News from Seattle: It's easy to overlook what City Hall is really doing

Revolutions, disasters, crime: All get our attention. But what about the quieter actions that affect our lives much more directly?

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Seattle City Hall.

Revolutions, disasters, crime: All get our attention. But what about the quieter actions that affect our lives much more directly?

What is more likely to affect your life, a people's revolt in Libya or someone cutting a beautiful big old tree next door to build a new high-rise apartment building you hadn’t heard about?

We tend not to pay quite as much attention to local news concerning what decisions our local government makes when the media is focused on more spectacular events. Japan’s devastating 9.0 earthquake accompanied by a 30-foot tsunami and the fear of a nuclear meltdown consumed our attention. In a story from far away that seems to hit home, Osama bin Laden is killed. On the home front, a congresswoman is shot, oil and gas prices soar, home foreclosures continue, and, here in Seattle, John T. Williams was shot by a police officer.

While we are paying attention to the big news events it’s easy to miss quietly announced decisions by our city council that might affect us more than the events in the much larger news stories.

Yes, there are local stories that catch our attention. People who live or work on the east side of Lake Washington are talking about the proposed high tolls for the 520 bridge, which could cost a daily commuter $150 a month.  They talk about tunnels under the city, road diets for bike lanes, the tree wars where new city tree regulations allow more trees to be cut.

In Seattle, people talk about the shell game achieved by Seattle Public Utilities, where the city changed the date from winter to summer sewer rates and collected millions in increased revenue for water the public didn’t send down the drain. There is dismay about spending money on bike lanes or a million dollars spent to replace drain covers when the there isn’t money to repair thousands of potholes. People grumble about punitive parking fees that hamper revenue producing businesses.

Homeowners discuss rising property tax while house values drop. If that weren’t enough, the dream of Warren Magnuson and those who dreamed of a Magnuson Park that would serve the arts, nonprofits, and water-related needs of our city is being sold out to a private developer at bargain prices for commercial office space in the park but that could instead be located elsewhere in the abundant vacant commercial rental market.

One item people don’t talk about is one of the Seattle City Council's best-kept secrets. The council members recently voted for a Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD). This interlocal agreement contained in Council Bill 117142 takes advantage of a state law and, in effect, sets up a new independent jurisdiction run by City Council members with taxing authority and the powers of eminent domain (taking of private property). But the new district fails to provide citizens the legal protection of our city charter: none of the usual requirements of due process, hearings, or other legal protections for citizens. Viewed as a power grab without the public ability to remove the decision-makers from this new special board, it amplifies the image of government decided in the back rooms.  Few knew all this scheming was going on.

Another less-publicized event is that the Seattle City Council recently passed legislation which gave property tax breaks (deferments) to select developers, many from out of state.  Apparently the decision is based on the theory that hordes of people are on their way to Seattle and will need cheap housing. While Seattle was hammered by still another $17 million loss of revenue last month, we are giving tax breaks.

While this decision is puzzling, so also is Seattle’s reticence to collect development fees to help defray the cost to the city to provide the infrastructure, transportation, and services for new development.  Millions have been spent to update infrastructure in South Lake Union to support Paul Allen’s development projects. The city argues they want to encourage growth, but most other regional cities collect these fees and continue to see robust growth. Yes, Seattle is slowly growing, and may, in time, need additional housing, but under current conditions, incentives to build simply aren't necessary.

Those who do pay attention to how our city is being developed have noted that city planners and the building department (DPD) have changed the way they interpret state SEPA rules, which govern new buildings and development. The rules intended to make sure that no environmental impacts result, require an environmental impact statement (EIS) be prepared. The city’s planning department has, however, responded with record numbers of decisions called "DNSs" (declarations of non significance).

Those who follow these issues claim that the failure to recognize the environmental impact of new development violates both state SEPA regulations and the principles of the GMA (Growth Management Act), a state law that requires the city to ensure city services like transportation, schools, utility capacity are concurrent with new development.  They wonder why so many big projects no longer qualify for a full EIS.

Richard Conlin, president of Seattle City Council, has initiated actions that would annex portions of Highline southwest of Seattle into the city of Seattle.  Currently, these unincorporated areas could join with either Burien or Seattle. The mayor has said it is too expensive. Council central staff, which does basic research on all issues, estimates it will cost $4.6 million per year in additional funds and $8.7 million in one-time costs.

When our library services are being gutted, our parks and community centers suffer from a lack of funds, and our streets are in terrible shape, where would we find over $13 million in new revenues in 2012 and $4.6 million per year after that?  The City Council voted 8-to-1 to delay, but not to reject further efforts toward annexation. What’s next?

A decade ago Seattle became the poster child of U.S. cities, in a positive way, by approving a process whereby people who lived in various parts of our city could join with urban planners to influence what kind of development would take place. The theory was that those who lived and worked in an area understood the individuality and differences between neighborhoods and could tailor planning and development in ways that would fit the demographics, transportation, services, and culture. It was called neighborhood planning. It took time, wasn’t perfect, but reflected some of what democracy was all about.

After a decade, the city planning department is exerting pressure to densify the city, which requires new plans be developed at a cost of near $5 million. The mayor and City Council have adopted the name "neighborhood planning," but in reality they have adopted a top-down strategy. Instead they will engage in "planning by neighborhood" rather than neighborhood planning.  In this scheme, city planners schedule public meetings, but citizens have learned that the city has already drafted plans before meetings were even scheduled.

We can’t forget the local headlines that dominated local news. John T. Williams was killed by a Seattle police officer, Ian Birk, who said he feared for his life by a knife woodcarver Williams had in hand. The police firearms review board, however, came to the conclusion that the shooting wasn’t justified. While Birk resigned, the city still ended up having to pay a $1.5 million financial settlement to the Williams family.

The police department essentially responded to the tragedy by initiating a public-relations campaign. There is no word yet whether they will allow officers to be tested for drugs, whether they will allow a civilian review panel to revise policies on the use of lethal force, or whether they will agree to forego automatic pay increases as have other city workers.

As the say, the devil is in the details and the news that didn’t make the headlines.


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