Council preserves cuts to Seattle police, overriding Durkan

In a rebuke to the mayor, the council pushed forward with its original revision to the city's 2020 budget. 

Seattle Police Department officers in tactical gear respond to a protest in Seattle. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

The Seattle City Council voted Tuesday to override Mayor Jenny Durkan and forge ahead with cuts to the Seattle Police Department and the team responsible for overseeing homeless encampment cleanups. The council also opted to push forward with immediate investments in community organizations, despite concerns from Durkan about the source of that money.

Setting aside some of the particulars, the council framed the votes as a step toward a stronger and more equitable system of public safety.

"I want to be able to tell my daughter, who I am currently holding in my arms, that I did the right thing, that I voted on the right side of history," said Council President Lorena González. "Not because of political expediency, not because there was a disagreement about where to put a decimal point, not because of political pressure, but because it is the right thing to do."

The vote is yet another bullet point in what has been a contentious summer between the two branches of city government — executive and legislative — and represents a minor victory for advocates who have pushed for a dramatic reimagination of public safety in Seattle.

Councilmember Alex Pedersen and Debora Juarez voted against overriding the mayor's veto of the primary budget revision, but in favor of moving forward with new spending for community organizations to research and invest in alternative public safety options.  

Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who was viewed in advance as the likely deciding vote, said it was important to move forward with investments in the near term. At the same time, he pleaded for a new way of policymaking in City Hall that does not involve fights over vetoes. 

"It has contributed to a frayed relationship between the council and the mayor and there have to be better ways for us to resolve our differences," he said. "In that spirit, while I’m voting to override today, I acknowledge that some of these bills may need some revisions and I’m committing to pursuing those changes legislatively."

Durkan, meanwhile, has faulted the council for what she's painted as unrealistic and unworkable plans that will not have the desired effect of improving public safety. She has castigated the council for what she has said is an unwillingness to collaborate.

"While Council may not be concerned about the details, I am," she said in a statement Tuesday. "And they actually do matter.

"Our community is demanding that we work together," she continued. "Even when we disagree, I have always believed we could work together on actual solutions that can be done and make the change we want to see."

The vote restores a budget package of three separate bills that the council passed in August and Durkan subsequently vetoed. That budget was written in response to a roughly $400 million deficit resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, but also reflects the summer’s protests against police brutality and racism.

By overriding Durkan’s vetoes, the council preserves its cuts of 100 full-time positions from the police department; the police-led Navigation Team, which handles encampment cleanups; executive salaries; and also commits $14 million for community-led public safety organizations, among other things.

Collectively, those measures already fall short of the 50% cuts to police that some demonstrators had called for, but have nevertheless been celebrated as a culmination of the near-constant activism since George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis in late May.

"By taking small steps this summer, we sent a symbolic message of future bargaining that would happen," said Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda. "We sent a message that we are making a down payment on investments needed to build community capacity to better respond to community safety concerns."

Moving forward, there are some practical hurdles that several council members acknowledged before their vote. Labor considerations will likely push any layoffs into 2021. And the council members are limited in forcing the mayor to spend the money they allocate in the way they want.

Speaking in advance of the vote, Councilmember Andrew Lewis acknowledged these realities. “We can appropriate money, but we can't force the mayor to spend it,” Lewis said

While there was lobbying on both side, the council — and Lewis in particular, who was viewed as the likely swing vote — came under enormous pressure in recent days to override the mayor’s vetoes, including from soccer star and Seattle resident Megan Rapinoe.

The standard public comment period before the council’s vote was overwhelmingly in favor of overriding Durkan and preserving the cuts. Evelyn Chow, an organizer with Real Change, told the council, “You took small initial steps, but now when it matters the most, you’re giving into mayoral pressure and the people are all watching. We need you to stand with Black lives, not with Jenny Durkan.”

Brittney Bush Bollay, board chair of the Seattle chapter of the Sierra Club, spoke of a sense of hope among her friends that their activism can have an impact in City Hall. “I understand the challenges that you face from a hostile executive, but we are asking you with all of our hearts to be strong enough to keep that hope alive and to make that vote today to override the vetoes and move toward true community and public safety for all,” Bollay said. 

However, Don Blakeny, vice president of advocacy and economic development at the Downtown Seattle Association, urged collaboration with Durkan. “We need our leaders to work together and we need to build broad consensus on our public safety strategies and outcomes to restore the public’s confidence,” he said.

Council President González and Durkan had quietly crafted a compromise bill in the event that the council failed to override her vetoes. That package was more reflective of the mayor’s preferred path forward: It did not include any cuts to police department staff and kept the Navigation Team intact. In the end, however, it was never used.

Durkan vetoed the council’s budget changes earlier this summer because, she said, there was “no plan for how the city will bridge gaps in the police response that will be caused if we lose 100 police officers,” she said at the time.

She was also concerned about the source of the $14 million — via loans from other city departments — and said the investments need to come from a more sustainable place.  

The mayor and the council now transition almost immediately into deliberations for the 2021 budget. The weight of those debates is likely to be even greater than the 2020 conversations. The city continues to face enormous budget shortfalls and both the council and the mayor have said it is a better forum for enacting significant changes to the public safety system. 

“The summer budget was never going to be an appropriate vehicle to really make these lasting changes because it's so temporary, it's so improvised,” Lewis said before Tuesday’s vote.

“We can be much more intentional, strategic and deliberate crafting the 2021 budget,” he said.

For her part, Durkan has pledged $100 million in investments into community-led organizations, although not necessarily at the expense of the Seattle police budget. She has also spoken repeatedly about "reimagining" the police department, but has advocated doing the bulk of that work in the 2021 budget and throughout next year. 

The mayor is scheduled to unveil her proposed 2021 budget next Tuesday. 

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