The view of Fifth Avenue with a cordon of police officers brandishing billy clubs protecting the block in front of city hall and a stream of protests headed down James Street.
Police stand menacingly as protesters march by at a June 3, 2020 demonstration at Seattle City Hall. (Doug Trumm)

The war of spin is well under way to frame the outcome of a 8-1 vote setting next year’s City budget.

After weeks of debate, the Seattle City Council has approved the 2021 budget and Mayor Jenny Durkan has said she will sign it. The dust had not yet settled as Councilmembers, the Mayor, and everyone else began the mad dash to frame the budget.

Budget Chair Teresa Mosqueda pitched it as a historic win: “This council has stepped up in the midst of a historic crisis.”

In contrast, Councilmembers Kshama Sawant (District 3), Alex Pedersen (District 4) and Debora Juarez (District 5) heaped plenty of criticism on the process and final product.

Sawant was the lone vote against the budget, as has been her custom since she took office in 2014. Her major criticism was the Council should have cut the police budget by 50% (rather than the 18% reduction on which they landed) and they should have increased the tax on corporate payrolls to boost spending on social services, as she proposed with her Amazon Tax.

Meanwhile, Pedersen objected to cutting the Seattle Police Department (SPD) budget as much as they did. Both Pedersen and Juarez voted against both the JumpStart tax, and the rebalancing package and veto override that cut SPD funding this summer.

Juarez is still steamed at protesters

Juarez’s complaints were more process-oriented. She gave a review of various slogans and their efficacy, arguing Black Lives Matter and indigenous land acknowledgements were good, but Defund The Police was bad and people who used it were overly “entitled.”

“When you say that ‘I want to acknowledge that I’m on Indigenous ground,’ that means you behave as a guest and you listen,” said Juarez, who grew up on the Puyallup reservation and is a member of Blackfeet Nation. “Defund the police by 50% was a slogan, and it was an empty and misleading slogan. It caused damage. It caused pain. It caused trauma. It caused the anger. But I understand the aspirational, emotional feeling of why that some of my colleagues felt the need to do that, and I’ve done that before.”

In her comments, Juarez acknowledged cutting SPD by nearly 20% in one year was a big step and a nation-leading accomplishment, but she intimated they should think twice before cutting deeper. She blamed rather than credited activists under the broad Solidarity Budget coalition (which The Urbanist joined) that pushed for cutting SPD’s budget, and particularly to the protesters who used direct action tactics, such as showing up at her house and the homes of other City leaders.

“When you undo these racist institutions–take from me who has been around a long time–it doesn’t happen overnight,” Juarez said. “It doesn’t happen because you have a chant and a T-shirt. It’s being in the trenches, and some of us have been there a long time in the trenches, moving forward marching toward a plan to do right by everybody.”

The Solidarity Budget Coalition hosted a teach-in Monday night summarizing their reactions to the budget and reiterating the group’s desire to keep divesting from policing and reinvesting in community with a goal of 50%.

Juarez riffed on how terrible it was activists want more and sooner: “The privilege of entitlement, that’s what I call it,” She proceeded to give her version of a Defund pledge, and it definitely didn’t fit or a T-shirt of a bumper sticker.

“We are going to slowly and systematically as much as we can redirect funds for the Seattle Police Department to upstream programs to meet the needs of what a police department we believe should look like, within the confines of the Consent Decree, our bargaining responsibilities, and everything else,” Juarez said. “So when you hear people say and scream at you that ‘you’re not doing enough,’ we are doing, and we’re going to continue doing, and continue working with the Executive…”

Echoing the Durkan administration, Juarez’s appeal to the Consent Decree illustrates how a federal process started because Seattle police were killing too many people of color, and is now being wielded as a tool to shield the department, deflecting calls to reduce the role of policing and fire violent cops. While that may seem like a surprising turn of events, some, like former Mayor Mike McGinn, have argued the Consent Decree was flawed almost from its inception and has been thoroughly co-opted.

Pedersen has concerns

Pedersen’s view was a little different: he argued the City didn’t have a plan in place to ensure public safety as they reduced SPD funding. He also complained there wasn’t enough bridge maintenance funding, upset that his colleagues narrowly rejected his plan to immediately dedicate revenue from a $20 car tab fee to it. Pedersen had a bigger megaphone than his colleagues. And as Pedersen is the only Councilmember to survive the Seattle Times Editorial Board endorsement last year, they figured why not give him a column to broadcast his budget take.

The police contract is the real flashpoint and should be the focus, Pedersen contended–although pointing that out is not particularly helpful because it will be Mayor Durkan who negotiates that deal in a bargaining process separate from the budget. The Council can approve the contract or reject it, but has a limited role other than that. The Council waiting around for the police guild contract to solve everything would be an abdication of responsibility.

Pedersen did vote for most of the SPD cuts; though, he was the lone vote against the $2 million amendment that Mosqueda introduced yesterday after learning Friday the department had seen 16 more officer departures than anticipated in October. Those departures meant Council could cut the $2 million without affecting the Mayor’s staffing plan to hire 114 officers next year to replace departing or retiring officers.

“[E]xpanding accountability reforms requires ample staffing for supervision and community policing,” Pedersen wrote in his newsletter. “Yet Council’s amendments cement in a sharp reduction in officers before proven alternatives are in place. I’m concerned the remaining officers will be stretched thin and responding late. Our former Police Chief Carmen Best was clear: ‘I do not believe we should ask the people of Seattle to test out a theory, crime goes away if police go away, that is completely reckless.'”

Progressives defend budget

Morales disagreed with Best on that point: “When will we reject the premise that more officers leads to more safety? There is no technocratic fix to aggressive policing.”

Morales, who represents District 2 in Southeast Seattle, wrote this was the first budget to reflect the interests of her district by moving to “democratize access to (City) resources; plan for the seventh generation; and, repair the harm inflicted on Black and brown communities for decades.”

Pedersen’s statement overlooks the incredible amount of harm Seattle police inflicted on protesters, medics, nurses, journalists, unlucky bystanders, and really anyone who happened to wander or live too close to a precinct at the wrong time and get a face full of tear gas or a blast ball body blow. Morales, in contrast, has consistently centered these state-sponsored harms.

Council President M. Lorena González thanked Mosqueda for shepherding the budget through and pointed out the great challenges they faced and overcame including the pandemic, recession, and a moment of racial reckoning. Lewis echoed this sentiment.

“Everybody likes to dunk on the Seattle Council, but while everyone else was fiddling around waiting around for someone else to do some Covid-19 relief, Seattle acted,” Councilmember Andrew Lewis (District 7) said, quoting a Danny Westneat column. “And I think we could also apply that similarly to restructuring public safety in a more equitable way or that even in times of crisis we are planning for the future on climate resiliency and a Green New Deal.”

Likewise, Councilmember Dan Strauss (District 6) was sanguine about the budget. “I’m really proud to see this budget before us, including my priorities for addressing food access, addressing tenant protections, addressing homelessness, addressing the climate crisis, addressing trees, and increasing our access to transit.”

Councilmember Herbold (District 1) highlighted a long list of wins, too.

“The budget itself follows through on the commitment to reimagine community safety and build and scale up alternatives to policing,” Herbold said. “It ensures that commitments made in previous budgets are honored.”

While celebrating the nearly $80 million reduction to the SPD budget, which had swelled to $409 million this year, Public Safety Chair Herbold tried to strike a balance between people arguing for more police funding and a larger role and those arguing for less funding and a smaller role. “Police do stop crimes, but they also do harm,” she said. She shared a story wherein police responded to and apparently prevented a stabbing and potential attempt at kerosene-assisted immolation in South Park to illustrate her point.

Sawant drops the hammer and sickle

Sawant struck a much different tone in comments before her protest vote against the budget, dragging colleagues from walking away from their defund SPD by 50% pledges from this summer.

“It was a real testament to the power of that movement in the summer that seven of the ninevcouncilmembers committed to defunding the police by 50%,” Sawant said. “And it is because of thousands of people speaking up from the People’s Budget and the Solidarity Budget, and because the movement has its unwavering voice through my socialist Council office, that we have now won a $31 million—or 8.2%—reduction in the police budget, not counting the mechanisms like moving the costs of parking enforcement out of the police department, which do not honestly represent actual cuts.”

Quickly after the vote Sawant issued a statement saying her colleagues had failed working people.

“The budget that Democratic Party Councilmembers approved on Monday is a budget that deeply fails working people and marginalized communities, including working-class and poor communities of color,” she said. “In the middle of a pandemic and a spike in COVID infections, in the context of the worst recession for working people since the Great Depression, Democratic Councilmembers will be carrying out brutal austerity.”

Sawant highlighted the budget cuts brought about by the drop in revenue from the Covid pandemic and recession.

“It’s true that the City Council’s budget reduces slightly the size of the cuts proposed in Mayor Durkan’s budget. But still, the Council is allowing almost $200 million to be cut from affordable housing, bus hours, parks, and libraries,” she said. “Funding for affordable housing has been cut from $131 million in 2020 to only $84 million in 2021, a cut of over one-third to affordable housing, while homelessness balloons out of control across the city. Funding for transportation has been cut by almost $100 million. Those cuts include millions for buses and tens of millions for essential maintenance and construction of our transportation infrastructure. And starting in April, the grocery voucher program that thousands of families have relied on will expire.”

Tax Amazon supporters marched on March 1st. (Courtesy of Tax Amazon)

In their own ways, Councilmember Sawant and Mayor Jenny Durkan tried to take credit for the JumpStart Seattle tax and the budget it helped stabilize. Sawant can point to the Tax Amazon campaign that raised the issue before Mosqueda and allies came in with a broader stakeholder process and more workable plan that actually garnered enough votes.

Durkan’s claim mainly rests on being the one with the pen to sign or veto bills. Ironically, she did neither when it came to the JumpStart tax out of half-hearted protest, realizing though she opposed taxing big business at the Seattle level that Council had the vote to override her.

The Mayor also chose to look past the the Council’s move to trim the $100 million she had directed to her hand-picked Equitable Communities taskforce down to $30 million after adjustments that included diverting $30 million to community-led participatory budgeting and another $30 million to restore the strategic investment fund promised to communities of color last budget (as part of the Mercer MegaBlock deal).

In another contortion, Durkan applauded the Council’s SPD budget that is in the same vein as the one she vetoed this summer. Somehow a plan calling for thirty-some layoffs in August was irresponsible, while it was prudent in November.

“I believe we are laying the groundwork to make systemic and lasting changes to policing. We have rightly put forward a plan that seeks to ensure SPD has enough officers to meet 911 response and investigative needs throughout the city, while acknowledging and addressing the disproportionate impacts policing has had on communities of color, particularly Black communities,” Durkan said in her statement. “I applaud the City Council for taking a more deliberate and measured approach to the 2021 Seattle Police Department budget than occurred this summer which led to the resignation of former SPD Chief Carmen Best.”

Interestingly, we are to believe that Carmen Best would not have resigned if only she had three months to warm up to layoffs she cited as the main reason for her resignation.

The Mayor added she is working with the incoming Biden administration to get federal assistance for cities: “After meeting with President-Elect Biden and Vice President-Elect Harris to discuss cities and the struggles of our residents and small businesses, I know COVID-19 response will be a priority for their administration.”

The final budget included more funding for walking, biking, transit, and transit than the Mayor proposed, including the entire transportation package sponsored by the Move All Seattle Sustainably (MASS) coalition. The marque item was $5.2 million to fully fund the Georgetown-to-South Park Trail, which will help make those neighborhoods more resilient the next time the West Seattle Bridge closes and traffic diverts in their direction. Councilmember Morales sponsored that addition, $943,000 for Rainier Avenue sidewalk upgrades, $400,000 for Southeast Seattle protected bike lane planning, and also added $550,000 for Beacon Hill sidewalk improvements via amendment last week. Another late addition via Pedersen was $400,000 to fund a westbound protected bike lane on the NE 45th Street bridge over I-5.

The Council didn’t even need to cut adaptive signal funding, as MASS recommended. And maybe they still should next time given the many questions around adaptive signals effectiveness at promoting for all people, not just cars.

Watch the video here if this tasting course of the Councilmember comments hasn’t sated you.

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Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. 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 in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.