Two resolutions passed, and a bad precedent was set

Two resolutions were adopted in the City Council’s meeting this afternoon. Both are well intentioned, and will probably end up doing good things. But they way they passed — and the way one almost didn’t — speaks volumes about the current level of dysfunction in City Hall.

The first was the resolution to establish principles by which the city will clean up the “Jungle” homeless encampment and provide outreach and services to its current residents. It was discussed this morning in Council Briefing, a near-final version that had the buy-in of the Mayor’s office was distributed at noon, and it was added to the IRC and agenda for the 2:00 Full Council meeting. But as the item came up for discussion, Council members Herbold and O’Brien expressed their concerns that two stakeholder groups, the ACLU and Columbia Legal Services, had not had enough time to review it and provide feedback, and suggested that the resolution should be put on hold for a week so that they had a chance to respond. Council member Sawant jumped on the bandwagon, seeing an opportunity to try to negotiate further the one item she wanted that isn’t in the resolution: an unambiguous prohibition on forcibly removing anyone from the Jungle (which she would only get at the expense of the Mayor’s support). But the other six Council members opposed delaying the vote, invoking derisively the “Seattle process” and noting the sense of urgency to set conditions on the Mayor’s cleanup efforts that are already underway. Council President Harrell also pointed out that no one had raised the notion of delaying the vote until just before the 2:00 meeting which left him feeling blindsided. Council member Bagshaw, the resolution’s sponsor, noted that it was a resolution, not an ordinance, which is much easier to change later, and that in the coming weeks as they work out the procedural details if the Mayor’s office doesn’t cooperate she would introduce an ordinance to codify the rules. O’Brien, Herbold, and Sawant backed down, and the resolution passed 9-0.

The second resolution was a step forward in attempts by activists to close the one remaining nuclear power generation plant in Washington State, the Columbia Generating Station at Hanford. The resolution’s language, also negotiated with the Mayor’s office, didn’t go that far, but it stated the City’s desire to move away from fossil fuels and nuclear power and to avoid any new investments in them. It passed today with little discussion and another unanimous vote.

What both of these resolutions show, in their own way, is the extent to which the City Council has become beholden to special interests on the far left.

On the Jungle resolution, Council members debated whether to delay for a week a piece of legislation regulating an ongoing problematic operation so that the ACLU and Columbia Legal Services could approve the language. They had been talking to the two organizations, and several other advocacy groups, for months about the issues that the homeless face and what a humane approach would be to dealing with unsanctioned homeless encampments. ACLU and CLS even gave them their own draft resolution last week, so the Council already know their preferred language. Yet some Council members were willing to put in jeopardy a hard-fought compromise with the Mayor to ensure that these two advocacy groups approved.

On the nuclear power resolution, Sawant took it one step further. As she said today when she introduced the legislation, “This is a resolution written by environmental activists from the Physicians for Social Responsibility, Heart of America Northwest and other organizations, and Representative Gerry Pollet.” (Watch it yourself here; jump to 57:10) This is a rather stunning admission for a legislator: that she actually let outside lobbyists write a piece of legislation. And since there are legitimate issues to be debated about nuclear power, and also deliberate misrepresentations on both sides, you would think that the Council would want to hear from the other side as well before deciding to make a policy statement on behalf of the city. But not a single Council member brought that up, either in committee or in the full Council meeting today.

The Council has ceded so much power to favored advocacy groups that they let them write legislation unopposed, and they are fearful of moving forward unless those groups have approved the text of the legislation. If the Port of Seattle or Amazon had been allowed to do this, there would be protests at City Hall and calls for Council members to resign.

There is much to criticize in the way Mayor Murray runs the executive branch, but this time he did his job: he negotiated hard with the Council and forced them to justify the legislation they passed. We elected the nine Council members to do one job: write legislation. In doing so, we certainly expect them to consult with stakeholders, experts, and the citizens of Seattle. They should listen to all sides and make informed decisions. Many of those decisions will be difficult, and few will please everyone; that’s why we have elected representatives who can dig in and do the hard work involved in crafting wise policies and good laws to implement those policies. But when the ACLU, Columbia Legal Services, and Physicians for Social Responsibility get this level of deference from our elected officials, something has gone wrong.

So why did the Council members do this? I think there are three reasons. First, at least in the case of ACLU and Columbia Legal Services, it was legal: at last week’s Human Services and Public Health Committee, they openly threatened to file a lawsuit to stop anyone from being removed from the Jungle, and I’m sure many Council members would have liked some assurance that today’s resolution would prevent that threat  from becoming a reality (though giving in when faced with a threat to sue is not particularly good city policy).

Second, there’s election politics: left-leaning advocacy groups carry a lot of sway with voters and fundraising in Seattle when they throw their weight behind a candidate. This is particularly true for Sawant, the darling of environmental and labor advocates. Without them, she doesn’t have much of a base to campaign on.

Third, I suspect that some of the Council members have lost perspective on how far they have slid down the slippery slope of the “Seattle process.” Coalition-building is important in the city’s legislative process, where everything requires at least five votes to move forward. Council members try to influence each other, but they also rely on outside advocacy groups to indirectly pressure their colleagues. And the district-based election system is still new, so accumulating “air cover” and support from influential groups is a safe play in the context of an unpredictable electorate. But when it goes too far, as it has now, our elected officials start to abdicate their responsibilities in order to keep in the good graces of powerful allies.

This is obviously a very bad precedent, though a current counter example is the process that Council members Herbold and Gonzalez are using to discuss secure scheduling regulations; they have been bringing both employers and employees to the table and giving them equal airtime. Of course, Gonzalez and Herbold haven’t begun writing legislation yet; we’ll have to see what happens in a few weeks when that process begins, and who has the ears of the Council members then.

Today was a good day for clean energy and for the rights of the homeless living in the Jungle; but it was a sad day for our representative government. The nine City Council members work very hard and no doubt look for every opportunity to smooth the path for important legislation, but when they outsource it to advocacy groups the citizens lose. It’s easy for us to look the other way when the advocacy groups are ones we like (and I do like the work that ACLU and Columbia Legal Services does), but the power that they are accumulating is just as corrupting. When the day comes that they push the City Council for something not in Seattle’s best interests, and our Council members don’t feel empowered to push back, we will be sorry that we looked the other way this time.

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