Council President M. Lorena González has postponed budget committee meetings on the big business tax proposal sponsored by Councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Tammy Morales until such time as the council can meet in-person again or negotiate a work around to comply with the Open Public Meetings Act (OMPA). Backers say the tax is urgently needed to raise revenue to help struggling Seattleites weather the pandemic.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold has led the charge in calling for a delay in considering the tax and other legislative items like emergency design review ordinance (which passed despite her objections), while Council is meeting electronically during the stay-at-home order, pointing to the OPMA and the risk of lawsuits. Some of her colleagues seemed convinced when it comes to the big business tax, which unlike the emergency design review ordinance, is designed to be permanent.

Governor Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order relaxed some Open Public Meetings Act requirements, but Herbold has argued the exceptions are very narrow–too narrow to pass a new tax on 800 of Seattle largest companies, as Councilmembers Sawant and Morales have proposed. The bill’s sponsors disagreed.

“Our council leadership made a choice to enforce the strictest, most conservative legal interpretation of the Governor’s proclamation without a serious conversation about the risk. Consequently the crucial conversation about emergency relief is halted,” Councilmember Morales said. “For now, the Select Budget Committee meetings are cancelled and the legislation Councilmember Sawant and I co-sponsored is delayed until after the Governor’s OPMA proclamation expires.”

The sponsors emphasized the pressing need for economic relief.

“I wasn’t elected to tell my community what we can’t do. I was elected to help lead this city even through a crisis and even when it’s hard. I’m not giving up on the fight to protect out neighbors,” Morales continued. “Tens of thousands of our constituents–hundreds of thousands of Seattleites have been left twisting in the wind, and without immediate financial relief many of our constituents, if they survive the pandemic, will have no way to recover from this crisis. This decision effectively pulls the rug out from under people who were already on the brink of disaster…”

An infographic put out of Councilmember Sawant lays out the originial spending priorities for the tax, which have since expanded to include immediate cash relief to cope with the Covid crisis. (Credit: Councilmember Sawant)
An infographic put out of Councilmember Sawant lays out the originial spending priorities for the tax, which have since expanded to include immediate cash relief to cope with the Covid crisis. (Credit: Councilmember Sawant)

Dubbed “Tax Amazon” by backers, initially the tax measure was geared primary toward building public housing and jumpstarting the Seattle Green New Deal. However, Covid-19 prompted them to revise the tax to initially focus on providing direct assistance to low-income families and reverting to its sustainable public housing mission after the crisis is over. An emergency ordinance (which needs seven votes and the Mayor’s signature) also became the proposed legislative vehicle to enact the tax. The Mayor opposes the big business tax, and Councilmember Alex Pedersen has been a vocal opponent as well.

Councilmember Morales and Sawant disagreed with the City Attorney’s legal analysis and made the case that responding to the crisis certainly meets the “necessary and routine matters” conditions the governor laid out in his proclamation. Morales’ comments were strident, but Sawant’s frustration boiled over into invective.

“The idea that we cannot address the Covid crisis in any meaningful way because we are in the Covid emergency would be bizarrely hilarious if there were not real people’s lives and livelihoods on the line, and if the idea were cover for politicians covering for the greed of big business and the wealthy,” Sawant said. “The argument that our virtual open filmed broadcast recorded council meetings are not open enough justifying canceling those meetings in a backroom deal and claiming this is truly in defense of open meetings is truly Orwellian. You cannot make this stuff up.”

Councilmember Sawant said the argument also smacked of hypocrisy since Councilmembers Herbold and González were apart of a “backroom deal” to repeal the Head Tax in 2018 and ultimately the City had to settle a lawsuit alleging the council violated the Open Public Meetings Act, using taxpayer dollars to do so.

Council President González took issue with these criticisms and emphasized that her hand been forced by the wording of the OPMA and the governor’s proclamation, at least according to the City’s legal analysis, and that she “took no joy” in it and still supported raising progressive revenue to fund Covid relief. Moreover, she and Councilmember Debora Juarez argued lawsuits were likely if they proceeded.

“I have been doing advocacy in the background to request that the proclamation be softened slightly to allow for realities of how technology works today,” González said. “Unfortunately the Open Public Meetings Act is very strict. It requires in-person viewing so if a member of the public walking into City Hall in Seattle or anywhere in the state has an absolute right under the statute to sit in chambers or anywhere else that is publicly available and watch our proceedings.”

Although Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda agreed with delaying meetings on the Big Business Tax–saying she didn’t want to a tax to have lingering legal questions that trip it up–she also reaffirmed her support for raising new progressive revenue during Council Briefing Monday morning.

“I want to reiterate that I remain committed to passing sustainable progressive revenue to respond to the crisis and its lingering effects,” Mosqueda said. “And I look forward to engaging with all of you and all of the public in that process as soon as we are allowed.”

Mosqueda said she hoped to meet in the first ten days of June either because the stay-at-home order has been relaxed or the Open Public Meetings Act further amended by the governor. Several of her colleagues expressed the a similar hope. Councilmember Andrew Lewis said at our monthly meetup on Tuesday that he thought holding some open-person council meetings in June to advance essential business remained a likely prospect. (Less clear is whether Lewis backs the tax.)

The virus, though, sets its own timelines, and we have no idea when in-person council meetings will be possible again. If the governor extends the stay-at-home order, he needs to come up with an OPMA work around. Essential business can’t be on hold indefinitely.

Some of the fire from Sawant and Morales should have been directed at the Governor, who had the power to issue a more permissive OPMA proclamation. He also could have called a special session by now to either raise progressive revenue at the state level or amend the OPMA to allow Seattle more leeway. Governor Inslee has cultivated a progressive brand but his eight years in office haven’t included progressive tax reform or much help for Seattle’s efforts toward that end. It’s high time.

The featured image is courtesy of the Seattle City Council via Flickr.

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.