Public engagement campaigns are ramping up as Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and the City Council weigh budget cuts and changes to policing. The campaigns don’t have to disclose information about their activities because they involve neither ballot measures, nor political candidates, nor traditional lobbying.
For example, more than $5,000 in advertisements appeared on Facebook last week urging social media users to join with a new organization called “Move Seattle Forward” in opposing budget changes recently advanced by the City Council.
Mayor Jenny Durkan last month vetoed the changes, which were meant to reduce Seattle’s police force by up to 100 officers and fund community solutions; the council will decide Tuesday whether to override the vetoes or strike a deal.
“No concrete plans for re-imagining SPD. No knowledge of how officer layoffs would affect public safety. No plan for helping move more people out of homelessness,” one of the ads said about the council’s cuts.
“Tell City Council: Sustain the Mayor’s veto and collaborate to solve these very real problems,” the ad continued, directing users to a Move Seattle Forward website with a tool for emailing to the council.
Neither the Facebook ads nor the website name the people or entities behind Move Seattle Forward. The organization doesn’t need to register with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC).
Move Seattle Forward’s website describes the organization as “a coalition of people committed to a safe, healthy and just Seattle … focused on advocating for a responsible approach to re-imagining policing that considers investing in alternatives to policing as well as on-demand behavioral health and housing services.”
Council members pay attention to constituent emails; at a point in August, Councilmember Lisa Herbold last had received 5,078 in favor of Police Department cuts and 3,285 opposed, she told The Seattle Times recently.
The address associated with the Move Seattle Forward ads in Facebook’s ad transparency portal is the address of the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), journalist Joe Veyera noted on Twitter. The DSA separately organized a petition asking Durkan and the council to listen to business owners as they contemplate policing changes.
The DSA is “an active participant” in Move Seattle Forward, DSA spokesman James Sido said. “The group just needed a physical mailing address and we volunteered ours,” Sido said, declining to name other participants.
Seattle requires ballot-measure and candidate campaigns to register with the city and to submit regular reports about their fundraising and spending. It also requires lobbyists — people paid to influence legislation by communicating with elected officials and their staff members — to register and submit reports about their activities.
No similar Seattle law covers “grassroots lobbying campaigns” that seek to influence legislation by putting public pressure on elected officials.
Washington state does have a law that requires disclosure by grassroots lobbying campaigns, and the SEEC recommended last December that the city adopt its own grassroots lobbying law. But the state law applies only to state-level activities, and the council has yet to take up the SEEC’s proposal, which was transmitted in January.
Under the law proposed by the SEEC, which was modeled on the state’s version, an organization would have to register as a grassroots lobbying campaign after spending of more than $750 in one month or $1,500 in three months on presenting “a program to the public, a substantial portion of which is intended, designed, or calculated primarily to influence legislation.”
The campaign would need to submit its name, address and purpose, along with information about its officers, donors, vendors, funds raised and funds spent. Subsequently, the campaign would need to submit monthly reports.
Under the SEEC’s proposed law, Move Seattle Forward likely would need to register as a grassroots lobbying campaign, SEEC Executive Director Wayne Barnett said. According to Facebook’s ad portal, the organization has spent $5,295. The ads ran for four days and were designed to achieve 100,000 to 500,000 user impressions, according the the portal.
“Seattleites deserve thoughtful planning and clearly stated desired outcomes from their elected leaders,” the DSA’s Sido said last week. “This effort is growing and only days old at this point but is already gaining wide-spread traction.”
Move Seattle Forward isn’t the only group engaging with Seattle residents. Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now have been rallying support for public safety changes via protests and social media. The community coalitions have been calling for City Hall to redirect money from the police to unarmed responders and social services.
Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now have websites that help people contact City Hall. Their websites list their partners and supporters. King County Equity Now has spent $1,862 on Facebook ads, most for rallies and celebrations, according to Facebook’s ad portal.
The coalitions could be required to register as grassroots lobbying campaigns under the SEEC’s proposed law, Barnett said. Volunteer work likely wouldn’t count as spending, though donated, professional-level work could, he said. King County Equity Now has some fundraising information online. The coalitions didn’t provide comment.