Notes from today’s Council meetings

A bill passes this afternoon, and lots of notes about what the Council members have been up to while working remotely.

This afternoon the Council passed an ordinance redirecting $968,000 of unspent federal grant dollars from the Office of Housing to the Office of Economic Development to supplement the city’s COVID-19 small business relief grant program. However, Council member Sawant objected to redirecting funds that might otherwise be spent on housing (though was not currently allocated for that purpose), raising her concern that the Mayor’s office will establish a “robbing Peter to pay Paul” approach to funding emergency response instead of her preferred approach: immediately enact an “Amazon tax” on big businesses. Or, alternatively, she suggested that the city should dip into its $60 million emergency fund to pay for it. Sawant wanted to offer an amendment that would change the funding source to that extent, which would require a new title for the bill and in turn require the bill to be re-introduced — delaying its passage by up to 2 weeks. But none of her Council colleagues would go along with her on that plan, including Council member Morales who until now has voted as a bloc with Sawant. The bill passed by an 8-1 vote, with Sawant the only “no.”

Because the Council is meeting over a conference call instead of in Council Chambers, there has been no opportunity for in-person public comment. Sawant is clearly feeling the pain of this the most, as in normal times she would have put out the call for her supporters to “pack City Hall” to demand that the Council follow her lead. Two weeks ago, Sawant specifically asked for Council staff to find a way to allow for live public comment even during their conference-call meetings. So far, such a system has not materialized. Individuals may still submit public comment by email, by written form in City Hall, or by calling a Council member’s office.

This morning featured the return of the weekly Council Briefing, when (among other things) Council members preview their upcoming committee meetings as well as any last-minute amendments to bills coming up for final vote Monday afternoon. After a hiatus of a few weeks, the Council members were anxious to let each other and the public know what they have been up to while working remotely — and particularly how they have been engaging around the COVID-19 response.  There were several 10-minute mini-speeches detailing their activities. Some of the highlights of the meeting:

  • Council President Gonzalez, back on the job, noted that the current directive for the legislative branch of city government to telecommute expires on March 31, and she has begun discussions about the potential to extend that directive into April. She said that she has been discussing time-sensitive items with her colleagues, but that they should be prepared to continue working remotely beyond the end of the month. That could involve holding committee meetings remotely as well.
  • Council member Morales said that she is forming a recovery planning group to address both short-term and long-term issues related to how the community rebounds from the COVID-19 shutdown. She expects that it will involve a “massive investment” in public employment programs, but will need to be equitable in its implementation. Morales expressed her concern that the crisis will pave the way for “disaster displacement.
  • Morales also noted that 40% of the city’s general fund revenues come from sales and B&O tax, and argued for a “fundamental shift” in how public services are funded. She once again pitched the “Amazon tax” that she and Sawant are co-sponsoring, and asserted that without it they will be triaging city spending.
  • Council member Pedersen said that the city has temporarily suspended the 72-hour parking rule. He also noted that the King County Council has abandoned its plans for a regional Transportation Benefit District, so he will be working with stakeholder to develop options for the city to renew its own TBD this year before it expires at the end of December.
  • Several Council members said that they continue to hold community office hours, though they are being done remotely. Constituents who wish to meet with Council members should book at time by contacting the Council member’s office by phone or email.
  • Council President Gonzalez asked Pedersen to look into Seattle City Light’s pre-planned power outages tied to equipment upgrade work. She said that it wasn’t conducive to getting people to stay at home when their power goes out for several hours. Pedersen said that he will be getting a “comprehensive update” on that issue soon.
  • Council member Lewis stated his commitment to ensuring that the city doesn’t close down any permitted transitional encampments, such as the Northlake tiny home village whose perrmit expires at the end of the month, during the COVID emergency. He also said that he is looking into using empty hotel rooms to get people off the street, though hotel voucher programs that also provide revenue to hotels at a time when the revenue is in need. Council member Mosqueda chimed in with her support that that idea, and cited it as a great example of local businesses partnering with government. Lewis also said that King County is looking to move current residents of permanent supportive housing who are stable and not health-compromised into hotels, again using hotel vouchers. This would free up badly-needed space in the city’s stock of permanent supportive housing.
  • Council member Mosqueda, the Council’s budget chair, said that she is having regular briefings with the City Budget Office on operations, expenses, and revenues during the COVID emergency, and once Council committees restart she plans to arrange for briefings from them — as well as from local economists.
  • Gonzalez announced that she had received notification from the Department of Education and Early Learning (DEEL) that they will be standing up an emergency childcare program in the coming weeks, which would prioritize the families of first responders. Her staff is looking into the commitments for the preschool program under the terms of the Families, Education, Preschool and Promise Levy to ensure that the city is meeting its commitments for use of the tax revenues under the state of emergency. She also noted that Seattle Public Schools will be standing up twelve childcare sites.