Dec 11, 2020
Today journalist Erica Barnett joins Crystal to dissect Mayor Durkan’s decision not to run for re-election, Renton’s continued attempt to use zoning laws to oust homeless folks, shelters, and services, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s challenge to the JumpStart payroll tax, and the SPD being held in contempt of court for their use of force last summer.
A full text transcript of the show is available below, and on the Hacks & Wonks blog at https://www.officialhacksandwonks.com/post/week-in-review-with-erica-barnett.
Find the host, Crystal Fincher on Twitter at @finchfrii and Erica Barnett @ericabarnett, and on Publicola.com. Find Erica’s book, Quitter: A Memoir of Drinking, Relapse, and Recovery, online or at your local bookseller. More info is available at officialhacksandwonks.com.
Anti-Homeless Shelter Bill
Moves Forward in Renton from Publicola
Federal District Court Judge
Finds Seattle in Contempt of Crowd Control
Injunction by Paul Kiefer
Find more work by today’s co-host, Erica Barnett, at https://publicola.com/
Crystal Fincher: [00:00:00] Welcome to Hacks and Wonks. I'm your host Crystal Fincher. On this show, we gather insight into state and local politics and policy through the lens of those doing the work and provide the behind-the-scenes perspectives on politics in our state. Today, we're continuing our Friday almost live shows where we review the news of the week with a co-host. Welcome back to the program, friend of the show and today's co-host Seattle political reporter, editor of PubliCola, and author of Quitter: A Memoir of Drinking, Relapse and Recovery, Erica Barnett.
Erica Barnett: [00:00:40] Great to be here, Crystal.
Crystal Fincher: [00:00:42] And great to have you here. So we will dive right in. And big news of the week that we started off the week with is Jenny Durkan announced that she will not be seeking re-election - very consequential news for the city. And so just wanted to get your thoughts on what drove that decision and what does that mean now?
Erica Barnett: [00:01:03] I mean, my thoughts, just having observed Mayor Durkan for three years are that she really didn't like the job. And particularly the job of being mayor in a pandemic, at a time when there is a racial reckoning taking place that involves protests, particularly protest against her and her leadership. And during a time of economic collapse nationwide - it's a time of a lot of bad news, as everybody is well-aware, and it's a hard job in good times and it's a hard job, especially in bad times. And I think she just, in some ways, was not really fully prepared for what the job entailed and the criticism that she would be subjected to in such a prominent position. She'd never held elected office before and, I think, came in believing that this was essentially a managerial job and a communications job. And in fact, it's much, much more than that to be the mayor of a major city with lots of problems, including, I didn't even mention, the crisis of homelessness which has gotten so much more visible on her watch.
Crystal Fincher: [00:02:09] Well, I think you nailed that analysis and kind of put your finger on what a lot of people don't pay much attention to is - what is the job of the mayor? And it's a lot more broad than when someone's just thinking about, off the top of their head - if they don't have much experience with it, there's so much more to it than just managing the city. And also in situations where someone's not used to being under a microscope with every decision that they're making, and criticism is coming, no matter what decision you make - to be able to accept that and deal with it and work with that - it seemed like that was always a struggle for her. Just dealing with criticism and understanding that that's something that happens and instead of trying to avoid it at all costs - not successfully, or adeptly, navigating through that. That seemed to be a continuing struggle for her and I think you nailed it - she seemed to just really not want to be there increasingly as time has gone on.
Erica Barnett: [00:03:17] Yeah. I mentioned that I think that she sees being the mayor as largely a communications job and I want to expand on that a little bit. I think that if you look at her messaging and the messengers that she uses to get her message out and just, her general spin on every event, whether good or bad, has been that things are good and getting better. And that just simply doesn't work in 2020, and also it's not believable. And I think that that really hampered her ability to respond in real time to events like the Black Lives Matter protest, for example. Her response was essentially to double down initially and say, We're doing everything right and that Seattle is a model for police reform in the country. She said that many times, and then flipped it at a certain point and said, You know what? Fine. Here's a $100 million that we're going to spend - first, she said on black communities and then she said on BIPOC communities - without actually having any sort of plan for how to do that and just saying, We'll figure it out later.
As it turned out, that was a pretty rash promise because it relied on revenues that were already dedicated and promised to other sources, including by the mayor herself. There's $30 million in there that she had already promised to equitable development - and so, it just felt like a lot of her careening from position to position was based on, if not real polls, kind of an invisible poll in her head about what would make people react to her positively. I, obviously, I'm not inside the mayor's brain, but that's what it looked like from the outside and it often resulted in a lot of really inconsistent seeming policies. And it also led to, I think, a feeling that it's hard to trust what the mayor's position is, or policy is, on an issue and on any given day, 'cause it could change tomorrow, based on who she wants to please on that day. So I think that - no politician can ignore opinion polls and no politician can ignore what people are saying about them, but I'll just give one example. The mayor's office reactions to things on Twitter was pretty extreme. I think that - just the pushback that I would get personally, for stuff that I would say on Twitter, or things people would respond to me saying that I had no control over, was pretty strong from the mayor's office. And my advice about Twitter and I don't always take this is, It's like riding on a waterfall and it disappears after a minute. And, if you make an error, you correct it. If you don't like something, everybody's gonna be yelling about something else in five minutes. But I don't think the mayor was really able to heed that advice.
Crystal Fincher: [00:05:53] I think you're right. And the issue of trust - when you talk about the community needing to trust the message that they're hearing from the mayor and from the mayor's office, eventually wound up being irretrievably broken. And I think that she eventually came to see that. But the struggle through that, like you were talking about - her responses to, during the protests, to what the police were doing and our ability to see something that she is denying while we're watching video of that thing happening - it was jarring for a lot of people and a number of her supporters that came in, as she came in, became disillusioned. People who were already frustrated with the messaging and pace of progress became even more vocally disillusioned. And it just continued to be a consistent problem.
We have seen, and it looks like there's going to be another rehashing of the "Seattle is Dying" - fabricated, largely exaggerated, I won't say documentary, but spin - on homelessness and crime in Seattle. And for residents of Seattle that never rang true. And so the effect that people thought that that would have on elections never materialized. I think on the flip side, with a number of the things, as you pointed out, Jenny Durkan saying, Things are great and they're getting even better. We're working on it and it's awesome and don't you believe your eyes. And people are looking around and going, No, it's not - the problem's getting worse and the things that you say are happening are not. And we understand this is a hard problem to fix, but we want to see you try and not just lie to us with a smile on your face. And that was continually a challenge. And especially in municipal positions, from big cities to small, you're living in the same conditions as your residents and you're telling them what's happening on their streets and in their neighborhoods. And they can see, outside their window, if what you're saying rings true or not. This is not like a legislative position or something in Congress where you can make a speech and take a vote and it just seems very disconnected and the expectation of accountability doesn't squarely land on you. That's the case in Seattle and it just seems like she wasn't prepared for her word and her actions to be the end-all and be-all, her needing to take a side, her needing to make definitive decisions and be accountable to those decisions in the public. So now that we are here and she has announced that she's not running for re-election - what does this do to the political landscape in Seattle?
Erica Barnett: [00:08:31] Well, I think that it is going to be, I think it's going to be a very crowded mayoral race as it was last time. I wouldn't be surprised to see 20-25 people jumping in. I think that Lorena González - and I'm terrible, I should say, at predictions, I always need to caveat that - but I think Lorena González, City Council president, is likely to get in. And of course, Teresa Mosqueda is another council member whose name is being thrown around - I think that's a little less likely. I mean it's - running for mayor is a tough decision because it's a bad job and so, it's often hard to get that many really qualified candidates out of that 20 or 25 that we've been seeing in recent years. So I think it'll be really interesting to see - Jessyn Farrell, who ran last time and who PubliCola, then the C is for Crank, endorsed, is supposedly thinking about it, as is Brady Walkinshaw, who ran for Congress and lost. And so, I think it's going to be a crowded race with some familiar faces, probably some unfamiliar faces. And yeah, I mean, that's basically all we can predict right now.
Crystal Fincher: [00:09:40] Do you think there's going to be an advantage or a disadvantage to those running from their council positions, if one or more current council members get in? Do you think that's an advantage, a disadvantage, or how do you think that plays out?
Erica Barnett: [00:09:55] Well, that's a really good question. The city council is broadly incredibly unpopular and the mayor is also not super popular, but in a way, these are judgements of positions rather than judgments of people. I do think if you're running as an incumbent city council member, that is a tough thing you have to overcome. I do think, though, that the citywide city council members may have a little more popularity - and I haven't seen specific polling on this, I just know that a lot of the district council members are less popular than they were when they came in and certainly than the mayor. So I think it is a disadvantage to run from a council seat, but on the other hand, you do have name recognition, so that certainly helps. I'm trying to think of the most recent council member who was elected mayor, if any, and I am drawing a blank right now. So, I'm not sure - it certainly doesn't convey any obvious advantages other than name recognition, obviously.
Crystal Fincher: [00:10:56] Yeah, that does seem to be the case and I'm drawing the same blank that you are.
Erica Barnett: [00:11:01] I can think of lots of them who've run - Bruce Harrell, Peter Steinbrueck - I mean, plenty of candidates for mayor among the council, but none successful.
Crystal Fincher: [00:11:10] Yeah, certainly going to be interesting to see how this plays out and how they engage with the competing and pressing priorities in the city.
Well, talking about other cities, that brings us to Renton, and we talked about this a bit last week on the show, but Renton is adopting legislation that will effectively ban future homeless shelters and set an eviction date for the current tenants in the Red Lion. This certainly - my view is that this is a very bad thing, but also as you have pointed out and discussed, it's also bad for the regional approach to homelessness that's so often talked about. You want to give a bit of background on this?
Erica Barnett: [00:11:53] Sure. So the City of Seattle and I believe 39 other suburban cities are joining into an agency called the King County Regional Homelessness Authority. And the idea is that having a centralized authority will create or enable a regional approach rather than the city-by-city approaches that we have had over the years. And that authority has had a lot of bumps along the way. The selection of a director for the authority, known as the CEO is very slow. It's been - it was supposed to happen in September. The latest timeline has it happening now in February. So, hard to say how that's going to go, but the problem with regionalism and the problem always has been that a lot of these cities that are outside Seattle want to have their own approaches to homelessness and a lot of times those approaches are a lot more punitive than what Seattle would like. So that tension does not go away just because you create a regional body and say, We're regional now. The cities did not initially want to participate unless they got a significant amount of leverage on the various boards that are on the governing board that oversees the authority. And they also didn't want to pay taxes to support the authority. They got both of those things, but now as we're seeing, individual cities, not just Renton, but, cities are cleaving off in various ways. One thing that happened recently was a bunch of cities, I think half a dozen, including Renton, adopted their own versions of local sales taxes to pre-empt the King County sales tax that's going to pay for homelessness. And those local versions can pay for things that are not specifically oriented to homelessness, like housing for essentially middle-income people. So I think that tension is going to continue and it's going to continue to hamper the ability to have an actually regional approach. Renton is already talking about sub-regional authority, which is, I think in some ways, a synonym for city authority, which is what we already had before this whole effort started.
Crystal Fincher: [00:13:51] Right. So how is Renton going about trying to evict these people from the Red Lion?
Erica Barnett: [00:13:57] This legislation is land use legislation and it is essentially zoning them out. So the legislation does two things - it says that everybody, that most of the people at the Red Lion currently, have to be out as of June 1st, so the end of May - by putting a cap on the number of people who can be there. So it would be 125. Right now there's about 235 or so people living there. Then after that, at the end of the year, everybody would have to be out. So no matter what happens with the pandemic, which is the reason everybody was moved so swiftly from the Morrison Hotel and other DESC facilities in Seattle to the Red Lion. No matter what happens with that, they've got to be out. And then the second thing it does is it adopts new rules for - new zoning rules - for shelters, which Renton says - shelters are currently illegal 'cause there's no zoning that explicitly allows them. I think that's a novel interpretation of what zoning is for. We don't have any rules like that in Seattle at all. And the rules say that no homeless service provider can serve more than a hundred people total. And that includes shelters and any other homeless services you might have, either co-located or at a facility. So no more than a hundred - hard cap. And they have to be half a mile from each other, only in certain industrial zones, well-removed from people, and there's also tons of rules around how the shelter providers are supposed to manage the conduct of the people who stay there, which is kind of an outrageous demand in my view, because they are human beings and they have civil rights and I think a lot of the conduct requirements really infringe on those rights.
Crystal Fincher: [00:15:40] I completely agree with that. And this is just a reminder that you're listening to Hacks and Wonks on KVRU 105.7 FM. I'm your regular host Crystal Fincher, and today we have a guest co-host, Seattle political reporter, Erica Barnett.
And so they are really appearing to use zoning as a tool to exclude. Which, certainly, zoning laws have a history of that use and then being wielded that way. But you talked about one of their interpretations being novel. How standard does what they're doing appear to be overall with how zoning laws are implemented and used?
Erica Barnett: [00:16:20] Well, I think it's - I can't speak to every single zoning law in the state obviously. I haven't done a review, but I know that in Seattle, the biggest city in the state, zoning, and traditionally everywhere, zoning is used to regulate things like density and also environmental hazards. So you might have industrial zoning that says the buildings can't include residential and also it has to be far away from people because there are environmental hazards associated with a steam plant, or whatever, or manufacturing business. Zoning is not traditionally used to exclude - well traditionally, it was certainly used to exclude people of color from certain areas of cities - but today in 2020, we use it to do things like regulate height, and regulate density, and regulate how many people can live in an area versus what kind of businesses can be located in an area - do we let big box stores go there? We don't use zoning to say that if people are of the class that is houseless or homeless, they cannot be here. I think that is a really, really dangerous road to start going down, and the reason I say it's a novel interpretation is that the city of Renton, I think, really rushed this legislation. I think it's pretty poorly written and they revised it a whole bunch of times in response to specific legal objections that could open them up to lawsuits. And they have been trying to get the people kicked out of the Red Lion for a really long time. They initially said that this is a violation of a different part of the zoning code, saying that there's a dispute over whether it's a hotel use or whether it's a use that's not explicitly allowed, and that's happening on separate tracks. So, they're trying every tool they can and they don't have a lot of tools to ban homeless people because there aren't a lot of tools to ban homeless people. It's not people's fault that they become homeless, and tools that are laws like sit-lie laws and saying that you're not allowed to loiter, are increasingly considered to be civil rights violations and also racist. So this is a different approach that takes a very kind of, cold and analytical-seeming concept of zoning, and says that it applies here. But what they're really trying to do is send these folks back to Seattle and their comments at council made that pretty clear. Everybody said, This is a Seattle problem. Seattle created it. They need to go back there and that's what's really going on.
Crystal Fincher: [00:18:51] That does appear that is what's actually going on. They're attempting to act like their city doesn't have an inherent problem with homeless people, that they are somehow coming from different cities, and that if you treat them with full humanity and decency, that only entices them and incentivizes them to stay, when we know that's just factually untrue. So it looks like this is going to be taken up again on a meeting with the council on Monday night, is that correct?
Erica Barnett: [00:19:26] That's right. And that'll be a final action.
Crystal Fincher: [00:19:30] So it certainly looks like this is what the council intends to do, but for people who are able - making comments, making phone calls, certainly making sure that people are on record saying that this is not the default position of the general public in Renton and in the area. And that this is really an inhumane response to a really human problem.
So looking next - issues where residents and businesses are struggling. The JumpStart payroll tax was an attempt to generate revenue to help people impacted by COVID, the pandemic, and everything that has resulted. And the Chamber of Commerce has brought a lawsuit against it. What's happening there?
Erica Barnett: [00:20:19] Well, the lawsuit - this is from the Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce. And essentially what they're saying is that this amounts to, just getting outside of the jargon of the lawsuit, they're saying this is an income tax effectively. Specifically, they're saying it's a tax on the right to do business and they're calling on a 1952 precedent that involved a license that people in Bellingham, I believe, had to get to basically work and that was overturned. And so, again, speaking of novel approaches, I think this is a novel approach and I don't know that it will necessarily be successful. It seems like a pretty weak argument. But it's interesting - I mean, I think a lot of people at the city were surprised that the Chamber decided to take this kind of Grinch-like action, it was described to me by someone at the city, and sue over this. It only affects a small percentage of businesses in the city making revenues of over $7 million and with employees with pay of over $150,000/year. And as you said, the JumpStart Tax for the first couple years, it's COVID relief. And a lot of that is COVID relief directly to small businesses. And so, for the Chamber of Commerce to be opposing relief for small businesses is directly, it seems, conflicting with their mission, which is to support businesses of all sizes and not just the Amazons and the Facebooks and the Googles of Seattle.
Crystal Fincher: [00:21:46] Well, and this is certainly that issue brought out into the light. This has been a criticism of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and of several - saying in larger cities, really saying, Who are you representing? The majority of your membership is small businesses and they oftentimes have fundamentally different challenges and concerns than the largest corporations in the world, like the Amazons and Microsofts and Googles. And the issues that they have pushed hard on or run on, oftentimes seem to have been at the direction of the mega-corporations and not of the neighborhood businesses that many residents patronize and who hire our neighbors to a large degree. And so there really does seem to be a real conflict of interest and a need for a reckoning and accountability for whose agenda are they really pushing. And I hope this is a conversation that the wider business community in Seattle has, because when we only focus on the mega-corporation interests, we all lose out, and it is small business who employs the majority of people. They're individuals and don't individually wield a lot of power, but collectively, they really determine the direction of our local economy. And so to see help - that are keeping the doors open in these small businesses and that are keeping people employed - being directly challenged and Amazon looking to snatch money out of people's hands and the hands of small business is pretty blatant and overt. And people are literally asking, Is this now an Amazon lobbyist? Or is this an organization that represents the biggest, the interest of small businesses in the city? So it'll certainly be interesting to continue to watch how that unfolds.
Erica Barnett: [00:23:46] Yeah, I'll just add one quick thing. I mean, the JumpStart Tax is explicitly designed to go - to have preference for brick and mortar businesses. And a lot of the complaints about what's happening "downtown", and what you're going to see in the latest KOMO propaganda film on Saturday is that there's - is that the downtown is dead, the businesses are boarded up, and there's too many homeless people wandering around, and all that kind of stuff. Well, guess what? This tax pays for brick-and-mortar businesses to help them stay open. It also pays for, specifically for homelessness programs, and homelessness prevention and rental assistance, so that more people don't become homeless. So I would say that even the non-targeted provisions of this legislation would actually help the businesses that are complaining about the state of downtown right now.
Crystal Fincher: [00:24:40] Certainly appears to be the case. Now, this week, we also saw SPD have a case ruled against them and they were held in contempt by a judge. What happened with that?
Erica Barnett: [00:24:55] Well, essentially, there were a lot of complaints regarding the protests that started back in June about police use - indiscriminate use - of weapons, so-called less-lethal weapons, like blast balls and tear gas and pepper spray. And several of those - the judge found several of those to essentially be credible and held them in contempt of this injunction that he issued back in June saying that SPD could not use force against peaceful protestors. So, it's a very, it's a meaningful ruling. I think we'll see what the penalties are and, and whether it has any kind of long-term impact on SPDs practices, but it is unusual for the city to be held in contempt in this way. So it's certainly meaningful in that way. My reporter Paul Kiefer said that, reported that, the mayor's office couldn't find any similar cases like this in their review. So it's certainly unprecedented and unusual. But we'll see what the penalties are and we'll see what - whether it has any kind of impact on the upcoming police negotiations or on police practices.
Crystal Fincher: [00:26:00] That will be interesting to see. And especially with some of the arguments that SPD was making - that as long as they can show that their officers were instructed not to do something - if they do it, then it's not SPDs fault. Even if that appears to be habitual behavior - just the throwing up of hands and say, Well, we told them not to do it. So what - how can we be responsible for that? How are we to expect that an organization currently under a consent decree for an excessive use of force would have officers that do that, despite being told not to several times? So it seems like there is a continuing resistance - none of us are surprised, right - about any kind of accountability, taking any kind of responsibility, for what officers are doing on the ground. And this contempt order also explicitly acknowledged that officers were acting independent of any regard for their own personal safety. So many defenses of this are like, Well, what do you expect if someone tries to assault an officer, which no one is condoning of anyone. But what we have seen several times is that there was no threat - no physical threat, no assault, no feeling scared that something imminent was about to happen - this was just a response and basically, explicitly said, a response to the message Black Lives Matter than to the protestors.
Erica Barnett: [00:27:26] Sorry, sorry that I interrupted you there - just to your point - the judge noted that one of the officers ordered an officer to use a blast ball to "create space" between officers and protesters, which is not a response to any kind of use of force or any kind of bad behavior at all from protesters. It's just - it was just kind of indiscriminate - and blast balls are very potentially harmful and damaging weapons.
Crystal Fincher: [00:27:52] Extremely. There are instances of journalists' eyes being put out with blast balls and people of the public's eyes being just exploded by blast balls. There's actually a little support group just for that specific thing throughout protests in the country. It is an alarming and depressing thing. And what a lot of people wonder is, Okay, so a judge has ruled they've been held in contempt. So what happens to them? Is there a penalty? Is there a consequence?
Erica Barnett: [00:28:21] I mean, there could be a financial penalty for sure. I think that - that again remains to be seen, but they could have to pay out. There's a lot of plaintiffs in this case, as you might imagine - not just Black Lives Matter of Seattle King County, but the ACLU and a number of individuals who say they were harmed by SPD's use of force. So financial penalties are something that the city is used to dealing with, but they also don't like to pay them. So conceivably that could change officer behavior, but I think, what it's going to come down to ultimately is the police contract, is police leadership. We have an acting police chief right now and ultimately whether we get a mayor, or whether this mayor decides to take a hard political and public stance against some of these actions, which the current mayor has not.
Crystal Fincher: [00:29:14] Got it. But I do want to thank all of you for listening to Hacks and Wonks on KVRU 105.7 FM on this Friday, December 11th, 2020. Our chief audio engineer is, at KVRU, is Maurice Jones Jr. The producer of Hacks and Wonks is Lisl Stadler. And our wonderful co-host today was Seattle political reporter and founder of PubliCola, Erica Barnett. You can find Erica on Twitter @ericabarnett, that's Erica with a C, and on PubliCola.com. And you can buy her book Quitter: A Memoir of Drinking, Relapse, and Recovery on Amazon or through your independent bookseller. You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii, and now you can follow Hacks and Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts - just type Hacks and Wonks into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live shows and our mid-week show delivered to your podcast feed. And you'll notice in the show notes there are now full text transcripts of the audio shows to further the accessibility of the podcast. So thanks for tuning in and we'll talk to you next time.