Open Letter to Seattle City Council Regarding Bill 120247 (Diversion and City Attorney’s Office)

The council is trying to place unprecedented restrictions on the City Attorney’s office, without even knowing what the most important outcome metrics are of the approach it is demanding.

Correction since publication: A deeply civically informed friend noted privately to me that Council’s proposed action on Monday relates to pre-filing of charges (i.e., whether to decline or file charges), not post-filing diversion programs such as LEAD. This is despite the fact that the Bill, 120247, mentions LEAD multiple times. My friend’s clarification is a very important distinction, and one I misunderstood. This rushed Council bill has almost nothing to do with LEAD specifically as a program; and this should be considered when reading the original note below. But it doesn’t obviate the essential point: Council is setting up historic new constraints on the City Attorney — likely tying funding to decisions to decline/file/divert. This despite the fact that they do not seem to demand transparent, regular quarterly reporting on the most important metric (recidivism) for our biggest diversion program.

They are clearly setting up constraints for the City Attorney to dictate how big a role they want prosecution or credible threats of prosecution (broadly) to play in our justice system. At the same time, they seem utterly incurious about the hard comparative metrics of the most significant and highest-profile non-prosecution diversion investment and tradeoffs we’ve made to date. Ideologically, many Councilmembers are committed to further reduction of prosecution of low-level offenses, and they no longer have a City Attorney who vehemently agrees in all cases. Such decisions — to prosecute alleged offenders or divert them into other non-prosecutorial programs — have always been the role of the City Attorney, and should remain so. That none of us — neither the public nor City Council — actually know the annual change in recidivism rates of our largest formalized diversion program participants on an ongoing transparent basis remains emblematic that the Council majority is driven more by ideological certitude than comparing what works and what doesn’t, and when. Perhaps Council can focus on first quantifying regular, transparent reporting metrics on such efforts before constraining what another department should do with respect to the prosecution-diversion tradeoff.

December 11, 2021


Dear Seattle City Council Members:

I have a simple question for you. What has been the recidivism rate of Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program participants, for 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 or 2021? You, the City Council, who repeatedly fund this program and laud its effectiveness, do not know. No one does, as the consultant report on LEAD clearly indicated. Perhaps it’s very effective at reducing repeat offenses. But perhaps it isn’t. Maybe it reduces recidivism for some kinds of offenses but not others. Maybe it robustly reduces recidivism for the young but not the old, or maybe the addicted but not the well. Or maybe it’s entirely the other way around. We don’t have the metrics to know.

Heavily aligned academic research and 2019 followup based on a snapshot of seven-year old data suggested LEAD did reduce recidivism in a 316-person cohort, compared to a synthetically modeled comparison group. But reality is different than modeling, and since that time, all kinds of parameters of the program have changed, including levels of law enforcement participation, consequences for veering from the program’s requirements, who is eligible for the program, program staffing, which offenses qualify, and much more. I fully acknowledge there is other evidence directionally supporting diversion programs, and that’s great. I do believe such programs can work well in certain circumstances, and so does the new City Attorney, as she has repeatedly made clear.

But shouldn’t we know for sure where it’s effective, year by year, and where it’s not?

Even though you do not even know Seattle’s recidivism numbers, or when specifically LEAD clearly works to reduce recidivism and when it doesn’t, you’re clearly setting up new constraints on decisions which used to be under the purview of the City Attorney’s office. Even more astonishingly, you don’t even insist that such diversion programs which you wish another city branch to favor report overall participant recidivism quarterly as a requirement for continued funding.

Is there any more important metric than recidivism for whether such programs deliver for the community compared to, say, criminal prosecution, mandated treatment or drug court?

This coming Monday, in a rushed vote, you will be deciding to place new reporting — and likely commensurate funding — restrictions on the new, incoming City Attorney, which you never have done before.

Prosecutorial discretion is up to… the prosecutor. Your appalling decision here is a clear attempt to hamstring the duly elected City Attorney before she has even taken office. You have an ideology, and you want it enacted, regardless of whether we have clear evidence in Seattle that it’s the best way to reduce repeat offenses, or when and where.

The City Council’s fast track bill to be voted on Monday subjects City Attorney Elect Ann Davison to unprecedented City Council oversight. In the 100-year history of the City Attorney’s office no previous (male) attorney has faced this kind of pre-emption of their powers.

The bill goes against the voice of the voters, who voted Pete Holmes and his policies out. Nicole Thomas-Kennedy and her decriminalization policies were also voted down. The people have spoken. Some on the City Council may disagree, but you are supposed to represent the wishes of your constituents.

At a minimum, you owe the citizens clear understanding that the heavy emphasis on diversion you continue to insist upon actually does make neighborhoods safer. The research that is trotted out to justify this is based on data that is now more than seven years old. Program parameters have changed dramatically, including who participates, what criteria is used, what interventions are used, what follow-up is done, and more. Yet you, the City Council, cannot even concretely report to the citizens the most important metric for this program: the recidivism rates for the program participants.

As the Seattle Times put so clearly: “The city attorney, not the council, is elected to handle misdemeanor cases in Seattle. Yet the bill would impose the council’s ideas about which cases go to courts and which are diverted into community programs.

Voters elected Davison to get on top of the nearly 4,000 cases that Pete Holmes allowed to accumulate without prosecution. Let her do her job, figure out whether LEAD works and where with actual data (not just clever story-based marketing), and focus on the many other urgent tasks of the SCC. At a bare minimum, if you are so fond of the diversion program, don’t you owe it to constituents to know the recidivism results? Start there.

References:

Lewis touts new report on JustCARE program… but maybe he shouldn’t. (UPDATED) (sccinsight.com), with link to consultant’s report on LEAD

Seattle Times:

Seattle City Council’s power play undermines City Attorney-elect Ann Davison | The Seattle Times

Sent to: council@seattle.gov, lisa.herbold@seattle.gov, tammy.morales@seattle.gov, kshama.sawant@seattle.gov, alex.pedersen@seattle.gov, debora.juarez@seattle.gov, dan.strauss@seattle.gov, andrew.lewis@seattle.gov, teresa.mosqueda@seattle.gov, lorena.gonzalez@seattle.gov

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Ann Davison’s Email to Council this week:

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Who is Endorsing Whom in Seattle’s 2021 August 3rd Primary?

Catching up with the latest organizational endorsements for the August 3rd, 2021 Primary for Seattle

Let’s check in on organizational endorsements for the key positions in the Seattle and King County August 2021 Primaries.

I’m focusing on organizational endorsements because it can be useful to zoom out to see which candidates have earned the nod from some of the city’s larger media, political, labor and civic groups, which often have very specific policy goals. If you know something about the organization and what its objectives are, that can tell you where the candidates stand on those issues. Conversely, if you know something about the candidate’s stances, this can tell you something about the organization.

OrgMayorCity AttorneyCouncil
8
Council 9KC
Exec
URL
Seattle SubwayFarrell, HoustonMosquedaOliverConstantine, NguyenSeattle Subway August 2021 Primary Endorsements – Seattle Transit Blog
The StrangerGonzálezThomas-KennedyMosquedaOliverNguyenThe Stranger’s Endorsements for the August 3, 2021, Primary Election – News – The Stranger
The Seattle TimesHarrellDavisonNelsonConstantineSeattle Times editorial board endorsements: Election 2021 Seattle and King County | The Seattle Times
Speak Out Seattle (SOS)Langlie, Donaldson, HarrellDavisonMartinNelsonhttps://www.speakoutseattle.com/2021-seattle-primary-election-voters-guide/
Progressive Voters GuideGonzález, Echohawk, Farrell, Houston, HarrellHolmesMosquedaOliver, ThomasConstantine, NguyenProgressive Voters Guide
The UrbanistEchohawkThomas-KennedyMosquedaOliverNguyenThe Urbanist’s 2021 Primary Endorsements | The Urbanist
Downtown Seattle AssociationHarrell, SixkillerNelsonhttps://downtownseattle.org/advocacy/candidate-scorecard/
MLK LaborGonzálezHolmesMosquedaOliverConstantine2021 MLK Labor Endorsements – MLK Labor MLK Labor
Teamsters No. 28GonzálezHolmesMosquedaThomashttp://jc28.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/2021-JC28-Candidate-Endorsements.pdf
Working Families PartyGonzálezMosquedaOliverWA WFP Announces 2021 Endorsements – Working Families Party
Hospitality Union of NWGonzálezThomas
UFCW 21González
11th Legislative District DemocratsGonzálezHolmesOliver
UAW 4121González
Alliance for Gun ResponsibilityGonzález
Sheet Metal Workers Local 66Farrell
King County Young DemocratsGonzález, EchohawkOliver
Washington Technology Industry AssociationHarrell
Transit Riders UnionHoustonThomas-KennedyMosquedaOliverNguyenTRU’s 2021 Primary Endorsements – Transit Riders Union
Sierra ClubMosqueda
Washington Conservation VotersMosquedaConstantineEndorsements – Washington Conservation Voters (wcvoters.org)
Firefighters Union Local 27Nelson(iaff27.org)
Seattle Building & Construction Trades CouncilNelson
Democratic Socialists of America SeattleOliverhttps://seattledsa.org/endorsements-2021/

Lots of individual endorsements; follow the links

Many candidates enjoy large and growing lists of individual endorsements. But again, I’m deliberately limiting the scope of this post here to organizational endorsement.

I encourage you to follow the links to the candidates’ own websites for more complete lists, because in no case are the lists above complete.

Patterns

On the mayoral side, City Council President M. Lorena González has racked up a considerable amount of traditional labor union support (e.g., MLK Labor, SEIU locals and many more), in addition to The Stranger.

Bruce Harrell gets the nod from more centrist, commerce-friendly and/or public-safety focused organizations. And sure enough, he enjoys recommendation from The Seattle Times.

In general, the more left-leaning the organization, particularly in the areas of eliminating single-family zoning, decriminalization, making transit free, and more, the more likely they are to endorse:

  • Joe Nguyen for King County Executive over viable candidate Dow Constantine,
  • Nikkita Oliver over viable candidates Sara Nelson and Brianna Thomas, and
  • Nicole Thomas-Kennedy over either incumbent Pete Holmes or viable challenger Ann Davison for City Attorney.

Those organizations focused primarily on an urbanist agenda find Andrew Grant Houston and Colleen Echohawk appealing at the mayoral level.

The more centrist/moderate, public safety and/or business-focused they are, the more likely they are to endorse:

  • Bruce Harrell for Mayor,
  • Sara Nelson for District 9,
  • Ann Davison for City Attorney and
  • Dow Constantine for King County Council executive.

Note that each of these candidates — and also ones not listed — also have growing lists of individual endorsers as well. They’re often community, governmental, labor and business leaders. I’ve made no attempt to catalogue them all, but they might be meaningful to you and your vote. So please visit the candidates’ individual websites, and/or the endorsement organizations’ websites for much more complete lists and full commentary.

Caveats

Blanks in the table above indicate no-specific endorsement as yet as of this writing, July 25th 2021 — for that particular position. Sometimes, it represents the fact that an organization has declined to endorse any candidate for that position. For details, check their website, linked for you in the right hand column.

This is not a complete list, and these organizations aren’t listed in any particular order.

There’s no easy way to keep this always up-to-date, but follow me on Twitter and jot me a note if I’ve missed key ones, and I’ll do my best to update it on a periodic basis.

Interpreting Endorsements: My Two Cents

Seattle voters are busy people. We generally don’t closely follow the nuances of each political organization. Thus, I think we tend to over-rely upon endorsements more than we should.

Even the brand name of the group tends to be more important than what they may currently stand for, and voters don’t always have a full appreciation of what policy slate each organization currently stands for. We are also generally unaware of political drift — several “X Legislative District Democrat” groups, for instance, have moved quite far left in the past couple of decades, at least to this moderate independent voter.

Decades ago, as a novice voter, I tended to think “more endorsements are better.” In one sense, perhaps that’s true. But that only makes sense if you believe that all organizations have the same view of city policy tradeoffs as you. And that’s very unlikely to be the case. The leaders we are electing have views on policy tradeoffs. They might not express them very clearly during the election (to try to capture as many voters as possible), but they do have views on policy tradeoffs. The stances they take involve very real livability issues, including public safety, homelessness, affordable housing, ecology, single-family zoning, transit, tax policy, policy toward addiction, policies toward repeat offenders, and much more.

While endorsements by organizations that are fully aligned with your worldview can be very useful indicators, beware of just the brand-name of an organization itself. Several have drifted from their brand name, and some can elect endorsement committees which are soon captured by an extreme viewpoint. (Stipulated: extremism is a highly subjective term!)

Some Organizations Might Serve as Useful Negative Indicators

If you think The Seattle Times is far too corporatist and elite, or you think the Downtown Seattle Association is just a mouthpiece for Amazon, you might shy away from their picks. And the converse is also true.

And voters would do well to look back at their past recommendations, and see how well they’ve fared for Seattleites.

For instance, I wrote last week why I think The Stranger’s political endorsements have been a disaster for Seattleites; 8 of 9 current city council members and long-time City Attorney Pete Holmes have received glowing endorsements from The Stranger. So in one sense, if you love the job the City Council is doing, and love the current City Attorney’s approach to his office, The Stranger is your perfect voting guide. If on the other hand, you view Seattle City Council less favorably, you might want to reconsider whom they’re recommending for you this year, and perhaps even consider it a negative indicator of who you should vote for.

Think it’s just The Stranger? Not so fast. The much-shared-in-my-social-circle “Progressive Voters Guide” also recommended a majority of our current City Council to voters, as well as City Attorney Pete Holmes, for several terms. So maybe they’re not the best talent-spotter, either.

Omissions are unintentional. Please follow me on Twitter and jot me a note if there are key organizations (not individuals, organizations) that I’ve missed. Tracking individual endorsements is way too fast-moving and time-consuming. Thanks.

Get Those Ballots In!

Last, a plug. Please be sure to get those ballots in. Don’t let them sit unused on the kitchen table, unless you truly have no idea for whom to vote. The August primary is when we choose the top two finalists for major seats to run off against each other in the November vote. Some primaries have just 30% voter participation; and in skipping the vote, you let the most motivated activists have a much greater share-of-voice over policies which may very well matter to you. Take a moment, read through the voters guide, visit the campaign websites of your favorites, and resolve to be an even more informed voter this year. Don’t just complain online about the choices others make — continue to get as informed as you can, and vote.

Seattle’s Grand Rock-Throwing Experiment: Will Our Actual Virtue Exceed Our Desire to Signal It?

If you wanted to design a real-life test to figure out if a civic leader’s actual virtue exceeds their desire to signal it, you could hardly do better than the life-and-death experiment playing out on I-5 right now.

If you wanted to design a real-life test to determine if a civic leader’s actual virtue exceeds their desire to signal it, you could hardly do better than the life-and-death experiment playing out on Interstate Highways 5 and 90 in Seattle right now.

So far, our desire to signal virtue is winning.

UPDATE, July 22 2021: Brandi Kruse and others are reporting that two encampments near I-90 are being cleared today, after more than four months of rock and debris-throwing reports.

180+ Rock Throwing Incidents in 2021

At this writing, there are now more than 180 rock or debris-throwing incidents in 2021 alone. Most, but not all, are at or near the I-5/I-90 crossover. There are four or five per day, for the past four days.

Think of that: every single day, 5 bricks, rocks or chunks of concrete are tossed onto a 60mph+ freeway.

The uncomfortable reality is that most if not all of these incidents have been traced to homeless encampments adjacent to our highways. Rock-throwing wasn’t happening ten years ago — or perhaps more accurately, if it ever was, it was an isolated incident or two, not five per day. These rocks aren’t just randomly appearing.

And it’s not just one individual:

Someone Is Going To Get Seriously Hurt or Killed

I haven’t calculated the precise odds of death or life-altering injury with five randomly tossed concrete shards, rocks or bricks onto a 60mph+ freeway over every 24 hour period. But the odds of loss of life (or life-altering injury) has got to be a better-than 50/50 bet over the course of a month, don’t you think?

Honestly. It is only a matter of time before one or more innocent people get killed. It’s miraculous that no one thus far has.

Until leaders act, the question is: who will it be? If you drive on I-5 or I-90 near Seattle, you’re in the deadly lottery.

How Are We Letting This Happen?

You rightly ask: How can we let this happen? Why can’t we say “This is not acceptable,” and enforce the law? Numerous “brush fires” stemming from encampment along the highway are one thing, but now rocks? Why do we allow unsanctioned encampments adjacent to major freeways, yet prevent unauthorized encampment in state parks?

The reality is, there’s a conflict-avoidant tendency in Seattle’s municipal leadership. It’s far less costly to simply go along with the fiction that these unsanctioned encampments pose little safety risk and that allowing them to set up wherever they’d like on public property is the “compassionate” thing to do.

The issue of encampment “sweeps” has been an enormously contentious one in Seattle for the past eight years or so. And activists have, for now, forced city officials to press the “pause” button.

Yet the preamble of the Seattle City Charter is clear. The purpose of a city government is first and foremost to protect and enhance the health, safety, environment and general welfare of the people. In fact these goals are the very reason for the City and its laws:

Who’s In Charge?

Shouldn’t there be a city-coordinated group that helps remove or relocate encampments when they pose a clear risk to public safety, offering shelter and services, but also saying “no, you cannot stay here?” There used to be such a team. But first, a few words about its origin.

Encampment Removal Pre-2016: Disorganized, Miscommunication

Before the existence of the Navigation Team, the City was involved in mandatory encampment removals, but often with little coordination, advanced warning, safety for encampment residents, or clear ownership.

In January 2016, Seattle City Council held a briefing on sweeps of unauthorized tent encampments. If you follow this thread from the Seattle Times’ David Beekman, you’ll see that Kshama Sawant, Lisa Herbold, and Lorena Gonzalez all expressed strong concerns about sweeps of unauthorized encampments:

The January 2016 Council briefing on unauthorized encampment removals is here:

Among other things mandated was a specific multi-department administrative rule (MDAR) laying out some basic precepts for unsanctioned encampment removal:

Over the ensuing months, Mayor Ed Murray acknowledged ongoing coordination problems, and wrote the following to City Council, saying specifically “I believe that people should not be living in areas that are an imminent threat to their own health and safety or that of the public”:

In August 2016, Mike Baker of The Seattle Times wrote about the flawed and disorganized results when there’s no coordination between service providers and law enforcement.

Baker’s article is here: “Chaos, trash and tears: Inside Seattle’s flawed homeless sweeps

October 2016: “The Jungle”

In October 2016, the City of Seattle moved ahead and cleared an area under I-5 commonly known as “The Jungle”:

“Amid loud chants from protesters, city and state officials began clearing out a Seattle homeless encampment known as ‘The Jungle’ Tuesday. The camp is notorious for multiple cases of criminal activity and drug use. The homeless still living in The Jungle were warned they needed to leave the area under Interstate 5 by 8 a.m. Tuesday. Officials say 13 people were still there as of early Tuesday morning, down from over 350 people last year. And those 13 were still not ready to go.”

KING 5 News, October 11 2016

Concerns about lack of coordination, a desire to establish more humane approaches and clear ownership drove the formation of the Navigation Team in November 2017, which combined outreach service providers and law enforcement to help better coordinate these efforts.

What was the Navigation Team? How Did It Work?

Seattle’s short-lived “Navigation Team,” a combined team of outreach service providers and law enforcement, was established in Feburary 2017. It was the brainchild of Scott Lindsay, Mayor Ed Murray’s Public Safety Advisor.

The Nav Team was a combined group of service providers (i.e., shelter and service providers) and police officers who would make contact with an encampment posing a hazard risk.

Seattle’s Navigation Team Structure, from the 2018 Audit of the Navigation Team

They would go the encampment which was deemed by the Executive Branch (Mayor’s office) to be a public safety risk, several days ahead of time, make contact, and warn them they cannot stay, offering shelter and service referrals. Then a couple days before. Then day of.

Feb 2017- Aug 2020

The Navigation Team used to do the difficult but important work of clearing unsanctioned encampments when they posed a clear hazard to public health or safety.

From the moment it started, the Nav Team ran into constant opposition from outspoken Councilmember Kshama Sawant, amplified by Seattle’s cadre of activist-journalists, as well as Seattle’s leftmost Twitterati. You can search Twitter for #stopthesweeps Seattle to get an idea of who holds such a view; it includes the Seattle Democratic Socialists Alliance and several highly-followed Twitter users.

Legislatively, from 2017-2019, Kshama Sawant worked hard to defund this team and end its work, both rhetorically and through proposed bills. In November 2019, a bill to fully defund the team and reallocate its 30+ members was considered and rejected by City Council’s Budget Committee. That was put forward by Sawant, but failed to get a second, and never made it out of committee.

During this period from 2017-2020, Council members became increasingly hostile to ever clearing designated unsanctioned encampments (often shorthanded as “sweeps”) of any kind. Kshama Sawant led this messaging, but by August 2020, Councilmembers like Teresa Mosqueda and Council President Lorena Gonzalez joined right in.

“Stop The Sweeps” Gains Momentum, 2017-2020

Socialist Alternative (Kshama Sawant’s political party) has been in the vanguard of the “Stop The Sweeps” movement. In 2017, their calls to end sweeps grew ever louder (“Stop the Sweeps! Nov. 1 Camp Out at Seattle City Hall“, SocialistAlternative.org)

There’s a Facebook group and Twitter group — Stop The Sweeps Seattle with over 3,500 members. They argue that (a) housing is a human right, and (b) forced displacement with a lack of adequate housing is inhumane. The most prominent Seattle politician aligning with these views is Councilmember Kshama Sawant:

From about 2018-2020, Council was ever-more captured by the message from the “stop the sweeps!” activist voices. Yet it wasn’t prepared to bring an end to these sweeps.

This all changed with the eruption of the George Floyd police brutality protests of June 2020. Activists finally had the anti-police momentum they needed.

On August 5th 2020, Seattle’s City Council defunded the Navigation Team. On that date, Council first voted unanimously to remove police from the Navigation Team, and then split 5-4 on a second vote to fully defund this team.

From a practical standpoint, the first vote to unanimously remove Seattle’s Police Department from these outreach teams ensured its demise, because — at least to hear the Navigation Team’s defenders in law enforcement say it — several service providers privately expressed an entirely reasonable desire to have law enforcement protection in the vicinity during these encounters.

The first unanimous vote to remove SPD from the Navigation Team undermines its efforts, for the same reason captured in Abraham Lincoln’s famous quotation that “Laws without enforcement are just… good advice.”

If well-meaning service providers and volunteers won’t reach out to unsanctioned encampments without law enforcement, if any who are encamped don’t voluntarily move on, the public hazard represented will not effectively change.

Activists declared the Navigation Team’s “sweeps” the “stealing of campers’ property!” and “uncompassionate!”, and vilified the city for doing it.

Rarely would they consider any needs of those to whom the encampments posed safety risks; these demands were pretty much exclusively from the campers’ points of view.

Yet less than a year later, in the wake of the George Floyd Protests, CHOP/CHAZ the opportunity presented itself. Lorena Gonzalez, Lisa Herbold and Teresa Mosqueda all jumped aboard. Eventually “Defund The Police by 50%” was supported by 7 of 9 Council members — all but Debra Juarez and Alex Pedersen.

And the Navigation Team was fully eliminated by City Council, in two votes, on August 5th, 2020.

So we have come full-circle, back to pre-Navigation Team days. What did that look like?

Summer 2021: Buck-Passing Ensues, Preceding the Inevitable Finger-Pointing To Come.

Seattle journalist Brandi Kruse asked Mayor Jenny Durkan about the rock-throwing on Tuesday. Mayor Durkan says it’s Washington State Department of Transportation’s responsibility:

Today, the finger-pointing continues. The Mayor points to Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), who points back to the City of Seattle, who points to…

When someone gets seriously injured or even dies, we will return to this conversation. Do you expect any civic leader, at that time, to accept responsibility?

Mine isn’t the universal take, of course. Publicola’s Erica C. Barnett, who enjoys a much bigger platform than I do, suggests that encampment-clearing-due-to-many-violations of a few residents is somehow a double-standard:

Rocks Aren’t The Only Hazard of Freeway-Adjacent Living

I haven’t even detailed the risk posed by fires. Just one example: about a year ago, my daughter and I passed within feet of this raging fire on I-5 underneath 6th Avenue and the Convention Center:

Fire near Washington State Convention Center on I-5, in the Southbound lane near the James St. exit. Photo was taken by another Seattleite around the same time my daughter and I passed in our car. (I-5 Highway in foreground)

We drove within feet of this fire, at 40-50mph, right around the time this photo was taken by a viewer from above. The fire trucks hadn’t yet arrived. My daughter and I could feel the searing heat through the closed car window.

Are fires like this, underneath and adjacent to a freeway, acceptable risks for people and infrastructure? Are they acceptable for the environment?

City Council and the Mayor are saying: yes, the are. Who are the compassionate ones again?

Civic Virtue, vs. Our Desire to Signal It

This is a deadly experiment.

Not even life-or-death consequences for innocent motorists traveling the I-5/I-90 corridors appear enough to cause leaders to brave the tweets. The tweets will have name-calling. Kshama Sawant and others will take to a microphone.

The sad reality for us 724,000+ Seattleites is that City Council and the Mayor remain captured by a very loud, but comparatively small, group of activists who decide the boundaries of acceptable behavior.

The consequences of a policy that says NO sweeps, zero, is this, plus encampment fires on the highway, and a whole lot more.

Ask any motorist. Related, ask any parent with a kid at Broadview-Thomson K-8 Elementary School, but that’s a story for another day.

Finally, a corollary question: Throwing rocks at cars on 60mph+ freeways? Who does this?

At some point, can we do away with the fiction which says that 100% of people experiencing homelessness are just down on their luck Seattleites who are simply short a rent payment? And no, OF COURSE this doesn’t mean these demonstrably dangerous and unstable rock-throwers are representative of all, or even a majority of those encamped. But by the same token, stop gaslighting the public. Please don’t lecture us that all are fine individuals, either. They’re not all well. Many need serious help. Several, like one arrested for rock-throwing on July 21st, are repeat offenders (he’s a 41 year old male who had 18 prior warrants.) We cannot allow unsanctioned encampments; it’s far better to centralize services at various camps and encourage third-party service providers to use an information system to track touchpoints for those in need. Mental illness and addiction are clearly problems which need addressing, and there are very real public safety and health risks for us all, that better policies could improve.

We all have a stake, and we need not all endure much more compromised safety because of overly permissive encampment locations/policies.

Watch the dashcam video:

Summon the Actual Virtue.

It’s time for civic leaders to act. Not point fingers. People are going to die, or be seriously injured, entirely optionally.

If The Navigation Team was indeed a failure, I’d like to understand how, so that we might re-establish its successor. It is a painful reality, but there are times when “no, you cannot stay here” is the only sensible conclusion for the City Charter’s clear call to enhance public welfare, health and safety. Sometimes those encamped refuse shelter alternatives. Then what? What’s your plan?

There are multiple stakeholders in a city, not just those encamped. The Navigation Team’s mission was not just to serve individuals experiencing homelessness with compassionate options, but also to help remove clear hazards to the safety or health of the surrounding community. All 724,000+ deserve a reasonable expectation of safety; that’s the City’s first job. Don’t listen just to activists — summon the courage. Stop passing the buck.

If you asked us, I bet most of the 724,000+ Seattleites would say it’s time for leaders to remove the highway-adjacent encampments where these rock-throwers are staying. One or more motorists will die, or have serious life-altering injuries if we do nothing.

Finally as a city, in our civic dialogue, we have to find opportunities to tone down the volume, and meet in the middle. It’s OK to acknowledge the Navigation Team was less than ideal, that there are even more compassionate changes that could be made, short of abolishing it altogether. There are real, and very SERIOUS mental health and addiction issues that we have to be able discuss and provide a plan for without mischaracterization and without vilification. When was the last City Council meeting focused on mental health services or addiction?

July 21: Two encampments are being cleared, according to King 5 and Q13 News.

Ten Reasons I’m Not Voting for Lorena González as Seattle’s Next Mayor

When major outcome indicators are all moving in the wrong direction, and the process which generates these outcomes remains utterly broken for years, and even political allies describe the body one leads as dysfunctional, one should not get a promotion to an even higher position of responsibility.

Seattle’s August Primary is around the corner, which will narrow down the two finalists for Seattle Mayor.

One leading candidate is M. Lorena González, current President of the Seattle City Council. She’s a Seattle progressive with a very compelling life story. Raised in Central Washington in a migrant farming community, she worked her way through community college and WSU. She then earned a law degree with honors and became a civil rights attorney. She won election to the Seattle City Council in 2015, and has been serving as Council President since 2019.

She’s won endorsements from some of the Seattle-area’s leading progressives: Representative Pramilla Jayapal, MLK Labor, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and several other labor and civil rights organizations. [Update July 17: The Stranger also endorses her.]

But despite my enormous respect for her personal journey, I’m not voting for her, based on her results and approach as Councilmember.

Here are ten reasons I’m not voting for Lorena González:

  1. She’s President and two-term member of the very dysfunctional Seattle City Council.
  2. She’s been utterly rudderless on public safety.
  3. She is more performative than effective.
  4. She is supposed to represent the entire city, yet expresses contempt for reasonable needs of a large number of her constituents.
  5. She was instrumental in Police Chief Carmen Best’s resignation.
  6. She has an antipathy to downtown employers, and downtown needs revitalization.
  7. For her entire time on the council, she’s not done anything to create a conduit of accessibility, measurement or accountability to neighborhoods.
  8. She’s far too aligned with a narrow group of activists, not the needs of 724,000+ Seattleites.
  9. For five years, she has misdiagnosed the roots of the homelessness crisis.
  10. She has consistently voted for policies without establishing metrics of success.

Perhaps all of this could be simplified by asking yourself “Is Seattle better than it was in 2015?

But if you want some specifics, read on.

1. She’s been a long-time part of, and for two years president of, a very dysfunctional Seattle City Council.

Is six years enough time to get the measure of a public official? I think so. Lorena González has been a citywide City Councilmember since 2015, and has served as City Council President since 2019.

What can we cite as her results during that time? Do you like the City Council and its direction? Do you think it’s a well-functioning political body? She’s President.

The Seattle City Council is the 9-member legislative body of the city. It creates city laws (ordinances.) It makes multimillion dollar resource allocations in its ongoing work. It makes policy choices: spending in one area means that spending in another area often isn’t possible. So it’s a good way to get a sense of a leader’s priorities.

Further, it’s a great way to get a sense of how they manage, since much of the city’s vast network of third-party service providers are vetted, hired, and renewed, and ostensibly at least, supervised by City Council. Is there an organized process here? Time and again, the city falls short of good management practice when it comes to selecting vendors, vetting them, setting objectives, and followthrough. This is incredibly wasteful.

It’s not just spending, it’s also revenue: the City Council is also in charge of levying new taxes and excise fees, zoning, city ordinances and more.

How’s it been going since 2015? Do you think Seattle’s moved in the right direction? During her time in office:

Anti-police protestors occupied a six-block area of Seattle for more than a week in June, 2020. Several shootings, two murders and multiple rapes were reported during that two week time.

Are these problems due to funding cutbacks? I don’t think so.

Seattle’s abundant revenue is the envy of just about every other city in the nation. We’re home to Amazon, Starbucks, Zillow, Expedia, Nordstrom, major satellite locations for companies like Facebook, Google and Adobe, a vibrant health sciences sector, and many other sectors as well. Seattle’s budget continues to outpace per-capita inflation by a considerable margin:

Further, Seattle’s budget far outpaces the per-capita budget of comparable mid-size cities, such as Boston MA and Austin TX, which seem much better run.

What specifics has President and City Councilmember González done to improve your life? Meanwhile, the City Council spends time passing legislation calling for cooperation with Cuba on COVID, addressing the farm and citizenship policy for the nation of India, passing bills that cause grocery stores to close, and far more.

Listen to King County Executive Dow Constantine, who calls the current City Council an “impediment” to progress:

I’ve heard the same sentiment expressed by State Senators, State Representatives, and the Mayor about this same City Council. And she’s been president of the Council. What would this suggest about her supervision of an entire City Executive Branch?

[Side note: her Chief of Staff, Brianna Thomas, is also running for City Council.]

2. She’s been utterly rudderless on public safety.

Perhaps more than any other area, Lorena González has worked awfully hard to change our approach to public safety in the city of Seattle. But she takes reckless votes to cut funding 50% without even a plan for the newly “reimagined” public safety.

She led the Public Safety Committee in her first council term, and served as president of the City Council in the second, so she has had ample opportunity to be proactive.

To her credit, at the start of her term in City Council, she championed and passed the 2017 Police Accountability Ordinance, a thoughtful piece of legislation I largely do support, which made some significant and needed improvements to the police accountability system. But that was nearly five years ago. I wish she continued along the “reform” lines and didn’t so quickly hop on the “defund” train when it was fashionable.

Her list of positive (or even debatably positive) accomplishments in my view largely stops there, and there’s a great deal of results on the other side of the ledger which greatly trouble me with respect to her desire to see public safety improvements for the citizens of Seattle.

To wit:

  • She capriciously joined activist demands in June and July 2020 to commit to defunding the Seattle Police Department by 50%, without any actionable plan as to how to do so. She later had to backpedal entirely on that commitment.

An attorney should know that if a police force is under a federal consent decree, a local city council cannot just go passing ordinances which run afoul of that consent decree. That is Constitutional Law 101 level stuff.

Related post: “Seattle Plows Ahead with 50% Cut To Police Budget

  • What has she done to improve Seattle neighborhood safety coordination and accountability in a practical way in all her time in office?

Just a year ago, she took to Twitter to apologize for funding the police:

Does she know that 81% of Black Americans would like to see the same or greater police presence in their own neighborhoods, as Gallup measured in August 2020? Or is she only listening to a small, non-representative cadre of “Defund” and “Decriminalize” activists? There are 724,000+ Seattleites.

On the ground, the level of coordination with neighborhood community safety groups has greatly suffered. A couple specific neighborhoods in Seattle used to have “public safety coordinators” funded by the city (for instance, Sonny Nguyen in the Central and International District, who works in a different position now.)

But due to Gonzalez’s defunding actions, especially now with the sudden demise of Community Police Team and lack of scaling up of Community Service Officers or any other resourcing, there is no way for neighborhoods, businesses, etc, to tap into a point person or local accountability for the myriad programs, service providers.

Related: On police funding, Seattle council members worry they’re losing momentum | Crosscut

There are and have been so many programs that have “community” in the title (CPC, CSO, CPT) but ask yourself whether you or anyone you know has any idea of whom to contact at the local level about general public safety questions, follow-up, coordination, or feedback … during an era when public safety reform is supposed to be such a top priority.

What practical leadership has she demonstrated in the past decade to help citywide progress, outside of police reform politics?

3. She is more performative than effective.

First, the grandstanding vote in the early summer of 2020 to defund police by 50% without a plan is a prime example of González’s “fire, ready, aim” leadership style. Her ear is consistently to vocal but small activist groups whose membership totals perhaps several thousand at most, while ignoring the reasonable needs of the other 724,000+ residents who live in the city.

Second, she voted for the boondoggle $3 million “Black Brilliance Project.” How did (or will) spending that $3,000,000 tangibly help Seattleites? What do we now know that was either not known nor possible to know through existing public comment channels? Can you be specific?

Then there was the costly mistake three years ago, when Councilmember Lorena González cast a symbolic vote which cost the city $12 million in federal funding in 2018.

“I voted no on this, in part thinking that this was not going to be very controversial,” Councilmember Lorena González said. “I want to apologize to the chair. I had communicated to Chair Bagshaw that I intended to vote in this manner as a courtesy, with the understanding that there would likely be support for the underlying bill.”

Recently she pressured the Seattle Police Department to rescind an invitation to a law enforcement appreciation dinner. She decided to weigh in with support race-based discriminatory fees at a Seattle Public Park as part of Pride Month. Such discrimination is expressly prohibited by federal civil rights legislation:

She seems to prefer taking the performative route vs. working with stakeholders effectively to broker better outcomes.

Time and again, she signals that her underlying model is that of a zero-sum, activists win, non-activists lose model. Effective governance should be about truly inviting all stakeholders in and forging compromise, and there’s far too little of it demonstrated in her terms in office.

I don’t think that’s a great recipe for citywide leadership.

4. She is supposed to represent the entire city, yet expresses contempt for a large number of her constituents.

During the first fight over the Head Tax, she wrote in private texts that “It breaks my heart that more homeless people will die before the privileged voter is ready to act,” González texted. “It’s nauseating actually.”

Yes, homeless people are dying, but they’re not dying because the initial Head Tax legislation didn’t pass.

The Seattle region spends more than $1 billion annually on homelessness. Even the consultant that Seattle hired six years ago concluded that coordination, measurement and effective solutions were more important than raising new funds.

Now, six years in, we have a new King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which suggests some slow glacial progress might be possible on a single solution (though it’s current form and leadership leaves me skeptical.) But why did centralization take so long, and where are the key metrics for success and measures, what transparency do voters have, what audits have taken place of existing homelessness providers, what best practices from other cities are we adopting, and most important — what are the results thus far? Can we please measure the outcomes, not the inputs?

In calling a large number of voters “nauseating”, González didn’t ever stop to ponder the possibility that her totally misguided and scrapped initial legislation would have heavily penalized low-margin but high revenue outlets like grocery stores, warehouses and retail establishments, causing them to reduce staff and relocate out of the city, and in so doing it would have been very regressive to the communities it ostensibly attempted to help.

These same “nauseating” voters found a subsequent attempt passing a much larger employer payroll tax hike much more amenable, and without major grassroots resistance, in part because it was instead focused the targeted excise threshold on a businesses’ income, not on revenue, and thus didn’t as egregiously penalize workers at low margin or even temporarily unprofitable retail/wholesale/service.

Had González realized this from the beginning, been open to hearing objections from the family which runs the Uwajimaya grocery store and many others, and not consistently viewed policy from such a zero-sum standpoint, perhaps the entire costly and embarrassing exercise of passing a Head Tax then repealing it then passing an entirely different one could have been avoided, along with the contempt she expressed about those opposed to the scrapped version 1.0.

In another incident, González’s team relayed that she believed Third Avenue public safety concerns (numerous assualts and open-air drug dealing) “hyperbolic”:

Does characterizing public safety concerns as “hyperbolic” meet with your view of what’s happening downtown?

These concerns about downtown safety are so “hyperbolic” that more than one hundred businesses downtown have closed up shop (citing not just the pandemic but also things shoplifting and public safety), the King County Courthouse has closed public entrances, retailers are limiting hours of operation, and many residents will no longer go downtown as often.

5. She was instrumental in Police Chief Carmen Best’s resignation.

González joined the majority of the City Council and voted to cut spending for the Seattle Police Department, including Police Chief Carmen Best’s salary by 40%. Yet she refused to involve the Seattle Police Department in the process of reallocation of funds.

González likes to play the identity politics game, so it’s especially tone-deaf that she didn’t even involve Chief Best, who was the city’s first Black, Female Police Chief in its history in any plans to defund the police.

Seattle’s KING5 reports here, how the City Council’s lack of even having a conversation with Best and her department before plowing ahead with its defunding in August 2020, which led directly to Carmen Best’s resigation:

https://www.king5.com/video/news/local/seattle/difficult-decision-seattle-police-chief-carmen-best-resigns-after-28-years-with-department/281-cff49bd4-5ea3-4c6d-8b34-bdc72a8b20b7

6. She has an antipathy to downtown employers.

Council president Lorena González would like to be your mayor, but thinks downtown Seattle is only about big corporations, and refused to answer Downtown Seattle Association (DSA) in their mayoral candidate questionnaire the very reasonable question as to what might be done to get all the restaurants, retailers, repair shops, cafes, theatres, dry cleaners and more back on their feet.

Seattle has the seventh highest small business rates per capita in the nation. Wouldn’t you expect a City Councilmember to know that, even celebrate it?

Precisely no one is saying that millions of recovery dollars ought to be given to Amazon, but maybe we could do something for the smaller employers, like improving safety downtown, or loan guarantees or tax forgiveness, listening and responding to their top concerns?

What’s the role of a mayor with respect to the economic engine of a city? Should their posture be continually hostile to it, or engage with it, listen to ideas, and find ways to partner? If you believe the latter, as I do, she’s not the right fit. Because that’s now how she’s governed so far, nor how she’s signaling.

7. For her entire time on the council, she’s not done anything to create a conduit of accessibility, measurement or accountability.

Ask your local neighborhood public safety representative how responsive Lorena González’s office has been to inquiries. I did. They use words like:

“Non-responsive.”

“Dismissive.”

“No follow-through.”

8. She’s too aligned with activist groups, at the expense of 724,000+ Seattleites who want things like improved public safety, accountability, and a long-overdue effective approach to homelessness crisis which acknowledges that addiction and mental health are at the center of the crisis.

It’s admirable that González claims to be the champion, throughout her career, of the marginalized.

But there’s a recurring theme. Small but highly vocal activist groups have her ear, she then jumps in with both feet on policy ideas, and then, when the reality hits, often has to backtrack.

Homelessness response and public safety policy are big issues that affect us all. They should not be driven exclusively by a narrow group of activists at the expense of a thoughtful, sensible plan that takes input from all stakeholders.

Too often during her two terms, her quick alliance with activists and clear lack of willingness to engage with all stakeholders leads one to wonder on occasion who is truly marginalized and underrepresented. It seems more important to her sometimes to demonstrate that she’s not interested in outcomes that might benefit all.

Time and again, from her knee-jerk “Defund the Police 50%” vote, to her rhetorical affordability, not addiction-treatment-centered approach to homelessness, to safe injection sites to the Head Tax 1.0 debacle, she has sided with a small but loud activist groups over the broad needs of a community. And more than once, she’s had to backtrack from that initial response, getting way out over her skis.

Trivia: There is not a single retail or manufacturing business owner/operator/employer on the City Council today, of nine members. Is it important for the City Council — and our next mayor — to have a basic understanding of what the needs of employers are in revitalizing downtown? Or at least shouldn’t she care? Does it matter to have a vital downtown corridor in which small business, medium and (gasp!) even large businesses can thrive and find attractive for growth? Is tourism important to Seattle? Livability?

9. For five years, she has misdiagnosed the roots of the homelessness crisis.

Council President González has for years now characterized Seattle’s homelessness crisis as an “affordability crisis”, and has downplayed and ignored the chronic substance abuse and mental health crisis which is driving it. Where is the discussion about treatment options? What do we do about those who are encamped in key public spaces and do not wish to move?

Lorena González voted to eliminate the City’s Navigation Team, a former group of service providers plus law enforcement that would make contact with those encamped in some places that pose particular public safety risks (e.g., in parks adjacent to elementary schools.) The Navigation Team used to make contact with campers, provide shelter options and a deadline to move, but staying encamped at the given location was not an option. (Some shorthand this as “sweeps.”)

At issue: what do you do when an encampment poses a hazard to public safety, but residents refuse to move? It’s a difficult and sensitive conundrum; sweeps have been loudly characterized by detractors as uncompassionate. But they don’t really offer any solution for, say, the elementary school which has tents and yes, also addiction and public safety risks adjacent to the schoolyard. Nor do they have much of an answer for the rash of 100+ debris-throwing incidents thus far in 2021 onto Seattle’s I-5 and I-90 overpasses. It’s only a matter of time before multiple innocent people are killed because of the city’s inability to act. Having no “middle ground” Navigation Team deprives policymakers of any formalized, supervised, measurable, alternative which presents options from third party service providers and says “no, you cannot stay encamped outside an elementary school.” Yet here again, González sides with activists and has no near-term solution other than to hope it doesn’t result in yet more avoidable tragedy.

The only mention on “addiction” Twitter of addiction on González Twitter timeline focuses on her desire to see so-called “safe” injection sites established in the city. These would spin up to offer free, supervised injection of opiates to anyone who demands it. Can we maybe address treatment at some point? We are six years in to the city declaring a homelessness emergency, a term which has included pretty much all of González’s time in office.

What measurable progress has been made, for all the hundreds of millions of dollars spent?

10. She has consistently voted for new programs without insisting upon outcome-based budgeting.

Seattle is progressive, and that’s terrific. I support taking fresh looks at policy, adopting innovative new programs, measuring what works, and doubling-down. That’s great.

But for the past decade or more, Seattle’s municipal feedback loop has been utterly broken:

  • Metrics are either never named which constitute successful outcomes, or else they’re not reported upon if they are.
  • Entrenched service providers are not independently audited and monitored
  • Entrenched service providers and their programs do NOT regularly have their funding tied to whether or not they deliver on those promised outcomes

Let’s look at the LEAD Program as just one example. LEAD stands for “Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion.” This innovative, progressive program, in a nutshell, is a collaborative community safety program that offers offenders (and the legal/judicial system) an alternative to incarceration under select conditions.

Someone might be arrested for meth possession or petty theft and, rather than being booked into jail, be offered “diversion.” Like a lot of citizens, I think to myself, “OK, this could be terrific. I’m compassionate, common sense suggests that jail might not always be the most effective approach for offenders or their victims in the community. Perhaps diverting into counseling, services and other options are smart investments which will reduce the likelihood of offenders to repeat again. Let’s try it, and measure recidivism.”

The problem, like a lot of other programs the City Council has doubled-down on during González’s leadership, is that we do not know the most important community-centric outcomes.

We as taxpayers have been paying for various forms of this program since 2015. Seattleites feel the impacts of repeated theft, harassment and assault by some of these offenders. Wouldn’t you want, as a city councilmember authorizing funding of LEAD, to know how well it’s doing in recidivism, year by year?

Yet no one asks. And if you’re a concerned citizen, try as you might, you cannot get the recidivism numbers, year-by-year, for members in the LEAD program. Does recidivism go up or down? Do people arrested for assault and diverted into the program tend to get well? How much does crime go up or down in the areas that such diversion programs are rolled out? These are fundamental questions, and González and other City Council members don’t ask them, and don’t hold progressive programs to any kind of ongoing scrutiny. They just re-up funds, expand programs, and nod at a few Powerpoints on check-in.

For more information on diversion programs and the City’s utter failure to measure them properly, read the excellent rundown on SCC Insight: Lewis touts new report on JustCARE program… but maybe he shouldn’t. (UPDATED) (sccinsight.com)

But it goes well beyond just diversion programs. Apply this “thinking” and activist-capture driven resource allocation and opacity/unwillingness to monitoring actual outcomes for the greater community at large to the homelessness crisis. Or “reimagining” public safety. Or transportation and transit investments. And you will see that we have a fundamentally broken process.

Conclusion

As you can tell, I’m looking elsewhere for my vote for Seattle’s next mayor.

Look. I fully realize I’m a terrible messenger for this on whatever “identity” front you wish to argue. Far too many in politics today jump immediately to the attacking the messenger rather than responding to what is said. So let me stipulate: I’m a white male. I’m incredibly privileged. I am the beneficiary of all kinds of luck and fortune, both that which I’ve made for myself but also very much that which fell into my lap by being fortunate enough to be born at the right place at the right time with an interest in computing, being born into a stable two-parent household, and much, much more. I don’t mind paying high taxes, and I do. I’m not running for any political office. I do want a more effective city.

I have not been in contact with any political campaign of any kind regarding writing this post; these thoughts are my own, and this is simply my personal blog. I write about things I’m interested in, and I’m interested in a better Seattle.

This is also a critique of her policies and results. It is not personal. I have a ton of respect for Lorena González’s life journey, which, as she frequently reminds, began in a migrant farming community in Eastern Washington. She’s had to surmount discrimination, abuse, and socioeconomic disadvantage, tragedy and more. It’s a deeply impressive accomplishment to rise through hard work and alliance-building to become one of the most viable candidates for mayor in perhaps the best city in America.

So given our wide disparity of backgrounds, it’s easy for me to sound cavalier and dismissive when I’m assessing outcomes. So by all means, assess your own; your mileage may vary. If things are much better for you in Seattle than 2015 as you walk around downtown, SODO, Ballard, the U-District, Central District, Seward Park and more, great. But I’d argue that above all else, outcomes matter… for all. For 724,000+ Seattleites, the results of a policymaker should matter far more than the identity of the policymaker. How’s public safety going? How’s homelessness? How’s addiction? How’s Seattle, compared to seven years ago? How well is the City Council functioning to meet your needs?

It’s not at all clear the outcomes for even the marginalized are all that better since 2015, if measured in terms of safety, addiction, homelessness, affordability, mental health, livability and more.

I want Seattle to be better for all. And all 724,000 of us have a stake. It’s not zero-sum — we can all benefit with better policies and better leadership. I want addiction rates lowered, homelessness lowered, a more affordable city, and greater unity of purpose in this fantastic city. We’ve seen her record and her approach, over six years now as a key municipal leader.

I really would like us get to the point where we approach municipal governance with more care and focus on outcomes. If you look at her messaging, it’s very focused on identity and inputs, and appeal to activism, which of course are important, but more important, I think, is whether Seattle is moving in the right direction in terms of outcomes that matter. How’s public safety going? How’s addiction trending? How about homelessness?

Let’s find leaders that know how to manage toward better outcomes.

Let’s honestly discuss the root causes of problems like Seattle’s intertwined homelessness, mental health, judicial process and addiction crises. Let’s define the metrics that represent success, and measure the programs against those goals in an ongoing, public way. Let’s track what we’re doing. Let’s invest in programs that measurably get us toward our goals, and reduce programs which don’t, even if they negatively impact a long-entrenched municipal service provider’s revenue.

Outcome-focused leadership is the least the public is entitled to. And Lorena González doesn’t approach problems that way. After more than five years in municipal leadership, noticing its absence at every turn, I can only conclude that she doesn’t seem to care about measured outcomes, that they’re great if they suddenly arise, but she hasn’t demonstrated how she leads toward them.

When major outcome indicators are all moving in the wrong direction, and the process which generates these outcomes remains utterly broken for years, and even political allies describe the body one leads as dysfunctional, one should not get a promotion to an even higher position of responsibility.

Update: Not surprisingly, she’s just won the endorsement of The Stranger. But here’s why that should be yet another negative indicator to anyone following the past decade of city politics in Seattle: The Stranger’s Political Endorsements Have Been Disastrous for Seattle

Related: Congratulations to the Seattle’s Next City Council, 2019

Bonus: If you agree with me that this City Council President’s time in office has not been an effective one, and oftentimes dismissive and counterproductive, note that her Chief of Staff, Brianna Thomas, is also currently running for City Council.

$3 Million in Spending… For What, Precisely?

What’s happened to the $3 million that City Council allocated for research to feed into participatory budgeting?

The most concrete municipal commitments which arose from the summer of 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests in Seattle came in the form of multi-million dollar investment pledges, the first of which has already been allocated. But there are serious questions about what, precisely, Seattleites are getting in return for this spending.

The goal of this first tranche was to commission a research team with $3 million to do qualitative research to better inform the participatory budgeting process to follow. But recently, in an open letter to the community, the entity that was commissioned (which originally consisted of King County Equity Now and a research team within it) announced they are splitting up. This, just a couple weeks before their final report is due.

This sudden split apparently came as a surprise to the overseeing councilmember Tammy Morales, according to her quote to SCC Insight:

My office was made aware of a letter circulating from the Black Brilliance project.  I haven’t yet been briefed by my staff but I intend to get up-to-speed immediately and make contact with the stakeholders as we ensure that this vital research work is seen to completion to inform the upcoming participatory budgeting process.  While I learn more about the detailed grievances, the work itself remains critically important to inform policies that impact Black and Brown communities.

Councilmember Tammy Morales to SCC Insight, February 8 2021

That she was apparently caught off-guard by this raises further questions about the meaning of municipal oversight, as well as the wisdom of the hasty kickoff process here, which never was bid-out, and began without even narrowing down key metrics for evaluation.

I would encourage you to read SCC Insight’s list of questions posed to Councilmember Morales about the funding process and her response, here.

Background

During the summer of 2020, Mayor Durkan created the Equitable Communities Task Force, which will be distributing $100 million in annual funding to communities of color and program initiatives, after running their own resource allocation process.

$100 million is not a small sum. It’s 6.7% of the city’s fiscal year general funds budget, beyond existing city services.

The Seattle City Council allocated $3 million of this to the Black Brilliance Project and King County Equity Now late in the summer, to research community-led solutions public safety and health. The purpose of this research is to better inform $30.275 million of participatory budgeting investments which would follow. That $30.275 million is subject to future Council ordinances.

Specifically, the $3 million is to “research processes that will promote public safety informed by community needs.”

I have no problem with investments; we need them to strengthen communities, advance more opportunity and achieve better outcomes. But as I wrote on this blog back in July, our city’s history of allocating funds to third parties has been broken for quite some time:

Seattle has a terrible record of doling out funds to third party service providers; so little accountability, so little check-ins, audits, definitions of success metrics, and ongoing measurement. The result has largely been paydays for third-party service providers, who, once entrenched, are rather difficult to see into.

Seattle Plows Ahead with 50% Cut To Police Department. Where are the Metrics Which Define Success? – July 11, 2020

Which brings me to today’s post, a brief check-in on one of these components: the Black Brilliance / King County Equity Now research effort (i.e., the $3 million allocated.)

Let’s Improve Public Safety and Health

Let me first state that like you, I’m all for better approaches to public safety and health, particularly in minority communities, and also throughout the city. There are clear disparities in public safety outcomes by different communities in the city, and we should always strive to understand their drivers and close the gaps and invest in ways that deliver better outcomes.

But to me, the most sensible way to begin such a process of improvement is to first define which metrics most indicate the goal of improved public safety and public health, prioritize them, and work backward from there.

Everyone can and should say we want better public safety and public heath.

Specifically though, are we wanting to lower assaults by 10-30% in three years? Reduce property crime reports by 20%? Reduce reports of unwarranted and/or illegal police violence? Lessen addiction? Recidivism? Reduce calls to 911? Improve lifespan? For which age groups? By how much? What’s been the existing trend? Who will own the reporting, and how often will this measurement be done?

“Yes” to all questions isn’t actionable.

We can and should answer “yes, we’d like to improve!” to all of the above, but resource allocation is about tradeoffs. And “yes” to all questions isn’t actionable. The strategy for reducing assaults will likely look different than the strategy for reducing diabetes or COVID risks. The strategy for reducing youth violence will likely look different than the strategy for improving transit and work options.

Investing dollars and attention into Initiative A means that you necessarily will have less to invest in Initiative B. And unless you’re omniscient, you need to measure what the current baseline is, or else you might be swayed by anecdotal reports, when actual trends are moving in the opposite direction.

In other words, it’s important to first determine what matters (yes, it’s subjective, but choosing and ranking is part of leadership!), then measure the current lay of the land, and get past measures, to calibrate the trajectory.

OK, so which public safety and health metrics are most important right now? Which are most leveraged, where the return on investment goes highest, or where return can be most rapid?

Which metrics are we most alarmed by, and how can we measurably improve them? Who owns the measurement of those metrics? How are they trending? What improves them or worsens them?

Getting to the bottom of these prioritized metrics seems a worthy goal of research. So does softer qualitative research, which better informs things like attitudinal views, historic influence, and more — all of which might for instance encourage better take-up of new initiatives and ultimately better results.

But research must have a guiding north star to be actionable. “We need to invest in everything” is not any more helpful than what we know now. Without spending $3 million, I can make that statement. Prioritization and resource allocation is a key role that municipal leaders should play — setting the goals that we wish to improve.

But that’s not what Seattle leadership has done here. Let’s take a look at their knee-jerk approval process, and where we are today.

The process is now under state audit, and I’m guessing the full auditors report of this process is going to be pretty revealing. Let the distancing begin.

Mistake #1: Absence of Success Metrics.

When this process began, lots of city council members said we need to improve public safety and health outcomes in Seattle, particularly in BIPOC communities, but no one offered any metrics that identified what those might be. During the entire summer, I listened to Council Zoom after Council Zoom, waiting for anyone to state how we measure these laudable goals as we “reimagine policing to invest in communities for better outcomes.”

The only one to venture close to that was Dan Strauss, who said that he’d be looking at response times, and whether the right parties arrived on scene at the right time with the right resources. OK, that’s a starting point — but who measures? How often? Etc. The statement stopped there. Just as bad, the starting benchmark seems to be ignored. As Tim Burgess and others have pointed out, our police response time goals are not even meeting the bar today, nor are they moving in the right direction.

Further, though it might surprise some, there is considerable data both in Seattle and nationally that the vast majority of Black Americans do want to retain local police presence. They, and we, just want it to be better — more transparent, more accountable, more subject to scrutiny, less prone to use of force when not necessary, and more.

To me, all this suggests continued reform, rather than abolition. But what metrics, specifically, constitutes “better?” That’s where research can come in, and should. I’d say things like response times, reduction in assaults, shootings, property crime and more would be eligible for metrics to consider, as are many others. But the discussion never seems to venture into the metrics, and certainly never seems to get to the prioritized five or ten which best indicated success or failure in leaders’ views.

Mistake #2: This research appears fully disconnected from a parallel initiative, didn’t earn the Executive Branch’s support, and was already fractured.

Check out this article from The Urbanist: 19 Black Leaders Decline Invite to Durkan’s Equitable Communities Task Force | The Urbanist. It’s pretty clear these two efforts weren’t united from the start.

The Seattle City Council is the legislative branch of the city. The Mayor runs the Executive Branch of the city. Each has their own initiatives. It makes little sense to me why the Council-driven $3 million research plus follow-on $30.275 million investment is wholly separate from the Mayor’s $100 million initiative, especially when the council’s specific goals with this research are so unclear and un-prioritized. Shouldn’t there be some alignment there?

Mistake #3: It was a No-Bid Contract.

As SCC Insight pointed out in December in a must-read, much-more-informed backgrounder to this whole affair, the city’s municipal code requires that consultant services such as this be put out to bid.

This was not done.

Why not? Well, you’ll have to make your own guesses here. Publications like SCC Insight need to be a bit more generous in their assumptions than I need to be in my own personal blog. I’d say that given the evidence, reasonable guesses include the possibility that City Council had specific designated suppliers or community members it wished to engage in this work and receive the funds, or perhaps it had a timeline that was particularly urgent, or both, or some other rationale.

Regardless, the contract was not put up for bid. The city did not advertise this consultant contract as required by the Seattle Municipal Code.

Now, the municipal code does allow no-bid contracts to take place, but they must go to a “public benefit organization,” i.e., a 501(c)3 organization. But here again, there was a hurdle — King County Equity Now (KCEN) was not at the time a 501(c)3, though they are in process of forming one now.

So what did the City Council do? They enlisted Freedom Project, an existing Seattle-based 501(c)3 to be a “fiscal agent” — i.e., a money managing intermediary — to dole out the funds on a contract that was never put out to bid. And in fact, Freedom Project is also a participant in the survey research going on.

Mistake #4: Research Contract Was Awarded to an Entity With a Clear, Pre-existing Policy Agenda.

Either the City Council should invest money to advance a policy agenda that it believes is correct, or pay an independent third party with a clear track-record of independent research to gather input and evaluate alternatives. But not both.

Here, the City Council decided to award a lofty sum of $3 million to an organization — King County Equity Now — that has a very specific policy agenda (police defunding and reinvestment in communities.)

In fact, the principal researcher herself, Shaun Glaze, was by her own account in the BBR’s open letter a key architect of the “divest in police” blueprint: “Shaun was a principal drafter of the Blueprint for Divestment/Investment presented to the Seattle City Council this summer by KCEN and Decriminalize Seattle, and Shaun facilitated the development of the budget and blueprint for the $3 million Black Brilliance Research Project.”

Yet she’s also leading the research. That’s hardly independence from an agenda.

Perhaps hers is the right policy agenda. Perhaps it’s not. But why is the council paying $3 million — a pretty massive sum for research — to an organization when, in many ways, it appears that same group has already made up its mind what that research should conclude? Has the methodology been subject to any kind of independent review? Starting to sound a bit off? You be the judge.

Mayor Durkan was not in favor of this spending, at least not the way this spending was proposed, and so she vetoed the legislation. But the City Council overrode her veto, appropriating $3 million from the city’s Revenue Stabilization Fund to this research project. The vote was 8-0, with Councilmember Debra Juarez not present for that vote.

Open Question: Research Methodology

Beyond taking a few graduate-level statistics, applied math and marketing research classes, my research credentials honestly just aren’t strong enough to validate or critique the research methodology. The primary researcher, Shaun Glaze, holds a PhD from Boston College in Applied Developmental and Educational Psychology, including plenty of research and analysis positions and projects.

I do wonder about how objective a process can be if it starts out being under the auspices of an organization which has a specific policy agenda, or at a minimum what safeguards City Council established to ensure that the advocated policy slate was not a fait accompli. The split, from that standpoint then, makes some sense for Seattleites if it signals that the output can be more independent in nature, without any pre-existing policy agenda it seeks to validate.

But the preliminary report was completed under the auspices of King County Equity Now, and KCEN has a clear policy agenda. Were any inputs or outputs be filtered through that lens? Were questions leading?

Put more directly, is the purpose of this research to validate a pre-existing set of recommendations, or is it truly open to whatever conclusions arise, even if, say, reduction in police isn’t something that’s favored?

A large part of the surveying effort surrounds the question “If you had $200 million to reinvest into creating more community safety and health, how would you reinvest it?” Note that they are not asking participants to weigh whether the local police force should be de-funded to achieve that $200 million, just starting with the assumption that it’s found money. Participants might plausibly answer differently if asked “The Seattle Police Department has 15 police officers per 10,000 citizens, where other cities like Boston have about 40. Should we further de-fund the police?” Or “Are police response times adequate for your neighborhood?” Or “Should we increase community policing in your neighborhood?”

Beyond that, it’s worth having research experts look at matters of statistical significance and sampling methods used. For instance, how representative is the sample of respondents to the overall BIPOC population in Seattle? In the preliminary report, the researchers indicate that they “heard from over 4,000 community members” but had, at the time of the preliminary report 1,382 respondents to a detailed survey. Were these sampled randomly? It doesn’t appear so.

To calibrate this, according to the Census, the makeup of Seattle’s 750,000 citizens is: 65.7% white, 14.1% Asian, 7% Black, 6.6% Hispanic or Latino, 0.4% Native American, 0.9% Pacific Islander and other. That means Seattle’s population is approximately 8%-16% BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), depending upon whether you include Asian, Latino and Pacific Islander in the BIPOC designation.

The 2016 Census suggests there are on the order of 50,000-60,000 Black individuals calling Seattle home, and perhaps north of 100,000 Seattleites who would fit in an expanded definition of BIPOC. One question — is 1,382 completing the survey, skewing significantly younger than the overall Seattle population — representative? On page 18 of the preliminary report, they state that 60% of the respondents are under the age of 45, but didn’t clarify how closely matched the various cohorts are to Seattle’s age distribution: According to the 2016 census, 5.6% of Seattleites were under the age of 18, 11.9% from 18 to 24, 38.6% from 25 to 44, 21.9% from 45 to 64, and 12.0% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 35 years. For every 100 females, there were 99.5 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 98.8 males.

I ask these questions not knowing the answer. I don’t know. And there is use in qualitative feedback and focus-group level work, for sure.

But these and other methodology questions and outputs are useful to know, as they are with any rigorous qualitative study.

SCC Insight posed some questions related to the methodology to Councilmember Morales. Here is her response, taken in full from SCC Insight’s piece Catching up with the Mayor’s task force and the Black Brilliance research project (sccinsight.com):

Thanks for your patience as I try to catch up from the budget process. To respond to your questions about the participatory research contract and process, I’ll start by saying that I reject the premise of some of your questions that the researchers aren’t ‘qualified’ or don’t ‘know what they are doing.’  

More to the point, the contracts which have predated this one haven’t received the same kind of scrutiny you’re offering here.  So, I find it interesting that this particular contract has received so much attention from the onset.

What I will say about this work is that the notion that a ‘bottom up’ approach is subpar misses the point of participatory research. The issue is not whether this is a typical research project but is instead entirely about how to teach community members exactly how to critically analyze the impact of policy on their neighborhood.  (It’s access to power that my community has never enjoyed.) We could have contracted with a university and had graduate students doing this research, but that would not have produced the outcomes we’re looking for.  Participatory research is about building the capacity of our neighbors to understand what’s happening in their community and to increase civic engagement so they can inform future policy-making. This is what we mean when we say “DEMOCRATIZING power and resources.”

To suggest that a greater standard or threshold is in order is to dismiss the people who stand to benefit most from this approach, which – while newish to Seattle – IS a standard in NYCChicago and Barcelona too.

The research methodology for this contract was developed by professional researchers, PhDs in research who are professionally credentialed, and who are also coordinating the research and the community researchers.

Regarding the contract itself, there are several approaches to contracting; and, it is standard operating procedure to use contracting through fiscal agents for organizations that have not established 501C3 status. The $3 million was based on the work and anticipated expenses included in the Blueprint proposal. And yes, I am very confident that this participatory research process and the investment in building community capacity will prove valuable to the City.

I hope that answers your questions.

Tammy

Kevin Schofield, editor/owner of SCC Insight added:

If Council member Morales thinks that this level of scrutiny is new or unique, then she hasn’t read SCC Insight’s prior articles on the soda taxTNC drivers’ paycourt fines and traffic stops, the Point in Time countSPD internal research, and e-scooters. And to reiterate: at $3 million, this is much larger than the vast majority of the city’s research contracts, and as such is deserving of scrutiny.

You can see the exchange here.

Deadlines are Approaching… and an Audit.

On February 1st, 2021, an update was delivered to city council on this $3 million project.

Here’s the presentation:

Presentation-2121

And here’s the preliminary report, all 1,045 pages of it:

Participatory Budgeting Preliminary Report (1045 pages) – DocumentCloud

Among the key pages is this chart:

Without metrics which define better public safety and health outcomes, no one can test the validity of the recommended strategies above, nor compare them to what has been tried and works elsewhere. For instance, the key recommendations in the leftmost column seem to directly conflict with Gallup’s polling here, as well as privately-funded analysis of ten years of calls for service by SPD.

Do we let evidence guide us? We should. Doing that requires measuring, developing comparables, and making adjustments.

On page 24, they outline the research methods by project:

Note that Freedom Project, the fiscal agent, is involved with several of these methodologies. It’s probably too early to judge the output based on the preliminary report, but remember, this is the preliminary output from $3,000,000 in your tax dollars. $3 million is enough to pay a team of 30 people $100 per hour for 25 weeks.

A final report is due February 26th, so we’ll be better able to make an assessment then of just what the tangible return on investment has been.

Meanwhile, the state auditor’s office is examining the contract. Per Crosscut‘s coverage of the audit, a spokesperson for King County Equity Now said, “the state has now chosen to place an unprecedented amount of scrutiny on a small research project contract to Black community organizations. Worse, though unsurprisingly, this small contract includes some of the only public funding designated specifically for Black community aid in 2020.” 

Expect some distancing statements by city officials as that report arrives.

KCEN and Black Brilliance Split

Meanwhile, prompting this writeup, in an Open Letter, researcher Shaun Glaze announced a big split between the two central parties this $3 million was allocated to.

Turmoil Surfaces in Seattle City Council’s Push to Reimagine Public Safety, Seattle Times, February 9th

Black Brilliance Research Project effort fractures (sccinsight.com)

We Must Change How We Allocate Resources

In my view, this whole episode sheds light into the shoddy process of resource allocation of city (i.e., taxpayer) dollars. Don’t we owe those who need these funds so desperately better oversight?

  • The City Council spun up a parallel effort to the Mayor’s $100 million community initiative
  • The City Council deliberately went around the existing municipal code to put research contracts out to bid.
  • The City Council, as clients, haven’t specified clearly what prioritized (or even top 10) metrics best define “better public safety” or “better public health”, and seems rudderless in the effort. It makes the resulting “research” an exercise in putting some data together, without any clear metric by which to measure “were we correct?” Will we know whether those $3 million are well-spent? Which numbers will move?

The state auditor will have much more to say about this soon, and I’ll link to the report when available.

A Better Process

Clearly, we can already see that there are major problems here, can’t we? Is this the best way to spend $3 million dollars from the City of Seattle’s Revenue Stabilization Fund?

Look. I’m just a guy with a blog who cares about our city. But even I can see that there are clear problems with the process.

Here are just a few ways this process should have been improved:

  1. Align the $100 million Equitable Communities initiative with this initiative. Get all the wood behind the arrow, and make it measurable.
  2. Leaders should first define what metrics constitute better safety and health outcomes. These should be measurable, and benchmarked. It is likely that some metrics are particularly poor and deserve extra focus, while other metrics are relatively good and deserve comparatively less attention.
  3. Municipal code should have been followed. It’s there for a reason, and a lot of those reasons have already shown up. A research contract should have been put out to bid. It was not. The organization should have been an official public benefit organization — the 501(c) 3 process imposes some structural elements that might have helped avoid this situation. Perhaps doing those two things — i.e., following the municipal code — would have put up some sensible guardrails here.
  4. The lead council member should not be surprised by news that the two key entities involved in this research are splitting. She appears to be, at least according to her statement at the end of this piece. What was the monitoring or check-in process? Is there any? It needs to be tightened. City Council has a fiduciary duty to the taxpayers of this city that the funds be well-spent. When the lead councilmember is as surprised as the rest of us about this split despite rumors which preceded it, I have no confidence that they are.

What is Participatory Budgeting?

The key goal of this research is to better inform the participatory budgeting process. What is participatory budgeting?

A good overview video is below, from King County Equity Now.

My opinion? I think participatory budgeting (in business this is often called “bottoms-up budgeting,” letting the key stakeholders define the needs) makes a lot of sense.

But I don’t think the several very good examples provided in the video should cost $3 million in advance of it.

And as clearly indicated in the video, such processes are pretty open-to-all, transparent, and collaborative. They also appears to be run by volunteers. So why $3 million? I’m guessing that these compelling examples from other cities about concrete found-wins (e.g., bus arrival signs and more) did not begin with $3 million blanket grants with very unclear deliverables and lack of oversight, but I’d be happy to be corrected if someone drops me a note that these cities all spent $3 million or so in preliminary research leading up to it.

Related Reading

Black Brilliance Research Open Letter to Community | by Shaun Glaze | Feb, 2021 | Medium

19 Black Leaders Decline Invite to Durkan’s Equitable Communities Task Force | The Urbanist

Black Brilliance Research Project, born from Seattle’s Black Lives Matter protests, moving on without King County Equity Now | CHS Capitol Hill Seattle

Black Brilliance Project | South Seattle Emerald

Seattle’s $3M contract to research public safety under state scrutiny | Crosscut

Black Brilliance Research Project effort fractures (sccinsight.com)

Catching up with the Mayor’s task force and the Black Brilliance research project (sccinsight.com)

Website: King County Equity Now

Postscript: Please Consider Supporting SCC Insight

Finally, a plug for a resource that I think is vital toward better city governance.

Beyond being a reader, I have no affiliation with SCC Insight, nor any of the entities mentioned above, other than being a fellow resident of this city which we all love.

But I strongly encourage Seattle-area readers join me in supporting SCC Insight on Patreon. At a minimum, follow them on Twitter. Kevin Schofield and his team of independent journalists do very good, detailed long-form research and reporting on municipal issues that is rarely offered elsewhere, at least without a driving agenda which distorts the output. SCC Insight is as close as you’ll find to “let the facts lead where they may” reporting on municipal governance in Seattle. It forms the background on much of my OpEd above. Continued thanks to them for their work.

Updates/Corrections

February 11 2021: According to this piece in Crosscut, the $30 million + $3 million is not separate and apart from the $100 million Equitable Communities initiative; Council divided up the $100 million pledge. Text has been corrected above.

…how that money gets out the door has been the subject of disagreement. Durkan pledged $100 million for projects identified by a task force of her creation. But trust in Durkan runs low in much of the activist movement and among some members of the city council. As a result, the council took her $100 million pledge — plus other investments of their own — and broke it up into different pots. 

The council left $30 million for Durkan’s task force while spreading out the rest elsewhere, including $30 million to be doled out via a “participatory budgeting” process — budgeting with heavy community input — that would be organized and led by King County Equity Now.

Seattle’s $3M contract to research public safety under state scrutiny | Crosscut

Seattle Plows Ahead with 50% Cut To Police Department. Where are the Metrics Which Define Success?

Seattle City Council signals a veto-proof majority for a 50% cut in police funding. But where are the metrics?

Note (July 2020): This post is a compendium of links, resources and commentary related to the proposed cutting-by-half of the Seattle Police Department budget. Like the rapidly-building “plan” itself, this article is pretty scattered and incomplete, and meant to be a holding tank of relevant articles, resources and perspectives to consider when developing your own view on the topic. It will be updated over time.

It is not intended to be one-sided. So feel free to suggest new Seattle-specific resources and links to me via Twitter, especially those which disagree with mine. If they better inform outsiders, ideally with concrete data, I’ll do my best to work them in.

In general, my own views are: supportive of police reform, supportive of more transparency and oversight, yet opposed to a 50% cut being the way to drive it. Rather, I’m in favor of defining success metrics that matter to all Seattleites, letting those drive the reform plan, rather than a top-down “let’s cut 50%, allocate a bunch of money to this or that organization, and figure it out” kind of approach. Seattle has a terrible record of doling out funds to third party service providers; so little accountability, so little check-ins, audits, definitions of success metrics, and ongoing measurement. The result has largely been paydays for third-party service providers, who, once entrenched, are rather difficult to see into.

I also feel improved public safety outcomes cannot also arrive without serious inquiry into the judicial (i.e., post-arrest) system that all too often lets frequent offenders cycle through the system without treatment, has a myriad abuses of freedom and liberties, doesn’t address mental health or addiction properly, and imposes too few consequences for repeat offender actions which truly harm others. The process of success metric definition need not be a long one, but it should be inclusive, and take into account the public safety needs of all Seattle dwellers, renters, owners, service and businesspeople, all identity groups, etc.


“Laws without enforcement
are just good advice.”

Abraham Lincoln

Law enforcement has been essential in every society. Seattle’s own history with policing is a varied and checkered one, recently involving a federal consent decree, strong crackdowns on protests, some recent success in diversifying its workforce, leadership appointment political battles, worsening morale and staffing problems, a highly contentious and long-drawn-out battle over renewing the police union “SPOG” contract, increased militarization, claims of targeting and racial profiling, and fierce allegations by activists that the Seattle Police Department (SPD) both represents and perpetuates institutional, systemic racism.

Fast-forward to 2020

2020 has involved these distinct, contentious events:

One of the most central milestones was City Council’s vote indicating support for…

50% Cut in SPD Budget

Seattle’s City Council is a 9-member body that sets the laws of the city of Seattle. It now has a veto-proof majority of 7 of 9 councilmembers to cut the Seattle Police Department Budget by 50%, a goal long sought by some of the most leftward voices in the City. It gained increased calls in 2020, particularly in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota.

City Council’s decision to slash 50% of the budget is, at present (July-October), without any bottoms-up plan or even clear set of metrics which will constitute success.

Chief Best’s Thoughts

Police Chief Carmen Best published a video on July 10 2020, addressing the roughly 1,400 sworn Seattle Police Department officers under her command. There’s a companion memo, below, summarizing what SPD feels those cuts will likely mean:

Chief Best outlined some of the adjustments she feels the department would have to make with a 50% cut:

468745236-Mayor-Letter-Chief-Best-Council-Budget-Proposal

Seniority May Well Result in a Less Diverse Force

SPD notes that due to legally-binding union contracts signed by the City and the Seattle Police Officer Guild, the layoffs forced by these cuts would result in SPD becoming less diverse, at least in the short-run.

Image
Of course, contract rules can be broken to adjust this layoff priority. But since this is a legal contract, this will no doubt trigger a series of expensive lawsuits and/or increase the chances of city liability.

This claim was met with swift reaction from “defund” proponents on Twitter, including former Mayoral Candidate and attorney Nikkita Oliver:

[An aside. It just struck me that the two most forceful, clear and consistent advocates of the camps which will move this city in one major direction or another are two Black women. Progress worth noting?]

Council Member Lisa Herbold notes that it should be legally possible to lay-off out of order of seniority:

Here’s a link to the document that CM Herbold was referring to: Rules of Practice and Procedure. You’ll find the relevant piece on page 33, which indicates some other conditions:

Is there a risk that lawsuits will still be levied and lost? I think so. Worth taking? Perhaps.

Constitutional Law scholar Jonathan Turley outlines many ways in which this proposal may violate laws:

While [Herbold’s suggestion to fire based on racial makeup, out of order] would be the definition of racial discrimination, Herbold clearly believes that it is discrimination for a good cause. The federal courts are likely to disagree.  Most notably, Herbold’s call for racial discrimination against white officers would seek to undue the work of Justice Thurgood Marshall who insisted that racial discrimination unlawful and evil regardless of the race you want to disenfranchise or discriminate against.

– Jonathan Turley, Seattle City Council Member Suggests Firing White Officers in Massive Reduction of Police Department

Public Disapproval

Crosscut/Elway is out with a new poll that shows 73% of respondents are opposed to reducing SPD funding by 50%:

Image
Poll Margin of Error: +/- 5%

Where does SPD’s money go today?

The Daily Hive has a pretty good rundown here:

https://dailyhive.com/seattle/seattle-police-department-funding-2020

Mayor Durkan’s Position

As is often the case, Mayor Durkan has been trying to strike a pragmatic middle, “kind of a lukewarm water between ‘fire’ and ‘ice'” as so memorably stated by Derek Smalls in Spinal Tap. She is still reeling from a very hard turn to the left by City Council from the November election, and hard-left activists flooding her inbox, and even, shamefully, her driveway.

But her reality — and the reality for us moderates and taxpayers is that there is considerable momentum to defund at least 50% of the SPD budget without any clear plan or measures for success.

And as Carmen Best notes, all this momentum now arrives at the doorstep of SPD, without much proactive input from the police department itself. At present, the Mayor’s Office seems to be trying to elide the COVID-related cuts with these funding cuts. I’d expect her to continue along this angle, attempting to preserve as much of the current makeup of SPD as possible:

But it will be a huge challenge.

On July 13th, the Mayor came out swinging, blasting the City Council’s plan:

https://crosscut.com/2020/07/durkan-hits-back-pledge-defund-seattle-pd-50

Legal Impediments

Kevin Schofield at SCCInsight has a must-read article on all the legal impediments to cutting the budget by 50%:

“Defunding SPD” is going to be a lot harder than anyone thinks

Where are the Guiding Metrics?

My biggest question — what will determine success or failure with such a drastic change? How will we know when we’re moving toward something better, or moving toward worse outcomes for the Seattle community as a whole?

The statement by 7 of 9 Council Members to support a 50% cut in police funding comes without a bottom-up plan, and without any metrics which will help us know if the changes made actually improve things or move them in the wrong direction.

“I have been struck, again and again, by how important measurement is to improving the human condition.”

Bill Gates

You cannot improve what you do not measure. You cannot even know whether you are improving at all without measuring.

And thus far, any measurements or metrics are wholly absent from the discussion.

It seems to me that good people can disagree about how to best achieve improved public safety and equity. But can’t we first try to establish agreement on, say, the Top 10 Signals for what constitutes better outcomes? If not, how will we know if we’re making progress or moving further away from our goals?

I think clearly, all citizens and leaders should want to reduce the rate of bias and unjust outcome. Do the public safety needs of all identity groups also matter? I assume they do. Most citizens do care about reducing assaults, robberies, addiction, homelessness and more.

I’ve asked Council members a few times, respectfully, what are the outcome metrics that they’ll be using to judge whether these changes are successful or not.

That is a very basic question.

Where is the Seattle press?

We need the press to ask City leaders what the plan is, and how they’ll measure success. Do City leaders have a mandate to do this 50% cut? Do citizens know what’s being proposed? Do leaders know how they’ll do it, and what will constitute success?

I’ve asked journalists like Dan Beekman of the Seattle Times, repeatedly, whether journalists will actually press Council members to answer these questions. No answer. For instance, this thread.

Silence, thus far.

And thus far, only one council member — Dan Strauss — has mentioned anything that could be considered a measure for success. It’s confined to 911, but it’s a start. His view is that the metrics for success are “Response times, and whether the people who arrive, 24×7, have the right resources to do the job effectively.” That’s a good start it seems to me, but those are the only measurable goal I’ve seen thus far in the entire discussion of these major changes. And I don’t quite know how we best measure “arrive having the right resources to do the job effectively.” (Do we do a followup survey? Who measures? Etc.)

Instead, the entire discussion to date has been driven by inputs to the program, as laid out in the four-point “plan” that 7 of 9 members have agreed to, in principle. It has the feel of a fight over both policy and money, with the latter sometimes taking precedence. Public safety seems to be taking a back seat in the dialog right now, at least the traditional measures of public safety (some typical measures listed below.)

“Decriminalize Seattle”

Take, for instance, the “4 Point Plan” being advocated by “Decriminalize Seattle” which is included in the PDF below.

Points 1-4 are entirely about inputs and allocations. None of these points include metrics for success, or a plan for who should own those metrics, how regularly they’ll be reported, and what we might do if we’re on the wrong (or right) tracks. As we’ve seen in the past, it matters whether there’s an interested agency reporting the numbers.

Presentation-Decriminalize-Seattle

Decriminalize Seattle held a Zoom call “teach in”, which is available on Facebook but not embeddable here.

Good governance includes establishing what “success” looks like. Numbers are a key barometer of whether the new plan is getting closer to the goals, or further away from it.

Typical measures of public safety often include the metrics below. Anyone willing to go on record with predictions as measured in, say, three years? Reasonable metrics it seems to me include things like:

  • Response times
  • Violent crime rates (reported violent crime per capita)
  • Property crime rates (reported property crime per capita)
  • Whether those responding have the right resources to handle the situation effectively
  • Officer-involved shootings
  • Complaints against officers or SPD
  • Assaults
  • Shootings
  • Recidivism
  • Burglaries
  • Gun ownership and purchase trends
  • Gang activity
  • Non-violent crime rates/conviction rates
  • Homelessness counts
  • Overdose deaths

Are there other key public safety, equity and public health outcome metrics that make sense to measure with numbers? What happens to “response times” when the agency is under entirely different leadership, and how should they be measured? Should they be independently verified? What do we anticipate about the directionality of these metrics down in let’s say, three years from now?

Are you personally directionally optimistic in these metrics, neutral or pessimistic?

The Challenge of Repeat Offenders

Last year, two blockbuster reports came out profiling Seattle’s most prolific offenders. System Failure Parts I and II.

Just 100 individuals accounted for 3,562 bookings in the State of Washington. About 9 months later, a follow-up report showed that these same individuals accounted for another 117 bookings. It also found that the City Attorney’s office only filed charges in 54 percent of the non-traffic criminal cases brought to it by the police, meaning, 46% of the time, they didn’t file charges in such cases.

system-failure-prolific-offender-report-feb-2019

System-Failure-Part-2-Declines-Delays-and-Dismissals-Sept-2019

It also found that on average, it takes about a half a year for the City Attorney’s office to file charges once the suspect is arrested, and nearly 2/3rds of a year in the case of assault.

Will Council Live By Their Own Decree?

Minneapolis’ City Council members who voted to “defund” the police about a month ago. And they quickly then voted themselves their own private security, at a cost to taxpayers of $63,000.

In Seattle, one council member signaling her support for a 50% cut in SPD forces is Council Member Lisa Herbold, who last year was quick to use her position to call not just the police’s 911 line, but the Chief of Police herself when she suspected, wrongly, that a mobile home was parked in front of her home to troll her.

Does she plan to go through Community Service workers in the new world or civilian 911, or make use of other channels? And will Mayor Durkan hold equal concern when personal property of others is violated as though it were her own?

“Decriminalize Seattle” Zoom Conference

A key set of players driving this conversation comprise a group called “Decriminalize Seattle.”

No question, their voices, just as others, are very important to hear in the process. Their lens is an emphasis on racial equity, many of the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement, funding affordable housing and more.

Given the rather large influence the group is currently having over major public safety decisions in the City of Seattle, it would be helpful to have an understanding of what kinds of public safety credentials and experience are represented by the group, and which cities of any size have adopted such plans, as well as their results. It includes groups like the Seattle People’s Party, Asians for Black Lives, the CID Coalition, La Resistencia, Trans Women of Color Solidarity Network, No Youth Jail, and more than 200 other organizations. What kinds of credentials in public safety and health policy, and what results of the collective group?

To be clear, my own public safety credentials are nil. They are nonexistent. But then again, I’m also not the one pushing a plan to reshape Seattle’s entire approach to public safety and cut the budget for the law enforcement organization of the city in half. I’m calling upon us to have metrics that guide our success, and I’m calling upon journalists to start asking that question of our leaders.

Has this combined group’s novel approaches been implemented, at scale, in cities of any size? If so, great! Let’s hear more about that experience and what we can learn. What can we learn from what works and what doesn’t? And if not, if we are truly donning the labcoats here, shouldn’t we know it? Isn’t that something that might make headline-level at The Seattle Times? What harm is there in bringing that fact to the attention of the public? And if true, isn’t it then ever more important to establish the metrics for success?

You can see a ZOOM call of a recent virtual meeting with council members and the Decriminalize Seattle group here:

https://twitter.com/madsnicolee/status/1281304357351260160?s=20

CM González on “Defunding”

In recent days, Council President González has apologized for supporting police budget increases in past years, saying she no longer believes the department can be wholly reformed.

Oath of Office

Some, like Chief Best, are questioning whether a 50% cut in SPD is consistent with Council Members’ sworn oath of office. Curious, I tried to make the connection as to what they’re alleging.

All City Council members, when sworn in, take an oath to uphold the City Charter. See the 11 minute mark, for instance, for CM Herbold’s swearing-in ceremony, for instance, below.

Now, the preamble of the Charter of the City of Seattle, says very clearly:

“Under authority conferred by the Constitution of the State of Washington, the People of the City of Seattle enact this Charter as the Law of the City for the purpose of protecting and enhancing the health, safety, environment, and general welfare of the people…”

Charter of the City of Seattle

I think reasonable people can disagree about the right way to ensure health and safety of a citizenry. And “Decriminalize Seattle” has certainly stated their desires to enhance health and safety.

But notably absent so far from the “Let’s cut the SPD budget by 50%” movement have been any kind of metrics around public safety and health, merely (a) adjustments to INPUTS and policies, (b) hopes that by making these changes, we will achieve better equity and outcomes and (c) claims that SPD is unfixable/irretrievably broken and needs to be entirely reimagined.

How will we know if we are making improvements? How will Council Members know if they’re truly upholding their oaths to ensure better safety and health?

Morale Crisis at SPD

Meanwhile, even prior to this, there was a growing crisis of morale at the Seattle Police Department.

“Culture is toxic; morale is low”: Survey of Seattle Police officers paints bleak picture, Crosscut

Speak Out Seattle, a public-safety advocacy group which I volunteered for last year, chiefly by livestreaming their City Council forums, put out a video a year ago on the Seattle Police Officer morale crisis, and how Seattle’s staffing levels compare to other cities. I share it below because the comparative figures at the end are I think worth noting in the context of this discussion:

The crisis appears to be accelerating:

https://www.q13fox.com/news/seattle-police-officers-send-out-dozens-of-job-applications-to-other-departments-amid-unrest

Finally, is all this premised upon real, or imagined human behavior?

As I wrote back in November, I really hope the human behavior that the current majority of City Council members imagines actually exists in real life. Because from that, all else follows.

  • Is compassion the same as lenience?
  • Are unarmed community service workers better at diffusing, say, assaults and domestic violence?
  • What do unarmed community service officers do when situations suddenly escalate?
  • All public safety situations come with risk. Do you design law enforcement response for the average/typical scenario, or the atypical scenario, just in case?
  • Are all observed discrepancies of outcomes mostly or fully explained by oppression or discrimination? Are we ignoring other factors that might also be at work?
  • Are some of Seattle’s problem with repeat offenders not a police problem at all, but a problem of revolving justice?
  • Is homelessness generally just a problem of affordability, not treatment (mental health or addiction) or other services? Do studies validate that?
  • Do fewer police officers mean less crime and a safer community overall?
  • Will a myriad of fragmented, private security forces (e.g., at larger retailers, perhaps for neighborhoods, gun-owning households, etc.) be a safer and easier-to-manage environment?

These and other questions will be put to the test in the coming years.

Real-world examples?

What cities serve as the best examples of what we’re trying to do? The example of Camden, NJ is often mentioned. But that story is also understood as one in which Governor Christie joined forces with police reform activists to essentially “union-bust” the police union. While it very temporarily did “abolish” the police, Camden now has more police officers on duty than it did before they were “abolished.” And Camden remains a high-crime city — in fact, it’s in the Top 4% of highest crime per capita in the nation; 96% of American cities are safer. Is that change we can believe in?

In the past two weeks, Seattle City Council has passed one of the largest progressive tax increases in the city’s history, and also signaled its desire to defund the police by half. None of this is directionally surprising to anyone following last year’s City Council election. Elections have consequences; I get it. They certainly appear to have full legal authority to enact these changes, and I’m not challenging their ability to press the accelerator on this bold new progressive direction.

But if we look at the recent experiment of CHAZ/CHOP, we see both that the SPD is in need of real reform in its unwarranted arrest and abuse of reporters and unnecessary use of force in teargassing protestors, but, with five shootings in a three week period, I’m also unconvinced we’ve seen proof that SPD standing down improves public safety. I’m not confining my views to this or that identity group. I’m talking about outcomes for all of us who call Seattle home.

Sworn Officer Levels

SPD Sworn Officer Levels (grey line) by year

Comparison to Other Cities

One metric that’s used to compare police coverage is officers per 10,000 citizens.

Seattle’s population is about 730,000. So we have about 1190 officers covering 730,000 people, or 16 officers per 10k citizens. By comparison, that number for DC is 65, Baltimore: 46, Boston: 33, SF: 28, Atlanta: 30, and LA: 26 (source: governing.com.)

More To Come

I’ll be updating this running post over time with major developments related to public safety in Seattle.

Seattle ended 2020 with the highest recorded number of homicides in the past twenty years. And police officers are meeting Priority 1 Calls (emergency calls, the highest level) in the goal time in fewer than half of all calls.

I love this city, and I hope this turns around. We need to find a way to get beyond the division, the grandstanding, the posturing — and literally improve public safety. Since resource allocation is about tradeoffs, I think that begins with defining what the most important metrics are which indicate public safety, be clear about them, and then optimize those. Personally, I put things like response times, shootings, reports of assault and sexual violence and validated reports of law enforcement bias-crimes/brutality fairly high on the list.

Without getting clear about the metrics which matter most, we pretend that we can make major cuts in one area and “reimagine public safety” without having any clear idea of what may lie ahead, nor even being able to measure whether our decisions were the right ones.

Updates

March 9, 2021 — Brandi Kruse shares several slides from SPD showing how understaffing is leading to poor response times:

Congratulations to Seattle’s New City Council

There’s a new City Council in Seattle. If human beings actually behave as they appear to believe, we’re in for some major improvements.

Congratulations to the victors! There was a big City Council election earlier this month, and it’s likely to set the course of the city for the next decade.

This isn’t the slate of leaders I’d have preferred. I’ve been clear about my own moderate political views on this blog, and this is not a moderate council. However, I do very much wish for their success. They now set the laws in a city I love.

Above all, I hope their imagined model of human behavior actually exists. Because from that, all else flows.

I hope that the key to ending homelessness is delivering publicly owned, affordable or even free-to-the-residents shelter, and that near-exclusive focus on that vis-a-vis homelessness pays the dividends they feel it will. That is, I hope that directing very little of our attention to treatment continues to be appropriate, and that results will show addiction to be mostly a second-order effect that can be — relatively speaking — ignored.

I hope the true addiction rate among those experiencing homelessness is in fact roughly what is self-reported (i.e., “only” about 35%, about 4 times rate for the housed.) I hope even that is high, by some mistake or something. Maybe lots of people who are not addicted are reporting that they are. I don’t know why they would, but it sure would be great if that’s the case. I hope a much higher level of addiction than 35% among the unhoused isn’t reality, because it would justify the near-silence on this topic at Seattle City Council hearings, and it would almost even justify the name-calling of anyone who dares to raise addiction and drug use as concerns worthy of addressing.

I hope it is the much easier-to-address problem of affordability, not addiction or mental health, that has driven and perpetuated the rapid rise in homelessness that we’ve been seeing over the past decade. Because 75,000 new units are currently under construction in Seattle, the $290 million Affordable Housing Levy is still in effect, HALA and MHA have passed with aims of creating 6,200 new affordable units, and the new slate of leaders will be pressing the accelerator very hard on affordable housing.

We will very likely try the Employee Hours Tax (EHT) and other taxes again, likely more aggressively than attempted in 2018. But this time, the group overseeing it will be a slightly different collection of resource-allocators, so perhaps the plans will be more comprehensive and robust — perhaps there will actually be a plan. But if it’s focused pretty much exclusively on building out publicly-owned housing as the first EHT was, I hope those who are addicted, if given warm shelter, get well largely on their own, because I hear a lot more about addressing affordability from these new overseers than I do the critical importance of establishing wraparound services such as treatment, pilot treatment programs with measurements, or frankly any kind of asks or gentle requirements for beneficiaries of these programs to try over time to get well.

I hope the crime and assaults which have been on the rise are truly driven by poverty and expensive rent, not by drug use or mental health. Because, once they have affordable or even free shelter, these second-order problems will greatly diminish. I hope that the Seattle Police Department (SPD) has largely been lying to us about the drug trade being a major source of property crime. Maybe it too is mostly about poverty.

I hope that “compassion” and “lenience” are pretty much interchangeable concepts, and that by doubling down on lenience, we create a more compassionate City for all who have been negatively impacted by assaults and other forms of crime.

I hope that by investing heavily in solving affordability with publicly owned housing and far more tiny villages in 12+ new areas, metrics like addiction rates, discarded needles, property crime and assault drift downward. That is to say, I hope Washington DC’s failed experiment in focusing on housing only was a complete anomaly, and I hope we’ve learned how to implement it better from Licton Springs.

I hope laws of supply and demand don’t apply to services. I hope that by funding a regionally and nationally generous set of policies without limits or requirements (“barriers”, in the parlance) in a mobile society, it doesn’t simply bring in more demand, taking us back to where we started. I really hope that it is indeed true that the term “Freattle” is just a hateful, invented pejorative spewed by the uncompassionate, and bears no connection to reality. Put another way, I hope that the laws of supply and demand are somehow suspended when it comes to services, and that there’s no such thing as magnet policies.

Or alternatively, if the laws of supply and demand are still in play, I hope we have a near-infinite capacity to fund shelter and services after the first 15,000 are served, because not a single one of the new city council leaders has really put forward any kind of limitations on service, nor are we prepared to discuss them without name-calling. Speaking of name-calling, I hope the whole “Seattle Is Dying” piece was mostly just staged and heavily edited to push an utterly false and hateful narrative, and that Sinclair somehow profits wildly by fabricating stories wholecloth. It would be a relief to discover it was fiction.

I hope that the third party service providers we taxpayers fund all sincerely want to do the right things by their clients and feel an obligation to make the most of taxpayer dollars, and don’t need much of any oversight, accountability or checks and balances. I hope it’s simply more funding that’s needed to have better results. Because with the exception of one new Council Member, I didn’t hear much about service provider accountability, measurements, audits, or any kind of payment-tied-to-results orientation.

I hope that it’s true that the best use of city-owned land is to put a few dozen tiny homes on it and allow more RVs inbound on city streets without really monitoring or caring about what anyone chooses to do with those spaces, or any kind of third party checks on who resides there. I hope for the sake of those subject to human trafficking, that an affordable place to live makes RV ranching and crime rings centered in some of those spaces disappear.

I hope it really does work that diverting repeat offenders away from punishment (like jail and drug court) and into lenient counseling really means they’re no longer likely to offend again, because it sure sounds like the compassionate thing to do, and who doesn’t want to be compassionate? I hope those diversion programs really do have tremendously beneficial harm reduction impacts on the communities where they’re deployed, even though that data’s not been made available, and what now 5-years-old data has been shared on recidivism suggests no statistical difference when “failure to appear in court” warrants are removed.

I hope that every time rent-control has been tried, its failure has been because it’s simply not been implemented right. I hope that this time it’ll be different, that a few tweaks will make it work, and that new renters won’t find all the most desirable affordable spaces taken out of inventory, and landlords won’t skimp on basic improvements for existing rent-controlled apartments, the way it has gone pretty much every time rent control has ever been tried.

I hope it’s actually true that among the highest and best uses of City Council time is to conduct and tolerate circus-like demonstrations in favor of, or protesting, various national and global issues which will never be decided within City limits, because I know that a great deal more “pack City Hall” events to “make statements” are in our near future.

I also hope their imagined economic model works, that lots of new taxes can be imposed on surgically-defined entities and segments without much unintended blowback, like regressive price increases on consumer goods and services, reductions in the number of people employed within Seattle city limits, companies or small businesses picking up and moving, reductions in levels of investment in new initiatives and resultant revenue-generation for our city, likelihood of attracting innovators here, or prices kept affordable on basic items like groceries, delivery and fuel. I hope shoplifting becomes less of a problem for retailers like Uwaijimaya and Bartells through our compassion, lenience and surging investments in housing.

I hope the MIT PhD candidate made lots of errors when he found that upzoning actually often sends prices upward, not downward.

I would be ecstatic to be pleasantly surprised about all this, so I do root for their success and not their failure, as they are our new duly elected lawmakers. We may even get a chance to see how well their model and formula all works through a national or global recession, which by and large is not something within our local control here in Seattle; we may only have a few months to a couple years to establish the set of programs we want when that arrives.

Though I disagree with a large number of proscribed policies this new group of lawmakers has espoused, we do fully align on many of the goals sought — i.e., far fewer people homeless, a safer city for all (at least I assume we align there), greater opportunity for all, fewer people addicted and living in tents, cars and RVs, a green city that protects its environment and welcomes newcomers with affordability, and much more.

The new Council absolutely has a chance (and no question, the votes) to fully establish the vision they want. That’s why I’m rooting for their success and for my fears to be dead wrong.

Meanwhile, we will don the labcoats. Because this is going to be an interesting several years of experimentation with a lot of things no city in this nation has really tried. We will be in the vanguard, we will be pioneering our own way, and it will be ambitious. Maybe it’s different here. We will watch and see how the various metrics respond: crime and public safety rates, within-city-limits employment, levels of addiction, care for our green spaces, ecology, mental health, affordability, activity of repeat offenders, public health and more, all play out. If human behavior really is as they imagine it, we’re in for some major improvements.

Candidates, Have Your Say

New ALIGNVOTE Feature: Candidate Voices

Immediately upon launch of the candidate-facing preview of ALIGNVOTE last Wednesday, I heard a great feature request from D4 candidate Heidi Stuber. Paraphrasing our exchange:

“I understand why multiple choice is great for finding a match, but often, multiple choice questions have a need for explanation as to why a particular stance was selected. Please allow me to elaborate on an answer.”

A few days later, I heard that request from two other candidates.

I told her by email then that I thought that her suggestion was a terrific and important feature, and that I’d implement it as quickly as I could, but that for various reasons I wanted to get the beta up and going. But no question, she’s right: some multiple choice answers can lose a great deal of nuance, and it’s important to offer candidates a chance to elaborate upon why they selected the option they did. Today, the day after the voter-facing public beta was announced, I’m pleased to report that this feature has been implemented on both the candidate-facing view and the voter-facing view. Candidates, now it’s your turn.

I’ve lamented before in a different context that nuance is in hibernation in America, and I definitely don’t like that trend. It’s happening on both the far right and the far left. Complex issues rarely have simple explainers or options. And I’m happy to do what I can to make room for nuance in a very tiny but important way.

One dilemma I thought about was how and when to present it to the voter. I also wanted to do it in such a way that it didn’t “push” the voter too much before they have had a chance to think and take their own stand. Sometimes, allowing a shift in our preconceived notion is an important part of politics and moving forward, and personally, I think it’s good to encourage pauses for reflection, and make space for moments where it can happen.

It’s important to note that by itself, the text of what’s written is not going to improve a match score, because ALIGNVOTE cannot read the voter’s mind and know whether that’s what they think too. It only sees which ultimate option is chosen and whether it matches the stance the candidate has, and applies the relative weighting of that issue to figure out how “closely aligned” on the questions provided they are. But reading this explanatory text on a position might be very informative to you about which option you should choose, and give you, the voter, a chance to compare brief and to-the-point rationales.

So here’s the way it works:

First, the Candidate Gets an Easy Way to Optionally, Briefly Elaborate

ALIGNVOTE sent all campaigns an email earlier today a link that lets them elaborate on any or all answers. Every single campaign got emailed this link, based upon the officially registered email address on file with the City of Seattle. They need to double-check SPAM folders or re-request it from us. (I cannot just send it to any old email address, for what I hope are understandable reasons.)

ALIGNVOTE indicates clearly that elaborating is optional, and the text of what’s written will not change the match-scoring, but it might encourage a voter to align with their stance on the issue, thus encouraging a greater match score and resultant ranking.

Elaborations are only allowed to those candidates who confirm their stances via the ALIGNVOTE surveys sent.

Personal note: Candidates, take a stand and choose an option; that’s a big part of what we’re electing you to do. One of the things ALIGNVOTE fights against is attempting to have one’s cake and eating it too. Candidates can update their elaboration at any time via their link, but stances are locked in unless they email us.

In the ALIGNVOTE Interview, the Voter Sees the Question and Ponders their Stance…

Let’s say they first choose “Might be a good idea.”

Candidate Voices are Revealed, if Present

There’s a “Candidate Voices” section that’s revealed, with a shuffled list of responses from candidates. ALL available candidate voices on the issue (not just the selected stance) are provided. There is no selection or filtering. If a candidate submits a sentence or two via their ALIGNVOTE survey, it is displayed. ALL candidate views are displayed; these are in no way filtered or curated or altered or hidden by ALIGNVOTE. You, the voter, see what the candidate wrote:


  • You, the voter are free to revise your choice or weighting based on the candidate’s official voice on the issue.
  • ALIGNVOTE shuffles the display order of candidate voices when one or more is present, so that one candidate doesn’t always get top billing or the last word. (At this writing, this is the first use of randomization in ALIGNVOTE. Known bug: Currently doesn’t shuffle until there are three or more elaborations in the list for a given issue. Addressing soon.)
  • If no candidate in the race offers an elaboration, no “Candidate Voices” subsection is displayed.
  • The elaborations are a maximum of 240 characters each, the current maximum length of a Tweet.
  • The elaborations can be updated at any time by the candidate if they so choose. This policy may change based upon logistical ease, but for now, that’s the case — it can be changed as issues or news warrant.
  • Only those candidates who have actually completed and submitted the ALIGNVOTE stance survey (officially confirming their stances) will have their statements displayed to voters.

For Candidates, It’s a Great Way to Get Your Message to Voters

High-propensity voters will be using this tool. Candidates shouldn’t miss the opportunity to get their stances and messages to voters who are pondering their own views on an issue. We strongly encourage all candidates to complete their ALIGNVOTE survey, and suggest that they use the new elaborations feature to reach voters with a succinct description of their rationale for their stances.

Please give busy candidates and campaigns the benefit of the doubt by noting that this is a brand new feature, only hours old. Only hours ago did all candidates receive the ability to actually enter their stances, so it understandably may take time for them to craft the right 240 character stances. That’s reasonable.

To see the feature in action, visit the D4 Race, as the candidate who suggested this feature has already provided her comments.

Other Updates Released Today

We are still in beta and will be for a while.

  • Explanatory text on the weighting slider
  • Privacy Policy

Answers to a few questions

No changes to the match scoring algorithm have been made since we went live. None. Zero. If you’re seeing better rankings (and I guess that actually translates to: “more in line with what I thought it would be”), as at least one person has mentioned on Twitter, it might be because candidates have taken a moment to confirm/update their stances, which just makes everything better and helps us be more informed about where they stand. (Thanks, candidates!)

At present, the only place where randomization is used in ALIGNVOTE is the shuffling of the order of candidate elaborations.

Traveling Soon, Slow Response Very Likely Late June Until Early July

I do have some long-planned personal commitments and travel that will likely keep me away from the computer for a couple weeks at the end of June. This was planned well before the idea for ALIGNVOTE even began. I wish I could stay here frankly. My other commitments and travel will cause some interruption and slow response during this period, I just want to be up front about that. There will be a very busy July through early August, for sure, and I’ll very much be around for that.

The Best Way To Get New Feature Announcements

At this writing, 1,600+ candidate score matches have been done by the platform. No question, many of these are dupes by the same person kicking the tires and checking it out. But it’s also good to remember that in our last District Level Election (2015), some races were decided by mere dozens of votes.

Thanks for the great and constructive feedback and I hope this tool is useful in narrowing down a few candidates with whom to connect.

Update: AGREES/DISAGREES Indicator

In taping a segment to be aired on TV next week, a reporter noted to me that he got confused about the display of the “Candidate Voices” section. Though there is clear hover text over the info-button, he was under the impression that only the candidate voices who agreed with the stance the voter had selected would be shown.

That’s incorrect — ALL candidates who have provided elaborations are shown, regardless of the answer provided. Just like a live candidate forum, we do no filtering of what they say. It’s displayed immediately for all candidates once they submit their questionnaire. They have the ability to edit or change those elaborations at any time.

In addition, we are now making it clear whether the candidate who provided an elaboration AGREES or DISAGREES with the stance the voter has tentatively selected, as follows:

This is only done where an elaboration is provided. For now, in this beta, this is done by design. That’s because, just like a forum, we want voters to hear more than just a yes or no, we’d like them to put a short statement of support for why they chose the option they chose.

The AGREES/DISAGREES indicator simply tells the voter at a glance whether the candidate agrees with what the voter is choosing or not. And it’s available for all candidates who provide elaboration text.

The benefit for candidates of course is that they can get the justification out there to voters for WHY they feel the way they do about an issue. The benefit for voters is that they get to read it, and can see at a glance whether the candidate agrees with their stance or not.

Introducing ALIGNVOTE

Ever wish you had help discovering which candidates agree the most with you? Simply answer a few questions, and ALIGNVOTE will tell you. It’s free, quick, and it works easily on your phone or desktop.

Are you a Seattle voter? There’s a very important City Council election coming up on August 6th. Seven of nine spots on our City Council are up for election:

  1. Visit https://alignvote.com
  2. Point to where you live
  3. Answer a few questions
  4. See which candidates answered most similarly to you to these same questions

That’s it. Pretty simple concept, right? Kind of a self-driven endorsement tool, where you, and not some third party editorial board, are doing the sorting based upon answers and weightings of issues to you, using the candidates’ own responses to the same questions.

Snapshot of the nascent site, as of 6/9/19 at noon PST

We do not endorse candidates. You should.

Please go check it out, see if it works for you.

And then, if you’re interested in the backstory and even a little kerfuffle drama, read on. I’ve also posted about me, the sole creator of the project.

Why? Lowering the Barriers To Connect, Decide and Vote

Just three in ten (30%) of eligible voters cast a vote in some Seattle districts in the 2015 City Council primaries. Think about that. Is that a healthy democracy? 7 in 10 sit it out, even though 100% are affected by the decisions made by the people elected. Year after year, those who cast ballots tend to skew older and wealthier than the general population. Is that a good thing? Why don’t more people connect and vote?

What if it could be made easier for all to identify candidates who most share the perspectives as you do?

Try this test: Can people around you name more than two people running to run our city in the election to be held less than 60 days from now? Can they name one or two who most align with their views? Unless they’re a highly involved voter, or an activist for a specific set of causes, they are very unlikely to know.

But ask the same voter to share their perspective about a City issue, and many more citizens will happily share their opinion, and it may even be strongly held. Well, with a few hours of research, it’s certainly possible to take one’s policy views and map that into some kind of candidate-match ranking. But how many citizens want to invest that hour? And do we really want to continue to entrust the recommendations to the proxy bloggers or editorial boards, whose objectives and perspectives may be far off from our own?

Bridging that gap, and connecting the busy voter with the top three candidates that most align with their own views, yes even controversial ones, is what ALIGNVOTE is all about.

People are busy, and crowded fields, while great for variety and choice, add complexity when voting day arrives. Worse, there’s very little common basis for comparison, unless you attend all-candidate forums where they’re all posed the same question. Or, more accurately, there is usually common bases for comparison, but they’re buried in answers given at all-candidate forums or endorsement questionnaires or the like.

While I wasn’t able to find Seattle-specific data, nearly twenty years ago, MSNBC set out to try to find out why so many eligible voters sat out the 2000 Presidential Election. “Too Busy” ranked as the number one reason people gave:

That’s for a presidential election. I think Democracy works best when more people participate, and I’d like to see voting percentages go higher. If ALIGNVOTE has one objective, it is to help eliminate more excuses for not voting. I do not care if it helps more people who I disagree with on certain issues vote more — that would be a success. I want more people of ANY political opinion to connect more with the candidate(s) of their choosing, perhaps donate or give Democracy Vouchers (a largely Seattle-specific idea) if they are so inclined and able. But above all, vote, even in the primary, and even in August.

I’d like to see if this is a year we can lift that voter participation from 30% to something higher.

As for the issues themselves, I’m of the adamant belief that good, intelligent and well-meaning people can and do disagree on controversial and important issues. That’s why, in most cases, issues escalate to become roiling controversies. Controversies rarely exist because people on one side are “good” and the others “bad”, it’s because there are very real trade-offs at stake, and very different and deeply held philosophies about the proper role of government in our lives. That debate is as it should be; that’s part of democracy. If the answers, impacts or solutions to complex problems were simple, they’d have been solved long ago.

But that leaves us with a problem. How, particularly in crowded fields, can we most easily identify the handful of candidates who align with our perspectives?

You can’t really Google “Which candidates most align with me on transit and zoning tradeoffs?”

Perhaps you’re a voter who, like me, thinks it should be easier to find those top three or so candidates you most align with on the issues you care about for further exploration. Or maybe you’re really sold on a candidate, and want to do a quick double-check if you’re mostly or enough in alignment on other issues… or maybe you’re open to the ideas that your ideas need adjustment.

There’s no shortage of public stances and statements made by candidates. But most people cannot possibly have time to attend every forum, every candidate meet-and-greet, read every Twitter feed, nor read every endorsement questionnaire they file.

It’s Just One of Many Tools

Fortunately, there are forums, venues, campaign events, campaign websites, endorsement questionnaires, meet-and-greets and more. You should get engaged. You should reach out. And to help with that, ALIGNVOTE links you to the campaign websites of each candidate who participates, and we’ll be adding links to resources to help learn more.

It’s just one of many tools, never intended to be the only tool. ALIGNVOTE can and will on occasion highly rank a candidate for people that individual voters feel, for other reasons, are disqualifying. It’s imperfect.

Thanks to public in-person forums, Twitter statements online, campaign websites and more, publicly posted endorsement questionnaires, and yes, surveys sent to candidates, information on top-line stances are out there. What if there were a way to encourage candidates and voters to answer the same questions and then provide information on how aligned they are? Might something like that save time?

ALIGNVOTE is in its infancy, and it will be interesting to see how useful voters find it. As with any beta product, there are bound to be things to improve, and we want to hear your ideas. Please jot us a Tweet.

Shortcomings

ALIGNVOTE is far from perfect, nor I suspect will it ever be. But before blasting it for being imperfect tool, please show me the perfect political research tool.

Still, there are very reasonable and rational critiques of this approach. I’d like to respond to some of them here:

On the Multiple Choice Format

No one who has ever taken the SAT has ever loved a multiple-choice format, and I’m not here to defend it as the best way to explore the many nuances of every issue. But such questions provide a useful filtering role, particularly if candidates and voters answer precisely the same question.

Two candidates have written in to suggest that we offer a chance to elaborate upon why an issue was their choice and we totally agree that’s a great idea. We’re currently trying to figure out how to enable that in a way that doesn’t attempt to “swing” the voter during the interview. We may very well provide a way for participating candidates to elaborate upon, or even link off to their more in-depth perspectives or website to explore a topic in a future release.

On the Wording of Questions

Questions were taken from public forums and venues. The phrasing of those questions may seem awkward at times, but that’s usually because that’s how the question was put to candidates in public forums, and we didn’t want to put words in a candidates’ mouths. Throughout, we are making reasonable, best efforts to accurately portray a candidate’s stance, and sometimes that necessitated boiling stances down to “Support”, “Sometimes” or “Never”, but that made it very clear which bucket each public statement fit into. Of course, the best insurance is to actually directly email the campaigns themselves the precise wording of the question, and thankfully the response rate was tremendous in just a few days (thank you, candidates!)

All candidates were emailed the survey last week. They were invited to double-check or in some cases offer up their answers for the first time to the questions posed.

We would be delighted to add more questions if candidates are willing to answer more. To that end, candidates were asked to craft and their own good and fair question with multiple-choice answers in the very survey they’ve already been emailed and responded-to.

On the Listing of Candidates

The list of candidates and contact information was taken from The Seattle Election Commission public disclosure website. A few never registered any email address with the Election Commission, and we were unable to reach them, but happy to do so if they read this and are properly filed. (Contact us.) And, as candidates officially drop out or don’t meet eligibility requirements, we will make efforts to remove them from the result list. There may be some lag in this, as we are relying upon the City of Seattle’s update to their website.

On the Coverage of Issues

Another shortcoming: ALIGNVOTE certainly doesn’t cover all issues, nor does it always frame the question in a complete way. But then again, does any newspaper article, blog post, debate or public speaking event fully frame or explain the nuances of every (or even any) issue?

Remember, candidates and voters answer precisely the same question.

We will happily add more questions in future rounds, and ALIGNVOTE asks each candidate to submit their own topical question for consideration in future rounds. We’ve got some good suggestions in from candidates. As indicated in the About ALIGNVOTE section, we source candidate answers from their public statements, which include their campaign websites, what they state in forums, what they say in public speech, what they write on Twitter, and more. We also directly email all candidates the survey so they can answer in their own words.

Here’s How To Add a Question

It’s early days; the platform just went live last week. So it’s hard to know everything or where this will go. But we are very open to adding more questions over time, if we can get a significant majority of candidates in a given race to answer the same question as worded.

For instance, new “lightning round” questions might be posed at all-candidate forums, and those verified asks and answers might well be added to the ALIGNVOTE survey. Candidates were also offered a space to suggest a good and fair question in their own ALIGNVOTE survey last week; the chances of those getting into the survey are greatly improved if a sizeable percentage of candidates in the race agree to answer it. If candidates can get agreement among other campaigns to ask and answer a common question with consistent multiple-choice answers, we would be delighted to look at adding it.

Candidates: You Can Opt Out

ALIGNVOTE definitely does not wish to force any candidate to participate. You can refuse to participate.

Let me be clear about what opting-out means. All filed candidates will still be listed, so your listing will not be removed. That’s because many voters who know you’re in the race might wonder why your listing is missing, and might consider it a bug or an oversight.

Should you choose to opt-out, your candidate profile box will still appear for all voter alignment interviews for the election race you’re participating in (this will grow well into the thousands as the election date approaches), but your profile listing will be shown as unranked and “refused/opted-out”, and be listed at the bottom of all ranking results. The low ranking is simply because your stances on the issues will officially be blank, and treated as unknown by the algorithm, and no “match” between your views and the ones the voter has expressed can of course be made, so your ranking will be very distant from any view expressed by a voter. If you would prefer not to participate, simply email us from the official campaign email address filed with the City. Our email address is in our About page.

We reserve the right to clearly explain to voters who may be disappointed that you decided not to participate, and encourage them to let you know if that’s something they’d like you to do. Just as is often done in public forums, we will make it clear that you were invited to participate and chose not to.

We also do plan to implement a feature whereby candidates can offer a short elaboration or explanation or perhaps link to policy-explainer on each question posed. This is not yet implemented, solely because of development schedule, not because we don’t wish to do so. This idea came to us from a candidate and we think it’s a great idea. Please note that only participating candidates who have filled out a survey and are participating will be offered this feature. In addition, any future features offered to candidates (e.g., perhaps voter count data on how many “top 3” matches you earned over time, or perhaps contacts directly from voters who indicate they want to know more, etc.) will only be offered to participating candidates. Participation is free; there is no fee.

That is to say — ALIGNVOTE is an ongoing and growing opportunity to connect with voters.

I apologize for keeping my own identity and involvement opaque until now through the data confirmation stage. Most of you have confirmed (thank you) your public views which are already on record, which constitutes the basis of these interview questions. I ask you to stay with us as we build and grow this platform, because I think it benefits voters most of all, but all of us ultimately.

Origins of the Idea: Getting Asked “Who Should Get My Vote?”

…and being unwilling to answer without knowing more.

As I’ve written about in the past on this blog, I spent much of springtime 2019 freely volunteering my time and equipment to record, broadcast and index seven different civic forums for SPEAK OUT Seattle. These free and open events happened across the city, in each of Seattle’s seven different city council districts.

I wanted to hear from and learn more about each candidate’s position. I learned a lot. Live-streaming and A/V was my volunteer role in these forums, and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to do so. All candidates were invited. And the vast majority of the questions — well over 70% — came from the audience in attendance. They were free and open to all. At this stage, thousands of video views have happened on these forums, they got wide coverage and replay in the media, and we’ve been complimented frequently on the professionalism and fairness of these forums.

And here’s what happened in my life in the weeks during and since.

Dozens of friends and contacts have asked me whom to vote for. But good people disagree on different issues and priorities, and it’s not my style to immediately tout people they must vote for, only look into or consider. Also, I generally like to first ask a few questions in these one-on-one interactions about how they feel about particular issues and tradeoffs, and then I point them to the candidates they might want to take a closer look at. That’s because I don’t always know where they stand and the weightings they place on certain issues.

Such interactions inspired me to see if there’s a better way to help identify “matches” between candidate and voter.

On Input from Various People

ALIGNVOTE is independent, and entirely my own creation — that includes the initial idea to build it, the actual coding of the platform, the design (such as it is), the choice of initial questions (largely driven by existing, already public Q&A where stances were made clear), the workflow, the hosting, the operations, the logo, color scheme, brand name and more. It was a significant undertaking over the past few months, but I’ve bootstrapped websites before, and this isn’t my first rodeo in that regard.

As would any builder, I did run it by a variety of sources to get feedback once it was initially publicly viewable. This started about two weeks ago, around the week of May 25th 2019 or so. Those providing input include but are not limited to a former mayor, multiple tech leaders I know, six City Council candidates, former b-school classmates, former Microsoft and Expedia colleagues, fellow volunteers at SOS, and one or two personal friends and family.

As mentioned here and elsewhere on this blog, I do volunteer for Speak Out Seattle (SOS), a non-partisan citizens group where civil discourse is welcome, and which seeks effective solutions to regional issues.

A couple of leaders of SOS first saw this tool two weeks ago, in late May 2019, when I sent them a link of the ready-to-go site for feedback. That was the first time they saw it; a couple weeks ago. None of the comments received from any person or entity involved the selection of, changing of, or altering questions, because by design, most of them were drawn from public forums, where candidate statements are already on the record. People I ran this by had no input on which questions were chosen.

I also ran it by a couple City Council candidates late last week right after the surveys were emailed to all reachable/registered campaigns (and thus other candidates saw it simultaneously. No City Council member influenced the choice of questions either.

One candidate did quite clearly reply back to me to request information on who was behind ALIGNVOTE, and indicated she wanted to know before answering. I replied via email the following day without naming myself, giving her the accurate information that I’m an independent voter in Seattle and that ALIGNVOTE, the project, was unaffiliated with any political party or campaign. I also indicated on the website in the About section that while ALIGNVOTE is organizationally independent, it was built by a human and that human (me) does indeed have political opinions. No one from “Safe Seattle” was ever shown this tool in preview form, nor have I yet discussed ALIGNVOTE with leaders of that media site as of this writing, Monday June 10, 2019.

ALIGNVOTE has a very modest budget at present, which I pay for entirely out of my own pocket. I am the sole director of the project, and we do not make (or seek) any revenue or external funding at this time.

So in sum, schedule-wise: emails were sent to candidates the middle of last week (Weds, Thurs and Friday, as these campaigns were entered into the system), candidates chose (or not) to participate based on the level of information provided, and my identity is now known on Monday.

What’s Next

Now that the beta is out, ALIGNVOTE is already being contacted by other organizations that might want to use, promote, invest in or repurpose the tool.

It’s my view that candidate-finder and alignment tools have use in pretty much any democratic election at the municipal, state or federal level, and that this is more of a “platform” with software behind it which allows groups to author questions and get candidates and voters answering them. So its ambitions may start with the Seattle City Council race of 2019, but will likely go beyond it. (At present writing, I’d really love one now for the crowded Democratic primary race of 2020.) I designed the platform to be repurposable and as automated as possible. There’s a fair amount of work in the back-end which allows the races to be set up, content managed, etc. My initial project is here in the city of Seattle, but I can definitely see this being useful and licensable to other civic or media organizations who want to author their own “candidate matchmaker” services in their own local races. But that’s not yet happened; small steps today.

We will remain financially and organizationally independent of other groups, but our platform has already been, and very well could be (and I hope will be) linked-to or promoted by other media organizations or election groups in the future. It’s the Internet after all, and free websites are only a click away. We will not be preventing anyone from linking to our site.

There will be some great ideas for new questions, and we’d love to hear them. Jot them to alignvote[at]gmail.com. But keep in mind that unless ALL candidates answer these questions, ideally with some support in public venues, it may not make the cut. I could envision some kind of question upvote/downvote before it goes live. Dunno. Lots of thinking to do there, and it’s simply limited by time.

Onward

Whew! That’s a lot of information above, and if you’ve read it all, I thank you for your patience.

Like the idea? Please share it on Facebook, Email, Twitter, Nextdoor and face to face with friends and neighbors. And here’s a QR Code that you can put in printed media and flyers:

Got issues or ways to make it better? Please do send in your constructive commentary and feedback! Want to send in a welcome nod of support for what we’re up to? Jot us a note on Twitter. Candidates, if you have any adjustment to your answers or for some reason didn’t get the survey link emailed to you last week, please contact us. Thanks!

Why I’m Done Letting “The Stranger” Influence My Vote

The Stranger is a smug, snarky and occasionally clever Seattle media institution that makes some great nightlife recommendations. But when it comes to city politics, it’s on the wrong track.

With 50+ candidates running for City Council, many Seattle voters are going to be looking for ways to winnow down their choices come August 6th. City Council Primary Ballots are mailed July 17th.

For what are likely historical or sentimental reasons (hey, remember Grunge?), The Stranger is still, for some, an influential voice. It’s high time we put them aside and opt out of giving weight to their endorsement or lack thereof. Here’s why.

We need a more effective City Council.

Surveys show that City Council effectiveness and accountability, and its approaches to the often-intertwined issues of homelessness, affordability, mental health, public safety and addiction are all top concerns of Seattle voters. They’re important to me. Chances are, they rank highly for you too.

Yet The Stranger doesn’t appear to give much weight to these issues in their decision-making process. Their candidate selection process appears to be looking for ideological sameness to the current Council.

Let’s take a look at the Endorsement Questionnaire The Stranger’s Election Control Board sent to City Council candidates just a few days ago:

Stranger-Questionnaire-2019

Judging from the questions they ask, they seem to have no real desire to find candidates willing to prioritize City Council effectiveness and accountability, nor look the issues of addiction, opioid use/abuse, or repeat offenders squarely in the eye.

Missing From The Survey

There are numerous important topics missing from the survey:

  • What are your ideas to improve the City Council’s oversight and effectiveness?
  • The city budget is a record $6 billion, and has grown considerably faster than combined population and inflation would suggest, yet there have been numerous large-budget failures in the past five years. What would you do to address this?
  • What have other cities done to address homelessness that might make sense to adopt in Seattle?
  • What is your reaction to the recent System Failure Report on Prolific Offenders, and what would be your preferred response from city leadership?
  • What, if anything, should be done to reduce the proliferation of needles and waste in public spaces?
  • Do you think major corporations based here could be better partners in improving the city? How?
  • Do you support safe injection sites? If so, where and how would you measure success? Or, if not, why not?
  • Per-capita property crime in Seattle is now among the nation’s highest, and has grown more rapidly than most major cities in the past ten years. What do you think, if anything, should be done about it?
  • Do you support the City Income Tax, which the city is currently fighting to enact? Why or why not?
  • What changes, if any, would you make to City Council meetings and public comment period to make them more reflective of all citizens?
  • Do you feel today’s City Council is generally supportive of small businesses? If so, how, and if not, how might you improve it?
  • What should be done about the dramatic increase in people living in vehicles in Seattle?
  • What can or should be done about police attrition and departures, if anything?
  • Do you think Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) priorities should be adjusted in any way?
  • How would your approach to homelessness response look different than what we have today?

If any of these are on your mind… you’re out of luck. The Stranger doesn’t really seem to care about these issues much, judging from their questionnaire.

Worse, they appear to be looking for candidates interested in filtering out worldviews which might challenge. Note that they didn’t even get around to asking about forward-looking policy questions until the final few.

Thought Policing What Information Sources Candidates Can Consume

I was stunned by the sixth question:

“Are you now, or have you ever been, a member (or disciple, or fan) of Speak Out Seattle and / or Safe Seattle?”

Why does which Facebook pages one follows have ANY place whatsoever in any way on a Candidate Endorsement Questionnaire?

Presumably, answers to this question play into their endorsement decisions; they deemed this question more important than any of the ones listed above. Do they hear no echoes of McCarthyism’s “Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” in this question?

Are city leaders no longer allowed to consume certain media sources, or participate in nonpartisan civic activity?

What do you seek in a candidate — someone who listens to multiple points of view, or someone who actively filters out those ideas and data-points which might challenge their worldview?

SPEAK OUT Seattle

As I’ve noted elsewhere on this blog, I’m a volunteer member of SPEAK OUT Seattle, a non-partisan citizens group seeking more effective solutions to regional issues. We lean into difficult conversations; we’re tired of certain complex topics (like homelessness, addiction, public safety) being cordoned off by gatekeepers from polite conversation, because approaches on these issues affect us all. We also think some other regions sometimes tackle these issues more effectively than we do, and that on occasion, we might even be able to learn from some of them.

We’ve held City Council forums in every district of the city, and you can watch them in full here. We invited every candidate. The forums were free and open to everyone to attend. A full 70%+ of the questions posed to the candidates came from the audience. The forums were live-streamed for all to see (that’s been my role.)

As one commentator correctly notes, “To date, Speak Out Seattle likely does more than any other organization in Seattle to help voters get to know the more than 50 plus candidates running for city council and vice versa.” SOS advocates for, among other things, the very Pathways Home approach that we taxpayers paid $200,000 for. You can see the issues and stances of the organization right here on the SOS website: https://speakoutseattle.com/issues.

Yet we’ve been the target of a deeply dishonest, cynical and largely unsuccessful smear campaign by a handful of Twitter activists making discredited allegations. This caused a small number of candidates to mistakenly — and I think very regrettably for them — opt out of these widely viewed public forums. More than 1,000 people attended these standing-room-only forums, and they’ve been viewed many thousands of times online so far; this will only continue to grow. The publicity generated in part by the controversy has helped quadruple our membership in a single year, so for that I’m thankful. Judging from the question, The Stranger is also of the mindset that SPEAK OUT Seattle is for reasons they don’t explain, a doubleplus-ungood group to be a part of and somehow useful in determining whether to endorse or not endorse.

SPEAK OUT Seattle’s co-chair was a Bernie Sanders alternate delegate in the 2016 election, our key leaders are nearly all registered Democrats or independents. (And, FWIW, at more than a dozen SOS meetings I’ve attended, I’ve not yet heard support for Trump. I didn’t vote for him, and deep blue Seattle voted more than 80% for HRC in the last election.)

But don’t let those facts get in the way of a good false narrative. For more ways that smear campaign got the facts wrong, see this post.

The good news is that you don’t have to take anyone’s word for what SOS stands for. Simply drop by speakoutseattle.com or the Facebook group and see what issues are discussed there, and how they’re discussed. I challenge you to watch the forums and find any hint of bias or hate; we are merely bringing to the fore questions that are on many citizens’ minds these days. Or drop by the Facebook group and see how conversation is actively kept civil and largely on-point by many volunteers; a breath of fresh air in online discussion.

Judging from The Stranger‘s sixth question, these waning kingmakers of the city aren’t very happy that new voices are emerging in the civic dialog to challenge a carefully constructed narrative they’ve wanted to perpetuate. The Stranger is one of those waning kingmakers whose time needs to pass.

By the way, note the title of this form. Is there a reason that The Stranger calls their Election Board their “Election Control Board”? What precisely are they trying to control? It’s a nit-pick, but it’s emblematic of the larger theme.

Do your own research. Watch the forums, read the voters guide, meet the candidates. In the age of the Internet, there’s no excuse not to.

UPDATE: And be sure to Try Alignvote, a new site I put together which helps you find candidates most aligned with you on a set of questions.

I prefer candidates who expose themselves to MULTIPLE points of view, and you should too. Do we want City Council leaders who continue to have highly selective sources of information, and overweight certain advocates over others? I think they should listen to all voices and come to their own conclusions, not shut out or shut down sources which might challenge their worldview.

The Stranger didn’t ask “Are you a subscriber to ‘The Stranger?'” Do you read “Crosscut?” Or “do you follow Erica C Barnett on Twitter?” Or do you read The Seattle Times, or follow SCC Insight? And what about TV? Are candidates supposed unplug their TV if “Seattle Is Dying?” is rebroadcast? Or do we want leaders who are capable of consuming multiple points of view and data sources, even beyond just those that validate their own worldview? Why are the information sources a candidate receives any kind of qualifying or disqualifying notch?

We are NOT made smarter by the “filter bubble.” We are made dumber and more fragile by shutting out ideas, evidence and data which might challenge our worldview.

The Stranger: Still Good for Music & Nightlife, But Not For Making Our City Council More Effective

I’ll still be looking forward to The Stranger’s thoughts on which acts to catch at Bumbershoot, and which festivals and shows are worth seeing.

But as for letting them determine which candidates would improve the city: I’m done. So long.


On this blog, as its name and web address might suggest, I speak for myself, and not any organization. Specifically, SPEAK OUT Seattle neither instigated, reviewed nor authorized this post, nor is this any articulation whatsoever of that organization’s official position.