Notes from today’s Council meeting

An epic fail on a bill, and so much more.

Filed under “you had one job,” the Council spent about an hour discussing CB 119769 this morning and another hour and a half this afternoon deliberating on the bill and possible amendments, but apparently someone forgot to count to seven: when the smoke cleared on the final vote, the bill came one vote short of passing.

The bill, which has been held over for a couple of weeks, would suspend the requirements for the Design Review Board and Landmarks Board to hold in-person meetings and transfer their responsibilities over to city staff to make administrative decisions, in order to keep the pipeline of construction permits moving forward during the COVID-19 emergency. Because it was being considered as “emergency” legislation that would go into effect immediately, it required 3/4 of the Council to approve it: seven of the nine Council members. But Herbold, Pedersen, and Morales voted “no.”

In an unlikely alliance, both Pedersen and Morales voted against the bill for the same reason: because it circumvented public input into the design review process. Pedersen objected broadly on that principle and over concerns that it will drive down the quality of the housing that gets built, while Morales’ stated objection was tied specifically to opposition from stakeholders in her District 2 — and most notably the Chinatown-International District. Morales said that there are currently eight projects awaiting permits in the CID, of which only one involves creating affordable housing, and the residents of the CID that she represents are concerned about redevelopment gentrifying the district and overrunning it with tall, shiny office buildings.

Herbold, who offered several amendments and saw most of them adopted, seemed to object mainly over one particular provision of the legislation: it exempts affordable housing projects from the design review process altogether. Such projects are already exempted from reviews in front of the Design Review Board, and instead go through “administrative review” by staff. But with the other projects that normally go in front of the Design Review Board moving over to administrative review under the terms of the bill, in order not to overload the staff the bill’s authors decided it would be best to move some other work off their plate — namely the affordable housing projects. As a matter of policy, Herbold didn’t object to exempting affordable housing projects from design review, and today she said that she welcomed that conversation; but in her view, since the timeline for delivering those housing units is beyond the scope of the COVID-19 emergency, she didn’t believe that the Council could legitimately act on it now given Governor Inslee’s emergency proclamation prohibiting actions except those either responding to the COVID-19 emergency or that are “necessary and routine.”  In fact, Herbold offered an amendment stripping the exemption out of the bill; it failed by a 4-5 vote.

The bill’s failure by a 6-3 vote seemed to catch the Council members by surprise, including Council President Gonzalez who was presiding over the meeting. She immediately tried to engineer a motion to reconsider the vote, until the Council’s parliamentarian reminded her that under the City Charter a final vote on a bill may not be reconsidered until the following Council meeting. Currently that is scheduled for next Monday, but since the Budget Committee is meeting on Wednesday morning with all nine Council members expected to be present, don’t be surprised if a quick Council meeting is scheduled for either just before or just after it so they can revisit their vote — and perhaps an amendment or two, since the three Council members voting “no” suddenly have a lot of leverage to negotiate.

This morning SDOT presented to the Council an update on the status of the West Seattle Bridge, which was largely a repeat of last week’s announcement (see my writeup here). Of note, though, were some of the follow-up questions by the Council members:

  • Council member Herbold, who represents West Seattle, pressed on how the budget and shoring/repair plan might change if the city ultimately decided to replace the bridge instead of trying to repair it. Herbold said that she was surprised at how many of her constituents had told her that the city should not try to repair it and move straight toward a replacement plan. SDOT Direct Sam Zimbabwe explained that at this point his staff don’t even know whether the bridge can be repaired, everything in the current plan and budget is on the path to repairing the bridge, and they need to get further along with the work before they can start to understand the feasibility and cost of the repair option.
  • Council member Mosqueda pushed on the current restrictions for vehicles on the lower bridge, asking whether exceptions could be made for some other classes of “essential workers” such as human services and healthcare workers. SDOT’s Heather Marx said that they are looking at relaxing restrictions, but managing exceptions is difficult because “we have a lot of essential people.”

Council member Morales announced this morning that in the next couple of weeks she and her office will begin the process of re-authorizing the University District Business Improvement Area. She is working with District 4 Council member Pedersen to make that happen before the current one expires.

Council President Gonzalez gave an update on Council Bills 119761 and 119762, her legislation extending tenant protections during the COVID-19 emergency. She intended to bring them forward, but then last week Governor Inslee extended the statewide moratorium on evictions and granted other protections to residential tenants include a rent freeze. She said that she still intends to bring the bills forward,but is taking more time to do a “crosswalk” between her bills and the Governor’s proclamations to see if there are any gaps.

Today featured the re-introduction of live public comment to Council meetings, using conferencing software. And it worked nearly perfectly — better, in fact, than the Council’s own videoconferencing software, which repeatedly dumped Council Member Morales out of the meeting. At one point when Morales could no longer join the meeting, she called Council member Strauss on his cell phone, and Strauss held his phone up to his computer so she could participate.