Notes from today’s Council meetings

Lots of stuff happened today. In no particular order:

The Council received a first briefing this morning from the Office of Intergovernmental Relations (OIR) on the upcoming session of the state legislature, which begins in January. Prior to each session, the Mayor and Council write a “legislative agenda” to prioritize the issues and positions they want to push for in Olympia. On their draft list so far:

  • defending existing funding for human services
  • the preservation tax exemption
  • incentives for electrification of the transportation system
  • Race and social justice issues
  • Public records act reform
  • Education funding.

Council member Sawant continues to push for the state to lift its ban on residential rent control, but the early word from Olympia is that the topic won’t get airtime in committee this session.  Council member Bagshaw would like to work with the Governor’s staff on funding for mental health treatment programs in advance of the release of his budget proposal in December. Council member Herbold raised the issue of pay for state-funded contractors who provide home health care and mental health services; apparently the standard state pay rate is below Seattle’s minimum wage. Council member Juarez pushed for the city to collaborate more with the local tribes, since they are frequently pushing the same issues in Olympia.

The Council passed a resolution encouraging the preservation of a section of the Montlake “ramps to nowhere” as a monument to the defeat of the plan to build the Thomson Expressway.. It was not without controversy, with Council member Johnson raising several concerns echoed in a letter from WSDOT. The Council will commit about $10,000 from its own budget to do an engineering study on the feasibility of preserving a ramp section.

The 2035 Comprehensive Plan received final approval today, after two years of work. It passed unanimously.

Council member Sawant’s ordinance capping move-in fees and requiring landlords to allow tenants to pay move-in fees in installments was referred back to the Energy and Environment Committee this afternoon, despite about 45 minutes of public comment from activists urging the Council to pass it immediately. Sawant also argued fiercely to pass it through, defending the legislative process for the bill and accusing her fellow Council members of being beholden to corporate interests and trying to kill or weaken the bill. She challenged her colleagues who might vote  to refer it back to committee to go on the record and state their reasons for doing so. Council member Burgess didn’t take the bait, but Gonzalez, Johnson, Bagshaw, and especially Juarez all called her bluff. Gonzalez listed three issues she wanted to address:

  • adding an anti-retaliation provision;
  • reconciliation with the city’s “just cause” ordinance;
  • clarifying landlords’ obligations to put the money into an interest-bearing escrow account.

Council member Bagshaw said that she supported the bill but wanted to show deference for her colleagues who wanted more time to work on the bill. Council member Johnson, who continues to push for an amendment to exempt landlords renting a portion of their primary residence, also wants to ensure that the Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI), which is responsible for implementation and enforcement of the ordinance (and which Johnson’s committee oversees), has the right resources to do its job. Council member Juarez, who made the motion to refer it back to committee, raised several issues:

  • creating incentives for landlords to lower costs;
  • responding to a request from SDCI for more time with the Council to ensure a coordinated implementation plan;
  • reviewing the enforcement mechanism;
  • ensuring that the conversation on these issues happens transparently in committee and not behind closed doors.

Council member Herbold, who was a key ally of Sawant in drafting the ordinance, said that she would agree to refer it back to committee on two conditions: that it be referred back to Sawant’s Energy and Environment Committee (apparently there was hallway talk of sending it to a different committee), and that the committee have a meeting scheduled before the end of November to take it up — an exception to the Council’s rule of not scheduling other committee meetings during the October-November budget development process.  Burgess, the Budget chair, signaled that the committee meeting could be accommodated, and there was no objection to sending it back to Sawant’s committee since she has taken leadership on the issue.

In order to address the fear that referring it back to committee is a ruse to kill the bill off, the Council set the expectation that the re-considered bill should be reported back to the full Council no later than December 12th — and hopefully sooner, as some Council members will already have left for the holidays by then. The bill as it currently stands has an effective date of January 1, 2017, so as long as it can be approved by mid-December the delay in final vote will not change its effective date.

Council President Harrell tried to play conciliator, chastising Sawant for her negative accusations and personal attacks on her colleagues. He predicted that when the final bill passes “it will be a glorious day” and pass unanimously. “Everyone here is trying to do good by the city,” he said. The motion to refer back to committee passed by a 7-2 vote, with Sawant and O’Brien voting “no.”

The vote was a rare defeat for Sawant in recent times, and signals that the other Council members may have found a new willingness to stand up to Sawant and her vocal followers even when they show up in large numbers, press for a specific outcome,  and accuse the Council of being beholden to corporate interests.