Council moves Wells Fargo bill out of committee

In a well-attended meeting of the Affordable Housing, Neighborhoods and Finance Committee this morning, the Council amended and passed out of committee a bill to cut ties with Wells Fargo and strengthen the city’s rules on socially responsible banking and fair business practices. But things got testy along the way.

Here’s my report from earlier in the week on the bill. In short: Council member Sawant introduced a bill back in December focused on cutting ties with Wells Fargo and broadening the definition of “socially responsible banking practices,” which currently has a very specific definition related to a bank’s investment in the local community. Council member Burgess re-drafted the bill to widen its reach to all city contracts, not just banking services, and to define “fair business practices.” Sawant signed on to Burgess’s version as a co-sponsor, which was introduced separate from Sawant’s (because of technical requirements in the legislative process), and Sawant’s original version was dropped.

Today’s hearing was to consider several amendments to the Burgess/Sawant bill and hopefully vote to pass it out of committee and on to the full Council for its approval on Monday.

There’s an important piece of context for today’s discussion: there are two separate, intertwined threads in this bill and the push to separate from Wells Fargo. The first is the bank’s despicable business practices, some of which were documented in the letter that Mayor Murray, Council President Burgess, and Budget Committee chair Burgess wrote last summer to Wells Fargo, and were the subject of widespread press coverage. In fact, Wells Fargo’s bad business practices are much more substantial than that, and Burgess lays out eight separate court judgments and consent decrees against them in the recitations of his bill and in an attached clerk file containing those legal documents.

The second thread is Wells Fargo’s investment in the much-maligned (for good reasons) Dakota Access Pipeline project. Protesters, both locally and nationally, have been pushing for consumers and governments alike to cut their ties with Wells Fargo as an impetus to push the bank to withdraw its financial support for the project.

Sawant referenced both issues when she announced her original bill.  Burgess’ re-draft, however, calls attention to the bank’s support of the Dakota Access project as “contrary to the City of Seattle’s values” as laid out in a resolution passed by the Council last year, but focuses the majority of its attention on the bank’s illegal business practices.

There is broad support on the Council for the Burgess/Sawant bill; in fact it will almost certainly pass unanimously in the Full Council on Monday. But Sawant’s mission today was to amend the bill to add in more references to the Dakota Access pipeline issue. There is an urgency in this for her, since the Trump Administration has ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to approve the project in order to quickly re-activate it. She explained today that she wants the bill to be a tool she and the political movement opposing the pipeline project can use to pressure other cities to also cut ties with Wells Fargo and other supporters of the project.

Today eight Council members attended the hearing (everyone except Harrell). Seven of them were focused primarily on strengthening the fair business practices policy of the city, and were delighted to throw support to the #NoDAPL movement along with that. Sawant was focused on strengthening the #NoDAPL movement as much as she can and as soon as possible, and was delighted to improve the city’s fair business practices policy. This created significant tension around the table as they discussed Sawant’s proposed amendments (here and here).

Burgess’s redrafting of the bill made it more resilient to legal challenges by ensuring that the stated justifications were based in facts that could be clearly documented in primary sources: the legal rulings against Wells Fargo. That stands in contrast to Sawant’s original bill, which relied on media reports of Wells Fargo’s misdeeds.  Two of her proposed amendments today were to re-insert allegations about Wells Fargo based on media reports:

  • citing advocacy organization Food and Water Watch on the amount of Wells Fargo’s investment in DAPL;
  • at the request of labor advocacy groups, citing CNN on Wells Fargo’s firing of front-line employees in last summer’s scandal while not holding executives responsible;
  • at the request of the #NoNewYouthJail movement, siting In the Public Interest’s accounting of  Wells Fargo’s support for private for-profit prison corporations.

Burgess and Juarez in particular opposed those amendments, noting all the work that had gone into directly citing evidence rather than media reports when writing the bill. When Johnson, Gonzalez and Herbold also expressed a preference for trying to rewrite Sawant’s two amendments to make them cite facts directly, Sawant clearly sensed that she was losing the argument in front of hundreds of her supporters, and unfortunately we then got to see her at her worst: belligerent, lashing out at her colleagues, and grasping at rationalizations for why media reports were acceptable to include in the bill in lieu of primary sources. In the end, Herbold and Gonzalez saved her by their willingness to support Sawant’s amendments today with a commitment to come back by Monday with further amendments supplement or replace the media reports with citations to primary sources.

There were three other amendments focused on more substantive improvements to the bill. One amped up the relative value of a bank’s socially responsible business practices when the city evaluates bids for its banking services contracts. Another clarifies that “unfair business practices” includes discriminatory behavior. The third empowers the city to require contractors to proactively report any enforcement actions against them to the city, as an aid to the city’s own enforcement of its fair business practices standard.  All three amendments sailed through.

A bill co-sponsored by Burgess and Sawant is a rare thing indeed, and it was clear today that it wasn’t sitting well with Sawant. Monday morning at the Council briefing she thanked Burgess for his work in re-drafting her bill, but she skipped that today despite making a lengthy speech about the bill and its significance. (Herbold and Juarez both made a point of thanking Burgess for his work). Even in her statement released after the bill passed unanimously out of committee, not only did she not mention her co-sponsor on the bill, but she took another shot at both Burgess and Juarez for being “determined to water down the language, to take out critical language which recognized both the criminal nature of Wells Fargo and the historic and courageous role of the #NoDAPL movement. ”

Let’s pause here to bask in the cognitive dissonance of accusing Council member Juarez, a member of the Blackfeet nation who has lived on three reservations, of trying to water down a bill related to DAPL.

Sawant goes on:

Many activists were particularly insulted by the insinuation that the amendments from my office weren’t rooted in facts. Curiously, if you listen to the Council meeting, none of the “facts” are directly challenged. They’re just batted down, spuriously, in the name of “truth.”

A clever misrepresentation of the objection that was raised: no one questioned whether the events actually happened, they just wanted citations to primary, authoritative sources in the text in order to make the ordinance legally bulletproof. Which brings us back to the competing interests in the room: the seven people trying to make good law, and the one person urgently trying to build and arm a national political movement. They are both great and necessary things, and all eight Council members are happy to see both happen. But the stark difference in priorities got in the way of the legislative process today, and the result was ugly.

You can watch the hearing here.

One comment

  1. Thank you for your excellent report on the legislation and for addressing the less than stellar behavior by one of our councilmembers.

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