For a Tuesday, it sure felt like a Monday.
This afternoon, the Council approved a pair of bills related to city employees.
First, by a 6-1 vote, it approved a new contract with the Seattle Parking Enforcement Officers’ Guild. The one “no” vote was cast by Council member Pedersen, who cited the city’s budget woes. Council President Gonzalez countered by saying that the City Budget Office had assured them that the contract would not submit the city budget to “further pressure or crisis.”
Second, by a 7-0 vote it approved a Memorandum of Understanding with a coalition of unions representing city employees, granting flexibility in some specific terms of their contracts, particularly related to working conditions and benefits, while the COVID-19 emergency is in effect.
Council members Sawant and Juarez were absent today.
This morning the Council was briefed by its staff on a bill introduced today that would require food-delivery companies such as Postmates and DoorDash, and TNC companies including Uber and Lyft, to pay an additional $5 of “premium pay” per stop to their gig workers. The bill is expected to come up for final vote next Monday, skipping deliberations in committee. I will be writing up the bill, and this morning’s conversation, separately this week.
Council member Lewis, the chair of the council’s Select Committee on Homelessness Strategies and Investments, has been hard at work organizing panels of officials to field questions at tomorrow’s committee meeting in which the Council will take up a bill sponsored by council members Morales, Sawant and Mosqueda that would codify further restrictions on the removal of homeless encampments during the COVID-19 emergency.
Lewis said this morning that Deputy Mayor Mike Fong will attend, and will possibly be joined by Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller, SFD Chief Harold Skoggins, and SPD Chief Carmen Best.
As this afternoon’s City Council meeting was wrapping up, Lewis said that he had been trying since last Thursday to confirm a representative from Seattle-King County Public Health, but that Director Patty Hayes had declined on behalf of her department, “saying that they didn’t believe that they would have time to present.” The department rebuffed Lewis’s follow-up requests for an alternative to Hayes, and as of this morning they were still claiming that there was a “hurdle” preventing them from providing someone; they offered to provide written answers to questions that the Council submitted, but Lewis believed that to be insufficient for the Council’s needs. So this afternoon Lewis played a trump card: he moved for the Council to formally subpoena Hayes or her delegate to appear and testify tomorrow.
The public health department is jointly funded by the City of Seattle and King County, and the City Council is well within its rights — legally under the City Charter, and morally through its oversight responsibilities — to subpoena department officials. However, that is not a power that the Council uses lightly, and in practice it’s not a power that it ever uses. In fact, the Council members had to filibuster for a few minutes while the City Clerk consulted with the City Attorney’s Office to ensure that they understood the correct procedure for formally approving and issuing a subpoena. In the meantime, the Council members received an email from the public health department saying that they had changed their minds and were now available to testify tomorrow. Crisis averted.
Except it isn’t. The fight between the Mayor’s Office and the City Council over encampment removals has been simmering for years, pre-dating Durkan, and every once in a while it boils over into open warfare. This recent battle is within the context of the COVID-19 emergency, wherein the CDC has warned that encampment removals can disperse homeless individuals out into the larger community and further spread the virus; they recommend that unless alternate shelter can be provided that maintains appropriate social distancing, such as individual hotel rooms, “tiny house” villages, or non-congregate shelter spaces, governments should leave shelters in place if they aren’t creating greater health or safety issues. In March, under pressure from advocacy groups and some Council members, the Mayor’s Office rewrote the rules of engagement for the Navigation Team so as to stop all encampment removals except those creating “extreme” circumstances — a term left somewhat vague. Since the end of March, the Navigation Team has done four encampment removals, including two high-profile ones last week. In response to last week’s removals and out of fear that the Navigation Team was not following its own rules and might be ramping up removals, Morales, Sawant and Mosqueda introduced their bill, which they claim simply codifies the restrictions that the Mayor’s Office announced back in March. However, Deputy Mayor Fong responded with an angry letter denouncing the bill as poorly written and overreaching, claiming that it would prevent the city from addressing public safety issues, disease outbreaks, and other hazards.
According to Council member Herbold this morning, Fong also told her that the Navigation Team has been consulting with the public health department, asking their advice on decisions to remove specific encampments. Herbold suggested that if that were the case, that relationship and process should be formalized; and Herbold said that the Mayor’s Office is open to that idea.
<oh look, a soapbox! I think I’ll stand on that for a bit…>
I can sympathize with Director Hayes for preferring to advise quietly behind the scenes rather than get pulled into the spotlight of a bitter, long-standing feud. And yet, starting tomorrow that is exactly where she will be, no doubt being asked to interpret the CDC guidance on encampment removals (which she didn’t write). It’s a no-win scenario for Hayes and the public health department: both sides will try to maneuver her into saying things that support their argument, and no matter what she says both the Mayor and the Council will cherry-pick sound bites. She and her department need to continue to work with both the Mayor and the Council, and her testimony tomorrow will strain both of those crucial relationships.
But the larger danger is that the public health department will become politicized in the eyes of Seattle residents through association with one side of this dispute. As the New Yorker pointed out, Seattle’s early success in mobilizing to respond to the COVID-19 crisis was because the politicians got out of the way and let the public health scientists lead — a group that was broadly viewed as above politics. But with encampment removals, it’s now become a fight to see who can co-opt the public health department to their side. Forcing Hayes to publicly testify so that both sides can parse and spin her words could cause lasting damage to her department’s reputation, while failing to advance the Council and Mayor toward a solution. We’re far from done with the COVID-19 crisis, and we need a credible public health department that can rise above politics to help guide us through the months, possibly years, to come. It’s a failure of our elected officials on both the second and seventh floors of City Hall that they are willing to use the department as a pawn in their ongoing battle with each other. Both sides have strong relationships with the public health department, and there is no information or guidance that Hayes will share tomorrow that she wouldn’t be willing to share with them in the course of their regular conversations. The only reason to make her do it in public tomorrow is for political theater. And this is definitely theater, because regardless of what happens tomorrow Mayor Durkan controls the outcome: the bill is written as emergency legislation, which requires 3/4 of the Council and the Mayor’s signature to approve it. If the Mayor vetoes it, there is no provision for the Council to override the veto.
<That was a lovely soapbox, but I think I’ll step down before I fall off and break something>
At the end of the day, if the Council wants to do anything with this bill besides public posturing, it needs to negotiate the bill with the Mayor. Mosqueda has offered two amendments that start to move in that direction, revising a few of the provisions of the bill that Fong objected to in his letter, but it appears that there is more work to be done before the Council and the Mayor are on the same page.
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