The Council argues about things, and strange bedfellows emerge

In this afternoon’s Full Council meeting, there are two agenda items. Both of them surfaced disagreements among the Council members, and both times an unlikely voting bloc emerged: Sawant and Harrell.

The first item was Sawant’s proposed resolution reiterating the city’s opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline and requesting the Murray administration to look for ways to avoid doing business with financial institutions that back the project. Council member Herbold offered an amendment that modified some of the language in a way that Sawant believed “watered down” the message.  Does it? Yes, ever so slightly, but not to the point of sapping all the strength of the resolution; even Sawant admitted that point.

There were dueling assertions about the reason for the amendment. Herbold claimed she intended to ensure that the city didn’t eliminate all its potential banking services vendors. She noted that there are 63 banks in Washington state, eleven of which meet the state requirements for providing banking services to the city. That group of eleven includes Wells Fargo, which the Council recently eliminated from consideration, and the remaining ten still have not been vetted to see whether they meet the city’s fair business practices and socially responsible banking requirements — so no one knows how many of those ten are actually eligible to contract with the city. Herbold said she wanted to ensure that they didn’t violate their fiduciary responsibility to the city by eliminating so many banks that none were left. But Sawant and her supporters in the audience (many of whom spoke during the public comment session) accused Herbold and others of worrying that a strong statement would scare off eligible banks from wanting to contract with the city; she quoted a 350 Seattle leader in claiming “Scaring the banks is exactly the point” of the resolution.

Harrell, for his part, said that he wanted to make the resolution as “hard-hitting” as possible and that that the city should be using this as an opportunity to choose to do business with organizations that support the city’s values. This is a very unusual stand for Harrell take, as he is usually deep in the “good governance” camp. Other than Sawant and Harrell, and Bagshaw who was absent today,  all six of the other Council members supported the amendment, with Council members Johnson and Juarez making a full-throated argument for good governance and fiduciary responsibility.

Once Herbold’s amendment passed, those differences were set aside and the resolution was approved by an 8-0 vote.

Then came the second agenda item, also a holdover from last week’s meeting: the proposal by Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) to amend its contract with Waste Management for bulk garbage transport and disposal to a landfill in Oregon.  And again, Sawant and Harrell were the two “no” votes. Their main objection was a concern raised by labor groups about missing an opportunity to keep jobs in the state rather than continuing a contract that utilizes the Oregon landfill. Harrell also rightfully objected to the fact that SPU brought this as essentially a fait accompli to the Council, without advance notice that they had chosen to renegotiate the contract rather than run an open bidding process — especially when it is now too late to run a rigorous bidding process before a key opt-out date passes.

Johnson tried to smooth over differences by offering an amendment that requires SPU to give the Council notice before deciding to either renew or bid out its solid-waste hauling and disposal contract in the future, and also states the Council’s preference for bidding out the contract at the next opportunity (starting in 2021). That amendment passed unanimously. Nevertheless, Harrell and Sawant voted “no” on the final amended bill (it passed by a 6-2 vote).

What did we learn today?

  • We re-learned the old adage: politics makes for strange bedfellows.
  • There is a strong “good governance” streak in this Council, that runs deeper than ideologies. Today it drove a wedge through the middle of the Sawant/O’Brien/Herbold voting bloc.  Collectively, the majority of the Council wants to err on the side of taking more time to write good, thoughtful laws that will withstand legal scrutiny and minimize unintentional consequences. And they are willing to take verbal abuse from activists to that end (as they did today).
  • And the corollary: Sawant’s top priority, which she repeats frequently, is creating a national political movement that is “fighting,” “militant,” and “nonviolent.” For her that is a higher priority than good governance.
  • This City Council can defy predictions. Just when you think they are settling into a comfortable voting pattern, Johnson and/or Harrell will lean far to the left, or Herbold and/or O’Brien will suddenly become very cautious.

With the Key Arena and SODO Arena proposals coming before the Council in the next few months, along with police accountability legislation, a possible paid leave policy, and some potentially tough budget discussions if federal funding disappears, it will be interesting to see how Council members align.

You can watch this afternoon’s fun here.