Kshama Sawant’s recent town-hall meeting has some — including a fellow city council member — griping about possible ethics violations.
Seattle City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw says a town-hall meeting hosted by Councilmember Kshama Sawant at City Hall last week was really a “political rally designed to inflame emotions and get one council member re-elected.”
But a spokesman for Sawant’s campaign and a staff member in her office say the event was an appropriate way to advance her agenda on housing affordability.
At least two complaints were made to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission about the Thursday event. One was Bagshaw’s.
The other, filed by an anonymous whistle-blower, alleges Sawant violated the city’s ethics code when workers for her re-election campaign set up shop in the lobby of City Hall during the event.
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Sawant’s representatives say there was no violation because the lobby was public space made available to all.
“I called (SEEC Executive Director) Wayne Barnett myself Thursday night and told him I thought the use of City Hall by one council member for political purposes was entirely inappropriate and violated both the spirit and letter of our ethics rules,” Bagshaw wrote in an email.
Philip Locker, with Sawant’s campaign, says he checked with Barnett beforehand and came away with the impression that the campaigning would be allowed under the ethics code as long as Sawant and her staff members wouldn’t be taking part. Political activity in public is protected by the First Amendment, Locker noted.
“What I recommended was that (Sawant’s campaign) contact (Seattle Financial and Administrative Services) to determine the appropriate rules for using City Hall and that as long as they complied with those rules then they would be complying with the ethics and elections codes,” Barnett said Monday.
Locker says he spoke with Sawant council staff member Ted Virdone and told him about Barnett’s recommendation. Virdone says he asked Seattle Financial and Administrative Services for tables to be set up in the lobby during the 6 p.m. meeting and was warned to make the tables equally available to all candidates and organizations.
Other candidates and organizations did make use of the tables during the event, but not Sawant’s three election opponents, Locker says.
Workers with Sawant’s campaign used the tables to solicit signatures for a petition to put Sawant on the ballot and to recruit volunteers.
Several hundred people attended the meeting, which was co-hosted by Councilmember Nick Licata. It included Sawant and Licata publicizing their plan for a council resolution asking the state Legislature to repeal its ban on local governments enacting rent control.
In addition to Bagshaw’s phone call to Barnett, the anonymous whistle-blower emailed Barnett, copying several news reporters, with a complaint about the Sawant campaign.
Barnett declined to comment Monday on the complaints and whether a violation occurred, saying the commission will look into the matter.
“The opponents of Kshama Sawant and the (Greater Seattle) Chamber of Commerce and the political establishment are desperate to avoid a clear discussion of (rent control) because they know that she has the majority of Seattle with her,” Locker said.
“The real story Thursday was the massive, unprecedented turnout at City Hall.”
Virdone said Sawant held the event because housing in Seattle is becoming increasingly unaffordable — and not for a political purpose.
“She’s trying to push a housing agenda and that’s why she organized this event,” he said. “She did a bunch of events like this around the minimum wage last year. The difference is that last year wasn’t an election year.”
Bagshaw doesn’t buy the argument that Sawant’s motives were apolitical.
“City Hall should be a place where ideas and information are shared in a healthy and open way. That was not what happened,” she said.
“What happened last Thursday was a political rally designed to inflame emotions and get one council member re-elected and push a one-sided agenda. This is unfair and unjust, and statements made at the rally inside City Hall wronged many good and thoughtful people who quietly live in our city.”