The legislative logjam has broken

By nearly all measures, the first month of the new City Council was quiet. Sure, there were a couple of controversial but legally meaningless resolutions, and Council member Sawant has pushed through some carryover legislation from last year. But a lot of committee meetings got cancelled, and few new bills were introduced.

It now appears that was the quiet before the storm — and the storm just made landfall.

Here’s what showed up on this week’s Introduction and Referral Calendar:

  • An ordinance doing away with the city’s Gift Catalogue. It was created many years ago as a backstop against government corruption by forcing city departments to publicly document the items and programs that they were soliciting donations from the public to procure or support. It was a well-intentioned idea, but it never caught on and has been ignored for quite some time; if it goes away, no one will notice. What is more controversial, however, is that the ordinance grants department heads the ability to authorize acceptance of certain gifts, instead of the City Council authorizing all of them (which is does in batches through a “gift acceptance” ordinance from time to time). Giving department heads the ability to approve some gifts to their departments themselves increases the opportunity for attempts to curry favor with a department without the transparency that Council approval brings. Last fall, former Council President Bruce Harrell briefly contemplated this ordinace in his committee, but decided instead to kick it down the road rather than try to rush it through at the end of his term. Now Council member Mosqueda has reintroduced it.
  • An ordinance authorizing the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections to require a construction project to mitigate the removal of existing affordable housing units if the project is in certain neighborhoods of the city that are designated low-income and high risk of displacement. The mitigation would likely involve replacing the removed units with new rent-restricted units. The bill is sponsored by Council member Strauss, the land use committee chair.
  • An ordinance implementing MHA in the University District. The Council has punted on this twice already; upzoning “The Ave” has drawn strong opposition from small business owners who are concerned about redevelopment displacing their businesses, and from some residents worried that upzoning will destroy the character of the area. Perhaps the third try will be the charm ? Council member Strauss is sponsoring this bll.
  • Applications for Seattle Central College and Seattle Pacific University to prepare new Major Institution Master Plans. The application to prepare new MIMP’s are themselves not controversial; but later in the year (or perhaps 2021) when the colleges submit their proposed plans the Council will need to wrestle with neighborhood conflicts and encroachments, proposed upzones, parking, traffic, and other issues. Colleges don’t change their MIMP when they are planning to make minor updates; they do it when they are planning to grow, to expand their footprint, and to change the way their existing property is used. Council member Strauss will need to shepherd these through his committee.
  • An ordinance requiring a minimum of 180 days notice by a landlord for any rent increase. Current rules require 30 days notice for an increase of less than 10%, and 60 days for increases greater than 10%. Council member Sawant is sponsoring this bill.
  • Council member Sawant has also reintroduced former Council member Mike O’Brien’s bill from last fall that would prohibit natural gas piping in new construction starting this July. It was controversial then, and it will be controversial now — though recently Mayor Durkan signed an executive order that bans natural gas piping in any new city buildings. At the time, Durkan wasn’t sure whether the food service industry could deal with such a ban (and neither was O’Brien last fall), but she seemed confident that city buildings could make the switch to all-electric.
  • A long list of rezone applications for properties across the city. During the city-wide MHA process, there were numerous one-off requests to make modifications to the zoning for specific properties, often at the edge of an Urban Village boundary. Many of those requests were punted so that they could be revisited as individual rezone applications once the MHA process had concluded — including the legal challenges. With last week’s announcement that the window had closed for appeals of the Growth Management Act Hearings Board ruling upholding MHA, the rezone applications can move forward. There are nine separate applications on this week’s Introduction and Referral Calendar; one can safely assume there will be more in the weeks to come.

Not only are the Council members going to be busy now, but they will be dealing with several controversial bills that will provide key tests of the individual Council members’ leadership and ability to form alliances on key issues — as well as their facility in dealing with the inevitable voter outrage from whichever side loses on a particular issue. All this is on top of the pending winter evictions, campaign finance reform, and homeless encampment expansion bills; the upcoming SPOG contract negotiations; public safety issues downtown; spinning up the regional homeless authority; the Waterfront LID assessment; potential fallout from Initiative 976; the Center City Streetcar; and a potential new payroll tax.

The honeymoon is over.