Head Tax Heads for Repeal. What Happened, and What Happens Now?

The city council will hold a special meeting at noon tomorrow—just two days before the deadline for head tax opponents to turn in 17,000 signatures for a citywide referendum to overturn a tax on big businesses to help address Seattle’s growing homelessness crisis—to preemptively repeal the tax. The decision came just weeks after a bruising battle that resulted in the unanimous passage of a “compromise” head tax plan—$275, instead of the original $500—that was supported by all nine council members and signed by Mayor Jenny Durkan. Much like that proposal, today’s surprise repeal announcement emerged after a round of secret weekend negotiations, in which council members who supported the tax just weeks ago concluded that it was time to concede the fight. Polling on the referendum to repeal the tax reportedly spurred council members to reverse their support.

Earlier this afternoon, seven council members signed off on a statement from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office supporting the repeal measure; only Teresa Mosqueda and Kshama Sawant, who denounced the “backroom legislation” during Monday’s full council meeting, did not signal their support for repealing the tax. The statement from the other seven council members said, in part:

“In recent months, we worked with a range of businesses, community groups, advocates, and working families to enact a bill that struck the right balance between meaningful progress on our affordability and homelessness crisis while protecting good, family-wage jobs. Over the last few weeks, these conversations and much public dialogue has continued.  It is clear that the ordinance will lead to a prolonged, expensive political fight over the next five months that will do nothing to tackle our urgent housing and homelessness crisis. These challenges can only be addressed together as a city, and as importantly, as a state and a region. 

“We heard you. This week, the City Council is moving forward with the consideration of legislation to repeal the current tax on large businesses to address the homelessness crisis.”

The $275-per-employee annual tax, which would have applied to the 585 highest-grossing businesses in Seattle,  would have funded $47 million a year in services, shelter, and housing for Seattle’s homeless population. Without the tax, hundreds of new apartments will not be built, hundreds of new shelter beds will not open up at night, and thousands of people who would have received rental assistance, case management, or mental health care through the levy proceeds will continue to go without those services.

Opposition to the tax came not just from the usual suspects in the business community—Amazon, which threatened to pull employees from the city over an earlier version of the tax, pledged tens of thousands of dollars to the repeal effort, as did Starbucks, Kroger, and representatives of the hotel and grocery industries—but from groups with names like Speak Out Seattle and Safe Seattle, whose members gathered signatures on their own time to repeal a tax on giant corporations. The tax, which was the product of five months of meetings by a 17-member task force, was chosen specifically because it would not directly impact ordinary citizens (unlike a property tax or sales tax), but enough ordinary citizens opposed it to convince at least some council members that their voices represented the majority of Seattle.

“I think it reflects majority sentiment,” council member Sally Bagshaw says. “I do, and I’m sad. … Everywhere I went, clearly businesses were unhappy, but half of labor was unhappy.  Neighborhoods and communities were saying, ‘We don’t see tents being moved off the street. We still see needles. We still see garbage. We’re not happy with this.'” Bagshaw did not mention polling on the head tax, nor did any of her colleagues.

Council member Rob Johnson, who was not directly involved in the weekend negotiations, says his primary concern in supporting a repeal of the head tax is the Families, Education, Preschool, and Promise (FEPP) levy, which funds pre-K through college education and is on the ballot in November. A referendum to repeal the head tax, he worried, might have put voters in an anti-tax mood and swept preschool funding away with it.

“As the person trying to get the [FEPP] levy across the finish line in November, I’m obviously excited about the opportunity to have a laser-like focus on that, as opposed to a potential referendum and the  [FEPP] levy at the same time,” Johnson says. “I signed on because I think it gives us a much clearer pathway for success in November.” The last time the families and education levy was on the ballot, in 2011, it passed by more than 63 percent.

Council member Mike O’Brien, who has been targeted with an outsized share of the criticism from activists who oppose spending more money on homelessness (including a “town hall” in Ballard that immediately devolved into a profane one-way screaming match), says it became “increasingly clear” over the past couple of months “that the public is aligned with the business community, specifically the Chamber,” which has run a well-funded campaign to reframe the employee hours tax, which would be paid by employers, as a “tax on jobs,” which would harm employees and the city as a whole.

In a statement, council member Lisa Herbold—who signed the joint statement supporting repeal—denounced the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, which she said “has convinced the vast majority of Seattleites 1) of the tired, old conservative trope that increased levels of human suffering we see in our city is caused by government inefficiency rather than by the Gilded Age level income inequality in Seattle and elsewhere, and 2) that leading first with a regional funding approach, reliant on higher property or sales taxes for all taxpayers, is preferable to resources from those most benefiting from income inequality in Seattle paying their fair share.” Asked why she issued such a scathing statement after signing off on the joint statement supporting repeal, Herbold said, “I’m acting based on what I’m hearing” about the lack of support for the tax, but “I don’t agree with” repealing the tax.

Had Durkan brought the Chamber into the head tax negotiations earlier this year, instead of focusing on getting Amazon to stand down, the campaign might have looked much different, or not existed in the first place. But as things played out, “don’t tax jobs” became a rallying cry for both businesses and, importantly, citizen activists, who also glommed on to the idea that the city could get by without additional revenues by auditing its homelessness programs  and “spending our existing dollars more efficiently.”

O’Brien says that with thousands of people sleeping outside and in shelters and transitional housing across Seattle and King County, “finding efficiencies” isn’t enough to make a dent in the crisis. “We absolutely need more funding for housing and  services. We would have to make devastating cuts to other programs that everyone cares about to fund what we need to do with existing resources, so that’s just not possible,” he says. With the head tax, which the task force chose after rejecting other options as impractical or open to legal challenge, off the table, “there’s nothing that stands out that’s remotely promising, and that’s discouraging.” A city income tax is locked up in court, sales and property taxes are regressive and unpopular, and other options—like a capital gains tax on wealthy individuals, or a tax on corporate profits—are prohibited by law. There really just aren’t many options that aren’t either political suicide or downright illegal.

For months, the mayor and council have talked about the need for “regional solutions” to homelessness—that is, a tax that would not be borne solely by Seattle. But the region has shown little interest, so far, in coming up with such solutions. Last year, King County Executive Dow Constantine proposed a countywide sales tax as a replacement for a Seattle-only property tax measure floated by then-mayor Ed Murray, but that proposal has not been seen or heard from since. Meanwhile, a regional task force called One Table, which was supposed to come up with recommendations for funding homelessness services earlier this year, has canceled several meetings and is reportedly stalled. Mayor Jenny Durkan opposed an earlier, larger version of the head tax and signed the council’s legislation for the “compromise” that will be repealed tomorrow, but has never come forward with an alternative proposal of her own, leaving the council in the driver’s seat on spending, for better or worse.

Mosqueda, one of the two council members who did not sign off on the statement advocating repeal, said today that the head tax the council approved was “the best idea at the time”—better, at least, than nothing, which is what the city is left with now. “I am happy to support an alternative strategy, but I need to know that there’s a proposal, so that folks have light at the end of the tunnel, so that there is housing on the horizon, so people can get off the streets and not continue to suffer and live outside.”

O’Brien expressed a sentiment that has been bubbling for weeks at city hall, on homelessness and other issues: “We need leadership from the mayor. We can’t say we’re not going to do anything. If there’s not a regional solution, we have to do something else. She’s been here six months now, and she needs to make this her top priority.” The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for further comment beyond the joint statement. But she did not present a plan to deal with the defeat of the head tax, which would have funded her proposal to add 1,000 new beds at shelters around the city, announced last week. “We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it,” Durkan joked at the time. And here we are.

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Controversial Head Tax Passes After Weeks of Bruising Debate

After a weekend of negotiations between city council members and Mayor Jenny Durkan (and, according to council president Bruce Harrell, “conversations with Amazon, big business, small business, [and] homeless advocates”) the city council unanimously approved a new version of the controversial employee hours tax today, imposing a $275-per-employee tax on about 585 businesses with gross receipts of more than $20 million a year.  The $275 figure was a  “compromise” between the $500 tax passed out of committee last week by a slim majority of council members and the $250 tax proposed by Harrell and Durkan, which emphasized short-term shelter and garbage cleanup over permanent housing, and would have built just 250 new units of housing over five years. Durkan had threatened to veto the larger tax proposal, and as several council members noted on the dais this afternoon, the council majority was unable to convince one of their colleagues (such as council member Rob Johnson) to switch sides and give them a veto-proof majority. The $500 head tax proposal was the result of months of work by the city’s progressive revenue task force, which was appointed after a last year’s budget process and charged with coming up with a proposal to tax businesses to pay for homeless services and affordable housing. (Johnson, who was seen as a potential swing vote, cited the need for a process like the one the task force went through in voting against an early head tax proposal last year.) The task force issued their report in March.

The tax, which sunsets after five years (and which will no longer be replaced, as in previous versions of the legislation, with a business payroll tax), would raise about $47 million a year for new housing, rental subsidies, and supportive services. According to the spending plan the council also adopted this afternoon, that would be enough to build about 591 units of housing—288 for low-income people making between 30 and 60 percent of Seattle’s area median income and 303 permanent supportive housing units for formerly homeless people making between 0 and 30 percent of median. (The full spending plan is available here.) The plan also includes rental subsidies to get homeless people into “immediate housing,” funding for a total of about 250 new shelter beds and authorized encampments, more parking lots for people living in their cars, and sanitation facilities. The adopted spending plan, which allocates about two-thirds of the head tax revenues to housing, reverses the priorities in the spending plan proposed last week by Mayor Jenny Durkan and council president Bruce Harrell, which would have spent 70 percent of the revenues from the head tax in years 1 and 2 (and 60 percent in years 3 through 5) on short-term emergency shelter, garbage cleanup, and a new Navigation Team to coordinate the removal of unauthorized encampments and the people in them.

Prior to their vote for the tax, several council members expressed regret that they failed to come up with a compromise that could convince at least one of their colleagues to join them in a veto-proof majority in favor of a larger tax, such as the $350 compromise council member Lisa Herbold floated Friday. Council member Lorena Gonzalez, who was one of the co-chairs, along with Herbold, on the progressive revenue task force, said, “While I’m excited that we will be taking this vote… to reestablish a head tax… it’s regrettable that we were unable to find a path amongst our colleagues and with the mayor that they would be willing to support a higher taxation rate than $275.” Council member Mike O’Brien, who recently weathered hours of verbal abuse at an out-of-control forum on the head tax in Ballard, sounded grim as he conceded, “I’m settling for this level of service.”

Business leaders continued to grumble about the tax. The Downtown Seattle Association issued a statement decrying the tax as “bad economic policy [that] will negatively impact Seattle’s economy and city tax revenues,” and Amazon said in a statement that the “tax on jobs” makes the company “very apprehensive about the future created by the council’s hostile approach and rhetoric toward larger businesses, which forces us to question our growth here.”

The next battle for homeless advocates at city hall will be over the spending plan for the tax—a component of the plan that is in many ways more critical than the amount of money the tax produces. Durkan’s proposed spending plan, with its emphasis on emergency shelter, encampment removals, and tiny houses, would have largely backfilled spending on programs for which funding is about to run out (the plan contained a $15 million-$16 million annual line item to “continu[e] programs which had one-time funding in the 2018 budget, or insufficient funding, plus unspecified “new emergency, temporary, and enhanced shelters, navigation centers… and/or service and safe parking for vehicular living”), reducing the impact of the new revenues to whatever is left over once all the programs that are running out of money are funded. Although the council adopted the spending plan, that vote was narrow (5-4, along the same lines as Friday’s vote) and the actual implementation plan will have to be proposed by Durkan and adopted by the council as part of this year’s budget process.

Before the vote, council member Teresa Mosqueda said the new revenues from the head tax “are supposed to be in addition to” existing spending, not a replacement for it. Asked specifically about this concern at a press conference after the vote, Durkan pivoted to talking about the need to examine the council’s proposed spending plan itself, which she said would fund “a number of programs, such as shelter and supportive housing,” for which long-term funding is not secure. She did not answer the question about whether she would push for a spending plan that used new dollars to pay for existing funding commitments.

The insistence on funding existing shelter beds, from some of the four-member council minority as well as Mayor Durkan, is somewhat ironic. After all, it was the city council itself (with then-mayor Tim Burgess’ support) who adopted a spending plan for homeless service providers last year that eliminated funding for many basic shelters, on the grounds that they failed to demonstrate that they could move their clients into permanent housing quickly. The new standards for shelter providers, for example, withhold funding if those shelters fail to move 40 percent of their clients into housing within three months, a standard that few emergency shelters can meet, particularly those serving the clients who are hardest to house.

The emphasis in the Durkan/Harrell plan on funding shelters rather than housing also flies in the face of what virtually every expert, from the city’s homelessness consultant Barb Poppe to the city’s Human Services Department to a Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce-commissioned report to former All Home King County director Mark Putnam, which is that a solution to homelessness requires getting people into housing, not tents and “tiny houses” (which Putnam recently referred to as “glorified garden sheds.”) Asked why she supported a split that favored spending on shelters over housing, Durkan responded, “because I think the people of Seattle think that we’ve got to make a difference in homelessness tomorrow. We need to get  people off the streets and get them a safe place to live. None of this housing will come online for years.”

Mosqueda told me before the vote that she was “not interested” in a spending plan that funds temporary shelter “that evicts people in five years and fails to build the housing we need.” The problem in Seattle, Mosqueda argued, is not so much lack of mats on the floor as a lack of affordable housing, and providing more temporary shelter beds is only a “Band-Aid” that fails to address the larger affordability problem at the root of Seattle’s inability to move people from shelter to housing. In a memo released earlier today, Mosqueda staffer Michael Maddux wrote that in the Durkan/Harrell plan, “There does not seem to be increased capacity in funding to support short-term enhanced shelter, and with the draconian cuts to the housing component, no plan appears in place to provide permanent housing for people moved into the few new beds created (about 1,000) by the Mayor’s plan.”

One thing everyone on both sides agreed on is that homelessness is a regional, not a Seattle-only, problem. “Seattle can’t go it alone,” Durkan said during her press conference. “This is a regional crisis that demands a regional response.” That quote might have been lifted verbatim from any other number of press conferences by any number of Seattle officials, past or present. Seattle officials routinely implore “the region,” usually meaning King County, to step up and pay their fair share to address every challenging problem, whether it’s inadequate transit or inadequate funds for housing.  Whether that additional funding will materialize is uncertain. Durkan announced this morning that the state has come up with an additional $40 million for behavioral health services in 2018, and $18 million to $20 million a year after that, and that King County has said it will provide the city with $5.7 million to expand shelter and “safe alternatives for people living outdoors” in 2018. Little is currently known about what strings are attached to this funding or how it can be spent.

Beyond the $5.7 million announced this morning, the county has been parsimonious with its funding to address the crisis. (It did adopt a resolution today declaring May 14-20 “Affordable Housing Week” in King County,  “all county residents” are encouraged “to embrace affordable housing opportunities in their communities.”) Last week, King County Executive Dow Constantine suggested last week that the city needs to slow down and work on a regional approach through the massive “One Table” task force, which began meeting back in January. One Table was supposed to have finished up its meetings and announced its recommendations for a regional approach to addressing homelessness by now; instead, they have canceled their past two meetings and have been very quiet since April. One Table may ultimately come back with a recommendation for a countywide levy, or a sales tax to pay for housing and services (two of the only options available to local governments in Washington State), or it may not. Either way, Seattle is moving forward with what is at least an attempt to address the crisis of homelessness within its borders. Whether the scaled-back proposal adopted today makes a perceptible, measurable dent in homelessness, or whether it merely provides more fodder for anti-tax activists who insist that the city is wasting its money because the problem isn’t getting any better, will be clear soon enough.

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: A “Reset” for Move Seattle

1. The Seattle Department of Transportation and the Durkan administration will soon propose what is being called a “reset” for Move Seattle, the $930 million levy that passed in 2015, to reflect the reality that the federal funding that the city assumed would be available for many of the projects has not come through from the Trump Administration, as well as increased cost estimates for some projects on the levy list.

The “reset” will likely mean significant cuts to some of the projects that were promised in the levy, particularly those that assumed high levels of federal funding, such as seven proposed new RapidRide lines, which were supposed to get more than half their funding ($218 million) from the feds. “They’re calling it a ‘reset,’ but I don’t know what that means,” says city council transportation committee chairman Mike O’Brien.  “It’s not terribly encouraging.” Additionally, O’Brien says, “costs have gone up significantly in the last few years because of the pace of the economy,” making capital projects, in particular, more expensive than the city bargained for.

The City Budget Office and the Seattle Department of Transportation are still having conversations about what the cuts might look like, but according to multiple current and former city staffers familiar with the situation, one possibility is that some of the planned new RapidRide lines might no longer happen on schedule or at all; another is that some projects could be dramatically scaled back, but not eliminated entirely. A third possibility is that some projects could be delayed until a future levy (or Presidential administration) or paid for with other funding sources .Move Seattle taxes will be collected through 2024. The mayor and SDOT are expected to release details of the “reset” in the several weeks.

One possibility is that some of the planned new RapidRide lines might no longer happen on schedule or at all; another is that some projects could be scaled back, but not eliminated entirely.  

The city was counting on about $564 million in federal funds to leverage the $930 million in local tax dollars in the voter-approved levy, but since the 2016 election, all bets are off. (Seattle’s sanctuary city status has prompted several threats from the Trump Administration to withhold federal grant funding from the city.)  SDOT has not released a 2017 financial report for Move Seattle, so it’s difficult to say how much federal money came in during the first full year under the new federal regime, but in 2016, the city received and spent just $16.3 million in federal funds on Move Seattle projects—a tiny fraction of that $564 million total. I have requested the 2017 spending report for Move Seattle from SDOT and will update this post if I receive it.

The projects on this list that could be particularly at risk for cuts include those that rely heavily on federal funding, including not just the seven RapidRide lines but bridge safety improvements, pedestrian safety projects, and sidewalks in neighborhoods that don’t currently have them. The percentage of federal funds assumed for each category of projects ranges from none to 86.7 percent.

“We’re still giving between 70 and 75 percent of our lane miles [downtown] over to folks that are only 25 percent of the [commuter] population. To me, that seems like a really inequitable use of public space.” – Council member Rob Johnson  

It’s a particularly inopportune time for more bad news from SDOT. Last week, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced she was putting the Center City Streetcar on “pause” because of dramatic cost overruns, and earlier this week, Durkan announced that the city would delay a long-planned protected bike lane on Fourth Avenue in downtown Seattle until 2021, when the Northgate light rail station opens, ostensibly to avoid eliminating motorized traffic lanes on Fourth during the upcoming “period of maximum constraint” downtown. Interim SDOT director Goran Sparrman got an earful about the delayed bike safety improvements from both O’Brien and council member (and former Transportation Choices Coalition director) Rob Johnson during his presentation on the One Center City plan earlier this week; Johnson said that one of his “frustrations” was that although the city says it prioritizes pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders over cars, its actions downtown have done exactly the opposite. “It’s not just that we aren’t dedicating enough of the center city to bicycle facilities, but ditto on the transit side of things, Goran,” Johnson said. “We’re still giving between 70 and 75 percent of our lane miles [downtown] over to folks that are only 25 percent of the [commuter] population. To me, that seems like a really inequitable use of public space.”

2. On Wednesday, with little fanfare, One Table—the 91-member work group tasked with coming up with recommendations to address the regional homelessness crisis—released its recommendations, in a nine-page document that includes no cost estimates, no funding proposals, and no timeline for implementing any of the ideas on the list. The city of Seattle’s progressive revenue task force, which recommended a tax on employers that could raise up to $75 million annually, has said that it would wait until One Table to release its recommendations before recommending additional taxes, with the ultimate goal of raising a total of $150 million a year.

The recommendations, which were released jointly by King County and the cities of Seattle and Auburn, are mostly familiar: Providing 5,000 units of affordable housing across the county over three years, by building new housing and by “increasing access to existing housing choices”; treatment on demand; financial assistance for housing, including short-term help for people in crisis; and increased investment in job programs for people at risk of homelessness. Since the list of “actions” doesn’t include any dollar amounts, it’s hard to assess how ambitious the proposal truly is, but 5,000 units in three years throughout King County (to say nothing of the three-county Puget Sound region) will house fewer than half of the 12,000 people living outdoors or in sanctioned encampments or shelters in King County alone. Job programs and homelessness prevention efforts will undoubtedly prevent some people from falling into homelessness and making that number even larger, but until it’s clear how the recommendations would cost and where the money would come from, it’s hard to say what impact the proposals will have, and whether One Table will live up to its promise to “best tackle this problem to ensure expansive and lasting solutions,” as Mayor Jenny Durkan put it when the work group held its first meeting in January.

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: The High Cost of Mandatory Parking

1. By a 7-1 vote Monday (Kshama Sawant was absent, having just landed back in Seattle from a socialism conference in Germany), the city council adopted parking reform legislation that will lower parking mandates in certain parts of the city, require more bike parking in new developments, redefine frequent transit service so that more areas qualify for exemptions from parking mandates, and unbundle rent for housing from rent for parking, so that renters who don’t need parking spaces don’t have to pay for them.

As promised last week, council member Lisa Herbold introduced an amendment that would give the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections the authority to impose environmental “mitigation” measures on new developments in areas where there is no parking mandate and where more than 85 percent of on-street parking is generally occupied by cars. (Herbold raised objections to the unbundling provision and the new definition of frequent transit service in committee, too—and voted against sending the legislation to full council—but only reintroduced the mitigation amendment on Monday). Under the State Environmental  Policy Act, “mitigation” is supposed to reduce the environmental impact of land-use decisions; Herbold’s argument was that measures such as imposing minimum parking requirements, reducing non-residential density, and barring residents of new apartments from obtaining residential parking permits would mitigate the environmental impact caused by people circling the block, looking for parking. (At the advice of the city attorney, Herbold said, she removed the RPZ language from her amendment).

Citing parking guru Donald Shoup—whose book “The High Cost of Free Parking” has been the inspiration for many cities to charge variable rates for on-street parking, depending on demand—Herbold said 85 percent occupancy was “a good compromise between optimal use of the parking spots and [preventing] cars [from spending] five, ten minutes driving around looking for a parking spot.” But Shoup never said that the correct response to high on-street parking usage was to build more parking; in fact, he argued that overutilization is a sign that cities need to charge more for parking so that fewer people drive to neighborhoods where parking is at a premium. Shoup’s primary point wasn’t, as Herbold suggested, that the problem with scarce parking is that people burn gas while looking for a parking spot; it was that too many or too few vacancies is a sign that parking isn’t priced correctly, and the price should be adjusted accordingly.

Ironically, after her amendment failed, Herbold turned around and slammed Shoup for using what she called outdated data. But Shoup (and Johnson) got the last laugh. From the council press release on the passage of the legislation:

Council Bill 119221 aims to ensure that only drivers will have to pay for parking, which seems fair,” said Donald Shoup, author of The High Cost of Free Parking. … “If drivers don’t pay for their parking, someone else has to pay for it, and that someone is everyone. But a city where everyone happily pays for everyone else’s free parking is a fool’s paradise.”

2. Now that longtime state Sen. Sharon Nelson (D-34) has announced that she will not seek reelection, Herbold’s onetime opponent, Shannon Braddock, is reportedly considering a bid for Nelson’s seat. Braddock, who serves as deputy chief of staff to King County Executive Dow Constantine, lost to Herbold in the 2015 council election. State Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34) told the West Seattle Blog this week that he did not plan to run for Nelson’s senate seat.

3. The King County Democrats will hold a meeting for all the precinct committee officers (PCOs) in the county to vote on whether to remove the group’s embattled chairman, Bailey Stober, from his position on Sunday, April 15. The meeting will come one week after a closed-door trial by a committee that will make its own recommendation about whether Stober should stay or go.

Stober, who has been accused of sexual harassment, creating a hostile work environment, bullying, and financial misconduct, has refused to step down from his position despite the fact that more than 60 percent of the voting members of his executive board have asked him to resign. Under King County bylaws, Stober can only be removed by a vote of two-thirds of the PCOs who show up at Sunday’s meeting—and, as I’ve reported, many PCOs who have been appointed will be unable to vote at the meeting specifically because Stober has failed to approve their appointments. Some of those PCOs have been waiting for Stober’s sign-off since last fall.

This document outlines the case against Stober, who is accused of sexually harassing and bullying his lone employee, Natalia Koss Vallejo, before firing her without board approval, “engag[ing] in physical altercations while with staff and other party members,” using Party money to fund certain candidates he personally favored while leaving others high and dry, and spraying Silly String in Koss Vallejo’s face while she was driving, an incident Stober filmed and posted on Instagram.

And this document contains Stober’s rebuttal, which he also posted to his personal website last month. The rebuttal includes a lengthy text exchange in which Stober pressures Koss Vallejo to leave her own birthday party to come out drinking with him and she resists, in a manner that is likely familiar to anyone who has tried to say no nicely to a man who won’t take no for an answer (an especially tricky situation when that man is your boss.) It also includes several claims that have been disputed, including Stober’s claim that the group’s treasurer, Nancy Podschwit, approved Koss-Vallejo’s firing, which she says she did not.

On Monday, Stober responded to a Facebook invitation to the PCO meeting, saying he guessed he would “swing by.”

4. The King County Democrats aren’t the only ones accusing Stober of fiscal misconduct. So is the state attorney general, in a separate case involving one of Stober’s three unsuccessful campaigns for Kent City Council. The state attorney general’s office has been trying to get Stober to hand over documents related to his 2015 council run since 2017, when the AG took the unusual step of  issuing a press release publicly demanding that Stober give them the documents. On March 21, the state attorney general’s office ordered Stober to pay the state $5015 in attorneys’ fees in a case involving campaign finance violations in 2015. According to court records, Stober repeatedly refused to hand over documents the attorney general requested despite multiple orders compelling him to do so. Stober’s attorneys removed themselves from his case in early March.

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: Democrats, Taxes, and “The Ideological Anti-Parking Agenda”

Detail from Seattle frequent transit map; click for link to full map.

1. A last-ditch email from anti-development activist Chris Leman with the subject line “Parking SOS!! E-mails and calls needed to prevent devastation of neighborhood parking” heralded next Monday’s vote on parking reform legislation that will clarify where apartments may be built without parking, require more bike parking at new buildings, and require developers of large buildings to “unbundle” the cost of parking and rent by charging separately for each.  Council member Lisa Herbold has proposed giving the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development the authority to institute parking  mandates, refuse to grant residential parking permits to new renters, or take other steps to reduce competition for on-street parking as part of the environmental mitigation process, arguing (among other things) that cars circling the block for parking produce climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions.

Leman’s email makes several misleading claims, implying that the city wants to define “frequent transit service” as three buses per hour (in reality, it allows that frequency during low-ridership midday hours if a route offers extremely frequent service at rush hour, like the RapidRide buses that arrive every 10 minutes), and claiming that “many more areas of the city will be open to developers putting in dense buildings with no parking.” In reality, while the changes will slightly increase the amount of the city served by frequent transit service (from 18.6 percent to 22.5 percent), the changes will only allow new buildings with no parking in six small portions of urban villages served by six frequent bus routes (full list on page 20 of this report.)

But the biggest misrepresentation in Leman’s letter, which describes Herbold as a lone voice of sanity against the “ideological anti-parking agenda” of North Seattle council members Rob Johnson and Mike O’Brien,  is that eliminating parking mandates contradicts “the majority wishes and interests of [council members’]  constituents.” For months, tenants, commuters, and environmental advocates have been showing up in council chambers and at public meetings to make the case that renters shouldn’t have to pay extra for  parking spaces they don’t want or need. Although the old-guard neighborhood activists may not like or want their input, those people are constituents, too, and their numbers are growing.

2. This one is still in the “credible rumor” category, but former state Senator Rodney Tom—the Republican-turned-Democrat-turned-leader of the Republican-voting Majority Coalition Caucus—may be considering a run for the 48th District state senate seat currently held by Democrat Patty Kuderer. And he’d be running as a Democrat.

Tom, who did not run for reelection for the Bellevue-Medina seat in 2014, did not return a call to his office on Tuesday. But Halei Watkins of Moxie Media, which recently merged with Kuderer’s campaign consulting firm, Winpower Strategies, says she has heard the rumor repeated frequently enough, and with enough “fervor,” that she believes it. “I think he is going to run because he thinks he needs to, [and] is probably being encouraged by the business community,” Watkins says. “Frankly, I don’t think that it matters to him if he runs as a d or an r he might as well just run as [a member of the Rodney Tom party at this point.” Tom was one of two nominally Democratic members of the so-called Majority Coalition Caucus, creating a 25-24 Republican-voting majority in a senate that had a Democratic majority on paper. Tim Sheldon, the other Democratic member of the MCC, remains in the senate, which has had a true Democratic majority since the 2017 election of Manka Dhingra in the 45th, another Eastside district that neighbors the 48th.

Kuderer, for her part, doesn’t sound worried about a challenge from the right in her Democratic-leaning district. “I really don’t know” if Tom is running or not, she says, but “it doesn’t change my campaign strategy any” if he is.

3.  As the city council gets ready to take up the recommendation of the Progressive Revenue Task Force, including a new, $75 million employee hours tax on businesses, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce put a phone poll in the field out this week focusing on the tax proposal, homeless encampments, and Seattle City Council member Mike O’Brien. Summer Stinson, a Democratic Party activist and co-founder of Washington’s Paramount Duty, a pro-school-funding group, live-tweeted the poll. Among the questions Simpson said she was asked (linked and reproduced here with permission):

• What do you think of Mayor Jenny Durkan, Amazon, and city council member Mike O’Brien?

• Do you see “the ineffective city council as a problem?”

• Do you think  “there is too much influence from labor unions on city government?”

• Do you agree “that the Seattle City Council has raised too many taxes and fees?

• “Is homelessness getting worse because the City Council, despite spending millions a year, does not know how to reduce homelessness?”

Chamber spokeswoman Alicia Teel confirmed that the organization is funding the poll. Asked about its purpose—and, specifically, why the poll zeroed in on O’Brien—Teel said, “Understanding public opinion is part of our overall advocacy strategy; we poll on a fairly regular basis to get a sense of how much people are tuned into developments at City Hall, including how Council is stewarding taxpayer dollars. The tax on jobs”—the Chamber’s preferred term for the employee hours tax—”is a proposal that would affect all of our members in Seattle, so it’s definitely top of mind for us. As for asking about specific Councilmembers, we are curious about how well people feel that they are being represented by their district Councilmembers.”

4. After publishing a nearly 9,000-word defense of his behavior as chair of the King County Democrats (a defense that included four sentences that could be generously construed as apologetic), Bailey Stober temporarily ceded his duties as chair last night but did not step down, saying that he wanted the chance to defend himself in an trial that will take place on April 8, followed by a vote by the county’s precinct committee officers on whether to remove him from office on April 15.

For all the details on last night’s meeting of the King County Democrats, and Stober’s non-apology apology, I’ve posted a few highlights from Twitter below, and collected all my tweets here.

Stober remains on paid leave from his job as communications director for King County Assessor John Arthur Wilson while the office, with the help of an outside attorney, investigates the charges against him and determines whether they impact his ability to do his job as chief spokesman for the assessor. Chief deputy assessor Al Dams says the investigation will be limited to the allegations of harassment and other inappropriate workplace behavior; the county will not look into allegations that Stober misused Party funds because he does not have the authority to spend county funds. Dams did not immediately respond to a request for Stober’s salary; last year, when his job was listed as “administrative assistant II,” the 26-year-old made $90,445, according to the Tacoma News Tribune’s public employee salary database.

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: “Unacceptable By Any Measure”

Image result for escalator broken temporarily stairs

1. At Sound Transit’s board meeting Thursday, agency CEO Peter Rogoff said the 40-minute waits many commuters experiencing when escalators at the University of Washington light rail station stopped working last Friday were “unacceptable by any measure.” Sound Transit wouldn’t let commuters use the stalled escalators as stairs—a common practice in other transit systems across the country—because they said the variable stair height on the escalators could result in people tripping. “This resulted in painfully long lines for our customers and rightly resulted in numerous customer complaints,” Rogoff summarized, adding that Sound Transit staff would come back to the board’s operations and administration committee with a set of “remedies” on April 5.

At the same meeting, board members also approved a set of performance objectives for Rogoff, including the development of a “Leadership Development Plan” for Rogoff in collaboration with a panel consisting of board members Nancy Backus, Paul Roberts, and Ron Lucas—the mayor of Auburn, mayor pro tem of Everett, and mayor of Steilacoom, respectively. The board mandated the plan at its last meeting, after (mildly) chiding Rogoff for his alleged behavior toward agency employees, which included looking women up and down and giving them “elevator eyes,” using racially insensitive language, shoving chairs, and yelling and swearing at employees. At that meeting, the board declined to give Rogoff a $30,000 bonus but did grant him a five-percent “cost-of-living” raise, bringing his salary to more than $328,000.

Several board members, including Seattle city council member Rob Johnson, expressed concern about a potential lack of transparency around the development of the plan, but no one raised any objections over the adequacy of the guidelines themselves, which include vague directives such as “Continue to enhance leadership skills, including the areas of active listening, self-awareness, and relationship building” and “develop specific action plans, performance expectation targets, and measurements to improve leadership abilities in these areas.” Last month, Johnson and Mayor Jenny Durkan were the only votes against the plan for Rogoff’s rehabilitation, which they both deemed inadequate given the seriousness of the allegations against him.

2. A petition to begin the process of removing Bailey Stober as chair of the King County Democrats has enough signatures to move the process to the next step: Holding a meeting of all the precinct committee officers (PCOs) in the county to vote on whether to remove Stober, who is under investigation for allegations of sexual harassment and financial misconduct. However, dozens of PCOs who have been appointed but not yet approved by Stober may be unable to vote, including nearly a dozen “pending” PCOs who have signed an open letter calling on Stober to resign.

On Monday, the group’s executive board agreed to hold a meeting to discuss the financial misconduct allegations against Stober; the petition will be presented at that meeting. On Tuesday, Stober said he planned to make an “announcement pertinent to our organization” during his report at the beginning of the meeting. Some in the group have speculated that he may attempt to present “evidence” in a separate harassment case against him that would cast his alleged victim—a former employee whom Stober fired—and her supporters in an unflattering light, and then resign.

One hundred twenty-two appointed PCOs remain in “pending” status waiting for Stober to sign off on their appointments, which is one of the duties of the King County party chair. Some have been waiting for more than a year for Stober’s approval.

3. Meanwhile, Stober has lost his legal representation in a separate case stemming from alleged campaign-finance violations in his 2015 run for Kent City Council.  The firm that was representing him, Schwerin Campbell Barnard Iglitzen & Lavitt, filed a petition formally removing themselves from the case on March 8. The state Attorney General’s Office (AGO) has been attempting to get documents from Stober for nearly a year in a case related to two citizen actions filed by conservative activist Glen Morgan; the first accuses Stober of using campaign funds for personal use and other campaign-finance violations, and the second alleges that Stober campaigned for other candidates on public time (in his role as King County Dems chair) while on the clock as spokesman for King County Assessor John Arthur Wilson. Last June, the AGO issued a press release announcing it was seeking an order forcing Stober to hand over the documents; although that request was granted, subsequent court records reveal that the AGO was (at least initially) unable to serve Stober at his home (where the lights were on and a car was in the driveway but no one answered) or his office (where the process server was told Stober was on vacation.)

Dmitri Iglitzen, a partner at the firm, declined to comment on why his firm decided to stop representing Stober, citing attorney-client privilege, but did say that the firm has “at no time billed King County Democrats (or any other entity) for legal services related to our representation of Mr. Stober” and “at no time has provided legal services to Mr. Stober on a pro bono basis.” In other words, Stober was (or was supposed to be) paying them for their services. Iglitzen declined to say whether nonpayment was an issue in his firm’s decision to cut ties with Stober.

Stober, who ran for the Kent Council three times, has already been fined $4,000 for campaign disclosure violations related to his 2011 and 2013 campaigns for the position.

4. On Wednesday, the city council’s Planning, Land Use and Zoning committee finally approved legislation that will lift parking mandates, require more bike parking at new buildings, and require developers of large buildings to “unbundle” the cost of parking and rent by charging separately for each, on Wednesday, although one controversial provision will be back on the docket at Monday’s full council meeting.

Council member Lisa Herbold raised objections to several changes made by the legislation, including the unbundling provision (she worried that renters would choose not to rent parking and just park on the street); a new definition of “frequent transit service” that allows apartments without parking within a quarter-mile of bus routes that run, on average, every 15 minutes; and a provision removing parking mandates for affordable housing and one lowering the mandate for senior housing.

Most of Herbold’s amendments were unsuccessful, although she did manage to pass one that will impose a special parking mandate on new buildings near the Fauntleroy ferry dock. (Council member Mike O’Brien voted against that proposal, arguing that that there were ways to prevent ferry riders from parking in the neighborhood that did not involve requiring developers to build one parking space for every unit so close to a frequent bus line, the RapidRide C). When the full council takes up the legislation Monday, Herbold said she plans to reintroduce just one amendment: A proposal that would allow the city to impose “mitigation” requirements under the State Environmental Policy Act on new developments in neighborhoods where more than 85 percent of parking spaces are routinely occupied. Those measures could include site-specific parking mandates or provisions barring renters at a new development from obtaining residential parking zone permits to park on the street (currently, RPZ permits are available to all city residents.)

Both Johnson and O’Brien objected that the purpose of environmental mitigation under SEPA is to mitigate against the negative environmental impacts of projects, not build new parking lots for cars. O’Brien pointed to the well-documented phenomenon of induced demand—the principle that adding more parking spaces or highway lanes simply leads people to drive more. Herbold countered that driving around searching for parking has an environmental impact, an argument that equates the minuscule climate impact of circling the block for a minute to that of purchasing and driving a car because your neighborhood has plenty of free parking. “We should be reverse engineering” our existing urban landscape, Johnson argued, “and requiring more green space instead of more asphalt.”

The council will take up the parking reform legislation, and Herbold’s amendment, on Monday at 2pm.

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: “Sound Transit Is Not Felt To Be a Safe Workplace”

1. Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff escaped serious reprimand on Wednesday for alleged behavior toward agency employees that included looking women up and down and giving them “elevator eyes,” using racially insensitive language, swearing at employees, and using an abrasive style that both the public memo on the investigation into his behavior and King County Executive Dow Constantine described as “East Coast” (whatever that’s supposed to mean). With only Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Seattle City Council member Rob Johnson dissenting (because they believed Rogoff’s punishment was insufficient), the board voted to require Rogoff to create a “leadership development plan” to improve his listening, self-awareness, and relationship building” skills and to  assign a three-member panel, made up of Sound Transit board members, to monitor his progress on the plan for six months.

Durkan skipped the launch of an NHL season ticket drive and the raising of the NHL flag over the Space Needle to be at today’s board meeting, an indication of how seriously she took the charges. Before voting, Durkan read the following statement:

“The issues raised and on which we were briefed led me to believe the conclusion that these [performance] factors cannot be met, and so I will be voting against this motion. I think the facts that we have been briefed on and the conclusions reached by our Counsel demonstrate that Sound Transit is not felt to be a safe workplace for all employees, that they do not feel that they can act without repercussions, and that there are many who feel that their work is not valued. I am also concerned that the statements that were alleged to have been made by the CEO, and the actions that were raised – raised the issue of racial bias and insensitivity, as well as other workplace harassment issues. I do not believe that these issues have been resolved as completely as indicated by Counsel, and that having three Board Members oversee the daily work of this CEO is not the resolution, and so I will be voting against this motion.”

Neither Durkan nor Johnson had any further comment after the meeting.

The memo on the investigation lays out a few specific examples of behaviors that the investigation deemed inappropriate, including a Black History Month event in 2016 at which Rogoff “reportedly made comments condescending toward persons of color” and a 2017 incident in which he dismissively told a female employee, “Honey, that ain’t ever going to happen” in response to a question. But the memo, and most of the Sound Transit board, is also quick to chalk much of Rogoff’s reported behavior up to difficulty navigating the politeness of Pacific Northwest culture and the fact that the previous CEO, Joni Earl, was so beloved that Rogoff faced built-in challenges from the time he was hired, in late 2015. To wit:

In the meeting, King County Executive Dow Constantine, who was chair of the Sound Transit board when Rogoff was hired, said he talked to Rogoff when he applied for the position and “cautioned him that his directness was going to run up against a very different way of interacting  to which we are accustomed here in the Pacific Northwest, and that he was going to have to modify his manner and understand the local culture if we were going to be successful.” Constantine also described Rogoff as “bracingly direct” before praising his effectiveness.

Rogoff echoed Constantine’s complimentary assessment of his style in his own memo responding to the allegations. In the memo, Rogoff acknowledges (using language that reads a bit like a job applicant saying that his worst flaw is his “relentless attention to detail”) that his “directness and unvarnished clarity did not sit well with some staff” and that he was, at times, “overly intense in articulating my expectations for performance.” Rogoff goes on to explicitly deny some of the allegations,” calling some of the claims made during the investigation “misquoted, misunderstood, mischaracterized or false. I don’t yell at people.  I don’t disparage small city mayors and I don’t shove chairs to make a point,” two incidents that were detailed in the documents released today. “I was shocked to read some of the characterizations on this list.”

A document labeled “Peter Rogoff, CEO ST: Note to file” describes some of those alleged incidents. They include: Directing a staffer to tell Seattle Times reporter Mike Lindblom to “go fuck himself”; yelling over the phone at a staffer in a conversation that lasted from 11pm to 1am; standing up at a meeting and saying “When I give direction, it’s for action, not rumination” and shoving a chair; saying that he “couldn’t give a flying fuck about how things were when Joni [Earl] was here, because she’s not here anymore”; using the term “flying fuck” constantly “to everyone”; and the aforementioned incidents in which he allegedly looked women up and down and gave them “elevator eyes.”

King County Council member and Sound Transit board member Claudia Balducci said after the meeting that she has “seen a lot of improvement” in Rogoff’s behavior. “I think that at least shows that it’s possible, and therefore that we could have a successful CEO. If he can manage people with respect and dignity then I felt he deserves the opportunity.” Balducci disagreed that Rogoff’s management style could be explained away by “regional” differences. “I’m from New York,” she said, and “I think everybody, no matter where they’re from, knows how to be respectful. The things that we were talking about were more than just style.”

Although Rogoff did not receive a bonus this year, he did receive a five percent cost of living adjustment, which puts his salary at just over $328,000.

2. The city’s progressive revenue task force held its final meeting on Wednesday morning, adopting a report (final version to come) that recommends new taxes that could bring in as much as $150 million a year for housing and services for homeless and low-income people in Seattle. Half of that total, $75 million, would come from some version of an employee hours tax; the variables include what size business will pay the tax ($8 million vs. $10 million in gross revenues), the tax rate and whether it will be a flat per-employee fee or a percentage of revenues; and whether businesses that don’t hit the threshold for the tax will have to pay a so-called “skin in the game” fee for doing business in the city. The task force also talked about making the tax graduated based on employer size, but noted that such a tax may not be legal and would almost certainly be subject to immediate legal challenges.

The original memo on the head tax proposals suggests that the “skin in the game” fee should be $200 and that the fee would kick in once a business makes gross revenues—not net profits—of $500,000. During the conversation Wednesday morning, some task force members floated the idea of lowering that threshold to just $100,000, a level that would require many small businesses, such as street-level retailers, to pay the fee, regardless of what their actual profit margins are. However, after council member and task force chair Lorena Gonzalez pointed out that the city has not done a racial equity analysis to see how any of the head tax proposals would impact minority business owners, the group decided to keep the trigger at $500,000 in gross revenues. Additionally, they decided to raise the recommended fee to $395—a number that was thrown out, seemingly at random, by a task force member who called it “psychological pricing” (on the theory that $395 feels like significantly less than $400).

The other $75 million would come, in theory, from a combination of other taxes, some of them untested in Seattle and likely to face legal challenges, including a local excise tax, an excess compensation tax, a tax on “speculative real estate investment activity,” and an increase in the real estate excise tax. Legal challenges could delay implementation of new taxes months or years, and—although no one brought it up at yesterday’s meeting—REET revenues always take a nosedive during economic downturns, making them a fairly volatile revenue source.

3. The Teamsters Local 174 confirmed yesterday that they will no longer allow the King County Democrats to hold meetings at their building in Tukwila, after a contentious meeting Tuesday night that lasted until nearly midnight. My report on that meeting, at which the group decided to extend and expand the investigation into sexual harassment and financial misconduct claims against the group’s chairman, Bailey Stober, is here.

According to Teamsters senior business agent Tim Allen, the decision wasn’t directly related to the allegations against Stober, but had to do with the behavior of some of the group’s members and their treatment of a custodial worker who had to clean up after the group, who may have been drinking alcohol on the premises. “We have standards of conduct that people are supposed to live up to” around how guests treat the building and whether they “treat our [staffers] properly,” Allen said. “They had the whole building to clean, and usually we expect [groups that use the building] to clean up after themselves. Stober, contacted by email, said “I’ve heard varying degrees of that story” (that people were drinking, continued to do so after they were asked to stop, and left a mess), “but I can’t confirm that because I was sitting in the front of the room and have no knowledge of what was happening outside of the room.” Many other local progressive groups, including some legislative Democratic groups, have alcohol at their meetings (many provide beer or wine for a suggested donation), but some venues do not allow alcohol without a banquet license.

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: “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.

2018 City Budget Passes Without Head Tax. Now What?

Seattle may be rolling in tax revenues thanks to an economic boom that just won’t quit, but this year’s budget process played out like a recession-year knock-down-drag-out battle. It started when the council’s new budget chair, Lisa Herbold, proposed a budget that presumed the council would agree to a head tax on large employers (and made their top-priority projects dependent on the tax). When the tax failed on a (somewhat predictable) 5-4 vote, council members were left scrambling to come up with a new “Plan B” that would preserve their top priorities. This plan—call it Plan C—included deep cuts to incoming mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, without commensurate cuts to the legislative branch, whose budget included some literal padding in the form of $250,000 for new carpet in council members’ offices.

Over the weekend, though, council members decided to have mercy on the mayor, reducing the proposed cuts to her office by half (and sacrificing their top-dollar carpet in the process). That change would have meant less new funding for the Human Services Department, but a last-minute amendment by council member Kirsten Harris-Talley increased HSD’s funding by dipping into the budget for the Department of Construction and Inspections, which administers permits and inspects buildings (including rental housing) for code compliance. That change, along with numerous other last-minute amendments, happened almost in the moment, and council members who hadn’t seen the proposed changes before today appeared to be reading them on the fly in the moments before voting them up or down. The public, meanwhile, had no way to read or absorb many of the proposed amendments unless they were physically in council chambers, where staffers made hard copies of (some of) the amendments available as the council discussed and voted on them.

Council member Kirsten Harris-Talley

The debate over how much additional funding the council should allocate for HSD—which administers all the city’s grants for homeless services, a job that has grown in scope as the city’s budget for those services has increased—broke down along somewhat surprising lines. On the center left-to-socialist spectrum of Seattle politics, HSD’s mission is strictly centrist, and its director, Catherine Lester—appointed by former mayor Ed Murray in 2015—is a staunch defender of that mission. This year, HSD rebid all its homeless service provider contracts under a new system known as “performance-based contracting”—a process critics say favors large, established service providers that prioritize people who are easier to house at the expense of smaller, scrappier groups that focus on more challenging clients. The agency’s job next year will be to administer those projects and implement Pathways Home, a controversial plan developed in collaboration with Ohio-based consultant Barb Poppe. In 2016, Poppe did a report that concluded that Seattle already has plenty of resources to house every person living outdoors, a conclusion many (including this blog) have contested.  Pathways Home, which is based on that report, directs HSD to shift spending away from transitional housing programs that provide long-term assistance and toward more “cost-effective” solutions like  “rapid rehousing”—short-term rent subsidies to move people directly from homelessness into market-rate apartments. Critics of this approach have argued that expecting people to move from homelessness to full self-sufficiency in a matter of months is unrealistic in a city  where the average one-bedroom apartment now rents for around $1,800.

Murray and Lester butted heads with the left wing of the council (as well as many homeless advocates) over rapid rehousing, performance-based contracting, and Pathways Home, but you wouldn’t know that from this month’s budget debate, in which HSD was often portrayed as a direct social service provider rather than a contract administrator. (This happened a lot earlier in the process, too, when hundreds of thousands of dollars were shifted from the Department of Finance and Administrative Services to HSD). On Monday, Harris-Talley described Lester as “a jewel of the community” and said she had “deep concerns about what has happened in regards to HSD, how that department has been treated.” It was disappointing. she added, “to see a department with a black woman at the helm” taking on significant additional responsibility without a commensurate amount of additional funding. It’s unclear whether Durkan—who supports Pathways Home—will appoint her own HSD director or keep Lester on board.

Comic Sans and public opinion in the ladies’ room.

The employee hours tax tax isn’t dead. In fact, several council members attempted to forcibly resurrect it yesterday, by proposing a budget amendment that would have required the council to pass the head tax after going through the motions of a four-month process to come up with a sustainable revenue source for homelessness. The five council members who voted against the head tax, unsurprisingly, weren’t interested in committing in advance to the same tax they just rejected, and they (also unsurprisingly) prevailed, inserting language into the amendment that commits the council instead to coming up with “progressive taxes” of some sort that will yield at least $25 million for homeless services. Any proposal they come up with will likely include a head tax, because the council’s taxing authority is quite limited, and council members made that clear. That didn’t stop the crowd from screaming “Bad!” and “Shame!” and booing council members so loudly they had to repeatedly stop the proceedings. (A couple of people were kicked out). Sawant, too, repeatedly denounced her council colleagues, as she has throughout the budget process, as “corporate politicians” kowtowing to their masters at the Chamber of Commerce. This kind of rhetoric definitely riles up the base, but it doesn’t win any currency with people like Rob Johnson, an earnest liberal who fought (against Herbold!) to ensure that supervised consumption sites were fully funded in this year’s budget, a position that I’m betting scored him zero points in his Northeast Seattle council district.

Social service and safe consumption site advocates line up hours early for yesterday’s 2pm council meeting—as they do whenever they know council member Kshama Sawant has invited her supporters to “pack city hall”

A cynical observer might point out that by keeping the discussion over the head tax alive, council members who did not prevail last week got another opportunity to make rousing speeches and rally the base on Monday. The council’s resident (official) socialist, Kshama Sawant, has encouraged her supporters (on social media and through her official city council email list) to “pack city hall” for every budget discussion and vote, and they have done exactly that, showing up at every budget meeting to wave red “stop the sweeps” signs, applaud Sawant’s lengthy speeches (one of many she made yesterday stretched nearly 15 minutes) and shout down council members who voted against her proposals.

A word about the screaming. It may be directed at the three women and two men who vote the “wrong” way, but it has the effect, in the moment, of shutting down all discussion. When you use brute verbal force against political opponents (both those on the dais and those who are scared to speak because, well, they’re worried about screamed at) it goes beyond merely “disrupting business as usual.” It’s disrespectful, counterproductive, and, most importantly, intimidating—social service advocates whose programs are in the budget still show up (hours early, to get ahead of Sawant’s supporters) to speak at council meetings, but otherwise, public comment is overwhelmingly dominated by a single set of voices. People who used to show up don’t show up. Dissent—the normal give and take of democracy playing out in public—is almost literally drowned out when one side asserts their right to own a public space by shouting everyone else out of the room. This year, I was disturbed to hear council members explicitly equate “the people here in the room today” with “the community” at large. Most of the 700,000 people in Seattle, and indeed most of the much smaller group of people who have an opinion about the 2018 city budget, weren’t represented in council chambers, and rarely are. This, even under ordinary circumstances, is perfectly understandable—most people have to work during the day, for one thing—but council members should take that into account, and not conflate “people with time to sit in council chambers day after day” with “a representative sample of the community at large.”

It will be interesting to see what happens to the council’s left wing—Lisa Herbold, Kshama Sawant, and Mike O’Brien—once council member-elect Teresa Mosqueda takes office, replacing Harris-Talley, next week. Mosqueda defeated the far left’s preferred candidate, Jon Grant, and will not be a reliable vote for the Sawant wing of the council, who couldn’t muster a majority for the head-tax-based budget even with Harris-Talley on the council.

Sawant, who represents council District 3 (which includes Capitol Hill and the Central District), was the only council member to vote against the budget—as she has since her election in 2013.

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.

After Defeat of Head Tax, Council Scrambles for Plan B

City council budget committee chair Lisa Herbold made a risky gamble this week, and she lost. As a result, the council will pass a budget this coming Monday whose details were thrown together largely at the last minute, after a budget proposal that hinged on the passage of the controversial employee hours tax failed to secure a majority.

The gamble Herbold took was fairly straightforward, First, she proposed a version of the budget that incorporated revenues from the head tax—a $125-per-employee tax on businesses with more than $10 million in gross receipts, known as the HOMES tax. Second, she made sure that city council members’ top-priority projects would be on the chopping block without the tax, so that any council member who voted against the tax would risk losing funding for her favorite projects. Third, instead of coming up with a backup plan in collaboration with head tax opponents, she crafted a “Plan B” that included draconian cuts to council members’ priorities (including the criminal justice diversion program LEAD, housing for homeless Native Americans, and trash removal at homeless encampments), giving them an additional incentive to vote “yes” on the tax.

The problem was with step 4—the one where a majority of council members were supposed to fall in line and support the tax. That didn’t happen, for a number of reasons. First, some council members were simply dead set against passing the tax, or—to hear council members like Lorena Gonzalez tell it—opposed to passing it on a rushed timeline without an opportunity to do deeper analysis and look at other alternative revenue sources. (Council members have had less than three weeks to consider the proposal.) Second, several council members bristled at the way Herbold’s initial balancing package, in council member Debora Juarez’s words, “held hostage” so many important projects by putting them “in the head tax parking lot.” Juarez, in particular, was indignant about this forced tradeoff. And third, potentially persuadable council members may have been put off by the behavior of the head-tax supporters who showed up, many at Sawant’s behest, day after day, screaming invectives (“Shame!” “Their deaths are on your hands!” “Republican!”) at council members who didn’t fall in lockstep behind the proposal.

After the tax failed, it became clear that Herbold didn’t have a backup, and the council ended up canceling a scheduled budget meeting to hammer one out. The result was that the process that led to a final budget package was disorganized and chaotic, with some council members reportedly in the dark about budget amendments until less than an hour before they had to vote them up or down. (Many amendments weren’t available in hard-copy form until minutes before they were voted on.)

A few things stand out about the substance of the budget package that will go before the council on Monday. First, it includes aggressive cuts to incoming mayor Jenny Durkan’s budget. If the budget passes unchanged on Monday, the city’s first female mayor in nearly a century will have to reduce her budget 17 percent, the equivalent of five mayoral staffers. (This was one of the budget amendments that reportedly came through at the last minute). Much of the money that would have gone to the mayor’s office will now fund new contract management positions in the Human Services Department.

Council members who supported cutting the mayor’s budget, including Mike O’Brien, said they were merely bringing it down to the “baseline” level established under former mayor Mike McGinn. However, that characterization is misleading: McGinn had a skeleton staff because he became mayor during the worst economic recession in recent memory, and made the cut at a time when the city faced ongoing annual revenue shortfalls in the tens of millions. As the economy recovered and all city departments expanded back to pre-recession levels, McGinn’s successor, Ed Murray, staffed up too. While budget cuts during recessions are standard, I can recall no recent precedent for slashing the mayor’s budget so dramatically in the middle of an economic boom. Notably, the council did not propose any cuts to its own staff budget, which council members increased by 33 percent just last year.

Outgoing mayor Tim Burgess fired off a sassy response to the council’s cuts, saying that if the council, “in their wisdom[,] believes these funds are needed for other purposes, and remembering that the Legislative Department’s budget is twice the size of the Mayor’s budget, then the funds should come proportionately from the Mayor’s Office and the Legislative Department.” Should Durkan want to respond to the cuts more directly than Burgess did, she could take a hard look at the dozens of statements of legislative intent the council also adopted today, each of which constitutes a request for the mayor’s office to craft legislation or produce reports and analysis. Or the council could decide to dial back the cuts on its own; they still have until Monday to find cuts elsewhere if they don’t want to pick this fight with the new administration. Durkan, it’s worth noting, did quite well in several council members’ districts, including O’Brien’s (Northwest Seattle) and Herbold’s (West Seattle). Both council members are up for reelection in two years.

The cuts to Durkan’s office highlight another unusual aspect of today’s budget proposal: It shifts a significant amount of money into the city’s Human Services Department from other departments, primarily the Department of Finance and Administrative Services. Although intuitively, it makes sense to move funding for things like homeless encampment removals to the department that hands out contracts for homeless services, HSD was not necessarily clamoring for the change, and will need time to hire seven new employees and train them to do the work FAS has been doing. Durkan, meanwhile, presumably has her own ideas about how the department should be run, and who should run it (the current director is Catherine Lester).

Today’s budget debate also solidified the ideological fault lines on the council—and highlighted the need for someone to serve as de facto council leader. As budget chair and a council veteran (before her election in 2015, Herbold was a staffer for former council member Nick Licata for 17 years), Herbold had a chance to be that leader, by counting votes and dealing with both sides to come up with a best-case scenario for the council’s left wing as well as a viable Plan B that could win the support of a council majority. Instead, Herbold went for broke—proposing a budget that was, in essence, an ultimatum, and declining to work with council moderates like Rob Johnson on a backup plan. That gamble didn’t pay off, even with a reliable ally like Kirsten Harris-Talley temporarily on the council. Once the council equation shifts in November (when Teresa Mosqueda, who handily defeated Herbold-endorsed socialist Jon Grant, replaces Harris-Talley), she could find herself increasingly isolated—insufficiently socialist for Sawant (whose supporters yelled “Shame!” and “Republican!” as fervently at Herbold as they did at Johnson), insufficiently “moderate,” (which is to say, conventionally liberal) for the council’s new majority.

I’ll have more to say about the final budget package on Monday.

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.