Seattle City Budget: The Changes That Made the Cut

Last Wednesday, November 7th, the chair of the budget committee, Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, released her budget package. As chair, it was her responsibility to take all of the changes proposed by other councilmembers, select what to include and what to ignore, and come up with a budget that would balance. For every proposal to spend additional money, something else in the mayor’s proposed budget had to be cut.

But first, a good budget writer looks for adjustments to revenue (increases in tax collections, fees, transfers from other funding sources, etc.).

Bagshaw made a few adjustments to find extra revenue in her budget. First, she added about $1.5 million for 2019 and $1.4 for 2020 to reflect the latest October 2018 revenue forecast. Tax collections are up, and it makes sense to adjust next year’s budget for that increase.

Bagshaw also proposed ending the 20% of revenue from the red light camera fund that goes into the School Safety Traffic and Pedestrian Improvement Fund. She would divert that money to the General Fund to create another $1.8 million in 2019 and $871,000 in 2020.

Bagshaw also would to ask all city departments to take a general cut (they can decide what to cut) to free up $900,000 in 2019 and $1.4 million in 2020 for the General Fund.

Specific departments were targeted for larger cuts, too. The biggest was a cut of $1,365,000 in 2019 and $1,000,000 in 2020 from the Seattle Police Department (SPD) for salary savings. SPD has had trouble filling current vacant positions (which makes Mayor Durkan’s request for money to fund 40 new positions in SPD absurd). Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez, who chairs the public safety committee, proposed that the SPD submit quarterly reports to the council on staffing levels, and Bagshaw included that request in the budget. The council also is asking the mayor to submit a report regarding how the city collects fees for special events; Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda is concerned that the city isn’t charging businesses enough money to cover salaries for police security at those events.

Other department level cuts include a $614,000 cut from the Office of Economic Development, $335,000 from the Department of Finance and Administrative Services, and cuts to executive and managerial positions from several departments.

Bagshaw’s total revenue adjustments and cuts come to about $7.7 million in 2019 and $6.2 million in 2020, for a total of about $14 million that the council can use for other priorities.

It’s worth noting that more money could be freed up from the police department’s budget by looking closely at the $7 million set aside for salary increases in 2019. The city council will vote tomorrow on whether to approve the new contract for rank-and-file police officers (the source of that $7 million in salary increases). If the council rejects the contract, then there will be a lot more money available for changes to the budget come Wednesday morning, when the council begins its vote on the budget amendments.

Also, the city council needs to look more closely at the Seattle Streetcar system for potential cuts. The transportation budget includes a number of requests from the city council for information on the streetcar system. Eventually the council will need to discuss cutting back or shutting down a system that provides little benefit to Seattle commuters at a price of over $11 million per year in operating costs.

In the meantime, here’s a look at the spending items that Bagshaw included in her budget package.

Of the $14 million available, the Human Services Department and homelessness programs are getting about $8.3 million of that. Increased funding for homelessness services include:

  1. $1.1 million to fund SHARE/WHEEL emergency shelters, which the mayor’s budget only funds through June of next year. This will save 217 shelter beds from closing.
  2. $575,000 to add back homeless prevention services that the mayor cut from the budget.
  3. $280,000 for a health and environmental investigator
  4. And $200,000 for day center operations.

Other services within the Human Services Department that will see a funding increase include:

  1. $1.2 million to expand the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program (LEAD), which directs low-level offenders (primarily drug users and sex workers) into community-based services instead of jail
  2. $1 million for drug treatment programs
  3. About $1 million for contracted wage increases for human services staff
  4. $969,500 for food banks and food programs that the mayor wanted to shift over to be funded with taxes collected from the Sweetened Beverage Tax (these will be shifted back to the General Fund)
  5. $100,000 for a Community Health Engagement Location, also known as a supervised consumption site
  6. And $88,000 to add a mental health professional to The Navigation Team (finally).

Some of items inside other departments that made the cut include:

  1. $1 million for community-based organizations to treat juvenile offenders and keep them out of juvenile detention
  2. $440,000 for civil attorneys to defend indigent folks in Seattle Municipal Court
  3. $400,000 for the Home and Hope Program, which is working with private developers and nonprofits to build affordable housing combined with early childhood learning centers
  4. $395,000 for legal defense services in the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs
  5. $263,000 in additional funding for tenant outreach and legal services
  6. And $170,000 for a Legacy Business Designation Program, which would provide a means to preserve small, iconic businesses in our rapidly gentrifying city.

Some big-ticket items didn’t make it into Bagshaw’s budget, including Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda’s proposal for a $3 million mass tent shelter, similar to the ones in Tacoma and Los Angeles. Also, Councilmember Mike O’Brien’s proposal to set aside $300,000 that community-based organizations can use to create new emergency housing didn’t make the cut.

There’s not much additional money in this budget for affordable housing. Mayor Durkan’s original budget proposal included a 3% increase for housing programs, but the rate of inflation in Seattle is running at 3.1% for the past year alone. So a 3% increase for a 2-year budget cycle is just not sufficient. Without additional revenue—preferably from a new source (like the Employee Hours Tax, an income tax, or capital gains tax)—Seattle won’t be able to meet the need for affordable housing over the next 10 years.

 

City Councilmembers’ Changes to the City Budget

In late September, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan released her 2019/2020 budget proposal. Her priorities are heavily weighted towards expanding law enforcement—not a surprise, given her prior job as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington State.

In October, the Seattle City Council worked on amendments to Durkan’s budget, to make it reflect more of the council’s priorities. Unlike the mayor, who is serving her first term and who views the budget as a way to remake the city according to her own vision, the council has longer term goals in mind: supporting programs that the council established in prior years, addressing long-term issues like homelessness and racial equity, and making sure that city departments operate in a transparent way.

Here’s a look at just a few of the amendments that city councilmembers proposed in October, focusing on issues of homelessness, tenant’s rights, housing affordability and displacement, racial equity, and the disposition of two new taxes that the council put in place in 2017.

Homelessness

Mayor Durkan’s budget contains a couple of big surprises regarding homelessness spending. In a time of rising numbers of homeless people on the streets of Seattle, Durkan had decided to cut funding drastically for basic emergency shelters, while increasing support for The Navigation Team by 38%. The Navigation Team is Durkan’s pet project for clearing encampments of homeless people—only a handful of whom are referred to shelters, while the rest are displaced and their belongings seized or thrown in the trash.

Earlier this summer, the Seattle City Auditor released a report on The Navigation Team, which found that the team fell far short of transparency. (That report can be found here: https://www.seattle.gov/cityauditor.)
The team’s operations were unclear, its guiding philosophy was undefined, its members were untrained in how to deal with mental health issues and racial equity problems, and it didn’t even collect meaningful statistics on how many people were referred to shelter versus how many were simply shoved down the street.

So Councilmember Lisa Herbold has proposed an amendment to the budget that would, at the end of each quarter, require The Navigation Team to list how it’s meeting transparency goals, as outlined in the City Auditor’s report, before the City Council votes to release money to fund the next quarter’s operations. Herbold, it turns out, has authored quite a few provisos (or holds on funding), through which the council can exercise its main tool for ensuring that city departments follow the council’s priorities.

Councilmember Kshama Sawant sought to address the other surprise in Durkan’s budget. Sawant proposed adding back money to fund the SHARE/WHEEL emergency basic shelters, which the mayor’s budget would only fund through June of next year. Durkan’s budget plan boasts that she’s created over 500 new shelter beds this year, but she’s counting shelter beds created by nonprofit organizations, not just the city. Of that total, only 146 beds are available for The Navigation Team to use when referring people off the street. Meanwhile, by cutting funding to SHARE/WHEEL for the second half of 2019, Durkan would permanently remove 217 shelter beds.

Durkan claims that it’s better to add enhanced shelter beds—shelters that provide case management and other services—than to continue funding basic shelters that provide only a place to sleep at night. But the difference in costs between the 2 options is dramatic: existing basic shelter beds cost the city about $4,900 per year, while new enhanced shelter beds can cost as high as $37,000 per year.

While mental health, case management, and addiction services are necessary for some folks, many other homeless folks are living out of their cars, or are just in need of a warm place to sleep at night, which is why Durkan doesn’t completely defund all basic shelter beds in her budget: the Downtown Emergency Service Center will continue to receive funding for the basic shelter beds that they provide. And Durkan’s budget provides funding for nighttime parking spaces for people sleeping in cars and RV’s.

So, the cut to SHARE/WHEEL funding is clearly a political move, based on Durkan’s (and by extension, her supporters’) hostility to the self-management model of those shelters. SHARE/WHEEL has long believed that most homeless people know perfectly well what they need—resources and material support, and not paternalistic guidance—and are therefore capable of managing their own shelter environment. Sometimes this creates problems, as when a shelter elects a person to run an encampment who turns out to have dictatorial tendencies, but then Democracy is never perfect, as we all know.

Durkan and her supporters within the business community prefer their own model: assuming that all homeless people are childlike and in need of success training, they prefer to view homeless people as “clients.” In their view, the Capitalist system is a game, and some people just need better training in how to play it. Anyone who lacks material goods is merely incompetent or poorly indoctrinated; they’re never a victim of bad luck, bad health, discrimination, unscrupulous corporations, or an uneven playing field. Hence, Durkan’s policy would process all homeless people through enhanced shelters with required case management, treating homeless people like children instead of adults who already know what their basic needs are.

Where the Durkan model really fails is in providing no exit from enhanced shelters, and no understanding of the forces that create homelessness in the first place. While Durkan boasted a 3% increase in funding for affordable housing, that 3% will be eaten up by inflation, which has increased by over 3% since last year. Without additional investments in affordable housing, there will simply be nowhere to permanently house people trying to get off the street.

And rising rents and housing costs are a main contributor to the growing number of homeless on our streets. Which is why Mayor Durkan’s cuts to homelessness prevention services are so shocking, and make no sense whatsoever. This may be why City Councilmember Deborah Juarez, who usually exerts herself only for her constituents in North Seattle, proposed adding back $400,000 for homelessness prevention funding for groups like the Ballard Food Bank and Seattle Helplines. To see Juarez make such an unusual move really highlights how extreme Mayor Durkan’s budget is. With this cut alone, Durkan proves herself to be a Republican in Democrat’s clothing.

City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda has proposed, three years after Mayor Ed Murray announced a state of emergency over homelessness, that the city finally treat it like a real emergency. She has proposed spending $3 million to erect a mass tent shelter similar to the ones in Tacoma and Los Angeles. The big tent would be an enhanced shelter with showers, storage lockers, restrooms, laundry, and case management and mental health services available to its tenants (but they would not be required to use all of those services). The idea would be to provide the resources people need to get back on their feet, similar to a response after a natural disaster.

Mosqueda also proposed adding $388,716 into the budget to tackle the spread of communicable diseases among the homeless. This comes after a recent outbreak of HIV among homeless drug users in North Seattle, and an outbreak of Hepatitis A among several homeless populations in California.

Councilmember Mike O’Brien has also proposed setting aside $300,000 that community-based organizations can use to create new emergency housing, which would turn the provision of shelter space into something that communities can choose to do on their own, in spaces they select themselves. This presumably would take some pressure off the City Council from neighborhood NIMBY’s.

Tenant Protections

In a further push to prevent homelessness, the council took a closer look at tenant protections within the Department of Construction and Inspections. DCI doesn’t just issue permits to developers, it inspects buildings, monitors vacant buildings, and manages a program to address landlord/tenant issues.

Councilmembers Herbold and O’Brien have proposed that the city work to speed up its response to tenant safety and health complaints—one of the main routes through which tenants are displaced. Herbold also proposed adding back money that Mayor Durkan had cut for the Vacant Building Monitoring Program. Herbold’s proposal would establish a fee to cover the cost of the program, and charge penalties to property owners who don’t keep their buildings in good shape. This would create an incentive for property owners to either keep their properties occupied and up to code, or else sell properties that they lack the resources to manage. The idea is to discourage investors from buying older buildings, neglecting them so that all the tenants leave, then tearing them down and redeveloping or selling them to the highest bidder for redevelopment.

In addition, Councilmember Sawant proposed adding $700,000 to fund legal services for tenants facing eviction, and to fund outreach to vulnerable populations about their rights as tenants, including people of color and the LGBTQ community.

Two New Taxes

Last year, the City Council voted to establish two new taxes in Seattle, the Short-Term Rental Tax, and the Sweetened Beverage Tax.

The Short-Term Rental Tax was meant to discourage landlords from turning apartments into lucrative, short-term, vacation rentals on Airbnb and other online platforms. Tenants’ rights groups and the hotel/motel lobby pushed hard for this tax. When the council voted for it, they included a list of what they wanted the money collected from the tax to be spent on: 1) the first $5 million on investments in community-initiated equitable development projects, 2) the next $2 million on affordable housing, and 3) the remainder on community-initiated equitable development projects, including any affordable housing component.

Now, a quick word on “community-initiated equitable development” projects: these are supposed to be projects that benefit communities of color and that are initiated by those communities. The city has an interesting document which describes it goals in relation to equitable development, which can be found here: https://www.seattle.gov/dpd/cs/groups/pan/@pan/documents/web_informational/p2555173.pdf.  In the past, the city lacked a dedicated source of funds for equitable development initiated by communities of color, and the City Council saw the Short-Term Rental Tax (STR) as a way to address this shortfall.

Mayor Durkan, lacking a vision for equitable development, saw the STR as a new revenue stream that she could us to fund staff salaries and consulting fees, as well as already existing housing programs. So the council swung into action.

Councilmember O’Brien has proposed that the STR be set aside in its own fund, so that the council can keep better track of the revenue collected and what it’s being spent on. He also proposed moving the $1 million of STR revenue that Durkan would use to fund staff salaries and consulting fees to pay for direct grants for community equitable development, just as the Council envisioned. And Councilmembers Mosqueda and Herbold proposed that the city explore whether STR revenue can be used to pay interest on bonds for affordable housing projects (instead of existing housing programs).

When the council passed the Sweetened Beverage Tax (SBT) last year, they specified that the money collected from the tax would be used for new programs to expand access to healthy and affordable food, and programs to benefits children and families. Mayor Durkan, on the other hand, proposed shifting money from the SBT to fund existing food programs.

Councilmember O’Brien, naturally, proposed setting aside the SBT collections into a separate pool of money, and that the money be used according to the council’s original vision of the program (just as he had done for the Short-Term Rental Tax).

And Councilmember Mosqueda proposed that the city explore whether SBT money could be used to pay interest on bonds for building and renovating community health facilities, like P-Patches, health clinics, and early learning centers.

You can see a pattern here: the council passes taxes for new services, which Mayor Durkan then tries to appropriate to pay for existing program that were previously paid for out of the General Fund. Then Durkan turns around and uses that freed-up General Fund money to pay for the new stuff she wants, like police salary increases, hiring 40 more cops, new computers in the city’s police cars, and a 38% funding boost for The Navigation Team.

This closer look at just a few items in the mayor’s budget exposes Durkan as a conservative, law-and-order Democrat, willing to cut social services when necessary to fund her pet “public safety” projects. She’s far from the progressive Democrat that she claimed to be when she ran for office last year.

As for the individual councilmembers, I’m favorably surprised by Mike O’Brien’s efforts to maintain council control over the direction of city government. Councilmember Herbold works in the same vein, and together they constitute the institutional memory of a progressive caucus on the council, with its efforts to address lingering problems like homelessness, hunger, and racial equity.

In addition, Teresa Mosqueda is making the most of her first year in her first term on the council to push hard for racial justice and affordable housing.

Meanwhile, I’m left wondering about the other councilmembers. Many of the above issues impact Bruce Harrell’s constituency the most. As representative for District 2 in South Seattle, he should be looking for ways to increase affordable housing, address the causes of homelessness, and ensure racial equity within city operations. But in a year in which he’s serving as Council President, he is mostly absent on these vital issues.

Meanwhile, Sally Bagshaw, as the representative for District 7 (downtown, Belltown, Queen Anne & Magnolia), clearly supports everything Durkan does without question. Bagshaw is representative of the wealthy folks who live and work in her District, including the downtown business community and big developers.

Speaking of developers, Rob Johnson, who represents District 4 in Northeast Seattle, seems eager to cash in on the build-out of the University District and destroy much of what’s left of affordable housing north of the Ship Canal. His disinterest in homelessness and human services appears to be a symptom of that pandering.

And finally, Lorena Gonzalez, who sits in one of only two at-large seats on the council (Teresa Mosqueda holds the other one), has long promoted her bona fides as a woman of color. Yet, where is she on two issues that matter deeply to people of color in Seattle: affordable housing and displacement? We can only hope that she adds a fifth vote to pass many of the above proposals. But, unfortunately, we can’t be confident that she will.

The council is expected to begin voting on amendments to a budget reconciliation bill starting on November 7th. The process is expected to take a week or so, and usually ends before the Thanksgiving holiday. There’s still time to contact your councilmembers to express your opinion on the budget:

District 1 – West Seattle and South Park
Lisa.herbold@seattle.gov
206-684-8803

District 2 – South Seattle
Bruce.harrell@seattle.gov
206-684-8804

District 3 – Central Seattle
Kshama.sawant@seattle.gov
206-684-8016

District 4 – Northeast Seattle
Rob.johnson@seattle.gov
206-684-8808

District 5 – North Seattle
Debora.juarez@seattle.gov
206-684-8805

District 6 – Northwest Seattle
Mike.obrien@seattle.gov
206-684-8800

District 7 – Pioneer Square to Magnolia
Sally.bagshaw@seattle.gov
206-684-8801

Position 8 – Citywide
Teresa.mosqueda@seattle.gov
206-684-8806

Position 9 – Citywide
Lorena.gonzalez@seattle.gov
206-684-8802

Endorsements for the Mid-Term Elections

First, before I give you my endorsements, I want to talk about why people often don’t vote in the mid-term elections, and why it’s important to take the time to do it.

If you live in a district where the incumbent is running unopposed, or a single political party has a lock on the candidates running for office, it’s very easy to shrug and say, “Why bother? So-and-so is going to get re-elected anyway.”

But if you live in a state with a citizens’ initiative process—like Washington State—then it’s important not to let the narrow selection of political candidates stop you from voting on the ballot measures. This year, Washington State voters will weigh in on the political sovereignty of cities and counties (I-1634), whether teenagers should have access to semi-automatic rifles (I-1639), and whether our state will do something—anything—to address catastrophic climate change (I-1631). Regardless of what you think about the specifics of these initiatives, reading about them and voting on them is arguably more important than voting for the next President of the United States every four years.

That said, don’t despair if you’ve already tossed your ballot in the recycle bin. You can request a replacement ballot from the King County Department of Elections here: https://info.kingcounty.gov/kcelections/vote/myvoterinfo.aspx. Enter your first and last name, birth date, and the house number of your street address (for example, if the address on your voter registration card is 501 Pine Street, you should enter 501) and click “Submit.” Then click the link to “request a replacement ballot.”

If you don’t live in King County, here’s a handy website from the Washington Secretary of State’s office that gives you the websites, addresses, and phone numbers for the various elections department in each county: https://www.sos.wa.gov/elections/auditors/#. Just scroll down and click on your county, and you’ll see a pop-up with the info that you need.

And now, here’s the list of my endorsements:

 

Ballot Measures

Initiative 1631 – to impose a carbon tax on fossil fuels and energy produced from fossil fuels in Washington State. The opponents, funded mostly by a handful of big oil companies, have raised double what the proponents have, about $30 million versus $15 million, with the biggest contributors being BP, Phillips 66, Andeavor (Marathon Petroleum Corporation), American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, Valero, Koch Industries, Chevron…you get the picture.

The opponents are mostly wrong in their critiques of I-1631. It’s not an onerous tax, it won’t hugely impact farmers or food prices, and it doesn’t exempt the biggest polluters in the state. It does exempt fuels purchased by utility companies for use in producing energy for one reason: to avoid double taxation. Those fuels are later taxed as they’re burned and delivered in the form of energy to utility customers. Fair taxation and the avoidance of double taxation is a fundamental foundation of the US tax system.

Yes, I-1631 does contain some loopholes that exempt a handful of polluters from paying the tax, especially aircraft fuel—you could call that the Boeing Loophole, or the Tourism Tax Cut—and it exempts “certain facilities designated by the Department of Commerce as within energy-intensive and trade-exposed industries”—you could call that the Alcoa Exemption or the Pulp Mill Payoff.

But, if we’re going to hold out for a perfect tax with no exemptions, then we’ll never get any new taxes in Washington State. Every single one of our current taxes has an exemption of some form or another. Taxation in Washington State has always been a process of passing the new tax into law, then fighting to close the loopholes; this tax won’t be any different. In the meantime, we shouldn’t let oil companies determine the fate of our planet and our energy future. Vote Yes on I-1631.

Initiative 1634 – ostensibly promoted as a “no food and beverage tax,” this initiative would profoundly affect the sovereignty of counties and cities in Washington State. Written and promoted solely by the big beverage industry—The Coca-Cola Company, Pepsico Inc., Keurig Dr. Pepper, and Red Bull North America, who’ve raised $20 million to promote it—I-1634 seeks to stop other municipalities from levying taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages similar to the one Seattle passed last year. Don’t let a bunch of soda corporations determine our public health policies and limit what cities and counties can do in Washington State. Vote No on I-1634.

Initiative 1639 – to impose increased background checks and age limits for the purchase of semi-automatic rifles (similar to current limits on handguns) in Washington State. It would also require mandatory waiting periods for the sale or delivery of semi-automatic rifles (a “cooling-off period”), and impose requirements for the secure storage of those weapons. It won’t stop all active shooters in Washington, but it may save many lives by imposing reasonable limits on the purchase and storage of every mass murderer’s weapon of choice. Vote Yes on I-1639.

Initiative 940 – this initiative would change the standards for prosecuting police for acts of deadly force in Washington State to make it easier to prosecute officers for not following reasonable standards. It also specifies the independent investigation of acts of deadly force by the police, and mandates training in de-escalation, first aid, and how to engage with people undergoing mental health crises. This is long overdue. Vote Yes on I-940.

Advisory Votes – these are the Tim Eyman passed, waste-of-time votes on revenue bills that were already passed by the state legislature. The outcome of these advisory votes is meaningless, because the bills will become law regardless of how the public votes on them. It’s perfectly reasonable to skip them entirely. Don’t waste state resources to even count the votes.

However, if you don’t like to leave things blank (and I understand that impulse), there’s only one advisory vote this year: Advisory Vote 19, which closes a tax loophole in the oil spill response and administration tax, levying it on all petroleum products that come into our state via pipeline. It will collect an additional $13.4 million in tax revenue over the next 10 years for the state’s coffers. Because closing tax loopholes is something we want to encourage the state legislature to do more of, you should vote Maintained.

City of Seattle Proposition 1 – this is the Families and Education levy that seeks to renew two expiring education levies and provide funding to expand the city’s preschool program. It triples the amount of money of prior education levies, and it might lead voters who are experiencing tax fatigue to vote against two critical Seattle Public School levies that will be on the ballot in February 2019. In addition, it contains troubling wording on the privacy of student data, and the potential use of public funding for private education companies. While I think it’s important to fund education, there are just too many flaws in this enormous levy to pass it this time around. Vote No and send a message to the mayor and her allies that a smaller, focused levy on preschool funding would be better.

King County Fire Protection District Proposition 1 – to issue bonds for the construction and renovation of fire stations in and around Duvall. The bonds would be paid off by levying property taxes of 17 cents per $1,000 assessed value, or about $85.28 for a $500,000 home. There’s been a lot of housing growth east of Duvall, where wild fires are a risk, so building a second fire station will cut down on response times and provide more personnel to fight fires in that area. And fighting fires is a necessary service of municipal government. Vote Yes.

 

Candidates

With the important stuff out of the way, we can consider the candidates. In Seattle, the Democrats have a lock on elected offices at the local, state, and national level, although there are a few races where two Democrats are battling it out, and I’m going to give my advice on who you should choose.

US Senator – Maria Cantwell is running for re-election for a fourth term. Susan Hutchison’s Voter’s Pamphlet statement appeals shamelessly to the Nazis and religious fanatics in the Republican Party. Hutchison is the Chair of the state Republican Party, so that should tell you something about how extreme the state Republicans have become. Vote for Cantwell.

US Representatives

In 3 of the state’s 10 US House races, those districts could flip from Republican control to Democratic control, and one involves two Democrats who are very different from each other:

District 3 – covers SW Washington, including cities of Kelso and Vancouver. Republican Jaime Beutler Herrera is running in a tight race for re-election, with Democrat Carolyn Long running a strong campaign. Vote for Long.

District 5 – covers the Eastern edge of Washington State, including Spokane and Whitman Counties. It’s time to vote the horrible Cathy McMorris Rogers out of office. Democrat Lisa Brown is trying to oust her. Vote for Brown.

District 8 – covers the SE parts of King and Pierce Counties, and all of Chelan and Kittitas Counties (including the cities of Issaquah, Auburn, Ellensburg, and Wenatchee). Former Sheriff Dave Reichert is retiring this year, and his seat is the hottest contest in the state, with Democratic Candidate Kim Schrier running against perennial candidate Dino Rossi. Rossi is part of the cruel streak in the Republican Party that is getting ready to gut Medicare and Social Security to pay for the Trump tax cuts for the wealthy. Hypocritically, Rossi refuses to call himself “Republican,” listing himself as “prefers GOP party” in the voter’s pamphlet and all of his mailings. He deserves to lose, just for that lie alone. Vote for Schrier.

District 9 – covers SE Seattle, Bellevue, Mercer Island, Renton, and Kent. Democrat Sarah Smith is taking on incumbent Democrat Adam Smith, and she’s for all the things that Adam Smith is too cowardly to support, like single-payer healthcare, ending foreign wars, spending on infrastructure, and dealing with climate change. Vote for Sarah Smith to support a progressive Democrat instead of conservative one.

And in Seattle’s District 7, Democratic incumbent Pramila Jayapal is running against Republican Craig Keller. Jayapal is a shoe-in, but you should vote for her anyway.

Washington State Senate

Again, most of the King County districts are dominated by Democrats running unopposed or with little opposition. But there are 3 interesting, hotly contested races:

District 30 – Democrat Claire Wilson is trying to unseat Republican Mark Miloscia, who’s become notorious for treating homeless people like garbage and opposing supervised injection sites for treating opiate abusers. Vote for Wilson.

District 32 – Incumbent Democrat Maralyn Chase is running a hard-fought race against Deputy Mayor of Shoreline Jesse Salomon. Salomon, who is also running as a Democrat, has taken money from real estate developers and supporters of charter schools. Chase, on the other hand, has the support of State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, US Congressperson Pramila Jayapal, several tribal councils, the Washington Education Association, and a bunch of different labor groups. I’m supporting Chase for her willingness to take an independent, progressive stand on issues, even when she alienates the more conservative, pro-business members of her own party.

District 34 – In this other race between 2 Democrats, Shannon Braddock, who’s been serving as the Deputy Chief of Staff to Dow Constantine, has raised more than double her opponent. She’s taken PAC money from supporters of charter schools, from big insurance companies, and from Comcast and Charter Communications, who are trying to head off state net neutrality laws. Her opponent, Joe Nguyen, has a working-class background and wants to work on tax reform and education funding for students in public schools. He has the support of Pramila Jayapal, City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, former City Councilmember Nick Licata, former Congressman Jim McDermott, The Washington Education Association, The Washington Housing Alliance Action Fund, the King County Democrats, and the King County Young Democrats. Vote for Nguyen.

Washington State House

In the state house races in the greater Seattle area, it’s Democrats running either unopposed or with very minor Republican opposition. But you should vote for the Democrats, because voting for Republicans means supporting the politics of hatred, discrimination, and cruelty. That hasn’t always been true of the Washington State Republican Party, but it’s true right now.

State Supreme Court – Susan Owens and Sheryl Gordon McCloud are running unopposed for re-election to the State Supreme Court. Justice Steve Gonzalez is up for re-election, running against an inexperienced Nathan Choi. Vote for Gonzalez.

King County Prosecuting Attorney – Long-time conservative incumbent Dan Satterberg was being challenged by a much more progressive former public defender, Daron Morris. But Morris had to drop out of the race for health reasons. Skip this vote.

NE King County District Court, Position. 1 – of the 2 candidates in this race, the more progressive is public defender Marcus Naylor. Joshua Schaer has a lot of support on the east side, including from eastside Republicans. But Naylor has the better ratings from the King County Bar and other legal organizations. And he’s more progressive. Vote Naylor.

 

Two Book Reviews: “2312″ and “The Yellow Birds”

My first impression of “2312” by Kim Stanley Robinson is that the author could use a good editor, or needs to take up short-form poetry to sharpen his descriptive skills.  Much of the book is repetitive and does little to propel the narrative or bolster the main themes.

And yet…I haven’t read a book in decades that reminds me of the best long-form science fiction of the Silver Age (’60′s and ’70′s) like this book does.  Robinson looks forward to an era when humans have populated and terraformed Mars, Venus, and the moons of Saturn, when space-flight within our solar system is common, and human lifespans have more than doubled.  And, of course, the main theme of the novel is not just whether humanity can grow up as it grows outward, but what will humanity become–what will being “human” mean–when people can incorporate genes from animal species and alien bacteria into their bodies, and even implant quantum computers into their brains.

In one passage that falls in the center of the book, Robinson riffs on the similarity between a linked group of quantum computers and the human brain.  He asks:  “if you program a purpose into a computer program, does that constitute its will?  Does it have free will, if a programmer programmed its purpose?  Is that programming any different from the way we are programmed by our genes and brains?  Is a programmed will a servile will?  Is human will a servile will?  And is not the servile will the home and source of all feelings of defilement, infection, transgression, and rage?…could a quantum computer program itself?”

The difference, of course, is that humans “programming” themselves with their own brains is how we might define “free will.”  But Robinson nicely illustrates that our free will is limited by physical externalities: our physical bodies, the environment around us, the society in which we live, and the deceptively remote influence of historical forces.

And so this big, sprawling work brings us back around to a question that lies at the heart of most American fiction:  how self-reliant and self-actualized do you really need to be?  In the end, don’t you need other people–a connection to human society–as much or even more than your personal, individual freedom?

For that, the book is worth the time it takes to read all of its 560 pages.  And Robinson does provide many beautiful descriptive passages like this one of Titan, the terraformed moon of Saturn:  “True sunlight and mirrored sunlight crossed to make the landscape shadowless, or faintly double-shadowed–strange to Swan’s eye, unreal-looking, like a stage set in a theater so vast the walls were not visible.  Gibbous Saturn flew through the clouds above, its edge-on rings like a white flaw cracking that part of the sky.”  I just wish the book were as condensed and strking as this lively passage.

On the other hand, even short novels can have  their flaws.  So much praise has been given to “The Yellow Birds” by Kevin Powers that I was puzzled to find it lacking in many ways.  The story is simple:  a young soldier goes to war in Iraq, having made a promise to the mother of one of his platoon mates that he would bring him back home alive–and we learn how impossible that promise is to keep.

It’s a first novel written by a young poet, and it contains many of the elements of good poetry:  archetypes, vivid metaphors, wrenching themes, alternating stanzas that lead us eventually to a final reveal, and a strong central voice.  But it doesn’t quite hold together as a novel.  Archetypes, when used in a longer narrative format, quickly become uninteresting stereotypes—for example Sterling, the hard-bitten sergeant whom everyone agrees is the perfect soldier.  And we never get attached to the younger soldier that the narrator has promised to protect (conveniently named Murph, as if he were a cute, stuffed toy unable to hold his stitching intact in a hostile environment).

So instead the book becomes an exploration of the soul of its narrator, and succeeds on that level.  Its poetry reminds us that the young men we send into war are not machines, not the brutal automatons that the army wants them to be, but young people full of life and the urge to experience beauty and a sense of purpose.  As the narrator says of himself and Murph while they’re getting ready to be deployed: “Being from a place where a few facts are enough to define you, where a few habits can fill a life, causes a unique kind of shame.  We’d had small lives, populated by a longing for something more substantial than dirt roads and small dreams.  So we’d come here, where life needed no elaboration and others would tell us who to be.”

But a novel is not just the poetry of its language and the insights of one narrative voice.  And sometimes the metaphors in this book stretch to the breaking point and beyond, as when the narrator struggles for an image to describe what it’s like to fly home as one of the survivors of a pointless war.  His words are buffeted by so much turbulence that the reader eventually loses the sense of what he’s saying or what the character is thinking.

We also never get a sense of the every day routine of deployment in Iraq.  In the midst of so much lovely metaphor, true description was strangely lacking.  Less poetry and more straightforward narration would have served the story better.  Fortunately, the novel is short in length so that the reader isn’t asked to stay involved with the characters too long.  And the disjointed narration lends truth to its overall message, presented as a sudden insight the narrator has after going AWOL in Germany:  “I realized, as I stood there in the church, that there was a sharp distinction between what was remembered, what was told, and what was true.  And I didn’t think I’d ever figure out which was which.”

I can’t say I liked “The Yellow Birds” as much I expected to.  And I find the high praise that critics and other writers have given it to be more an expression of their guilt over not condemning a war that was obviously unnecessary, than a clear-eyed look at the qualities of the book itself.  Nevertheless, I think everyone should read it in spite of its flaws, and take the opportunity to get inside of a mind that’s been battered and torn by war.

Lessons from Hurricane Sandy

As I write this, it’s been nearly a week since Hurricane Sandy roared ashore on the East Coast of the US, leaving devastation in its wake. On day six after the storm, there are many communities still waiting to get their electricity restored.

If there’s one overarching lesson to be learned from Hurricane Sandy, it’s that the old standard, still publicized by emergency planning agencies all over this country—that people need to prepare for a disaster by stocking up on three days’ worth of emergency supplies—is woefully inadequate.

On day six, many residents of Long Island, the New Jersey shore, and outlying communities still have no electricity, which means they have no heat in November, no clean water flowing from their taps, no hot water to sterilize or clean anything, and no electricity to cook food. Which means they’re still eating food out of cans, nearly a week after the storm, if they have that much canned food left. No electricity means no ability for gas stations to pump gas, which means people can’t get in their cars and drive to buy more supplies. If they followed the advice of their local emergency planning agency, then they ran out of food three days ago.

And now comes the announcement that many of these communities won’t get their power restored until two weeks after the storm, leaving these people stranded and living in pre-civilization conditions for an inhuman amount of time.

The fault may lie with FEMA or with Congress, which has been so focused on the budget deficit and partisan gridlock that the money tap has been nearly cut off for essential federal government services like emergency rescue and management. In spite of Republican anti-government theory, no private business can step in and manage assistance on the same scale over the same wide area as the federal government. Yet Republican theory has shaped federal government policy and forced us into a brave new world of no government help in the face of disaster.

And today’s disasters are like nothing we’ve known in the past. This is lesson number two that we can take away from this disaster. While Hurricane Katrina was terrible and other hurricanes have borne stronger winds and higher waves than Hurricane Sandy, this storm was bigger in area and contained more kinetic force than anything to ever hit the Northeast Coast in our lifetimes, and possibly in recorded history. It was big enough and powerful enough to reshape the entire coastline, creating new bays, inlets, and lakes. Hurricane Sandy literally changed the shape of the eastern seaboard, and mapmakers will spend years catching up.

Of course, people had time to prepare for the storm, but they could only prepare for what they knew. New York City took a direct hit from Hurricane Irene just last year. Most folks assumed that Sandy couldn’t be much worse, even though meteorologists were telling them to expect a 12 to 13-foot wall of water driven by 80 mile-per-hour winds to hit New York City. When the storm surge hit, the actual size was closer to 15-feet, higher even than the worst-case scenarios proposed by the experts.

Yes, Hurricane Sandy was a “perfect storm,” where many variables contributed to the overall size and ferocity of the storm: a high tide, a full moon, the convergence of a northward moving hurricane with a southward moving nor’easter, etc. But one contributing factor makes modern storm predictions particularly difficult:  global warming.

As global temperatures rise, oceans heat and expand. Ocean levels in New York City have been rising one inch each decade, and the pace is accelerating. It’s no coincidence that during the week that Hurricane Sandy hit New York, the residents of Venice, Italy (which sits at sea level) have been wearing waders and dealing with rising floodwaters.

Warmer oceans also mean more water vapor in the air, which adds more fuel to storms and boosts the size of storms. Larger and more frequent storms have long been an expected outcome of global warming.

And that means storms like we’ve never seen before. The human race is engaging in a vast uncontrolled experiment with our planetary climate, and we’re seeing the effects of that now.

The final lesson we can take from Hurricane Sandy became evident when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg finally announced on Thursday that he supports Barack Obama for president, because Obama is the only candidate who has done anything to address global warming. Both candidates in the race for the presidency have solicited Bloomberg’s endorsement because he has a lot of influence in national politics: he’s wealthy, he’s smart, he runs the nation’s largest city, and he manages the financial heart of America. People listen to him.

Don’t get me wrong, we should commend Bloomberg for coming out and saying what’s important: the biggest economic risk, the biggest security risk, the biggest risk to the future of Americans is not terrorism. It’s climate change. But why does global warming have to hit this man’s front yard and wreak havoc on half his city before he’s able to wake up and say “yes, this is a problem”?

Bloomberg just proved to those of us who’ve been crying in the wilderness that Americans are not willing to make even minor changes in their daily lives—for example, driving an electric car instead of an SUV—in order to save themselves from the ravages of a super-storm like Hurricane Sandy.

And that’s going to be our undoing. If we can’t admit now, after what’s happened to the East Coast, that global warming is real, that it’s impacts are happening now, that it is the biggest threat we face, not just as a nation but as a planet, then we deserve all the future “perfect storms” that are headed our way.

Who is Edward DeMarco?

He’s the head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the quasi-public agencies that have financed about half of all residential mortgages in the United States.

Why is Edward DeMarco important right now?

The Obama Administration has been trying to persuade DeMarco to allow Fannie and Freddie to do the same thing that private banks are currently doing:  offer debt forgiveness to borrowers who have stopped making payments on their mortgages.

There are several very good reasons for Fannie and Freddie to do this.  It would help people stay in their homes, thereby stabilizing the housing market and preventing a whole generation of middle class homeowners from falling into poverty.  It would boost consumer spending, because a nationwide record level of housing debt is keeping people from spending money on other things.  Consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of all economic activity, so offering debt forgiveness to homeowners would help the economy recover.

It would also save taxpayers a lot of money.  When people default on a Fannie or Freddie mortgage, taxpayers will never collect the value of that entire debt.  If defaulters are offered debt relief, most of them would be able to resume making payments on their loans.  According to the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s own calculations, taxpayers would save at least $1 billion if Fannie and Freddie offered debt forgiveness.

And the Obama Administration made it easier for DeMarco to say “yes” by offering Fannie and Freddie additional incentives totaling $2.7 billion to do it.

But last week DeMarco said “no,” and the reason he gave is both spurious and unrealistic.  DeMarco, a conservative Bush appointee, said that, if Fannie and Freddie offered debt forgiveness, borrowers who are currently making payments but are underwater on their loans (the value of their homes is less than the outstanding balances on their mortgages) would stop making payments in the hope of qualifying for debt forgiveness.  This is referred to as “strategic default.”

This is standard right-wing, Republican bullshit.  It stems from the notion that people are inherently greedy, and that poor people in particular will do anything–even if it’s stupidly self-destructive–in order to get a government handout. Actually, the reverse is true: rich conservatives have proved themselves to be greedy beyond belief and have always been obscenely quick to line up for government largess, as the Bush administration proved.  While the rich can take subsidies and government contracts without batting an eye, the poor must be scourged of any hope for government assistance in their time of need.

Private banks have offered debt forgiveness now for several years without seeing a surge of new defaults.  In fact millions of American families have made the choice not to strategically default in the face of a record fall in home values.  Why?  Because defaulting would ruin their credit histories.  It could also affect their ability to get jobs, as more employers now run credit and background checks on their employees (yes, poor people have to work for a living, unlike the rich).  And then there’s pride.  Sociologists report that most people place a high value on their ability to pay their own way and will resist default, even when it would make more financial sense for them to enter bankruptcy.  DeMarco and his ilk have it exactly backwards.

Unless, of course, they’re talking about American corporations.  Strategic defaults or bankruptcies are quite common in the business world.  The upper management of a company can make the decision to take an ailing company through bankruptcy, where they can downsize, layoff employees, and sell off assets to pay a portion of the company’s debts.  Management negotiates with banks, bondholders, vendors and other lenders over who gets paid and how much, and whether the lenders will forgive any of the company’s debt.  Many corporations emerge from bankruptcy intact, having negotiated their debt down to a more manageable level.  But DeMarco and his Republican allies don’t want average Americans to have that same ability.

Barack Obama has been trying to replace DeMarco with his own appointee, but for the last three years Senate Republicans have blocked the vast majority of Obama’s nominations out of partisan squabbling and gamesmanship.  It’s time voters punished the Republicans at the polls for their hypocrisy and contempt.

The New Waterfront: Guess Who’s Paying the Bill?

Last week, the Central Waterfront Committee (CWC) released a funding plan for upcoming changes to the waterfront as part of the mega-project to dismantle the Alaskan Way Viaduct and build a replacement traffic tunnel under downtown.

Through a series of public meetings, the city has already compiled a list of projects to beautify Seattle’s waterfront and “reconnect” it to downtown.  Of course, in keeping with the privileged status of property owners in Seattle, the final wish-list doesn’t include demolishing waterfront condos and hotels in Belltown, which are proving to be a more long-lasting barrier to the waterfront than the Alaskan Way viaduct.

Nor is the funding plan a complete or comprehensive budget for the waterfront improvements.  To quote the CWC’s Strategic Plan:  “Certain promising elements of the long-term vision, identified in the City’s Framework Plan, are not funded in this funding plan.”  Okay, so it’s really a partial funding plan.

Nevertheless, the total cost of this first phase of the developers’ wish-list is a staggering $1.2 billion.  Unfortunately, The Seattle Times, our local Pravda, misreported the figure:  “…$240 million, about half of which would come from a local improvement district funded by downtown property owners, with the rest from city taxpayers and private donors.”

Untrue.  The CWC’s report provides a handy—albeit misleading—pie graph entitled “Funding Sources” which shows the costs as approximately $1.2 billion.  The graph, reproduced on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s website, shows that 60% of the funding is “Secured/Pending.”  No honest person would group “secured” funds with “pending” funds unless they wanted to create the impression that more money has been set aside than has actually been allocated.  When we look at the breakdown of that 60%, we see that nearly half of it is the 30-year Seawall Bond that will be on the ballot in November.  Voters may still reject it; hence that money is not “secured.”

Of the remaining “Secured/Pending” funds ($360 million), only a tiny sliver of that ($70 million) has been officially set aside by the City of Seattle to be spent specifically on the waterfront.  The rest is $290 million budgeted by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) for the fiscal years 2012 through 2017.  As anyone who follows state politics knows, state transportation funds are regularly reallocated by the State Legislature.  If Republican Rob McKenna beats Democrat Jay Inslee for governor in November, you can bet there’s going to be a huge fight over transportation funding in 2013, and the Seattle waterfront project could lose big-time.

That’s just one scenario.  Another, more certain outcome would be a decrease in gas tax revenue, which is the main funding source for the state transportation budget.  The glacial pace of the economic recovery, along with the increasing price of gas, has already lowered the state’s gas tax revenue, as more people are driving fewer miles every year to save money.  The WSDOT funds can’t be considered “Secured.”

The other 40% of the CWC’s pie graph is labeled “Future Funding” and it consists of a vague range of between $350 million and $570 million.  For simplicity’s sake, let’s use the higher number, since the CWC has admitted that not all projects are funded in this proposal, and because it’s the rare exception for development projects to cost less than their initial estimates.

Of this “Future Funding,” only $300 million (or 23% of the overall financing package) will come from the local improvement district—property owners in a still-to-be-defined area who will pay higher taxes to support the new waterfront.  This is far lower than the 50% cited by Pravda.  And since this will not be up for a vote, ever, it’s unclear why this wasn’t grouped in the “Pending” category, along with the Seawall Bond, or the “Secured” category, along with the WSDOT funds.  Maybe because the boundaries of the local improvement district have yet to be defined.  Residents of Belltown, Lower Queen Anne, South Lake Union, First Hill, and the International District should be trembling in their shoes, especially if they belong to the vanishing breed of renters clinging to older apartments in these neighborhoods.  Landlords will make them pay the tax.

Of the remaining “Future Funding,” about $120 million will come from “Philanthropy” (private donations).  Let’s ask the Seattle Aquarium, Seattle Public Library, the Woodland Park Zoo, and thousands of other nonprofits in Seattle who’ve been scrambling desperately for money over the past four years how they feel about the entry of another big nonprofit into the scrum.  Most of these organizations have had to cut staff, services, and programming just to survive.  This chunk is the single biggest question mark in the entire waterfront funding plan, and why it’s not marked “Fantasy Funding,” is anyone’s guess.

The remaining two chunks are miscellaneous funds that will come out city taxpayers’ pockets in sneaky, roundabout ways.  About $65 million is designated “9-year LID Lift or other City source” and this will either come from increased taxes on the local improvement district (another increase in rent) or, more likely, from a second city-wide ballot initiative in 2014, 2015, or 2016 (essentially a second rental or property tax increase for the entire city).

The other chunk is $85 million designated as “General Fund/Debt.”  This is money that will come entirely out of the City of Seattle’s General Fund or its borrowing capacity (city bonds).  Either way, it’s money that won’t be spent on any other city services or development projects.  And it’s on top of the $70 million the city has already set aside for the project.  So the total hit to the city’s General Fund is really $155 million, not $70 million.

And since the City Council and the Mayor have no willpower when developers ask them for money, these funds could easily have been grouped into the “Secured Funding” category.

So a more realistic pie chart would have shown $155 million in city funds grouped with $300 million in funds from a local improvement district as “Secured Funding,” which is about 37% of the total.  “Pending Funding” would be $580 million (the Seawall Bond vote and the WSDOT funds), or about 48% of the total.

Okay, so far we’ve accounted for 85% of the total. The remainder would be split between 5% “Future Funding” (the $65 million tax increase that will probably go up for a vote sometime in 2014-2016) and a sizable 10% chunk of “Fantasy Funding” (the “Philanthropy” piece).

So, overall, only 37% of the funding can be counted on, and all of that involves money out of city taxpayers’ pockets to finance a project that will overwhelmingly benefit local developers and downtown businesses.  No transit money—indeed, no transit projects, as far as I can see (the transportation projects are all road improvements)—are part of this deal, which means that the park-like aspects of the project will be enjoyed mostly by cruise-ship patrons, tourists, and rich people who can afford to live downtown.

And the 48% of pending funds from the Seawall Bond and WSDOT are also taxpayer money.  Only the fantasy funding, the 10% from Philanthropy, can really be considered private funds.  In spite of the propaganda from Pravda, politicians, and the TV news paparazzi, the money from the local improvement district can’t be termed “private” funding.  To call it “private” is to assume naively that local landlords will bear the cost of the tax increase and not pass it on to their tenants.  They won’t, and we all know it.

And this is just phase one, folks.  And it’s a prime example of developers raiding your pockets for their benefit.

What the Hell Happened to The Fourth Estate?

Is it the lack of a second daily newspaper in Seattle or our modern-day reliance on Internet blogs that has made Seattleites largely ignorant of local political issues? Or is it the dismal quality of our single, surviving newspaper and local TV stations?

Let’s take, for example, the impact of liquor privatization in Washington State.

People who voted to privatize liquor in Washington truly believed that prices would fall and the variety of hard alcohol available for purchase would increase. They believed the advertising paid for by Costco, the main backer of the privatization initiative, and they ignored the common sense arguments made by opponents. They even refused to think logically about the issue: could a local supermarket devote as much shelf space to hard alcohol as an entire state-owned store devoted only to the sale of alcohol? Of course not. (Hence, selection would be more limited under privatization.) Could adding another layer of middle-men who need to make their own profit lead to lower prices? Absolutely not. (Hence prices have risen.) Wow, that was not particularly hard to reason out. Yet people believed the advertising, right-wing bloggers, and the conservative editorial board of The Seattle Times—largely because alternative views were unavailable or hard to find.

Let’s look at an even more disturbing example, one with higher stakes. The current negotiations between the Department of Justice and the city over reforms at the Seattle Police Department have fallen into a media black hole. The general impression is that the Department of Justice has issued a report slamming the SPD over charges of using excessive force. But few people know about the status of negotiations between the DOJ and the city. Yes, those negotiations have been “confidential,” but in reporters could have asked a few very important questions: are we near a deal yet, is the DOJ taking a hard line, is the city winning any concessions, what role is the SPD chief or the police union taking in the negations, etc.

Instead, we get nothing, and a sense of frustration has settled over the city. The SPD has been confronted by hostile and uncooperative crowds at crime scenes and a recent gay pride celebration on Capitol Hill devolved into a pepper-spraying fracas between police and street-partiers. The very bland articles published by The Seattle Times website on these incidents are followed by hundreds of police-bashing comments from online readers.

So, in an effort to shed light on the negotiations, the DOJ and the city agreed to release several confidential documents this week. Unfortunately, those documents were accompanied by an absolute lack of analysis or decent reportage by the local news outlets that made them available to the public. The Seattle Times website ran an article entitled “Records show deep split between federal, city officials on SPD fixes” that once again refused to ask any substantive questions about the actual status of the negotiations or provide any analysis of the released documents.

Just providing a link to those documents is not enough. The average Seattleite would have to spend several hours reading through the documents to get an understanding of how the negotiations are proceeding. In the meantime, The Seattle Times, our local paper of record, will be damned before they’ll assign one reporter on their staff to read and accurately summarize the contents of the DOJ’s proposed changes and the city’s response.

Even a quick read of the letters and memos exchanged between the city attorney’s office and the lead DOJ negotiator, Jonathan Smith, reveals some disturbing problems not just with the negotiations themselves but also with the lack of journalistic oversight of local politics. For example, it appears that Mayor McGinn has not been sitting down at the negotiating table with the DOJ. The DOJ’s letter of May 23, 2012, complains that the city has not been sending representatives who are empowered to negotiate on the city’s behalf. The response to this letter is a May 31, 2012, letter from Mayor McGinn’s personal attorney, Carl Marquardt, that basically says Mayor McGinn is not willing to meet with the DOJ attorneys; instead, he will only meet with US Attorney General Eric Holder (who runs the entire federal department in DC) or his second-in-command, Thomas Perez—an act of childish petulance that reveals Mayor McGinn’s unwillingness to take on the responsibility of his job as mayor of a major US city.

The same letter suggests that representatives of the police department be present at the negotiations: “We do believe it would be helpful if both sides, including DOJ, had access to policing experts during negotiations…” and it concludes with the following sentence: “Finally, if we reach the point where negotiations are truly stalled, we would be willing to engage a mediator to facilitate a resolution.”

The Seattle Times reported in passing that the city and the DOJ brought in a mediator last week; it was a non-event for most of the local media. But, in truth, it was a last-gasp attempt to salvage a bargaining process that has failed largely because the mayor has refused to do his job. And, yes, the city council should also be part of the negotiations, but the mayor and his counsel have refused to cooperate with them. And Seattleites don’t know any of this, because our local media has refused to do its job.

It’s very easy to blame Mayor McGinn, but the true responsibility for the breakdown of negotiations lies with The Seattle Times and the local TV news outlets. If the citizens of Seattle realized that their mayor wasn’t doing his job, they would put pressure on the city to take the negotiations seriously. Instead, Seattleites are left in the dark, unsure of what’s going on and unwilling to trust the SPD in the meantime.

Real police reform can’t happen only within the SPD. Communities, citizens, and businesses have to take responsibility for oversight, feedback, and managing their expectations. But without a functioning information system, the citizen reform side can’t even begin.

Local media should be ashamed of itself. Local activists should be egalitarian when assigning blame for the lack of SPD reform: it’s not just the police department that’s at fault. And it’s not just the mayor. We should be flooding the media with our letters, emails, and comments. If our news outlets aren’t asking enough questions, then we should be asking them why not.

Three Strikes and You’re Out

Three incidents last week confirm the city’s inability to address problems at the Seattle Police Department. In spite of a Department of Justice report that Seattle has a problem with excessive force and biased policing, the city is in deep denial and is doing its best to cover up the problems.

The first incident last week was the arrest of SPD Lt. Donnie Lowe on domestic violence charges. Lowe, whom the Seattle Times described as having “a checkered history with the department,” was given a leadership role in the city’s 20/20 Plan (the city’s response to the DOJ finding, which has been described by the DOJ as a joke). The 20/20 Plan is mostly a PR exercise, but with Lowe’s arrest, even the PR value of the plan is now in question.

Lowe himself has an ongoing problem with alcohol, and possibly anger issues. He was arrested last week at a party in his home. He’d been drinking with friends, got into an argument with his wife, then pushed her against a wall and smacked her. This is not his first alcohol related arrest: in 2008 Lowe was brought in on a DUI charge and his blood alcohol level registered at 0.113%, above the legal intoxication limit of 0.08%. Lowe, however, was allowed to plead guilty to an “amended” charge of reckless driving. His sentence was deferred, then the charge dismissed after he finished an alcohol information class and some community service. It’s hard to believe that if Lowe was not a Seattle police offer, he would have received such lenient treatment.

This week’s arrest is also not the first time Lowe has been in trouble for assaulting a family member. In June 2006, he punched and pushed his 13-year-old son against a wall in an SPD jail cell. The city chose not to bring legal charges against him, and then-Chief Gil Kerlikowski reduced his disciplinary finding from “misuse of authority and violation of rules, regulations, and laws” to “conduct unbecoming an officer”—one of many such disciplinary reductions that Kerlikowski was criticized for during his tenure.

This leniency has produced the current culture of invulnerability and exceptionalism at the SPD. By definition, an SPD officer can’t be guilty of excessive force or biased policing, since SPD officers can do no wrong.

This is the city’s official legal stance, as we can see with its filing of court documents last week challenging the veracity of the DOJ report. City attorneys filed the documents in the lawsuit against SPD officer Shandy Cobane. Cobane is the officer who was caught on video uttering a racial slur (“I’m going to beat the Mexican piss out of you, Homey; you feel me?”) to a suspect, then allegedly kicking the suspect in the face and stomping on him as he lay prone on the ground. Immediately after the video came to light, both Officer Cobane and SPD Chief Diaz apologized to the public. Diaz demoted Cobane and promised that any officer caught doing the same thing risked being fired.

Now city attorneys are trying to argue that the DOJ report should not be introduced into evidence in Cobane’s case, and they’re asking the judge to dismiss the lawsuit. This, in spite of both Cobane’s and Chief Diaz’s public admissions that Cobane had erred. Cobane recently testified in a deposition that, two years after the event, he still doesn’t know what the SPD policy is regarding unbiased policing.

Cobane’s case is not the only one wending its way through the courts. John Kita won a ruling last week in his case against the SPD. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Kita can pursue a civil rights lawsuit against the SPD, after he was roughed up during his arrest in February 2008. A dashboard camera captured SPD Officer Kevin Oshikawa-Clay hitting the back of Kita’s head and slamming his face into the hood of a patrol car. He then dragged Kita to the ground where he kneeled on Kita’s back, hit him twice more, and cranked his arm into a pain-compliance hold. While the hood of the car blocked the view of Kita on the ground, the angle of the blows suggest Oshikawa-Clay hit Kita twice more in the back of the head.

At the time of Kita’s arrest, SPD commanders and a lieutenant in the SPD training division viewed the dash-cam video and concluded that Oshikawa-Clay had correctly followed department policy. They concluded that the suspect, Kita, was violent and a safety risk to Oshikawa-Clay, even though Kita was never charged with resisting arrest or assaulting an officer. Kita was eventually acquitted of the assault charge for which he was arrested.

After viewing the dash-cam video, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court disagreed with the SPD commanders. They ruled that Kita was not a safety risk to Officer Oshikawa-Clay, and that the officer’s actions were “objectively unreasonable and therefore constitutionally excessive.” This is twice now that an outside agency—first the DOJ and now a circuit court—has ruled that SPD departmental policy, procedures, and training are flawed.

The city needs to step up and take responsibility for the problems at the SPD. As the DOJ and the local US Attorney have said, the 20/20 Plan doesn’t begin to address the deeper cultural problems and lack of accountability within the Seattle Police Department. Unfortunately, it may take another court decision—this time in a lawsuit filed by the DOJ—to force changes within the city and the police department.

Mayor McGrowth

Many people who voted for Mike McGinn to be mayor of Seattle thought they were voting for a green candidate. But his reputation as an environmentalist was based mostly on his campaign stance against building a tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way viaduct; hence, voters mistakenly assumed he was anti-development.

To polish his green credentials, McGinn played up his past as a former state chair of the Sierra Club, a mainstream environmental group known more for its compromises than its activism. He also heavily promoted his chairmanship of the 2008 parks levy campaign and his work to defeat Proposition 1, a state initiative that would have spent millions building new roads in King County while directing only a small portion of its funds to transit.

Often overlooked was McGinn’s past as head of the Greenwood Community Council, where he worked in cooperation with developers, including Triad Development, Harbor Properties, and Vulcan Inc., on neighborhood development priorities.

So it should come as no surprise that McGinn is at it again. Last week, Mayor McGinn presented his jobs proposal to the city council, and it was a wish-list for developers and the building industry.

At the top of the list was a request for the city to allow more businesses in certain neighborhoods zoned for single-family residences. The city council rejected this piece of the proposal, after hearing testimony from neighborhood activists who complained that the neighborhoods listed already contained many small businesses, were already great “walkable” places (a stated goal of the mayor’s proposal), and the mayor had not solicited input from neighborhood groups before proposing these changes.

The mayor’s advisory group that put together the jobs proposal consists of 28 people, 20 of whom are from the building trades (developers, architects, urban planners, etc.) and the other eight are in agreement with Mayor McGinn’s pro-density position. In other words, they are also pro-developer, and some are dismissive or downright hostile to any neighborhood input for urban planning changes.

This attitude is reflected throughout the jobs proposal. It would allow the city to eliminate a layer of environmental review for new buildings of up to 75,000 square feet or with fewer than 200 apartments. It would also remove the requirement to provide parking spaces for housing built near bus lines or other types of transit.

Now, 75,000 square feet is not a small building. For an apartment building with units that average 500 square feet (these are small units in today’s housing market), that would be a building with about 150 apartments. If it had 15 units per floor, that would make it a 10-story building. Likewise, a condominium building with 200 units averaging 600 square feet per unit (again, small units in today’s market) would be 120,000 square feet. These are developments that are high-rise and often take up an entire city block. Removing a layer of environmental review–and, hence, the ability for the public to weigh in on the project–is outrageous.

Pro-density supporters often criticize environmental reviews as a forum for people who own single-family homes to complain about condo projects and big box stores. But environmental reviews address other important issues, including: building heights, light levels, and views; maintaining the historical value of nearby buildings or the character of a neighborhood; providing adequate green space, parks, and sustaining the city’s tree canopy; issues of traffic density and flow; and even the potential for nearby schools and fire departments to handle a sudden increase in area population. All of these issues, many of them environmental ones, would be thrown by the wayside without an environmental review process and neighborhood input.

Mayor McGinn’s pro-density position does have its attractions. Seattle, like most U.S. cities, needs to avoid more sprawl and do something about the serious traffic problems that we already have. But Seattle also needs to consider carefully which parts of the urban area best qualify for taller buildings and more density.

Simultaneously, the city must address inadequate transit funding and availability. King County, which provides bus service in Seattle, has been cutting bus service for budgetary reasons at a time when bus ridership, particularly inside the urban core, has increased dramatically because of the economic downturn and high gas prices. Seattle’s response has been to build an expensive street car line that primarily serves tourists and day-trippers.

The goal of the mayor’s jobs proposal is, of course, to create jobs for the moribund construction industry. However, the mayor presented it to the city council as a way to create more walkable neighborhoods in Seattle similar to Chicago’s neighborhoods.

But let’s think about what makes a great walkable neighborhood. When I recently visited Chicago, I was impressed by its neighborhoods of apartment buildings–most of them were no taller than 6 stories and almost none of them took up an entire city block–near thoroughfares with low-rise, small businesses. In short, these neighborhoods looked a lot like the Broadway neighborhood on Capitol Hill, the Pike/Pine corridor, or the Uptown neighborhood on Queen Anne.

So building more human scale apartment buildings of 5 or 6 stories with small-scale retail at ground level would be reasonable, if the goal truly is to make our neighborhoods more like Chicago’s. But the mayor’s job proposal doesn’t do that. Instead, it gives developers a free ticket to build high-rises.

This is the kind of out-sized growth that everyone should oppose. Developers complain that they can’t make a profit unless they build big and tall, but this is simply not true in a hot rental market (as we have now in Seattle) where the city also gives incentives for building smaller to medium size buildings.

Instead of allowing uncontrolled growth, Seattle needs to reaffirm its commitment to managed growth. The city council must reject the mayor’s jobs proposal, and use this opportunity to come up with a better plan.

Voters Across Europe Oust Conservatives

Four years ago, European governments had to make a choice: do we deal with the economic crisis through more government spending (“stimulus”) or through government budget cuts (“austerity”).

Conservative governments were in power in Britain, France, and Germany. In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron pushed through a tough package of austerity measures that matched his conservative party’s ideology that the less government interference in the economy, the better. In France, Nicolas Sarkozy did the same, followed by Angela Merkel in Germany. Although none of these countries had the deep public debts of Greece, Ireland, or Iceland, the problems in those “southern” European countries gave the conservative politicians in the larger European nations an excuse to impose cuts in social welfare programs and pass anti-union legislation.

Last week brought a major pushback from the voters in those countries. In France, Nicolas Sarkozy lost the presidency to Socialist Francoise Hollande who remarked, “Austerity need not be Europe’s fate.” Hollande promised to renegotiate the budget discipline treaty signed by 25 European leaders in March, a treaty that was meant to enshrine the policies that have plunged Europe even deeper into economic recession.

In Britain, local elections on May 3rd brought tremendous gains for the Labour Party, which had it’s best showing since 1997. Labour won 800 seats, while David Cameron’s Conservative Party lost 400 seats, sending his constituency into a uproar. British voters deserted the two main parties (Conservative and Liberal Democrat) and voted overwhelmingly for Labour and a host of third parties.

The same was true of the May 13th local elections in Germany’s most populous state, Northern Rhine-Westphalia, where Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats took only 26% of the vote, the party’s worst showing since World War II. The center-left Social Democrats took nearly 39% of the vote and will form an alliance with the Green Party, which took a little more than 12%. Other recent local elections in Germany have brought similar results, an ominous sign for Angela Merkel, who’ll be up for re-election in 18 months.

It’s impossible to view these elections as anything other than a public referendum on austerity measures. It erases the excuses the conservatives have been using for the past four years that economic stimulus programs are politically unpopular. The voters have voted according to their pocketbooks, and the conservatives have lost.

History has given us many examples of how politically unpopular austerity measures are. Leaving aside the historical fact that austerity measures imposed during an economic downturn only lead to a worse downturn, as the United States discovered during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, we need only look at the failure of neo-liberal economic policies on developing nations.

The 1960’s and 1970’s were a boom time for banks lending money to developing nations, many of which had just broken free from colonial governments. New, independent governments—some of them democratic, some of them not—were able to tap a flood of development money. It was the Cold War, and the U.S. and Western Europe wanted to buy allies wherever they could, and banks saw an opportunity to make a profit issuing sovereign debt at high interest rates. But the money also came with political and economic strings attached.

Developing nations had to agree to “liberalize” their economies. They had to remove trade barriers and labor protections, do away with limits on foreign investments in their countries, and use the money to build infrastructure that benefited multi-national corporations, like roads, port facilities, railroads, pipelines, and even factory shells. But all of this investment didn’t bring the economic gains these nations hoped for. Profits were taken home by U.S. and European corporations, and the wages paid to local workers remained too low.

Eventually, the loans came due. In the 1980’s and 1990’s a wave of developing countries were forced to restructure their debts. The International Monetary Fund imposed round after round of austerity measures on many countries, only to see those nations sink deeper into economic recessions. A wave of nations began to default on their debts, including Egypt, South Africa, Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina. In fact, the Latin American Debt Crisis of those years led to what is commonly called the lost decade: a time when real wages across the region dropped 20-40% and Latin American economies showed negative growth of 9%.

So the results of last week’s elections in Greece came as no surprise. The two main parties that had negotiated Greece’s debt restructuring and austerity measures failed to take enough votes to form a coalition government. Greek voters deserted in droves to third parties, especially the far-left party Syriza, which campaigned on the platform of revoking the austerity measures and imposing a moratorium on Greece’s debt payments for three years—a technical default on their sovereign debt.

None of Greece’s parties won a majority, and no two parties won enough votes to form a coalition government, so unless a miracle occurs, new national elections will be called in June. When Greece finally forms a new government, the pressure to default on its loans and withdraw from the European Union will be impossible to resist.

Default was obviously the only choice for Greece from the beginning, but conservative politicians chose to ignore historical fact and impose the pain of austerity measures instead. And now they’re earning their just desserts at the polls.

USDA: Let Them Eat Garbage

Every month brings another horror story about recycled food.

Last month, a Snokist processing plant in eastern Washington State was reported to have packaged moldy, “re-treated” applesauce for sale in the US. The USDA was slammed for not stopping the process whereby Snokist skimmed mold off the top of vats of applesauce, heated it in an unscientific attempt to kill the mold, and packaged it for sale in supermarkets and for use in the nation’s school lunch program. Fortunately, a low-level USDA inspector contacted the FDA and Snokist was forced to stop recycling food waste.

But now comes another USDA horror story: the purchase of seven million pounds of pink slime for use in the school lunch program.

What is pink slime? First, let’s talk about what it’s not.

When you eat a hamburger, you’re expecting to get ground muscle tissue-—the trimmings from the most nutritious part of the animal. You will also get some fat, because the leanest meat from the animal is cut into steaks, and the less lean meat is usually ground into hamburger. For health reasons, consumers like their hamburger to have less fat and more lean. Food processors have always looked for inexpensive ways to boost the lean content of hamburger.

Now there’s a way for other lean parts-—not just muscle tissue-—to make it into your hamburger. The marketing names for pink slime include “Lean Beef Trimmings” and “Lean Finely Textured Beef.” What those names mask is that pink slime is composed of connective tissue, including tendons, ligaments, and intestines, combined with stuff that’s fallen onto the slaughterhouse floor.

Ask anyone who’s worked in a slaughterhouse if they would eat the stuff that falls onto a slaughterhouse floor, and you’ll hear a horrified “Never!” followed by a gagging sound. Ten years ago, scraps from filthy slaughterhouse floors were sent to rendering plants or used in dog food or chicken feed. Not anymore. Now the USDA has deemed it fit for human consumption.

How can this be? Well, food companies now treat the gunk on slaughterhouse floors with ammonium hydroxide, a pink chemical that’s supposed to kill pathogens like E. coli and salmonella. But tests done since 2005 on pink slime have found E. coli in at least three separate batches of pink slime, and salmonella 48 separate times.

An estimated 76 million people contract food-borne illnesses every year in the United States, according to the CDC. That means nearly one-quarter of all Americans will get sick from eating contaminated food in 2012. Hamburger is always high on the list of suspect foods.

But there’s a bigger health crisis here, one that’s not being discussed. Pink slime is not as nutritious as traditional ground beef, according to Gerald Zirnstein, a microbiologist who used to work in the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service. He and his colleague, Carl Custer, who also worked for 35 years in the Food Safety Inspection Service, have deemed it a “high risk product” that’s not nutritionally equivalent to ground beef. Said Custer: “My main objection was that it was not meat.”

When the human body eats non-nutritious food, the body craves more food to make up for the lack of vitamins and nutrients. Dietitians widely recognize non-nutritious food as a major contributor to the obesity epidemic in the US. It’s not much of a stretch to say that pink slime plays a key role. This non-meat waste product can be found in 70% of ground beef sold in the US, and the burgers-and-fries diet is widely reviled by dietitians, not just for its high fat content, but also for its lack of nutrients.

When McDonald’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell have banned pink slime from their food, you know it’s pretty bad stuff.

But food-borne health issues go beyond recycled waste products like pink slime. The pink chemical ammonium hydroxide has been used to wash most ground beef since the 1990’s-—long before pink slime came along. Traces of ammonium hydroxide often remain in ground beef for sale in the supermarket, whether it contains pink slime or not.

Any chemical that’s strong enough to kill E. coli can also do damage to the beneficial bacteria in the human stomach and intestines. Loss of beneficial bacteria is suspected to be a contributing factor in the rising rates of obesity, but also in an increase in other digestive tract disorders. And digestive tract diseases of all types afflict up to one-third of the US population, according to 2004 statistics from the National Digestive Disease Information Clearinghouse.

Most victims of digestive tract diseases are elderly, but many of us have heard about anecdotal cases of young people, including teens or children, who’ve been diagnosed with digestive tract disorders with unknown causes. Some of these cases are severe, requiring surgery or long-term medication and highly restrictive diets, and the outcome is not always a positive one.

We should be taking a much closer look at our food supply, and we should listen to whistleblowers from the USDA, like Zirnstein and Cutler, who criticize the department for being too friendly to food processors. If the USDA is supposed to be a guardian of public safety, they’re doing a terrible job of it.

An online petition calling for the USDA to drop pink slime from the nation’s school lunch program can be found at http://www.change.org/petitions/tell-usda-to-stop-using-pink-slime-in-school-food.

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