New Book Argues That Our Approach to Homelessness Won’t Work

Why are west coast cities suffering through a seemingly intractable growth in homelessness? What can we learn from the relative successes of Amsterdam, Lisbon, Miami and even New York City?

This first appeared in Post Alley on November 22nd, 2021.

By the time you read the subtitle, “Why Progressives Ruin Cities,” you know that author Michael Shellenberger pulls no punches. He explores a vexing, urgent question: Why have San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Portland — wealthy, progressive cities each — experienced such intractable and rapidly-growing homelessness crises in the past decade? Why have each of these politically liberal, environmentally-conscious cities with enormous financial resources suffered worsening and intertwined crises of addiction, public encampment, needles and deteriorating public safety, and political gridlock — despite spending ever more?

It’s been more than six years since Seattle Mayor Ed Murray declared a state of emergency on homelessness. That year, the King County One Night Count found 3,772 individuals living outside and unsheltered. In 2020, it had risen to 11,751 people experiencing homelessness, with 47% of those unsheltered. And, despite more than $1 billion spent on homelessness every year regionally according to the Puget Sound Business Journal and even more donated in affordable housing pledges by Jeff Bezos, Microsoft, and others, we still don’t feel much closer toward a model which works.

Released in October, San Fransicko has broken into the top three reads on Amazon in the Civics & Citizenship category. Though it focuses on the Bay Area, policies in Seattle are similar. Shellenberger indirectly asks the Seattle reader to consider whether the progressive policy approach — harm reduction, housing first, affordable housing, and a victim-centric lexicon — leads toward measurable progress? If not, will it ever?

Two decades ago, the author was a conventional progressive on these topics. Today, Shellenberger is criticizing progressive orthodoxy in the environment and homelessness. His 2020 treatise, Apocalypse Never, is a broadside against what he considers “climate alarmism.” In that book, Shellenberger advocates for more nuclear power and more technological and pragmatic approaches to environmental challenges, bringing data to the argument about which forms of energy can most efficiently reduce CO2 emissions.

San Francisco City Hall and city square. Photo from the Los Angeles Times, May 7, 2021

In San Fransicko Shellenberger takes on three of the most heavily-defended tenets of the west-coast approach toward homelessness.

First, he argues that homelessness is principally an addiction and mental health crisis masquerading as an affordability crisis. Put another way, and this is central to his thesis — it’s not primarily about affordability. To this assertion, he brings considerable data, showing how pure housing-only programs fail to reduce homelessness. He explains how public housing advocates have largely shut down much-needed investment in shelter.

He asks the reader to ponder whether growth in tents is at least in part because they’re the least-costly way to live with no rules, in proximity to drug markets and a community of users. And he names the ever-more addictive drugs doing increasing damage: first opioids, then heroin, fentanyl, and now a new and extremely addictive form of methamphetamine which brings with it much more frequent and lasting mental crises. Drug overdose deaths have hit a record high in the United States, with more than 100,000 dying in the past 12 months. Sam Quinones’ excellent piece in The Atlantic about this new methamphetamine echoes Shellenberger’s central thrust here.

Second, Shellenberger takes on “housing first,” the highly popular intervention policy in west coast cities which prioritizes secure housing and “barrier-free” (i.e., requirement-free) living. Once a fierce advocate for housing-first policies, the author is now convinced the policy momentum itself has overshadowed the ultimate goal. He walks the reader through Amsterdam’s history in policymaking, which once had similar barrier-free models, but has in the past decade adopted a much more empirically successful approach. The “Amsterdam Way” emphasizes earned housing and compassionate enforcement over the “housing first” model. Shellenberger dives in to study methodology to question several of the academic efforts which have claimed efficacy of housing-first.

In interviews subsequent to the book, he’s posed the thought exercise: “If someone who is addicted to methamphetamine is given $200, are they likely to voluntarily spend it on their own treatment, or more drugs?” Shellenberger’s point: if we believe it’s the latter, we’re saying the housing-first — which too often is housing-only — model won’t work.

Third, Shellenberger argues against city-only programs. He notes that in a mobile and free society, no city-specific approach would work in the absence of a broader regional or statewide strategy. He advocates the establishment of a new statewide agency, “Cal Psych,” to handle a broad range of mental wellness services.

The book is at its best detailing the success stories of other cities. Shellenberger holds up Amsterdam, Lisbon, New York City, and Miami as cities to consider as much better models than the failed west-coast models. The chapter “Let’s Go Dutch” focuses on Amsterdam, a city not that much bigger than San Francisco (or Seattle, for that matter), and makes a very strong case for adopting their policy slate. This includes earned housing based on entering treatment programs if addicted, a crackdown on open-air drug dealing, an individualized and well-coordinated plan for every individual, and ample social services.

In the 1980s, Amsterdam had major problems with open-air drug-dealing and homelessness. Crucially, Shellenberger argues, Amsterdam’s courts, service providers, and families helped coordinate an individualized plan for everyone, and linked permanent housing benefits to milestones along the way. That is, rather than housing-first, those addicted first get less-desirable government shelter, but must earn permanent housing. They rely upon family support when available, enforced bans on public encampment, and ample counseling and psychiatric care services.

There are no signs yet that San Francisco will change course. In July, Mayor London Breed pledged $1 billion to house the homeless, after the city experienced a surprise windfall driven in part by federal stimulus spending. District Attorney Chesa Boudin has decriminalized many misdemeanors, and there’s a strong push to reduce police budgets.

Seattle features prominently in a chapter called “Legalize Crime.” Shellenberger recounts the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) in June of 2020 and the progressive wave of decriminalizing misdemeanor crimes. And he discusses the mismatch between progressive ideals and actual outcomes.

That people can and should be called upon to do more is central to Shellenberger’s thesis. A former progressive, Shellenberger describes a new, aggressively guarded belief system, which he calls “Victimology.” Such a doctrine plays a central role in discussion of the addiction and homelessness crises and the advancement and protection of failing dogmas. He argues that progressives have become far too invested in the idea that addicts are only victims with no obligation to a greater society, and that nothing can nor should be asked of any of them. In a related blog post, he explores this victimology through Moral Foundation Theory. Shellenberger argues that while espousing such a belief system may signal compassion, it rarely delivers it.

Does individual responsibility have a role in this urgent conversation? Do people experiencing homelessness and the larger community share mutual responsibilities? Shellenberger argues strongly: yes, they do.

The late neurologist, author and Holocaust survivor Dr. Viktor Frankl wrote compellingly about the need for responsibility to balance liberty in any functioning society. Before his death, Frankl called specifically for a “Statue of Responsibility” on the West Coast, to complement the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast. There’s even a campaign for it. After you read San Fransicko, you might be inclined to rethink our approach toward homeless policymaking.

Post-note: There’s a good discussion with the author here:

Which Seattle candidate most agrees with you? Take the all-new Alignvote quiz.

Which candidate most agrees with you in the Seattle 2021 general election? Take the all-new Alignvote quiz to find out.

I’ve just released a brand new version of Alignvote, completely rewritten and updated for the 2021 November Seattle General Election:

alignvote.com

There are four voter-candidate matchmakers for key Seattle races: Mayor, City Council 8, City Council 9, and City Attorney. And, assuming forums and questionnaires continue to develop in the race for King County Executive, there will likely be one for that race soon as well.

Are you just getting up to speed on some of the big issues in these races, and curious where the candidates stand on some key questions? Drop by Alignvote, and take the quiz. Then share it with your friends.

https://alignvote.com

Questions are sourced from candidate forums, direct questions placed to the candidates, and their positions as outlined on their campaign websites, on-the-record statements and elsewhere.

Know any undecideds?

In a poll released today, some 65% of voters were undecided in the City Attorney race, and 27% were undecided for Mayor:

Here’s a sample question, for the Mayor’s race. This question was posed at a recent forum, and answered by both general election candidates. Which one do you agree with? You can move the “Importance” slider between seven values, from “irrelevant” to “essential.”
Example question from the Mayor’s race, which was asked in a recent forum

All candidates were notified last Thursday and invited to provide additional elaboration if they’d like.

New Features

  • The voter-candidate matchmaker is now embeddable on any website, and I’d be happy to have this embedded on your site or blog. If you have a news site or blog covering city politics or the Seattle election, grab the snippet of code to embed the Alignvote Quiz on your website.
  • There’s a new “Evidence” section at the end of the stack-rankings. That section will include links to relevant news stories, tweets, commentary and more which are directly related to the candidate’s own views on the question at hand. This will likely be growing between now and November. If you have relevant stories or links to include, jot a tweet or Direct Message to @alignvote on Twitter.
  • Easier administration. A great deal of the effort was put into easier administration on the back-end. I have rewritten the code entirely from Angular/Material to React/NextJS.

On Controversy and Bias

In the 2019 cycle, Alignvote delivered over 20,000 voter-candidate rankings, and certainly generated some controversy.

Alignvote measures the level of match between you and the eight candidates in the four races above. You and the candidate are answering the same question. Alignvote simply scores the distance, weighted by the importance that you assign on these questions. The candidate with the least overall distance, weighted by importance to you on each issue, comes out on top.

How are questions sourced? Of course, these aren’t the only questions which should matter to a voter, but they are ones where the candidates often have differing viewpoints and ones in which they have made their stances clear.

As for me, the guy behind this project, like all voters and writers, I have political views. I have expressed them here on my blog, and I will continue to do so. I am not unbiased. My own views may not match your own. This is true of any blogger, tweeter, activist-blogger, TV personality or mainstream journalist covering politics.

For what it’s worth, on political quizzes and by Gallup polling, I generally score as a centrist, and I have supported Democratic, Independent and Republican candidates with varying ideologies over the years. And, since it seems a highly relevant indicator to Seattleites, I’ve never voted for Trump.

But I also realize that the term “centrist” is a subjective label. I value great public schools, affordable and convenient transit options, help for those who need it, good and accountable government, green parks, limits on services for those who refuse to partner, transparent metrics for the public which funds services, more affordable housing inventory, better solutions for those experiencing mental health or substance use crises in their lives and improved health and environmental outcomes for all.

I think that’s in part because (a) some political writers/tweeters with relatively large followings really, really don’t like when policy tradeoff questions are framed in any other terms other than the favorable ones they prefer, and (b) many candidates like to “tack toward the center” in the general and therefore do not want to be pinned down in multiple-choice options. They want the freedom to be all things to all voters for a general election.

But leadership, including civic leadership, is often about tradeoffs. If there were solutions to long-term controversies that had easy “no cost” answers, they’d have been done by now.

I think voters deserve more clarity.

To be sure, the selection of any set of questions in any poll or survey or candidate forum can absolutely result in bias.

Controversial issues can be framed in a number of ways.

Alignvote simply shows the level of match between you and the candidates on the questions. There are many opportunities to hear open-ended answers to questions (interviews, forums, meet-and-greets and more.) By design, to help voters quickly identify closest-match-to-them, Alignvote relies upon closed-ended questions, where both you and the candidate must commit to one of the answers.

And Alignvote offers candidates an option to elaborate on why they chose the option they did. Campaigns were all emailed these questions for elaboration on Thursday, September 23rd, and I would be happy to put their elaborations in for voters to hear. (They should allow up to 72 hours for their elaborations to go live.)

Find it useful? Share it, and follow on social media.

I’m very gratified to hear directly from many of you that it’s been very helpful. It’s an entirely free civic project, and is not funded by any campaign or political organization — its very modest costs are solely funded by me.

If you like it, please share it with fellow Seattleites. Options include email, Twitter, Facebook, Nextdoor, Reddit and word of mouth. Or just jot me a follow on social media. You’ll find me at @stevemur and alignvote at @alignvote. And please vote in November!

photo credit: Nitish Meena

Candidate Questions for the 2021 Seattle Election: Homelessness, Compassion Seattle and Summary

Part III of my 3-part series featured in Post Alley about the big issues in the upcoming Seattle election. Today’s post: the city’s approach toward homelessness, and a summary of the key “slates”: the more Leftward Slate vs. the more Moderate slate.
If you or other voters are just coming up to speed on the big issues facing us with this election about the direction of our city, feel free to share this three-part series on zoning, crime and homelessness.

This is the third in a three-part series on issues defining the Seattle 2021 Election. In Part I, we looked at residential zoning and explained our methodology for this series. In Part II, we looked at misdemeanor crime. A final issue is their approach toward homelessness. Specifically, on August 25, I chose to ask them where they stood on the “Compassion Seattle” initiative, which was subsequently thrown out by legal decisions.

This series first appeared on Seattle’s Post Alley on September 3rd, 2021.

Question: Should the Charter of the City of Seattle be modified to simultaneously (a) require the city to allocate a fixed percentage of its budget and commit to specific, measurable actions that prioritize mental health and substance use disorder treatment support services, combined with (b) housing, and (c) if services and housing options are available, compel the city to remove encampments that pose health and safety risk?

A King County judge threw a giant curveball into this when she ruled on August 27 that the Compassion Seattle charter amendment is outside the bounds of what is permitted by the voter initiative process, striking it from the ballot; and Compassion Seattle’s attempted repeal has failed. The issue divides the two mayoral contenders: Bruce Harrell is on record supporting the Compassion Seattle Initiative and has recently affirmed support for its basic approach, and Lorena González opposes it as an unfunded mandate.

About the issue: “Compassion Seattle” is a voter initiative which would have amended the City Charter to require emergency housing (2,000 units within the first year of adoption), dedicate at least 12% of the City’s general fund revenues to address homelessness, and required the City to take action to ensure that parks, playgrounds, and public spaces remained clear of encampments as housing and services became available. Again, this proposed amendment is no longer on the ballot, given the upholding of the judge’s ruling.

Argument in favor: It’s been more than six years since the City declared a “state of emergency” on homelessness, and it’s clear that neither City Council or the mayor have been able to take effective action to reduce homelessness or keep encampments from growing and endangering public spaces. It’s time to make it an explicit legal requirement by enacting it into the City Charter. The coalition that produced this initiative includes a broad group of voices. Actions by the Council, such as defunding the Navigation teams that did outreach of clean up of encampments may have made the problem much worse. It’s time to find a new pathway forward by enacting this set of policy mandates into the City Charter. This charter amendment was born out of increasing frustration with city government’s ability to tackle homelessness.

Argument opposed: The King County Regional Homelessness Authority was only recently established, and we need to give it more time and resources to work, without overly constraining it with what must be done and when. A charter amendment is an awkward and unduly constraining way to enact such legislation.

Candidate Responses

Given the legally uncertain nature of the Compassion Seattle initiative at the time the question was posed, several campaigns declined comment, deferring to the Court process. Here are the responses in full:


Bruce Harrell, Candidate for Mayor

“While Compassion Seattle will no longer be on the ballot, I continue to support the initiative’s goals of dedicating significant resources to action on homelessness and to an increased urgency of addressing unsafe encampments in incompatible areas, so that we can get people off the streets, out of parks and playfields, and into housing with services. My administration will bring together service providers, homelessness advocates, housing experts, community leaders, nonprofit, business, labor and philanthropic organizations, and more to define a plan that meets our shared values, publish it so it’s widely available to the public, and get to work demonstrating real progress. Under our administration, we will publish the costs per unit, costs per person, all measurable outcomes and timetables and build trust by establishing a measurable plan and proof that we are spending public dollars efficiently and effectively.”


Kenneth Wilson, Candidate for City Council (Seat 8)

“I do not agree with a fixed budget allocation to housing and services. We cannot promote one bad idea with another. I would work to immediately support enforcement of existing laws and to eliminate encampments on public property. Allowing encampments exposed/outside and along the edges of roads, parks, and schools is not compassionate for the homeless or the City. My plan is to provide permanent pathways that deliver community value for their tax dollar investment and life-long opportunities for the homeless individuals through goal-oriented rehabilitation with a realistic 18 to 24 month transitional housing and job training that graduates them out of homelessness. (Please see KenForCouncil8 for written details.)”


Nikkita Oliver, Candidate for City Council (Seat 9)

“Charter Amendment 29, by determination of the Court, will NOT be on the 2021 General Election ballot. Charter Amendment 29, misleadingly called “Compassion Seattle,” is not a normal referendum, but a Charter amendment. Charter amendments usually cover governance issues, not policy. Charter Amendment 29 is/was an unfunded mandate that would NOT have rendered much, if any, permanent affordable housing and would have only required the City to give a little over 1% more towards services for our unhoused neighbors than it was already allocating. We need real solutions that address the root causes of the problem which, according to the Regional Homelessness Authority, are a lack of affordable housing and a lack of access to financial means and resources in our region. Marc Doans, the CEO of the Regional Homelessness Authority, states, ‘The driver of homelessness is economic.’”


Sara Nelson, Candidate for City Council (Seat 9)

“This question is sort of moot because the judge ruled this Charter amendment could not go on the ballot. My question is, what’s the plan now? We’re spending more and more money on our response to homelessness and the problem keeps getting worse, representing an utter humanitarian and policy failure on Council’s part. So, we need to stop doing what we’re doing now because it’s not working and Compassion Seattle’s proposal was at least an attempt to put some teeth into a course-correct. What I liked most about it was that it would’ve mandated a direct, Seattle funding stream for mental health and substance abuse treatment which is the most urgent missing piece of our response. Even more than housing, in my opinion, because there are lots of City-funded providers offering short-, medium-, and long-term housing options right now (and I do support the “Housing First” model).

“The ball’s now in Council’s court. We need to fundamentally restructure our response to the homelessness crisis and implement a model proven to work in other cities, centered on individualized case management and a real-time, online “command center” for service providers and City agencies to ensure continuity-of-care and help individuals get into the housing that meets their immediate needs. Right now, there’s zero coordination among providers and they don’t track the kind of housing and services individuals need or have been offered already. I’m not saying we have to toss out all our partnerships with providers, but we do need to incorporate more accountability measures to meet evidence-based outcomes. We must also ensure our parks are open and accessible to all. That’s the foundation of our Commons and simply ignoring encampments is a smokescreen for doing nothing to help people living there. This isn’t rocket science and we don’t have to recreate the wheel — we just have to have the political will to approach this challenge more effectively.”


Which Candidates Align With You?

If “yes, I favored the Compassion Seattle Initiative,” favor Bruce Harrell as mayor, and Sara Nelson and Kenneth Wilson for City Council.

If “no, I did not favor the Compassion Seattle Initiative,” favor Lorena González as mayor, and Nikkita Oliver and Teresa Mosqueda for City Council.


Concluding Reflection: Two Slates Seem Clearly Defined

Judging from both their direct responses to this three-part series as well as prior on-the-record statements, the eight candidates appear to be fairly neatly divided into two “slates” of four each on these three policy questions. While there is some fence-straddling, there really is no example of a candidate from one “slate” crossing firmly over into the other, at least on these three issues.

When it comes to zoning, decriminalization, and homelessness policy, you could shorthand these two slates the “More Leftward Slate” and the “More Moderate Slate.” The More Leftward Slate is comosed of Lorena González, Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, Teresa Mosqueda, and Nikkita Oliver. The More Moderate Slate includes Bruce Harrell, Ann Davison, Kenneth Wilson, and Sara Nelson.

Put another way, it would be quite surprising if it’s not another year of The Seattle Times endorsing the Moderate Slate and The Stranger endorsing the Left Slate.

Be sure to vote by mail on or before Tuesday, November 2.

Candidate Questions for the 2021 Seattle Election: Prosecution for Misdemeanors

Part II in a three-part series, in which I ask questions of the eight campaigns in the Seattle November 2nd General Election and hand the microphone to them. Today’s question: Should Seattle essentially end criminal prosecution for misdemeanors, including shoplifting, property destruction and misdemeanor assault?

This post first appeared on Post Alley on September 4th, 2021.

This is the second of a three-part series on key issues in the Seattle November 2021 general election. In Part I, we took at look at what candidates had to say about altering single-family residential zoning and explained the methodology for this series.

Question: Should Seattle essentially end criminal prosecution for misdemeanors, including shoplifting, property destruction, prostitution, and misdemeanor assault?

In 2021, perhaps the most consequential office up for election is City Attorney. Voters will be making a big decision about how we wish to change our approach on crime, particularly misdemeanor offenders. What should the Seattle City Attorney’s office (and the City Council) do about misdemeanor offenders, such as those arrested for shoplifting, misdemeanor assault, drug possession, property destruction, prostitution, and more?

Note that felony offenders (e.g., those accused of homicide) aren’t under the auspices of the Seattle City Attorney’s office; that’s handled by the King County Prosecutors Office, a position currently held by Dan Satterberg.

Buzzwords often found in this debate: “diversion,” “decriminalization,” “frequent offenders,” “decriminalize poverty,” “crimes of poverty,” “affirmative defense,” “permissive policies,” and “carceral approaches.”

Arguments in favor of decriminalization: The current system punishes people for living in poverty. Rather than spending millions on approaches involving incarceration, why not spend those dollars toward services to help offenders rehabilitate and become more productive members of society? When we jail people, they lose housing, jobs, relationships, and other things they need to stay out of trouble. Baltimore and San Francisco have taken such approaches, and Baltimore experienced a decrease in violent crime.

Arguments opposed: Seattle is already one of the most progressive cities in the nation with respect to diversion-from-jail programs, yet it has a serious frequent offender problem. In February 2019, the System Failure Report chronicled 100 of Seattle’s top offenders. These 100 individuals were responsible for 3,562 bookings. Just nine months later, these same individuals were responsible for another 220 bookings. Under outgoing three-term City Attorney Pete Holmes, the city declined to file charges in almost half of all non-traffic-related criminal cases that Seattle police referred for prosecution. Compassion needs to consider victims of crime, not just the offenders.

Candidate Responses

Below are the complete and unedited responses. As noted in Part I, the Lorena González mayoral campaign did not respond to multiple inquiries:

Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, City Attorney Candidate

“Essentially end? Some things yes, some things no. I seek to prioritize survivor safety and healing, utilize non-jail systems of accountability, and support community needs so that harm can be prevented, not just punished after the fact.”


Ann Davison, City Attorney Candidate

“I am not in favor of ending the prosecution of misdemeanors. When there is talk of abolishing prosecution, we are forgetting about the victims of these crimes.  This includes domestic violence victims, small business owners who are forced to close their businesses in neighborhoods due to repeated thefts, and individual people who are frequent victims of crime are often our vulnerable. I am strongly in favor of smarter prosecution that doesn’t have double standards and also to divert people into robust programs that can offer meaningful rehabilitation with measurable outcomes; but abolishing prosecution altogether shuts off these interventions and alternatives and promotes more and worse offenses.”


Bruce Harrell, Mayoral Candidate

“The City must view every misdemeanor prosecution with a lens of restorative justice and evaluate every case individually and comprehensively. The City should neither prosecute nor waive prosecution for all crimes as a blanket policy, but rather balance the rights and history of the accused and consider the needs and the lens of the victim. I support alternatives to prosecution in situations where existing programs are proven to lead to better outcomes and where those programs are appropriate for the specific offender. However, in many cases, the City still needs the ability to prosecute as a way to both encourage participation in alternatives and to maintain public safety.”


Kenneth Wilson, City Council Candidate (Seat 8)

“No. Small crimes and mistakes still required correction, and are not harmless. Just as a coach acts to correct a mistake during practice before it occurs in a critical setting or the problem escalates. Specifically, misdemeanors becoming the norm are extremely harmful to our society as a City of equal people. I also agree with Bret Stephens’ article in a recent The Seattle Times, “Our ‘broken windows’ world,” that proper correction of misdemeanors prevents disorder that becomes the normal and the allowance for increasing crime and violence. Most importantly, misdemeanors must be dealt with compassionately and consistently in justice commensurate with the problem.”


Teresa Mosqueda, Incumbent City Councilmember and Candidate (Seat 8)

“Criminal prosecution at the misdemeanor level often exacerbates the same factors that are at the root cause of crime. Creating barriers to economic stability and mobility and social inclusion through negative interactions with the legal system too often does not rehabilitate or affect long-term change in the person who committed a misdemeanor crime. Let’s do our best to stop the upstream of folks being swept into the criminal legal system by expanding post-arrest diversionary programs and other proven tools to reduce misdemeanor crimes.”


Sara Nelson, City Council Candidate (Seat 9)

“Absolutely not! As reported and analyzed, Councilmember Herbold’s proposed legislation would enable defendants to have their case dismissed if they committed these crimes out of “need” or because they were suffering from a mental health disorder, including addiction. I support diversion programs that aim to keep offenders of low-level crimes out of jail initially, but this legislation would be a signal that virtually all misdemeanors are permissible under a very broad and vague excuse and it would pave the way for more serious crimes because many offenders of misdemeanors end up committing repeatedly or moving on to felonies.

“Herbold’s proposal was strongly opposed by residents and small businesses who’ve grown increasingly frustrated about repeat thefts and property damage that go unpunished. To my knowledge, Herbold did not meet with or listen to the neighborhood groups and small business organizations who voiced their loud and unequivocal opposition, not even the Mayor’s Small Business Advisory Council which recommended against it. This is yet another example of the tone-deafness Council repeatedly displays toward the real struggles of Seattle’s residents and businesses who are just plain fed up with the City’s laissez-faire attitude toward crime in general. Herbold’s proposal is on the backburner during the campaign but it’s not officially dead yet.”


Nikkita Oliver, City Council Candidate (Seat 9)

“Seattle’s criminal punishment system costs nearly $48 million a year. Almost NONE of that money helps address individuals’ poverty or helps them meet their basic needs. Instead, the system criminalizes poverty. In 2017, Seattle caged individuals for 63,000 nights in jail cells.

“Over 90% of cases in the municipal court end up qualifying for public defenders – this means that Seattle spends millions every year prosecuting poor people. And even though Black people make up less than 7% of Seattle’s population, Black people made up 27% of the cases prosecuted by Seattle Municipal Court in 2017-2018.

“Misdemeanors are generally considered low-level law violations. There is evidence to suggest that reducing the number of misdemeanor prosecutions and investing in communities and community-based supports decreases crime. Seattle needs to stop punishing poverty, mental health struggles, and drug use, and instead invest in our communities. Punishing people who are experiencing poverty and trying to meet their basic needs is foolish and immoral. It does not address the root problem—poverty. And instead, it makes things worse, forcing people into cycles of incarceration and court supervision that make it even harder to achieve financial stability.

“For the above stated reasons, Seattle should end or at minimum dramatically reduce prosecution of misdemeanors.”


Which Candidates Align With You?

If you say “yes, let’s end most misdemeanor prosecution; our approach for the past 12 years has failed in part because it’s been too tough on offenders and emphasized carceral (jail) approaches too often,” Favor Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, Nikkita Oliver, and Teresa Mosqueda.

If “no, do not end most misdemeanor prosecution,” favor City Attorney candidate Ann Davison, council candidate Sara Nelson, Mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell, and Councilmember Mosqueda’s opponent Kenneth Wilson.

In the final piece of this three-part series, we’ll look at the candidates’ attitudes toward the “Compassion Seattle” charter amendment.

Seattle Election Candidates (Except One) Respond to Questions on Three Important Issues

In this three-part series, I’m taking a close look at 3 key issues at the heart of the 2021 Seattle November 2nd General Election. Today’s post focuses on residential zoning.

This post appeared in PostAlley on Friday September 3rd.

I recently reached out to eight Seattle candidates to get their views on what I consider three key questions for the November general election. We’ll publish their replies in three installments, in this order:

  1. Zoning: Do you think Seattle should eliminate essentially all residential building restrictions across all neighborhoods, allowing, say, multi-unit apartment buildings to be built on any lot, whether in a residential neighborhood or otherwise?
  2. Misdemeanors/Abolition: Should Seattle essentially end (or at a minimum dramatically reduce) criminal prosecution for misdemeanors, including shoplifting, property destruction, prostitution and misdemeanor assault?
  3. Homelessness: Should the Charter of the City of Seattle be modified to simultaneously (a) require the city to allocate a fixed percentage of its budget and commit to specific, measurable actions that prioritize mental health and substance use disorder treatment support services, combined with (b) housing, and (c) if services and housing options are available, compel the city to remove encampments that pose health and safety risk?

I’ve heard back from seven of eight campaigns; the Lorena González mayoral campaign did not respond to multiple inquiries.

We’ll take each of the above topics in three articles, the first of which is below and the others will follow shortly.

By way of explanation: For the 2019 Seattle election cycle, I created and published Alignvote, a voter-candidate matchmaker website. It asked voters a handful of questions, including intensity. Then, it showed a stack-ranked list of how closely your answers matched the candidates’ on-the-record answers, together with some optional elaboration by candidates if they supplied it. Alignvote presented a simple distance-score between you and the candidates, based on similarity of answers and how strongly that issue mattered to you.

Unlike the questions above, Alignvote’s 2019 questions weren’t ones I authored. They merely repeated ones which had already been asked and answered by candidates in forums, questionnaires and more. Alignvote served roughly 20,000 voter-candidate ranking matches in 2019, and gave campaigns further insights into how voters felt about some issues. It was on television and radio. I am still undecided whether it’s returning for 2021.

Question 1: Residential Zoning

Do you think Seattle should eliminate essentially all residential building restrictions across all neighborhoods, allowing, say, multi-unit apartment buildings to be built on any lot, whether in a residential neighborhood or otherwise?

Background: How should Seattle be allowed to grow? Zoning decisions are enormously consequential, because they determine what can be built where. Seattle’s zoning laws are under the purview of the City Council, the city’s lawmaking branch, and any changes are enacted into law by a majority vote and a signature of the mayor. So it matters what City Council and Mayoral candidates say about this issue.

Some 70 percent or more of Seattle’s land is zoned as “single family residential.” This means that multi-story apartment buildings cannot be built upon this land. When you think of neighborhoods like Madrona, Windermere, Laurelhurst, or Mount Baker, you probably don’t think about condominiums or apartment buildings, but changes in legislation could allow them to be built anywhere, on any lot. Remember that in 2019, considerable change was made to Seattle’s residential zoning, which now allows the construction of “accessory dwelling unit” (ADU) and “detached accessory dwelling units” (DADU) on all Seattle residential lots.

In cities such as Minneapolis, they’ve decided to do away with all residential zoning. It’s a sleeper issue that very likely will be decided by the next term of leaders. Here in Seattle, some of the ground is already being laid by changes to nomenclature. This year, Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda and Dan Strauss proposed renaming “single-family residential” zoning to “neighborhood residential,” a step which has long been advocated by urbanist activists.

Advocates for eliminating all single-family zoning argue that as the city grows it desperately needs more housing options, and eliminating the restrictions is key to increasing density and making housing more affordable. They consider single family zoning exclusionary in nature, a structural way that the city reinforces historic class and racial divides, and argue all neighborhoods should have a full range of density supply to allow all possible options. Generally, real estate developers also strongly favor this idea as it opens up an entirely new set of expansion opportunities, and stands to reward them handsomely.

Those opposed to making these zoning changes cite several concerns. First, they see Seattle’s single family neighborhoods as a key foundation of the city’s quality of life, places that build and support families. Many also worry about rapidly rising property taxes on all residents due to soaring valuations of what the same land might merit with a new multi-household/higher-density structure. They fear such taxes would quickly go far beyond what single families can afford, forcing more sales and up-zoning. They often cite that neighborhoods will all look the same, cutting down more trees and trading grass for pavement, while increasing traffic, overwhelming parking, adding noise and other nuisances. They also worry that the home next door could soon be turned into the next multistory apartment building, bringing more cranes and jackhammers, and removing trees and green space.

Candidate Responses

Here are the complete, unedited responses of all who responded to the above question on zoning:

Bruce Harrell (Mayoral Candidate)

“I am watching with interest the national conversation on eliminating single-family zoning laws as a means to achieve housing affordability/accessibility and as a means to promote environmental sustainability. I look forward to leading this discussion with housing advocates and neighborhood communities. During my mayoral term, the immediate answer to our housing affordability crisis will be to rapidly build quality, mixed-use housing and aggressively serve low-income residents and working families. We will protect those at risk of losing their homes, and advance equity and diversity in our neighborhoods.

We should start this urgent work where we already have the zoning and capacity to build and are currently underserving our city, and by lowering costs of construction which will in turn lower prices for the consumer. For example, townhome production has gone down 70% since the City’s upfront Mandatory Housing Affordability Fees were imposed. We currently have hundreds of thousands of units capacity to use under our current zoning scheme and as we amend our zoning laws to reflec t progressive housing policy, we must unite our city around a plan to do it.

Wholesale changes to zoning must include community engagement and we must continue to analyze how a total elimination affects access to transit; preservation of tree canopy; preservation of open space and public safety considerations. As Mayor, I will build housing in the areas where we’ve already upzoned and convene a community and stakeholder-led process to determine the future of zoning in our city.”


Teresa Mosqueda (Incumbent City Councilmember, citywide Seat 8)

“Our goal as a city should be to enact zoning and land use policies that align with short and long term affordable housing needs. This means we engage in thoughtful zoning changes that not only improve equity and access to housing, but protect and expand opportunities for home ownership and intergenerational wealth, especially for communities historically marginalized in our city. Improving density and expanding housing to meet needs is not the same as eliminating all zoning rules; in fact, to truly build the Seattle we all deserve, it will take thoughtful, community-driven land use policies, not a one size fits all change.”


Kenneth Wilson (Candidate for City Council Seat 8)

“No. Zoning is a functional protection of the livability of our City. These important restrictions best serve the community by protecting the physical function of transportation, sewers, power grids, unique neighborhood characteristics, viewpoints, and our City’s critical green canopy.Residents living in adjacent higher density zoned housing on arterials benefit from the single-family zones by having the green space within walking distance of their homes. The zoned single family neighborhood benefits from retail and transportation on the arterials. In combination, the zoning enhances livability for all.”


Nikkita Oliver (Candidate for citywide City Council Seat 9)

“Seattle needs to end exclusionary zoning patterns that prevent us from addressing the housing affordability crisis. The density needed to address both the housing crisis and the climate catastrophe must be shared equally throughout the City. The transition from single-family zoning to neighborhood residential is an important first step. This, however, should not be applied to our industrial lands as these are important areas for place-based industries and much of the industrial land in Seattle is not appropriate for housing.”


Sara Nelson (Candidate for City Council Seat 9)

“My short answer is no. We’ve got a housing affordability crisis on our hands as well as rising rates of displacement so we need to encourage the construction of new housing across our city as well as a greater diversity of more affordable options within single family zones. I support adding flexibility to what’s allowed in single family zones, not getting rid of restrictions altogether by allowing multi-unit apartment buildings to be built on any lot, for example.

Seattle took a step toward ending single-family zoning when it legalized two ADUs per lot in 2019 so the lowest zoning in Seattle is essentially three units per lot. Hundreds of new ADUs are now going in and that’s a positive outcome for people who want to “age in place” and earn an income off their property which also combats displacement.

The next step is to follow Portand’s Residential Infill Project which allows four per lot rather than three. Portland’s program also has a provision that stretches the limit to six if two of them are subsidized, below-market rate units. We should consider doing the same thing on large lots (5,000+ sf and larger) in Seattle because Portland’s analysis shows a reduction in displacement and a significant increase in new housing. I also support expanding “missing middle” housing options by allowing flexibility for duplexes, triplexes, and quads on corner lots.

I’ve heard from housing activists in the Central District, that eliminating all residential building restrictions would encourage more of the predatory development practices occurring now. Ruby Hollard of the Keep Your Habitat Anti-Displacement Project told me that developers are aggressively approaching homeowners in the CD and making offers that are too good for people struggling to hang onto their properties because of the pandemic to pass up. We need to help people stay in their homes through foreclosure prevention grants and making it easier to monetize the only asset many people in economically distressed neighborhoods have which is their home.”

Which Candidate Aligns With You?

If you believe Seattle should “mostly keep” existing single-family zoning, favor Bruce Harrell (mayor), Kenneth Wilson (city council 8) and Sara Nelson (city council 9.)

If you believe Seattle should eliminate all single-family zoning, favor Lorena González (mayor), Teresa Mosqueda (city council 8) and Nikkita Oliver (city council 9.)

In the next installment, we’ll take a look at Question 2, regarding the approach we as a City should take to those accused of misdemeanor offenses.

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.

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.