A former Microsoftie turned obsessive Seattle City Council watcher has noticed that City Hall is now letting the activist groups write the laws for them.
If it’s been feeling like Seattle is passing a bunch of specialized laws written by narrow interest groups, well, it’s true. Literally.
Starting in the summer, the Seattle City Council has entertained a series of proposed ordinances that were written by outside advocacy groups, and then introduced into the city’s legislative mill almost word-for-word.
“This is a resolution written by environmental activists,” Council member Kshama Sawant unabashedly said at a meeting in June, right before the council unanimously passed a measure that pledged the city oppose nuclear power.
Last month, some homeless-aid groups wrote up a controversial ordinance giving the homeless a right to camp on some public property. It was retitled as “Council Bill 118794” and introduced with 95 percent identical wording (though it has not yet passed). The city staff’s memo says bluntly that the bill didn’t come from any elected official: “CB 118794 was drafted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and Columbia Legal Services.”
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And last week, a City Council committee discussed a tenants’ rights bill to restrict rental move-in fees. It came from a union-backed advocacy group, the Washington Community Action Network. At the markup session, a registered lobbyist for Washington CAN sat at the table with six council members, dispensing advice and urging yes or no stances on various changes (council members went along with what the lobbyist recommended every time.)
Lobbyists are paid to sway the laws. But at City Hall they are now up on the dais making them.
I wasn’t the one to notice this — it took fresh eyes for that. Kevin Schofield retired recently as chief operating officer for Microsoft’s research division. At age 49 he was looking to get more involved in the community, so he started a volunteer blog devoted to obsessively monitoring the doings of the Seattle City Council.
Probably no one in Seattle now scrutinizes more boring but important city meetings than Schofield. For nearly a year, at sccinsight.com, he has heroically watched the paint dry at several hundred sessions, then filled his site with detailed reports.
About some things, he says he’s been impressed.
“There isn’t anybody on the City Council who is there just to draw a salary,” Schofield says. “I would say they’re all very dedicated, motivated people.”
But he noticed a couple months ago how some council members were allowing activist groups to essentially take over the lawmaking process.
“The Council has ceded so much power to favored advocacy groups that they let them write legislation unopposed,” he wrote on his blog after the anti-nuclear resolution sailed through. “If the Port of Seattle or Amazon had been allowed to do this, there would be protests at City Hall and calls for Council members to resign.”
True. The left has been complaining for years, and rightly so, about corporate lobbyists or right-wing groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council pushing pet bills on legislators around the country.
Schofield plays it pretty straight on most of his blog. But the meeting last week that had the lobbyist at the table bugged him so much he called it “a travesty.”
“It was just wrong,” Schofield says. “It’s fine to get input — they should get as much input from multiple groups as they can. But you don’t sit a special-interest lobbyist at the table while you’re working on the very ordinance they’re lobbying. If nothing else the optics are terrible.”
“This is how you get bad law,” he wrote on his blog. “You rush it through, don’t think through the issues completely, and give the lobbyists free rein.”
In council meetings, some members have said their deference to certain activists is to bring in people who haven’t historically had any seat at the table. And also that advocacy groups don’t have the last word — it’s elected officials who are responsible for the final product.
One caveat to that: There are 196 paid lobbyists registered to ply City Hall, according to a city roster.
It’s true you can always vote the bums out. But the lobbyists aren’t going anywhere.