May 25, 2021
This week Crystal talks with Amy Sundberg, author of the newsletter Notes from the Emerald City. They get into the intricacies of local governments, developments on the city’s participatory budgeting process, roadblocks placed in front of the Black Brilliance Project, and why the public must be attentive and involved if we want to see change.
As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.
Subscribe to Notes from the Emerald City here: https://www.getrevue.co/profile/amysundberg
“Participatory Budgeting ‘Clearly Delayed Until Next Year’” by Paul Kiefer: https://southseattleemerald.com/2021/05/14/participatory-budgeting-clearly-delayed-until-next-year/#more-66722
“Tensions rise as Seattle City Hall seeks alternatives to police” by David Kroman: https://crosscut.com/news/2021/05/tensions-rise-seattle-city-hall-seeks-alternatives-police
“Seattle police chief overturns watchdog’s discipline recommendation in ‘pink umbrella’ protest clash” by Elise Takahama: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/politics/seattle-police-chief-overturns-watchdogs-discipline-recommendation-in-pink-umbrella-protest-clash/
“Not just the mayor: Text messages of Seattle police and fire chiefs from June 2020 also missing” by Daniel Beekman and Lewis Kamb: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/politics/not-just-the-mayor-text-messages-of-seattle-police-and-fire-chiefs-from-june-2020-also-missing/?utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=owned_echobox_tw_m&utm_source=Twitter#Echobox=1620445745
The full letters detailing how Durkan’s office has been a barrier for the Black Brilliance Project and harmful to Black women:
Twitter thread in explanation by Councilmember Tammy Morales: https://twitter.com/CMTammyMorales/status/1395094230104567810
Crystal Fincher: [00:00:00] Welcome to Hacks and 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 officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes.
Today, I'm thrilled to have Amy Sundberg joining us, who's the author of Notes From the Emerald City. Thank you so much for being here, Amy.
Amy Sundberg: [00:00:58] Thank you for having me.
Crystal Fincher: [00:01:00] Now, if you have seen my Twitter or have talked to me in person, you've heard me excitedly talk about Amy Sundberg because she is basically doing an invaluable public service by live tweeting most public meetings in the City of Seattle. So meetings for the City Council - hearings, public hearings, the committee meetings, or special meetings about police accountability and all of that - she actually brings to us live in real-time and gives us more information than is even available from a lot of reporters who do an excellent job covering it. But she gives you the full package.
So if I'm looking to see what happens in the City of Seattle, or where a piece of legislation is at, or where a City Council person is at on a policy - what they believe, what they have said - the most reliable place I can go to turn is often Amy's Twitter timeline. And then she also has an excellent newsletter, Notes from the [Emerald] City, which just really synthesizes all of that information and makes it easy to follow. I have just been appreciating her for a while and thought I would have her on. So I'm excited that you are here and what I'm first off wondering is - what even started you on the path to doing that?
Amy Sundberg: [00:02:22] Well, it started last June. It was soon after the murder of George Floyd and a lot of people were out protesting, and a lot of my friends were out protesting. For various physical reasons, I was not able to go out and protest - and I decided instead of beating myself up for my inability to do it, I would try to figure out a different way to be useful. I think we hear a lot in activism circles - that there are different ways that you can be an activist. And I decided to take that to heart and really try to figure out a way that I could be helpful with my particular talents.
So I attended the early June meeting of the CPC to try to figure out kind of just what was going on and that meeting really opened my eyes. A lot of the members of the CPC were testifying about their experiences in the protest - being overpoliced and brutalized by police officers at the protests. And as well, Mayor Durkan came to the meeting and I was really struck and honestly appalled by the seeming disregard with which she was interacting with the CPC. And so, it opened my eyes. I was like, "Oh, things are really, really not okay on any level here, and people don't know."
So I started attending meetings. I found out about the City Council Monday morning Council Briefing - when each councilmember kind of gives the report of what they're doing during the week, what committee meetings they have, what legislation they're working on. It's a really great overview if you just want to know a lot about what's going on in a fairly fast timeframe. So I started attending that and tweeting that, and I started reporting out on my Facebook to my friends who also had no idea what was going on. And eventually, that turned into the newsletter because I didn't want to limit to just the people who are friends with me on Facebook. And that was how Notes from the Emerald City was born.
Crystal Fincher: [00:04:53] Well, I really appreciate that - one, you really turned your rage into action, basically. A lot of people have a hard time making that transition in figuring out exactly what to do. And you've done it in a way that helps make the process more transparent for everyone, and helps everyone better understand how they can help hold our leaders more accountable, and how they can play a part in the process, and understanding exactly what's happening. Because it's really challenging - these meetings happen during the day when most people are working. It is challenging to understand some of the terminology and what's happening. Is a proviso being lifted good or bad? What does that do? What's a proviso? And just the way that you help to explain what's going on to everyone - I really appreciate. As you've gone through this process further and further - have you changed opinions, attitudes - just from continuing to pay attention to the process?
Amy Sundberg: [00:05:59] I mean, when I started, I didn't know anything about how local government worked. I had been hearing for some years that local government was important, but I didn't have the firsthand knowledge of how it impacted my life and my community members' lives. And having spent so much time now - listening into all these meetings and analyzing what's going on - I see all of the very direct ways in which the decisions that are being made in City Council and in City Hall have a direct impact on all of the residents of Seattle and surrounding areas, quite honestly.
Crystal Fincher: [00:06:40] Yeah. I'm known as a local government evangelist. Obviously, this podcast is very centered on state and local politics - and very much not national. That's intentional. I get asked about that a lot. There's more than enough coverage of federal politics - even if it hasn't penetrated, there's information out there. But a lot of times there just isn't even any information about what's happening within cities, within municipalities and counties, and the state - and those decisions impact our daily lives to a greater degree than a lot of what happens on the national level. So the coverage to me has always actually been backwards.
And so, it is really enlightening to see how impactful the decisions that are made on our everyday lives, whether it's a school board or a City Council - where we live, our experiences - just from what we're allowed to do in our house, our options in the community, the traffic that we're sitting in, where are we going to go park, who our neighbors are and aren't, and how we treat people in our communities - is so influenced by and dictated by what happens in these meetings. And they're just so opaque, and hardly anyone attends them because there's just not much visibility about why it's important.
In this process, you've done a lot of coverage of the CPC, the Community Police Commission, and the City Council. Right now, what are the biggest issues on deck?
Amy Sundberg: [00:08:22] Well, one of the issues that has been ongoing - when we're talking about public safety, is what changes are we going to make to increase public safety for everyone and to be equitable - more equitable about it than we have been in the past. And that is my main focus - is on public safety and that public debate that we're having right now in Seattle, and frankly, across the country. In Seattle, we're spending a lot of time right now talking about participatory budgeting. We're also spending a lot of time talking about - we're still talking about the protest last year - the OPA still hasn't released - they're kind of releasing slowly the case files. And then we're seeing that kind of trickle down as a lot of findings are not holding the police accountable.
Crystal Fincher: [00:09:27] I guess from your perspective - there was just a decision recently made to not uphold discipline from the chief. Do you want to explain what happened and the reaction to it?
Amy Sundberg: [00:09:44] Yeah, sure. Chief Diaz decided to overturn an OPA finding - it was about the pink umbrella case. This was a protest case that happened in June and it was one of the very famous ones - because, I think, of the iconic image of the pink umbrella. It was improper use of tear gas, improper use of blast balls, and et cetera. The OPA actually did hold the named officer accountable for misuse of force. And Chief Diaz announced very suddenly, as far as I can tell, that he decided not to uphold that finding, that he was overturning it - because he didn't feel that it was fair, that he felt that there were decisions made further up the chain of command, and that the named officer was not responsible for what happened.
The problem with that is that no one else has been held accountable for the actions that happened that day. It's unclear if someone will be held accountable. Chief Diaz has said there is new evidence in the case, and we do not know where that new evidence came from - whether the OPA has access to that new evidence, who is now conducting the investigation. Is it Chief Diaz who's continuing that investigation or has he handed it back over to the OPA to continue it? We don't know. I'm not speaking about just me. I'm talking about City Council who is overseeing this - they don't know, the CPC doesn't know. So, there's a lot of confusion as to what's happening and a lack of transparency.
Crystal Fincher: [00:11:48] Well and this lack of transparency is a theme that seems to be happening in the City, and especially now with the recent news that we've talked about on prior podcasts about text messages - from Jenny Durkan, from former police Chief Carmen Best, from the Fire Department Chief - disappearing, being deleted, being unavailable, and seemingly a very intentional effort to cover that up. And so, it's kind of punting to say, "Well, those decisions were made higher up." suggesting that it was somewhere in the mayor's office - someone who had the ability to supersede the decisions within the department. Yet, that is basically a black hole because they deleted all of the evidence that probably wasn't going to turn out pretty well in their favor.
Yet, now we're just not holding anyone accountable. There have been hundreds of complaints against Seattle Police Department officers from activity throughout the protests. Lots of people are still waiting to see some legitimate discipline being handed out and some accountability attached to that. It just seems to be over and over again. "No, we can't hold this person accountable. No, we don't know." without making a real effort to find out who knows and what we know and following it from there. And really, for most people, just throwing our hands up and saying, "Well, I guess that's that" is what they expect, but I don't know that's what people are in the mood to give.
Amy Sundberg: [00:13:33] No.
Crystal Fincher: [00:13:35] Yeah.
Amy Sundberg: [00:13:35] And I also think the City Hall - that is an interesting case because, I mean, it's quite possible a felon was committed, a felony. And I'm like - if a felony has been committed, is someone going to investigate this? And as far as I can tell, the City Attorney would have to decide to investigate it. And it's not at all clear that he would do that, and neither is it clear that anyone will bring a lawsuit that would perhaps bring this more to light.
Crystal Fincher: [00:14:11] Where does the Council stand - from what you have been listening to and reporting on - where does the Council stand on this issue? What is the next step? What's the next step for the Community Police Commission? Where does this go from here?
Amy Sundberg: [00:14:26] I mean, I think the Council seems to be fairly concerned about this overturn of the OPA finding. And so, they are asking questions. Councilmember Herbold, who's the Chair of Public Safety, has been sending emails and publishing the emails she's sending to Chief Diaz. I will say at least they are aware of the problem, which isn't much but it's something. The CPC, unfortunately, does not have a lot of power. Most of their power is in the form of relationship building and information releasing. They can try to raise public awareness of what's happening, and condemn what's happening, and give recommendations for best practices of what they think should happen, and how they think things should be resolved - but as far as I can tell, the City of Seattle has a pretty easy time ignoring the CPC's recommendations. So I don't know that we would see anything different in this case.
Crystal Fincher: [00:15:42] I guess the other question I have is - in general, with policing issues, and I guess we'll talk about participatory budgeting in just a moment - what is the dynamic you see between the City Council and the mayor's office on these issues and also in dealing with the CPC?
Amy Sundberg: [00:16:03] I would say - we all can see that the City Council and the mayor's office are very diametrically opposed. They're not getting along. And I believe that's been the case for a while. It's certainly been the case for the last year. And we've seen that play out in various dramatic vetoes, and veto overturns, et cetera. Because they don't see eye to eye, I do think that puts additional obstacles in place to making any significant changes - because there's a lot of political jockeying between them. As for the Council's attitude towards the CPC - I mean, I don't see them interacting directly a lot. I can't remember - I can't remember a meeting in which the CPC was invited to come to a Council meeting and present. That doesn't mean that hasn't happened, but I'm not remembering one off the top of my head, so if it has happened, it certainly doesn't happen frequently. So, I do think that the Council will reference CPC recommendations from time to time.
Crystal Fincher: [00:17:16] In terms of OPA and the CPC - and there are supposed to be levers of oversight, but they seem to be falling far short and that actually seems to be a matter of design and neutering their ability to do much. From what you've seen, what is the best way - one, to address their lack of power to do anything substantive? What types of accountability levers do you see that would be helpful in fixing what we have now?
Amy Sundberg: [00:17:55] I mean, one relatively simple, and none of this stuff is simple, but one relatively simple thing we could do is have more - right now, the OPA's mostly staffed with sworn officers as their investigators - if we were to have more civilian investigators in that department, I think that could help. But that's an issue with the SPOG contract - so right now that's not possible because of that contract. But that is certainly something that was in the 2017 Accountability Ordinance, I believe, and something that we've been interested in implementing in the city. And I do think that would help. Would that help enough? I'm not sure about that. It would not help the CPC in particular. If they don't have any authority to act - basically to have a bite with their bark - it's then hard for them to be taken as seriously, I think, on the City landscape.
Crystal Fincher: [00:19:05] I agree with that. It seems like we keep on running into situations where fundamentally, police are investigating police, which seem to come up with decisions that are really sympathetic to police - and resistance and inability for anyone who is a community member, independent authority to have any say in that process. It's certainly frustrating to continue to watch and to watch the attempts to move in that direction be pushed back against so severely.
Looking at participatory budgeting - lot of talk about that, lot of confusion about that. What is participatory budgeting? Where do we stand on that today?
Amy Sundberg: [00:19:53] Participatory budgeting is an idea - I mean, it's a very fundamentally democratic idea. It's the idea that the community can come together, and can come up with a bunch of ideas for projects of things that would materially make life better for everybody, and vote on those projects, and then direct some of the City's budget to those projects. In Seattle, our participatory budgeting process - that we've been discussing and that has passed Council - is specifically focused on alternatives for community safety, for public safety, community-driven alternatives. And that was passed in 2021's budget - they budgeted $30 million for this participatory budgeting process. And they allocated, I think, $3 million to the Black Brilliance Research Project to kind of get the process started - and research what the barriers were, and what community needed to make this process be successful.
Crystal Fincher: [00:21:13] There's been conflicting stories coming out about the Black Brilliance Project being delayed, who is responsible for the delay. Certainly, it's something I want to see come to fruition, especially because people have traditionally historically been excluded from the process. And when it comes to what community needs, what better way, especially in the policing conversation and how to keep our community safe in looking at alternatives, looking at the most impacted communities engaging with this Black Brilliance Project to - through our own lens - say, "What are our needs? What is happening? How do we address that?" is crucially important. They have since reported on their findings. Where does the funding for that start? How is that moving forward?
Amy Sundberg: [00:22:13] The funding is reserved but it is under proviso, which means that it's kind of locked up in the budget right now. In order for that funding to be sent out to community, the proviso has to be lifted and that has to be voted on by the full Council, ultimately. The holdup has been deciding how to implement this program - it is a large program - $30 million is a lot of money. Seattle has done participatory budgeting programs in the past, but for much smaller amounts of money and there have been some issues with implementation. I think that the debate now is how can we best implement this program so that it really helps the people we wanted to help and gives a voice to everyone, in particularly the impacted communities.
Crystal Fincher: [00:23:10] Yeah, and actually today, there was a recent development with just understanding this process and the challenges that come. And I will say as a Black woman that we're familiar with seeing - that when significant funding is pointed in the direction of Black people, there is usually much more intense scrutiny attached to that. And that that often also raises alarm bells for other people within institutions that feel like their place in their institution or in their organization is being threatened. And just today actually, Councilmember Tammy Morales, in response to another inquiry, posted letters talking - letters from employees in the City of Seattle, from the Office of Planning and Community Development's Equitable Development Initiative, who have done work within this process - saying that the mayor has been a roadblock, and that the culture in the City is just exhausting and bad - horrible and drives people of color, specifically women of color, out of the City. That just came out shortly before we started airing this, but have you heard things consistent with this throughout your time following and reporting on this?
Amy Sundberg: [00:24:45] Yes. Yeah, I definitely have. I've heard people talking about various concerns. There've been little things that have popped up - most of them haven't really necessarily been very reported on. A lot of them are not - they don't have all the facts on the ground. I'm really pleased that these letters have now been made public so that everyone can see them, and read them, and really become more informed about what has been happening. And we even see it in the quality of coverage in the local media about participatory budgeting - and I have seen it being under more intense scrutiny in certain ways.
Crystal Fincher: [00:25:33] Yeah. And just to give you an example of what we're talking about here - portions of these letters have been reported on before. Many people may have heard the quote, "We're done working for a dictator posturing as mayor," referring to Mayor Jenny Durkan. "We're done feeling increasingly out of touch with our communities and friends. And we're done being women of color bearing a disproportionate emotional labor burden in our civilization's collective reckoning with our mid-life (or is it end-of-life?) crisis."
But it goes into detail - "We can tell you more about all these things, in due time. Now, we're taking some time off to reclaim our mental health. Before we do, we want to share with you some changes that we'd suggest."
Especially the intersection of policy and politics here - "First, in this election cycle, consider this: when we select candidates for how good they are at convincing us that they are the best, we elect exactly the wrong kinds of leaders who can bring out the best in others. Ask candidates to show their work. What is the process by which you've arrived at your current beliefs? Who did you include, and what lived experiences do they bring? Do those with different views feel heard by you, or left out by your process, or maybe even bullied into swallowing their own values to do it your way? Give love to candidates who know something about trauma and vulnerability. How are you taking care of yourself? How can we support you, hold space for you where you don't need to show up for us every day with your armor on and your quiver ready?"
And it just goes in - "For years, the two of us witnessed firsthand the toll it takes inside City Hall when a Mayor is elected more for their conviction than for their curiosity. We might call this "trickle-down politics": the mindset that if we just get a leader who believes what a majority of voters believe, the institution can do great things. Trickle-down politics was a good foundation for a society built on conditional belonging, but deep democracy - true collective decision making - is what we need if we truly intend a society of unconditional belonging."
I mean, I appreciate them for pushing past - in this letter - not just exploring and expressing their pain and frustration and experiences, but also saying, "We see a path that we can be better. And here, we want to share that with you also."
And then also just talking about - in another separate letter - looking at why this process was established anyway, and to clarify that the letter that was shared before, the contents of the letter shared, I think that was from the representative from Mayor Durkan's office - do not represent or reflect the work of staff. Basically saying that their work was misrepresented and they felt silenced. To call attention to the ways this process has harmed BIPOC and particularly the Black community and staff. I mean, this goes on and on. Worth reading - we'll link them in the show notes here in the podcast.
But my goodness, how many red flags do people have to raise before people take this seriously? How many resignations, in the City, of high-level employees do we have to see? How many employees of color do we have to see leave the City? Jenny Durkan, your house is on fire - do something to put it out finally. And if that means stepping aside, so someone else can - please, also do that. Something needs to happen here. There is a problem, that I also want to say is not completely Jenny Durkan's fault. It's not like none of this existed before, and it's not like it will automatically go away once Jenny Durkan is gone. There has to be intention and work put into solving the issues of policing and public safety, and making sure your employees feel safe and protected and heard, and in making sure that we're actually serving all of the residents in this City and not the ones that just traditionally have their own access specially into the system.
So, let me hop off my soapbox for a second, but it is just infuriating to read. And obviously, especially as a Black woman, I can identify with a number of these experiences and with being silenced and overlooked. I just hope people pay as much attention - and put as much credibility into the words that are coming from the people who are deeply involved with, familiar with, and experts in this work - that they do from the people who are trying to keep them from speaking out publicly. As we've seen reported, the mayor's office does not let a number of people in departments speak to the media or outside entities themselves, and they are directed to the mayor's office. Maybe we should look at - when people are silenced, as we've seen in other administrations, our recent past administration that we can think of - that's usually not for a good reason. It's usually because people are really trying to control that narrative.
So, I appreciate you, Amy, for breaking down those barriers and for just reporting on what is happening on what is the inside, to a lot of people every day. With the Council and those meetings, people usually aren't aware of when CPC meetings are, or what is happening with the OPA. And we're relying on good work done by newspaper staff, that are often understaffed, to cover all of these meetings and issues, but we often don't get the full story about what happens. And it has been really enlightening for me to read the difference between your complete coverage of a meeting and the synopsis that we get in various media publications.
Amy Sundberg: [00:31:42] Yeah.
Crystal Fincher: [00:31:42] And my goodness, I recommend people read Amy's live tweets, read her newsletter - because there's just so much more information there and we need to know - if we're going to help make this any better.
Amy Sundberg: [00:31:59] And my hope, also, is that people will take this information and take all these things we see going wrong right now in our City and our County, and vote, you know?
Crystal Fincher: [00:32:11] Yeah.
Amy Sundberg: [00:32:12] Because that is one of our rights and powers as individual citizens - is to go out, and research the candidates, and vote for someone who might bring about the desired change.
Crystal Fincher: [00:32:28] Yep. Absolutely. Vote and then pay attention - call your councilmembers, call your representatives - and understand that your vote carried some weight and some expectation, and you're paying attention. Just the fact that they know you're paying attention - changes the trajectory of where conversations head. I've seen that play out over and over again.
Amy Sundberg: [00:32:56] It really 100% does, and I've seen it play out directly in meetings - in the City Council meetings. They referenced the protests many, many times. We would not have gotten half of what we got without those daily protests for months. And they reference the number of emails that they get. They talk about speaking with their constituents. And because we're talking about local government, I feel like your voice carries more weight because there aren't as many of us as there are if you're talking about national issues.
Crystal Fincher: [00:33:26] It absolutely does.
Amy Sundberg: [00:33:28] So I do think you can make a real difference by speaking up about Seattle issues or King County issues.
Crystal Fincher: [00:33:35] You absolutely can - I've seen just comments from a handful of people bring an issue from relatively unknown to a councilmember being like, "This is a priority that we need to address." So, absolutely vote, absolutely continue to pay attention, and engage in the process - let people know where you stand, be heard. And follow Amy Sundberg. Amy, where can they find you on Twitter? What's your Twitter handle? How do they subscribe to your newsletter?
Amy Sundberg: [00:34:06] My Twitter handle is @amysundberg, A-M-Y-S-U-N-D-B-E-R-G. I have a link to my newsletter on the Twitter, so that's probably the easiest way to find it.
Crystal Fincher: [00:34:19] Yep. And it is called Notes from the Emerald City - excellent synopsis of Seattle politics and policy, and what I turn to quite frequently just to catch up on what is happening. One of my essential sources. Thank you so much for joining us here today.
Amy Sundberg: [00:34:37] Thank you for having me.
Crystal Fincher: [00:34:39] Thank you all for tuning in. We'll talk to you next time. Thank you for listening to Hacks and Wonks. Our chief audio engineer at KVRU is Maurice Jones Jr. The producer of Hacks and 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 and Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Just type in "Hacks and 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 officialhacksandwonks.com and in the podcast episode notes. Thanks for tuning in. Talk to you next time.