Afternoon Crank: Farrell Out of Legislature; Valdez In?

Image result1. State Rep. Jessyn Farrell (D-46) will announce tomorrow that she’s stepping down from her legislative position to run for mayor full-time—a move that will allow her to raise money for her campaign, which she has been barred from doing under a voter-approved initiative that prohibits lawmakers from fundraising while the legislature is in session. Last week, Farrell hinted in an interview that she would step down, since the legislature appears to be headed toward a third special session. “I take my duties as a legislator very seriously, but in getting in to this race, I want to win. It’s important to put skin in the game and put something on the line, and I’m willing …to walk away from a job I really love to do what it takes to win this race,” she said.

“I got in this race to win. … I have to be able to get my message out.”

Crank also hears that state Democratic Party executive board member Javier Valdez, who currently works as an advisory on women- and minority-owned businesses to Mayor Ed Murray, will seek appointment to Farrell’s House seat. Valdez is active in the 46th District Democrats and, in 2011, sought appointment to the 46th District state senate seat left vacant after the sudden death of state Sen. Scott White; that seat was filled by then-state Rep. David Frockt.

Last week, state Sen. Bob Hasegawa, who is also running for mayor, told me he does not plan to step down. “When I ran for the senate seat in 2012, I did it with no money, so to me it’s the opportunity to show that people united can defeat money in politics,” Hasegawa said. “Having this bar against fundraising really provided a way to put an exclamation point behind that concept.”

I have a call out to Valdez.

Image via Washington Bike Law on Facebook.

2. Is the Seattle Times just straight-up trolling us now? That’s the conclusion some on Twitter reached after the paper juxtaposed two stories on its front page yesterday: One about drivers who complain that “pedestrians” wear dark colors in Seattle, making it hard to avoid hitting them, and one about new gadgets that make it easier for people to use their cell phones behind the wheel.

Distracted driving is a real problem in Seattle; according to the Seattle Department of Transportation’s latest Vision Zero progress report, the city has seen a 300 percent increase in distracted driving over the past three years, contributing to 3,000 crashes a year, or about a third of all crashes in the city. The notion that pedestrians—which is to say, anyone who ever sets their feet or wheels on a sidewalk—should “prevent” distracted driving by wearing neon outfits or pinning lights to their clothes is proof of the Times’ fundamentally suburban mindset. In suburbs, people must make way for cars; in cities, cars should respect the primacy of people. The law itself respects this fact, by requiring not a dress code for pedestrians, but a traffic code for drivers.

 

Afternoon Crank: I’m Shocked At the Scale of That

1. The city auditor has completed his investigation into the implementation of a new joint billing system for Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities customers (memorably known as the New Customer Information System, or NCIS), and concluded that the reason the NCIS went $34 million over budget is that … the system ended up being more complicated than anyone had anticipated, and took more time and manpower to implement.

Or, as assistant city auditor Jane Dunkel put it during a briefing before the council utilities committee Tuesday, “The simple answer is that it took … ten months longer than anticipated,” and the extra cost “was in labor—city labor and consultants.” Specifically, the city spent $10.8 million more than budgeted on consultants, and $20.6 million over budget on city staffing, in the 10 extra months it took to complete the new billing system.

Mike O’Brien, a former CFO himself, seemed incredulous at those figures. “When I look at $20 million over 10 months—so, $2 million a month— if a city employee is costing us $10,000 a month, that means 200 employees were on this project,” O’Brien said. “I’m shocked at the scale of that.” Dunkel said that many of those employees had probably been reassigned from other tasks, but acknowledged that 200 employees is a lot of city workers to dedicate full-time to a single project. (The city calculates costs in full-time equivalent employees, or FTEs, so 200 full-time workers is just a proxy for the total cost.) And, Dunkel said, the city decided to “prioritize quality over timeliness.”

That brought O’Brien to his second question: Why, if project leaders knew they were slipping over budget and behind schedule, did they not inform the council sooner? (Committee chair Lisa Herbold had the same question.) Dunkel acknowledged that the trend toward being over budget and late was obvious “in retrospect,” but said the people working on the project may have thought they could make up the money and time. “Is it just well-intentioned people who are optimistic and thinking, ‘If we just keep working harder and faster, we’re going to make it’? Or is it people saying, ‘Wait a minute, we’re not going to make it and we need to let someone know that,'” Dunkel said.

“There were vacations and leaves, there was mandatory overtime—there wasn’t a point when they said, ‘Let’s stop and recalibrate.’ And part of it is that it’s hard to come back and report on that. You don’t want to do that until you’re really certain that you can’t make that date.”

You can read the auditors’ recommendations—which include requiring the city’s Chief Technology Office, Michael Matmiller, to report back to the council monthly on the status of the city’s IT projects—as well as the auditor’s presentation and a report on best practices by an outside consultant—on the city’s website.

2. On Wednesday, Mayor Ed Murray’s Human Services Department announced the location of a new, 24/7, low-barrier homeless shelter on First Hill. The shelter, which will accommodate about 100 men and women, will be located at First Presybterian Church, at 1013 8th Avenue. The city will hold one community meeting on the shelter at the church, on May 22 and 6pm, and hopes to open the shelter in June or July. If opposition to a methadone clinic in the neighborhood is any sort of guide, expect protests.

3. HSD and the mayor’s homelessness director, George Scarola, came to the council’s human services committee yesterday armed with numbers that they say demonstrate the success of the city’s new Navigation Team. The eight-member team, which includes both police and outreach workers, notifies residents of homeless encampments when the city plans to remove them from public property, and provides information on services and shelter, including other, authorized encampments. Scott Lindsay, the mayor’s special assistant on public safety, said that of 291 homeless people the team has contacted since it formed in February, 116 went into “alternative living arrangements”—about 70 to traditional shelters, and 46 to authorized encampments. “That’s more than just a referral—that’s actually a connection,” Lindsay said. “Those are people who were weeks or days or months ago living on streets unsheltered, who are now living inside or at an authorized encampment.”

But how big of a victory is that, really? People who live in camps tend to do so for many reasons: Shelters tend to be dirty and crowded, and most don’t allow people to come in with partners, possessions, or pets. Major addiction problems and mental illnesses that make it difficult to sleep in close quarters with hundreds of other people can also be issues. And sanctioned encampments fill up as fast as the city opens them—a point HSD deputy director Jason Johnson acknowledged.

Tuesday’s sweep of the encampment under the Spokane Street Viaduct, which the city said was necessary because of an RV fire at the site last week, was less successful by the city’s standards. Of 38 “total contacts,” Lindsay said, 15 “declined any form of services,” and 8 agreed to go to shelter or an authorized encampment. The rest took referrals to employment, case management, and other services, Lindsay said.

4. Chris Potter, director of operations for the Department of Finance and Administrative Services, updated council members on the city’s new delivery service, which allows people to retrieve  belongings confiscated from encampments without busing all the way down to the city’s storage facility on Airport Way. So far, Potter said, two people have asked for the belongings back, and one has gotten their “materials” returned. Pressed by council member Tim Burgess to explain why this was good news—given that the city has hundreds of bins full of unclaimed stuff taken from homeless encampments—Potter said, “Getting two calls represents a dramatic increase in the number of people who have reached out to us and said, ‘Hey, can I get my things back?'” But, he acknowledged, “It’s difficult to have a conversation with somebody whose material you’ve gotten and who hasn’t made a phone call to try to recover it from us.”

5. The Seattle Times ran a breathtakingly solipsistic, question-begging editorial this week calling on Mayor Ed Murray not to run for reelection. Their argument: Someone under such a “cloud” of “sordid” allegations can’t possibly win reelection, but could divide the electorate, leaving the city stuck with “Mayor Kshama Sawant, or some other extreme left-wing ideologue.” First of all, Kshama Sawant has repeatedly and explicitly said she does not plan to run for mayor—a minor detail the Times omits. (Obviously, people can change their minds, but this seems a somewhat crucial point.) Second, and more glaring: The Times itself is the publication that decided to publish all the sordid details about the allegations in the first place, including detailed allegations about rough sex and a mole on Murray’s genitals, so if anyone has created an environment of “sordid theater,” it’s them.

Finally, it requires a truly special sort of arrogance for a newspaper to first declare that its own story is “the biggest political scandal in Seattle in generation,” then claim that the subject of that story has been “transformed [by that story] from the bold big-city mayor into one who defers to his defense lawyer when he is invited to speak to The Seattle Times editorial board,” and then use that entirely reasonable deferral—which no one was aware of until the paper reported it, making the story about itself—as a justification for demanding his resignation.  Traditionally, a newspaper that wants a public official to step aside cites public opinion or some other outside evidence to shore up such a demand; the Times cites only itself, and its own declaration that its own reporters have uncovered the biggest scandal in generations.

As I said on Twitter:

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

 

Morning Crank: What the City Calls a Homeless Crisis

1. On Friday, after significant pushback on social media (including dozens of folks who retweeted my coverage on Twitter), KIRO 7 news took down a map identifying the precise location of unsanctioned homeless encampments around the city, submitted by viewers and verified by the station. The map page also encouraged viewers to approach encampments and take photos and videos.

The map was posted on Wednesday and identified as a tool to help KIRO “track” homeless encampments, which can be as few as three tents, “amid what the City of Seattle calls a homeless crisis.” The explanation went on to say that “Seattle leaders do not keep a public map of homeless camps, so we are working with the community to make one.”

The mayor’s office told me there’s a very good reason the  city doesn’t publish its list of homeless encampment locations: To do so could put homeless people in even more danger than they already are. Fifty-eight percent of homeless women experienced domestic violence, according to the city’s recent survey of more than 1,000 people experiencing homelessness; mapping the precise locations where homeless people are camped out, with photos that may show identifying possessions is an invitation to abusers to go looking for their victims. (Originally, the page said nothing to discourage viewers from photographing people’s faces, but the station later added a disclaimer to that effect ).

On KIRO TV Wednesday night, a reporter promoted the encampment map while standing in front of several tents directly across from KIRO headquarters.

On Thursday, under pressure from the public to stop doxxing the homeless (doxxing, here, refers to the practice of finding out where people live and identifying that location publicly in order to encourage others to target and harass them), KIRO changed the justification for the map. The map was a bit more specific (and less skeptical) about the “homeless crisis, included information about how to submit a “service request” for the city to clean up an encampment, and noted that the city also had information about shelter on its website:

Meanwhile, KIRO continued to promote the tracking map on its nightly news broadcast and on Reddit.

Finally, on Friday—two days after the “tracking” map went up—KIRO replaced the map with a generic-looking new one, with shaded areas designating giant blocks of the city where viewers had reported camps to the station. The new map is useless for tracking, and it’s unclear why KIRO left it up; what it does reveal is that the KIRO viewers who felt motivated to report and, in some cases, approach and photograph encampments are all on the western half of the city. To look at the map, you’d think Southeast Seattle—where encampments certainly exist, just as they do all over the city—is encampment-free, whereas Queen Anne and parts of Ballard and Magnolia are overrun by tents.

KIRO’s explanation for this latest version of the map was that they had talked to experts and received new information from the mayor’s office that the city does, in fact, have a map of encampment locations, “an important detail they would not previously disclose.” They also changed their justification for the map yet again, saying it was intended to “[show] just how widespread the homeless encampment problem is across the city.”

KIRO’s claim that they thought the mayor’s office doesn’t know where encampments are is highly implausible, as is the notion that self-reporting by “the community” (which, as the new map shows, is a highly self-selected group) will produce an accurate or helpful picture of encampments in Seattle. I simply don’t buy the explanation that KIRO just thought the city wasn’t tracking encampments and decided to help by asking their readers to send in locations as a public service to the city, especially given that this wasn’t their justification until they got pushback from viewers concerned about the wellbeing of the people’s whose locations KIRO had identified.

KIRO didn’t respond to my messages seeking comment. But one thing struck me as I watched this map evolve, and read KIRO’s ever-changing justifications for its existence: To think a map like this serves any useful purpose, you have to see homeless people and their tents as messes to clean up or problems to be solved. Then the map becomes a kind of “Find It, Fix It” app, but for people.

But people aren’t potholes, and identifying their precise locations—especially in Seattle, a city where anti-homeless sentiment is at a fever pitch right now—can put them in danger.  In the same way that it would be considered inappropriate to create a map identifying where KIRO employees live, it’s inappropriate to create a map of where homeless people are sleeping and trying to survive. I’m glad, for the sake of the people who could have been targeted because KIRO identified where they lived, that KIRO took the original map down. I’m disheartened that the only lesson KIRO appears to have learned is “when you fuck up, double down.”

2. In case you missed it: Yesterday, I broke the news that the city, county, and state have settled with the Alliance for Pioneer Square, which sued over the width of the proposed new Alaskan Way surface street. Under the agreement, the city will build the street as originally planned—102 feet wide, similar to the new Mercer Street in South Lake Union—and narrow it to 79 feet, by eliminating two transit lanes, around 2033, when light rail opens in West Seattle.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Crosscut-KCTS Merger: A “Good Day For Local Journalism”?

Seattle’s shrinking local media will be stretched even thinner in the new year, after several local media firms announced consolidations, layoffs, and contractions that will leave fewer reporters to cover the growing city. Crosscut, whose editors and news reporters are all white men, says the move will improve its “diversity of voices,” but neither entity has plans to add any full-time reporting staff.

Last week, after KUOW announced that it was absorbing KPLU and the Stranger revealed that Seattle Weekly plans to lay off most of its editorial staff, Crosscut, the eight-year-old local news site, announced it would be absorbed by KCTS, the local PBS affiliate. Although technically a merger, the move means Crosscut will be “under the umbrella” of the larger TV station, as the official announcement put it, and will dissolve its governing board of directors and give up its independent nonprofit status. Contributions to Crosscut will still go to Crosscut, but the joint venture, to be called Cascade Public Media, will be headed by KCTS CEO Robert Dunlop and be accountable to KCTS’ board.

Crosscut and KCTS have taken pains to sell the merger as a mutual win, saying it will give Crosscut’s journalists access to KCTS’ resources and “expertise” and allow them to do more in-depth journalism and video production. In announcing the move, Crosscut trotted out a parade of former editors and publishers, including founder David Brewster, who issued the following curiously worded statement: “Synergy, news across multiple platforms, a broader funding base, shared traditions of media in the public interest…. What’s not to love?” Brewster continued: “That Crosscut is teaming up with KCTS, long a prime media asset in the Northwest, makes a huge amount of sense for both organizations. It bodes well for a stronger, stabler future for local journalism.”

Does it? Crosscut editor Greg Hanscom, who just took the reins earlier this year, acknowledges that Crosscut will “definitely be the junior of the two” partners, but says the new joint venture will give Crosscut access to more digital and video resources and, importantly, money. “The thing the merger does is, suddenly we have all these resources at our disposal for building this business model that we’ve started,” Hanscom says.

Crosscut has a tumultuous financial history, and the merger reignited questions about whether the organization (which former Weekly publisher David Brewster founded as a for-profit company in 2007 before restructuring it as a nonprofit one year later when ad revenues fell short of expectations) was financially viable. Although both KCTS and Crosscut declined to answer questions about Crosscut’s solvency, Hanscom says the joint venture allows Crosscut to turn into a “professional media organization that pays real salaries and offers real benefits and pays freelance writers what they’re worth. To do that, we’re going to need about twice the money that we currently have.” KCTS certainly has the money–in 2014, the station had nearly half a million dollars in profits–but its commitment to local journalism is far less clear.

Both KCTS and Crosscut have emphasized that the merger will improve local reporting and require “no layoffs”; in fact, Hanscom says, Crosscut will now be able to double its freelance budget (historically, many of Crosscut’s writers have been unpaid) and bring one social media producer to full-time status. In its own statement about the merger, KCTS said “local journalism and content are getting a much needed boost” from the absorption of Crosscut into the established public television company. “A Good Day for Local Journalism,” the announcement proclaimed.

However, that sunny spin ignores the fact that KCTS already laid off almost all of its editorial production staff back in May, in a bloodletting that Joel Connelly called the “Thursday Night Massacre.” The layoffs were part of a shift at KCTS toward national PBS programming like PBS NewsHour and Masterpiece Classic, supplemented by reports from freelance writers and photographers. One victim of the cuts was KCTS’ short-lived weekly public affairs program, “In Close,” on which KUOW producer Deborah Wang and a panel of local pundits discussed the news of the week.

I sent KCTS communications director Hilda Cullen, who preferred to communicate by email, a list of seven questions about the merger. Cullen provided brief answers to two of them, including one about the role of freelance reporters and production staff at the station, and referred the rest to Hanscom. In her responses, Cullen confirmed that “KCTS 9 contracts with freelance multi-media journalists to create content for KCTS 9 and KCTS9.org,” and said KCTS does have “personnel on staff who create original content.”

However, she would not provide a list of current staff, saying only, “we don’t publish our staff list,” and did not respond to a request for further information about why a public TV station keeps its staff list secret.

Hanscom was much more expansive. He told me most of the conversations Crosscut has had with KCTS over the last two months have been “about ‘Can Crosscut still be Crosscut even if we join forces?'” Answering his own rhetorical question, Hanscom says, “I will not claim it’s free from risks,”  but “I feel really good, honestly, that KCTS and Crosscut are going to be able to do their own things. I’ve got a lot of assurances from Rob Dunlop that we will remain editorially independent.”

One final issue I wanted to ask both Hanscom and Cullen about was diversity. Although Cullen did not respond to my question, “Will any efforts be made to improve the gender or racial diversity of editorial staffing at either Crosscut or KCTS?,” Hanscom (who, like all the full-time editorial staff at Crosscut, is a white man) did. Hanscom was reportedly hired, in part, to bring more diverse voices to Crosscut, and he said he hopes to do that by bringing on a broader cast of freelancers and, potentially, reporters (although neither Crosscut nor KCTS has any plans to add full-time reporters to the staff of the new joint venture), and by partnering with other publications with more diverse staffs, such as the South Seattle Emerald and the International Examiner.

“There’s no denying that the old white dude factor is a little glaring around here,” Hanscom says.  “What I can say there is that we already have really shifted our attention to diversifying the voices that are in Crosscut. If you were to pick back through the last four months with a fine-tooth comb you would find more women and people of color like Samantha Larson, Ana Sophia Knauf, and Reagan Jackson.” They’re also doing a year-long series about race, Hanscom says, featuring voices like Raymond Fenton, a former Crosscut intern who heads up the Black Student Union at Lewis and Clark University. As for gender diversity, Hanscom says, “We’ve been limited on that front because our freelance budget has been limited and our staff is mostly male, but I think that if you look at the little freelance money that we have had to dole out, much of that has gone to women.” With that freelance budget set to quadruple, he adds, readers should expect to see more diverse voices represented on the site.

I’ll reserve judgment on that claim until the new regime has been in place a few months, but I will note that “greater diversity” is the kind of feel-good goal media companies often adopt then abandon when it proves more difficult than issuing an aspirational mission statement. For now, it’s worth noting that of 24 stories currently on Crosscut’s politics page, 23 are written by white men.