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Hacks & Wonks

Apr 9, 2021

Today we have Brianna Thomas, candidate for Seattle City Council, Position 9 (Citywide). With Crystal, she dives into her knowledge of how Seattle does work, and vision for how Seattle could work. They touch on the causes of and solutions to homelessness, where public safety in Seattle goes from here, and how one takes demands from the community and crafts them into policy.

As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at

Find the host, Crystal Fincher on Twitter at @finchfrii and find today’s guest, Brianna Thomas, at @peopleforbrianna. More info is available at



Read about Seattle’s housing constraints here: 

Learn more about how homelessness and trauma go hand-in-hand here: 

Learn about the rise and fall of Seattle’s navigation teams here: 

Read about inclusionary housing, as well as other types of housing projects Seattle has tried, here: 

Find out more about the Seattle City Council’s recent passage of a law requiring legal representation be provided to those facing eviction:,-March%2029%2C%202021&text=The%20Seattle%20City%20Council%20on,in%20the%20city%20facing%20eviction

Learn about Seattle’s long path with police accountability here: 



Crystal Fincher: [00:00:00] Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm your host, Crystal Fincher. On this show, we talk to political hacks and policy wonks to gather insight into local politics and policy through the lens of those doing the work and provide behind the scenes perspectives on politics in our state. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at and in our episode notes.

Well today, I am very thrilled to have with us, someone who I've known for over a decade. We came up together, actually, managing political campaigns in Seattle. And now she's gone off to do big things and is doing an even bigger thing now and running for City Council in Seattle. Please welcome Brianna Thomas. Thanks for joining us.

Brianna Thomas: [00:01:13] Pleasure to be here, especially on something called Hacks & Wonks. I identify as both of those.

Crystal Fincher: [00:01:19] Very much us, very much us - both IDF alums, and that very much describes us. It is why the show is named what it is. So, we go way back. This has been a long journey for you. This is your second run for City Council. And so, I guess what made you decide to run for Council again right now?

Brianna Thomas: [00:01:43] My friends told me to - no. Truly, I've been serving with Council President González for the last five years. 

The last time I ran, I didn't get out the primary. And a lot of that was about me not knowing what the job was that I was asking for, so I wasn't able to bring that to the trail. So I spent the last five years making an education of my job. I know how the City works, I know how the City doesn't work, and I have a vision of how the City could work. I've invested in making sure that I've got the hard skills that are necessary to talk about things like homelessness, affordable housing, criminal justice reform, equity, and recovery for COVID. What are we going to do for the artists? And all of that came to bear in one moment in February, and here I am now.

Crystal Fincher: [00:02:29] So as you said, this is certainly a trying time for many people. We're coming out of this COVID crisis - we're beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel just in getting back to where we can be social again, but lots of people are struggling. What can you accomplish as a City Council member right now? And what are your plans?

Brianna Thomas: [00:02:51] Well, we can take a look at the way we use land. It's a area that I've had to educate myself in, but it touches every piece of policy - where we site childcare centers, whether or not we're building the right systems to make sure our elders can age in place. What about density? Is transit working for people? All of that ties back to our relationship with the land and how we use it. So I think that's one thing I'm really going to be interested in digging into. 

One of my campaign platforms is building a Seattle for the future that's environmentally sustainable. We know people are coming here because we have clean air and we have clean water. It's a beautiful place to live. There are plenty of economic opportunities. And I think it's our job to get ahead of that demand and start building right now for the Seattle of the future.

Crystal Fincher: [00:03:36] Well, that's really interesting, and as a former land use and planning board member myself, I certainly agree that the way we use land shapes how we build our communities, and how we're able to connect and thrive. So I guess, are we doing a good job of that right now? What needs to change?

Brianna Thomas: [00:03:53] We're doing okay. Seattle's a tough town when it comes to land use. Folks are in deep relationship with their communities and their neighborhoods, and change isn't something that we welcome. Some of us have heard about the Seattle process, and that's a thing. It is a real process to make forward progress in that space.

But I think that with some shifting demographics and the obvious need in that space, we're ready to have a different kind of conversation. We're ready to talk about infill. We're ready to talk about ADU/DADUs. We're ready to talk about taking a real hard look at two thirds of the city still being zoned for single family housing and what that means for our families. During COVID, we saw that communities of color were able to bond together and get through the challenges of educating our children at home, innovating in home-based businesses, and keeping our elders in place with us to keep those families together.

So what I think we need to do to keep some of that momentum going is have a conversation about where we've been and where we'd like to see ourselves in the future. One thing that's really obvious to me is some of the NIMBY attitude that we had about zoning and exclusionary or inclusionary zoning has exacerbated the homelessness crisis. Had we been more forward-thinking and more open and more progressive as we say that we are, just a simple decade ago, then we would have been creating more infill with affordable housing. And we would have been creating multi-generational households that would have given folks options when they hit a point of crisis.

So that's what we can do better. We can look at a city and say, and demand that it works for all income levels, all lifestyle choices in a multi-generational city.

Crystal Fincher: [00:05:35] Well, I think a lot of people are thinking that they'd like to see that, but they very much aren't seeing that right now. You brought up the way that we have created our city has exacerbated the homelessness crisis that we see right now. Why are we in such a problem? Why does it seem to be impossible for us to figure out how to get out of this thing and what do we need to do?

Brianna Thomas: [00:05:58] We need more meaningful investments, and I know that's not a popular response because it feels like we're already throwing good money after bad. But we need to recognize that homelessness is a form of trauma. It is a trauma on a trauma. There are layers of trauma there. And while rapid rehousing is a tool we must keep in our toolkit, it is not the only solution. No one that I've ever met - that has experienced trauma or myself - has been able to turn their entire life around, stabilize, and thrive in 90 days.

We need longer term solutions for housing. We need expanded hotel programs. We need to recognize that tent encampments are not compassionate, long-term solutions. And quite frankly, I think that the City, wherever you are on the spectrum of your political ideology, recognizes that that cannot continue to be our default setting on addressing homelessness.

Crystal Fincher: [00:06:54] So when you talk about - people need services - what does that mean? And what are we providing right now? And what more should we be providing? Because lots of people talk about, they need services. We heard about the Navigation Team that was established to much fanfare and it turned out they actually weren't offering much at all. So what is that missing link and how do we implement that?

Brianna Thomas: [00:07:19] That's a really great question. You can only use services as a solution if there's services available. So we can send folks out to do outreach, but if there's not a room or a safe place for them to go to in that moment, when they are able and willing to accept assistance, then it's a hollow offering. We're just moving folks around because there's nowhere to put them.

We had a conversation about needing regional solutions - that Seattle couldn't go it on its own. And so we worked for 18-24 months to stand up the King County Regional Housing Authority. Now, I'm excited to see that we've got an Executive Director on board and hopefully we can make some progress there, but if we're going to have a real conversation about this issue - we created that authority as a regional approach and several of our regional partners, after agreeing to the rules of engagement and agreeing to the rules of the game, decided to opt out. They still want a seat at the table, they still want to vote, but they don't want to pony up. And they're still going to shift the burden of the solution to Seattle in its own right.

So we have to partner with the State. We have to partner with our regional, our local cities that aren't Seattle. Because Seattle cannot solve this on its own. And we have to create some accountability for what we are doing in every neighborhood in King County, Pierce County, Snohomish County. This is a national problem with a regional impact. And we've got to start looking at the solutions that way. If you don't have an actual shelter for someone to go to, where's the incentive for them to change anything about their behavior?

So we got to step away from nice words and platitudes, and probably start having some harder conversations with each other about where the buck actually stops, because there's been a lot of mmmhhh. Oh, you can't see me because this is a podcast - I'm pointing in different directions.

Crystal Fincher: [00:09:09] Well, and that brings up a good point. You talk about - we put the expectation on people that they do something once they're put into a short-term shelter, that there is a clock that's ticking that they're encouraged to get out, but they're not provided with the services or even set up for success at all in that area. We're sweeping encampments, which is as we've talked about before, recommended against by the CDC, which has been affirmed by King County Public Health. Do you ever see a justification for doing sweeps?

Brianna Thomas: [00:09:47] Yes. Short answer, yes. Again, it goes back to my framing of not moving people for the sake of not moving people is not a compassionate answer. We've gotten to the point where we have accepted people using public lands as a substitute for the gaps in the system. So I think that if we know that there is an encampment that is struggling under the burden of drug abuse and trafficking, and again, the mental illness and trauma that comes from being houseless and homeless day after day after day after day. And those folks have been offered services. Now, to be clear, the services have to exist. This can't be services in name only, there has to be an actual place for folks to go. If we are able to create all of those conditions and all of those backstops and all of that cushioning, and then folks still aren't willing or able to make that shift for themselves, there is a role for government to intercede.

Crystal Fincher: [00:10:53] Well, and I guess the form of that intercession is the question. So you just mentioned - okay, justified, if there is drug abuse or trafficking. Substance use disorder is a known contributor to people losing housing stability and winding up in an unhoused situation. So it seems like that wouldn't be unexpected at all to see, and that the focus should be on services to address that.

You brought up trafficking, which actually Councilmember Andrew Lewis brought that up too. We weren't able to find any evidence of any trafficking in encampments, or that happening. I don't know if that was something talked about in a Council briefing or something, but we hadn't seen that at all in what happened. So I guess, what would be the situations that you - what would you do in the instance - in the instance that someone is unhoused and they are suffering with substance use disorder? What would you do in that situation?

Brianna Thomas: [00:12:07] Again, this is going to be a long-term solution. We know that right now at the State level - we're building a facility in Kent that will have a whopping 26 beds for the entire state - for inpatient treatment for folks that are in this condition. 26. I feel like that's not going to cover the need, not even kind of, not even a little bit.

So what are the conversations that we need to be having with the House and the Senate right now about the gravity of the need. Now I understand that the budget's looking pretty good this season and that folks are taking advantage of the fact that we have Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate. That's encouraging. But we all have to be real - that with 12,000-15,000 people currently experiencing homelessness in this county alone - if you assume, roughly, I don't have the math, but let's assume 10% of them are dealing with substance use disorder. That's a 1,500 bed situation. 26 isn't going to cut it.

Crystal Fincher: [00:13:03] So as a City of Seattle Councilmember, what should be done in the City to address that?

Brianna Thomas: [00:13:08] Well, we've started the hoteling program. Hopefully that sticks and that we find other opportunities to expand that programming. 

One thing I'd like to revisit is inclusionary zoning, I'm sorry, inclusionary housing fees. So when developers came in and put in big beautiful apartment buildings or condo buildings, they had an option to either provide a certain number of units of affordable housing in-building or write a check. Shockingly, most of them chose to write the check. And now we are building affordable housing in communities that are already traditionally distressed. So we are concentrating poverty in communities that are already experiencing poverty. I'd like to have a conversation with the folks that wrote the check and chose not to, because there's no way their occupancy rates are anything based on what their projections were supposed to be for a return on investment.

So it does not behoove those developers to continue to maintain the status quo with the vacancy rates that are at this point morally corrupt in order to continue the segregation along economic experiences, so that everyone can live a certain type of way. It is absolutely necessary to take a look at where we're putting affordable housing, who's paying for affordable housing, and what sort of come-to-Jesus moment we have to have with ourselves in a city where we are willing to accept beautiful homes empty night after night, while we watch our neighbors pitch tents.

Crystal Fincher: [00:14:34] Do you think there's anything that can be done about that from a policy perspective - in terms of utilizing vacant properties and just in terms of affordability for people who are housed, but are struggling to pay rent and to pay their mortgage?

Brianna Thomas: [00:14:51] Yeah. I think that I'm really proud of the work we were able to do in COVID around eviction moratoriums. And just on Monday, the council passed legislation guaranteeing representation for tenants who are facing eviction. We also created a legal defense against economic hardship due to COVID. So if you do find yourself in a situation where you've got a landlord that is not trying to work on a payment plan, that is not trying to understand your humanity and the economic challenge the planet is facing. So not a Seattle problem now, the whole planet is going through this right now. They're not willing to come to the table in good faith and insist on proceeding with eviction proceedings, you now have a right to a lawyer. You have someone who can stand up for you and say, By the way, this is the law, this is your obligation as a landlord. And very similar to the legal defense fund that we created, we know that 9 out of 10 times when someone has a lawyer, they come out on top because we know that large landlords have the benefit of large law firms and small guys don't. So we're trying to equalize the playing field here to prevent additional homelessness in our city, while we work desperately to recover from the crisis we're currently in.

Crystal Fincher: [00:16:04] That makes sense. I want to talk about public safety and starting off with a conversation about policing. Certainly there's been a lot of conversation about how we need to change, modify, reform, fundamentally alter the way that we view public safety, whose safety is being prioritized, and how we keep each other safe in our neighborhoods. What do you think has gone right and wrong so far in the existing efforts, and where do you want to go?

Brianna Thomas: [00:16:45] I love this question. It's very popular question this season. So I have had the fortune and challenge of being on the frontline of police reform since 2016. I am a Black woman. And the first time I engaged with the police was being transported into foster care in the back of a car, police car, like I was a criminal, like I had done something wrong. Because the police officer that was transporting me didn't want to clear out his front seat. This was in Georgia. This was not the SPD. But this speaks to the culture of policing we're trying to address.

So we wrote 107 pages of beautiful legislation in 2017 that re-imagined civilian oversight of our police force. We were not able to bargain all 107 pages of that legislation and of those reforms. And that's where the rubber hits the road. We're operating from a space where collective bargaining agreements trump local laws in the State of Washington. And until we turn that ship around, we have to go to the table and bargain. Now we have to be able to go to a table with someone who wants to bargain, who shares the values of accountability, who shares a vision of culture reform and reconnecting and re-establishing trust with community. It is incumbent upon the guild to find the political will to find leadership that shares those values.

Until we have someone at the table who actually wants to invest meaningfully in reform and culture change on behalf of the guild, the Council will continue to be trapped, the City will continue to be trapped between the Department of Justice, a federal judge, and a collective bargaining agreement. And somebody has got to go first. We have done the work, we have set the policy, we have met with community, we have taken the criticisms to enact these sorts of changes, and it's not just a single actor issue anymore. There are multiple actors at the table. That was a very long answer. Sorry about that. I just get very impassioned.

My vision of public safety is a collective bargaining agreement that actually works for the community, that creates accountability, and allows us the budget flexibility to invest in community-based alternative responses that are appropriate for each community. You're not going to have the same response in Rainier Beach that you're going to have in Wallingford, or Maple Leaf, or Northgate, or West Seattle out here on the island where I live. Each of those communities are proud of their individual cultures and their individual dynamics. And we thought about going there with micro-policing plans, but it just sort of fell short because there wasn't the institutional support to really do the work on crafting programs that matched the culture and needs and requirements of each of the 118 neighborhoods of the City of Seattle.

Crystal Fincher: [00:19:30] So you brought up a variety of things, and I like the detailed answers. Those are very good things. We don't have the kinds of time limitations in short form interviews or that are instituted sometimes in TV interviews or anything like that. So we can just talk. But in that, you talked about the Seattle Police Officers Guild - obviously right now, they have leadership that by almost everyone's account does not appear to be operating in good faith, has been chastised and called out by people across the political spectrum for inflammatory, false misleading statements from everything about - from protests to the insurrection. So that right now is not looking very promising that they don't have that. 

But I guess on the Council end - as a Councilmember, the first question I've asked others - would you vote to approve a contract that didn't include the 2017 ordinance provisions?

Brianna Thomas: [00:20:36] No. I lived through that - it was painful. The Council and the City were put in a position, at the time, where they were presented with a false choice between standing with the rights of workers and standing with the needs and demands of community. And we have learned from that, I have learned from that, and I have the intestinal fortitude and temperament to just keep saying No, until we get there. I just cannot emphasize enough that the people taking to the streets, the activists demanding change and accountability were right. And we made the wrong choice. We can make the right choice this time.

Crystal Fincher: [00:21:19] Council certainly can make the right choice this time. And I certainly hope that the Council does. In terms of staffing, this is something that the City can dictate and determine, and that isn't necessarily hindered by the SPOG contract or state provisions. Would you be continuing to look to reduce the head count within SPD moving forward?

Brianna Thomas: [00:21:49] So the real answer to that is, I don't know. I don't know. I think that we have to take a look at response times. I think we have to take a look at what we are asking officers to do. Do we need a gun and badge to respond to everything? Absolutely not. And do we have to continue to ask police officers to be mental health service providers? Absolutely not. So I don't know what the right number is. I don't think anybody knows what the right number is, if there is a right number. I do know that we are continuing to do a needs assessment and a task assessment of what we are asking SPD to do now, and whether or not that is appropriate. 

In 2018, we took big steps toward restoring the community service officer program. Wildly popular. But taking certain tasks away from SPD and putting it on the plate of community service officers does require bargaining. That is a limitation of bargaining. So if we are reimagining the tasks that police officers are performing, we have to recognize that each of those changes requires a session, or two, or ten of bargaining with the guild to get them to accept that change of work conditions. 

And there are still limitations about how far we can go from the Department of Justice - that remains. I think it's a sticky thing to be honest about, but last summer, community insisted in the middle of a cloud of tear gas, rightfully so, that we stay under the consent decree. There was a move to have it removed, and that would have given the City more flexibility in setting policy, staffing levels, and budgets. But we heard them and so we withdrew that request. That however has had the result of limiting what the City can and cannot change while under federal supervision. And that's the hard thing about governing, right? That's the hard thing and the magical thing about governing is - you want to give community all of the things that it wants, but your job is to figure out how to get as much of both requests as possible, wherever feasible. It's a little bit of an art and a little bit of a science.

Crystal Fincher: [00:23:52] And that's an interesting conversation. And I think, one, that you are in a very unique position to address. Maybe more than almost anyone else who's a candidate for a variety of positions, really. It's how do you take demands from the community and turn that into policy. And that is not a simple thing to do.

You come from community, you have been on the street enacting policy. You have protested, you have certainly carried the voice of community to those in power before. And now you have been in the halls of power, certainly as Chief of Staff for Council President Lorena González. And have worked on taking the desires and the demands and working within institutions, working with the Council, working with other entities, understanding and realizing the challenges, the limitations. Sometimes you can move fast, sometimes you can't move fast at all. 

How do you balance that? How do you negotiate that? And what do you think in considering that lots of people are going to be looking at you and looking at other candidates and saying, We know we need massive radical change in many areas - from policing, climate change, economically, you name it. We need that change. We're counting on it, we're feeling it, the lack of it in our daily lives. And so we're counting on you to enact it. And sometimes we get frustrated when we hear, We just can't do it, or we can't do it all right now, or you need to have patience or here's what we can do in different ways. How do you think people should think about that? And what is your experience in navigating that?

Brianna Thomas: [00:25:51] One thing I like to remind people of is because I have a email address, and because I am a public servant, I have not stopped being a Black woman in America. I have not stopped being part of this community. And quite frankly, it's a little isolating - the polarization that happens and creates an us and them narrative between community and "institutional actors." I need my community as much as they need me.

And sometimes it's a lonely place to be, and I'm not trying to be a sad sack of a bureaucrat right now, but there have been many days last summer where I didn't feel like I had my community to hold me together while fighting for my community. And my inability to deliver on community demands breaks my heart as much as anybody else's, if not more. So I get out of bed every day is to fight for my community and to move the needle as hard and as fast as I can. 

The forces that we are fighting against, the institutions that we are fighting inside of are designed to perpetuate their own interest. And that's where you have to start - with the understanding. So if you're asking me as the person who answered the phone for Council President González, when you called in today, to undo a 2-, 3-, 4-, 500 year old way of doing things, there has to be some recognition that I'm not going to be able to do that in a single budget cycle. I can plant seeds. I can make investments. I can move the needle. There are some things that you can flip a switch on, but normally that lives in the hands of the executive, honestly. 

But in terms of the Council, legislating is a team sport. So I might be 112% with you, but I've got to get to five votes to do anything in my job. That is my job - is getting to five. So it's not just one office, it's not just one moment, it's not just one batch of emails. It is a constant and continuous, iterative team sport. I'd be doing a lot of interviews lately, and been getting a lot of feedback that I'm harping hard on this team sport theory, but I think we've seen what happens when folks try to go it alone. You can't be a single voice in the wilderness. This is not how democracy is designed. Democracy is designed for a diversity of ideas, diversity of tactics, diversity of perspectives, to get to a shared goal. And quite frankly, I am tired of hearing that Seattle can't get its act together. We introduced over 500 bills last year - from our living rooms in a pandemic. Over 500 pieces of legislation. So it's not that there is disharmony or discord or we don't know where we're going. We know where we're going. We're actually pretty good at getting there. We just are dealing with a volume of needs simultaneously and concurrently. None of which are happening in a vacuum.

I could sing bars about what it's like to try to schedule something in committee - quit playing. There are nine committees that oversee all of the departments in the City and each of them have their niche market. So if there are 15 labor standards proposed in a single season, it turns out there's one committee for that. And it only meets twice a month. So I'm not going to be able to do all of them concurrently. If you've got 15 ideas for land use and code changes - still one committee, one chair who has to manage all of that work. And so we really have to recognize that there are limitations in the infrastructure. There are limitations to our human capacity, and sometimes I'm being protective of Central staff because there's one subject matter expert for every subject in the City. And they can't do 15 projects at one time.

Crystal Fincher: [00:29:33] Well, that makes sense. I think it's helpful for people to have a clear understanding of what the needs and demands and kind of working conditions and general operational structure is of the positions that they're electing. And lots of people look at City Council members in the same way that they look at the mayor. Those are two very different positions. One is legislative and on a team, like you said, the other is an executive. They have two different types of authority. And even as a Councilmember, you are working in concert with several other Councilmembers that all have as much power as you do. So you do have to work together and figure that out.

So I guess, as we wrap up today, how would you work with your Councilmembers differently? What experience would you be bringing to the Council to help get people to five on issues, and moving forward on what community needs most, and what residents in the city need most? How are you uniquely able to move your Councilmembers in a productive way?

Brianna Thomas: [00:30:44] One of the things that government gets a real bad rap for is it has a tendency to be very transactional. And again, that's because we're dealing with the 500 bills that are all moving simultaneously, or not moving at all because there's 500 of them. And that's where being relational comes in. 

Sometimes you got to know when to be like, Listen, a topic has come up and it is the most important topic. And I've got a topic that I want to cover too, but I'm willing to take a beat because this supersedes what my vision of the world for today is. Sometimes you got to know when to step up, you got to know when to step back. And again, elected officials are people too. There is not like a chip or an upload that turns us into automatons. So maybe it is donuts on a Tuesday asking for a favor. Maybe it is being willing to invest in a conversation beyond where your natural reason wants you to go. But listening is the biggest part of government. And listening for cues from your colleagues is paramount to being successful in this job. 

I'm very fortunate that of the nine Councilmembers that are on the Council currently, I have worked with all nine of them for at least four years. We have relationships - they know what to expect from me when I call them. They're very clear. I'm often in meetings and I can be heard to introduce myself as "still Brianna." Yep. Just like last week, just like last year, just like a decade ago. You know what you're getting with me and if I disagree with you, I'm going to be straight up. I'm not going to hide the ball. And we're just going to have to deal with that. We are ready for tough conversations that don't have to be divisive, because at the end of the day, I firmly believe we share the same goals. We share different strategies and we share different tactics about how we want to get there. But I firmly believe that we as Seattleites have a shared set of values that we are marching toward. And we need to have a little bit of grace with each other because talking about trauma, we have all been through a global trauma for the last year and it will be years before we unwind how to get back to what was "ourselves" before the great confinement began.

So I'm going to lead with grace. I'm going to lead with a little bit of sass and I'm being very direct because I grew up on the East Coast. I'm not afraid to do that and we're going to get work done. That's what I've been doing for the last five years. You've just never heard of me because it was my job not to be heard of.

Crystal Fincher: [00:33:02] Well, that makes sense. And I appreciate you taking the time to talk to us today. Certainly has been enlightening. We look forward to following you as you proceed through the campaign trail. Thanks for joining us today.

Brianna Thomas: [00:33:13] Thank you for having me.

Crystal Fincher: [00:33:16] Thank you for listening to Hacks & Wonks. Our chief audio engineer at KVRU is Maurice Jones Jr. The producer of Hacks & Wonks is Lisl Stadler. You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii, spelled F-I-N-C-H-F-R-I-I, and now you can follow Hacks & Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Just type in "Hacks & Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost live shows and our midweek show delivered to your podcast feed. You can also get a full text transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced during the show at and in the podcast episode notes. 

Thanks for tuning in! Talk to you next time.