The “Seattle Process” went off the rails today

Welcome to “Bizarro World” Seattle. Last night after the May Day march, the antifa “anarchists” were anything but. And today, civic discourse descended into the pit of despair as bluster, posturing, speechifying and flat-out verbal abuse displaced serious policy debate on complex issues.

The first punch was thrown this morning by Amazon. On the heels of yesterday’s budget update presentation that noted the city’s financial dependence on Amazon’s employment figures as well as the construction industry, the retail behemoth let it be known that they were halting planning on their new “Block 18” commercial office tower and considering subleasing their space in the Rainier Square building, pending the Council’s decision on whether to enact a proposed new tax on big businesses that would cost the company $20 million annually — signs that they are rethinking their commitment to growing their employee base in Seattle. This comes on the heels of announcements that they are hiring thousands of people in Vancouver and Boston, and their HQ2 search continues.

That set off a firestorm of responses from politicians. The Seattle Times quotes a spokesperson for Governor Inslee saying that Amazon had raised the topic of the tax with the governor, and that he hopes there is room for compromise. The newspaper also quotes Mayor Durkan, who recently sent a letter to the City Council expressing her concerns with the proposed tax; she expressed concerns about the jobs impact if Amazon follows through, and pledging to work with the Council and business and labor leaders to strike a deal.

Amazon’s news came just before the Council was scheduled to hold a committee hearing to discuss issues and possible amendments related to the tax legislation and the accompanying spending plan. With everyone clearly on edge, that meeting was 90 minutes of pointless arguing, personal attacks, and political posturing. The lowlights included:

  • Sawant and Bagshaw arguing about whether public comment should be at the beginning or the end of the meeting;
  • Herbold repeatedly complaining that FAS Finance Director Glen Lee should have written a memo instead of just relying on a verbal presentation;
  • Sawant demanding to know which of her colleagues had raised the issue of decreasing the revenue target below $75 million (none of them did; it turns out Council central staff added it based on the topic coming up in the general conversation rather than a specific request from a Council member);
  • Harrell speechifying about how they need to sell it to the public;
  • Mosqueda speechifying about the need to “act with urgency;”
  • Juarez beating up their central staff for only answering ten of the 39 questions she posed to them in her memo;
  • Sawant arguing against incentivizing charitable contributions by companies to organizations addressing homelessness because “philanthropy is used as a tax-avoidance scheme” (better points were raised by Gonzalez about reliance on philanthropy to deliver critical basic services, and by Katie Wilson of the Transit Riders Union that the homeless response clearly is lacking central coordination, and encouraging decentralized, uncoordinated investments won’t help solve the problem);
  • Gonzalez invoking her oath of office again;
  • Sawant speechifying on how she isn’t aware of any evidence that taxes disincent companies from growing. “It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic that we’re discussing this;”
  • Mosqueda attacking Kroger, Amazon and Target for having employees that receive Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and/or Section 8 vouchers. During public comment, a spokesperson for Kroger pushed back, claiming that Kroger employed people on those programs because “we hire people off of Medicaid. We hire people off of those other programs;”
  • Sawant speechifying about Amazon’s earlier announcement of the construction halt, calling it “extortion.”

After the meeting, Bagshaw told me that she also was concerned about the jobs impact of Amazon’s announcement.  “We need to find out if the jobs are really going to be impacted and I’m interested in the construction group, the building and construction trades have sent us a letter as well, saying this is going to impact some of their jobs, so we need to know about that.”  Bagshaw also admitted that, given today’s lack of progress on discussing issues, she’s not optimistic they will meet their self-imposed deadline of mid-May to vote on final legislation. “We’re going to need more time,” she said. She intends to schedule an additional meeting of her committee in the coming days to try to finish today’s incomplete discussion.

Later in the afternoon, the four Council members sponsoring the tax legislation (Gonzalez, Herbold, Mosqueda and O’Brien)  issued a joint press release in response to Amazon’s news. In it they said:

“This was never a proposal targeting one company, but Amazon made the conversation about them when they expressed their intentions to pause construction on their new office tower pending a vote on our Progressive Tax on Business.” 

And yet, in the same press release they quote Amazon’s recent earnings reports, and note that “Seattle has become the nation’s biggest company town.” Also, let’s not forget that Amazon alone will pay about 26% of the total revenues raised by the new tax. Or that Sawant has spearheaded an organized “Tax Amazon!” movement, including a protest outside Amazon’s headquarters with activists literally waving “Tax Amazon” signs. Explain to me again how this was never a proposal targeting one company…

Yes, Amazon’s move to halt construction on their office tower was absolutely a political act aimed at derailing the new tax. But to say that the conversation wasn’t about them until this morning is utterly disingenuous.

The meeting that followed the head tax discussion went even worse. That meeting was of Juarez’s Civic Development, Public Assets and Native Communities Committee, and featured the first discussion of the proposed Waterfront Local Improvement District (LID). As the contingent of Sawant-led activists filed out of Council Chambers from the previous meeting, a much larger group of angry downtown and Belltown residents filed in and packed the room for the LID discussion. Only two Council members stayed for the discussion: Juarez and Bagshaw; but Bagshaw announced that she was still required to recuse herself until the city’s ethics ordinance is modified, and promptly left the room. That left Juarez alone to deal with the angry audience, who shouted, booed, jeered, and otherwise made their displeasure known with the proposed LID assessment.  They were also very unhappy that the other seven Council members were not present, despite Juarez’s patient explanation that this was a committee meeting, not a full Council meeting. Bagshaw is the committee’s vice chair; Gonzalez is the third member, and Sawant is the alternate member. Gonzalez had no excuse for not attending, given she had sat through the prior meeting and had just left the room.

The commenters argued that the LID is an unfair tax that puts too much burden on local residents for public assets that will benefit the entire city and region, not to mention out-of-town visitors and cruise ship passengers. However, in the presentation that followed, it was pointed out that of the $688 million for the project, only $200 million is coming from the LID; $100 million is coming from philanthropy, and $388 million is coming from state and city coffers. City staff also noted that other investments in the waterfront go far beyond this specific project, and include the $3.2 billion being spent to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel; the seawall reconstruction; WSDOT’s work on Colman Dock, and additional utility upgrades along the waterfront.

They also explained that “special benefit district” assessments are well-established in real estate, based on the principle that public improvements increase value to private property. LIDs, and the detailed process of creating one, are governed by state law.

Unfortunately, most of the people who showed up to protest the LID didn’t hear that presentation; they left as soon as the public comment session finished.

But wait, there’s more ugliness to report, as there was a “town hall” held in Ballard tonight to solicit community feedback on the proposed new tax on large businesses. The session was hosted by Council member O’Brien, whose district includes Ballard. O’Brien’s office sent out invitations in advance,  noting that other City Council members and members of the Progressive Revenue Task Force would be present.  But the event announcement also said that it would be a moderated session, where questions would need to be submitted for selection by the moderator, rather than one where people could ask their own questions.

That did not sit well with the community. The Ballard District Council encouraged people to “Show up anyway. Write to Councilmember O’Brien and let him know what you think about a Town Hall where the citizens remain silent and everyone else speaks.” KIRO Radio fanned the flames.  According to reporters David Kroman and Erica Barnett, the audience was hostile from the outset and remained angry and verbally abusive throughout the meeting, complaining not only about the lack of an “open mic” format (the moderator Kirsten Harris-Talley and Council member O’Brien eventually relented on that issue), but also about the Council members, the Task Force members, the moderator (who showed remarkable restraint), homeless people, crime and safety, bike-share, and other issues. Barnett posted an audio clip of part of the event, and here’s her full report. Of note: the event was held in the Trinity United Methodist Church.

Today was not a proud moment for Seattle. There were no winners in the skirmishes, but there were plenty of losers, including Amazon, the City Council, homeless people, and Seattle’s reputation for thoughtful policy-making. The city’s elected officials, including Mayor Durkan, look ineffective for losing control of the political process on important and urgent topics. The debate over the proposed new tax on big businesses was certainly divisive before today, but it has now lost all coherence and has devolved into a shouting match. While Amazon threw gasoline on that fire today, it speaks to elected officials’ inability to build a broad base of support for the policy that the company could derail it so easily.

For all our talk of being a progressive policy oasis, Seattle’s political landscape today was just as angry, tribal and hopelessly deadlocked as Trump’s America — but for some different reasons (and some of the same reasons). Attempting to set policy by shouting at each other is not a good look for us, and it solves nothing. We have some critical, complex issues to wrestle with, but we are also blessed with a strong, diverse local economy, a well-educated population, a commitment to philanthropy, and a beautiful place to live and work. Those things unite us and empower us to find solutions to our problems. We are capable of so much better than this infighting, but it will take real political leadership to unite us — leadership that was visibly absent today.


  1. Do you think moving to district elections for council positions has impacted leadership?

    1. I honestly don’t know. Perhaps the fact that it requires fewer votes to get elected has led to more activists getting elected. I was just reflecting this morning on how Council committee names have become less about areas of oversight and more about vanity naming for the CM’s agenda. The current crop of committees include the following phrases:
      Equitable Development
      Renters Rights
      Workers Rights
      Gender Equity
      Safe Communities
      New Americans
      Native Communities
      Civil Rights

      Perhaps we should rename it from the City Council to the Tribal Council.

      1. I believe that having more activists being elected is one major reason for this. I feel that instead of representing all citizens, they really focus on their specific group. I also read the article about the Ballad meeting, and am not shocked at the tone. Sad, but this type of meeting has been going on for some time, the main difference are the people (home owners and not activists) who are shouting this time. I do hear from a lot of my friends that they feel the council does not listen to citizens that do not belong to specific tribal group. And I have emailed my council members about their oversight job, about watching out for the taxpayer’s money. Nothing but silence.

  2. I attended the meeting. It was about as raucus as Stop The Sweeps gets in Council chambers, at times, but certainly had an angry edge. One can discuss various aspects of what went on at the meeting, but for me, the key question is “Why did it happen?” Some possible answers:

    * Council has over-choreographed the community input process and many impacted by the homeless crisis (financially, criminally, etc) feel that they don’t have a direct voice.

    * Council has not spent the money transparently or effectively and has lost credibility. This is on the homeless issue, Pronto, bike lanes, etc. It’s a snowball effect.

    * Law enforcement’s response is lacking.

    All of the reasons behind these issues can be debated till the cows come home, but I think these were the fuses leading into the powder keg. Right now, it seems some folks are too PO’d for PowerPoint. They wanted to be sure those people went home with a clear impression of their feelings (not saying all the comments made were mature, helpful, etc.).

    As far as the church location, some folks expressed the feeling that it was held there in an attempt to temper potentially raucous behavior. It seems like attendees decided to separate church and state and treat it as just a room for the duration of the meeting. I will say that, when one of the pro-tax people called everyone in the room who was against the tax “mothef*ckers,” that was a first in a church for me! 😉

    1. Spot on. The City Council shows now respect for residents. Residents have now decided to do the same to the City Council. The City Council is non-functional and their views, actions, and responses do not represent the districts the represent. Council by District is not working. City gets stuck with these fringe Council Members who get to impact the entire council business with a just a minority of the total election votes.

      1. We have only had on election cycle with the districts. Is it the district elections not working or just the current people in those seats?

        1. It’s not helpful to think about their performance as a binary thing, either “good” or “bad.” Nor to think about the district system that way. You can point to good things that each of the Council members have accomplished. Juarez is a good example: she ran on a platform of getting North Seattle their fair share of attention, budget and services from city departments, and she’s definitely moved the needle. The only two district-based Council members who don’t really negotiate hard for their district are Sawant and O’Brien. But many of them also have backgrounds with activist/advocacy groups and continue to push those causes. Not so much in their early days in office, but now that we’re in the back half of their first four-year team, I get the sense that they are feeling bolder about pushing their advocacy agenda. Johnson pushed hard on parking reform; O’Brien on the soda tax and on environmental issues, Mosqueda on labor issues, Juarez on native communities, Gonzalez on immigrant rights. And of course Sawant is trying to build a coalition of advocacy groups and will stump for all of them (though the more pro-business end of the labor spectrum seems to be abandoning her for Mosqueda).

          At the same time, the district-based Council members’ staff field a ton of questions from constituents now; they added staff just to deal with the extra load. I suspect their responsiveness to constituent calls for help navigating the city bureaucracy may factor into how many of them get re-elected. Sawant’s office has developed a reputation for being particularly uninterested in helping constituents, whereas I have heard that Herbold’s and Johnson’s offices in particular are helpful.

          I suspect we need to see a full cycle, including re-elections, to know how this all plays out. At this point I think it’s far too early to render judgment on the district-based system.

  3. I am not a big fan of mixing religion and politics. It can devastate a congregation.

  4. Thank you for such an excellent summary of what Seattle is doing wrong. I hope we can turn it around soon.

  5. I didn’t attend the meeting, although I did hand out flyers the prior week in District 6 to advertise it. To understand the anger of the crowd, you need to know that Mike O’Brien has “curated” meetings in the past. He specifically and very deliberately plans them to shut down any dissenting opinion. He’s insulted and shamed constituents who are reasonably concerned about public safety, their investments in business and community, and quality of life and who are willing to have a civil conversation about it. The night before the meeting, he announced that the format would change from a traditional town hall to a lengthy presentation followed by a curated Q&A session. Then the homeless advocate crowd that uses up all the air in the city hall meetings showed up and the District 6 people just went berserk.

  6. Thanks for covering the growing incivility in government.

    As for the Ballard Town Hall, you’ll note that the worst comment of the night came from a pro-tax activist as referenced above, motherf***ers. There were also many reasoned calm responses and calls for people to behave by Ballard residents.

    There is a lot more background here than what was covered in Erica C. Barnett’s blog which was fully one-sided.

    Some of that background: I attended a September 2016 meeting in Ballard on improving safety in the neighborhood. Barely any effort was made to advertise the event to Ballard residents, but about 30 or more showed up. CM O’Brien made opening remarks, as did CM Bagshaw, then everyone was divided into groups. Suddenly new people showed up and none seemed to know the neighborhood well. All our safety concerns were dismissed as not relevant. Ann Logerfo, an attorney with the firm who was drafting the “camps legislation” joined our table. She did not identify who she was. She was asked if she even lived in District 6. She said she was from Pioneer Square. I looked her up after the meeting. That’s actually her office. She actually lives in Windermere, one of the priciest neighborhoods in the City.

    A public records request showed that over 70 homeless activists and providers were invited weeks in advance of the by personal emails from CM O’Brien’s office. A meeting was held and “facilitator’s guide” developed to redirect people’s safety concerns about crime and homelessness. One of the tips was that if someone was not easily persuaded to drop the topic, to have that person pulled outside the group and talked to separately. Some activists invited even had private meetings with O’Brien’s council aides. My public records request also sought public comments dating back to meetings in January and July of 2016. The handwritten public comments from the January 2016 meeting could not be located and were never produced. The records showed the same “divide and conquer” strategy aimed at shaming neighbors and cowing them into being quiet. All for being an everyday resident concerned about deteriorating safety in the neighborhood.

    Happy to share documentation if you are interested.

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