Back in January, Mayor Jenny Durkan said she thought she could get along with the City Council this year, despite previous skirmishes with the council’s left-most wing and a 2019 election that strengthened that wing. “There’s hasn’t been much daylight between us and the council,” Durkan said at the time.
Then 2020 happened.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a deadly toll, shutting down Seattle’s economy and blowing a hole in the city’s budget. An uprising for Black lives in the wake of killings by police has led to huge protests, pressuring City Hall to defund the police and invest in community solutions.
Tensions between the mayor and council about how to handle those challenges boiled over last month, when Durkan vetoed a series of council bills meant to provide residents with COVID-19 economic relief, shrink the Police Department, scale up alternatives and support community-led research on public safety. Police chief Carmen Best’s decision to abruptly retire, rather than carry out layoffs, underlined the discord.
Before taking an August break, several council members said a relationship reset was needed to help them and Durkan solve problems together. Now, as the council returns this week from recess, residents across the city are pondering how bad the relationship has become, who’s to blame and how much it matters.
Residents also are wondering what may come next. The council could override the mayor’s vetoes — or not. “I’m optimistic, because I think there’s so much more common ground than the debates would have you realize,” Durkan said in an interview.
“For me, the story is the mayor not taking action,” countered Isaac Joy, an attorney and community organizer with the coalition King County Equity Now, describing the Durkan-council dynamic as a red herring. “She’s putting all her political capital into protecting the Police Department.”
How bad is the relationship?
The mayor and the council didn’t bump heads over every issue this summer. For example, the council tweaked Durkan’s proposal for a transit tax and sent it to the November ballot without drama.
Some tension is inherent to Seattle’s “strong-mayor, strong-council” system, in which the mayor runs the city and the council holds the purse strings. Marco Lowe, a Seattle University politics professor who worked under mayors Greg Nickels and Mike McGinn, saw both clash with the council.
Durkan and council members exchanged barbs last year during a scrap over how revenue from the city’s soda tax should be spent. Politicians should be able to disagree without being called uncivil, Councilmember Tammy Morales said.
“Some animosity is always part of the process,” said Lowe, recalling a story under a previous administration about council staffers deciding to use a coffee spot further away from the mayor’s office to avoid mayoral snooping.
But Councilmember Lisa Herbold called the current situation extraordinary. “Every administration, there are Seattle Times editorials that say how dysfunctional City Hall is and how there’s never been a time when the relationship … has been so bad,” Herbold said recently on the Seattle Channel. “It’s actually true right now.”
Not only did council members criticize Durkan in June when the police repeatedly deployed tear gas and other so-called less-lethal weapons against protest crowds — three also said the mayor should consider stepping down. And Councilmember Kshama Sawant participated in a protest march to Durkan’s house.
The mayor allowed a new council tax on large corporations to become law in July. But she threw up a roadblock later the same month, vetoing a plan to spend $86 million from emergency reserves to help residents and businesses hit by the pandemic. Council members subsequently settled for a lesser amount.
The stakes were raised when Durkan, in a series of news conferences, blasted certain council members for vowing to reduce the police budget by 50% and vetoed three more bills, including legislation that would have reduced the police budget (by a small percentage).
The mayor has called the council irresponsible for “governing by Twitter,” while council members have accused her of moving too slow. Durkan has issued more vetoes than any of the four previous mayors.
“They’re having a hard time reaching agreement,” said Tom Rasmussen, a former council member. “That’s putting it mildly.”
Who’s to blame?
Durkan and Council President M. Lorena González both cite this year’s intense challenges, including a pandemic, an economic crisis and a civil rights reckoning and less in-person communication.
“Having coffee, meeting face to face … those interactions that make things work more smoothly don’t exist right now,” Durkan said.
González added in an interview, “We have a council that’s almost 50% new and we’re being asked to deal with issues of huge importance. Many of us, the mayor included, take these crises personally.”
There are various disputes. The mayor claims council members sped ahead on emergency spending and police cuts without listening to advice from her and Best, forcing her to issue vetoes. By taking cues on public safety from Black-led King County Equity Now and a partner coalition called Decriminalize Seattle, the council members missed other views, she said.
González said Durkan has begun “using the hammer of the veto as a tool of first resort” and said the mayor is wedded to the old “Seattle process” characterized by blue-ribbon panels and drawn-out discussions. “The people closest to the injustices are also the closest to the solutions,” she said about the coalitions, which attorney Joy said are supported by hundreds of organizations.
Some City Hall watchers see blame all around.
Durkan stoked animosity during the 2019 elections when she opposed Morales and hasn’t adjusted to the council’s new bent, said Lance Randall, who leads a South Seattle nonprofit. Yet council members erred in pledging to cut the police budget by 50%, locking themselves into a battle with the mayor rather than a dialogue, he said.
“They’re all showing their inexperience,” said Randall, who’s exploring a 2021 run for mayor.
Monisha Harrell, a consultant and LGBTQ rights leader, said council members need to hear additional perspectives on policing. Yet Durkan has yet to present her own plan for soliciting views on public safety. Both sides have at times sniped on social media.
“Even activists are guilty of that,” Harrell said. “It seems like we’ve been cooped up so long we don’t remember how to talk to other people.”
There are real disagreements, apart from process and communication problems, housing advocate Shaun Scott said. Most Seattle residents think new public safety services are needed, Durkan has said. But polls indicate a split on the details, including whether the police budget should be halved, noted Scott, who saw the divide when he narrowly lost a council race last year.
Some residents suspect Durkan is stalling when she says policing changes need more vetting, while others doubt the council’s competency on the issue.
“What a sad day for the city … I’m deeply disappointed in the leadership of the Seattle City Council,” Laurelhurst resident Jim Vollendroff resident wrote in an email to González when Best announced her departure.
Vollendroff hasn’t heard back from González as of Friday, he said. “It doesn’t seem like most council members want to hear from constituents,” added Vollendroff, who opposes defunding the police. “It seems like we’ve got a bunch of activists (on the council).”
Rasmussen said council members may reconsider as they receive more such emails and calls; “They may not have the public completely behind them,” he said.
The council already has made concessions, Scott countered, arguing Durkan must now cede some ground. “We have diverse viewpoints in Seattle … and a mayor who seems unwilling to collaborate,” he said.
How much does the relationship matter?
The mayor-council dynamic matters, Councilmember Andrew Lewis said, because both branches matter and because acrimony can sour residents on the enterprise. The recent vetoes have delayed investments in rent assistance, grocery vouchers and gun-violence prevention programs.
“The people of Seattle really want to see their government get along and start getting results,” Lewis said.
Lake City community advocate Mark Mendez echoed that point. People are camping on the streets and small businesses are struggling in his neighborhood because they lack adequate resources, he said.
Mendez was hoping to involve young people from Lake City with the research project Durkan vetoed. “I’m hoping we can reach some middle ground,” he said.
Political discord can alienate older people in particular, Belltown resident Kathryn Everett said. The 75-year-old worries Durkan won’t revamp the police until business leaders climb aboard. “People throw up their hands like, ‘What can I do?'” Everett said.
Following Best’s retirement announcement, several council members issued conciliatory remarks. In interviews, however, neither Durkan nor González sketched out a potential deal.
Joy said he believes the council should press past the mayor to redistribute police dollars, because the initial cuts are modest and already a compromise for advocates.
“This is a generational opportunity for Seattle because we have amazing coordination across communities,” he said, describing people power as more relevant than how the mayor and council interact. “Council members need to do their jobs and show less concern about political theater.”
There are shared goals, Durkan insisted.
“You probably do end up with a smaller police force after you optimize 911 and what you want the role of officers to be.” But that will take a while, she said. “To build durable change, there’s no microwave for that.”
Chad-Henry Goller-Sojourner, a South Seattle resident, questioned what the mayor has accomplished to date and said he doesn’t believe her assurances. During her 2017 campaign, she described police reform as “a process, not a destination.”
“What have you done in the last three years to move that process ahead?” Goller-Sojourner asked.
The city’s relationship with the Seattle Police Officers Guild matters as much as the mayor-council dynamic, he suggested, because the Guild contract that expires soon and that must be replaced soon includes rules that shield officers from accountability.
Whether the politicians agree on the budget or not, he said, “To change the system, you need to change the rules.”