Outside the bubble that has settled over Seattle City Hall, it is easy to come to the conclusion that our city’s government has become untethered to reality and common sense.
The same city government that often prides itself on “data-driven” approaches to problem solving continues to make policy decisions that fly in the face of facts available to even the casual observer — forget for a moment that councilmembers have salaried personal staff as well as a large central staff to aid them in data and policy analysis. The mayor also has a large, highly paid staff, to aid him in his decision making. And, of course, there are the 10,000 people who work for the city.
With all of these resources, why do we get so many head-scratching failures from city government?
One of the most egregious, of course, is the wanton ignorance practiced in the Pronto bike-share bailout and subsequent moves toward scrapping the equipment and replacing it with new electric bikes. The data has consistently shown that ridership continues to fall, and that no business in its right mind would ever take it over. And yet, Kool-Aid drenched councilmembers continue to push for expansion, even going so far as to use a race and social justice argument, talking of the need to bring this service to low-income residents supposedly crying out for the ability to rent bikes. To their credit, Councilmembers Tim Burgess and Lisa Herbold dumped their Kool-Aid out when no one was looking and have opposed this boondoggle.
Then there is the proposal to replace the North Precinct Police Station. The existing station is outdated, inadequate and in need of replacement. The city and community have known this for years. But instead of looking at the Southwest Precinct Station (the newest station, which opened in 2003) as a model for the north, planners at the city used the Taj Mahal as their target. Wasn’t there anybody at the table, at some point, who said: Wait a minute, folks, this is getting out of control!?
The $160 million project, recently scaled back to a Taj Mahal lite (only $149 million), was then roundly criticized by the Councilmember Sawant-O’Brien clique. I guess they thought it was too expensive, right? Wrong. Apparently, they disagree with having a new station of any size and believe we have too many cops as it is, even though studies have shown we are under-staffed when compared with other cities our size. To the mayor’s credit, he is working at hiring another 200 officers.
After the mayor pulled the precinct project off the table, Councilmember O’Brien sent out a press release celebrating ... the fact that city leaders didn’t know how to do their jobs. Great, we killed a project because we couldn’t manage it competently. Just wow.
But easily, the best example of rank incompetence and magical thinking is around the issue of homelessness. We spend over $50 million per year to solve a problem of 4,000 to perhaps as high as 6,000 people without homes (counting those in shelters as well as on the streets). This does not account for all of the medical and police services involved with the issue. The mayor had a plan to clean out the Jungle under I-5 and set out a deadline, but then pulled back because of political pressure. The clean out is now back on. Meanwhile, the council is considering ACLU-driven legislation that would turn Seattle into a free KOA campground for all comers.
Councilmember Tim Burgess is the voice of reason here but has an uphill battle convincing his colleagues of the inevitable impacts of legalizing camping in our public spaces. (He makes a sound argument for a different approach on his blog.)
Mayor Murray opposes the council’s efforts as well and has been working to mobilize neighborhoods against it. The city also hired consultants at over $175,000 to tell us what we already know but don’t have the courage to admit: That what we are doing is not working, we shouldn’t allow people to camp in our public spaces, and we should look for results with the $50 million we’re already spending.
But this isn’t an issue of data or understanding the facts on the ground, it’s an issue of political courage. And the council has so far not demonstrated an appetite for data or fact-based decision making, opting instead for political expediency.
With all of these failures, you would think city government leaders would want to focus on correcting these problems and do some analysis about why this is happening. You would be wrong. The City Council wants to focus on telling business owners and employees how to run their businesses. The latest is the “Secure Scheduling” ordinance. If the council believed this is such a good idea, they probably would want all businesses in Seattle to be governed by it, right? Wrong. The ordinance only applies to businesses of over 500 employees — yet another example of data-free, politics-heavy public policy being made by a group of people that have failed at the basics of their sworn responsibility
We are the second city to sponsor this type of legislation. The first is San Francisco. And we should really be copying San Francisco because they have done a heck of a job growing the middle class there. Or not.
The incompetence of our city leaders would simply be a source of comedy were it not for the serious consequences — from dangerous encampments sure to see another tragedy like the shootings in the Jungle, to driving up costs on middle-class homeowners and retirees because of the endless desire to throw more money at bad systems that only make matters worse. And if you’re a small business owner struggling to make it, you are probably wondering what new regulation the city will throw your way next.
I have worked on these issues and know that difficult choices need to be made. But at a minimum, there has to be an adult in the room to take away the candy once in a while. At least Mayor Murray hinted that this may happen in his recent budget speech, saying that 2017 will be the year of “good governance.” Let’s hope this is true. So far, 2016 has seen anything but that.