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.

Council Passes Short-Term Rental Tax, Puts Airbnb Regs on Ice Until After Thanksgiving

Council members Lisa Herbold and Rob Johnson, on opposite sides of the short-term rental debate.

After several hours of discussion and a number of convoluted parliamentary procedures, the city council voted this afternoon to impose a new tax on people and businesses that provide short-term rental housing through online platforms like Airbnb—$14 per night for an entire home, and $8 a night when the rental is a single room in a larger residence. They did not resolve a key question about the underlying legislation, which would limit each short-term rental operator to just two units, down from an unlimited number today—namely, how many existing units would be exempt from the new requirements. (The legislation, as written, would exempt existing short-term rental units in parts of downtown, Lower Queen Anne, South Lake Union, and some units on First and Capitol Hill.) Council member Rob Johnson argued that it made little sense to adopt the tax without knowing how many rental units it would apply to (and therefore how much revenue it could generate); others, including council member Kirsten Harris-Talley, argued that delaying the vote could give lobbyists for companies like Airbnb time to pressure  community groups into supporting their preferred version of the legislation.

Ultimately, the council put off, for at least two weeks, several amendments that would raise or lower the number of existing short-term rental units that would be exempt from the two-unit restriction. On one end of the revenue-vs.-regulation axis, Johnson suggested exempting all existing short-term rental units from the new two-unit limit; on the other, council members Lisa Herbold and Mike O’Brien proposed requiring short-term rental operators who currently rent out several or many units to reduce their rental stock to two or less, with no location-based exemptions. (O’Brien, along with Sally Bagshaw, also offered a middle-ground amendment that would restrict the area in which short-term rental operators could continue to have more than two units to a small area of downtown).

The big-picture question today, as it has been since the city began discussing how to regulate short-term rentals a couple of years ago, was whether short-term rentals remove affordable housing units from circulation in sufficient quantities to drive up housing prices. Advocates argue that they do, but come armed mostly with anecdotes, not data—for every story about a person who got priced out of their old apartment only to see it turned into an Airbnb, there’s one about a homeowner who was able to pay her mortgage by turning her kid’s old room into short-term lodging for a few days every month. The point is—we just don’t know, and arguments that rely on anecdote and correlation-causation fallacies (2,000 people had to move last year because they couldn’t pay their rent and the number of Airbnbs increased; therefore, Airbnbs caused the displacement) aren’t convincing.

For one thing: The total supply of housing in the city has increased faster than the number of short-term rental units—an important factor for people making supply-side arguments against short-term rentals to consider. For another: Many Airbnbs are rooms in people’s homes, and there’s little evidence to suggest that people who want to rent their spare room out a few nights a month would be just equally eager to take on a full-time roommate if Airbnb were not an option. (The difference between a tourist who comes home late at night and a roommate who’s always underfoot is self-explanatory). And for still another: Airbnbs serve the same function as hotels; that’s who the company is competing against. Shutting down Airbnb or dramatically reducing the number of short-term rentals in Seattle would only increase demand for hotel rooms—and hotels are single-purpose buildings that can’t be easily adapted to serve as permanent rental housing if the economy slows or demand for hotel rooms dries up.

Full disclosure: I stay in Airbnbs almost exclusively, whenever I go to another city where I don’t have friends or family I can stay with. I also live in a building where one of the three rental units is an unregulated Airbnb with random people coming and going at all hours of the day and night. Having seen the short-term rental from at least two angles (and talked to plenty of homeowners who rent out rooms in their houses for extra cash), I think they should be taxed and regulated, but not run out of town. As someone who likes to hit the road every chance I get, my options are generally: Airbnb, or chain motel by the freeway. And when travelers like me stay at chain hotels near highways, or even at corporate hotels in the parts of town where such amenities tend to concentrate (downtown; near convention centers), our money goes to Hilton and Starbucks (or Motel Six and Bucky’s), not local boutiques and coffee shops.

Is the “Head Tax” Half-Baked—or Long Overdue?

A plan to tax businesses with gross receipts above $5 million to pay for homeless housing and services faced intense scrutiny from several skeptical city council members yesterday at the first budget briefing since council members Mike O’Brien and Kirsten Harris-Talley first floated the HOMES (Housing, Outreach and Mass-Entry Shelter) Act last week. (The proposal would resurrect the so-called “head tax,” a tax for each hour an employee works, that was repealed in 2009). Council member Rob Johnson called the proposal a “false choice” between a head tax and doing nothing, and council president Bruce Harrell took umbrage with council member Kshama Sawant’s suggestion that council members who oppose the head tax are “beholden to the Chamber of Commerce.” After the meeting, Johnson told me that his goal is “to stay focused on the outcomes” and figure out how much money service providers need first, rather than to “reverse engineer” a set of solutions based on a specific revenue source like the head tax.

So far, the proposal comes with a big number—$24 million a year—but few details. Here’s what we do know: The HOMES Act would impose a 4.8-cent tax on every hour worked by employees for companies with gross receipts of $5 million or more. The math works out to about $100 per employee, per year, and the council members estimate it will raise about $24 million annually, which would include $5 million for shelters, new authorized encampments, and safe lots for people living in cars and RVs; $18 million for new housing construction and long-term housing vouchers for people with very little to no income; and $1 million to expand the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, a pre-arrest diversion program for low-level drug offenders, into the North Precinct. The number of new units the package could build depends on whether the city can rely on state subsidies through the housing trust fund, which cut the cost of construction dramatically, but O’Brien estimates the measure could permanently house 1,000 people over the next ten years.

The Seattle Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Seattle Association condemned the proposal, calling it a “tax on jobs” that sends a hostile message to businesses hoping to expand or move here. (Amazon came up a lot in the initial press coverage of the proposal, but the tax would actually affect about 2,200 businesses, not just so-called big corporations) O’Brien calls that a false narrative; he says the tax represents a tiny fraction of the cost of doing business—”0.3 percent of your labor cost if you pay your workers $15 an hour”—and that if business groups had a better idea, they would have proposed it by now. “We’ve been dancing around this for years— they hate [the head tax], but they haven’t come up with anything better,” O’Brien says. “It’s the only business tax we have access to, and so there’s a question: Do they hate it because they would like a different business tax better, or do they hate it because they hate business taxes, and this is the one we’re going for, so they hate this one?”

DSA president Jon Scholes insists the downtown business group doesn’t just reflexively “hate” all business taxes; what they hate, he says, is being left out of the loop. Case in point: Scholes says O’Brien contacted him on Thursday to let the DSA know that he was “exploring” the idea of resurrecting the head tax; less than 24 hours later, O’Brien was calling a press conference to announce his plan. The move blindsided the business community, Scholes says. “This was not developed with the input of [O’Brien’s] colleagues on the council or other folks who care deeply about this issue,” Scholes says. “We’re not saying that there shouldn’t be new resources, but we think the resources that are going to go to this issue should be thoughtful and discussed out in the open, not decided behind closed doors and foisted upon businesses and the community.”

Seattle’s business community is unusually progressive by business-community standards—the DSA, for example, was a critical partner in making LEAD a reality, back when there was widespread skepticism about any program that would allow drug offenders to go free. Could the council risk losing business support for progressive ideas like LEAD if it alienates them by imposing taxes they hate? Council member Harris-Talley says she doubts it. “I am hard-pressed to think that the businesses that are in our community are going to set aside their values to have a pissing match with elected officials who want to find resources for solutions” to homelessness, Harris-Talley says. “They know it impacts their bottom line” to allow homelessness to get worse, she adds.

The tax, if it passes, will be based on businesses’ gross receipts, not their net profits, which business groups argue could penalize companies that have thin profit margins and create a perverse incentive for businesses to pay their workers less or avoiding growing past the $5 million threshold. (To get a sense of what businesses would be impacted, they include groups of restaurants, like those owned by Ethan Stowell and Tom Douglas, but not individual Subway franchises or your local dry cleaner.) “Five million in gross revenues—there’s going to be a lot of people wrapped into that,” Scholes says. “Let’s say you’re a business making $4.5 million. If you grow the business [above $5 million], you get to pay tax to the city because you created jobs.”

O’Brien says he’s open to other revenue alternatives, if the business community will help him come up with some. “If we can come up with something better in the next few months, I’m happy to change my support to something better and undo this,” O’Brien says. However, he isn’t willing to shuffle around existing funding for homeless services and hope a new spending scheme will make the numbers pencil out. “Historically, four percent of people in shelters have exited to permanent housing, and to get that number to 40 percent [without additional revenue] is ludicrous. The challenge isn’t that we have a bunch of affordable housing that we’re not using—it’s that there’s nowhere to put them.”

Morning Crank: Just the Highlights

1. The HIGHLIGHT of last night’s mayoral debate at Seattle University, which I live-tweeted (Storify here): When “establishment” candidate Jenny Durkan, an activist for LGBT rights before she became a US Attorney under Obama, turned to her opponent Cary Moon and said, “Part of me wants to say, when did you get woke, because I’ve been working on these issues for 20 to 30 years in this city.” Durkan was responding to Moon’s sound bite about sharing power with all races and genders to create an racially and socially equitable city government.

2. The HIGHLIGHT of King County Superior Court judge Veronica Alicea Galván’s ruling against proponents of Initiative 27, which would have barred safe consumption sites throughout King County: The section explaining exactly why restricting the county’s spending power by banning safe consumption sites “impinges on the legislative authority of the county,” goes beyond the authority of local initiatives by attempting “usurp state law,” and conflicts with a state supreme court ruling that upheld the right of local public health authorities to respond to public health crises like the opiate epidemic. “Accordingly, I-27 in its entirety extends beyond the scope of local initiative power,” the ruling concludes.

3. The HIGHLIGHT of my conversation about the proposed First Avenue Streetcar with former Transportation Choices Coalition director-turned council land use chair Rob Johnson yesterday was his exasperated response to streetcar critics who say the city should return $50 million in federal money because it’s unclear where ongoing funding for streetcar operations will come from:

“All these capital projects come with a level of risk. … How come we’re not having those same discussions about Lander Street [a $123 million overpass project that was planned long before it received full funding]? We always pick on transit projects to ask these fundamental structural questions, but we never do that for road projects. We didn’t spend 25  minutes talking about Lander today. Instead, we spent 25 minutes talking about the streetcar. … It feels like this project is being singled out unfairly. So if my colleagues are going to continue down that path, we need to do it for all these other major capital projects.”

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

Morning Crank: Inherently Dangerous

Image result for "fair housing act of 1968

1. If you’re a renter who makes less than six figures, you already know how hard it is to find an affordable apartment in Seattle. Now imagine that you’ve convicted or arrested at some point in your life. (Quite possibly, you don’t have to imagine—according to the city, 173,000 Seattle residents have an arrest or conviction on their record.) The legislation, sponsored by council member Lisa Herbold, would prohibit landlords from advertising that they don’t accept tenants with criminal records, and would bar them from asking prospective tenants about convictions that are more than two years old, juvenile records, convictions that have been expunged, criminal charges that did not result in a conviction, or pending charges.

As I’ve reported, the legislation as originally proposed included a number of exemptions—on top of the two-year window, it did not apply to landlords of small buildings (four units or fewer) who live on the premises. By exempting small landlords who live on their properties, the original bill effectively accepted the premise that people with criminal histories are inherently dangerous—too dangerous, anyway, for landlords to live next to them.

That exemption, as it turns out, has a fascinating history. It originated in the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act, where it was known as the “Mrs. Murphy exemption.” That exemption says that it’s acceptable under federal law for a landlord to discriminate against someone because of their race if they rent to no more than four people or families and live on the premises. (Mrs. Murphy was, as the New York Times’ Adam Liptak put it, “an apocryphal bigot.”) That exemption has remained in place to the present day; however, many state statutes go beyond federal law and do not include the exemption.

The city’s Office for Civil Rights was unable to say precisely how the exemption got into the proposal, except that it was originally included “to address concerns raised during the stakeholder process,” according to OCR policy manager Brenda Anibarro. “We recently learned of the history of the federal FHA exemption from an article in the Harvard Law Review which includes a significant history steeped in racism,” Anibarro said in an email. “It is for this reason we believe Councilmember O’Brien’s amendment striking this exemption is the correct course of action.”

Interestingly, the “Mrs. Murphy exemption” does not appear anywhere else in Seattle’s municipal code, and the city’s “first in time” rule, which prohibits landlords from discriminating against prospective tenants because of their source of income, only exempts single-family homeowners who live at their properties and are essentially renting to roommates.

Last Tuesday, the council’s Civil Rights, Utilities, Economic Development, and Arts Committee discussed an amendment by council member Mike O’Brien (who is out of town) to remove the exemption. Council member Lorena Gonzalez noted that the exemption for small buildings could make “naturally occurring affordable housing”—the small, mom-and-pop type units that anti-displacement advocates often argue the city must preserve—off-limits for the people who need it the most.

Other amendments to the proposal would prohibit landlords from considering an adult prospective tenant’s juvenile sex offense record (landlords could still refuse to rent to adult sex offenders) and remove the two-year “lookback” period. (The sex offender amendment is Herbold’s; the lookback amendment is O’Brien’s.) As advocates have pointed out, people exiting jail are much less likely to reoffend if they have stable housing; nonetheless, one in five people exit King County Jail directly into homelessness, according to All Home, largely because landlords refuse to rent to them.

Herbold, who has not decided whether to support O’Brien’s lookback amendment, says she has heard from small landlords who say they might choose to to sell their buildings instead of renting to people straight out of prison, removing affordable units from the rental market. On the other hand, many people who are just leaving jail or prison would probably be disqualified from renting on the private market anyway, because they wouldn’t pass a standard credit check, so eliminating the lookback may have little practical impact in any case.

The committee will consider the amendments, and the legislation, again at its meeting on August 8.

2. On Tuesday morning, the council’s Planning, Land Use, and Zoning Committee voted unanimously on what council member Rob Johnson called a “no-brainer” proposal that will remove one step in the process that opponents of new projects must go through before filing a formal appeal to stop a proposed development. The step, called a land-use interpretation, costs $3,150 and is required before a project can go before the city’s hearing examiner, the judicial official who ultimately decides whether contested projects can move forward.

As I reported earlier this month, a council staff analysis concluded that removing the interpretation step could “facilitate judicial appeals of land use decisions for projects that may be considered locally undesirable by near-neighbors, such as low-income housing projects, work-release centers, and homeless shelters.” Those appeals will now cost just $65, making it easier than ever for homeowners to stall projects they don’t like—projects like the 57-unit Phinney Flats development, which Phinney Ridge homeowners have held up for more than a year by filing endless appeals on issues such as parking, transit headways, shadows, and lack of air conditioning and washing machines in the new apartments.

3. The land use committee also considered, but did not vote on,  three amendments Herbold proposed to legislation that would it easier for the city to force property owners to demolish vacant buildings that have fallen into disrepair.

Currently, city law requires property owners to wait a full year before tearing down a building if it was most recently occupied by renters; the changes would lower that timeline to four months (which the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections says  is still plenty of time to “ensure that good-quality rental housing is not inappropriately removed”) and make it easier for the city to demolish or clean out hazardous properties and so-called squatter houses.

Herbold’s amendments, which she describes as a three-part package, would: Exempt many houses slated for redevelopment from the new four-month requirement; set up a mandatory vacant property monitoring and registration program; and prohibit land owners from demolishing buildings unless the cost of repairing the building exceeds half its replacement value.

Herbold’s reasoning, as she explained it Tuesday, is that vacant buildings could still be used as housing while they await demolition and redevelopment, and that the original proposal—which lacked a monitoring program—could provide a perverse incentive for property owners to kick out tenants and let their buildings fall into disrepair. “The language as originally proposed was much broader than I intended,” Herbold said Tuesday.

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.

Morning Crank: An Excuse to Remove Us Immediately

1. The city council’s approval of the HALA upzone in South Lake Union and downtown yesterday—which requires developers to make between 2 and 5 percent of their new units affordable, or pay a fee of up to $13.50 per square foot into an affordable-housing fund—played out pretty much as everybody expected it would. aAnti-development activists booed loudly and shouted “Shame!” when council members Rob Johnson and Tim Burgess spoke in favor of the legislation, the Raging Grannies sang, and Lisa Herbold proposed an amendment that would have required developers to contribute more to affordable housing, which lost.

Oh, and Kshama Sawant gave a speech.

But there were some familiar faces who were missing from today’s HALA hearing—namely, the single-family homeowners and erstwhile affordable housing advocates who turn out in droves (and even sue the city) when a proposed upzone threatens to allow apartments (or cottages) in their North Seattle backyards. When the U District upzone was up before the council, for example, homeowners from across North Seattle filled council chambers, decrying developers as heartless opportunists and demanding greater concessions in the form of large affordable housing mandates that would have made the upzone unworkable. And yet, when an upzone that actually constitutes more of a giveaway to developers, because it will require them to build less affordable housing than in any other upzoned part of the city, came up, they were nowhere to be found.

Weird. It’s almost as if they care more about preserving exclusive single-family zoning in their own neighborhoods than they do about making sure developers provide affordable housing in every part of the city.

2. Homeless residents of the West Seattle bridge encampment where an RV caught fire last week said they have been informed that the city will sweep their camp tomorrow morning at 9. The fire destroyed two RVs at the camp, which has been home to dozens of people in recent months. It was ruled an accident.

Rebecca Massey, who has lived at the encampment for the last eight months, told the council yesterday morning that the city was using the fire as “an excuse to remove us immediately.

“They’re offering a few individuals places to go, but most of the people that live there are not being told where to go—they’re just being told you have to leave,” Massey said. “The housing solution for the homeless is great, [but] it’s a long-term solution—it’s an eventual solution—and there’s people living under the bridge in my community that have been on the waiting list for housing for years.”

3. Council president Bruce Harrell, who would become mayor if Mayor Ed Murray were to resign in the wake of a lawsuit alleging he molested a teenage boy in the 1980s, said yesterday that the council would have no comment on the allegations, then went on to comment:

“Our city cannot afford to be distracted. There is a judicial process that will address the serious allegations that this situation has presented, and we will respect that process and the rights of all parties involved. All accusations of abuse require a thorough investigation. It is in our human nature to immediately want answers, but I ask we not cast aspersions to the parties involved before we have all the facts through the legal process. I am confident that through this process, truth and justice will prevail.”

Murray isn’t hiding from public view. Yesterday, he attended a naturalization ceremony at the downtown library (where he was trailed by multiple TV cameras) and went to the Mariners’ opening game.

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

Morning Crank: A Political Motivation

1. Well, god damn.

I’m reserving judgment on the sex abuse allegations against Mayor Ed Murray until all facts are out, because I don’t know a whole lot more than anybody else who’s reading the Times report and watching the statements that come out of the mayor’s office, but I will say this: the victim-blaming strategy Murray’s team has taken so far isn’t a good look. Moreover, it seems sure to backfire. A person’s criminal history (which was related to both addiction and homelessness) has no bearing on whether an accuser is telling the truth. Likewise, the amount of time that has elapsed between an alleged incident and when the alleged victim reports that incident to authorities has no bearing on its veracity, and suggesting a political motivation or saying “why did he wait so long to come forward?” is inexcusable (and, incidentally, also detracts from Murray’s defense). I would like to think that, in the post-Cosby era, we were beyond requiring accusers to be “perfect victims” and questioning their motives when they come forward, but if the statements made by Murray’s attorney Robert Sulkin in his defense yesterday are any indication, apparently we are not.

It’s unclear how Murray plans to proceed (so far, he has said through his attorney that he will vigorously defend himself against the charges) but if he continues to seek reelection, contributions are bound to dry up and candidates who had been holding back because of Murray’s apparent invincibility won’t hold back any more. If Murray resigns before the end of his term, the city charter mandates that the city council president take his place; currently, that’s Bruce Harrell, who ran for mayor (against Murray and incumbent Mike McGinn). If Harrell declined to serve as mayor, the council would elect a mayor to serve out Murray’s term from among its members.

2. James Toomey, a private security guard who worked for a company hired by Magnolia homeowners to protect their property last year, was already on probation when he pepper-sprayed Andrew Harris, a homeless man who had been sleeping in his car. Toomey was put on probation after being charged with assault for pepper-spraying two teenagers and slamming one of the teens’ head on the ground in Tacoma in 2014. In that case, as in the Harris case, Toomey justified his aggressive actions by saying the teens were “doing drugs.” In the Harris case, Toomey also claimed he was “in complete fear for my life” from the homeless Harris, who was attempting to record Toomey with his cell phone when the security guard hit him with pepper spray. “I was scared for my life. I have four kids and a wife,” Toomey said later by way of explanation.

Turns out that wasn’t the only time Toomey had claimed to be afraid for his life from an unarmed pepper-spraying victim. Earlier this month, Pierce County prosecuting attorney Pedro Chou unsuccessfully attempted to convince a judge to revoke Toomey’s parole in the 2014 head-slamming and pepper-spraying incident by introducing a security video from 2011, as a way of demonstrating a pattern of violent behavior by Toomey that would, along with the incident in which he pepper-sprayed Harris, justify revoking his parole and punishing him for the 2014 assaults. (Toomey has convictions on his record for felony forgery and violating a no-contact order in a case related to domestic violence charges by his ex-wife and required to take anger-management and domestic-violence classes.)

In the video, Toomey can be seen gesticulating and yelling at a woman who is trying to enter the Latitude 84 nightclub in Tacoma. The woman is turned away by Toomey (who later reports that she pulled out her ID “in a very threatening way”), and argues with him briefly before walking away and yelling at him from several yards away. A moment later, the woman begins walking toward Toomey again and is restrained by a bouncer, who pushes her woman against the wall and holds her arms; at that point, Toomey can be seen approaching and pepper spraying the restrained woman in the face several times.

toomey-video

In the police report and in his recorded testimony, Toomey struck a familiar refrain: He was afraid the woman planned to hurt or kill him. In the report, Toomey describes the woman, who is black and considerably smaller than Toomey, as almost superhumanly strong and powerful, claiming that she was trying to “smash through” the bouncer who stood between her and Toomey to get at him. In addition, “she kept on making verbal threats, saying stuff like, ‘I’m going to have my homies do this and do that,'” Toomey said. “You see how powerful she was.”

In his statement to police, Toomey writes, “Thank you so much for filling these charges against them, it is hard enough to run a security company as it is, and it makes are job a little less stressful knowing that these type of people are in jail and have to face charges for their criminal actions!” (The prosecuting attorney’s office never pursued charges against the woman, but they did consider charging Toomey, according to Harris’ attorney, Mike Maxwell).

Toomey remains on probation. (The judge in Pierce County was unconvinced that Toomey had demonstrated a pattern of unjustified attacks, and seemed very disturbed by Harris’ use of profanity during his statement.) Harris, meanwhile, continues to pursue his civil case against Toomey and Central Protection, the company that employed him. Harris, who is seeking about $300,000, remains homeless; he says he is working two jobs and hopes to have an apartment soon.

3. Two interesting items from Wednesday night’s meeting of the North Precinct Advisory Council, where the three North End city council members—Debora Juarez, Rob Johnson, and Mike O’Brien—spoke briefly and took questions, mostly about the delayed North Precinct police station replacement, from a roomful of North Seattle residents and business owners. (O’Brien walked in late after racing up to North Seattle College from the Ballard Library, where his monthly “office hours” with constituents were dominated by a group of Green Lake Community Center and Evans Pool users who wanted his assurance that he wouldn’t support “privatizing” the pool and community center.)

First, O’Brien said he expected that the city would begin taking concrete actions to bring the once-controversial, now-wildly-popular Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, a pre-arrest diversion program for low-level offenders that started in Belltown, citywide.

Second, council member Deborah Juarez announced that she would be introducing an amendment to police accountability legislation that would require that seven members of 15-member Community Police Commission be appointed by districts. At the council’s public safety committee meeting Thursday morning, Juarez announced rather abruptly that she had gotten pushback to her idea of district representation by CPC members, who suggested that district appointments “would limit the available pool of applicants to those living in the districts … when there might be an ideal candidate living elsewhere. The translation for me,” Juarez continued, “is that there is an assumption—an unfair assumption and a bias—that there will be no qualified applicants [in each district.] … That’s a false narrative.”

Enrique Gonzalez, a CPC member who was at the previous night’s meeting in North Seattle, countered that the current system doesn’t prohibit the CPC from having members from all across the city, but that there may be times when it makes sense for some communities with acute public safety and police accountability concerns (say, South Seattle) might need more representation on the police-oversight board than other areas with fewer concerns (say, North Seattle).

 

 

 

Morning Crank: We Have an Obligation to Our Employees

keystone-council-chambers

1. Three hours after he announced he was pulling the plug on a proposal for a citywide homelessness levy, Mayor Ed Murray’s lobby was inundated with protesters chanting, “No coal, no oil! We want our money back!” The group of about 40 Keystone XL Pipeline opponents was targeting the mayor because he agreed to sign off on a resolution expressing the city’s concern about doing business with banks that invest in the pipeline or the company that is building it, and committing the city to “look for meaningful ways to communicate these positions of the Seattle City Council to prospective financial institutions.”

The legislation was a heavily amended version of a proposal originally put forward by council member Kshama Sawant, which would have directed the city to divest itself from all banks that do business in any way with Keystone or TransCanada. As I noted in a post on that resolution last week, divesting from every bank that does business with companies that don’t mesh perfectly with the city’s progressive values could leave the city without a bank, and leave 10,000 city workers without paychecks. Today, council member Lisa Herbold took up that torch, noting pointedly both in the morning council briefings meeting and in front of a chambers packed with people holding “No Keystone XL” signs that there are only so many banks that meet all the current requirements to do business with the city.

Of 63 banks that are authorized to provide services to cities in Washington State, Herbold said, only 10 are eligible under state law to bid on the city’s services, and “we don’t know for certain that they are, because we have still other banking criteria,” like a rule saying that the city can only do business with banks that received a rating of “outstanding” under the Community Reinvestment Act, which requires investment in low-income communities. “We have an obligation to our employees to be able to pay them, and we need a bank in order to pay them, so we need to really work collaboratively with the executive in identifying which banking institutions can really reflect our values,” Herbold said.

Sawant countered by accusing all the council members who supported Herbold’s amendment of joining other politicians across the country who were “bought out by the oil lobby” and declaring, to cheers from the crowd, that the city has a “political and moral obligation to clearly oppose investment in such destructive projects,” and that “if there are no banks existing that will qualify, then we have to fight to set up a public bank, we have to fight to lift the state ban on banking with credit unions.”

Council member Rob Johnson, who noted that his prior job was as head of an environmental group, the Transportation Choices Coalition, countered that although he didn’t want to do business with banks that invest in pipelines, either, “We need to [make sure we] have real options for writing those 10,000 employees’ paychecks every two weeks, and because we don’t yet have a municipal banking option, and because we don’t yet have … the authority to work with local credit unions, I feel it is important to balance that fiduciary duty to our 10,000 employees alongside our environmental commitment.” The crowd booed loudly at that, but the council passed the resolution unanimously.

2. The intended consequence of the four $25 “democracy vouchers” that went out to every registered voter in Seattle in January is that regular people have a say in city council elections.

The perhaps unintended consequence is that just like people who contribute their own money to campaigns, people who contribute through the voucher program are on the record, and with a couple of clicks, you can find out exactly who your coworker, neighbor, or boss supported with their city-funded campaign dollars.

Wayne Barnett, director of the city’s Ethics and Elections Commission, says the city is still working to update the elections website so contributions will be tallied automatically, but for now, you can download a spreadsheet showing all the voucher contributions so far, and find out, among other things, which elected officials are already all-in—for themselves.

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

Morning Crank: Half a Loaf

sen-joe-fain

Sen. Joe Fain (R-47)

1. City council member Lorena Gonzalez reportedly hopes to introduce legislation in the next few weeks that would require businesses to provide paid family leave to their employees—a significant expansion of a new law, adopted on Monday after a months-long delay, guaranteeing 12 weeks of paid parental leave to city employees. (Employees who need time off to care for other family members can receive up to four weeks off).

Expanding family leave to private employees—as Gonzalez talked about doing when she ran for office in 2015—would likely be far more controversial, especially among small businesses and those that primarily employ service workers, than the city-employee-only law. But the real opposition may come from Olympia, where state legislators are considering a fairly toothless family leave bill that includes a preemption clause that prevents any city from adopting a family leave policy more generous than what the state requires.

The Republican-backed bill, sponsored by 47th District Sen. Joe Fain, would provide up to eight weeks of family leave, increasing up to a maximum of 12 weeks by 2023. Employees who took the time off would be paid just half of their regular wages (rising to a maximum of 67 percent in 2023), and the program would be funded entirely by employees’ own contributions, making it more of a self-insurance policy than an actual benefit. It also requires employees to work for 26 consecutive weeks for a single employer before they receive benefits—a requirement that Economic Opportunity Institute policy director Marilyn Watkins says doesn’t acknowledge the current economic reality, where many people work multiple jobs or switch employers frequently. “It just leaves a lot of people out who are going to end up paying the premium but are never going to meet the qualification to get leave,” Watkins says. “Why should we put things in there that we know are going to be problems—that we know are going to cause inequities?”

According to the bill, “Cities, towns, and counties or other municipalities may enact only those laws and ordinances relating to paid family leave that are specifically authorized by state law and are consistent with this chapter. Local laws and ordinances in existence on the effective date of this section that are inconsistent with this chapter are preempted and repealed.” That means that if the bill passes, any city law providing more leave (and it wouldn’t be hard) will be repealed.

Preemption bills like this aren’t uncommon; they pop up pretty much any time  Seattle passes or discusses progressive policies, such as rules allowing safe-injection sites, encampment sweeps policies that Republicans view as soft on homelessness, or a $15 minimum wage. What could be different this year is that Fain’s bill has bipartisan support; in addition to the usual Republican suspects like Michael Baumgartner (R-6) and Mark Miloscia (R-30), the bill is sponsored by Democrats like Steve Hobbs (D-44) and Guy Palumbo (D-1). A competing bill, sponsored by Sen. Karen Keiser (D-33), would provide more extensive benefits and does not include a preemption clause.

Fain said at a hearing last month that he hopes advocates recognize that “nobody ever went hungry on half a loaf”—meaning, some progress toward true paid family leave is better than none. But advocates may decide they want a full loaf after all, and take the family leave issue directly to voters if legislators offer them only crumbs.

2.  Miller Park Neighbors member Jonathan Swift, who emceed a Wednesday-night prep session for an upcoming city-sponsored meeting about proposed upzones in Northeast Capitol Hill—said he was interested in a balanced discussion. Then he characterized the two sides in the zoning debate as those who liked neighborhood character and those who didn’t. (A flyer distributed with anti-upzone talking points drove the point home, claiming that the  city’s proposal, part of the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), would “destroy the character of the neighborhood” and asserting that “family-sized housing is most appropriate.” )

Anti-HALA architect Greg Hill followed the soft-spoken Swit, telling the crowd of about 100 people that HALA was dominated by an unnamed “right-wing” group and insinuating that HALA, which calls for expanding the city’s urban villages and allowing more multifamily housing along transit corridors, is a sinister, profit-driven developer plot that will decimate Seattle’s environment by reducing the city’s tree canopy. In reality, building housing near transit is the definition of green urbanism, reducing reliance on cars, maximizing energy efficiency, and reducing water usage.

One of the few African-American people in the room—as HALA pointed out, single-family zoning tends to exclude people of color from “character”-filled neighborhoods like Northeast Capitol Hill—was Spencer Williams, a staffer for urbanist city council member Rob Johnson. Johnson has openly criticized Seattle’s brand of reactionary utopianism, which stars NPR-style liberals who denounce Trump for wanting to build a wall to keep newcomers out while defending zoning codes that have the same effect.

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 it as well as costs like transportation, equipment, travel costs, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: Not an Act of Bravery

mike-o-brien-feb-10

1. City council member Rob Johnson caught flak last week from anti-density activists like John Fox, of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, after questioning self-identified liberals who say they welcome immigrants and refugees and oppose zoning changes that would create more housing. Speaking at a forum sponsored by the Transportation Choices Coalition, which Johnson directed prior to his election in 2015, Johnson said, “[I]t’s really disturbing for me when I hear … somebody talking about how glad they were to see the neighborhood district councils stand up for single-family zoning and then, in the next breath, disparage the president for wanting to build a wall between the US and Mexico. I see those two things as actually linked.”

Fox, along with fellow activist Carolee Coulter, wrote that Johnson’s comments were “intensely insulting and polarizing, not to mention wrong. He should be ashamed of himself.” Fox and Coulter compared Johnson to Trump; others who emailed me or made comments on my original post have complained that Johnson is comparing them to Trump supporters, the kind of people who chant “Build the wall!” at his Nuremberg-style election rallies. One Johnson constituent who wrote me called his comments “outrageously inflammatory and insulting”; another called it “a divisive and totally clumsy comparison coming from a white man of considerable privilege.”

I called Johnson Friday to see if he wanted to elaborate or clarify what he said last week. Speaking from a crowded bus on his way home to Northeast Seattle, Johnson doubled down. “We are a city that wants to welcome people of all races, all different economic statuses, and all different immigration statuses,” Johnson said. “If we’re truly going to be welcoming to all those different folks, we need to create more housing.”

Does he regret using the metaphor of Trump’s border wall? Not at all: “When we talk about zoning, we need to recognize that zoning is a metaphorical wall around communities. We need to talk about that. We also need to make sure that we understand the ramifications of the decisions that we make—when we choose to either rezone areas or not rezone areas, both of those decisions have real impacts.”

2. The Seattle Department of Transportation came to week’s transportation committee meeting armed with charts and stats showing that the city has made huge strides toward increasing the number of people who bike, walk, and take the bus to jobs downtown; a report from Commute Seattle last week showed that while the city added 45,000 jobs downtown, the number of car trips only increased by about 2,400 per day.

But SDOT staffers were confronted, first, by a disturbing litany of pedestrian injuries and deaths from Johnson and committee chair Mike O’Brien, who noted that even as the city has reduced the number of people who drive to work alone, it has not made similar strides toward eliminating pedestrian fatalities and serious injuries. In the past five weeks, O’Brien noted, six pedestrians have been seriously injured or killed by drivers. If that many people had been killed in the same period by gunshots, O’Brien said, “we would be convening task forces and committees to figure out what we need to do. And yet somehow, when it’s folks walking across the street or biking between jobs, it gets kind of buried in the news and we just go on about life.”

Noting that the city has committed to “Vision Zero”—that is, zero pedestrian deaths or serious injuries—O’Brien said he was asking SDOT to come back to the council in early March with a list of specific short- and long-term recommendations to address the city’s lack of progress. “We should have a city where, whether you’re walking to work or biking to go to the park or walking across the street to get groceries or go get a cup of coffee, that’s not an act of bravery but an act of daily living.”

3. Another number that jumped out at Friday’s briefing: 11 percent. That’s the percentage of Seattle residents who are eligible for a low-income transit pass, known as ORCA Lift, who have actually taken advantage of the program. In our conversation Friday, Johnson said the city should consider enrolling people in the ORCA Lift program when they sign up for other income-limited programs, the way the Seattle Housing Authority now enrolls tenants in the city utility discount program when they rent SHA apartments—or the way King County signed people up for the program when they signed up for the Affordable Care Act last year. “It just goes to show that we have a lot of work to do, not just in our marketing program—as I’m staring the side of the bus, there’s a huge ad for ORCA Lift—but in making sure that that marketing is getting through to the folks that need it most.”