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.”

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.

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.

Morning Crank: “Madame Chair, I Agree With You Completely.”

1. After a two-and-a-half hour meeting Wednesday night, city council member Kshama Sawant cast the lone vote for her own resolution to send interim Human Services Department Jason Johnson’s nomination as HSD director back to the mayor’s office. However, since no one on the human services committee, which Sawant chairs, voted “no,” the resolution will move forward to the full council.

Sawant’s resolution calls for a formal search process by a search committee that includes nonprofit human service providers, people experiencing homelessness, and HSD employees. The resolution does not explicitly express opposition to Johnson or make the case that he is unqualified for the job. However, Sawant—who is up for reelection this year—has made little effort to hide the fact that she is not a fan of the interim director, who took over after former director Catherine Lester resigned almost a year ago, and many of the people who showed up to testify last night expressed their explicit opposition to his appointment.

Prior to last night’s meeting, as she did prior to a last-minute public hearing on Johnson’s appointment in January, Sawant sent out a “Pack City Hall!” rally notice, urging her supporters to show up and “Hold Mayor Durkan accountable to the community and Human Services workers!” Perhaps as a result, the overwhelming majority of the testimony was in favor of Sawant’s resolution.

(In a somewhat novel twist, a few of the speakers opposing Johnson did so because they felt he was too supportive of groups like the Low-Income Housing Institute and SHARE, whose members also showed up to oppose Johnson’s appointment, but for completely different reasons; one of these speakers called Johnson “incompetent,” and another blamed the city for “an extremely drunk woman” he said had been “terrorizing Magnolia.”)

In addition to inviting her supporters to show up and testify, Sawant took the highly unusual step of inviting eight people who supported her resolution  to sit with the council at the committee table as they deliberated and took a vote. This setup gave the advocates an opportunity to echo Sawant’s statements and respond whenever council members Bruce Harrell or Lisa Herbold said anything contrary to Sawant’s position. (A quote from one advocate that paraphrases many others made around the table over the course of the meeting: “Madame Chair, I agree with you completely.”)  The result was an atmosphere in council chambers even more circus-like than most Sawant rally/hearings, with Harrell, in particular, barely able to disguise his frustration when advocates at the table talked over him (“I feel like I have to raise my hand here,” he said) or accused him of being “afraid” of doing a national search.

The advocates, including representatives from the homeless advocacy group SHARE, the Human Services Department,  the Seattle Indian Center, and the Seattle Human Services Coalition, argued that the council should open up the nomination process and, in the words of Tia Jones with the Seattle Silence Breakers, “just make [Johnson] apply—post it on the site and make him apply like everybody else.”

Herbold and Harrell responded that if the process for appointing Johnson was inadequate, the appropriate thing to do would be to revisit the process after Johnson’s nomination moves forward, given that the nomination took place legitimately under rules the council established in 2007. “Those are the rules that we all agreed to,” Herbold said. “I’m appreciative of the idea that the status quo isn’t acceptable.” But, she added, “I’m inclined to consider the individual when we have an individual before us,” and to make that process transparent and accountable, rather than rejecting Johnson’s nomination out of hand. “I feel like sending [the nomination] back is making it about the person,” Herbold said.

Sawant countered that the rules delineating the council’s role in considering mayoral appointments have to be a “living body, meaning, when we hear from hundreds of people, we can’t tell them, ‘These are the rules, so we can’t do what you’re asking us to do.’ … Clearly, we’re hearing loud and clear from people that they want to do something different. How can we ignore that?”

In a final bit of political theater, Sawant opened up the question of whether she should call for a vote on her own resolution to the audience, most of whom had already spoken in favor of the resolution. “All here who are not on council or staff, do you think we should vote for this resolution?” Sawant said. Herbold pointed out that she had received many letters from people who support Johnson and want to move the process forward. “Where are they?” shouted someone in the crowd—suggesting, it seemed, that either Herbold was making up the emails or that the people who showed up in person should count more than the people who wrote emails or called their council members on the phone.

Sawant addressed her supporters again: “Should I call this for a vote? I’m asking members of the public because that’s who I’m accountable to.” After a chorus of “Ayes” from the audience, Sawant called the vote. It passed by a vote of 1, with both Harrell and Herbold abstaining.

The resolution now moves on to the full council, where it faces long odds.

2. Steve Daschle, with the Human Services Coalition, said that the thing he found most “irksome” about Durkan’s human services approach was that she still has not met with the coalition after more than a year in office. “In the 30 years I’ve been involved in the Human Services Coalition, this is the first mayor who has not met with the coalition in a full year and two months of her term, and we think it’s imperative that the chief executive of the city take the time to come and talk to one of the key constituencies that would help shape that decision, and it wasn’t done,” Daschle said.

3. In City Council news, two more candidates entered the race for District 4, the seat currently held by Rob Johnson: Abel Pacheco, a STEM education advocate who sought the same seat in 2015 and received 8.4 percent of the vote, and Cathy Tuttle, the founder of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways. Pacheco sent out an announcement that he was running Tuesday; Tuttle confirmed that she was running to The C Is for Crank yesterday afternoon.

Also, as I noted on Twitter Monday, nonprofit director Beto Yarce, who was one of the first candidates to challenge Sawant in District 3 (Capitol Hill, the Central District, Montlake), has dropped out of the race. Yarce drew criticism early on for the fact that he and his partner live in Mill Creek, not Seattle. Yarce said he and his partner, who owns a house in the Snohomish County suburb, were planning to move to Capitol Hill; during his campaign, Yarce was renting a space in the neighborhood from a friend on a short-term basis, his campaign consultant confirmed.

4. The city has finally hired a consultant to conduct outreach on a proposal to make the building that houses the Showbox nightclub a permanent part of the Pike Place Market Historical District. (The city council adopted “emergency” legislation making the Showbox a temporary part of the market last year, in order to prevent the property, which was recently upzoned to allow very dense housing, from being developed as apartments. In response, the owner of the building sued the city). The consultant, Stepherson and Associates, has also done outreach work for the city on the First Hill Streetcar, the downtown seawall replacement project, and the Move Seattle levy. Because the contract is for less than $305,000 and Stepherson and Associates is on the city’s consultant roster, the contract did not have to be bid through an open process.

The city’s schedule calls for all of the outreach work on the Showbox proposal, as well as a full environmental review under the State Environmental Policy Act, to be done by March, with a council vote this June. As I noted when I reported on the search for a contractor in January, that’s a remarkably quick timeline for an expansion of the Market, at least by historical standards:

To put this timeline in historical context, the Market Historical District has been expanded twice before: Once, in 1986, to include Victor Steinbrueck Park, and again in 1989, to add a parking garage and senior housing. Seattle Times archives show that the debate over the latter addition lasted more than three years, and archival records at the city clerk’s office show that the council was receiving letters on the draft legislation fully nine months before they adopted the expansion.

AEG Live, which owns the Showbox, is free to close or relocate the venue when its current lease runs out in 2021; the question at hand is whether the building itself is historic, and whether the city can require that it remain a live-music venue in perpetuity.

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 me at Erica-Barnett-7, or mail me an old-fashioned check (or fan letter) at P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104.

Thank you for reading, and supporting, The C Is for Crank!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Support

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

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

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

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

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

Morning Crank: The Ne Plus Ultra of GOP Supervillains

1. Bailey Stober may have been deposed as head of the King County Democrats, but his legacy of profligate spending lives on, in the form of an $1,800-a-month lease (twice what he was reportedly authorized to spend) for an office space in Auburn that has been sitting vacant for several months. This week, the group’s new chairwoman, Natalie Reber, sent out an announcement: The leasing agent for the space had found a tenant.

The bad news? According to Reber’s email to membership:

The leasing agent at the Auburn office has made a deal with the [Dino] Rossi campaign and it sounds like they will be taking over the lease.  While this is not ideal, I think it is reasonable and as far as any talking points, we just simply say, it was a business decision made by the leasing agent.  

Rossi, a current state senator and two-time gubernatorial candidate who is running for the 8th Congressional District seat being vacated next year by retiring Republican Rep. Dave Reichert, is not just any Republican—among Washington State Democrats, he’s the ne plus ultra of GOP supervillains. And, starting next month, he’ll be helping  them pay their rent.

Reber, who is out of town, declined to provide any details about the new arrangement, saying only that the group has “let the leasing agent know that we would like out of the lease and left it to them to find tenants. While that’s being sorted out, I don’t have a comment.”

Natalia Koss Vallejo, the former executive director of the King County Democrats (Stober fired her shortly after another woman filed a workplace misconduct complaint against him on her behalf), says the group considered subleasing some of its unused space to a Democratic candidate while she was still director, but rejected multiple potential tenants because the group had not formally endorsed anyone in their races yet. (The endorsement process is still ongoing.) With Rossi renting part of the space, she says, it seems unlikely that a Democrat will rent out the rest of the office in the future: “The walls in those units are super thin. If I was a Democratic candidate, I would not want to be sharing that space with a Republican.”

According to the state Public Disclosure Commission, the King County Democrats continued to pay rent on the space through at least April, but appear to have negotiated a better deal on their Internet service, which was costing the group more than $450 a month. (According the group’s treasurer, Stober signed the group up for the most expensive Internet service package Comcast offers, one better suited to a midsize e-commerce firm than a political organization which had, at its peak, one employee.) Donations that were withheld while the Democrats debated what to do with Stober, including $5,000 from King County Executive Dow Constantine and a couple thousand dollars from various district Democratic groups that refused to pay their dues as long as Stober remained in his position.

2. The Families and Education Levy, which funds programs to help kids from birth through 12th grade, and the Seattle preschool levy, which subsidizes preschool, will be on the ballot as a single, combined Families, Education, Preschool, and Promise (FEPP) levy in November. (The levy seems likely to share the ballot with what amounts to an anti-levy: A referendum to repeal the $275-per-employee head  tax, whose proceeds are earmarked for programs to address homelessness.) Among other changes, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s levy renewal plan proposes eliminating for a two-year home visitation literacy program for two- and three-year-olds called the Parent-Child Home Program (the plan assumes that future funding for the program will come from the city’s sweetened beverage tax); dramatically reducing funding for programs in elementary schools; and expanding or increasing subsidies for preschool and college to include the very highest-income families.

At a time when the income and wealth gap between Seattle’s wealthiest and poorest residents is increasing and parents who might be eligible for subsidized preschool are being forced to move outside city limits, it’s unclear why Durkan has proposed increasing tax subsidies for wealthy families to send their kids to preschool and college. Currently, the subsidy for preschool tuition declines with income on a sliding scale, from a total subsidy for people making up to 300 percent of the poverty level to a maximum of $535 a year for the highest-income families. Durkan’s proposal would set a minimum subsidy of $1,000 per student specifically for high-income families, for a total subsidy to wealthy families over the life of the program of about $3.6 million.

Meanwhile, the Seattle Promise program, which currently offers a year of free community college tuition to kids at three South Seattle high schools, would expand tuition subsidies to all public high-school graduates, regardless of their family income. Because higher-income students generally qualify for fewer tuition subsidy programs overall, the city would spend more subsidizing their tuition, on average—about $3,000 a student, or half again as much as the $2,000 the city spends on a typical Seattle Promise subsidy today.

On Wednesday, council members expressed concern at the idea of government subsidies for rich families to send their kids to preschool and college. Council member Rob Johnson, who noted that he recently paid preschool tuition for his daughters, said, “I think there is a value for us to provide opportunities for kids at all income levels to participate in the Seattle Preschool Program, but I’m not sure we should be subsidizing ev family that walks in the door.” Similarly, Johnson said he worried that if eligibility the Seattle Promise program is opened up to all students, “kids in my neck of the woods, in Roosevelt, whose parents are really on them to get on it and get their applications in on  time may take up those slots,” while kids with higher needs “who may benefit more form the Promise program may be shut out of it because all those Roosevelt kids got in first.”

Council president Bruce Harrell, who represents Southeast Seattle’s District 2 (where two of the three current Seattle Promise high schools are located) said he understood the argument for socially engineering preschools so they included kids from all over the income spectrum, but drew the line at expanding scholarship subsidies to wealthy families. “I have very little interest [in] subsidies for higher-income families. In fact, I would be opposed to that,” he said.

The committee will take up the levy proposal again at 11:00 on June 6 in council chambers.

3. A few hours after the levy discussion, council members had only positive things to say about an arguably similar proposal to subsidize transit passes for all Seattle public school students students, not just those who are low-income, at an additional cost of about $3 million a year. (The proposal is one of several changes to a sales tax and vehicle license fee measure voters approved in 2014, which was originally earmarked to expand Metro bus service. Because of driver and bus shortages, Metro has been unable to expand service as much as originally planned.) Currently, the city spends about $1 million a year on the youth ORCA program, which pays for free bus passes for low-income students; the change would add $3 million to the youth program and expand it to fund passes for all high school students, and some middle-school students, regardless of income.

Johnson, who originally proposed expanding the youth ORCA program, said yesterday that he would “like us to discuss more options than what the mayor has put on the table, because there might be things like reduced fare for all kids—as opposed to what we have right now, which is a proposal that would give free ORCA cards to all high school kids, some middle school kids, and no elementary school kids.” Discussing the options with staff after yesterday’s hearing, Johnson pointed out that elementary school kids who rely on the bus are most likely to be accompanied by parents (usually moms, often low-income) who rely on the bus to run errands and get their kids to school.

4. The Downtown Seattle Association is hosting a swank-sounding members-only event next week to solicit donations and hand out signature sheets for the effort to repeal the $275 employee hours tax, which is earmarked for housing and homeless services. The location: The Palace Ballroom in Belltown, owned by noted $15 minimum-wage Chicken Little and head-tax opponent Tom Douglas. Appetizers and drinks will be served.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! 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. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Employee Hours Tax Passes Over Durkan, Amazon Objections, But Veto Looms

This story originally appeared at Seattle magazine.

With the city council poised to pass a proposed $500-per-employee “head tax” on Seattle’s 600 largest businesses, and Mayor Jenny Durkan equally prepared to veto the proposal in its current form, the question now is: What’s next?

With council members heading into a weekend of negotiations, it’s possible that both sides could emerge on Monday with a compromise solution that splits the difference between the tax that passed on Friday and the “compromise” version that Durkan and council president Bruce Harrell support, which would cut the council’s proposal in half. However, if the two sides fail to reach a compromise, the larger version of the head tax will almost certainly pass on Monday by a 5-4 majority, which is one vote shy of the 6-3 margin supporters need to override a mayoral veto.

In a statement Friday afternoon, Durkan made it clear that she would veto the tax in its current form, but said she still held out hope that the council “will pass a bill that I can sign.” However, Durkan’s ally Harrell, also made it clear on Friday that he would not support a compromise floated by council member Lisa Herbold to lower the tax to $350 per employee, indicating that he and Durkan may not be open to a proposal that merely closes the gap between what Durkan and the council majority want. It’s possible, in other words, that when Durkan says “a bill that I can sign,” she merely means a bill that cuts the tax to $250 per employee—the amount Amazon, which has threatened to stop construction on its Seattle headquarters if the tax passes in its original form, has said they are willing to accept. Amazon contributed $350,000 to a pro-Durkan PAC in last year’s mayoral election.

A quick backgrounder on the tax: Last year, at the end of its annual budget process, the council formed a task force to come up with a progressive tax to pay for housing and services for Seattle’s homeless population. After several months of meetings, and numerous compromises in response to objections from small and low-margin businesses, the task force came up with a plan that would generate about $75 million a year—a $500-per-employee annual tax on businesses with gross revenues above $20 million, a threshold that excludes companies with high gross revenues but tight margins, such as restaurants. The proposal also came with a spending plan that emphasized long-term affordable housing over short-term emergency shelter services, and a provision that would convert the head tax into a business payroll tax starting in 2021, with no sunset date.

On Thursday night, Mayor Durkan released her own “compromise” head-tax proposal, which would cut the recommended head tax in half, to $250 per employee, ditch the provision transitioning the head tax into a business payroll tax, and sunset the whole thing in five years unless the council voted proactively to renew it. On Friday, Harrell introduced a proposal identical to the Durkan plan, along with a spending plan that emphasizes shelter over permanent housing and would pay for just 250 new rental units over five years. The Durkan/Harrell plan also includes a four percent wage increase for social service workers (many of whom make just over $15 an hour) and funding for a second Navigation Team to remove tent encampments and refer their residents to services.

When a council vote is 5 to 4 and a veto hangs in the balance, talk inevitably turns to “swing votes”—that is, who can be swayed to join the council majority to make the bill veto-proof?

Right now, it appears unlikely that anyone in the council’s four-person minority will budge over the weekend to support the full $500 tax, or even Lisa Herbold’s proffered $350 compromise, but a lot can change in the course of two days. So perhaps there will be a compromise that convinces one of the council members who opposes the larger tax to join the council majority. (The opposite scenario—that one of the five members who voted for the original $500 tax will join the four-member minority that wants to cut it in half—seems highly unlikely, since all five council members have consistently supported the proposal that came out of the task force, and since they stand to gain more, politically speaking, by forcing Durkan into a veto fight than by switching sides and handing the mayor a bloodless victory.)

However: If, as seems more likely as of Friday afternoon, the vote remains 5-4, the question becomes what will happen in the 30 days after Durkan vetoes it.

Judging from council members’ past positions and their comments Friday, the most likely “swing vote” when the decision comes down to passing something or doing nothing appears to be council member Rob Johnson, who seemed more tentative in his position than either Debora Juarez (“If we tax jobs to build houses and the jobs leave because of the tax, then no houses get built”) or Sally Bagshaw, who said virtually nothing at Friday’s meeting but is typically not the first council member to make dramatic vote switches.

Last year, when the council was debating whether to include the head tax in the budget, Johnson argued that proponents needed to come up with a more detailed spending plan to justify such a substantial tax. They did exactly that—and Johnson voted instead for a hastily sketched-out proposal that some council members didn’t see for the first time until this morning. On Friday, the most enthusiastic comment Johnson managed to muster about Durkan’s proposal was that it “allows for us to continue that pay-as-you-go process that has been a hallmark of most of the affordable housing investments that we’ve made as a city.”  If tax proponents are looking for a swing vote to help them override Durkan’s veto (and there is precedent for this kind of vote-switching), Johnson may be their best bet.

The council will be in discussions all this weekend, and will meet again on Monday morning to discuss the proposal (and any compromises reached over the next two days). A final vote on the head tax is scheduled for 2:00 Monday in council chambers.

 

Morning Crank: “This Is Our Dakota Access Pipeline Moment”

1. Environmental activists and tribal leaders have been waging a quixotic battle against Puget Sound Energy’s proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant at the Port of Tacoma for months, but many Seattle residents just took notice in the past couple of weeks, after socialist council member Kshama Sawant proposed a resolution that would have condemned the plant as “an unacceptable risk” to the region.

Sawant had hoped to move the resolution through the council without sending it through the usual committee process, arguing that it it was urgent to take a position on the plant as quickly as possible. Last week, at the urging of council member Debora Juarez—an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Nation who once lived on the Puyallup Reservation—Sawant agreed to add language noting that numerous Northwest tribal groups, including the Puyallup tribe, have expressed their strong opposition to the LNG plant but have not been included in the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency’s environmental review process. Last week’s amended resolution also noted the need for intergovernmental partnerships between the PSCAA and the tribes, as required, according to the resolution, by “local, state, and federal permitting and other approval processes.”

But several council members, including Juarez, Teresa Mosqueda, Lisa Herbold, and Sally Bagshaw, still felt the resolution needed work, and they spent the weekend, starting last Thursday, drafting a version that eliminated some of Sawant’s more incendiary (pun intended) references, including two “whereas” clauses about the 2016 fire that claimed several businesses in Greenwood and sections urging both the public and Mayor Jenny Durkan to actively oppose the facility. Sawant protested that she had not been included in the process of drafting the latest version of her resolution—”I just want everyone to know that I’m not responsible for those changes,” she said Monday morning—but council members reportedly reached out to her by phone throughout the weekend and never heard back.

The basic question at issue, Juarez argued, isn’t really whether Seattle should meddle in “Tacoma’s business,” or labor versus tribes or labor versus environmentalists. It’s about the fact that climate change has a disproportionate impact on low-income people and people of color, particularly the nine tribes whose land is located in the four-county Puget Sound region, and that those tribes were not consulted in the siting or permitting process. “This is an issue that transcends any political, legal, or jurisdictional lines that people have drawn,” Juarez said. “This is our Dakota Access Pipeline moment, except that we are on the front end of this.”

Whatever the merits of that argument (some members of the labor community, for example, have argued that environmental  protection and tribal sovereignty shouldn’t trump the potential for job creation at the plant), the debate quickly pitted Sawant against other council members who supported, as Sawant put it, “postponing” the resolution. Juarez, in particular, seemed perturbed by the crowd of (largely white) activists who showed up to express their support for Sawant’s amendment and to cheer loudly throughout Sawant’s speeches, which took up nearly 20 minutes of the two-hour meeting. “I mean no disrespect to the advocates, activists, environmentalists, and other groups that align themselves with native people,” Juarez said, but “we’re not a club. We’re not a political base. We’re not a grassroots organization. We are a government. … We will not stay in our lane.” To that, Sawant responded, “This is not about government-to-government relations. This is about the lives of ordinary people, many of whom are native, but others who are not. … I don’t’ think that we should in any way accept this kind of divisive language that native people are the only real speakers and others don’t get to speak. No, all of us have a stake in this.”

Noting that the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency recently ordered further environmental review of the project, council president Bruce Harrell argued yesterday that there was no real risk in delay, telling Juarez, “I think that your advocacy that the native communities have not been consulted properly or even legally is a great point… We haven’t really had any public process on this issue.” Several council members, saying that they hadn’t seen the latest version of the legislation by late yesterday morning, just hours before they were supposed to vote on it, agreed, and the council sent the measure to Juarez’s Civic Development, Public Assets & Native Communities committee for a rewrite.

2. Public comment was mostly muted during the first council meeting on the proposed citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability proposal, which will allow small density increases in six percent of the nearly 26,000 acres zoned exclusively for single-family housing in Seattle. (That number includes parks and open space, but not rights-of-way, such as streets; when green space is excluded, single-family houses and their yards cover nearly 22,000 acres of the city, or nearly two-thirds of the city’s residential land.)  One speaker said that residents of her neighborhood come “unglued” when they find out about new buildings that don’t have parking; another called the Grand Bargain that authorized MHA a “sham bargain,” which probably sounded more clever on paper. And then there was this lady, from a group called Seattle Fair Growth:

Don’t expect density opponents to accept what they’re (misleadingly) calling a “citywide rezone” without a fight. The first public open house on the proposal is at 6:00 tonight at Hamilton Middle School in Wallingford; District 4 rep Rob Johnson, who heads up the council’s land use committee, said he’ll be there at 7.

3. I somehow missed this when it happened, but Elaine Rose, the longtime president of Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, left the organization at the end of December with little fanfare and, as far as I can tell, no public announcement. Rose’s departure leaves a major agency without a permanent leader going into a short legislative session with several key bills under consideration*; an ad announcing the open position went out on a local employment listserv last week. (Planned Parenthood also listed a fundraising position earlier this month.) I’ve contacted Planned Parenthood and will update this post if I get more information about Rose’s departure.

*Full disclosure: I was communications director for NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, a reproductive rights advocacy group, until April 2017, and I do communications consulting for NARAL for approximately 3.5 hours a week. NARAL often partners with Planned Parenthood on advocacy efforts, but I found out Rose had left PPVNH through the WHOW list, which is not connected to either group.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! 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. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: Mayor Gonzalez?

1. City council president Bruce Harrell took the oath of office as Seattle’s emergency mayor yesterday (OK, real mayor, but only for another two and a half months max), promising to announce by today whether he will continue to serve as mayor until voters elect a successor to former mayor Ed Murray, who resigned this week after a fifth man accused him of sexual assault. .

The stakes for Harrell are high, although perhaps not as high as you might think: Although serving as mayor until the election results are certified at the end of November would require Harrell to give up his council seat, rumors have swirled since his most recent election in 2015 that this term, Harrell’s third, would be his last. Harrell ran for mayor and lost in the primary in 2013, so remaining as mayor would give Harrell a short-lived opportunity to serve in the position he lost to Murray four years ago.

If Harrell does stay on as mayor, Lorena Gonzalez would be next in the (informal) line of succession for council president. If he decides to return to the council, the council would choose another council member to serve as mayor. While Tim Burgess is an obvious choice—he’s stepping down this year, to be replaced in January by either Jon Grant or Teresa Mosqueda—the fact that Burgess chairs the council’s budget committee inserts a political wrinkle into the decision. If Burgess becomes mayor, the chairmanship of the budget committee would pass to council freshman Lisa Herbold—a member of the council’s left flank who might be more inclined than the centrist Burgess to tinker with Murray’s budget to reflect more left-leaning priorities (like, say, reducing the emphasis on rapid rehousing in the Human Services Department’s budget).

So who does that leave? Gonzalez, who was the first council member to call on Murray to resign, appears to be the next in line. She’s running for reelection this year, and assuming she wins, would be able to go right back to being a council member when the results are certified in November

Harrell has said he will make his decision before 5:00 this afternoon.

2. The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission dismissed a complaint by one of the losing candidates in the August primary election against Seattle City Council Position 9 incumbent Lorena Gonzalez. That complaint alleged that Gonzalez had deliberately misled the commission about how many open debates she had participated in before the primary and demanded that the commission fine her and force her to  return all the money she has received from voters in the form of “democracy vouchers.”

“If the Commission terminates the candidate’s participation in the Program, it will invalidate the choice of the more than 2,100 residents to date who have assigned their vouchers to Councilmember González,” commission director Wayne Barnett wrote in his recommendation to the commission. “The Program exists to empower residents to participate in elections in ways they have not been involved in the past. The Commission should be cautious about exercising the ‘nuclear option’ in a way that disserves one of the primary goals of the Program.”

Although the commission ruled against Gonzalez’ erstwhile opponent, Barnett’s recommendation letter raises interesting questions about the breadth of the initiative that instituted public financing of local elections, and could have implications for what campaign forums look like in the future.

The democracy voucher program requires any council candidate seeking voucher funding to participate in at least three forums at each stage of the election (primary and general) to which all candidates have been invited to participate. The complaint argued that because the losing candidate was not invited to some of the forums Gonzalez listed as qualifying events (including a “women of color” forum), she should have to return all her vouchers. This interpretation could require candidates to figure out who was invited to every potentially qualifying event they attend. Or it could mean that every single candidate must be invited to every debate, regardless of whether they are viable. In the mayor’s race, Barnett points out, that would have meant that every debate could have included all 21 people who filed for the position, including “Nazi shitheads” screamer Alex Tsimerman—a prospect that would have rendered the debates more or less useless for people hoping to learn anything about any of the six candidates who were actually viable.

3. Some people just can’t take a joke. And some people just can’t get a joke—even when you explain it to them. Case in point: Last week, I ran an item about a going-away gift from the mayor’s staff to longtime City Hall staffer (and Murray chief of staff) Mike Fong—a giant fake check for $3.5 million made out to the “Michael Fong Community Health Engagement Location.” (CHEL is bureaucratic code for supervised drug consumption sites.) As I wrote at the time, “The joke, concocted by Murray’s comms director Benton Strong, is a little obscure.”

Too obscure, apparently, for Neighborhood Safety Alliance member Jennifer Aspelund, who filed a records request on Friday, September 8 seeking “any monies allocated for Michael Fong community health engagement location center and any discussion of such center.”

The city’s response? “This location center does not exist; therefore, the Mayor’s office or any other departments do not have any responsive records.”

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

The C Is for Crank Interviews: Bruce Harrell

Now that the primary-election field of 47 has been narrowed to a comparatively manageable 18, I’m sitting down with all the council candidates to talk about what they’ve learned so far, their campaign plans going forward, and their views on the issues that will shape the election, including density, “neighborhood character,” crime, parking, police accountability, and diversity. I’ll be rolling out all 17 of my interviews (Kshama Sawant was the only candidate who declined to sit down with me) over the next few weeks.

If you want to help me continue to do interviews like this one, plus on-the-ground reporting, deep dives on issues like affordability and transportation, breaking news, and incisive analysis, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter by pledging a few bucks at Patreon. This work costs money and (lots of) time, so I really appreciate every bit of support I receive from my readers.

Today’s interview: District 2 candidate Bruce Harrell. I met up with Harrell at the Starbucks at 23rd and Jackson.

Bruce-HarrellThe C Is for Crank [ECB]: I wanted to talk to you about encampments, and this location is very appropriate for that conversation, because Central District neighbors were very accommodating about not one but three separate tent cities that located within a few blocks of here. Yet up in Ballard, people are threatening a revolt around the prospect of even one tent encampment in their neighborhood. Meanwhile, one of the finalists for a future encampment is in your district, near Othello Park, which already has problems with criminal activity. How do you think the South End community will react to a new tent city in their area–will they be more like Ballard, or more like the neighborhood we’re in right now?Image result for bruce harrell

Bruce Harrell [BH]: I’m on record saying that I want to be open, I want to find a location somewhere. We all feel comfortable saying we don’t want people living in tents, we all say, “Housing first,” but until we get housing for everyone, [a tent city is] a practical alternative. I want to support an alternative, even if it’s in my district, although that is not ideal. Ideally, we want strong services to get people off the street. We don’t want our city to be a place where, because of our tolerance, we just have tent encampments forever.

ECB: When you say an encampment in your district is “not ideal,” it sounds like you are saying that tent encampments are inherently a bad thing, something that gets “dumped” on neighborhoods. Is that what you’re saying?

BH: I don’t care how good-hearted people are—even the most liberal-minded people I know are not excited about having encampments close to their homes. They say, “I support it, just not close to me. I think we have a tendency to demonize that kind of person and to worry about crime and safety. That’s a reasonable position, but to some extent an undeserved position. In the North End, they were very safe, very well organized. It can be done where it doesn’t jeopardize public safety.

At 22nd and Cherry, I had mixed feelings. I get concerned when I see people living in tents, but I’m glad to see them living somewhere where they were dry and safe. They did not see a huge number of impacts. When we temporarily house someone in tents in the city, it’s not ideal. That’s why I’ve been progressive about exploring residential neighborhoods. [Currently, tent encampments are allowed on city-owned land only in nonresidential areas.] We have to acknowledge that we’re short of space and tents are what we have right now.

The face of homelessness has changed. It’s not what we used to call hobos and people drinking and moving from place to place with a long beard. It’s people who are down on their luck and out of work. It’s people with drug and alcohol problems, children, single parents. We have to be more willing to house them, perhaps even in tents. One of the problems we hear about in Seattle is that we’re enablers and we invited these people here, where they don’t have to work and can just get handouts. I’ve never met a child who says, “I can’t wait to grow up and be homeless.”

But that misses the point. the fact is that if we’re going to have a humane society, we have to commit to housing people. I don’t think Othello is an ideal location. It has an opportunity to be a thriving economic center, with jobs and training centers and apprenticeships. It could be a gateway to a better South End. So is that the ideal location? No. But to have it there as a temporary solution? I’m willing to consider it.

I already hear people saying the South End is the dumping ground for the city. [An Othello encampment] would play into this narrative. And, yes, there would be vehement opposition. It would perpetuate the narrative that we’re the dumping ground for social services agencies. And it would impact neighborhood policing and community-based organizations in a negative way.

ECB: You were standing behind Mayor Murray when he announced his crackdown [on which he has since backtracked] on hookah lounges, which are owned primarily by African immigrants. But I heard you were resistant to doing the press conference, and particularly to doing it in Hing Hay Park, near where [International District leader] Donnie Chin was killed. What do you think of targeting hookah lounges as a source of crime, and the specific way the mayor announced it? Do you think they’re really linked with crime, or are they a convenient scapegoat?

BH: It’s public safety. We need to know what the plans are, as well as actually plan for enforcement. I’m not going on the record saying I oppose what [Murray’s] trying to do. But I met with 10 of the 11 owners and had a robust meeting with them. In that meeting they did each seem to have valid concerns. They’re saying that if the city tells them what the rules, are they will comply. Right now, you can apply for a membership for five bucks a day. The department has ruled that that is not a proper  membership, and they’re saying, then tell us what proper membership would look like.

They’re also saying that no marijuana is smoked in the place. I don’t know if that’s true or not. That was not the issue for me, but I want to know what occurred in those lounges. I believe they were not forthcoming, because we’ve talked to folks who say they’ve smoked weed in these lounges. The issue is if they’re not being honest. Every one of them said that no illicit activity takes place.

ECB: Have you ever been inside a hookah lounge?

BH: No, but I’ve talked to people in the East African community who’ve said most of them want those places shut down. [City attorney] Pete [Holmes’] letter says, you are not acting legally, however, we will work with you to be a law-abiding private club if you want. We owe it to them to have a clear set of guidelines.

The biggest travesty out of all of this is that none of us decision-markers has even been in a hookah lounge. I’m trying to better understand this culture. From our police department and law department, they are saying that illicit drug activities were going on. What they are saying is that they’re seeing rowdy behavior, some gunfire, weed in the parking lot . I’ve yet to see any data saying there is any link to violence.

ECB: Do you think the hookah lounges had any link to Donnie Chin’s murder?

That’s a legitimate question. I’m asking that myself. I have yet to see that linkage. The reason it didn’t occur to anybody is because all the information being thrust upon us is weed is being smoked and that there’s guns at night after hours. This is an after-hours spot, after they’re tanked up on alcohol—and then you go smoke weed… Sally Bagshaw and I have talked about going to one of these places some night soon to see for ourselves what goes on there, and I think we should do that.

ECB:  I was surprised that, when he announced he was shutting down all the city’s hookah lounges, the mayor didn’t seem to notice he was targeting black businesses exclusively. Did you have any reaction to that fact at the time?

BH: I would have thought I would be the first to see the race issue. I saw a constituency that’s not valued as a constituency. Compared to taxi drivers, who are a vocal constituency of political players in town. I saw them as not politically astute, not politically connected or connected to politics in any respect. As a group, I don’t even know if they vote. I saw a group that needed to be somewhat organized and relevant.

Previously:

Michael Maddux, District 4

Rob Johnson, District 4

Mike O’Brien, District 6

Catherine Weatbrook, District 6

Tim Burgess, Position 8

Jon Grant, Position 8

Lorena Gonzalez, Position 9

Bill Bradburd, Position 9

An Unscripted Forum and Open-Mic Nite in Southeast Seattle’s District 2

Bruce Harrell does not need your "yes or no crap."

Bruce Harrell does not need your “yes or no crap.”

It’s nearly impossible to judge candidate “performance” at an unscripted, barely moderated event like last week’s District 2 forum without writing first about why it was a fiasco, and in this case the answer boiled down to three words: Josh Farris acolytes. Or: Unprepared forum moderator. Or, even shorter: No crowd control.

Whichever way you characterize it, the issue was that Farris, the relatively soft-spoken, seemingly reasonable, socialist-leaning third candidate in the Southeast Seattle district, showed up accompanied by a cadre of noisy, boisterous, disrespectful fans. Meanwhile, the moderator, Lakewood Seward Park Community Club board member Jeannie O’Brien, made essentially no effort to discipline the Farrisites by asking them to be quiet or stop heckling, creating an atmosphere of chaos that allowed them to commandeer a mic later and stretch the two-hour forum—which, again, featured just three candidates—until nearly 10:00 at night. (The Lakewood forum became the community’s de facto introduction to the three candidates after the 37th District Democrats canceled a forum for the 2nd and 3rd District races because Kshama Sawant, the popular Socialist council incumbent, like Farris, is not a Democrat).

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s the lay of the land in District 2. Bruce Harrell, longtime council incumbent and Seward Park resident, is running for the new District 2 seat. His main challenger is food-systems nonprofit manager Tammy Morales, another Seward Park resident who is running on a platform of affordability, police accountability (an issue on which she frequently attacks Harrell, who’s head of the council’s Public Safety Committee), and general “progressive values.: Flanking both of them on the left is Farris, a Occupy Wall Streeter and Iraq war veteran who’s running on an anti-eviction platform.

The trouble started right after Farris’ intro wrapped up and his supporters, mostly young guys who had ringed the room, started screaming and cheering uproariously, prompting an elderly lady in the front row to whisper to the Farris supporter next to hear, “Please stop screaming. I’m wearing hearing aids.” When the screamer continued screaming anyway, she explained further the hearing aids are “basically little microphones in my ears,” prompting the women next to her to begin openly mocking her,  setting the tone for an evening that was frequently punctuated by cheers and interruptions from hecklers.

Through all the noise (or perhaps because of it), I was reminded of something I forget about Bruce Harrell between elections: The man suffers no bullshit from his audience. And despite his affinity for binders full of notes (a security blanket that was clearly visible on the table in front of him), Harrell’s a strong campaigner, and he doesn’t back down when challenged even if his challenger, like Morales (and Farris), doesn’t pose much of a threat. Last week’s forum was no different, and at times it was fun to watch Harrell (act? play?) indignant when Morales tried to paint him as “someone who claims to be a social justice advocate but fails to step up for working people,” or who only became interested in “investing in the community after he’s been [on the council] eight years.”

"My question is a series of statements."

“My question is a series of statements.”

Harrell—who previously said he’d “never had so much fight in me as I have [in running] for this position”—responded, in full non sequitur battle mode, “I’ve never been afraid of anything—never. I don’t do things on the basis of fear. That’s a baseless accusation.”

The most striking difference between this debate and the council forums I’ve been to in the North End was the extent to which the issues down south are almost the reverse image of those that dominate up north. Whereas in the North End, people expressed concern about ugly apartment buildings coming in and depreciating single-family property values, the Lakewood forum centered on preserving racial diversity, keeping rents affordable, and preventing gentrification. Whereas everyone in the North End seemed obsessed with sidewalks to connect their single-family neighborhoods to local schools, the main transportation issues that came up in Southeast Seattle were the proposed restriping of Rainier Ave. S. to accommodate bike or bus lanes, and the fact that Sound Transit light rail has been so successful that many rail commuters are driving into Southeast Seattle and parking their cars on neighborhood streets, reducing the parking supply for residents.

All three candidates bemoaned gentrification, but they differed on what (if anything) to do about it. Morales suggested that the city should subsidize “not just very low-income housing, but housing for average workers who need a place to stay,” while Harrell said he would help improve Southeast business districts by prohibiting the “clustering” of marijuana retailers in the Rainier Valley. Currently, Rainier Ave. S is home to around a dozen medical-marijuana shops, some of which feature signs boasting “Open until midnight!” and offering free samples for first-time buyers.

And all three candidates agreed that the city needs to adopt a “linkage fee,” a citywide tax on new development, to help make developers “pay their fair share,” in Harrell’s words, to subsidize affordable housing. Farris, a new homeowner who called himself “basically homeless” (he was recently kicked out of his apartment following a long dispute with his landlord and is currently in between those two places), also said the city should adopt anti-eviction laws, a “blight tax” on banks that buy foreclosed homes, and rent control.

 

When the issue of transportation came up, all three displayed the familiar mix of conflicting opinions that often come up in discussions about “road diets,” the (fictitious) “war on cars,” and bike lanes. For example, while Harrell declared himself a passionate supporter of restriping Rainier to slow traffic and improve safety (“I don’t want another life lost on Rainier Avenue … If it takes a minute off your schedule, then start a minute earlier!”), he also said cyclists should be content to ride on “neighborhood streets” and that “I don’t think there should be a prohibition” on new park-and-ride lots in the city.

Morales followed up on Harrell’s park-and-ride comment by declaring herself “flummoxed” at the fact that the city does not allow new park-and-rides next to light rail stations (city officials prefer transit-oriented development to acres of bare pavement) and said she generally can’t walk the mile between her house and light rail because “sometimes I like to wear heels” and because she has young kids.

Farris, who is white, awkwardly attempted to demonstrate his cultural competency by talking about the need for more crossings on Rainier: “You see elderly folks crossing [Rainier] who  don’t understand that when a car’s coming, you have to stop. It’s not part of the culture. I’ve been to Vietnam, and when a car’s coming, you just walk out into the street and expect them to stop. That doesn’t happen here.”

The evening ended in what was supposed to be a Q&A with the audience. The problem was, no one was screening questions, and O’Brien neither enforced nor even provided any parameters before declaring it open-mike. Or, as I tweeted:  Screen shot 2015-06-15 at 9.14.23 PM

And guess what, I was right. The unscreened “questions” turned out to be mostly lengthy speeches by Farris supporters about everything from the new juvenile detention center (Harrell: “The jail is not controlled by the city …  You can shake your head all you want, but I want some bad people locked up”), to how to solve the affordable housing crisis (Harrell again: “I’m 56 years old. I don’t need people to applaud the linkage fee… Let’s not cheapen this process with this yes or no crap”), to whether the candidates would “give up” most of their salaries, as Farris has promised to do in the alternate universe in which he gets elected.

While new homeowner Farris used this last question as a chance once again to highlight his poverty (“I’m sleeping on a couch… It’s hard to be poor”), Harrell responding by saying that he earns his keep.

“If your question is, Would I give 50 percent of my salary to charity?, the answer is no,” Harrell said. “I would not be willing to do that. I have two kids in college and bills to pay, and I work very, very hard for it.”

After several more questions, and many more speeches (including one by a Farris supporter who claimed to have come to Harrell’s office seeking help “with tears in my eyes, representing Latino families and all families in the city”), the forum was over and everyone drifted into the night, a bit more knowledgeable and probably a little more confused than when they went in.