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Seattle City Council action

The Seattle City Council is the lawmaking body of the city of Seattle. Its nine members are elected to four-year terms in citywide nonpartisan elections. It has the sole responsibility of approving the city’s budget, and also develops laws and policies intended to promote the health and safety of Seattle’s residents. The Council passes all legislation related to the City’s police, fire, parks, libraries, and electric, water, solid waste, and drainage utilities.

Election of City Council members occur on odd-numbered years, with either four or five council members up for election based on position number. All council members’ terms begin Jan. 1. The council positions are officially nonpartisan, and the ballot gives no party designations.

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Local News

Facial recognition tool: High-tech police aid or invasion of privacy?

SEATTLE — Seattle police are considering a high-tech tool to help capture criminals. But it’s also raising concerns about privacy.

Previously, surveillance drones were to fly high in the skies above Seattle. But they got shot down before they took off.

Then surveillance cameras were to watch the waterfront. But they were shut off because of concern from people like David Robinson, of the Seattle Privacy Coalition.

“The drone business, the camera business, they thought these are great tools for the police, but they also have really serious privacy implications,” Robinson said.

The City Council is considering a plan by the Seattle Police Department to use facial recognition technology to catch criminals. The system would scan surveillance video and compare it to a database of mug shots.

“If there’s not reasonable suspicion of a crime, they’re not involved with anything, there’s no reason to compare that image, or even take that image,” Assistant Police Chief Carmen Best told the City Council.

But privacy experts worry about misuse of the technology. For instance, if pictures are taken of people during protests, could their faces be put in a database? And could the data be shared with the federal government?

“If the data is collected and preserved, it’s going to be available to anyone who wants to get a warrant for it,” Robinson said. “Data-sharing, it’s available to any agency that wants to get a hold of it.”

Police say there are safeguards to make sure that doesn’t happen. But the City Council will continue studying the idea before making a final decision.

“We continue to talk off-line to as many folks as possible,” City Councilman Bruce Harrell said. “We respect deeply the Seattle Privacy Coalition and all the privacy rights’ advocates out there to make sure the government is being responsible.”

The City Council will take up this issue again Monday and they’re set to vote on it March 10.

Local News

Taxis vs. rideshares: Issue prompts rally outside City Hall

SEATTLE — On the steps of City Hall, it was a rally around ridesharing Wednesday.

The popular car service has replaced the taxi cab for many people. But it’s also an industry that is unregulated.

MAG_LYFTThe City Council has a proposal it’s considering to regulate rideshares, but the companies that provide the service and their customers believe the city is going too far.

“We would have to re-evaluate operating in Seattle,” said Lyft co-founder John Zimmer, of the proposed regulations.

Zimmer flew up from San Francisco to be at the rally.

Companies like Lyft and Uber offer car rides to users through an app on their iPhone.

“I have a medical condition that doesn’t allow me to get a driver’s license so if I had to get home late at night, ridesharing is always there,” said Christiana Obey, a big fan of Lyft.

Seattle’s cab drivers are not fans of the service, claiming it has left a lot of them in park. One of those drivers, Samatar Guled, wants ridesharing to be regulated like taxis. The city is considering requiring licenses for rideshares, along with a cap on the number of cars and how many hours drivers can operate.

“We’re following the rules,” said Guled. “We should all compete under the same regulations.”

Guled tried to make that point by disrupting the rally against those proposed new rules.

In the background, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray watched and later admitted this is an issue he is studying closely.

“I think we should try to equal these things out,” said Murray.

The mayor agrees there should be regulations for rideshares, with the goal of making sure it’s insured and safe.  But he also wants to eliminate caps for a new industry that is clearly taking off.

Both sides of the issue will be at Friday’s City Council meeting when a proposal will be discussed and possibly voted on.


SEATTLE — As Seattle searches for a new police chief, some city lawmakers argue it’s time to clean house and change the way the Seattle Police  Department chooses its top brass.

“If we are serious as a city about changing the department and looking for new leadership, we’re not just talking about the chief of police,” said City Councilman Bruce Harrell, chairman of the council’s Public Safety Committee.  “We’re talking about command staff as well.”


Seattle City Councilman Bruce Harrell

City law currently states that a Seattle police chief can be an outsider –  but not his or her six assistant chiefs; they must come from the existing ranks of the SPD.  It’s a guarantee that the powerful command staff will be home-grown.

Harrell wants that restriction thrown out.  As Seattle works hard to reform a department that is under a federal consent decree, he argues, it should be looking not just for a new chief, but a new, outside command staff as well.

“We all know that change begins at the top,” Harrell said.  “These are changes at the top that we think are necessary.”

Harrell argues the new chief should have maximum flexibility to shake up a department that many argue has a culture problem.

“This legislation actually gives him or her the tools to clean house if that’s what they see needs to be done,” he said.

The rule change will also allow outside candidates for chief to bring trusted assistants from their current jobs, which should greatly help in recruiting.

“These are all attractive things, incentives if you will, to bring in a new chief,” Harrell said.  “So we can avoid the problem where we have a limited pool.  We want it wide open and we want to make sure this person is set up to succeed, not fail.”

But changing hiring rules is going to be a fight with the police union.

“I can’t imagine bringing in an outside chief and then bringing in several assistant chiefs,” said Rich O’Neill, president of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild.  “It’s like, who are we relying on to really connect with the community?”

O’Neill also says the rule change will be a big hit to morale.

“Officers that are aspiring to be commanders on this department would be told you’re not good enough,” he said.  “We have very bright and very sharp people who are waiting to step into those shoes, and if they are told, no, you can’t, we have to bring in an outsider, I just think that sends a real bad message to the rank and file.”

Harrell wants to put this legislation in place as soon as he can before the search for the new police chief starts in earnest in January when Mayor-elect Ed Murray takes office.

SEATTLE — Seattle’s newest City Council member is already making waves even before taking office.

At a Machinists rally Monday night in Westlake Park, Kshama Sawant minced no words when it came to Boeing’s management.

“We salute the Machinists for having the courage to reject this blatant highway robbery from the executives of Boeing in pursuit of their endless, endless thirst for private profit,” Sawant said.

sawantBut Boeing wasn’t Sawant’s only target.  She also took aim at both Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Olympia for approving the historic $9 billion tax-break package to try to guarantee the 777X would be built in the state.

“We have to condemn the state Legislature for capitulating yet again,” she said.  “Yet again.”

It doesn’t seem that Sawant has plans to tone down her rhetoric to fit in to Seattle’s nine-member City Council.  Nor is she worried about getting along with Olympia, which, it should be pointed out, controls a lot of purse strings for Seattle.  Indeed, the big question when it comes to Sawant is whether she will be willing to compromise with her colleagues, or whether her socialism will make her a permanent outsider.

The $15 minimum wage idea for Seattle will be the first big test of her style.  She’s pushing for it hard.  Mayor-elect Ed Murray says he supports the idea, but wants to phase it in and work with all parties – labor, business, and others – to find a plan they can all agree on.  He doesn’t want a divisive ballot measure such as that occurring in SeaTac.

Sawant, however, doesn’t seem ready to give him much slack.

“We are fed up with empty election-year promises,” Sawant said.  “We want action, and we want $15 an hour in 2014.”

Will she participate in minimum wage negotiations, or go straight to the people with a ballot measure?

Everyone is watching.

SEATTLE — Socialist candidate Kshama Sawant took a lead over City Councilman Richard Conlin for the first time – albeit, by a razor-thin 41 votes –  in the race for City Council Position No. 2, the latest election returns showed Tuesday.

sawantAs of the latest vote count at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Savant had 79,751 votes to Conlin’s 79,710.

Conlin’s lead continues to decrease with late counting.

It is unknown how many ballots are left to be counted, but late ballots often trend left, analysts say.

Sawant would be the first socialist candidate elected to the  City Council in its history.

Another vote count will be released at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday.

SEATTLE — Seattle voters are being asked to approve a new tax to finance the political campaigns of candidates running for the City Council.

Anyone running could qualify for up to $210,000 in public funds.  Will this help get rid of the influence of money in politics and bring more people into politics?

“It costs nearly a quarter-million dollars to run a viable campaign for City Council,” said public financing supporter Sharon Maeda. “That’s ridiculous.”

citycouncilBecause you can’t raise more than $700 from any one person, a candidate needs to have a lot of friends who are able to write a lot of pretty sizable checks to be taken seriously.

Public financing proponents admit that Seattle has a pretty clean history when it comes to money and politics. But they argue it’s time to help out candidates to keep in that way, and to help encourage others to run.

“It really means that serious people from diverse backgrounds actually have a chance, a fighting chance, to run respectable campaigns,” said Maeda.

Opponents of public financing point to research they say demonstrates little, if any, changes in the cities that have adopted such systems.

“This campaign finance idea has been around for almost 40 years, and it has not turned out to have a success record,” said Paul Guppy of the Washington Policy Center, an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank. “That’s why I think you don’t see it regularly across the country.”

Here at the main elements of Seattle’s campaign financing plan:

  • Raise 600 contributions of at least $10 to qualify
  • Contributions up to $50 would be matched 6-to-1
  • Candidates could get as much as $210,000
  • $245,000 spending limit

This whole program is expected to cost about $2 million to $3 million per election cycle.  As citywide tax measures go, this one would be quite modest.

“It’s $4 a year for someone who has a $400,000 home,” said Maeda.  “That’s not a lot of money, that’s not even one latte, you know.  I mean, to make democracy work a little better, $4 dollars a year.”

Guppy objects more to the principle than the money.

“Everyone in Seattle would be forced to give money to candidates that they might oppose,” Guppy said.  “You have this moral contradiction.”

The measure would apply only to City Council candidates, not for candidates for mayor.

District Elections

Also on the ballot in Seattle is another measure that purports to shake things up at City Hall.  Charter Amendment 19 would create districts for City Council members to run in, instead of the at-large, citywide elections Seattle now has.

Supporters have drawn up a map with seven separate districts, while retaining two at-large positions.  Supporters say it would force council members to be more attentive to neighborhood concerns.  Opponents say you’d lose the citywide perspective and you would pit neighborhood against neighborhood.

SEATTLE — Mayor Mike McGinn on Monday presented his 2014 budget to the City Council, and it includes a lot of new spending.

McGinn says times are better now, and Seattle can afford to restore many of the cuts that have taken place in the past few years.

The favorable economy has generated more sales tax and other revenue, allowing the city’s General Fund budget to surpass $1 billion for the first time.  That’s a 7% increase over this year.

mcginn9McGinn has big plans for that new money, including road repairs ($37 million), new transit routes ($3.2 million), human services ($5.6 million), and public safety, including more cops. That’s something everyone seems to want.

“The budget I’m proposing today adds 15 more (police officers). That’s 42 more than officers than were authorized in 2012,” McGinn said.  “I understand that this is the highest authorized staffing level ever for our SPD.”

In a show of unity with City Council members that he is often at odds with, the mayor endorsed their plan for funding a program to bring universal preschool to all Seattle children.

Monday’s speech wasn’t just a long list of new spending.  The mayor also took a significant amount of time talking about his values and the fact that he’s focused on neighborhoods as much as downtown.

“While everyone cares about this city,” McGinn said, “we need to be careful that those with the money, the power, and influence don’t have the ability to put their thumbs on the scale for their priorities.”

City Council reaction was muted.  Tim Burgess, chairman of the council’s Budget Committee, cautioned about the new spending.

“There’s clearly no doubt that he wants to open the checkbook and open it really wide,” Burgess said.

Burgess, a former mayoral candidate who now supports McGinn’s opponent, state Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, in the November election, said the council will take a hard look at the mayor’s plans before it gives it the final approval.

“I think some of the programs, the crime prevention programs that he’s said he wants to expand, we don’t yet know if those programs are working or if they are effective,” Burgess said.

SEATTLE — Is downtown Seattle safe? That depends who you ask.

“I feel very safe,” says Laurie, who works downtown. “I walk through the parks, Occidental Square, Pioneer Square, early in the morning. There’s certainly people in need of human services or mental health services but they don’t bother me, they don’t scare me.”

BTXilriCYAAjmm8But the homeless and the mentally ill do scare others. They may not be committing crimes, but the King County sheriff admits there are too many cases of them panhandling, drinking in public, or urinating on the streets.

“My wife, when she meets me downtown by the King County Courthouse, she doesn’t feel safe and I understand that,” said  Sheriff John Urquhart. “We spend a lot of time looking at statistics, crimes are up, crimes are down. But it’s really the fear of crime that’s most important. If people don’t feel safe, then they’re not safe.”

City Councilman Bruce Harrell hosted a roundtable discussion on Wednesday and invited city employees, law enforcement and downtown business leaders to talk about the problems they see. There have been other efforts to help downtown, including the mayor’s pledge last month to put more officers on the streets.

But Harrell said that’s not enough.

“The people whose perception matters the most are those who live downtown, shop downtown, work downtown and they’re saying whatever you’re doing is not working,” Harrell said.

“I think more officers is one answer, but it’s not the only answer,” adds Urquhart. “Everyone agrees, at least in this meeting, we can’t arrest our way out of society’s problems.”

Harrell wants to start measuring the number of civil infractions that are occurring and creating a feeling of disorder downtown, so future meetings can focus on what specific programs or services can help the homeless and mentally ill.

“It’s a quality of life issue,” saidHarrell. “We rely on the tax downtown — people shopping and working downtown. If we don’t improve the quality of life downtown, we will lose.”

SEATTLE — Preschool provided to every child in Seattle — that’s the ambitious goal. It would cost millions, but supporters argue it would make a huge difference in ensuring that all students are ready to learn when they start school.

preschool“Universal preschool is a huge benefit for the kids, their families and for the city as a whole,” said City Councilman Tim Burgess, who is sponsoring the proposal.

Supporters, who attended a public hearing Wednesday morning on the proposal, cited several studies demonstrating that in cities and even countries where it is offered, students do much better later on. That early boost, especially for low-income kids, translates into better test scores, better graduation rates, fewer dropouts, and less juvenile delinquency.

“We’ve got several thousand children in Seattle who are not prepared to enter kindergarten,” Burgess said.  “When they start behind before they’ve even walked through the school door to their classroom, there are likely not going to catch up.”

The plan would be for the city to offer preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds.  Because it would be heavily subsidized for families who cannot afford it, and even free in some cases, the hope is it would attract as many enrollees as possible.

“We know exactly what to do, and the issue is, are we willing to do it? Or would we rather live with the status quo,” Burgess asked.

Burgess hasn’t yet identified how the city would pay for this big new program, which could end up costing tens of millions of dollars a year. Most likely, it would involve going out to voters for a property tax hike.

“We either pay early and reap huge benefits, or we’re all going to pay later, through criminal justice costs, social interventions, all of those things that are the result of not educating our kids in the first place,” he said.

At Wednesday’s meeting, several showed up in support, but there was some caution. Unless this new preschool offering has good teachers and a good curriculum, some said, it will just be wasting everyone’s time.

“If we are to get the crime prevention impact for those kids, the programs absolutely have to be of high quality,” said Laura Wells, the state director of Fight Crime:  Invest in Kids.  “Low quality child care, low quality early learning does not reduce crime down the road.”

There’s also a huge logistical question.  Where will all these 3- and 4-years-olds go?  Apparently not to Seattle Public Schools.

“We do not have the classrooms,” said Seattle School Board member Michael DeBell, “and we will not have classrooms in the numbers that would be needed for a large-scale delivery of early childhood education for some time because of the rapid growth that we’ve seen in our enrollment.”

The current plan is to have kids attend preschools that would be run by private operators.  Basically, that happens now with preschool where the school district is not the primary provider.

The Seattle City Council is expected to vote later this month on the proposal.