Is Seattle’s Experiment in Public Campaign Finance Working?

This story, which I reported several months ago, just appeared in the July 2019 print edition of Seattle magazine. Many of the numbers have changed; for example, 35 candidates have now qualified for and are receiving democracy vouchers, and of those, 27 have been released from either total spending limits or total contribution limits or both, a process I covered in more detail here. Meanwhile, as I predicted in my piece, independent spending—the primary impediment to the idealistic goals of the democracy voucher program—continues to balloon, outpacing both individual cash donations and democracy vouchers in many races. I’ve lightly edited this version of the story to reflect some of the changes since the story went to print; the version that ran in the magazine is available on Seattle magazine’s website.

This year’s Seattle City Council races have produced a bumper crop of candidates—55 people running for seven council seats. Of those, more than 40 have signed up to participate in the city’s audacious experiment in campaign funding: democracy vouchers, a unique form of public campaign financing in which voters determine who gets public funds.

The goals of the program are twofold: to increase the number and diversity of candidates running in local races; and to make it possible for more ordinary residents, including noncitizens and people who are not registered to vote, to donate directly to candidates even if they lack the personal funds to do so.

Two elections in since the program began in 2017, it’s clear that more candidates are running. In 2015, the first year that most council positions were elected by district (there are seven district and two at-large council seats), the same seven seats drew 41 candidates. And more people than ever before are also contributing to local races. Whether that participation translates into a different kind of city council—one that includes, for example, renters and people without connections to deep-pocketed donors—remains an open question.

First, some history. Four years ago, in an election that was closely watched by voting-reform advocates across the country, Seattle voters passed Initiative 122, which radically changed how city elections are conducted and financed. Although the initiative was sweeping—limiting contributions from city contractors, prohibiting lobbying by former elected officials and lowering contribution limits—the most dramatic change was the creation of an unprecedented financing system that sets aside public money for Seattle residents to spend on candidates for city offices.

Financed through a $30 million, 10-year property tax, the experimental Democracy Voucher Program allocates four “vouchers” worth a total of $100 to every Seattle resident, who can earmark the vouchers to the qualifying candidate or candidates of their choice. Nominees qualify for the program by collecting a specified number of signatures and contributions. (See sidebar.) Once they qualify, candidates also must abide by contribution and spending limits and participate in at least three public forums. The program is voluntary; this year, several candidates, including District 3 (central Seattle) incumbent and socialist Kshama Sawant, are not participating, freeing them from the program’s spending and contribution caps.

In 2015—before the Democracy Voucher Program was in place—only 1.3 percent of Seattle residents donated to local campaigns, most of them residents of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, according to an analysis that year by Sightline Institute, which drafted I-122. In 2017, the first year of the program, that number nearly tripled, to 3.4 percent.

“If your wallet is empty, you’re still able to participate in this part of the political process,” says Liz Dupee, who directs the Washington Democracy Hub at the Win/Win Network, a progressive advocacy group. Last year, a Win/Win analysis found that democracy vouchers had “diversified the pool of donors” to include more young people, people of color and residents of less affluent neighborhoods.

District 2 City Council candidate Tammy Morales, who narrowly lost to incumbent Bruce Harrell in her first run for the southeast Seattle seat in 2015, says democracy vouchers have been a game changer for her. “The last time I ran, I would knock on somebody’s door who might feel very compelled by my message and the things I was hoping to do, but I wasn’t about to ask them for a contribution because they couldn’t afford it, and now I can ask them for their vouchers,” Morales says. “They’re providing a way for people who don’t have a lot of resources to participate.”

Other studies back this up. A city-commissioned report by BerkConsulting found that 88 percent of people who used vouchers in 2017 had never contributed to a local campaign before.

So far, vouchers haven’t made campaigns cheaper. In 2017—the first year that City Council candidates could participate in the voucher program—Position 8 candidates Jon Grant and Teresa Mosqueda spent a combined total of $818,000, making the race one of the most expensive council races in recent Seattle history. Both Grant and Mosqueda participated in the Democracy Voucher Program, but the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (which has the discretion to do so) raised the cap on individual contributions from $250 to $500 and lifted the total spending limit for both candidates after Mosqueda’s fundraising repeatedly blew past Grant’s.

In 2017, when just two council seats were on the ballot, spending for City Council campaigns increased 60 percent over 2015, when all nine seats were up for election.

If one of the goals of the program is to make campaigns less expensive, it may seem counterintuitive to raise the caps. But Ethics and Elections Commission executive director Wayne Barnett argues that it’s important for campaigns to have the ability to combat well-funded outside groups—in other words, political action committees (PACs), which are not subject to contribution or spending limits. “If you’re not going to give a candidate an opportunity to remain competitive when outside forces start spending heavily on behalf of their opponent, I don’t think candidates are likely to remain in the [Democracy Voucher] program.”

Morales, who announced her candidacy in January, says the spending caps can make it hard to pay campaign workers a living wage while also budgeting for expenses like ads and campaign mail. And Mosqueda notes that the cap on democracy vouchers made it impossible for people who wanted to contribute to her campaign to do so after she hit the $300,000 maximum for voucher contributions. “We need to either say that we need to stay within these caps or get rid of them,” Mosqueda says. “There were a lot of people [last year] who were very frustrated that they couldn’t use their democracy vouchers.” Two-thirds of Mosqueda’s campaign funding in 2017 came from democracy vouchers.

It’s also unclear whether democracy vouchers are accomplishing their second goal: producing a larger, higher-quality and more diverse field of local candidates. Much has been made of the sheer number of people running for the City Council this year. But most of them are white and wealthier than average; according to financial disclosure statements (which, thanks to I-122, now include each candidate’s net wealth), 15 of this year’s candidates have a net worth of over $1 million, and only a handful are people of color.

Candidates who want to participate in the voucher program aren’t guaranteed funding. Before they can receive any vouchers, they have to collect a minimum number of signatures (400 in citywide races; 150 for each district council seat) and get donations of at least $10 from an equal number of registered voters.

In 2017, when the two citywide seats were on the ballot, the candidates were required to get signatures and donations from the same 400 people, a requirement that 2017 candidate Hisam Goueli says forced him to spend most of his time chasing contributions and signatures rather than meeting with voters. “We believed in the Democracy Voucher Program; we were just broken by it,” Goueli says. “We were devastated to find out the program we thought would be the thing that helped us get our message out would be the hamstring to the campaign.” The rule has since been changed. Voucher candidates still have to get a minimum number of signatures and contributions, but the signatures and contributions can now come from different people.

On the plus side, Alex Pedersen, a candidate in northeast Seattle’s District 4, says the signature requirement (and the limitations imposed by the voucher program itself) gives a leg up to candidates who are willing to engage with voters face-to-face. “Even those [candidates] accustomed to using social media are now required to put on their walking shoes and knock on doors, which I think will help to build greater trust between the people and their elected officials and make politics more fun and engaging,” Pedersen says.

Candidates who have declined to participate in the Democracy Voucher Program give various reasons for their decision. At her January kickoff for reelection, council member Sawant, the District 3 incumbent, said that she expected to have “probably a million [dollars] thrown at this race” by “corporate PACs and big business lobbyists and big developers,” and would need to raise and spend more money than the voucher program would allow.

Ari Hoffman, who’s running in District 2, opposes the voucher program for philosophical reasons. “I made the decision at the beginning of the campaign not to take democracy vouchers, because I do not believe that taxpayer money should be used to finance political campaigns,” Hoffman says. “My campaign is about fiscal accountability in our local governments, and I would be a hypocrite if I took taxpayer money to fund it.”

And Naveed Jamali, who’s running in District 7 (downtown, Magnolia and Queen Anne), says he prefers to focus on policy rather than “chasing vouchers”; when he knocks on people’s doors, he says, “the first question is about ‘What issues are important to you?’ It’s not about making the sale.”

Seattle’s Democracy Voucher Program is still very new, and proponents say they’re well aware of its shortcomings and that it wouldn’t be surprising if the program—assuming it continues—receives some fine-tuning in the future. But Margaret Morales, a researcher with Sightline, notes that no amount of tinkering can fix what many reform advocates consider the most troubling trend in recent years: the growing impact of independent spending, which totaled more than $1 million in 2017. To change that, Morales and other voucher proponents note, will require overturning the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which opened the floodgates for unlimited spending by political action committees. In the meantime, Morales says, candidates “just have to do the best they can regardless of independent expenditures.”

 

Democracy Vouchers 101 

Candidates for Seattle offices who file all the required paperwork can choose to participate in the Democracy Voucher Program.To be eligible for vouchers*, candidates for the City Council’s district positions must:

• Collect signatures from 150 Seattle residents (including from at least 75 in their district)
• Collect at least $10 from 150 residents (including from at least 75 in their district; the financial contributions and signatures do not need to come from the same people).

• Limit their campaign valuation—the total amount of money raised or spent—to $75,000 in the primary election and $75,000 in the general election.

Additionally, candidates accepting democracy vouchers must:

• Adhere to an individual contribution cap of $250 (the cap for candidates not accepting democracy vouchers is $500).

• Not collect any more vouchers once they have reached their total campaign valuation cap.

Candidates—both those who accept vouchers and those who choose not to—can appeal to the Seattle Ethics and Election Commission to have the caps on fundraising and expenditures raised.

*The required number of signature, dollar amounts, and spending and contribution caps vary depending on whether a candidate is running for a district council seat, an at-large council seat or another elected city office. 

Big Business, Labor, and Activist Money Set to Dwarf Individual Spending on Council Campaigns

With ballots landing in mailboxes any day now, independent campaigns representing business, labor, and, vaguely, “moms,” are spending thousands of dollars—sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars—on ad campaigns, mailings, canvassing, and other efforts to influence your vote in the August 6 primary election. The money spent by outside groups threatens to dwarf spending by the campaigns themselves, particularly in District 7 (downtown, Magnolia, and Queen Anne), where labor has spent nearly half a million dollars on a single candidate.

As I reported for Seattle magazine (in a story that went to print long before the latest fundraising totals started rolling in), despite the advent of direct public campaign financing through democracy vouchers, “no amount of tinkering can fix what many reform advocates consider the most troubling trend in recent years: the growing impact of independent spending.”

Here’s a breakdown of the latest independent-money financing, where it’s coming from, and how it’s being spent:

• Moms for Seattle, a new PAC that first announced its existence on Speak Out Seattle’s Facebook page earlier this week, has raised more than $150,000 in just over a month and spent $115,000 of that on consulting and Facebook ads for four council candidates: Real estate consultant Michael George in District 1; neighborhood activist Pat Murakami in District 3 (where Kshama Sawant is the incumbent); former Tim Burgess aide and erstwhile newsletter publisher Alex Pedersen in District 4; and former council member-turned-golf advocate Heidi Wills in District 6. All four candidates also received top ratings from Speak Out Seattle.

The money spent by outside groups threatens to dwarf spending by the campaigns themselves, particularly in District 7 (downtown, Magnolia, and Queen Anne), where labor has spent nearly half a million dollars on a single candidate.

The top donors to the group include Bellevue charter school proponent Katherine Binder ($25,000); Jeannine Navone, wife of hedge-fund manager Dino Christofilis Diane Langstraat, wife of investment manager Brian Langstraat; and numerous other women who list their occupation as “stay-at-home mom” or “homemaker.” Their chief consultant is Western Consultants, LLC, which has a PO box as its local address and has never played in local campaigns before Moms for Seattle started throwing money their way ($69,000 so far) this year.

The group’s other consultant, Seattle-based Clear Path Partners, has not worked directly on local campaigns until this year; however, its founders have. Clear Path’s partners include Joe Quintaña, who started a business-oriented PAC called Forward Seattle a dozen years ago; former Strategies 360 VP John Engbar; and former King County Realtors’ lobbyist Randy Bannecker.

I’ve reached out to Laura McMahon, the woman who announced the group’s creation on Facebook, as well as Speak Out Seattle to find out more about the group and whether they’re connected to SOS, and will update this post if I hear back.

UPDATE: McMahon responded to my message asking about the group (I’ve edited out the part of her response that appeared to be responding to social media speculation about the group by people other than me): “We are moms who have never before been involved in politics, but are deeply disturbed by what is happening to our city. We seek to engage other moms, friends and concerned citizens in funding independent campaigns to elect city councilmembers with the common sense to balance caring for the homeless, addicted and mentally ill with keeping Seattle citizens safe in public areas and green spaces – something the current council seems incapable of doing. … The candidates we are endorsing are experienced leaders who want to make positive change for Seattle and are capable of achieving the balance I describe above. No one wants the status quo as it is NOT working. We have no further comment at this time.”

• People for Seattle, the PAC started by former city council member and mayor Tim Burgess, has raised a quarter-million dollars and spent about $165,000 of that so far—the overwhelming majority of it ($100,000) on direct mail by a Massachusetts-based firm called Daylight Communications. (Another $40,000, as I previously reported, went toward messaging research by the local polling firm EMC Research.) PFC’s candidates include Phil Tavel in District 1, Mark Solomon in District 2, former Capitol Hill Chamber director Egan Orion in District 3, ex-Burgess aide  Pedersen in District 4, and council incumbent Debora Juarez in District 5.

The state Public Disclosure Commission doesn’t break down the $100,000 the group is spending on direct mail by candidate, but the city’s ethics and elections commission lists, so far, negative mailings targeting Herbold, Sawant, and (in an unusual move) District 3 Sawant challenger Zachary DeWolf as well as mailings in favor of Orion and Tavel.

Support The C Is for Crank
Sorry to interrupt your reading, but THIS IS IMPORTANT. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation, supported entirely—and I mean entirely— by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going. I can’t do this work without support from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. 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 keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.

• I covered spending by the Chamber-sponsored Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE) here; since then, CASE has spent another $87,000 on mailings and Facebook ads on behalf of Tavel, Solomon, Orion, Pedersen, Juarez, Wills, Fathi, George, and former police chief and District 7 candidate Jim Pugel, plus overhead expenses to the Chamber.

The state Public Disclosure Commission doesn’t break down the $100,000 former council member Tim Burgess’ People for Seattle PAC is spending, but the city’s ethics and elections commission lists, so far, negative mailings targeting Herbold, Sawant, and (in an unusual move) District 3 Sawant challenger Zachary DeWolf.

• Not to be outdone, perhaps, by business spending, UNITE HERE Local 8, the hotel workers’ union, is spending more than $425,000  $150,000 on cable TV and online ads buys on behalf of former Nick Licata campaign manager Andrew Lewis, who’s running for District 7 with strong union support. (Editor’s note: After this posted, Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission director Wayne Barnett contacted me to say the “jaw-dropping” number on the SEEC’s website was the result of a “bug” that had been fixed, and that the actual expenditure was closer to $150,000. This update reflects the SEEC’s corrected information.)

The enormous union push to get Lewis through the primary, which according to Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission reports is being funded through the group’s national arm in New York City, appears to be the only big spend on cable TV in the council primary so far.

• The Service Employees International Union 775, which represents health-care workers, has written checks to two marketing firms (one in Seattle and one in Beaverton, OR) for a digital campaign supporting District 6 candidate Jay Fathi, a physician who has also been endorsed by several other unions as well as the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy, the Seattle Metro Chamber’s political arm. They’ve also paid Fuse Washington for digital ads for council incumbent Lisa Herbold (D-1, $3,500) and District 2 candidate Tammy Morales ($1,500).

• Finally, the group District 1 Neighbors for Small Business—funded by a few relatively small donations from the owners of West Seattle businesses like the West Seattle Bowl, Menashe Jewelry, and Nucor Steel—has spent just over $400 on stickers for Tavel.

 

Facing Homelessness’ New Project: Sweeping Up Trash to Stop the Sweeps

I’m standing next to a freeway overpass with a couple dozen strangers, milling around and chatting about what brought us here this Sunday morning while Rex Hohlbein, the head of the nonprofit group Facing Homelessness, beams and hugs each new arrival. A pile of garbage bags, a dozen hardware-store grabbers, two boxes of latex gloves, and several red sharps containers are piled up near the gate separating the overpass from a homeless encampment on a hillside overlooking I-5 and downtown Seattle. These will be our tools for picking up trash at this hillside homeless encampment overlooking downtown Seattle, one of an estimated 400 such encampments in the city.

Facing Homelessness—which started out as a Facebook page aimed at humanizing Seattle’s thousands of homeless residents  by telling some of their stories, and expanded to include the BLOCK Project, which builds housing for formerly homeless people in homeowners’ backyards—has found a new avenue for its advocacy: Cleaning up encampments that are at risk of removal by the city’s Navigation Team.

A bit of backstory: The Navigation Team, a group of police officers and outreach workers who remove unauthorized encampments and inform their residents about available shelter and services, has begun focusing primarily on removing encampments that constitute “obstructions”—a term that includes any encampment that is in a public park, on a sidewalk, or where a large amount of trash has accumulated.  Once an encampment is deemed an “obstruction,” the Navigation Team can remove it without notifying residents or offering them shelter or services.

“If people come down [the hillside] to engage with you, that’s your opportunity to engage with another person, and that’s way more important than picking up garbage.”

The cleanups, which Hohlbein started organizing in early June, now draw dozens of volunteers eager to help solve a vexing problem—because the city only collects trash from ten encampments at a time (a program that could expand to two more encampments this year), garbage—clothes, needles, food waste, and the detritus of everyday life—tends to pile up. (Illegal dumping by people who live elsewhere exacerbates the problem.) Eventually, the Navigation Team will either come in and pick up some of the garbage or remove the encampment entirely and clear the trash away. Removing the trash, Hohlbein hopes, will help forestall this process by removing one of the city’s justifications for “sweeps.”

Before volunteers can start piling the trash that litters the bottom of this hillside into big black plastic bags, there are some principles to go over. First principle: Have respect. “We have to remember that we’re entering people’s home right now, and it may not feel like that because it’s outside, but we have to be respectful of people’s privacy and not leave the path below the encampment,” Hohlbein tells his volunteers. Second principle: Safety. Hohlbein shows the volunteers how to safely pick up needles—with a grabber, held at a safe distance—and dispose them in the sharps containers provided by the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance.

Yes, the project is “about cleaning up the city,” Facing Homelessness’ Rex Hohlbein says. “But really, we want to stop the sweeps.”

Third: Community.

“We’re here to have fun. That is really important. We want you to come back and tell your friends and family about this.” And finally, “and least important”: Pick up garbage. “If people come down [the hillside] to engage with you, that’s your opportunity to engage with another person, and that’s way more important than picking up garbage.”

Over the course of the morning, between marking needles on the ground with flags for the designated needle pickers and sorting through stuff to decide what’s trash and what might be useful—a dirty roll of paper towels goes in the bag, some barely damaged books are gathered and left on the ground—I talked to some of the volunteers to find out why they were there. One young woman, who works for the youth homelessness nonprofit YouthCare, told me she was from Aberdeen, where youth homelessness (and recruitment into white supremacist groups) is a major issue, and saw the cleanups as an opportunity to extend her service work. Another volunteer, whose organization builds tiny houses for people experiencing homelessness, said he was frustrated that the city hasn’t created more tiny house villages and was showing up to support Hohlbein in his effort to prevent more encampment removals.

The trash pickups end at 12:30 sharp—enough time, on this day, to collect dozens of bags of trash, and hundreds of needles, from the hillside. After the volunteers pile up the trash outside the gate, the city’s Navigation Team, which was just leaving the camp when we arrived, will come back with a truck to gather the bags so that the rats and crows won’t get to them first. Hohlbein its’ about cleaning up the city but really we want to stop the sweeps

Hohlbein checks on some encampment residents he’s gotten to know, just to see how they’re doing and if they need anything from him. He snaps photos of several of the people living in the camp, which he will post on the Facing Homelessness website along with a request on the Facing Homelessness page for donations to buy tents, sleeping bags, and tarps. On the way back down the hillside, Hohlbein stops and poses a rhetorical question. “If [the city has], like, a five-prong plan for homelessness, why wouldn’t one of them be to clean up the garbage?” He says he hopes to expand the project to have weekly cleanups across the city. Yes, the project is “about cleaning up the city,” he says. “But really, we want to stop the sweeps.”

Support The C Is for Crank
The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation, supported entirely—and I mean entirely— by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going. I can’t do this work without support from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. 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 keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: Seattle vs. Broken Windows, Burgess vs. “Ideology,” Showbox Contract Suspended

 

In SODO and Georgetown, lots of arrests and a focus on clearing out RVs, and just one referral to Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, for 1,500 hours of emphasis patrols.

1. On Wednesday, the city council’s public safety committee got into a philosophical discussion about the”broken windows” theory of policing with representatives from several city departments, during a presentation on Mayor Jenny Durkan’s decision to extend “emphasis patrols” in seven neighborhoods beyond the initial 30-day period announced at the end of April. The patrols have been controversial, with critics contending that the seven neighborhoods—which include Ballard, Fremont, and Pioneer Square—were chosen based on the volume of complaints from residents rather than the presence of actual crime. (The mayor, for her part, said that she was unaware of any such criticism).

Council members Lorena Gonzalez and Teresa Mosqueda pushed SPD strategic advisor Chris Fisher and assistant chief Eric Greening to explain the difference between “broken windows” (the widely debunked theory that graffiti, panhandling, vacant buildings, and other types of “disorder” create an atmosphere that leads people to commit more crime), and the theory behind the emphasis patrols. The theory, popularized by George Kelling and James Q. Wilson, was implemented in cities across America throughout the 1980s and 1990s and has become synonymous with zero-tolerance policing and Rudy Giuliani’s New York City.

Fisher called this a misinterpretation. “Different people have different interpretations of broken windows,”  Fisher said. “I think the original theory involved working with the community… [and] I think some departments, some other researchers or practitioners, took it as meaning zero tolerance. [They] didn’t involve the community, and they just decided they were going to arrest everyone for everything, but that wasn’t the intent of broken windows.”

Highfalutin theories aside, it’s notable that the Durkan administration appears to be explicitly embracing the broken windows theory, in the form of ramped-up arrests for low-level crimes in the emphasis areas (broken down by neighborhood in the report) and neighborhood “cleanup” efforts that include removing graffiti, getting rid of newspaper boxes, and cutting back vegetation as well as removing more encampments without prior notice or offers of outreach or services.

Christopher Williams, the parks department director, pointed to a skatepark in South Park where workers have picked up litter, gotten rid of graffiti, and cut back vegetation, all “things that really emphasize that broken window theory—the quicker we can clean it up, the more that gives a message to the community that this is a cared-for, loved space and the community tends to treat it that way.” Williams also said his department is “treat[ing] single tents and encampments like stand-alone obstructions and we will have those removed immediately, for the most part,” rather than providing 72 hours’ notice and offers of shelter and services to encampment residents.

Council members, including District 4 representative Abel Pacheco, still seemed unsatisfied by SPD’s explanations for how the seven neighborhoods were chosen, an issue Fisher seemed to chalk up to the way the information was being presented, rather than the information SPD has provided to the council itself. “I asked for data about why these specific neighborhoods were chosen, and I believe the answer I got from you was that it was [a] combination of data … and calls and complaints that were generated from neighbors,” Mosqueda said. “To me, that’s not a quantitative way of explaining why we’re going into certain neighbors.”

In Ballard and Fremont, lots of calls for service from neighbors contributed to the decision to add patrols.

Fisher (essentially repeating what he told the council back in May) said the neighborhoods were chosen based on “an increase in calls and crime and complaints.” For example, “Fremont was our hottest neighborhood … in terms of an increase in reported crime and calls for service. It was sort of the clear winner,” Fisher said.

Support The C Is for Crank
Sorry to interrupt your reading, but THIS IS IMPORTANT. The C Is for Crank is a one-person operation, supported entirely—and I mean entirely— by generous contributions from readers like you. If you enjoy the breaking news, commentary, and deep dives on issues that matter to you, please support this work by donating a few bucks a month to keep this reader-supported site going. I can’t do this work without support from readers like you. Your $5, $10, and $20 monthly donations allow me to do this work as my full-time job, so please become a sustaining supporter now. 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 keeping The C Is for Crank going and growing. I’m truly grateful for your support.

2 . Former council member and mayor Tim Burgess sent out an email Wednesday telegraphing which city council candidates his blandly named political action committee, People for Seattle, will be supporting in the August primary elections. Not too surprisingly, they overlap 100% with the candidates endorsed by the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE), the political arm of the Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce, with the exception of Districts 6 and 7, where People for Seattle did not make a recommendation. The candidates People for Seattle (and CASE) support for Districts 1-5, in order, are: Phil Tavel, Mark Solomon, (former Burgess aide) Alex Pedersen, and council incumbent Debora Juarez.

Burgess’ group, in other words, is snubbing two of Burgess’ own former colleagues, Lisa Herbold (D1) and Kshama Sawant (D3) in favor of candidates who, as Burgess put it in his email, can “best lead our city forward and change the current approach at the City Council.”

People for Seattle currently has about $220,000 in the bank, much of it raised in $5,000 chunks from developer and tech industry folks like Clise Properties CEO Al Clise, Amazon senior vice president Doug Herrington, developer Richard Hedreen, telecom moguls Bruce and John McCaw, and billionaire Mariners owner John Stanton. So far, they owe EMC Research $40,000 for polling, presumably to test messages like the one Burgess underlines in his email: “Please spread the word that we need a new City Council that gets back to basics and focuses on our city’s most pressing challenges. We want the next City Council to bring us together with solutions and not divide us based on ideology.”

Because there’s nothing “ideological” about calling Seattle a “Mecca [for] homeless,” opposing the streetcar and Sound Transit 3, or denouncing the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda as a “backroom deal for real estate developer upzones.”

3. Last month, a King County Superior Court judge dismissed every one of the city of Seattle’s arguments in favor of recently adopted legislation that prevented the owners of the downtown Showbox building from selling the property to a developer. The legislation, which supporters pitched as a way to “save the Showbox,” added the two-story unreinforced masonry building to the Pike Place Market Historic District across the street for an initial period of six months; that period was later extended until December of this year because two consultants hired by the city’s Department of Neighborhoods said they needed more time to evaluate a proposal to make the building a permanent part of the Market. The consultants were charged with doing public outreach and determining whether it made sense to include the Showbox building, which the city recently upzoned twice in an effort to encourage density downtown, in the Market.

DON now tells The C Is for Crank that the department has suspended its contracts for the two consultants, Stepherson and Associates (a communications firm) and AECOM (an engineering firm). Although the firms were hired back in February, it appears that they didn’t do much work until very recently; according to a Department of Neighborhoods spokeswoman, the city has only paid out about $24,000 of their original $75,000 contract—$12,000 to Stepherson and $12,554 to  AECOM.

Seattle’s Homeless Encampment Trash Is a Home-Grown Problem

I wrote a piece for Grist this week about the problem of illegal dumping at homeless encampments, which is exacerbating the garbage pileups that often lead to encampment removals. It’s a problem duplicated in other West Coast cities struggling with the homelessness crisis.

Here’s a short excerpt; check out the whole story at Grist

The 6-foot-long mauve couch just showed up one night.

So did the washing machine, and the box spring, and the piles of office chairs that littered a homeless encampment on a hillside overlooking downtown Seattle in early June, where a 1-800-Got-Junk truck just pulled away, loaded to the brim.

“I’ve seen televisions, couches, random bags of trash that isn’t ours,” said Jody*, who has been homeless for about two years and was living in a tent near the top of the hillside on the day of my visit, directly below a large apartment complex.

“Things will just appear. People in those apartments there” — she gestured further up the hillside — “dump bags of trash over the fence.” Jody’s friend Robyn, who was living with her partner in a nearby tent at the time, added, “People dump stuff here all the time. I don’t know why. They’re so lazy — you have trash service, why don’t you use it?”

As homeless encampments proliferate across the country, so do the piles of trash that build up in, around, and near them — trash that local waste management companies struggle to collect. The problem is particularly intractable on the West Coast, where rising housing costs have combined with a lack of investment in shelters to create a proliferation of tent cities from Los Angeles to Vancouver.

In Los Angeles, the number of people living outside or in cars rose 16 percent over the past year to more than 27,000. And in Seattle, the one-night count in January found 3,558 people living without shelter, a slight decrease from last year. Unsheltered people are surrounded by a staggering amount of trash: Garbage collectors report picking up five to seven tons every day in Los Angeles; 24 tons at a single encampment in Berkeley; and 8.5 tons along a single stretch of Interstate 84 in Portland, according to Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler.

In Seattle, the city picked up 355 tons of trash at or near 71 encampments in just the first three months of this year. But as in Los Angeles — where L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez recently reported that local merchants “routinely dump their own trash on the streets or pay homeless people a few bucks to get rid of it for them” — the story in Seattle is more complicated than it seems.

Read the whole piece at Grist.

Election Crank: But Wait—It Gets Even MORE Confusing

Some campaign updates as the August 6 primary (and the narrowing of the Seattle City Council elections from dozens of candidates to just 14) approaches…

1. As I reported on Twitter last weekend, the political action committee for the Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce, Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy, just spent more than $307,000 on mail, canvassing, literature, and direct mail for its endorsed candidates in all seven city council races.

But the bulk of the money—$260,350—went to three candidates: Lisa Herbold challenger Phillip Tavel, who ran for the same position in 2015 and didn’t make it through the primary ($77,750); former Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce leader Egan Orion, who’s challenging Kshama Sawant ($107,400); and Seattle Police Department  crime prevention coordinator Mark Solomon, who’s running for the seat being vacated by Bruce Harrell, where community organizer Tammy Morales is the presumed frontrunner ($75,200).

Next week, Jay Fathi (D6) and Michael George (D7) will ask to be released from the $75,000 spending cap on the grounds that the Seattle Chamber is spending money on behalf of one of their competitors—Wills in Fathi’s case, and Pugel in George’s. Of course, CASE is also spending money on behalf of Fathi and George in those races, so both are essentially arguing that they should be released from the spending cap because of spending by their own political benefactors.

2. Candidates for districted city council seats who participate in the democracy voucher program are theoretically limited to raising and spending a maximum of $75,000 in the primary election (and another $75,000 in the general), but that isn’t how it’s working out in practice. As of this writing, at least 16 candidates running for the seven districted council seats have asked to have their spending caps, or the caps on both spending and contributions, lifted because their opponents have either raised more than $75,000 or have had more than $75,000 spent on their behalf. (SEEC director Wayne Barnett provided a list of candidates who’ve been released from the caps).
Under the somewhat byzantine rules of the city’s new system, candidates in this year’s council elections who accept public funding through democracy vouchers (coupons worth $100 that are given to every Seattle voter to spend on the candidate or candidates of their choice) can’t spend more than $75,000 unless one of two things happens: a) another candidate in the race who isn’t participating in the voucher system, and therefore isn’t subject to spending limits, spends more than $75,000, or b) a political action committee spends enough on behalf of a candidate that the total expenditures on that candidate’s behalf top $75,000. In the former situation (when, say, Kshama Sawant outspends all of her opponents and isn’t subject to democracy voucher caps), candidates can ask to have both the spending limit and the $250 cap on individual contributions lifted. (The contribution limit for non-voucher candidates is $500). In the latter situatiom (when, say, the Seattle Metro’s PAC spends $77,000 to defeat incumbent Lisa Herbold, but no candidate in the race has spent more than $75,000 on their own), the candidates can only be released from spending, but not contribution, limits.
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The candidates who have been given approval to spend more than $75,000 are: Lisa Herbold in District 1 (because of CASE spending on Phil Tavel’s behalf); Tammy Morales, Phyllis Porter, Christopher Peguero, and Mark Solomon in District 2 (because Ari Hoffman has raised more than $75,000, they are also released from contribution caps—including Solomon, who is also benefiting from the Chamber’s largesse); Ami Nguyen, Logan Bowers, Pat Murakami, Zach DeWolf, and Egan Orion in District 3 (because Kshama Sawant has raised more than $75,000, all the other candidates are also released from contribution caps; Orion, like Solomon, is getting help from the Chamber as well); Emily Myers and Shaun Scott in District 4 (because of CASE spending on Alex Pedersen’s behalf); no one (!) in District 5 (as of July 2, incumbent Debora Juarez had raised just $43,000); Dan Strauss, Kate Martin, and Sergio Garcia in District 6 (because of CASE spending on Jay Fathi and Heidi Wills’ behalf); and Andrew Lewis in District 7 (because of CASE spending on behalf of Jim Pugel and Michael George.)
Whew!
But wait: It gets even more confusing. Next Tuesday, July 8, Fathi (D6) and George (D7) will both appear in front of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission to ask to be released from the $75,000 spending cap on the grounds that CASE is spending money on behalf of one of their competitors—Wills in Fathi’s case, and Pugel in George’s. Of course, CASE is also spending money on behalf of Fathi and George in those races, so both are essentially arguing that they should be released from the spending cap because of spending by their own political benefactors.
This will look even weirder if, as seems likely, CASE puts out literature suggesting that voters pick either George or Pugel, and either Wills or Fathi, in those races—a scenario that will benefit all four candidates, not just Wills and Pugel. Not only that: George, Fathi, and CASE all share a financial compliance firm, Blue Wave Politics, which means that the same company is behind the campaigns benefiting from CASE spending, the campaigns asking to be allowed to spend more money because of CASE spending, and CASE itself. Pretty sure that this wasn’t exactly what the backers of democracy vouchers had in mind when they said the system would help get money out of politics.

Not only that: George, Fathi, and CASE all share a financial compliance firm, which means that the same company is behind the campaigns benefiting from CASE spending, the campaigns asking to be allowed to spend more money because of CASE spending, and CASE itself.

3. Speak Out Seattle, a group of self-described “concerned citizens” that held a series of controversial campaign forums earlier this year, has released its own list of endorsements—a roster that could have been lifted straight from the Facebook page of Safe Seattle, an online group that promotes conspiracy theories, false allegations, and harmful “solutions” for Seattle’s homelessness crisis. The candidates SOS has endorsed, in order of district, are: Ex-cop Brendan Kolding (District 1); both Solomon and conservative business owner Ari Hoffman (District 2); Mount Baker neighborhood activist Pat Murakami (District 3); Pedersen (District 4); attorney Ann Davison Sattler (District 5); Wills; and George. Safe Seattle, which is separate from SOS but has expressed many of the same views about homelessness, housing, and addiction, has frequently promoted Davison Sattler and Hoffman on their Facebook page.

When I entered the furthest-left positions on AlignVote’s questions about homelessness, “safe injection,” and housing in District 2, it suggested I vote for stunt candidate Omari Tahir-Garrett.

4. Davison Sattler created quite a stir at a recent candidate forum in District 5, which I was moderating, when she responded to a question about reducing emissions by calling climate change a “luxury item” compared to immediate problems like “keeping our city clean.”
Over shouts of disbelief from some audience members, Davison Sattler continued: “If we cannot even keep our city clean, I feel like we are in no place to be talking about issues like this. This is absurd that we are talking about this, yet we cannot keep our city clean. … We have to be taking care of things that are clearly on everyone’s minds, which is the state of our streets.”
During the same debate, Davison Sattler said she supported a “FEMA-style response” to homelessness; suggested putting a new North Seattle community center inside a new police precinct across the street from North Seattle Community College, where the event was being held; and said that some businesses near a now-dismantled authorized encampment at Licton Springs “could not even keep their employees for more than a few hours” because they had to wade through human feces, litter, and needles near the encampments.
No word yet on how candidates and activists who talk about the presence of “human feces” all over the city’s sidewalks can distinguish human from dog feces in a city where housed dogs outnumber unsheltered humans by about 45 to 1.

D5 candidate Ann Davison Sattler created a stir when she responded to a question about reducing emissions by calling climate change a “luxury item” compared to immediate problems like “keeping our city clean.”

5. SOS leader Steve Murch has created a voter guide called AlignVote, which (like SOS) purports to be a “nonpartisan” and unbiased guide to the candidates’ positions. In reality, the tool functions as a push poll for SOS’s positions on supervised consumption sites, rent control, and other issues—characterizing rent control, for example, as a policy that imposes “further restrictions on what prices landlords can charge.” (Another question, about police accountability, prevented these two possible responses as a binary choice: “The Seattle Police Department has major work to still do to restore more fairness and equity” and “The City Council needs to be more supportive of our police.”) When I entered the furthest-left positions on AlignVote’s questions about homelessness, “safe injection,” and housing in District 2, it suggested I vote for stunt candidate Omari Tahir-Garrett.

Durkan’s Backyard Cottage Plan Would Have Kept Some Old Restrictions, Imposed New Ones

Mayor Jenny Durkan planned to propose her own accessory dwelling unit (ADU) legislation that would have restricted homeowners’ ability to build second and third units on their property, going far beyond the limitations in the legislation the city council passed unanimously yesterday afternoon.

The restrictions Durkan proposed would have been more lenient than previous regulations, which had resulted in just a handful of ADUs per year, but would have included many provisions requested by ADU opponents, including parking requirements for second ADUs, preserving the current owner occupancy requirement, and imposing new limits  on the size of backyard units.

Ultimately, as I reported this morning (item 2), Durkan did not propose her own legislation, and the bill the council passed yesterday does not include any of these restrictions. Still, Durkan’s ADU proposal gives a glimpse into her thinking about how much the city should limit how many people (and what kind of people) should be allowed to live in single-family neighborhoods.

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This report is based on documents I received through a records request filed in March. The mayor’s office provided unredacted versions of these documents this morning.

First, the mayor set out her goals in drafting her own ADU legislation: “1. Encourage ADUs—especially affordable ADUs—throughout Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods. 2. Prevent speculative development and the demolition of existing single-family homes.” Her plan also laid out a set of “principles,” which included “Retain existing single-family neighborhood character.”

To those ends, here’s what the mayor’s proposal (which, again, was never sent to the council as legislation) might have done:

1. Imposed a cap of 1,000 accessory units permitted per year. (The legislation the council passed includes no such restriction.)

2. Required homeowners building a second ADU to sign a legally binding document stating that they would never use that ADU as an Airbnb (a new restriction that would allow someone to own two houses on adjoining lots and rent one as an Airbnb, but would ban a neighbor with two ADUs from renting out their backyard unit).

3. Required two years of continuous ownership before a homeowner could build a second ADU, such as a backyard cottage in a house that already has a basement apartment. This restriction went further than council member Lisa Herbold’s proposal for a one-year ownership requirement, which failed; the legislation the council passed does not include any ownership-related restrictions on ADU construction.

4. Required homeowners to build one off-street parking space when they build a second ADU. Notes from staff on the mayor’s proposal indicate that “many infill parcels, especially those without alley access, cannot easily accommodate off-street parking, making this requirement a significant impediment to ADU development.” The legislation that passed yesterday includes no parking mandate.

5. Imposed a new floor-area ratio (a measure of maximum density) on detached units while eliminating the previous minimum lot size of 5,000 square feet. Although getting rid of maximum lot sizes sounds like a good thing, in practice, this measure would have little practical impact while imposing a new restriction on what people on smaller lots could build. I’ve explained this in a bit more detail below*, but the impact would be that any lot smaller than 5,000 square feet would have to build a backyard unit smaller than 1,000 square feet—and the smaller the lot, the smaller the cottage. In contrast, O’Brien’s legislation allows backyard cottages of up to 1,000 square feet on all lots, subject to the city’s existing maximum lot coverage of 35 percent.

Although getting rid of the minimum lot size entirely might seem preferable, the impact would be tiny—according to the city, just 7 percent of the single-family lots in Seattle are smaller than 3,200 square feet, and ADUs on very small lots are unlikely for the reasons I explain below.

6. Required a homeowner or a homeowner’s family member to live on the property for at least six months out of every year. O’Brien’s legislation got rid of the existing six-month owner occupancy requirement because it effectively banned renters from living in at least one of the units on lots with an ADU (suggesting that backyard-cottage renters require owner supervision.) Durkan’s proposal would have continued to prevent renters from occupying every unit on lots with ADUs, but allowed family members to serve as owner proxies. The proposal doesn’t define “family member,” but other elements of the municipal code limit the number of people who can live on a single lot unless they are “related,” a term that is undefined in the code.

Because I filed my request for these documents in March, they don’t include any discussions that happened after April 1 that might shed light on why Durkan decided not to propose her own ADU legislation. The mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a question about why they dropped the proposal this afternoon.

*Two hypothetical examples illustrate the impact of this change on lots of two different sizes.

A homeowner with a 4,000-square-foot lot could cover a total of 1,400 square feet of that lot with buildings, subject to the maximum height limit of about 30 feet. That could include, say, a 1,600-square-foot two story house (covering 800 square feet of the lot) and a two-story, 1,000-square-foot backyard cottage (covering 500 square feet). Under Durkan’s proposal, though, the backyard cottage would also be restricted by the 0.2 FAR, limiting it to a total of 800 square feet no matter how the rest of the lot is configured. This is the limit that existed before O’Brien’s legislation raised it to 1,000 square feet, so in this case Durkan’s proposal would have preserved the old status quo.

A homeowner with a 2,500-square-foot lot, who couldn’t build a backyard cottage under the rules adopted yesterday, would theoretically be able to do so under Durkan’s proposal. But the restrictions would make this exceedingly unlikely, because the backyard cottage would be limited to a total of 500 square feet—on a lot where only 875 square feet can be developed in the first place. Playing this out presents some very unlikely scenarios, such as a tiny front house towered over by a narrow two-story backyard tower. The point is, the effect of these restrictions would have been primarily to limit the size of backyard units, not to expand homeowners’ ability to build them.

Morning Crank: “I Have Not Seen Any Speculative ADU Bubble”

1. The city council finally adopted legislation to loosen regulations on backyard and basement apartment construction Monday, 13 years after the city allowed homeowners to build backyard cottages in Southeast Seattle on a “pilot” basis in 2006.  The city’s analysis found that the new rules, which would allow homeowners to build up to two accessory units (such as a basement apartment and a backyard cottage) on their property, will add up to 440 new units a year across Seattle, or about one unit for every 80 acres of single-family land.

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The city expanded its initial backyard cottage pilot to include the rest of Seattle in 2009, but it never took off in a major way, thanks in large part to restrictions on lot and unit size, owner-occupancy requirement, and parking mandates that made accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, difficult and expensive to build. Efforts to make it easier to build second and third units ran against the usual objections from single-family homeowner activists, who claimed that changing the law would turn Seattle’s exclusive neighborhoods into triplex canyons, and from left-leaning development opponents, who claimed  that loosening the rules would lead to a frenzy of speculative development, with builders snatching up affordable single-family rental houses and destroying them to make way for new houses with two additional units, which they would rent out at higher prices or turn into Airbnbs.

Litigation by a group of homeowner activists dragged the process out for years, but the city prevailed in May, enabling the legislation to finally move forward. Although council members generally supported the proposal, some of them wanted to add new restrictions, such as owner occupancy and ownership requirements and even a ban on leasing the units as short-term rentals, which would have subjected backyard cottages and basement apartments to more stringent anti-Airbnb rules  than any other kind of housing in the city.

Ultimately, the only one of those amendments that saw the light of day on Monday was Lisa Herbold’s proposal to require homeowners to own a property for one year before building a second accessory unit—a provision Herbold said was necessary “to address the speculative market that will flip these units”—with even socialist council member Kshama Sawant saying that she saw no reason for the restriction. While she is concerned about “corporate developers” building luxury apartment towers, Sawant said, “I have not seen any speculative ADU bubble anywhere.”

The legislation, which Sightline called “the best rules in America for backyard cottages,” passed 8-0, with council member Bruce Harrell absent.

2. Often, when the council passes a piece of legislation they have been working on for some time, Mayor Jenny Durkan sends out a press release praising the council for passing “the Mayor’s legislation.” That didn’t happen with the ADU bill that passed yesterday—not because Durkan didn’t have her own version of the proposal, but because she never sent her own version of the ADU legislation to the council. Instead, after a team of staffers spent months working on draft legislation and crafting an outreach plan for an alternative proposal, the mayor apparently decided to support O’Brien’s legislation after all.

It’s hard to quantify how much staff time the mayor’s office and city departments dedicated to drafting legislation that never saw the light of day, but the sheer volume of communications in the first three months of 2019 suggests it was a substantial body of work. (I filed my request at the end of March and received redacted records in mid-June, which is why I don’t have any documents dated later than March 31).

At the moment, it’s also hard to know what problems Durkan had with O’Brien’s proposal, since most of the documents her office provided about her strategy and legislation look like this:

I would show more, but it just goes on like this.However, series of text messages between two mayoral staffers that were provided without redactions shows that one of the changes Durkan was considering was an even longer ownership requirement than what  Herbold proposed—two years, rather than one, before a homeowner could build a second accessory unit.

I’ve asked the mayor’s office for unredacted versions of the documents I received in  and will post more details about her proposal  when I receive them. In the meantime, here’s one more page from those redacted documents—this one a list of ideas the mayor’s office had to “further allay concerns” about “speculative development.”

Morning Crank: City Homelessness Director Resigns, Offers New Explanation for Decrease In 72-Hour Encampment Removals

1. Seattle Human Services Department deputy director Tiffany Washington, who heads up  the Homeless Strategy and Investment division within the city’s Department of Human Services, has submitted her resignation to interim HSD director Jason Johnson, the C Is for Crank has learned. As I reported on Twitter Wednesday morning, Washington will be taking a new position as deputy director at the city Department of Education and Early Learning starting on September 18.

The news, which was just announced to HSD and DEEL staff late Wednesday morning, comes at a tumultuous time for the division, whose functions will be at least partly subsumed by a new regional agency that is supposed to launch later this year. Parts of the homelessness division are currently undergoing reorganization, and staffers are experiencing “a lot of anxiety” because “they don’t know where their jobs are going to be or what’s going to happen to them” as part of the regional consolidation of county and city homelessness services, says Shaun Van Eyk, a union representative for PROTEC17, which represents about 3,000 city workers.

Many positions at HSI are currently vacant, including the job of division director, which was Washington’s title until she was promoted to deputy director in 2018. One in three positions in the grants and contracts section, which prepares and administers contracts with human services providers, is currently empty.

In an email to homeless service providers, Johnson announced Washington’s resignation “with great gratitude and sadness” and cited a number of accomplishments during her two years heading up the homelessness division: heading up the first year of competitive contracting for homeless service providers, including a controversial “performance pay” provision that docks human service organizations for failing to meet predetermined performance metrics; opening new tiny house village encampments; expanding the Navigation Team, a group of police officers, data crunchers, and city outreach and cleanup workers; and increasing the number of shelter beds.

But Washington also presided over a time of low morale within her division. In to an employee survey released earlier this year and first reported here, homelessness division employees reported feeling left out of major decisions, unheard by management, and uninformed about matters affecting them. At the time, Johnson was seeking permanent appointment to the position and was facing intense scrutiny, much of it coming from HSD employees who felt Johnson was insensitive to racial dynamics at HSD and demanded a transparent and competitive hiring process. Less than a month after the survey was released, it became clear that Johnson did not have the council votes to secure a permanent appointment, and Mayor Jenny Durkan pulled his nomination, saying that he would continue filling the role in a technically interim capacity through at least 2020 (Durkan’s term ends in 2021).

Johnson’s email to service providers Wednesday concluded by noting that “Currently, there is a job posting open for a Division Director to help carry this work forward for the next year. Please recommend this opportunity to those in your network who might be interested.”

In an email, HSD spokeswoman Meg Olberding said the department’s top priority was filling the long-vacant Division Director position, and that once that happens, the department will “evaluate any other needs, as we also continue to move on the regional authority work. Each open position will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.”

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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 my full-time job. Help keep that work sustainable by becoming a supporter now!

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2. Washington’s imminent resignation was not yet public knowledge (nor were all council members at the table aware it was coming) on Tuesday, when she presented the latest quarterly report on the Navigation Team’s progress at the city’s civil rights committee meeting. I wrote about the report, which helped to confirm my own reporting that the Navigation Team is now primarily removing “obstruction” encampments that do not require advance notice or offers of services,  back in May.

Council members pressed Washington to explain why the Navigation Team has shifted its focus away from what Washington called “72-hour cleans”—encampment removals in which residents get 72 hours’ advance notice, plus access to one of the enhanced shelter beds that are set aside for Navigation Team referrals. Initially, Washington questioned whether this shift was even happening (“you’re saying that there are less 72-hour cleans than there were at this time last year; I don’t know if that’s true,” she said—an assertion that prompted committee chair Lisa Herbold to respond, “It’s 95 percent”). Then she said the team has shifted away from doing 72-hour removals because there simply aren’t enough “viable shelter options” to offer beds to all the people living in encampments who might want to move inside. “The number of shelter beds that are available dictate the number of 72-hour cleans,” she said. On a typical night, according to the quarterly report, there are 17 shelter beds available exclusively to the Navigation Team.

Update: HSD spokeswoman Olberding says Washington’s intent was not to suggest any relationship between the reduction in 72-hour removals and the increase in removals of “obstruction” encampments, which she says “are occurring at a higher rate to address encampments that consistently impact the public’s ability to safely access rights-of-ways and open spaces.”

Last month, the head of the Navigation Team, Sgt. Eric Zerr, told me that Mayor Jenny Durkan “really wants us to focus on right-of-way and parks,” adding that the change should not be attributed to “anything except for shifting around some priorities.” And Mark Prentice, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, said the increase didn’t represent “a new trend,” but was part of a “long-term and concentrated focus by the team to remove obstructions that are impacting the public’s ability to safely access rights-of-way, such as sidewalks and mobility ramps.”

One In Five “Illegal Dumping” Reports Recategorized as Illegal Camping, Triggering Navigation Team Visits

Next time you file a report for illegal trash dumping through the city’s Find It, Fix It system, look around: If there happens to be a homeless encampment or RV nearby, the vicinity, the city is likely to recategorize your report as “unauthorized camping” and send in the Navigation Team to investigate—and potentially remove the encampment, The C Is for Crank has learned. This is true even if the items you reported were not left there by unsheltered people, a common phenomenon that Seattle Public Utilities refers to as “opportunistic dumping.”

Ordinarily, SPU responds to reports of illegal dumping by going out to a site within 10 days of the initial report and, when appropriate, removing the trash. But in about  one out of every five cases, they refer the report to the Navigation Team, which is responsible for removing unauthorized encampments, the city’s department of Finance and Administrative Services confirms.

“I reported needles on the street and rather obvious drug dealing, and attached a picture of the street which included a shabby RV,” one FiFi user, Emily Spahn, told me. “A few days later, I got an email telling me they forwarded the issue to the police department, with ‘Subject: SPD – Car camping.’ That was a surprise, since this was in an area that allows for RV parking.”

The same thing happened to another Seattle resident named Sean Roulette-Miller, who posted about the recategorization on Twitter. “I have never seen any encampment on this property so it seems like a waste of resources,” Roulette-Miller told me.

Cyndi Wilder, a spokeswoman for FAS (which oversees the Find It, Fix It program) says that whenever SPU determines that an illegally dumped item or items is “part of or near an encampment,” they “assume” that “the items in the report might be the personal belongings of unsheltered individuals. Because illegal dumping inspectors cannot remove personal belongings that may be part of or near an encampment, in these cases SPU transfers the report to the Customer Service Bureau (CSB), who then forwards the report to the Navigation Team for an encampment inspection, as the Navigation Team has the training and resources to identify and store personal belongings.”

Of all illegal dumping reports the city receives, Wilder says 19 percent are routed to the Navigation Team. “Some illegal dumping calls intersect with the Navigation Team’s work to remove unsafe encampments and break down barriers by providing storage for personal possessions.”

The Navigation Team has the authority to remove encampments that it considers “obstructions” or “hazards” without providing notice, outreach, or offers of shelter. In recent months, under Mayor Jenny Durkan, the team has begun to focus primarily on removing “obstruction” encampments, a definition justified in the team’s weekly reports by, among other criteria, “large amounts of garbage.”

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