The City Council this afternoon approved a resolution giving guidance to the city on a potential path to a new North Precinct police station. It was a chaotic meeting where most of the Council’s rules of decorum were obliterated by an angry group of #BlackLivesMatter and #BlockTheBunker protesters.
There are two stories here. One is the action that the Council took, and its implications for SPD, the North Precinct project, future capital projects, and the future of police-community relations. That falls well within the scope of this site, and I will strive below to shed light on that topic.
The second is the mass act of civil disobedience that disrupted the Council meeting today. It raises a set of complementary issues: the circumstances that led to it, the centuries-old discussion of moral justifications for acts of civil disobedience, an equally old debate on the effectiveness of such tactics, the Council’s real-time response (in which they broke many of their own rules), how to respond when a mass action is spreading factually incorrect information, the balance between direct democracy and representative government, and the future impact of the precedents set today. On these matters I have thoughts but no complete sentences; observations that lack broad perspective; a jumble of emotions without coherence. My hope is that thoughtful, caring people in our community will wax eloquently on these issues and more in the days to come, and will enlighten us all on the nuances and complexities of the situation. My fear, though, is that demagoguery on both sides will prevail and the conversation will be reduced to “they have no respect for elected officials” and “they neither understand nor represent us.” May the angels of our better nature prevail, and if in the days to come I find the words for a worthy contribution I shall strive to share it here. In the mean time, I encourage you to watch the video of today’s Full Council meeting so you can be well informed on what transpired.
The resolution passed today is worth reading in full. It is very different from what was under consideration last week. While it still acknowledges that the North Precinct is desperately in need of a new station to replace its current old, dilapidated, overcrowded one, and that SPD needs enhanced training facilities in order to comply with the 2012 consent decree, it does not approve the proposed North Precinct plan. Nor does it give approval for a budget for a new North Precinct station: not $160 million, not $149 million. The Council explicitly and deliberately excised an approved (or even anticipated) budget figure from the text of the resolution.
What it does say is that the Council will decide on a budget allocation for a new North Precinct station as part of their customary 2017-2018 budget process that begins in October and concludes by the end of November. That allocation might be nothing at all; it almost certainly won’t be more than $149 million. But the Council does not believe it has the information it needs to make that decision today, and so it directs the city staff to take two important actions in preparation for their budget debate:
- Hire an independent third party to provide a cost analysis of the proposed project, looking for additional savings opportunities. This speaks to the skepticism voiced by more than one Council member that to-date the city staff have not been diligent in looking for “value engineering” opportunities. That third-party analyst will be expected to continue working on the project throughout its duration to pressure the team to save money wherever possible.
- Complete a racial equity analysis of the project using the city’s Racial Equity Toolkit by October 3rd, and report back the results and outcomes. As Council member O’Brien emphasized today, the Racial Equity Toolkit is not a list of checkbox items; it’s a process that requires a deep conversation about the impact of the project with communities that have a history of disparate negative impacts.
The resolution requires additional actions as well, but those two are the heart of the matter: they force the city to fix the key mistakes they made up to now. And it sets the clear expectation that money will not be appropriated for the North Precinct project unless and until all of the necessary information is laid out for the Council to consider.
O’Brien was the sole “no” vote on the resolution that, although it had been in development for almost two weeks, was only formally introduced this morning. O’Brien stated that it was clear to him that the community had not had time to read and digest the content of the resolution, and in the absence of any urgency he would prefer to hold the legislation until their September 11th Full Council meeting. O’Brien made an official motion to that end, but only convinced one of his seven colleagues present to support it (Sawant was absent today).
Separately but deeply related, Council members Johnson and Herbold today called for the City Council to create a new committee to oversee large capital projects. This is in direct response to a recent spate of them — including the NCIS billing system for Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities as well as the North Precinct — that have gone far over budget and/or overrun their schedule.
Taken together, these two actions point to a City Council that has exhausted its patience with large-scale incompetence in Seattle municipal government and is more than willing to micromanage city departments as a last resort to force accountability. Or put another way: if the Mayor is intent on “getting shit done” he had better get it done right — otherwise the City Council will continue to take away his autonomy.