Council doubles down on local broadcast news resolution

Through the time I’ve been writing about the City Council, I’ve developed enormous respect for our nine City Council members. They are, by all measures, dedicated public servants who work long hours and are sincerely trying to do the right thing for Seattle and its citizens. They wrestle with difficult, often seemingly intractable, problems to try to find compassionate solutions that help people. Like the rest of us, they have flaws, they make mistakes, they’re not perfect — and while we should hold them to a high standard, that standard shouldn’t be perfection.

But today I lost some of my respect for several of those City Council members.

This afternoon in the Full Council meeting they brought up for final consideration and vote the resolution introduced by Council members Sawant and Herbold in support of unionized local broadcast television workers in their ongoing contract negotiations with Tegna, the parent company of KING5.

Last week I wrote about all the problems with this resolution, and how it’s one more example of Council member Sawant letting unions and activists write legislation. It’s a beautiful double standard, because if a Council member were to let Amazon or Boeing write a piece of legislation, she would be the first to howl in protest. Unions are great and I’m a big supporter of them, but let’s not kid ourselves as to what’s going on here: the unions were huge supporters of Sawant’s and Herbold’s election campaigns last year, including throwing large sums of money into independent expenditures on their behalf (click on “PROGRESSIVE SEATTLE PAC” to see all that union money flowing through). Their reward for financial support is that they get to write legislation. Again, if a Council member took large financial contributions from a corporate PAC and then gave it a free hand to write legislation, people would be protesting outside City Hall. Several of the other Council members also received campaign contributions from unions, though none to the extent of Sawant and Herbold.

Council member Bagshaw actually took the time to read the legislation, and wasn’t sure about some of the technical details related to the FCC’s license auction and channel-sharing, so she did the sensible thing: she reached out to Michael Mattmiller, the City’s CTO. He and his staff helped her draft an amendment that would correct the resolution’s language to be accurate, without de-emphasizing the importance of having broadcast professionals employed locally. She proposed the amendment this afternoon, saying:

My concern was in being accurate in our language. And using the accurate language in the resolution about channel-sharing… I will be the first to admit to being an amateur when it comes to IT language, so I asked for some help from one of the experts that I really appreciate… just as we are providing for professional clarity, using professionals when we broadcast, that we too are expressing ourselves clearly and accurately in our resolutions.

The closest thing she got to support from her colleagues was a tardy, unenthusiastic “second” from Council member Juarez. Council President Harrell, on the other hand, voiced his opposition:

Number one is that I do appreciate that this was provided by Council member Sawant I think weeks in advance, and that she was very transparent in going about it and talked to labor, and one reason why I’m supporting the base legislation is because for me it’s all about jobs, it’s all about local jobs, it’s all about the integrity of the reporting process. And so I think that I’m very happy that Council member Sawant brought forth the resolution. The new language is somewhat technical, and I appreciate that Council member Bagshaw went through the great pains of talking, I believe, to our Seattle Office of Technology and other technology folks to describe what’s happening in the FCC world and what’s happening with the spectrum, and I’m not comfortable supporting it so I’ll be voting against the amendment and sticking with the base legislation, unless the chair, in her opinion, feels that it is neatly aligned with the point of the resolution. But absent that strong endorsement, at least from my standpoint I won’t be supporting amendments. But again, I’m all ears from all of my colleagues.

Council member Gonzalez, the chair of the sponsoring committee, also opposed the amendment:

I’m also not going to support the amendments. I think that while I understand Council member Bagshaw’s perspective as I think I see them reflected within the additional “whereas” clauses, I do think that the language which is removed from the resolution ends up in a resolution that I think doesn’t hit at the heart of what the resolution is intended to address from the advocates’ perspective and I think from the sponsors’ perspective, which is really to put a focus on not just how we do this technologically in terms of what’s spectrum and what’s broadband, and all of those other fancy words that I’m going to stop throwing around because I’m probably using them incorrectly, but really focuses on the value of making sure that whatever those channels are, or whatever those channels may be, that there is a priority placed on making sure that they are not privately owned and that they maintain integrity of being publicly owned broadcast waves. And so I want to make sure that the resolution stays true to what I think that purpose and that intent is, and for that reason will not be supporting the amendments.

Both Harrell and Gonzalez are saying, ” I know what’s in the resolution is not accurate, and I don’t understand the technical details in either the original or the amendment, but I care less about being correct and more about giving the unions what they want.”  And let’s be clear: that’s EXACTLY what happened here. During public comment at the beginning of the meeting, representatives from several unions took turns asking the Council to support the resolution “with no amendments.”  So when both Harrell and Gonzalez said “I won’t be supporting amendments” it was a clear, unambiguous dog-whistle to the unions. The Council was following orders, and the unions were getting a City Council resolution to throw in Tegna’s face — one they wrote themselves and that the Council members were afraid to modify.

Harrell did raise a relevant point: the resolution was introduced almost a month ago, so Bagshaw and others had plenty of time to review it and suggest amendments. But in the end, the fault isn’t with Bagshaw for going to the city’s CTO so late in the process for help in fixing the technical language. The fault lies with Sawant, Herbold, and Gonzalez in NOT going to him earlier as they shepherded it through Gonzalez’s committee. The committee is where the deep deliberations and language-crafting is supposed to happen, so that the right bill passes out of committee and on to the full Council. Council member Burgess did manage to get an amendment adopted in committee that excised another bad section, but neither Sawant nor Gonzalez made any efforts to adjust the unions’ preferred language — even though they clearly didn’t understand parts of it.

Council member Baghsaw, after acknowledging “I can count votes,” withdrew her amendment. The resolution passed by a vote of 7-0 (Council members O’Brien and Herbold were absent today). And the Council showed exactly where their priorities lie: not with the truth, not with accuracy, not with doing their jobs, but with keeping the activists and unions happy.

Here’s a nice bit of irony to finish off this post: a story that KOMO News — a local broadcast TV station — posted this afternoon on another piece of legislation the Council passed in the same meeting. The article is wrong; it completely misrepresents what the actual resolution does (it just requests that SPD make quarterly briefings on its progress in implementing the auditor’s recommendations). It’s a very short and simple resolution, and if the reporter had actually read it — or listened to Council member Gonzalez describe it in the meeting — she would have known that.  Worse, the article intentionally butchered the quote from Council member Gonzalez to make it sound like she was highlighting police misconduct, accountability and discipline issues, when in fact she was doing just the opposite: she was emphasizing that operations — such as managing overtime — are equally important. Here’s the full quote from Gonzalez:

This resolution, in my mind, is critically important to ensure that we continue to have a police department that is accountable not just in police misconduct, police, accountability, police discipline issues, but also on the operations side.

So much for Harrell’s “integrity of the reporting process.” This is the standard that we can expect from the “trained professionals” that the Council insisted today, by resolution, local broadcast stations continue to hire.

During the public comment session, the union reps and a madly-gesticulating former sports anchorTony Ventrella sneered at “amateurs” attempting to do what the “professionals” they represent are paid to do. Perhaps they should spend a little less time sneering and a little more time focusing on actually meeting that high standard they love to boast about. There are some very good professional broadcasters, some very bad ones, and many in between. The same can be said for amateurs. The unions are drawing a line between the two for the obvious reason: they are trying to protect their members’ jobs. That’s perfectly understandable and commendable (up to the point where they start misrepresenting the truth). But the City Council needs to recognize the unions’ agenda for what it is before they hand the legislative pen over to them.

The Council members didn’t do their jobs today. They passed a lousy resolution that they knew was factually wrong for the sake of scoring points with local unions. They could have passed a shorter, simpler resolution that focused on the local jobs and the importance of having local reporting especially during emergencies. Instead, they outsourced it to the unions, who wrote in all the talking points that would serve them best in their contract negotiations.

Today we had the best City Council that money can buy. Hopefully tomorrow will be a better day for local good governance.