Video sparks anger, disagreement about responsibility of elected leaders to listen to those they serve

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SEATTLE — It’s rare for public testimony at a Seattle City Council meeting – or any municipal meeting for that matter – to garner much attention at all.

In Seattle, the weekly public comment period is often dull, filled with a familiar cast of characters who come to bring attention to concerns that range from the mundane to the serious to the absurd.

Monday, March 11, was one of those meetings.

As he’d done several times before, Seattleite Richard Schwartz showed up at the meeting to address the council. The resident of the Westlake neighborhood, who said he considers himself a progressive, is most passionate about having the council hear his concerns about bike lanes along Westlake Avenue, where he thinks the cyclists ride too fast.

Like I said – mundane stuff.

But at this meeting, Schwartz’s two-minute remarks turned into a rebuke of the city’s political system that would eventually be seen by millions.

“It’s real discouraging to come up here and see all the heads down,” Schwartz said at the beginning of his testimony. “It’s like – ”

He was quickly interrupted.

“Sir, you’re on a two-minute timer here so let’s go,” Councilwoman Debora Juarez told him.

A long pause followed.

Schwartz, who had been in that position before, asked for the clock to be reset. He wanted to make sure council members were paying attention before he spoke.

Juarez refused to start the timer over.

“So it was unreasonable for to me to ask that people look up and give me their attention?”

“Sir, you have two minutes,” Juarez reiterated. “We’re all looking at you. You have two minutes. Now you have a minute and 30 seconds.”

Schwartz proceeded to quote from George Orwell’s: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” he told the council.

In the end, he called it a “sad commentary.”

“That you think that asking for you guys to look up off of your computers and give attention during this short period of time was an unreasonable thing,” he said. “I really feel bad about that.”

As of today, the video of Schwartz’s testimony has nearly 2.5 million views on my Facebook page alone and nearly 200,000 on Twitter. For two days in a row, it was the most-viewed video in the Seattle media marketplace.

The overwhelming majority of comments blasted council members for their perceived treatment of Schwartz.

Twitter user Megan Watts wrote: “I’m glad this man spoke up and that this is being shared. How unfair to citizens pursuing the appropriate avenues to speak with their elected public servants and receive that response.”

On Facebook, user Norman Estrellado was more blunt: “Who the hell do they think they are? Absolutely disgusting behavior. The public put them there. Maybe Seattle needs to reevaluate their entire city council.”

Some, however, defended the Council.

Twitter user Charles Schrag wrote: “He was asking for more time than his fellow citizens. Seems fair for the council to say no.”

Q13 News reached out to council members repeatedly for comment throughout the week, eventually hearing back from two of the nine.

Councilwoman Lorena Gonzalez, who seemed to at least be paying attention to Schwartz in parts of the video, issued the following statement:

“Listening and learning from our constituents during public comment is an important part of my responsibility as an elected official. I apologize to the people of Seattle who believe we missed the mark on March 11.  As a councilmember who represents the entire city, I regularly meet with Seattle residents on issues that matter to them. One of the best aspects of public service is my personal contacts with neighbors at community meetings, on the bus, at the grocery store and with those who come to City Hall to provide meaningful public comment.  Receiving public comment, verbal or written, or having sidewalk conversations with constituents is a fundamental part of the democratic process.”

The only other council member to offer comment was not even present for the meeting in question. Councilwoman Teresa Mosqueda, who was away at a meeting on homelessness and affordable housing in Washington, D.C., offered these thoughts:

“I take input from the public comment period seriously. As someone who has testified in the past to council and the state legislature for almost a decade, I understand how important it is to feel heard when testifying. I also know my colleagues feel the same way, and whether it’s 20 minutes of testimony or 4 hours of testimony, we are listening and often taking notes or researching items that are said during testimony.”

Mayor Jenny Durkan also weighed in after watching the video, then called Schwartz personally to speak to him about what she saw.

“One of the best pieces of advice I ever got came from my mom. She told me to ‘listen.’ I believe that listening is the most important responsibility of any elected official, and I work hard every day to ensure I’m always listening to people and communities across Seattle.”

As the video gained traction on social media, some council members reported receiving threatening and harassing messages.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold posted an email she received on Twitter. It read, “you are a piece of sh*t.”

Councilmember Gonzalez responded with an email of her own.

“This is representative of my current inbox as well,” she wrote. Attached was the email, in which someone wrote: “I hope someone hits you head on when you go home today,” and “I hope your kids are left parentless cause someone shoots you for ruining democracy.”

One local blogger blamed Q13 News for the threats to council members, writing that I personally amplified a “non-story.” She called Richard Schwartz’s testimony “rambling” and “off-point.”

A handful of others on social media also went after Schwartz, including one Twitter user who called him a “troll” and likened him to Alex Tsimerman – a regular disrupter at Seattle City Council meetings who ran for Mayor in 2017 and gave a Nazi salute in a campaign video.

The Twitter user referenced video from a January 2016 meeting, during which Schwartz also testified.

In the video, Council President Bruce Harrell threatened to have Schwartz removed from the meeting if he didn’t yield the podium to the next public commenter.

Schwartz said during the testimony that he had repeatedly emailed and called council members, to no avail. He said his frustration had led him to come testify during public comment.

Harrell informed him that they were limiting testimony to the “agenda,” which on that day centered around City Light.

“I’ve waited over a year to try to get these responses and it involves all the council members, not just one or two,” he said.

“I’m not going to go over two minutes,” Schwartz promised.

Harrell reiterated that he wouldn’t be allowing any “general testimony.”

Schwartz refused to leave the podium until he could be heard.

“I don’t understand. I’ve waited probably 14 months to get some response from you. That doesn’t show much respect to me,” he said.

While Harrell and Councilwoman Sally Bagshaw offered to meet with Schwartz personally after the meeting, he insisted that he should get a chance to address the entire council.

After a little back and forth, Harrell insisted that Schwartz leave the podium or be removed.

“You’re being disruptive now,” Harrell said. “I’m going to have to remove you if you don’t relinquish the podium and I would hate to do that. So please have a seat and we’ll meet in about 10 minutes sir.

“This is very sad,” Schwartz said as he gave up the microphone.

While some paint Schwartz as an agitator, Seattle council members have a record of ignoring public commenters in the past.

During debate over a new police contract in November, I noted on Twitter that some council members appeared to not be paying attention to public testimony. One council member, Lisa Herbold, was looking at her computer screen for minutes on end. Her lips were moving like she was reading something quietly to herself.

I did give credit at the time to Councilwoman Mosqueda, who appeared to be focused on the comments.

Reached by phone over the weekend, Schwartz said he was surprised that his testimony had gained so much traction. A retired school teacher and resident of Seattle for 70 years, Schwartz said he doesn’t use social media and others had shared some of the responses with him.

He took issue with people who called his testimony “rambling,” and called threats against the council members “just horrible.”

In the end, Schwartz said he hopes the video creates a more positive dialogue about the responsibility of elected leaders to listen to those they serve.

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