I tuned into the Seattle City Council meeting Monday because there was some important business on the agenda, and I wanted to see how the votes went. But I got just as interested in the personalities and interactions involved.
The council voted to send a couple early-education initiatives to voters, to approve the mayor’s choice for police chief and to take another step toward realizing the city’s plan to grow an urban village and more. Important stuff, all the result of months or years of work.
I was particularly interested in the role Councilmember Kshama Sawant plays in the mix, always calling out the status quo.
I’m glad the sessions are televised, because most residents don’t attend council meetings unless they have a position to support. Several did Monday, beginning with people who addressed the council before its vote on early-education proposals.
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Two plans were on the table, one from the mayor and council, championed primarily by council President Tim Burgess, and the other put forth mostly by two unions representing child-care and early-education teachers.
Several speakers mentioned the need for teachers’ input and a wage befitting their contributions. The union plan would protect the interests of all current teachers. The council plan would support only programs deemed to be of high quality and would put pressure on teachers to get a college degree in early education.
The union-backed plan doesn’t specify where funding would come from, while the city plan includes a property-tax increase.
The sides spoke well of aspects of each other’s plans, but weren’t able to work out a compromise.
Councilmember Sawant questioned several aspects of the city plan, including whether a B.A. degree was really necessary, when some research says experience and a teacher’s ability to form meaningful relationships with students are valid predictors of good outcomes. She offered an amendment to the education-credential requirement, but it failed.
Councilmembers Bruce Harrell and Sally Bagshaw also expressed concerns about the status of current teachers who have experience, but not degrees. But Sawant was most emphatic, saying current workers need to be at the table when decisions are made about qualifications.
There are teachers who do good work without a degree — and not everyone who gets a degree should be teaching children — but in most cases having formal education in the field will be beneficial, and it is a useful measurement for guiding the city’s program. It’s not perfect, but better than assuming all education providers are equal.
The city plan is the better option, but I’m still glad it’s being questioned. The council voted 9-0 to send both plans to voters in November.
Sawant often differed from the majority of her colleagues. She even cast mostly symbolic lone votes against confirming Kathleen O’Toole as the next police chief and against paying O’Toole $250,000 a year.
When Bruce Harrell presented O’Toole for confirmation, each woman on the council welcomed her appointment. Jean Godden said she thought she’d never see a woman police chief and that O’Toole could close the department’s gender pay gap.
Sally Clark praised O’Toole and the department’s officers.
Sally Bagshaw said she is excited to have a strong, intelligent woman leader.
Sawant said nice things about O’Toole but also revisited the behaviors the department is required to address under a U.S. Department of Justice consent decree. She read sections of a DOJ document about excessive force and said O’Toole would need to address biased policing.
And she said the department needs fundamental structural change, but that can happen only if the police and political establishments, including the mayor and council, make it happen. She said, correctly, that was unlikely.
So she voted against the confirmation, and against the salary, which she said was inappropriate for a city department head in light of increasing income and wealth inequality.
The council had been engaged in a nice formality before O’Toole’s swearing-in, so Sawant’s speech was a slightly jarring but important reminder of the gravity of the moment.
It was well worth watching. I hope you tune in sometime, too, and maybe even get drawn into participating.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org