In a somewhat bizarre move, Council member Sawant has called a meeting of her Sustainability and Renters Rights Committee for Thursday evening to discuss the proposed payroll tax that she and Council member Morales have introduced.
The meeting was made in apparent frustration over the cancellation of the Budget Committee meetings where her legislation was being heard. Budget Chair Teresa Mosqueda cancelled the meeting after a memo from Council President Gonzalez pointed out that holding deliberations on the bills was likely in violation of Governor Inslee’s emergency proclamation loosening some rules in the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) and public Records Act (PRA), but in return limiting the matters upon which public agencies could take action to those that are “necessary and routine” or “necessary to respond to the COVID-19 emergency.”
In a press conference Friday morning, Sawant called the move by Gonzalez and Mosqueda (and Herbold, who first raised the issue) a “betrayal” and claimed that Mosqueda cancelled the meetings under “pressure from the establishment.”
“Our movement can’t wait and cannot accept this attempt to stymie our momentum,” Sawant said, in announcing that her committee will meet by Zoom and LiveStreat next Thursday at 6pm, to continue discussions on the legislation and to discuss how to advance an effort to obtain a suspension without consequences of rent, mortgage and utility payments,” making the big banks and billionaires pay for this crisis.”
There are three issues with Sawant holding discussions of the legislation in her committee. First, the bills aren’t referred to her committee; they’re in the Budget Committee chaired by Mosqueda — though you may recall that Sawant pushed hard to have them heard in her committe. So Sawant’s committee will be powerless to do anything with the bills other than talk about them. Second, it is just as much a violation of the Governor’s proclamation to deliberate on them in Sawant’s committee as it would be in Mosqueda’s — so even if it were possible to move the bills forward, any actions would be subject to legal challenge.
Third, Sawant is unlikely to get a quorum on Thursday evening, given that she and all of her colleagues have been put on notice that each of them individually would be opening themselves up to legal action if they were to participate in an illegal Council meeting. Sawant chairs the committee and Morales is the vice-chair, so two will almost certainly be present. But the other three members are Lewis, Pedersen, and Juarez (with Mosquesda as alternate), and all four of them will almost certainly steer clear of it. Without a quorum, Sawant can’t even approve the agenda, let alone take up legislation.
In Friday’s press conference, Sawant declared that she believed the Governor’s proclamation was illegal; and even if it were, that the payroll tax bills met the definition of “necessary to respond to the COVID-19 emergency.” This is despite the fact that the bills’ sole repsonse to the COVID emergency is $200 million in the first year for relief payments to low-income households, while the remainder of the bill raises $500 million per year, in perpetuity, for affordable housing and Green new Deal projects. Those are provisions that Sawant and Morales announced before the COVID-19 emergency even began, making it difficult to argue that they are in response to the COVID-19.
Sawant brought to the press conference Dmitri Iglitzin, a labor law attorney who has recently done work on campaign finance law and is apparently now branching out into OPMA cases, to provide a legal analysis of the Governor’s proclamation. Sawant neglected to disclose that Iglitzin is also her personal attorney, nor did they say whether he was appearing in that role or in his own capacity. Nevertheless, Iglitzin argued that the Governor’s proclamation exceeds his authority under state law, and that the Governor has no power to tell the Council what it may or may not deliberate upon.
Iglitzin also attacked the notion that a Council meeting held virtually over Zoom does not meet all of the openness and transparency requirements under the OPMA. He ridiculed a guidance paper from the Attorney General’s Office that reiterated the broadly-held view that agency meetings must be held in person, and in normal circumstances the minimum requirement that the Council must meet if it were to hold its meeting over the phone or online would be to set up a room with a speakerphone where someone could sit in the room and listen to the meeting. Iglitzin said that there was no basis for such a requirement. That’s a bit stunning, since the justification is obvious and one cited by the Council all the time: equity. There are residents of Seattle who do not have access to the Internet or a telephone, for whom an in-person option is the only method available to listen to the meeting. It’s damning that Sawant, a frequent champion for equity concerns, would be so willing to dispense with them when it suits her purpose.
Iglitzin suggested that an organization such as the Association of Washington Cities should go to court to challenge the Governor’s proclamation, but he doubts that they will do so becuase they have become “intimidated.” “The City Council has been buffaloed,” he said, by the threat that going ahead with the meeting will violate the proclamation. “They have literally pulled their heads into their shells.” But he argued that by Sawant and Morales moving ahead “it’s the Governor’s move” if he wants to rule that it’s in violation. That’s one potential outcome; another is that private parties sue once the legislation passes, arguing that the bills were passed illegally.
Sawant will no doubt hold her committee meeting on Thursday evening regardless of the issues. She can’t do anything substantive, she probably won’t get a quorum, and anything that she does at the meeting will simply become fodder for a legal challenge to the legislation later. In effect it will be a city-sponsored political rally, promoting the payroll tax bills. Sawant has promised to have advocates and economists at the table to explain why the bills meet the requirements of the impending recession.
In the meantime, the “Tax Amazon” ballot initiative campaign held another “action conference” on Saturday, at which a resolution was passed echoing nearly verbatim Sawant’s talking points from earlier in the week. And to address their need to acquire 20,000 petition signatures to get the tax on the ballot, they have begun organizing a “Amazon Tax Prime” delivery service to get copies of petitions out to people’s homes for them to sign while maintaining social distancing.
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