Clock ticking down on City Council's work
At least four and as many as six new bodies will fill the Seattle City Council bench this January. Although that’s more than four months away, a council recess, budget discussions and a potentially distracting November election mean the hours for committee meetings — where much of the real work gets done — are dwindling.
Hanging in the lurch are the fates of significant pieces of police reform and housing legislation as well as any final push by Councilmember Jean Godden to build her legacy on women's issues.
What, in this limited time, is realistic to expect from a council that will see significant turnover by the end of the year?
The departures of retiring councilmembers Nick Licata and Tom Rasmussen and interim Councilmember John Okamoto are no surprise. Godden, on the other hand, will be forced out after losing her recent District 4 primary. In a statement to her supporters, Godden promised she’d “go out with a bang and not a whimper,” while also asking for $9,200 dollars to close the books on her campaign.
Councilmember Godden is the chair of the Parks, Seattle Center, Libraries and Gender Pay Equity Committee. When asked about priorities in advance of the primaries, Godden aide Bailey Bauhs said, “We don’t have anything too pressing.” Bauhs said the Godden office was trying to wrap up issues around city-owned snack-shack and concession stands in public parks that are sitting unused.
In her statement after she lost the primary, however, Councilmember Godden said she didn't want goodbye ceremonies or awards, pleading instead for information. "Can you check on the pay equity of women in your place of employment?" read the statement. "Do you have parental leave? Why not? I don’t want anything named after me, but I would love studies that gauge how many women and men are in management positions where you work."
Following those questions came her ask for $9,200 in contributions, to cover her final campaign bills, a request which has raised a few eyebrows. Godden was not available for comment and Bauhs said that, as a city employee, she couldn't talk about anything related to the campaign. Campaign Manager Annie Kucklick said the $9,200 was to help pay her salary. "I wouldn't ask Jean to pay me out of pocket," she said. When asked if that $9,200 was somehow tied to what Godden would accomplish in her final months, Kucklick said no.
Bauhs said the council member's work priorities have not changed after the primary. She said that there would be a budget item that addressed gender pay equity, the issue nearest to Godden's heart, but wouldn't go into more detail than that.
The appointment of John Okamoto to fill Sally Clark’s vacant seat became politically awkward, if not ugly. Councilmember Kshama Sawant called a vote for Okamoto “scandalous.” Some of her fellow council members responded in kind, Tom Rasmussen accusing Sawant of an “odious smear campaign.”
At the heart of this tension was the fact that Okamoto would become the chair of the Council’s housing committee just before the release of the recommendations from Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) task force. Sawant, as well as councilmembers Nick Licata and Mike O’Brien, felt Okamoto would not bring “bold” solutions to the housing debate. Okamoto, after all, had come off sounding like he might be more of a passenger than a driver on the issue when he pledged to finish the term in the spirit of Councilmember Clark.
From the start, Okamoto seemed to be fulfilling the fears of Sawant and Co., tabling any housing legislation until the mayor revealed the HALA recommendations. Councilmember Tim Burgess introduced two housing ordinances, one lengthening the notice period for evicting tenants, the other requiring the city get a 15-day advance notice when an apartment building with affordable units goes up for sale. Sawant and Licata introduced a resolution calling for the state to lift the ban on rent control. All three have sat idle.
For a time, there was also some thought that the rent control resolution would never see the light of day. Okamoto has been vocally opposed to rent control. But last week he confirmed to Crosscut what he has said in multiple meetings: that he would bring the resolution, as well as the Burgess ordinances, forward this September.
Some of Okamoto’s putting aside of legislation while waiting for HALA has come back to bite him. Originally, the housing committee was scheduled to have only two more meetings before budget talks, but because of the backlog Okamoto has added an extra. In addition to the Burgess ordinances and the rent control resolution, Okamoto said a lot of the remaining committee hours will be dedicated to what he called “HALA-esque” measures, namely looking to expand the Multi-Family Tax Exemption, which is an incentive for developers to include affordable units in their buildings.
Because Okamoto was appointed, not elected, whoever wins the citywide race between Lorena Gonzalez and Bill Bradburd (Gonzalez beat Bradburd by nearly 40 percentage points in the primary) will take his seat once King County verifies the election. According to the City Clerk’s office, that could occur as early as November 24, the day after the city council is scheduled to approve the budget. With his early exit will come the final verdict on whether he was the seat warmer his critics feared he would be.
Councilmember Bruce Harrell chairs the council’s Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee, where the question hanging in the air is the progress of legislation to make Seattle police reforms permanent. The various parties involved in the settlement agreement between the City of Seattle and the Department of Justice to address issues of excessive use of force and possible discriminatory effects from police practices have been going back and forth on a package for some time now – longer than most would like. Harrell was all set to receive legislation in June, but the federal judge presiding over the agreement, Judge James Robart, scolded the parties for trying to change the settlement agreement with legislation without clearing it with the court first. That hiccup stalled progress and Harrell’s office has been waiting for an ordinance since.
Vinh Trang of Harrell’s office said that the council member would like to see reform legislation move forward before the new council takes over in January. If it doesn’t happen before budget season this fall, it’s likely to roll into next year, at which point it would compete with the chaos of new council members getting settled into their roles. Potentially, Harrell might not be there to see the legislation through, although he's a clear favorite in the fall election.
Crosscut reported that the civilian Community Police Commission and the Mayor’s Office hoped to send legislation to the monitor overseeing police reforms before the end of July. But that doesn’t appear to have happened. Now Judge Robart has called for a hearing to discuss “how to develop comprehensive and internally consistent mechanisms related to the Seattle Police Department's use of force, internal investigations, accountability and discipline.” It’s hard to know exactly what that means for the timeline of legislation – it could be anywhere from a couple minor suggestions to a complete overhaul of the process.
Additionally, the terms of many Community Police Commission members expire in March, presenting another potentially disruptive transition. It’s not unthinkable that police reform legislation could be delayed into next spring and summer.
After a bit of drama between the Mayor’s Office and the Community Police Commission, the parties seem to be bonded by a mutual desire to get something done and quickly. Whether Harrell’s wish to pass something before January will happen, however, may well depend on what Robart says at the hearing this August.
While the committees of Godden, Okamoto and Harrell may be the most watched, each council member has certain priorities.
- Chair of the budget committee Councilmember Licata will have his hands full with budget talks as well as sponsoring a Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance in the planning committee.
- Council President Tim Burgess just passed his two gun laws to tax firearm transactions and require reporting of lost or stolen firearms. He will also try to finalize the evaluation plan for Seattle’s new universal pre-k pilot program. And, of course, his housing ordinances are in the hands of Councilmember Okamoto.
- In the transportation committee, Councilmember Rasmussen will oversee full implementation of the Proposition 1 measure passed by voters to increase bus service.
- Councilmember Sally Bagshaw’s utilities committee will continue with its water status updates. She also said her office wants to focus more on traffic congestion.
- Socialist Councilmember Kshama Sawant recently paired with Mayor Ed Murray to promote legislation to automatically enroll eligible families in the city’s Utility Discount Program. She will also continue her efforts to make Internet a public utility.
The primary results left some uncertainty around Burgess' re-election prospects and, to a lesser extent, Sawant's, although neither is viewed as in serious trouble at this point.
With at least four departures ahead, however, there is one more item that will probably occupy part of some council staffers' time in the coming months: planning farewells honoring the exiting council members. While Godden many not want any fuss, it is customary for council members to get a ceremony as they depart City Hall.