Notes from today’s Council meeting

This week the City Council meeting switched from Skype to a good old-fashioned conference call, featuring automated announcements every time someone entered or dropped the call and plenty of background chatter as the Council members called in from home. And yet they still managed to get a few things done.

According to Council President Pro-tem Teresa Mosqueda (who I suspect will be delighted to hand the reins back to Council President Gonzalez in two weeks), next week the Council will restart its Monday morning Council Briefings, though they too will be help remotely. On tap for the first one will be representatives from Public Health Seattle-King County to give another briefing on the response to the COVID virus outbreak.

Mosqueda also mentioned that the Council will likely schedule an additional meeting for later this week to take up two bills introduced this week that provide additional relief to those impacted by the COVID outbreak.

In the meantime, Deputy Mayor Mike Fong briefed the Council this afternoon on the status of the city’s COVID response, in response to two pages of advance questions from the Council members. Here are some of the highlights of that briefing:

  • The Mayor is expected to issue another emergency order later this week related to restricting commercial evictions, a companion to the order placing a moratorium on residential evictions issued over the weekend.
  • The city has been easing up on parking enforcement and “booting” of vehicles during the crisis, and they expect to take a closer look at the issue over the next couple of days, according to Fong.
  • King County is actively engaged with the network of hospitals in the northwest to ensure plans are in place for expanding hospital capacity if the number of severe cases of coronavirus exceeds the existing capacity. First, they would look to other facilities in the region; then mass sheltering strategies and triage operations. The effort is being led at the county level, with the city in a supporting role.
  • For now, City Hall and Seattle Municipal Tower remain open to the public, though the Mayor is considering whether to limit the public’s access to public facilities such as those in order to prevent congregation.
  • The city is in the process of leasing a few “hygiene station” trailers that include toilets and hand-washing stations — and potentially showers. The trailers could be staged at various locations around the city, might be deployed as soon as this week.
  • The city is working to “de-intensify” its homeless shelters by adding new facilities and moving people over to them from the existing ones. The city has already opened a shelter at the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall for that purpose, and is looking at other sites as well. The city and county are also leveraging the opportunity to scout out sites for potential hospital/quarantine/isolation facilities as well. Fong said that the city will have more to say in the next week.
  • Some Council members are concerned about reports on social media that during the COVID crisis the Navigation Team continues to “sweep” homeless encampments that don’t pose hazards or obstructions. Fong tried his best to reassure the Council that the Navigation Teams’ current priority is on the distribution of hygiene supplies and other materials. He said that the Nav Team is not performing any 72-hour cleanups except where there is a danger to the occupants themselves, but will still address encampments that are obstructions. That met with skepticism from some of the Council members, especially Sawant. Herbold, for her part took both sides: she quoted some statistics on the Nav Team’s work assessing encampments for vulnerable people, and distributing hygiene kits and flyers; yet she also wanted more information from the Nav Team on how they distinguish “essential” versus “non-essential”  removals.
  • Sawant also pushed on whether the city would extend the permit for the Northlake Tiny Home Village, which runs out at the end of the month.Fong said that they are looking at an extension based upon the COVID response, with more information to come.
  • There was much discussion of the need for childcare. Fong mentioned that Seattle Public Schools is readying a plan to provide some form of childcare services at school locations, to the extent that they can practice appropriate social distancing, while the city right now is focusing on creating childcare solutions for healthcare providers and first responders — absolutely critical people the city will need at their jobs, not home watching their kids. Fong hoped to be able to say more by next Monday.
  • Fong ended by noting that there has been a large amount of private donation for COVID response, and the Mayor’s Office will have more to say later this week on how the funds will be directed.

This afternoon the Council approved a bill closing a loophole in the city’s paid sick and safe time ordinance — one that is very relevant to the current crisis. Under the current ordinance, parents may use paid sick and safe time days if their child’s school or daycare is closed, but only if that closure was ordered by a government official. The change passed today removed the requirement for an official to order the closing. In recent weeks we have seen schools take the initiative to close on their own, not waiting for an official order, out of an abundance of caution.

The big debate this afternoon was around a resolution brought before the Council by Mosqueda to modify the emergency order issued by the Mayor over the weekend. That order placed a moratorium on residential evictions for 30 days or until the end of the emergency declaration, whichever is earlier.

Under city law, the Council may vote to accept, reject, or modify an emergency order by the Mayor, and Mosqueda’s resolution proposed to do just that. Among the changes it made:

  • it expanded the moratorium to include commercial tenancies as well;
  • it extended the moratorium from 30 days to 60 days (or until the emergency is lifted);
  • it broadened the kind of evictions covered from just rent-related ones to all evictions except those related to tenant behavior that creates safety issues;
  • it requests that the King County Sheriff not enforce any evictions during the moratorium;
  • it asks the Mayor to issue other emergency orders to provide relief to tenants.

This raised several issues for the Council, most of which were legal ones. There were concerns about the legal ramifications of asking the Sheriff not to enforce the law. But there were larger questions about the extent of the Council’s powers to modify a mayoral emergency order. The Seattle Municipal Code is vague on the topic: it simply says that the Council’s options are “ratification and confirmation, modification, or rejection”:

Any such proclamation by the Mayor shall be filed immediately after issuance of the proclamation, or as soon as practical, with the City Clerk for presentation to the City Council for ratification and confirmation, modification, or rejection. The Council may, by resolution, modify or reject the proclamation and, if rejected, it shall be void. If the Council modifies or rejects the proclamation, said modification or rejection shall be prospective only, and shall not affect any actions taken prior to the modification or rejection of the proclamation.

One might expect that in most cases the Council would be paring back an emergency order to curtail the Mayor’s use of emergency powers, but in this case the Council proposed to expand it: broadening the order to almost all evictions, and extending the time period. In effect, the Council is granting emergency powers to the Mayor that she didn’t claim herself. Does the Council have the power to do that?

That’s a very interesting question, and it led the Council to stop its deliberations on the resolution mid-stream and enter into a long executive session with city attorneys to discuss the legal issues (in fairness, there was already an executive session scheduled for this afternoon to discuss other matters).

Over two hours later, at six o’clock this evening, the Council emerged from executive session and picked up where it left off. However, there suddenly seemed to be a consensus among the Council members that they wanted to limit the moratorium on commercial evictions to non-profit and small business tenants, rather than all businesses — an approach different from the resolution in front of them and for which they didn’t have a written amendment handy. One option they had was to simply leave the Mayor’s original order intact, but that would also discard all the other changes they wanted to make. They decided to go with the opposite approach: rip out the commercial eviction moratorium from their amended version (through a quickly-drafted amendment by the amazing Council central staff) and wait for the Mayor’s forthcoming separate emergency order on commercial evictions, expected in the next few days, to be the template for enacting the policy they want. That sorted out, they quickly passed the amended resolution and called it a day.

A side note: executive sessions are intended to be attorney-client privileged discussions of legal matters only, not policy matters — those are required to be discussed in open session according to the Open Public Meetings Act. So it was strange that the Council members emerged from their executive session this afternoon with a newfound consensus view that they only cared about commercial evictions for non-profits and small businesses — something that by all appearances is a policy decision and not a legal one. Remember, the meeting this afternoon was done entirely by conference call, so there was no opportunity for paired-off hallway chats between Council members. After the executive session, Pedersen immediately suggested the change, Herbold expressed her strong support for it, Lewis and Mosqueda voiced their support right away, and the only dissenting view was Sawant who thought it was unnecessary because, in her view, big businesses don’t get evicted — but even she wasn’t caught off-guard by the suggestion. It was obvious that they had discussed it in closed session and found broad support for the idea. Lewis in particular gave the game away, saying, “It think we all want to make this about nonprofits and small businesses,” before most of his colleagues had a chance to express their views on the issue (at least in open session).

That wasn’t the only breach of transparency related to the bill. The resolution itself, along with the Council’s proposed modifications to the Mayor’s emergency order, was only added to the agenda at the beginning of the Council’s meeting this afternoon and wasn’t posted publicly until almost two hours into the meeting, only slightly before The Council moved into executive session. So for the vast majority of their discussion today, no one outside of the Council members and their staff (and anyone they privately shared it with) had actually laid eyes on the bill being debated. Also, Council member Herbold introduced a last-minute amendment, which required the Council to waive its own rules that all amendments for consideration on Monday afternoon must be circulated before noon that day. And of course the meeting was held by conference call with no provision for public comment. In fairness, these are extraordinary times and they were debating an emergency mayoral order that was issued over the weekend. But for a Council committed to hearing from “community,” they sure rammed that through fast and without any meaningful opportunity for public input or scrutiny.

In other news today, the Mayor announced a new economic aid program for those impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak. The city is launching a $5 million program which will make $800 of food vouchers available to each of 6,250 families in Seattle that are already enrolled in City-supported childcare and food assistance programs.

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