“The question is really, what do they want to achieve and how will they design the system to achieve it,” Hallenbeck says. “Pricing is a wonderful mechanism, but you have to design the system correctly, and you have to understand where the pain points are and apply money to those pain points. And they have to be the pain points that matter.”

Currently, only about 25 percent of people who work downtown get to and from their jobs by driving alone. That number has declined steadily in recent years, according to the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), thanks to improved transit downtown and incentives for employees to commute by bike or bus, such as free transit passes and showers in office buildings. DSA CEO Jon Scholes points to this improvement as evidence that the “carrot” approach to reducing congestion can be as effective as the “stick.”

“It’s not clear to me what problem we’re trying to solve here,” Scholes says. “[Durkan’s announcement] feels a little divorced from any clear strategy or plan. The constraints we have are the need for more transit capacity—more buses are driving by full, and the light rail system is taking longer to build than anyone wants—and the need for more housing. Generally speaking, we think we should focus our efforts there,” not on tolls, Scholes says.

Other skeptics of congestion pricing have expressed concern that tolls will disproportionately harm low-income people who have no choice but to drive to work, often from homes far outside Seattle city limits. “The suburbanization of poverty is real,” says City Council member Rob Johnson, who supports creating a program to reduce costs for low-income drivers, similar to the existing ORCA LIFT low-income transit pass. “We’re pushing people out of the city and we’re not going to be able to build transit” fast enough to serve all the low-income workers who would be impacted by congestion pricing, Johnson says.

It’s unclear exactly how many low-income workers would actually be impacted by congestion pricing. In 2017, a Puget Sound Regional Council report concluded that low-income commuters “were much more likely to walk and take transit than the overall population”—a finding that corroborates a 2009 Washington State Department of Transportation report that found that “The poor are less likely than the non-poor to commute in a personal vehicle and more likely to commute using public transportation or other modes that would not be subject to tolls.” According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, just 37 percent of Seattle residents under the poverty line drove to work alone, compared to 48 percent of those making more than 150 percent of the poverty level.

“One of the things you hear whenever you talk about a congestion-pricing scheme is, ‘This will be unfair to low-income people,’ and there are a lot of anecdotes that get brought up that are certainly real,” O’Brien says. “But in a city like Seattle, where parking’s pretty expensive”—as much as $4.50 an hour for on-street parking downtown, and $10 an hour or more in private garages—“my sense is the majority of people who drive downtown are people who have a lot of options.” The way to address the needs of lower-income people who must drive downtown isn’t to reject congestion pricing altogether, O’Brien says, it’s to “design the system around their needs” so they won’t be burdened by extra costs; for example, by making it free to drive downtown at off-peak hours, when many shift workers start their jobs.

Hester Serebrin, policy director for the pro-transit Transportation Choices Coalition, says she sees no inherent contradiction between promoting alternatives to driving alone and creating an equitable, affordable transportation system. “[Congestion pricing] is a big, bold idea, so let’s go big with our policy asks,” she says. “If the goal is building a more equitable transportation system, that will inherently include a lot of things around transit speed and reliability and safe bike and pedestrian access.”

For now, the city remains in study mode, with more reports focusing on equity, race and social justice, and priorities for spending toll revenues due out later this year. Then it will have to sell the idea to the public, which could be a heavy lift, and not just because Seattle would be blazing a trail on congestion pricing for the rest of the country. People tend to hate the idea of paying for things that used to be free unless they can see concrete benefits. In Stockholm, leaders actually put tolls in place about seven months before seeking voter approval. Once voters saw how a $2.15 toll to drive downtown impacted the city—reducing traffic in the city center by 20 percent and cutting childhood asthma cases in half—they approved the plan by a majority of 53 percent. In London, where drivers pay about $15 to drive into the center city on weekdays, congestion went down by 30 percent, and public transit gained tens of thousands of new riders.

Could something similar happen in Seattle? O’Brien, the council member who started pushing for congestion pricing back in 2017, says he’s “feeling a lot more optimistic” now that Durkan “has shown that she is very interested in moving forward” with the concept. The trick, he says, will be demonstrating that people won’t get stuck in even worse traffic if they let go of their steering wheels. “Part of it is on [city leaders] to say, ‘We’re going to provide buses that have more space and aren’t stuck in traffic,’” O’Brien says. “If, in this new system, you can see that driving is more expensive and the bus will get you downtown faster, you’re going to see
the benefits.”

Editor’s note: The opening of this story, set in 2020, depicts a hypothetical situation. The Washington State Department of Transportation says that when the tunnel opens early in 2019, time-of-day tolls will vary from $1 on weekends to $2.25 during the afternoon peak. Currently, the Viaduct demolition is scheduled for completion mid-year 2019.

Durkan Hires a Familiar Face, for $720,000, to Represent the City During Light Rail Planning

Mayor Jenny Durkan has chosen Anne Fennessy,  a public-affairs consultant who has known Durkan for decades, to serve as the city’s single point of contact during the development of a plan for Sound Transit 3, which will extend light rail to Ballard and West Seattle. According to the contract, which was provided by the mayor’s office, Fennessy’s firm, Cocker Fennessy, will be paid $720,000 for the work. Sound Transit will reimburse the city for the full cost of Fennessy’s four-year contract. Durkan spokesman Mark Prentice says the mayor’s office interviewed about five people for the position before selecting Fennessy through a sole-source justification—a noncompetitive process. Prentice notes that Fennessy has a long history of doing  work for Sound Transit, pointing to public opinion research and public outreach work her firm, Cocker Fennessy, did for the agency during and after the unsuccessful “roads and transit” campaign in 2007. Prentice could not immediately say whether Durkan considered designating a (likely less expensive) city employee as the city’s representative before hiring Fennessy for the job.

Cocker Fennessy has received at least two other significant transportation-related city contracts during Durkan’s first year in office—to coordinate the city’s review of the stalled downtown streetcar and to assist in an assessment of the Seattle Department of Transportation. (As I previously reported, Fennessy lives near the streetcar route, which has caused major traffic disruption in Pioneer Square, and is married to Durkan’s Deputy Mayor David Moseley. Her work on the SDOT review, for which Fennessy established a makeshift, closet-sized office inside the agency itself,  is reportedly complete.

According to the partnering agreement between the city and Sound Transit, Fennessy’s job will involve working with the transit agency “to manage the project, to establish a cooperative and communicative platform for reaching early and durable decisions, and to resolve disputes.” As the designated representative for the city, Fennessy “will be located in the Mayor’s Office and will report directly and exclusively to the Mayor or Deputy Mayor,” according to the agreement.  “This is a huge, complex project that requires a great deal of work with individual departments, and someone is needed to help keep that cogently tied together and moving forward,” Sound Transit spokeswoman Kimberly Reason says.

The agreement, which the city council approved last December, indicates that Durkan was supposed to have appointed a designated representative by January 15 of this year. Fennessy reportedly received the contract within the last month or two. Reason, who directed specific questions about the contract to the mayor’s office, says that in the absence of a designated representative over the last year, Sound Transit has been “working with individuals in various departments” directly, as they have done in the past. Reason couldn’t say whether the lack of a designated representative had slowed down the process of working with the city. “That’s a hypothetical,” she says. “This is a new idea that we are implementing because we are on such a compressed timeline. … We’re changing our processes in real time, so our approach is, let’s do everything we can to work with the city, and now that the designee has been brought on board, we can implement that idea as well.”

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In addition to serving as Sound Transit’s sole point of contact at the city, Fennessy’s role will include coordinating technical input on everything from  “land use/zoning, traffic/parking [and] parks/open space” to “utility, roadway/traffic, drainage, structural/building, fire/life safety, construction staging, property acquisition/right-of-way vacation,” according to the agreement. The designated representative is also charged with assembling and overseeing the city’s project development team (a task that was also supposed to be complete, according to the agreement, by January of this year. Reason did not know whether the city had put together a project team.)

In an email, Fennessy said that Cocker Fennessy “does not speak on behalf our clients – so you should reach out to the Mayor’s office.”

Durkan’s Public Disclosure Practices Raise Concerns About Transparency

I highly recommend reading Lewis Kamb’s story in the Seattle Times this weekend, about how Mayor Jenny Durkan’s staffers used private Gmail accounts to craft a deal to overturn the employee hours tax, and then failed to disclose those emails in response to a Times records request.  As Kamb reports, the emails came to light as part of a lawsuit by open government activists seeking to prove that Durkan’s office and the city council tried to subvert the state’s Open Public Meetings Act by “secretly predetermining the outcome of the June 12 repeal vote,” as Kamb put it, which overturned a tax that Durkan had previously supported (after private conversations with Amazon and other business leaders who apparently assured the mayor they would not oppose the tax).

The revelations are alarming not only because they reveal Durkan’s propensity for doing city business in private (her office contends that the Gmail conversations about the council’s upcoming vote on the tax were “private political discussions,” according to Kamb, and provided them with the Gmail records as a “courtesy”), but because it took a lawsuit to make the emails sent from private accounts public. (The Times received a separate cache of emails that the mayor’s office initially withheld after the Times appealed the closure of the request, “believing not all responsive records had been turned over,” according to Kamb’s story). In other words: The mayor’s office closed the Times‘ records request without releasing many of the records that they should have provided. They only provided some of those records after the Times appealed. And they handed over the remainder of the documents—the ones sent from private Gmail accounts—in response to a lawsuit by a third party.

I had a similar experience with the mayor’s office recently, one that—while it didn’t directly involve emails sent from staffers’ personal accounts—did raise similar, troubling questions about the Durkan administration’s commitment to public disclosure and transparency. Back in August, I filed a request seeking all emails from the mayor’s communications staff that included sample social media posts—pre-written Facebook posts and tweets that supporters are supposed to cut and paste and present as their own—about a list of 19 specific events. I also asked for a list of every bcc’d recipient for these emails, as well as any emails sent from mayoral staffers’ personal accounts.

The mayor’s office responded, on October 12, by sending me multiple copies of a single document, sent from mayoral spokesman Mark Prentice’s official government account to about 200 people: An email offering sample social media posts supporting the creation of the mayor’s Innovation Advisory Council. Mayoral public disclosure officer Stacy Irwin then closed my request, without providing a single document about the other 18 events I had listed. The fact that the mayor’s office only provided emails for one event on the list I provided would have raised eyebrows on its own, but I also happened to already have copies of some of the emails I requested,  so I knew they hadn’t fulfilled my request. That same day, I requested the rest of the documents. For ten days, I got no response. On October 22, I emailed again, and finally heard back from Prentice that night. “I’m working on rounding up my emails and sending to you as attachments if that works – I can get those to you by the end of the week,” he wrote. The next day, I asked Prentice again for an explanation of why the mayor’s office had closed my request, but I never got a response. On November 5, I  emailed Prentice, his boss, Stephanie Formas, deputy mayors Shefali Ranganathan and Mike Fong, and Irwin, the following:

After several weeks of asking (documented in my previous email to you, from last week) I STILL have not heard back on why my request was shut down with only some relevant records provided. …The reason I consider this total lack of response from the mayor’s office serious is that closing a request without explanation—and without providing all the responsive records—is a potential violation of state public records law. It’s not just the principle of the thing; it’s the thing (complying with the law) itself.

A series of back-and-forth emails followed, in which the mayor’s office said repeatedly that it was working to provide the documents I requested (my request was never, to my knowledge, formally reopened), and blamed “some confusion on the email accounts that I searched in order to fulfill your request” for the fact that I only got records about one of the 19 events. But when the rest of the documents did come through, it turned out that most of them originated from the same email as the first batch—Prentice’s official government address—which makes this explanation (that they hadn’t searched the right accounts) dubious. I asked several more times, via phone and email, for an explanation. To date, I still have not received one. Note: At Prentice’s request, I have redacted his and Formas’ gmail addresses and Prentice’s phone number from the documents. I removed this information, which is public (and disclosable), as a courtesy.

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Kamb’s story made me realize that I wasn’t the first reporter who had been stonewalled by the mayor’s office on a records request (although his, which concerned private negotiations about a matter of huge public interest, was obviously of more import than the mayor’s social media strategy.) It also made me wonder if, in addition to withholding records that were indisputably public, the mayor’s office had initially withheld any private emails from me. In 26 pages of emails the office eventually provided me last month, there was one such email—sent from Prentice’s Gmail and forwarded to his official account, apparently for record-keeping purposes. However, it’s impossible to know whether more such private emails exist. All I can say for certain is that the mayor’s office didn’t provide any.

This is true in general, too: I have no way of knowing if the mayor’s office actually provided all the outgoing emails that I requested, including the ones from official addresses. (I do know that they did not provide the bcc lists I requested for the emails they did send, because none of the additional emails includes any information about who they went out to. To that extent, at least, the mayor’s office still has not fulfilled my request.) This is a problem that extends beyond me, and beyond this specific request. I happened to already have some of the emails I should have been provided at the very beginning, which is how I knew the mayor’s office had closed my request without handing over what I asked for. What if I hadn’t? What if I had just accepted that the one email they provided, along with the list of recipients, was the only document that was responsive to my request? What if I had been an ordinary citizen rather than a reporter with decades of experience filing public disclosure requests? What if I had had every resource, including a team of attorneys and supportive editors, and the mayor’s office just didn’t hand them over? That’s the situation the Times was in, and, in a way, still is. Durkan’s office has admitted no wrongdoing in their initial refusal to provide all the records Kamb requested, and still say that they provided the latest batch as a “courtesy,” not an obligation. This should concern anyone invested in transparency in local government, which is to say, everyone.

Mayoral staffers’ use of private emails is just a small part of the broader issues I described above, but it’s worth noting that mayoral staffers are hardly the only city employees doing city-related business with private email accounts.  As I have reported, city council member Kshama Sawant and her staff routinely use private Gmail accounts (both custom “[firstname]atcouncil@gmail.com” accounts and their own personal emails) to conduct city business, such as the recent “Save the Showbox” legislation. Because city public disclosure officers can’t access city employees’ private email accounts directly, any disclosure of private emails happens, essentially, on the honor system. It doesn’t require any particular paranoia to believe that public officials sometimes use private emails (or Facebook messages, or encrypted, message-erasing apps like Signal) to skirt disclosure laws. All you have to do is look back to the time when elected officials in Seattle first started to use text messages, but never turned them over in response to records requests, citing the technological difficulty of finding messages they had deleted. Or, for that matter, to the existing practices of the current mayor’s office.

Morning Crank: City Falls Further Behind on Bike Lanes; 35th Ave NE “Alternative” Would Include No Bike Lanes at All

1. The latest quarterly report on the Move Seattle Levy, which The C Is for Crank obtained in advance of a Move Seattle Oversight Levy Committee meeting on Thursday, reveals that the Seattle Department of  Transportation has continued to fall behind on plans to build out the bike network laid out in the 2014 Bike Master Plan, particularly when it comes to protected bike lanes. According to the report, because of “ongoing challenges with cost estimate increases, packaged-contracting approach, and contractor delays,” SDOT will “not meet annual targets” for bike-safety improvements—an understatement, given that many of the projects that were supposed to have been completed or underway this year have been delayed multiple times, some since 2016, the first year the levy was in effect. (The report also includes updates on other levy projects, including sidewalks, street paving, and bridge projects.)

The report lists seven bike projects as being completed in 2018, including two that were “2017 target[s]” (full list above). These include 1.88 miles of protected bike lanes and 7.47 miles of neighborhood greenways—markings and traffic-calming measures on streets that parallel arterial streets. This represents a significant shortfall from the 10.43 miles of protected bike lanes and 12.47 miles of greenways that SDOT had planned to build this year.  Protected bike lanes are typically more controversial than neighborhood greenways, because they take up space on arterial roads that was previously occupied by (parked or moving) cars; witness the battle over a long-planned bike lane on 35th Avenue Northeast, which is on this year’s list of planned but uncompleted projects. (More on that below).

However, a closer look at all five of the projects the report cites as having come in on schedule in 2018 reveals that SDOT is further behind on building greenways and, especially, protected bike lanes than the report makes it appear.  Of the five projects, only one—a 0.65-mile stretch of greenway on N. 92nd Street—was originally scheduled for construction in 2018. The rest were delayed projects from previous years. “If we’re going to live up to our climate goals, our equity goals, our safety goals, we have a lot of work left to do,” Neighborhood Greenways director Gordon Padelford, who received a copy of the report, says.

For example: A 5.45-mile stretch of greenway paralleling Rainier Ave. S., which the report lists as a completed 2018 project, was originally supposed to be built back in 2016, under to the city’s adopted Bike Master Plan, but was pushed back, first to 2017, and then to this year. (SDOT’s third-quarter report for last year—the equivalent of the report that’s being released this week—lists the project as “pushed to 2018.”) Similarly, a 0.39-mile protected bike lane on 7th Avenue, in downtown Seattle, that the report counts as a 2018 project was originally supposed to be finished in 2017. Another protected bike lane on S. Dearborn Street, which has not been completed and is listed as “in progress,” was originally supposed to be built by 2016.

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Oversight committee member Brian Estes says, echoing the report, that some of the delays were unavoidable, due to issues with contractors, a concrete driver strike in September, and other factors. But, he says,  “political considerations” also contributed to delays in building out bike infrastructure in the center city (the City Center Bike Network and the One Center City plan) under both former mayor Ed Murray and current Mayor Jenny Durkan. In August, the oversight committee sent a lengthy letter to Durkan and the council outlining other factors that, in their view, contributed to problems delivering on all the projects promised in the levy, including SDOT’s “organizational structure and culture,” “lack of transparency and failure to act,” and the fact that Durkan still had not appointed a permanent director of SDOT. (The agency is currently on its second interim director since Durkan took office in 2017).

A spokeswoman for SDOT says that a new work plan, which will also be released on Thursday, will provide much more detailed information about how the city plans to complete the outstanding levy projects. The oversight committee has not yet received a copy of that work plan, which, according to an email an SDOT staffer sent to stakeholders, was held up because staffers were out of town over Thanksgiving and due to the need for “coordination with the Mayor’s Office.” In the email, the staffer characterized the third-quarter report, not the work plan, as “the main topic for Thursday’s meeting.”

2. A series of “facilitated conversations” between advocates for and against a planned bike lane along 35th Ave. NE between Wedgwood and Ravenna did lead to some consensus around a set of safety improvements in the corridor—lower speed limits, new crosswalk markings, and the like—but no agreement on whether to build the protected bike lane, which has been in the Bike Master Plan since 2014. Opponents of the bike lane have argued that it will harm businesses who need on-street parking (in fact, a parking utilization study showed that, at most, 40 percent of spaces are occupied); that it will lead to more collisions with cyclists, not fewer; that a bike lane will slow vehicle traffic to a crawl; and even that safe bike lanes are only for “the privileged.”

As a result of the facilitated conversations, SDOT reportedly presented two options for moving forward: The “contracted design” (to which the Move Seattle Levy report, above, refers), with a protected bike lane on one side of the street, an unprotected bike lane on the other, two travel lanes, and one lane of parking; and an “alternative,” which includes no bike lanes, a lane of parking, two travel lanes, and a center turn lane. The “alternative,” interestingly, would get rid of the same amount of parking as the protected bike lane option; the only difference between it and the way 35th Avenue NE is currently configured is the new center turn lane.

SDOT directed questions about the new 35th Avenue option to the mayor’s office, which has not responded substantively to requests for comment made on Monday and Tuesday.

Meanwhile, I spoke with several bike advocates who participated in the mediation. They say they remain optimistic that 35th Avenue NE will get bike lanes eventually, but were concerned about the precedent created by the mediation process, which Durkan and Northeast Seattle council member Rob Johnson initiated after getting thousands of emails opposing the project. Liam Bradshaw, a member of the pro-bike-lane group Safe 35th Avenue NE, says the bike lane project “sat and festered and we had this whole debate. There was nobody who would say outright that we were going to build it the way it was drawn.” Bradshaw says the lack of a permanent SDOT director contributed to the delay. “I don’t fault the mayor for not making a decision—I fault the mayor for not appointing an SDOT director,” he says.

Advocates for the bike lane have started a Change.org petition urging the city to “Complete the 35th Ave NE safety project now!” Durkan is supposed to announce a decision on the project by the end of the year.

Morning Crank: Ruling Bolsters Housing Plan, Chides City for Failing to Do “Granular” Analysis Neighborhood Activists Demanded

1. Urbanists celebrated a ruling yesterday that could allow a long-delayed plan to increase density and fund affordable housing to move forward. The ruling by city hearing examiner Ryan Vancil, which mostly affirms that an environmental impact statement on the plan was adequate, came in response to a challenge by a group of homeowners, the Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability and Equity (SCALE), who have long opposed the plan. The plan, known as Mandatory Housing Affordability, would allow modest density increases in urban villages and urban centers, and would rezone six percent of the land current zoned exclusively for single-family houses—currently, two-thirds of the city’s land—to allow townhouses and small apartments. Developers who build under the new rules will have to include affordable housing in their buildings or pay into an affordable housing fund.

“This ruling is a step forward for more affordable housing in Seattle,” Durkan said in a statement. Meanwhile, Seattle for Everyone, the group that formed in 2015 to support then-mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, planned a celebration party and issued a statement, titled “Yay for MHA!” celebrating the ruling as “a win for affordable housing.”

We’ll see. Toby Thaler, the leader of the group that challenged the  Seattle Coalition for Affordability, Livability and Equity (SCALE), told the Seattle Times that he plans to keep fighting against the MHA legislation, although it was unclear in what venue (the courthouse or city council chambers) he intends to do so. (Thaler did not immediately return an email last night, but I will update this post if I hear back from him.) Meanwhile, the city will have to do more analysis of how allowing more density will impact designated city landmarks;  according to the ruling, the city failed to consider impacts on historic properties other than those on the National Register of Historic Places, which Vancil called inadequate.

“The more ‘granular’ level of analysis called for and debated at the hearing may have averted at least some of the deeply felt community concern expressed in nearly four weeks of hearing and in a hearing process that has taken the better part of a year.” — Seattle Hearing Examiner Ryan Vancil

Vancil’s ruling also chides the city for failing to include detailed, “granular” analysis of the impact the zoning changes would have on individual neighborhoods in the environmental impact statement, and suggested that including this kind of analysis could have forestalled the whole drawn-out appeal. “[I]t is certainly the case, at least in part, that the choice not to tell a more detailed story of the City’s neighborhoods contributed to why the City faced a very protracted appeal and hearing process from representatives in many of its neighborhoods,” Vancil writes. “While the level of analysis for most of the FEIS satisfies the rule of reason and requirements under SEPA, the more ‘granular’ level of analysis called for and debated at the hearing may have averted at least some of the deeply felt community concern expressed in nearly four weeks of hearing and in a hearing process that has taken the better part of a year.”

Whether you believe that a detailed neighborhood-by-neighborhood breakdown of the upzone’s impact would have made neighborhood opposition evaporate (dubious, given that challenging the EIS for a project is one of the most common obstructionist tactics in the Seattle neighborhood activist playbook), what’s undeniable is that while the upzones have been tied up in appeals, tens of millions of dollars’ worth of affordable housing—and hundreds of units of market-rate housing needed for the thousands of people moving to Seattle every year—remained unbuilt.

“Unfortunately …  this appeal has cost Seattle at least $87 million worth of affordable housing that we could have brought in during the year since the appeal was filed,” council member Rob Johnson, who has led the charge for MHA as head of the council’s land use committee, said in a statement. (Johnson asked for this analysis last month). “Had we been able to adopt MHA across the city without this delay, more neighborhoods would be receiving the investment in affordable housing they need, and more families in our city would have an affordable place to call home.”

2. On Tuesday, Queen Anne Community Council leader Marty Kaplan sent out a bombastic email blast (subject line: “Single-Family Rezone: Negotiation Rejected!”) announcing his intention to “proceed full-speed ahead in preparing and proving our case” against the city, in the ongoing battle over new rules that would make it easier for homeowners to build basement and backyard units on their property.

The “negotiation” Kaplan’s email refers to is apparently a meeting he had on Monday with council member Mike O’Brien, who led the charge to liberalize Seattle rules governing backyard and mother-in-law units, about a final environmental impact statement (FEIS) concluding that the proposal would not have a detrimental environmental impact on the city. was sufficient to allow the long-delayed rules to move forward. The new rules, which would allow homeowners to add up to one unit inside an existing house and one detached unit in the backyard, subject to existing height and lot coverage limits, would produce about 2,500 additional units of housing citywide.

“Unfortunately, I must inform you that CM O’Brien has closed the door to negotiating.,” Kaplan wrote. “He relat[ed] to me unequivocally that the EIS spoke to all his issues leaving no room to consider any compromise.  He remains firmly entrenched in every line-item of his legislation to eliminate every Seattle single-family neighborhood without considering any important neighborhood, property, infrastructure or economic differentiations.  One-size-fits-all!” 

“In addition,” Kaplan’s email continues, “he shared his confidence that every councilmember firmly supports him and his legislation.  He left no door open and even told me directly that there was no reason for us to withdraw our appeal – nothing would change!”

On Wednesday, O’Brien put up a blog post responding to Kaplan’s email. (The post appears to have since been taken down.) In the post, O’Brien wrote that during their conversation over the weekend, “I explained to Marty that while the legislation I plan to introduce was likely to reflect the Preferred Alternative in the EIS, I am open to changes to that legislation as we work through the legislative process.  Furthermore, even if I disagree with certain changes to the legislation, a majority of the Council, not me alone, make the decisions about what changes are acceptable.  …If Marty was asking me to cut a special, secret deal with him so that he would drop the lawsuit, I made it clear to him that I am completely opposed to that type of back room dealing.  … Despite what Marty claims in his email blasts, I explained the many doors that remain open throughout the upcoming process to influence the outcome of the legislation.”

The email concludes with “a quick note on the tenor of city politics that Marty is playing on in all of his communications,” which, O’Brien says, represented “our friendly conversation as a divisive fight.  Instead of communicating where we have common ground and where we differ, explaining the opportunities to influence the process and sharing my willingness to remain open to alternative approaches during the legislative process, Marty choose instead to double down on a mean-spirited and polarizing approach, representing the worst of our current tone in politics.  As a community, we must decide if we are going to let divisiveness prevail and be the new way we govern, or re-embrace what I have known my entire life in Seattle: a collaborative approach to policy making.” 

Kaplan responded more warmly to comments Mayor Jenny Durkan made about the proposal over the weekend, at a community meeting on Queen Anne. According to the  Queen Anne News, when a constituent asked what should happen with the appeal, Durkan said “she’d like to get all parties in a room to hash out a compromise” rather than moving forward with the “litigation” process. (Kaplan’s challenge is currently before the hearing examiner, but litigation is an option if the hearing examiner rejects his argument that the FEIS is inadequate). Durkan, according to the Queen Anne News, expressed concern at the meeting that loosening the rules too much could “fuel a more expensive Seattle by letting people speculate on that land.” That argument—that “developers” will snap up single-family houses and turn the land into triplexes—is belied not only by the FEIS, which concludes, again, that the changes would result in just 2,500 new units citywide, but by the economic logic of development. To wit: If you’re a developer (or, as Kaplan and the mayor suggest, a “speculator”), are you going to build a house with a basement apartment and a small backyard cottage in a single-family zone? Or a 20-unit apartment complex in a multifamily area?

Kaplan did not attend the meeting with Durkan, but says that from conversations with another community council member who was there, “the take-away was that she [opposes] what I have called a one-size-fits-all rezoning of single-family throughout the city.”

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After Acrimony and Battles, Council Passes Mayor’s Budget Mostly Intact

L-R: David Helde, Downtown Emergency Service Center; Teresa Mosqueda and Lorena Gonzalez, Seattle City Council

After a surprising amount of acrimony for a document that contained so little fiscal wiggle room, the city council adopted a 2019-2020 budget today that increases the size of the Human Services Department’s Navigation Team, grants modest wages to front-line human service workers, spends tens of millions of dollars on retroactive back pay for police who have been working without a contract since 2015, and funds projects in every council district.

The debate over this year’s budget—during much of which I was out of town—centered largely on a few million dollars in human services funding, including, in the last few days, funding for the Navigation Team, which removes homeless encampments and offers services to people displaced by their activities. After council member Teresa Mosqueda proposed using some of the funds Durkan earmarked for Navigation Team expansion to broaden a 2 percent “inflationary” pay increase for city-contracted human services providers to include all such workers (rather than only general fund-supported workers, as Durkan initially proposed), Durkan denounced the move.

Describing the reduced expansion as a “cut” that would harm neighborhoods, Durkan’s office claimed that the new positions that she had proposed in her budget had already been filled and that reducing the amount of new funds would “cut” those critically needed jobs—a statement that local conservative media took as a cue to write largely inaccurate pieces claiming, for example, that Mosqueda was “slow[ing] tent cleanups with huge staff cut to Nav Team.” (Durkan also reportedly contacted council members to let them know that if they voted against the Navigation Team expansion, it would be on them to explain to their constituents why they had allowed crime to increase in their districts; all seven district council positions are on the ballot next year. UPDATE: Durkan’s office categorically denied that any such calls took place.) However, this turned out not to be the case; as a central staffer told the council in a followup memo, the positions have only been filled on a temporary or emergency basis. “These are all short term actions that are funded with the $500k [in one-time funding] from the County and would be discontinued” once the budget passes, the central staffer wrote.

No matter—despite all the drama, the council figured out a way to fund the full Navigation Team expansion and add one mental health counselor to the team while also giving service providers their 2 percent increase (which is actually below the local inflation rate). The money, a little less than $500,000 a year, came from eliminating the a business and occupation tax exemption for life sciences companies, which Mosqueda said has been dormant since 2017.

In a press conference between the morning’s budget meeting and the final adoption of the budget at 2pm, four council members, plus 43rd District state representative and former Downtown Emergency Service Center director Nicole Macri, joined several front-line human service workers and representatives from housing and human-service nonprofits at DESC’s offices in the basement of the Morrison Hotel homeless shelter.

David Helde, an assistant housing case manager at DESC,  said that since he started at the agency three years ago, every single person who worked in his position when he started had left the agency. Jobs at DESC start at just over $16 an hour, or slightly more than Seattle’s $15 minimum wage. “The rewards do not outweigh the benefits,” Helde said. Recalling a client with a traumatic brain injury who had short-term memory impairment but still remembered him when she returned to the shelter after a year away, Helde continued, “that is why the staff turnover is unacceptable—because it affects the quality of life for the most vulnerable people in this city.”

Council member Mike O’Brien, who has been raising the issue of human service worker pay for several years, said the city needed to figure out a way to “normalize” cost-of-living increases for employees at nonprofit human service agencies, in addition to city employees (and cops.) However, asked about how the city would ensure that (as Mosqueda put it) “we’re not back here every year,” O’Brien acknowledged that “the level of specificity is not extensive” about how to ensure future COLAs. “This is about expectation-setting,” O’Brien said. “In a budget where we have finite resources and we’re making tradeoffs, we have to figure out how we identify a three-, five-, ten-year [plan] to make changes” so that human-service workers can have not just sub-inflationary pay hikes, but living wages, in the future.

Although Durkan did (mostly) get what she wanted on the Navigation Team, the group will be required to submit quarterly reports showing progress on steps the city auditor outlined a year ago before the council will release funding for the coming quarter—a significant change that amplifies the council’s power over the team.

Other notable changes the council made to Durkan’s budget included:

• Additional funding for food banks, which will come from excess revenues from the city’s sweetened beverage tax. Council member O’Brien wanted to use some of the excess money from the tax—which Durkan had proposed using to replace general fund revenues that were paying for healthy-food programs, rather than increasing funding for those programs—to fund outreach programs, as a community advisory board had recommended. The budget puts a hold on the outreach spending, a total of about $270,000, but keeps it alive for future years; today, Juarez objected to this provision, arguing that  spending $270,000 promoting healthy food when the soda industry spent $22 million to pass the anti-soda-tax Initiative 1634 was tantamount to “wast[ing]” the money. “Why are we attempting to counter corporations prepared to spend millions of dollars on advertisements with a $250,000 campaign?” she asked.

• A total of $1.4 million for a supervised drug consumption site, which council member Rob Johnson—who sponsored the additional funding—said should be enough to allow the city to actually open a “fixed-mobile” site this year. Durkan’s initial budget simply held over $1.3 million in funding for a site that was not spent the previous year, with the expectation that no site would be opened this year.

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• About $100,000 for a new attorney to help low-income clients facing eviction. Council member Kshama Sawant had sought $600,000 for six more attorneys, but the rest of the council voted that down.

• An expansion of the city’s vacant building inspection program, which keeps tabs on vacant buildings that are slated for redevelopment to ensure that they aren’t taken over by squatters or allowed to fall into disrepair. The proposal, by council member Lisa Herbold (who proposed the original legislation creating the program last year) would ramp up monitoring and inspections of vacant buildings that have failed previous inspections, and would not take effect until next June. Council member Johnson continued to oppose Herbold’s proposal, on the grounds that it represented a sweeping and burdensome policy change that was inappropriate for the budget process; but council president Bruce Harrell reiterated his support for the plan, noting that the council would have time to hammer out the details next year before it took effect. “We’ll have, I think, ample time to work with the department [of Construction and Inspections, which sent a letter to council members last week raising concerns about the bill) to get their feedback,” Harrell said, and “if there has to be some tweaks there will be time to make tweaks.”

City Budget Office director Ben Noble sent a memo to council members today opposing the budget item, which Noble said would force the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections to expand the program too much, too fast. “As proposed, the enhanced program would likely be over 25 times the size of the current program,” Noble wrote, comparing the number of inspections last year—179—to a possible 5,000 inspections that would be required under the new program.  Noble said Herbold’s proposal did not reflect all the costs associated with increasing vacant building inspections so dramatically.

The budget put off the issue of long-term funding for additional affordable housing, which lost a major potential source of revenue when the council and mayor overturned the employee hours tax on businesses with more than $20 million in gross revenues earlier this year. Council member Sally Bagshaw has said that her priority in her final year on the council (she is not expected to run again next year) will be creating aregional funding plan to pay for thousands of units of new housing every year. Such a proposal might be modeled, she suggested recently, after a tax on very large businesses that was just approved by voters in San Francisco.

Budget dissident Kshama Sawant—who had earlier proposed numerous dead-on-arrival proposals to fund about $50 million in housing bonds by making cuts to various parts of the budget—delivered a 13-minute speech denouncing her colleagues for passing an “austerity budget” before voting against the whole thing. The room was noticeably subdued as Sawant quoted MLK and demonized Jeff Bezos—the red-shirted members of “the Movement,” whose efforts she cited repeatedly during her oration, were mostly absent, and instead of the usual applause, shouts, and cheers, Sawant spoke to a silent chamber.

City Budget Roundup, Part 1: Soda, Short-Term Rentals, and Legacy Businesses

I’m leaving town just in time for election day this year (one more year, and it’ll be a trend), but before I do, I wanted to give a quick rundown of what’s happening with the city budget—specifically, what changes council members have proposed to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s budget plan, which holds the line on homelessness spending and includes a couple of controversial funding swaps that reduce potential funding for programs targeting low-income communities. None of these proposals have been passed yet, and the council has not started publicly discussing the cuts it would make to the mayor’s budget to fund any of their proposed new spends; this is just a guide to what council members are thinking about as they move through the budget process.,

This list is by no means comprehensive—the list of the council’s proposed budget changes runs to dozens of pages. It’s just a list of items that caught my eye, and which could cue up budget changes or future legislation in the weeks and months ahead. The budget process wraps up right before Thanksgiving, but the discussions council members are having now could lead to additional new laws—or constrain the mayor’s ability to spend money the council allocates, via provisos that place conditions on that spending—well into the coming year.

Sweetened Beverage Tax 

As I reported on Twitter (and Daniel Beekman reported in the Times), council member Mike O’Brien has expressed frustration at Mayor Jenny Durkan for using higher-than-expected revenues from the sugar-sweetened beverage tax, which is supposed to pay for healthy food initiatives in neighborhoods that are most impacted by both the tax and health problems such as diabetes and obesity, to balance out the budget as a whole. In a bit of budgetary sleight-of-hand, Durkan’s plan takes away general-fund revenues that were paying for those programs and replaces them with the “extra” soda tax revenues, which flatlines spending on healthy-food initiatives (like food banks, Fresh Bucks, and school-lunch-related programs) aimed at reducing consumption of unhealthy food… like soda.

“The intent was pretty clear when we passed the legislation last year about how the funding would be spent,” O’Brien said last week. “What we saw in this year’s budget was [a proposal] that may have technically met the letter of it, but certainly not the spirit.”

O’Brien’s proposal would create a separate fund for soda-tax proceeds and stipulate that the city should use the money from the tax in accordance with the recommendations of the advisory board that was appointed for that purpose, rather than reallocating them among the programs the tax is supposed to fund, as Durkan’s budget also does. (See chart above). The idea is to protect the soda tax from being used to help pay for general budget needs in future years, and to ensure that the city follows the recommendations of its own soda tax advisory group.

Airbnb Tax

When the city passed a local tax on short-term rentals like Airbnbs, the legislation explicitly said that $5 million of the proceeds were to be spent on community-led equitable development projects through the city’s Equitable Development Initiative. This year, state legislators passed a statewide tax that replaced Seattle’s local legislation, but council members say the requirement didn’t go away. Nonetheless, Durkan’s budget proposal stripped the EDI of more than $1 million a year, redirecting those funds to pay for city staff and consultants, prompting council members including O’Brien, Lisa Herbold, and council president Bruce Harrell to propose two measures restoring the funding back to the promised $5 million level and creating a separate equitable development fund that would include “explicit restrictions” requiring that the first $5 million generated by the tax go toward EDI projects, not consultants or overhead.

“I think the mayor did this intentionally,” O’Brien said last week. “I don’t think she doesn’t like the equitable development initiative—I think she’s just struggling to make the budget balance—but this is a priority. We’ve seen with the sweetened beverage and the short-term rental tax that …  when we say we are going to impose a new revenue stream and here’s how we’re going to dedicate it, and then less than a year later someone says we’re going to dedicate it a different way, I think that is highly problematic on a much larger scale than just these programs.”

The council appeared likely to reject a separate, tangentially related proposal by council member Rob Johnson to exempt all short-term rental units that existed prior to September 2017, when the council first adopted rules regulating short-term rentals, from the new rule restricting the number of units any property owner could operate to a maximum of two. Currently, this exemption only applies to short-term rental units downtown and some units in Capitol Hill and First Hill; by providing the same exemption to short-term rentals across the city, Johnson said, the council could provide some certainty that the city would actually bring in $10.5 million in annual revenues, which is what the state projected and what Durkan assumed in her 2019 budget.

O’Brien, who drafted the original short-term rental regulations, suggested Durkan had jumped the gun by assuming the state’s projections were right before the legislation had even taken effect. “Typically, we try to be conservative when we have new revenue sources,” he said. Sally Bagshaw, who represents downtown and Belltown, said she had heard from constituents who bought downtown condos as retirement homes who told her their buildings have turned into 24/7 party hotels with few permanent residents. “The idea of opening this up just for budget reasons is disturbing,” Bagshaw said.”

Totem poles

Photograph by Rick Shu via Wikimedia Commons

As Crosscut has reported, local Native American leaders want the city to remove the totem poles erected in Victor Steinbrueck Park, because they have nothing to do with the Coast Salish people who have long populated the area in and around what is now Seattle. Other totem poles in Seattle, including the Tlinget pole in Pioneer Square, are similarly controversial. Council member Debora Juarez, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, is sponsoring an item that would direct the city’s Office of Arts and Culture to address the issue—not by simply removing the offending poles (which is controversial among some historic preservationists and Pike Place Market advocates) but by reviewing and making recommendations about all the Native American art on all city-owned land in Seattle. In response to Juarez’s proposal, budget chair Sally Bagshaw cautioned that she didn’t “want to get bogged down” in a massive study if the problem of offensive or inappropriate art could be addressed on a case by case basis “when they come to our attention. Otherwise,” Bagshaw continued, “I can imagine someone [stalling the process by] saying, ‘Well, we haven’t looked at our 6,000 acres of parks.'”

Legacy Businesses 

In announcing a proposed $170,000 add for the legacy business program—a plan to protect longstanding neighborhood businesses by providing cash assistance and incentives for landlords to keep renting to them—council member Lisa Herbold called it the policy for which she is willing to “fall on [her] sword” this year. Previous budgets have provided funding to study such a program, but Herbold’s proposal this year would actually get it off the ground, by providing startup and marketing costs for the program. “Much like landmarks are a bridge to our city’s culture and history because of their physical form, sometimes businesses as gathering places are also a bridge to our city’s history and culture,” Herbold said.

Support

Critics have said Herbold’s proposal, like similar programs in other cities, could prevent the development of badly needed housing by saving struggling businesses out of a misguided sense of nostalgia.

In response to a question from council member Teresa Mosqueda about whether the program might allow businesses to relocate or reopen in new developments, Herbold said yes, citing the Capitol Hill writers’ center Hugo House as an example. However, it’s worth noting that the Hugo House is a nonprofit, not a for-profit business, and it was “saved” not by government intervention but by the  private owners of the old house in which Hugo House was originally located, who promised to provide the organization with a new space when they redeveloped their property.

 

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