“Exemption 2”: Heavily Redacted Documents Conceal Details About City’s Plans for Safe Parking Lot for Vehicle Residents

The C Is for Crank has appealed a decision by Mayor Jenny Durkan’s Human Services Department to heavily redact records related to a planned safe parking lot for people living in their cars. The city had planned to open a safe lot as a “pilot project” in Genesee Park in Southeast Seattle. After Mount Baker neighborhood activist (and current city council candidate) Pat Murakami and other South End residents became aware of the plans in late January, however, Durkan intervened, announcing in an email to community members and the media that she had been “briefed for the first time on a range of issues and options for a safe parking pilot” on February 27 and that she was sending the plan back to the drawing board for further evaluation.

The city redacted the documents on the grounds that the redacted information relates to the “deliberative process” for deciding whether and where to locate such a lot.

The deliberative process exemption to the state public records act, also known as “exemption 2,” allows cities to black out records when they relate to “Preliminary drafts, notes, recommendations and intra-agency memorandums in which opinions are expressed or policies formulated or recommended, except that a specific record shall not be exempt when publicly cited by an agency in connection with an agency action.”

The exemption only applies to discussions that involve setting policy (e.g., whether the city should create safe parking lots where people living in their cars to sleep); it does not, according to the state Open Government Resource Manual, apply to the implementation of policy or to “matters that are factual, or that are assumed to be factual for discussion purposes.” Additionally, cities can’t withhold information about a decision-making process once that decision has been made. In general, cities are directed to interpret the public records act as liberally as possible in the interest of disclosure.

The information Durkan’s Human Services Department has redacted for being related to ongoing policy deliberations and exchanges of opinion about policy decisions includes:

• The location of the city’s preferred site for a safe parking site, which the city has already acknowledged was Genesee Park. This location is blacked out in several places throughout the documents the city provided, including in a list of “Key Audiences and Stakeholders” that places Murakami at the very top of the list;

• Most of the details of a communications and outreach plan for the pilot;

• The responses to a list of FAQs from the community, which presumably consist of the factual information, along with some of the frequently asked questions themselves;

• An “about the pilot” list of bullet points (above) that presumably included much the same information HSD made public in an email to community members and local media back in February, which stated that the pilot “would serve no more than 30 vehicles, not RVs… open this spring and run through the end of the 2019… be overnight only, with no permanent infrastructure on the property, and offe[r] a safe place to stay overnight and a connection to a place to shower and use the restroom” as well as “services and case management to participants to assist in finding permanent housing.”

• Every media outlet on a list of “specific media targets” as well as every community member or group on  list of “specific community outreach targets”;

• The entire timeline for doing outreach to the community and eventually opening the lot;

• Every item on a list of “Tactics” as well as every item on a list of “Communications and Outreach Assets”; and

• Finally, the entire outreach timeline for the Genesee Park safe-lot proposal, all of which is, it is safe to assume, in the past.

The redactions include the location of a planned community meeting  as well as details about the pilot that HSD officials have discussed in some detail, including at that same public meeting. (Note: The mayor’s office clarified that the meeting the redacted documents referred to was not a community meeting that received widespread coverage, but a different planned meeting. They did not respond to questions about that meeting or any other meetings with community members that, according to unredacted internal emails between city officials, were planned for March, including questions about whether any of those meetings ever actually occurred.)

HSD directed questions about the redactions to the mayor’s office, which has not responded to a list of questions sent on Monday.

According to a city public disclosure officer, the mayor’s office may claim that because the city hasn’t decided on when, whether, or where to open a safe parking lot, the “deliberations” about the overall issue are technically still ongoing—an interpretation that could allow the city to exempt from disclosure, in perpetuity, any documents related to decisions they decided not to make, actions they never took, or policies they just left hanging. If the city just decides to never open a safe lot at all—which is basically what’s happening with a proposed mobile safe injection site, and there are plenty of other precedents—will that make every document related to that non-decision forever nondisclosable, existing in a permanent limbo of black lines and “Exemption No. 2″s? It seems ridiculous—but maybe.

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For now, I’m waiting to hear back from the city on my appeal, and will decide whether to take further action at that point.

If you’re wondering, by the way, what’s going on with the proposal for a safe lot, which was originally supposed to open on January 1 and was pushed back several times before the plans for the Genesee Park location were scuttled, HSD spokeswoman Meg Olberding provided this response to a detailed list of questions about the pilot:

“The Mayor has asked HSD to look at a variety of sites across the City. The department is in this process now. Mayor Durkan will choose the sites at which to begin community engagement based on the results of this process. She has not made a final decision at this time, so no external work has begun. We are moving it along, but have no precise timeline.”

I hope to have another update on this story later today.

“I’m Here Because I’m Worried”: South Seattle Responds to Scaled-Back Bike Plan

Sarah Shifley, with Tyrell Hedlund, points to the circuitous, hilly route the city suggests for cyclists traveling north from the city’s south end as Department of Neighborhoods facilitator LaKecia Farmer looks on.

The Seattle Department of Transportation will wrap up the last of four “café-style conversations,” the public’s final in-person opportunity to give feedback on the city’s plans to build a dramatically scaled-back version of the Bike Master Plan, in Phinney Ridge tonight.

At last night’s meeting at the Van Asselt Community Center in Rainier Beach, about 50 people sat around tables and responded to a list of prewritten questions from facilitators about their “values,” how the bike plan reflects those values, and those values could best be realized as the city works to build out its bike infrastructure. (I did two detailed reports on the projects that the city has proposed delaying, downgrading, and eliminating here and here.) Although large maps of the South End dominated every table, the “conversations” offered no opportunity to discuss those maps in detail—to note, for example, the conspicuous gaps in the supposedly “connected” bike network at major intersections like Alaska and Rainier (and Alaska and Martin Luther King Jr. Way S), portions of major bike routes like 15th Ave. S., and throughout Georgetown and SoDo, where the plan shows short, random-seeming new stretches of bike lane that end abruptly when they approach arterial streets,  suggesting (on the map at least) that cyclists will simply fly over the major intersections where they are most at risk of being hit.

At my table, the mood was somber as a group of both casual and commuter cyclists—two from Columbia City, one from Georgetown, two from South Park, one from Beacon Hill, and one from Capitol Hill—said they worried that no matter what they said during the facilitated discussion, SDOT, under the current mayoral administration, wouldn’t build anything that was remotely expensive or controversial.

“I’m here because I’m worried,” said South Park resident Maris Zivarts. “I’m worried that people will look at what happened with 35th”—a long-planned bike lane in Northeast Seattle that Mayor Jenny Durkan decided to kill after a group of residents complained that it would eliminate parking for businesses— “and say, ‘We can stop bike lanes [by complaining.]’ I don’t  think I would be here if what happened with 35th hadn’t happened.” Charles Hall, a member of the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board, noted that when Mayor Jenny Durkan’s staff and SDOT asked the board to list their top projects, they decided to focus exclusively on projects in South Seattle, where the bike system is most disconnected and where equity concerns are greatest. “We just really pared it down. We didn’t even put the projects in order,” Hall said. Instead, “We specifically prioritized the south end. And none of the projects that we wanted are even in the [implementation] plan.”

Sarah Shifley, who lives in Columbia City, put an SDOT staffer on the spot about why, exactly, the city decided to reject the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board’s explicit recommendation to focus on creating safe, convenient bike connections between Southeast Seattle and downtown before saying, basically, that she didn’t buy it. “I don’t what the political block is. You can say it’s funding, but it feels like we all agree on the specific projects and then they just get shot down. … That’s my takeaway. It’s just sad.” Shifley pointed to the circuitous, up-and-down greenway route that the city recommends people riding from Southeast Seattle use to get to the rest of the city, then back to the map, where three major north-south thoroughfares—Beacon, Rainier, and MLK—were bare of any planned bike infrastructure. “It just seems crazy to me that there are so many major thoroughfares going north-south, and on a bike there’s not a safe one,” Zivarts chimed in.

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SDOT says it plans to “incorporate” the feedback it receives at all four facilitated discussions into the final version of the implementation plan. (For good measure, the bike board will likely send a “sternly worded letter” to the mayor’s office, another board member told me at last night’s meeting). But without any specific recommendations from the public, particularly the bike-riding public, about what routes should be prioritized for safety, convenience, and equity, it’s hard to see how “incorporating public feedback” will amount to much more than a summary of the comments SDOT staffers dutifully scribbled on easel paper at last night’s meeting.

At the end of the night, the cyclists in the crowd scrambled to unlock their bikes from the rack outside the community center. The city had hauled it in for the bike discussion and took it away as soon as the meeting was over.

Morning Crank: Perverse Incentives

FEMA tent in New Orleans via Wikimedia Commons

1. Interim Human Services Department director Jason Johnson looked visibly shaken at a meeting of the city council’s special committee on homelessness and housing affordability this past Monday, hours after Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that she was pulling his nomination to serve as permanent director. Johnson’s inability to secure council approval came up only once during the meeting—committee chair Sally Bagshaw mentioned briefly that “I know that today is a tough day in particular”—but the fact that he is serving without council approval will almost certainly be a factor in his relationship with the council at least through the next council election.

Although Durkan has the authority to keep Johnson on as an interim director indefinitely, council member Lorena González said this week that he will need to answer some of the questions that were raised during his appointment process about the culture at HSD and the relationship between management and employees. (A recent survey of HSD staff found that employees, especially those in the homelessness division, felt unappreciated, unheard, and out of the loop).

“Regardless of what [interim Human Services Department director Jason Johnson’s] title is, whether he’s permanent or interim, I think he has a responsibility to address the concerns that are being expressed by the people that we ask to do this hard work day in and day out.” —Council member Lorena González

“Regardless of what his title is, whether he’s permanent or interim, I think he has a responsibility to address the concerns that are being expressed by the people that we ask to do this hard work day in and day out in HSD,”  González told me. “The HSD director serves at the pleasure of the mayor. The mayor is his direct supervisor. And as a council member, it’s my expectation that the mayor provide Jason with the direction and the support he needs to be able to address some of the reasonable, legitimate concerns that I heard from HSD employees about the culture” of the department.

2. The subject of Monday’s meeting was how the city measures “success” among homeless service providers and when and how HSD will provide publicly accessible information about its performance metrics and how well providers are meeting them. As council member Teresa Mosqueda noted, the council has been requesting a “dashboard” showing which programs are working and which are underperforming. Johnson noted that while the city has been “laser-focused” on “exits from homelessness”—a term that refers to the number of exits from programs that get logged in King County’s homeless tracking system—”there is also debate about whether that is the right metric to pay attention to,” or whether returns to homelessness—a term that refers to people who leave the homelessness system in King County and then reenter the homelessness system in King County—is a better measure.

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However, members of a second panel, which included representatives from Family Works, Solid Ground, and the Public Defender Association, pointed out that the “returns to homelessness” metric is incomplete, and may actually discourage providers from accurately reporting information about those they serve. “When we look at returns to homelessness, I think it’s an important metric to look at, but we also have to keep in mind that it is an inaccurate number, because it only includes people that are coming back into homelessness that then go into another program” in King County, Solid Ground’s Shannon Rae said. “Folks that returned to the street and [are] not actually accessing other services… don’t show up” in the system—that is, the city may be counting them as “successes” when they have simply given up on trying to use local services. Additionally, a lot of the folks who Solid Ground serves end up homeless in neighboring counties, “so we’re not capturing all the returns to homelessness,” Rae said. On the flip side, she said, service providers get dinged by the new performance metrics—which determine whether agencies receive full funding or have a portion of their funding withheld by the city—when families decide to move in with other people, go into transitional housing, or do something else that’s “best for them” but doesn’t count in the system as an “exit to permanent housing.”

Lisa Daugaard, director of the Public Defender Association, added that the current measures of “success” create a perverse incentive for providers to serve people who are the easiest to serve, because clients who are the hardest to house—for example, chronically homeless men with severe addiction and criminal records related to that addiction—are also, by definition, the ones who are the least likely to result in “success” by the city’s measures. (They also tend to rank lowest on the county’s “vulnerability index,” putting them at the back of the line for housing and services.)

Instead of rewarding providers who manage to get the most difficult-to-serve people into better living situations, the city penalizes and rewards providers on the basis of how many bodies they get into permanent housing, without regard for the difficulty of housing certain populations, and no matter how much impact they have on neighborhoods, property crime rates, and the kind of general “disorder” that was highlighted (sensationalistically and misleadingly) in KOMO’s viral “Seattle Is Dying” report. As a result, Daugaard said, service providers end up “run[ning] away from the most difficult folks out there” for fear of getting dinged. “We should flip that on its head.” That, in fact, is one of the key recommendations homelessness consultant Barb Poppe made in 2016, when she advised the city of Seattle to “[p]rioritize for housing interventions those families and individuals who have the longest histories of homelessness and highest housing barriers” even if they don’t score highest on the vulnerability index.

The city did not put this recommendation into practice, and continues to penalize human service providers for falling short on five measures, which include exits to housing and returns to homelessness. This year, 20 of 46 service providers with HSD contracts failed to meet HSD’s standards and had 12 percent of their funding temporarily withheld by the city. “Financial incentives in contracts to do hard and important work should be true incentives rather than penalties,” Daugaard said Tuesday. “This really was one of the important national realizations in No Child Left Behind”—the George W. Bush-era law that withheld funding from schools that failed to meet testing-based performance standards—”that taking money away from  an institution that’s struggling to do hard work is generally not the best way to improve their ability to do that work.”

3. The question of how to measure success was on my mind when I watched a District 6 city council candidate forum held by the activist group Speak Out Seattle on Tuesday night. The questions for this forum, which featured ten of the candidates running for the Northwest Seattle’s seat, were similar to those at previous SOS forums—written, generally speaking, in a way that implied that homelessness is a choice caused primarily by the decision to become addicted to illegal drugs, and that the most effective solutions to homelessness tend to involve some kind of involuntary commitment. (One question at a recent SOS forum, written by an audience member and read verbatim by KIRO Radio’s Mike Lewis, was: “How do you plan to get the drug-using free campers off the streets? Will you enforce current ordinances about vagrancy, littering, public urination, [and] public drug use?”) Such questions can provoke interesting discussions if candidates are willing to pivot (as council member Lisa Herbold did, skillfully, at SOS’s forum in District 1); but sometimes they’re just the wrong questions.

A good case in point was a question at Tuesday’s forum, about whether the candidates would support erecting “FEMA-style tents or other emergency-type shelters to get people out of their vehicles”—which, practically speaking, would mean leaving their cars or RVs behind.

The assumption behind this question, as well as the city’s outreach to people living in vehicles, is that rational people will give up their last asset for a mat on the ground. The reason this is the wrong framing is not only because this isn’t what rational people will do—given the choice, most people would prefer the autonomy and relative dignity of sleeping in their own vehicle—but because people living in their vehicles consistently say that they don’t want to give them up to move into a shelter. When outreach workers (or policy makers, or candidates for office) offer a mat on the ground in a large group tent as an “alternative” to vehicular living, they’re actively insulting people living in their cars by ignoring their wishes. This is dehumanizing, and if you don’t care about that, it also doesn’t work. People experiencing homelessness, like people who are housed, do things for reasons, and when we listen to those reasons, we can craft solutions that actually help.

Creating safe lots for people living in their cars is a much better option than taking people’s cars away and relocating them into camps, because it respects people’s stated wishes and doesn’t require them to give up their last remaining asset, which happens to double as their home. (Someone living in their car could, theoretically, stay in a shelter as long as they make sure to return to their car and move it every 72 hours, but it’s pretty hard to justify adding another poverty chore to the long list faced by people existing on the margins of society, just because we don’t think people should sleep in cars.) And there’s another reason safe lots make more sense than FEMA tents, too: People living in vehicles tend to need fewer services than chronically homeless folks or those who run a circuit from treatment to shelter to jail. Given limited resources, it makes little sense to pour millions into “wraparound services”—another popular buzzword among the candidates at Tuesday’s District 6 forum—for people who really just need some help paying rent.

Morning Crank: “It Is Little Wonder that Many Good People Won’t Consider Public Service.”

 

1. Learn to trust the Crank: After I reported last week that the nomination of Jason Johnson, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s pick to head the Human Services Department, was on the rocks, Durkan withdrew his name from consideration, trashing the city council in a bitter and harshly worded statement for holding up the nomination with a “never-ending confirmation process.” Durkan’s office also confirmed that they would not submit a new nominee for consideration; instead, Durkan plans to keep Johnson on as an unappointed interim director “through at least next year,” according to Durkan’s spokeswoman Chelsea Kellogg.

Durkan appointed Johnson as interim director in May 2018, and did not forward his name to the city council for permanent appointment until New Year’s Eve. As a result, Johnson served for nearly seven and a half months before Durkan officially nominated him to the position. Since then, however, Durkan has emphasized the urgency of moving his nomination through as quickly as possible.

The Council’s failure to follow its own procedures or give Jason a fair confirmation process has been harmful to the work of the Human Services Department, impaired our effort to respond to the homelessness crisis and has been deeply unfair to a person that has served this city tirelessly on one of the toughest issues facing our city, region and country,” Durkan said in the statement. “It is little wonder that many good people won’t consider public service.”

“City Council has done something remarkable: nothing. The City Council’s inaction has done a disservice to Jason, to Human Services Department employees, and to the ability of the City to focus on the crisis of homelessness.” — Statement from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office announcing her decision to pull Jason Johnson’s nomination as head of the Human Services Department

Durkan (later echoed by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce) placed the blame for the length of the nomination process squarely on council member Kshama Sawant, who advocated for a new nomination process and refused to bring Johnson up for a hearing  in her human services committee. That may have been true initially, but once Johnson’s nomination was moved to a new committee, Sally Bagshaw’s Special Committee on Homelessness, it became increasingly clear that he didn’t have the votes to win confirmation. (In her statement, Durkan said that no one on the council except Sawant had “expressed publicly or to Mayor Durkan that they are opposed to Jason.” Last week, two Durkan staffers asked me to tell them which council members had expressed concerns to me about Johnson.)  

Council members raised questions in Johnson’s first confirmation hearing, on March 28, about low morale among HSD staff, particularly in the homelessness division, which he attributed to the fact that the agency is in the middle of a time of “instability” and “immense change,” including the new mayoral administration. (The fact that the city and county are planning to merge their homelessness programs into a single regional agency is also causing heartburn in the department). Some HSD employees and members of the Seattle Silence Breakers have also raised concerns about Johnson’s commitment to race and social justice, an issue that also came up at his confirmation hearing.

Council members were unavailable Monday to talk about Durkan’s decision to pull Johnson’s name from consideration. If Johnson does remain in his position through next year, he will be working with a much different council; all seven district council positions are on the ballot this year, and four incumbents are not seeking reelection.

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If you like the work I’m doing here, and would like to support this page financially, please support me by becoming a monthly donor on Patreon or PayPal.  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 time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses.  If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

2. On Monday, the council appointed its newest member to replace Rob Johnson, who resigned his District 4 (northeast Seattle) council seat seven months before the end of his term:  Abel Pacheco, currently the strategic engagement director at a University of Washington STEM program. Pacheco, who has sought a position on the council twice before (once in 2015, when he ran for the seat Johnson won, and once in 2017, when he sought appointment to a different council seat), was one of ten candidates running for the permanent District 4 position but has committed to dropping out of that race. Pacheco will chair the council’s land use and zoning committee, which will take up legislation that would make it easier to build accessory dwelling units, as well as a proposal to upzone University Way Northeast, which Johnson stripped from the Mandatory Housing Ability plan adopted last month.

3. Also Monday, the council voted to move the $219 million Libraries for All levy proposal—amended to include additional library hours, programs for kids, and outreach workers for homeless youth—to the August ballot Monday. But even before the levy plan hit the mayor’s desk, anti-tax newspaper pundits were spinning the numbers to represent the new levy as a shocking increase over 2012’s $123 million proposal. The Seattle Times reported that the original levy proposal, at $213 million, represented a “73 percent increase” over the levy adopted in 2012. On Monday, the Seattle P-I’s Joel Connelly inflated that amount to a “doubling” of the levy, a claim that would be inaccurate even if inflation and population growth did not exist, as $219 million is not twice as much as $123 million.

But inflation and population growth do exist. Since 2012, the city has grown by more than 100,000 residents, and the value of a median house has more than doubled, from $361,000 to $726,000 last year. As a result, the actual levy that’s being proposed this year—that is, the number of cents levied per $1,000 of property value—is lower than it was in the initial year of the 2012 levy.  That plan raised property taxes by 15 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value in 2013. (The actual assessment needed to raise $123 million went down in successive years as property values spiked.) The new plan raises taxes just over 12 cents per $1,000 in 2020—an amount that will also decline if property values continue their skyward trajectory.

Don’t expect to see accurate representations of property taxes in the Seattle Times or PI, though. Instead, get ready for three more months of misleading figures and tirades against “tax fatigue,” all capped off with a Times editorial urging a “no” vote on the levy in July.

Afternoon Crank: Council Candidates Include 15 Millionaires; Durkan’s Office Responds to Story on Workplace Conduct

1. The candidates for Seattle City Council this year include at least 15 millionaires and one near-millionaire. According to the candidates’ financial disclosure reports, provided by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, the wealthiest candidate in any race is District 4 (Northeast Seattle) candidate Cathy Tuttle, who has a net worth of $7.26 million. Tuttle is followed by District 6 (northwest Seattle) candidate Jay Fathi ($5.5 million); District 7 (downtown, Magnolia, Queen Anne) candidate Don Harper ($3.8 million), District 6 candidate Jon Lisbin ($3.5 million) and District 2 (Southeast Seattle) candidate Tammy Morales ($2.6 million). The amount each homeowning candidate is worth does not include the total appraised value of their home; rather, like all calculations of net worth, it includes the portion of their home that they have paid off and own outright. If a candidate owns a million-dollar home but has only paid off one-fifth of its value, the portion of that home that would show up in the candidate’s net wealth would be $200,000.

The other millionaires and multimillionaires running for city council this year, in order, are:

• District 5 incumbent Debora Juarez ($2.02 million)

• District 5 challenger George Liu ($1.86 million)

• District 3 challenger Pat Murakami ($1.75 million)

• District 7 candidate Daniela Eng ($1.5 million)

• District 6 candidate Heidi Wills ($1.25 million)

• District 5 challenger Ann Davison Sattler ($1.2 million)

• District 7 candidate Michael George ($1.1 million)

• District 2 candidate Mark Solomon ($1.1 million)

• District 7 candidate Naveed Jamali ($1.07 million)

• District 6 candidate Kate Martin ($1 million)

Alex Pedersen, running in District 4, is the near-millionaire, with $944,000 in net wealth.

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If you like the work I’m doing here, and would like to support this page financially, please support me by becoming a monthly donor on Patreon or PayPal.  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 time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses.  If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Districts 6 and 7 tied for the most millionaires running, with four in each district so far; District 1 (West Seattle) was the only district where no candidate has a net worth above $1 million.

Twenty-two of the 53 candidates whose financial disclosures I’ve received so far own their homes, including several who own their houses outright (Liu, Solomon, Tuttle, and Lisbin) and several who own second homes or properties in addition to their primary house (Fathi, Lisbin, Murakami, Juarez). Overall, the homeowning candidates’ average net worth of $1.85 million is more than twice that of the typical Seattle-area homeowner and more than four times the $399,000 median net worth in Seattle, as reported earlier this year by the Seattle Times’ Gene Balk. The renters who are running, moreover, are wealthier, on average, than the median renter in the city, with an average net worth of about $115,000, compared to the median $36,000. Only two of the non-property owners who are running for council reported negative wealth (i.e. debt that outweighs their savings).

Districts 6 and 7 tied for the most millionaires running, with four in each district so far; District 1 (West Seattle) was the only district where no candidate so far has a net worth above $1 million.

Keep in mind that these are averages compared to medians, so the comparison is not exactly apples to apples; the spread among homeowners ranges from $300,000 (Brendan Kolding, District 1) to Tuttle’s $7.2 million, and among renters, from negative $7,500 (Joey Massa, District 6) to $765,811 (Jesse Greene, District 1).

The two non-millionaire incumbents seeking reelection are District 1 council member Lisa Herbold (net worth: $527,000) and District 3 council member Kshama Sawant (net worth $470,000). I’ll update this post when I receive the remaining handful of outstanding financial disclosure reports from the city.

“We also know that workplaces are human endeavors, and there is no office that is free of workplace issues. The work we’ve done is critical to create a culture and a system that promotes respect, empowers employees to be able to raise or discuss concerns and then appropriately address issues that may arise.”

2. On Wednesday, Crosscut’s David Kroman had an exclusive story about two former staffers for Mayor Jenny Durkan who allege that she mistreated them. One alleged that Durkan grabbed her face and turned her head during an argument; the other accused the mayor of creating a hostile work environment and racial discrimination.

Early that same morning,  Durkan’s chief of staff, Stephanie Formas, sent an email to all cabinet-level staffers responding to the allegations in the story. The email enumerates the mayor’s accomplishments “including surviving the largest snow storm in 50 years, expanded preschool, free college, climate initiatives, gun safety, a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights and much more,” and talks about the diversity of the mayor’s staff and the creation of an Anti-Harassment Interdepartmental Team. “With your leadership on this issue, we’ve worked to make significant changes to create a positive workplace across the City. We also know that workplaces are human endeavors, and there is no office that is free of workplace issues. The work we’ve done is critical to create a culture and a system that promotes respect, empowers employees to be able to raise or discuss concerns and then appropriately address issues that may arise.”

Formas’ email mentions the allegations themselves only briefly, noting that “senior leadership in the Mayor’s Office worked with Seattle Department of Human Resources to listen to the employees and work to reach a respectful and fair resolution that aligned with the employees’ desired outcomes” and referring them to Durkan’s official statement.

HSD Director Nomination Stalls Out; Library Levy Moves Forward

1. The nomination process for interim Human Services Department director Jason Johnson appears to be stalled due to a lack of support from city council members, who have the final say on mayoral department director nominations. It’s unclear whether or when the city council will revive the confirmation hearings.

Last week, council member Sally Bagshaw canceled a scheduled meeting of the council’s select committee on homelessness and housing affordability, which included consideration of Johnson’s nomination, and has not rescheduled it. Some council members were reportedly unsatisfied with Johnson’s responses to their questions about inclusivity, Johnson’s personal commitment to race and social justice, independence, and his vision for the department.

Mayor Jenny Durkan has been criticized by HSD’s own internal Change Team (which leads the department’s implementation of the Race and Social Justice Initiative), as well as the Seattle Silence Breakers and the Seattle Human Services Coalition, for nominating Johnson without a “transparent and inclusive process” for selecting a new HSD leader. Earlier this year, city council member Kshama Sawant proposed a resolution to halt Johnson’s nomination and start a new search for a new HSD director. That resolution failed, with Sawant, Mike O’Brien, and Teresa Mosqueda casting the dissenting votes. But concerns about the process and about whether Johnson is the right person for the job seem to have grown since the council began holding hearings in March.

At the most recent committee meeting, on March 28, Johnson attributed the results of a survey showing widespread dissatisfaction among HSD employees, particularly those in the homelessness division, to the “instability” and “immense change” that comes with every new mayoral administration. Johnson also responded to questions about whether he’d be “independent” from Durkan—first saying that the department always employs “evidence-based strategies,” then acknowledging that he wouldn’t say it’s “my way or the highway” if Durkan disagreed with his recommendations on an issue. Council president Bruce Harrell then asked Johnson if he had considered the ways in which white privilege had greased his path to the nomination. Johnson said yes, he was aware “that I was going to have a much easier time” than his African-American predecessor, Catherine Lester, then noted that Lester  “brought me to this organization and… when she resigned and was talking about next steps, offer[ed] her full confidence in my abilities to the mayor.”

Mayor Durkan’s office declined to answer questions about the nomination process or the reason for the delay. They also repeatedly requested the names of specific council members opposed to Johnson’s nomination.

An audit earlier this year concluded that HSD is not doing enough to coordinate the efforts of the agencies that do outreach to unsheltered people; has failed to identify and prioritize people who have recently become homeless for the first time; does not provide nearly enough restrooms or showers for the thousands of people sleeping  outdoors throughout the city; and does not have a good system in place for evaluating the success of the city’s response to homelessness. (Last year, the city and county announced plans to create a new, merged agency to address homelessness, which could help address concerns about coordination; at the same time, the lack of certainty around what that agency will look like, and where current HSD employees will fit in the new structure, has likely contributed to low morale in HSD’s homelessness division.)

It’s unclear exactly how many council members would vote against Johnson if his nomination came up for a vote today (Sawant, of course, looks like a pretty hard no), but sources inside and outside city hall say that he does not currently have the votes to secure the permanent appointment. Johnson has served on an interim basis for nearly a year—a fact to which Durkan has pointed as evidence that he’s qualified for the permanent position.

Bagshaw, who would have to reconvene the committee to revive the nomination process, said she had no comment “yet” about the nomination, and other council members declined to speak on the record.

Support The C Is for Crank
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2. The council added several million dollars to Durkan’s proposed $213 million library levy Wednesday and moved it one step closer to the ballot. The special committee on the library levy adopted the proposal after adding amendments that will, if the levy passes, expand the bilingual “Play and Learn” early-literacy program ($2.1 million); keep branch libraries, but not the downtown library, open an additional hour every day ($2.5 million); and add a youth services support social worker and a part-time case worker to do outreach to library patrons experiencing homelessness ($1.1 million). A couple of amendments that didn’t make it into the legislation: A study that would look into the feasibility of locating child-care facilities at library branches, and funding for two additional security officers.

The levy proposal goes to the full council next Monday, April 22.

For the basics on the levy, which would add library hours and eliminate library fines, check out my primer at Seattle magazine.

Golf Revenues Remain On Downward Trajectory, Raising Questions About Sustainability

A new report on Seattle’s municipal golf courses by three consultants (Lund, Scanlan, and Cocker Fennessy) concludes that none of the city-owned golf courses—Jefferson Park, Jackson Park, Interbay, and West Seattle—is sustainable without ongoing subsidies, and that all four courses have significant deferred maintenance needs, totaling more than $36 million. Under each of four scenarios the consultants considered, the golf courses, which collectively occupy 528 acres of city-owned land, will continue to lose money—between $4.1 million to $8.4 million a year by 2027. In 2017, the city spent about $8.4 million to operate and maintain the courses, or about 54 percent of their total cost (the rest is funded through fees, merchandise, and restaurant sales.) The city paid just over $104,000 for the study.

Chelsea Kellogg, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, said the city will analyze “long-term models to see the financial sustainability of the courses.” At the same time, she said, the Parks Department, “working with other departments, will also begin to explore a range of potential options for these City-owned properties, which could include continuing these outdoor recreation facilities or other potential uses such as adding additional parks and green space, or creating affordable commercial space and housing.”

Since 2006, city policy has called for the golf courses to be self-sufficient, paying for all their own capital and operating costs and contributing 3.5 percent of their revenues—later increased to 5 percent—to the city’s Park Fund.

The report lays out a number of financial options to reduce the golf courses’ losses. They include: Reducing or eliminating the golf program’s ongoing contributions to the city’s Park Fund; increasing user fees; and farming out maintenance to a private vendor, which would reduce labor costs. Two of the four scenarios in the report also involve issuing bonds to pay for deferred maintenance, which would add annual debt service of up to $3.3 million a year to the cost of the program. The argument for doing this work now, according to the report, is that improving the courses and making them safer will make them more popular with golfers; for example, the nets at the Interbay driving range are too low for people to use clubs with long-ball flights, because of the risk of balls flying into the nearby Seattle Pacific University playing fields. “This is a significant safety liability and also a lost revenue opportunity,” the report says.

Promising projection or misguided optimism? Report predicts a total reversal of the trend of declining interest in golf.

Last year, the city budget moved about half a million dollars from the parks department into the city’s capital budget to help keep the golf courses afloat. At the time, budget director Ben Noble suggested that one reason for shrinking golf revenues is that “golf just isn’t as popular as it used to be.” The report released last week affirms this conclusion—showing that the total number of rounds declined from 242,868 in 2013 to 206,010 in 2017, and that in the Seattle metropolitan area, golfers play about 12 percent fewer rounds per capita than the national average. (Jackson Park, in North Seattle, and Jefferson Park, on Beacon Hill, both had about 22 percent fewer rounds in 2017 than in 2013.)  According to a 2017 survey by EMC Research, about 13 percent of Seattle residents use the golf courses at least twice a year; in that same survey, however, respondents overwhelmingly named golf as their lowest parks spending priority.

Support The C Is for Crank
If you like the work I’m doing here, and would like to support this page financially, please support me by becoming a monthly donor on Patreon or PayPal.  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 time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses.  If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

In spite of the downward trend in golfing in Seattle, the report projects that golf rounds will rebound dramatically between 2019 and 2020, spiking 4 percent “when full course play resumes at Jefferson following capital improvements to repair damaged holes.” Overall, the report projects that the number of rounds played will increase, on average, increase 1 percent a year between now and 2027.

The report, which includes comments from a list of 60-plus “stakeholder” in the golfing community, acknowledges that golf is widely considered an “elitist” sport, but attributes this to the fact that private golf courses and country clubs are expensive and exclusive. “If the City does not offer golf as a recreational opportunity, golf will indeed be limited to only those who can afford private or privately-owned public courses where fees are substantially higher than those charged at the City’s four municipal golf courses. In addition to direct cost of fees, players would need to travel outside of the City to find a course.”

These numbers, which use widely varying age ranges, indicate that the only course where a majority of patrons are under 50 is the Interbay Golf Center, which has a 9-hole course, a driving range, and a mini-golf course.

One reason for the perception that golf is elitist and expensive that the report does not mention is that although it is—as the report puts it—”open to all,” golfers must either invest in and transport their own equipment or rent it on-site, which adds significant costs—golf clubs, for example, cost $20 a round. That’s on top of fees of $33.75 per round for adults ($38 on weekends). The report recommends that the city consider a new fee for a maintenance fund at each golf course, while noting that raising fees “runs counter to providing access to lower income people,” and that the more discount programs the golf courses offer to schools, youth groups, and off-peak players, the more revenue they lose.

The city has limited demographic information about who uses its golf courses. They do know that the participation rate among women, at 10-17 percent, is lower than the national average of 24 percent, and that participation among people under 50 is well below 50 percent at all of the 18-hole courses. At the Interbay Golf Center, which has 9 holes and includes a driving range and mini-golf course, 53 percent of patrons are under 50.  According to the report, however, “There is no data available regarding minority participation rates at Seattle public golf courses.” The report suggests increasing marketing to women and people of color, tracking golfer demographics, and “enhanc[ing] the clubhouse experience to be welcoming to all, including non-golfers.”

Golf in Seattle remains an overwhelmingly male sport.

Affordable-housing proponents have suggested closing down at least one of the city’s golf courses and using the land to develop new affordable housing. Last year, then-parks director Christopher Williams said, “Maybe we can’t sustain four golf courses. Maybe we can only sustain the two most profitable golf courses in the city ultimately. But we don’t feel we have enough information to be in a place where we can make a compelling case that golf courses should become places for affordable housing.” Another potential obstacle to the affordable-housing plan is that golf courses count as part of the city’s public green space, so that closing even the smallest golf course, the Interbay Golf Center, would represent a loss of 52 acres of “public” parkland.

Durkan’s office says they’re open to the idea. “As we weigh options for the future of the City of Seattle’s four golf courses, Mayor Durkan believes we have an opportunity to examine our golf courses with the goals of supporting our parks and green space, addressing affordability and meeting our racial equity goals as we build a city of the future.”

Afternoon Crank: More Precise Homelessness Exit Numbers, More Library Levy Asks

1. After initially saying it would require a “700-page PowerPoint” to explain how many actual people moved from homelessness into housing last year, the city’s Human Services Department has done just that, producing numbers from 2017 and 2018 that show precisely how many households and how many individual human beings have exited from city-funded homelessness programs.

In her State of the City speech, Mayor Jenny Durkan claimed the city had “helped more than 7,400 households move out of homelessness and into permanent housing”; after I reported that this number actually accounted for exits from programs rather than “households,” resulting in duplication,  HSD’s deputy director suggested that the actual number mattered less than the trajectory; “no matter how you look at it, it’s getting better,” she said. On Tuesday, at a meeting of the council’s human services committee, interim HSD director Jason Johnson confirmed another way households could be duplicated—if someone exits from a shelter with a rapid rehousing voucher, then uses the voucher until it runs out, that person counts as two “exits.”

This number is a far more precise (though still imperfect) way of looking at exits from homelessness. And it actually confirms HSD’s contention that the city’s focus on new strategies such as enhanced shelter, with case management and services, is paying off. In 2018, HSD-funded programs helped move 3,559 households, representing 5,792 individual people, into housing from homelessness. That’s an increase from 2017, when HSD-funded programs moved 3,374 households, representing 4,447 people, into housing. (The numbers in the chart HSD provided when I requested year-over-year data, below, don’t quite add up because 36 households used homeless prevention programs and, at another point in the year, were homeless and then exited from homelessness. And, as Kshama Sawant’s aide Ted Virdone confirmed ) City-funded homeless prevention programs served 71 fewer people last year than in 2017, which HSD spokeswoman Lily Rehrman attributes to the fact that six prevention programs—Chief Seattle Club Prevention, Mother Nation Prevention, Seattle Indian Health Board Prevention, St. Vincent de Paul Prevention, United Indians Prevention, and Somali Youth and Family Club (SYFC) Prevention—were new last year.

HSD’s presentation to the council committee earlier this week also showed that the while the total number of basic shelter beds declined by 296, the total number of shelter beds overall went up by 366, thanks to 662 new enhanced shelter beds—a term that, according to the city, refers to shelters with “extended or 24/7 service” that offer “many services” such as meals, storage, and case management.

2. The city council’s special library levy committee had its first evening hearing on the details of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed $213 million levy renewal Thursday night, and the conversation was almost entirely free from the topic that dominated the committee’s discussion on Monday: Whether the library should do away with fines for late returns, which disproportionately impact people in the city’s most diverse and least wealthy areas.

Despite what certain radio talk-show hosts and the Seattle Times editorial board might have you believe, there was no evidence of public outrage at the idea that kids might no longer punished for failing to return their books on time. Instead, most public commenters spoke about about the importance of the library in general (one speaker, historian Paula Becker, described how important the library was as a refuge for her late son, Hunter, during his active heroin addiction) or in favor of specific programs they used, like a book club for people with sight impairment. (Council president Bruce Harrell, who suggested earlier this week that fines send an important message about civic responsibility, did get in one plug for fines as a way to pay for some of the items his colleagues have suggested adding to the proposal). The bulk of the meeting was about five proposed amendments that would increase the cost of the proposal, and other ideas that aren’t formal amendments but could add millions more to the plan.

Those amendments include:

• A proposal by council member Lorena Gonzalez to fund existing programs for kids under 4  and youth through high school with levy funds, rather than through the Seattle Library Foundation, at a cost of $4.2 million over seven years;

• An amendment by council member Mike O’Brien to keep libraries open one hour later on weeknights throughout the system (on top of the additional hours in Durkan’s proposal, which would add morning and evening hours to three branches and open four libraries on Fridays), at a cost of $6.2 million over seven years;

• An proposal by council member Teresa Mosqueda to study the feasibility of co-locating child care services at library branches, at an unknown cost;

• Another proposal by Mosqueda that would add two more security officers to the library system, bringing the total from 19 to 21, at a cost of $1.3 million over seven years; and

• A final proposal by Mosqueda to fund three more case managers and a youth services support worker from the Downtown Emergency Service Center to connect patrons experiencing homelessness to housing and services, at a cost of $2.1 million over seven years.

In addition, the council will consider adding more funding for digital materials like e-books to reflect their rising cost; adding air conditioning and/or elevators at the Columbia City, Green Lake, and University branches; funding a small new South Lake Union library branch in the new Denny Substation.

Support The C Is for Crank
If you like the work I’m doing here, and would like to support this page financially, please support me by becoming a monthly donor on Patreon or PayPal.  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 time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses.  If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

City council member Debora Juarez, who chairs the library committee, said the amendments “all make sense and are great, but that “we still have to be mindful that we are in levy mode; we are not in general budget mode. … We don’t want to put a poison pill where [the levy] goes down because taxpayers are not going to be comfortable” with the amount. “We’re not voting on a child care levy. We’re not voting on a public safety levy. We are voting on a library levy. So we have to keep that in mind.”

3. Learn to trust the Crank: As I first reported on Twitter yesterday, council member Juarez is King County Executive Dow Constantine’s pick to replace former council member Rob Johnson (who left the council before the end of his term for a job as the transportation planner for NHL Seattle). The King County Council will have to approve Juarez’s appointment (technically, she will represent North King County on the regional board). One question that will likely come up is whether Juarez, who fought tooth and nail for the N. 130th St. light rail station in her council district, will be able to broaden her horizons as a member of the regional Sound Transit board. Perhaps anticipating such questions, Juarez said in her announcement, “I plan on working as hard for the people of the tri-county Sound Transit service area as I do for my North Seattle district.”

“You Uppity F*cking Bitch”: The Response to the Viral Public Comment Video Was Predictable and Avoidable

A couple of weeks ago, a video of the city council’s public hearing period went viral, spurred on by local conservative media and amplified by national right-wing talk show and podcast hosts. The video showed a man, Richard Schwartz, asking council member Debora Juarez, who was chairing the meeting, to stop the two-minute timer so that he could address her directly about the fact that the council didn’t seem to be listening to him with the kind of rapt attention he felt he deserved. Schwartz, who has met one-on-one with council members and complains to them frequently about cyclists going “too fast” in the Westlake bike lane, was breaking the public-comment rule that requires commenters to speak to items on the agenda; I’ve watched the council for a long time and seen them cut off many people’s mics over many years for violating this rule, but they didn’t do so in this case. (If you want to know more about Schwartz’s pet issue, KUOW did a  piece about him two days after his viral public comment). Instead, Juarez told him the clock was running and said he had her attention. Once the two-minute video clip started to spread via Facebook and Reddit, of course, none of that context mattered. The only thing many people saw was a kindly old man begging for attention from a bunch of rude government officials, mostly women, who ignored his sincere pleas for “just two minutes” of their attention.

That part was predictable: Right-wing bloviators love to crow about government (particularly liberal governments) not listening to the little guy. But so was what happened next: A torrent of abusive phone calls and emails from around the country, directly primarily at Juarez but also at every woman of color on the council, including one who was not even at the meeting. This was predictable because it’s basically what happened the last time the women on the council did something controversial. Last time, the council’s five female members voted against vacating a public alley for would-be stadium developer Chris Hansen. This time, they failed to pay sufficiently rapt attention to an older white man who was demanding that they hang on his every off-topic word.

I went through more than 1,000 emails that poured into council offices over the five-day period when the video was at its viral peak. Strung together and put into 12-point type, they made a 216-page Word document more than 130,000 words long. Some of the abusive emails went to subsets of the council, or to every council member (including the two, Bruce Harrell and Teresa Mosqueda) who weren’t there. Many others were targeted specifically at the female council members. In fact, more emails were addressed explicitly to Mosqueda—who, again was not even at the meeting—than to Mike O’Brien, who was.

In reading the emails, a few themes emerge. The first is sexist name-calling, most of it targeted at Juarez, who is referred to as “that cunt”; “a vile piece of trash”; “an entitled bitch”; an “uppity bitch” whose “ugly ass really should pay more attention to the citizens immediately in front if [sic] you, instead of looking up recipes for tortillas”; “A grotty, lazy, rude good for nothing stereotype”; a “disrespectful bitch”; a “vile old clam”; an “ugly fucking cow”; a “fat disgusting cow”; “the literal scum of the earth” whose “dusty old bones will most likely fill up all 6 feet of space [in her coffin] just by itself”; a “bitch” who should “suck my fucking dick,” and a variety of other slurs. Writers also targeted council member Kshama Sawant with sexist and racist slurs, including “a truly revolting individual and a cancer that plagues the Jewel of the Pacific Northwest”; a “racist hypocrite against the usa [sic] worthless politician”; a “piece of shit” “fucking Muslim” who should “go back to your ducking [sic] country”; and, of course, a bitch. Callers to Gonzalez’s office left messages saying she “should honestly get the fuck out of this country because you don’t belong here”; that she should “go fuck yourself, you fucking piece of shit”; and calling her “a vile and disgusting load of shit, you fucking bitch.”

Other themes: The council is being racist and sexist against Schwartz because he’s a white man (“Are you a bunch of misandrist [sic] (look that word up dummies) or just a bunch of chauvinist [sic] that are sticking up for the women but, really attacking men?.”); “I am appalled at your callous and arrogant demeanor toward the white male CITIZEN”); “Kiss America’s Ass & My White Male Veteran Ass. Now sit your Fat Ass Down.” They’re “arrogant” (a word that shows up 38 times in the emails), “entitled” (22) “elitists” (20) because they’re “Democrats” (or “Demo-craps” or “DEMON-CRAT[s]!!!!!” or “DemocRATs”). And they deserve to be “hit,” “slapped,” have someone “beat the fuck out of them” because of the way they acted. These comments, while sometimes directed at the entire council, were most often directed at Juarez, and often tended to be gendered, suggesting that while the entire council may be “DEMON-CRATS,” only the women on the council needed to be told (as Juarez was) that they are “Smug, elitist, dismissive, bored, annoyed, ignorant and ugly both inside and out.”

 

People often wonder why more women don’t go into politics, and there are many reasons—sexist double standards that require women to “prove ourselves” capable of roles men are assumed to be able to do by default; sexist societal expectations that make women primary parents, caregivers, housecleaners, and errand runners even in “progressive” cities like Seattle; gendered ageism that says that women are too young to be effective right up until the moment that they’re too old to be relevant. But the fact that women in public office are far more likely face threats, harassment, and gender-based verbal abuse is another reason, one we shouldn’t just ignore. In the weeks since the initial burst of hate speech that a staffer described as “the hurricane,” the media has moved on and the cameras (many of them trained directly on Juarez, demanding “answers to the questions” people commenting on the video were raising) have gone away. But we shouldn’t just ignore these attacks, or say the female council members “knew what they were signing up for”—or, as some members of the Seattle media did, fan the flames in order to juice our own ratings or clicks. Putting up with sexist, racist harassment and gender-based threats shouldn’t be a job requirement at any workplace, particularly one where women have to work three times as hard to be taken half as seriously.

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If you like the work I’m doing here, and would like to support this page financially, please support me by becoming a monthly donor on Patreon or PayPal.  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 time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses.  If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Fines Are a Barrier to Access: And Other Facts About the Proposed Library Levy

City council members discussed Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposal to renew Seattle’s library levy and increase its size from $123 million to $213 million on Monday, and proposed some possible adds of their own.

The most controversial aspect of the levy, besides its size (which council member Mike O’Brien noted is an increase of about 35 percent once population growth and inflation are accounted for—not 78 percent, as the Seattle Times has claimed) is a proposal to eliminate fines for overdue materials, which studies from other cities have shown is an effective way to ensure access for low-income residents while actually increasing the number of books and other materials that get returned.

Council staffer Asha Venkataraman explained this somewhat counterintuitive conclusion. First, she noted, fines really are a barrier to access: About one in every five library cardholders currently has a blocked account, meaning that they can’t access library materials unless they pay their fines. The areas of the city with the largest numbers of blocked accounts, as well as the highest average outstanding fines, are mostly south of I-90, in Southeast Seattle, plus parts of far north Seattle—areas with lower average incomes and more people of color. Those areas also happen to be the places where wifi and computer usage in libraries is highest (suggesting the lack of computers at home).

Second, Venkataraman explained, a San Francisco study that looked into eliminating library fines found that patrons in cities that had partially or completely eliminated fines returned materials at the same rate or slightly faster, and that circulation increased overall (which makes sense, because when people fail to return books, the number of books in the system is reduced and circulation goes down.) The study also found that a major reason people avoided going in to get their account restored was “the negative interaction of having to go and pay off fines.”

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If you like the work I’m doing here, and would like to support this page financially, please support me by becoming a monthly donor on Patreon or PayPal.  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 time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses.  If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Council president Bruce Harrell expressed concern that eliminating fines might discourage people from doing their civic responsibility, and suggested (perhaps tongue in cheek) that if the city is going to eliminate fines, they should also eliminate fees for people who simply fail to return books, which account for about $200,000 of the $1.1 million the library system takes in annually from fines and fees. (“Some people are operating in a higher theft area than others and I don’t want them being prohibited from being able to borrow from this public asset just because they couldn’t afford to pay the book back,” Harrell said.)  Harrell also suggested that the city create a system where people who want to pay can do so, but people who don’t want to pay won’t be penalized. “I don’t understand the policy reasons for waiving millions of dollars when some people might be willing to pay,” Harrell said. The library’s revenues from fines have been steadily declining, thanks largely to the growing use of online materials. Since 2013, fine revenues have decreased by 31 percent.

Council member Kshama Sawant responded that even if payment is “voluntary,” such a system would still require people returning books to indicate that they weren’t going to pay, and why. “What’s going to happen if you introduce that kind of policy … would be a sort of implicit shaming of people who can’t pay,” Sawant said. “There are children who shouldn’t have to figure out whether their parents are able to pay or not. That just seems to put the onus on the individual families to decide what they should do.”

Council members also discussed the question—raised, most recently, in a Seattle Times editorial that argued that the city should find alternative sources to pay for library capital projects—of whether revenues from the real estate excise tax on new development, or REET, could be used to supplant a significant portion of levy funding and lower the levy ask. The Times also claimed, erroneously, that the city has “slashed” REET spending on libraries from $3.8 million in 2016 to “only $564,000 this year.” (Over the life of the proposed levy, annual REET spending would be $500,000 to $800,000 a year, according to a staff analysis.) In fact, the higher spending in 2016 (and 2017) represented a historic anomaly. According to the adopted library budgets from those years, the city spent a total of $2.3 million in REET revenues on library capital projects in 2016, and a total of $1.9 million in 2017, largely  to  fund unanticipated repairs to the downtown library, including repairs to a sinking floor. Between 2013, when the last version of the levy went into effect, and 2015, average REET spending was $593,000 a year. “Not all library needs will and can be met to the scale that is needed by simply relying on REET,” council member Lorena Gonzalez said.

Source: Council central staff memo, April 8

Council members indicated that they were interested in adding a few items to the plan, including extended weeknight hours (council member O’Brien), programs targeted at kids under 4 (Gonzalez), and adding air conditioning and elevators at the Columbia City, Greenlake, and University branches.

The council will hold its first public hearing on the levy in council chambers starting at 5:30 this Thursday, April 11.