Welcome to Becoming a Citizen Activist BlogAfter writing Urban Politics on Seattle politics for over 19 years, I will now also be covering urban issues in other cities that could have importance to metropolitan areas in general. Seattle issues will still be covered in Urban Politics – Seattle, but will not come out as frequently as in the past. In a couple of weeks a searchable archive of all former Urban Politics will be available on a newly redesigned www.becomingacitizenactivist.org. If you do not wish to receive Urban Politics – US reply with “Unsubscribe UP-US” in the Subject Line.

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Becoming a Citizen Activist Live Webinar and PowerPoint

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Have you recently become more politically engaged? Would you like to know how to make that engagement as effective as possible? Recently, Nick Licata was joined by Indivisible Plus WA and Whats Next for a live webinar about his experience as a citizen activist and what you can do today to be part of effective change in your community and country. Check out the live recording and download the PowerPoint, 7 Steps to Becoming a Citizen Activist below.

Download the Powerpoint here: Powerpoint Citizen’s 7 Steps V1

 

If Politicians Actually Want to Make Change, They Have to Think Like Organizers

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Six Strategies

To empower your constituents and help get you the votes you need to pass progressive legislation

“What has fueled Seattle’s progressive victories, isn’t some mystery potion or innate Northwestern goodness, but the same hard work that has forced progress in other cities: grassroots organizing, tenacity, and political allies,”

This simple little pamphlet outlines the steps that council members can take to distribute the power they have as elected officials to their constituents to create a partnership with them for improving their lives.

To download this article as a PDF, click here.

First Step – Have them recognize that complaining is not a solution

How many times have you had constituents come into your office making legitimate complaints. You listen and nod in agreement. Then having felt that they have been heard they prepare to leave. DON’T LET THEM LEAVE YOUR OFFICE WITHOUT MAKING AN ASK.

The first step is to work with them to define a specific remedy. One that is not so distant in the future to be put off by endless studies. Ideally, it is something that can be accomplished within a week or two. It’s the first step in gaining momentum for making changes; by showing them that by working with you, they can taste success.

Second Step – Explain both the technical and social dynamics of city hall politics

Share with your constituent knowledge on how your city government works. Many citizens don’t understand the committee structure or the legislative process. As an elected citizen, you have learned these details. Tell them which relevant committees would address their issue. Describe the council members on that committee and recommend who they should approach with your help to sponsor or co-sponsor the legislation. In addition, if they have staff, or if the council has staff, let them know who they are and how they can be approached.

Describe how the committee chair votes. Let them know who the chair is close to on the council and in the community. These people will likely influence the chair; they need to be approached and convinced to help on the issue.

Work with your constituents to have their issue brought before the relevant committee. If your council has open committee meetings, which they should, then see that there is time to take testimony before the committee either in a public period of comment or as a guest to sit at the table with the council members to explain an issue from a community view. Prepare them before hand on how to present information and to bring no more than a 2-page handout.

Third Step – build momentum by finding allies

Encourage your constituents to reach out to bring in new allies as a way of increasing the chance of success. Start with those people they know, neighbors, workers, those from the same religious community and finally any citizens that may be serving on citizen advisory groups to the city. Even a simple petition, on paper or on line, shows that the issue has more than a handful of supporters.

If the issue is geographically based, work to approach the leadership of the local community council or religious organization. Even if just one of their board members is willing to sign up in support of the issue, it could open a conversation with other council members. Also, approach former elected officials to sign on, which may help garner media coverage.

If it is a non-geographically based issue, invite in a representative from a national interest group or union that is engaged in this issue. If they need money to cover their costs, use that as a focal point for holding events to build community and raise funds. Moreover, when they arrive offer to have them speak before a council committee and invite the media to cover it.

Approach neutral parties, like the League of Women Voters, or any other local civic group, to write a letter of support. The point is to show the opposition that the issue goes beyond the immediate advocating group.

Fourth Step – use facts and data, and question the reliability of opposition’s information

Using hard data gets the attention of the media and gives them something to include in their coverage. It also shores up support among those who are or favorably inclined but have doubts. Demonstrate that the advocates know their subject matter.

As an elected official, you should have access to information that community groups do not. Use that power of access to release statistics or data collected by various city departments. If they refuse to release that information, then the issue becomes “Why are they hiding this information?” It puts the opposition on the defense and forces them to account for their behavior.

If the opposition sites a survey to derail your effort, demand to see the entire survey instrument, all questions, responses and demographics collected. Again, if they refuse, then you raise the issue of a lack of openness and accountability – an excellent position to be in. Once you receive their information, look for inconsistencies and expose them. All surveys have multiple ways of being interpreted, pursue them.

Conduct your own opinion survey on the issue. You do not have to spend $10,000 for one. A reliable survey with a few questions can cost under a $1,000. Consider using university students and faculty to assist with one. Keep in mind, you just need one strong fact to stand out to derail the other side by forcing the media to include it in their coverage.

Fifth Step – Get the word out

Politicians have the ability to get media coverage. Use it! Don’t fear taking a strong stand, because most people will forget what you even said, but they will remember that you said something that was important because the media covered it.

If there are protests, talk to the media about why there are protests. Use the incident by pointing out how future protests could be avoided by taking certain actions.

Use all media tools. If you send out an e-newsletter, include information about the issues that your constituency is organizing around. You don’t have to say what you’ve done, say what you want done and how you are going to get there. Ask your constituents to re- tweet your points so that they reach as many people as possible.

Hold a forum in city hall on the issue at hand during lunch hour in the council chamber that is open to the public. Invite both sides on an issue, because it is more likely to get those on the council who are undecided to attend and it will garner more media coverage. If you cannot use city hall, find a community hall, church, library or even a tavern to hold a forum.

If you have surplus campaign funds because you are a sure winner, use your campaign material to educate the public on an issue.

Sixth Step – Encourage optimism by celebrating every win no matter how small and believing in democracy

Don’t dwell on the goals not achieved because you will never achieve all of them. Instead, with every struggle that you join your constituency on, make sure that you know what a minimum win looks like from the beginning. When that is achieved, celebrate it. Then remind folks that it is just one stage and that the next day or week the fun begins again in fighting for and winning the next battle.

Integrate cultural activities into every organizing effort, because people like to have fun and if it isn’t fun, it’s harder to grow your movement. Everyone loves a parade.

Encourage your constituents to listen to the opposition to understand where they are coming from. Knowing your opposition improves your insight into their strengths and weaknesses. And that makes you smarter, more confident and a more articulate proponent of democracy because you are practicing it.

Keep in mind that the greatest obstacle to achieving progress is cynicism – distrust in democracy and a democratic government. Those who want to shrink government speak of freedom and liberty but a weakened democracy cannot protect those freedoms.

To download this article as a PDF, click here.

Young Child at Rally

Seven Steps to Becoming a Citizen Activist

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Despite who is elected as President or elected to Congress or City Hall, each citizen has the ability and the tools to influence whether good or bad things happen. But you must be willing to do something about it.

To gain political power you don’t have to be a super hero or dedicate your life to activism. However, you should know what you want and how to get it.

This brochure briefly outlines the steps toward making effective change based on the more detailed lessons described in Becoming a Citizen Activist – Stories, Strategies and Advice for Changing Our World.

To download this article as a PDF, click here.

First
Complaining is therapeutic – not an action plan

When meeting with a public official you must explain the problem you want addressed and what you want that person to do. It should not be so general a request that the politician can nod and say he or she supports your goal and will work toward it. That is fine but not enough!

Make your ask for something specific and measurable. For instance, ask the politician to hold a press conference, issue a statement, hold a public hearing, be the main sponsor on a piece of legislation or work with you to write that legislation. All of these options must be tied to a specific time line. And one that is not so distant that it can be postponed indefinitely.

Present the problem and your request on no more than 2 pages, which should include your contact information.
When you leave it with them ask for a specific date when they can get back to you.

This is the first step in gaining momentum for making greater changes. Demonstrate that by working with you, they can taste their own success. If you can only meet with the public official’s staff, meet with that person and follow the same routine. However, also ask for confirmation that the politician has personally received your request.

Second
Know how government works

No matter whether it is a city, state or federal government there are basic structural and procedural features that they all share. Know what they are and how they work.

They all have issue committees and chairs of those committees. Determine in advance what committee will deal with your issue. You can do that by either looking at the committee title or looking at what issues it has dealt with. Almost all levels of government have this information on their websites.

Know who the committee chair is and members of the committee. Do research on them. What groups have endorsed them? You can find this out from looking at their past or current campaign websites. Find out if their campaign contribution donors are listed on any government websites. Find out if you know any of the groups or donors.

Know the schedule for introducing and passing legislation. For instance, how long does it take for a piece of legislation to be introduced before coming before the full deliberative body? Who has the authority to introduce it? How many sponsors are needed to move it forward?

Find a committee member who will work with your group on some level. Best if they can hold a hearing on your issue. But if not that, see if they will allow testimony before a committee meeting or at a committee meeting. Or at a minimum bring the issue up at the committee meeting to get it aired publicly.

Third
Build momentum by finding allies

You cannot win working alone. Strength comes from numbers. Reach out to individuals and groups to increase the chance of success. Start with people you know: neighbors, workers, those from a religious community and finally any citizens
that may be serving on citizen advisory groups to the city, state or congress. Providing

even a simple petition, on paper or on the Internet, shows that the issue has more than a handful of supporters.

If the issue is geographically based, approach the leadership of the local community council or religious organization. Even if just one of that organization’s board members is willing to sign in support of the issue, it will make an impression on a politician. Also, approach former elected officials to sign on, which may help garner media coverage.

If it is a non-geographically based issue, invite a representative from a national interest group or union to speak out. If they must travel to your city, see if you can cover their travel costs. Use that need as an opportunity to hold fundraising events and attract a broader base of support. If you have a noted speaker, request that they speak before a committee, a public forum or a hearing and invite the media to cover it.

Ask your supporters, including allied politicians, to contact potential sympathetic groups for a letter of support. The point is to show politicians and the public that the issue goes beyond the immediate advocating group from just one district or interest community.

Fourth
Use facts and question the reliability of the opposition’s

Using hard data gives the media something to include in their coverage. It also shores up support among those who may have doubts about the merit of an issue. Using facts demonstrates that the advocates know their subject matter.

Encourage supportive elected officials to share government reports from departments and drafts of legislation under consideration. If an agency refuses to release information, then the issue becomes “Why are they hiding this information?” It puts the opposition on the defense and forces them to account for their behavior.

If the opposition cites a survey to derail your effort, demand to see the entire survey instrument, all questions, responses and demographics collected. Again, if they refuse, attack their creditability because of their lack of openness and accountability. Once you receive their information, look for inconsistencies and expose them. All surveys have multiple ways of being interpreted, pursue them.

Conduct your own opinion survey on the issue. You do not have to spend $10,000

for one. A reliable survey with a couple of questions can cost under a $1,000. Consider using university students and faculty to assist with one. You just need one

strong fact to stand out to derail the other side by forcing the media to include it in their coverage.

Fifth
Get the word out

Even after you make a specific request and have strong allies, you still need to keep the public informed of your efforts and the relevance of the issue. Make a list of journalists and bloggers who might cover your issue. Personally contact them to tell them what you have accomplished, no matter how minor it may seem.

You want to show that the issue has the attention of a number of people and groups. And that it has momentum. Reporters want to see movement, something that is developing, and something that is changing the public discussion or could significantly change the political landscape.

If you hold a protest action, follow it up with having your participants post on Facebook and tweet with photos and comments. Make sure that your supporters share your group’s posts and retweet them. This requires having an email list serve to your supporters to remind them to spread the information among their friends and media contacts.

Hold an open forum on the issue at your place of worship after a service, at a public library community room or even at a city hall council chamber during lunch hour. Try to get a public official or sympathetic organization to host the event. Invite all public officials to attend, even if they do not speak their attendance will be recognized.

Sixth
Celebrate every win no matter how small

Don’t dwell on the goals not achieved because you will never achieve all of them. Instead, with every struggle make sure that you know what a minimum win looks like from the beginning. When that is achieved, celebrate it. Then remind supporters that it is just one victory and that the next day or week the fun begins again in fighting for and winning the next battle. A meaningful and joyful journey is the end objective, because there will always be something to work on.

Integrate cultural activities into every organizing effort, because people like to have fun and if it isn’t fun, it’s harder to grow your movement. Have a parade, a party, a dance or a movie; any opportunity to enjoy oneself with others keeps people engaged.

Make these activities open to everyone, because a growing supportive community achieves success far more than a stagnant or shrinking one.

Seventh
Believe in Democracy

If you don’t believe you have the power to change your life, it will not change. If you withdraw from participating in the democratic process, those that remain engaged are those that benefit most from the status quo and have the most to lose from any change. So, things are likely to remain the same.

As a result cynicism replaces hope, leading to distrust in democracy and a democratic government. If that happens, those who want to shrink a government that is accountable to the public, and replace it with a corporate or elitist model that is not open and accountable to all citizens will determine your future. That may be good for a business or closed special interest groups but not for the general public whose needs and rights can only be guaranteed when citizens participate in guiding their democratic institutions.

Always keep in mind that being a citizen is knowing that you have the opportunity to make a difference and then acting according to your needs.

 

To download this article as a PDF, click here.

Defunding the Dakota Access Pipeline City By City

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President Trump faces a new challenge from city governments. These are the cities where many progressives live and feel powerless to challenge the Trump administration’s new anti-environmental policies. Their solution is to inventively use the tools that are available to them.

They are taking a lead in defunding the Dakota Access Pipeline by using tactics that Trump’s federal powers cannot quash as his administration is attempting to do with sanctuary cities protecting undocumented immigrants.

An effort is unfolding to go after the banks that are funding fossil fuel climate change. Each city has public funds that need to be deposited in a major bank to allow a daily shifting of revenues and expenses. They also have a need to deposit their pension funds in a bank. This is a local decision and not one the federal government could halt.

Some cities are focusing on divesting from Wells Fargo. According to the Securities and Exchange Commission the bank has supplied $347 million in credit to the companies building the pipeline and administers an additional $3.7-billion line of credit to help the project.

On February 7th, Seattle terminated its $3 billion relationship with Wells Fargo in large part because it has been funding the Dakota Access Pipeline. A few days afterward, Davis in California cut ties with Wells Fargo, as had Santa Monica just before it.

Very likely most big banks serve corporations that despoil the earth. However, cities should consider taking a useful tactic that unions applied for decades in successfully negotiating better wages and working conditions for autoworkers: they focused on just one company at a time not all of them at once. After they succeeded in bringing one of the big four auto companies to an agreement the other companies usually followed, knowing what they faced. The same tactic could be applied to divesting from banks by choosing to go after Wells Fargo first through identifying those cities that use its services. Another key targeted bank would be lined up after concessions have been wrung from Wells Fargo.

Attention is also being focused on public money held in pension funds for city employees. These funds seek stability. Divesting from fossil fuel investments not serves to help address climate change but it also is a more responsible approach to safeguarding pensions.

Seattle’s Pension Retirement Board began looking at what the possible consequences of divesting from fossil fuels would be after the city council adopted a resolution to support such an approach. A letter to the mayor, city council and the retirement board signed by local politicians, church and community groups was presented on the 15th of February, it asked the city to proceed with the following actions:

  1. Stop any new investments in the top 200 fossil fuel companies,
  2. Drop coal, oil and gas from its investment portfolio by divesting from the top 200 fossil fuel companies by 2020,
  3. Commit to reinvesting at least 5 percent of its portfolio into climate solutions defined as, but not limited to, renewable energy, energy efficiency, clean technology, community adaptation funds, transit, and clean energy access.

This approach makes financial sense. A report commissioned by 350.Seattle showed the City of Seattle losing over $65 million by remaining in fossil fuels in the last ten years. Meanwhile, the Gates Foundation has lost billions by remaining invested in fossil fuels in recent years. A combination of the Gates Foundation’s losses on fossil fuel investments and the public outcry for fossil fuel divestment resulted in them divesting 85% of their fossil fuel holdings from a starting point of $1.4 billion in 2014.

Community organizations, like DivestYourCity have begun to identify cities to join in withdrawing their business from banks funding the North Dakota Pipeline. Those in favor environmental protections, who live in cities and feel unsure how they can impact national policies that are beyond the control of their local governments, need to look at their own tool shed and see how previous uses of these tools, like the use of public funds, can be handled in a manner that can have a national impact.

This strategy augments resisting Trump Administration’s policies by pursuing actions that are beyond the reach of the federal government. Then, let President Trump spend his twitter time trying to resist it.

Don’t Let Trump Trash Our Culture

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Our diversity in arts and culture must flourish for the next 4 years to keep our Democracy from drifting into a conformist nationalist template overlaid upon us by the federal government. America’s vibrant democracy is the direct result of encouraging all of our communities to express and celebrate their culture; cultural diversity has built a great nation.

That basic democratic principle may be compromised by the Trump administration if the report from The Hill is true: http://thehill.com/policy/finance/314991-trump-team-prepares-dramatic-cuts.

They reported that Trump’s administration is floating a plan to privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEA/NEH).

CPB created the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and the National Public Radio (NPR) network consisting of more than 1,400 public radio and television stations.

A report outlining Trump’s main budget priorities is due within 45 days. It describes Trump’s blueprint to reduce federal spending by $10.5 trillion over 10 years.

This plan closely resembles the ideology espoused by the conservative Heritage Foundation, a think tank that has helped staff the Trump transition. It has published their own report for guiding the Federal budget in 2017 stating “government should not use its coercive power of taxation to compel taxpayers to support cultural organizations and activities.”

The Heritage Foundation also is a major funder of the American Legislative Exchange Council, (ALEC) dedicated to limited government, free markets and federalism, but apparently not in favor of public support for promoting our culture. That would be left to the free market, i.e. private money will pick and choose what type of art and culture will prosper and grow.

This is the time for citizens to become activists in opposing any Federal government attempt to halt public support for sustaining and promoting arts and culture. We do not have to wait until the dye is cast. We must cast one first.

Here are six strategies complimenting each other and building toward a national campaign to NOT privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and NOT eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEA/NEH).

– The first action is to reach out to others in your neighborhood, your PTA, your school, your church, etc. and let them know of this possible threat and why you are concerned.

– Second, write a simple one-paragraph statement that you ask those above to email to all Congressional representatives, of course be open to amending it to get more people to participate.

– Third, create an email list of every artistic group (and their board members and staff if accessible), including individual musicians, poets, artists, art teachers, and performers. Reach out to them and ask them to help with the second task above. Do not limit your efforts just to your town or city, if you know people in other cities or states, let them know of your efforts and ask them to duplicate these strategies in their communities.

– Fourth, organize a cultural celebration or a panel discussion in your library or town hall to highlight the importance of publicly funding these 2 national institutions. Invite politicians, including your congressional representative, to attend. Work with community newsletters, community papers and radio stations to advertise the event.

– Fifth, conduct a survey of your city or county through the Internet or other means to measure public support for promoting local cultural and artistic activities. See if an elected official would sponsor the survey if not with funds then at least with an endorsement.

– Finally see if a councilmember would have a poem read at the start of their committee meeting to call attention to the importance of culture even within city hall. If there are no rules prohibiting it, why not try? In Seattle, I was able to have poetry read at the beginning of my committee meetings for the 18 years I served on the city council.

All of these activities must convey the singular message to Congress: our diversity of culture and art are important to not only sustaining vibrant communities within the US, but also to stop us from just looking just inward and ignoring the world around us to our disadvantage. Both NPR and NEA/NEH play critical roles in keeping our democracy an open one to all cultures and views; without that openness our nation becomes dependent on too narrow a set of beliefs and thus becomes brittle and weak in the face of new ones.

minneapolis

Visiting the Twin Cities – The Struggle for Justice in the Workplace

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Talking to citizen activists & politicians in the Twin-Cities as they struggle to adopt Minimum Wage & Paid Sick Leave

I’m speaking on Tuesday, Sept 13th in Minneapolis and St Paul on how Becoming a Citizen Activist can guide strategic actions and mobilize support for progressive change. Please pass on these announcements to folks you know in the Twin Cities.

Announcements

Minneapolis Talk & Discussion

  • When: Tuesday, September 13th, 4pm
  • Where: The University of Minnesota Bookstore
    Coffman Memorial Union on the University of Minnesota campus
  • What: I’ll talk about Becoming a Citizen Activist and urge students to become citizen activists if they want to gain control over their future.
  • Who: I’ll be joined by 3 Minneapolis council members, Elizabeth Glidden, a Local Progress board member; Cam Gordon, Green Party member and advocate for $15 minimum wage; and, Alondra Cano, Associate Director for the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network.

St. Paul Talk & Discussion

  • When: Tuesday, 9/13, 7PM
  • Where: East Side Freedom Library, 1105 Greenbrier Street
  • What: I’ll talk about Becoming a Citizen Activist regarding Citizen Activism and the Struggle for Justice in the Workplace
  • Who: I’ll be joined by a panel of union leaders and local activists from the $15 NOW and Earned Sick and Safe Time campaigns.

Summary of the Minimum Wage & Paid Sick Leave Efforts in the Twin Cities

Minneapolis

Minimum Wage Legislation

Background:

Advocates for raising the minimum wage to $15 (lead by the groups 15 Now, Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change) gathered enough valid signatures on a petition to send the issue to voters through a charter amendment. The need for increasing the minimum wage in Minneapolis is apparent in light of the fact 28% of its residents live in poverty. Those numbers are even higher for families of color, including 49% of Black households, 65% of American Indians, and 34% of Latinos. And polling showed 68 percent of 400 voters surveyed said they’d vote in favor of a $15 minimum wage.

However, the city attorney determined that the petition did not fall into the narrow spectrum of city issues that can be decided by voters in Minneapolis according to the city charter. Thereafter the majority of the council and the mayor, up refused to place it on the ballot this November.

The advocates appealed their decision to the court and won a favorable decision to allow the charter amendment to go before the voters. In response the city then appealed the lower court’s decision to the State Supreme Court and won. Consequently the voters will not be voting this fall on raising the minimum wage to $15.

The Current Situation:

Minneapolis Council Member Lisa Bender (lisa.bender@minneapolismn.gov) co-authored a resolution requesting that their city council staff make a recommendation on the minimum wage issue by the second quarter of 2017. The Supreme Court did say that the Council could adopt a minimum wage through an ordinance. The advocates have said that their attention is now to focus on getting the council votes to pass such an ordinance, preferably this year.

Paid Sick Leave Legislation

The Current Situation:

Beginning July 1, 2017, employees will accrue sick and safe time. In the meantime their Council approved the creation of a Workplace Advisory Committee consisting of both business owners, employees and unions which among other responsibilities will be to “Prepare a two-year work plan that focuses on workplace issues, such as the implementation of the City of Minneapolis’ sick and safe time policy, and update such plan on an annual basis.”

St.Paul

Minimum Wage Legislation

Background:

St. Paul is more of a working class city with a smaller population and economic base than Minneapolis. Although raising the minimum wage would certainly benefit many people, perhaps even a higher percentage than in Minneapolis, no legislation or initiatives have been introduced.

The Current Situation:

Advocates for raising the minimum wage in St. Paul have first focused on passing paid sick leave. They have also monitored Minneapolis’s council work and now passage of their $15 minimum wage law on September 7, 2016.

Paid Sick Leave Legislation

Background:

On February 3, 2016 the Saint Paul City Council unanimously passed a resolution convening a task force to discuss the possibility of extending earned sick and safe time to all employees in Saint Paul. On July 19, 2016 the Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity Commission, without amendments, approved the Earned Sick and Safe Time Task Force Recommendations as well as a draft of the ordinance. Finally, on September 8, 2016 the council unanimously passed the Paid Sick Leave Legislation. You can locate the legislation at https://stpaul.legistar.com/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=2801386&GUID=D3340F14-A618-4A88-8D04-E820E6C352C7

The Department of Civil Rights will investigate complaints but will work proactively and collaboratively with employers. There is also a provision allowing workers to sue their employer if they felt they had been retaliated against for using sick leave or reporting a sick leave violation.

The Current Situation:

St. Paul is now the second city in Minnesota to require employers to give workers paid sick time, and some have said that it is a more inclusive and worker-friendly approach than Minneapolis’s version, which was approved in May 2016. A month later in June Chicago adopted a sick leave regulation. Duluth is currently looking into an ordinance.

(AP Photo)

45 Years Ago Today Attica Prisoners Rebelled

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Remembering Attica’s Lessons

Forty-five years ago today, the inmates of New York’s Attica prison initiated the largest revolt of prisoners this nation had ever seen. In a fury of rage at their inhuman conditions they rebelled, beating the Correction Officer William Quinn in to death in taking control of the prison. However, shortly thereafter in a remarkable turnaround they developed a rational decision-making organization which did not seek their release but instead demanded decent conditions for their incarceration.

James Forman Jr. (Yale Law School professor) in the September 4, 2016 edition of the NYT Book Review summarizes Univ of Michigan History Professor Heather Ann Thompson’s book Blood In The Water – The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy. The Attica “riots” are now only a vague memory to even those in the progressive movement. It is critical that we not forget what public policies eventually lead to the death of 39 prisoners and correction officers, apparently killed by New York’s untrained and unsupervised state troopers and national guardsmen in retaking the prison.

As described by Thompson, the prison’s 2,000 plus inmates with almost half from New York City were limited to one shower a week, one roll of toilet paper a month, and food rations costing the state only 63 cents per day. Prison mail was censored to the point that most letters in Spanish to the Puerto Rican prisoners were tossed since the censors could not read them. Black prisoners were singled out for daily harassment by the almost all-white staff. As L.D. Barkley, one of the prisoner leaders said during their occupation of the prison, “We are men. We are not beasts, and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such.”

In the months preceding the uprising, the prisoners with the help of outside advocates lobbied for better living conditions with no avail. Then on September 9th, 1971 a group of prisoners overpowered a correction officer and all hell broke loose. After a few hours of bloody chaos, the prisoners organized a 4 day sustain effort to negotiate a series of demands from the state. Liberal Republican Gov. Nelson Rockefeller refused to personally participate in the negotiations and called them off on the 13th ordering the prison to be retaken by force. Thompson describes sadistic crimes that took place after the state officials had full control of the prison. To date, the New York state has refused to release thousands of boxes of crucial records.

Are we repeating these conditions today?

It is important to remember what caused Attica, because many prisons today once again rely more on punishment than on rehabilitation practices. This is ever more true in public prisons operated by private companies. Journalist Shane Bauer’s Mother Jones article “My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard” (August 2016 edition) ignited national outrage at the conditions in privately operated prisons.

The federal government recently announced that they would no longer follow this practice. However over 86 percent of prisoners are in state prisons and each state will have to make that decision. While efforts should be made to get the Department of Justice to conduct a massive review of state prisons operated by private companies that effort may well be slowed down by governors and state legislatures who would see it as interfering with state rights.

Rather than organize fifty different campaigns to influence each state government, it would be more effective and capture more media attention to focus on one non-federal entity: the National Governors Association. True there are more Republican Governors than Democrats. But Terry” McAuliffe, the Democratic Governor of Virginia, is the chair of the NGA. And he has a record of being supportive of restoring voting rights to ex-felons. In April of 2016, McAuliffe signed an executive order restoring voting rights to more than 200,000 ex-felons in Virginia., unfortunately it was overturned by the Virginia Supreme Court. Just as importantly another Democrat, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, chairs NGA’s Health and Human Services Committee.

A strategy can be applied to the NGA that works in any legislative-type body in an open democratically run organization: you do not need a majority to bring an item forward for discussion. What you need is a few dedicated members willing to demand that an issue be brought before the body for discussion and investigation. The goal is to begin a process that allows those concerned to raise the issue publically and force the other members to address it publically. The goal is to highlight the issue and require the organization’s members to take a public stand after momentum has built up within and outside the organization. The mechanics of the decision-making process will vary with each entity, but every democratic organization has an opening for the minority to express its opinion and even effect the final outcome.

In this manner, only a handful of state-based organizations are needed to pressure their respective governor to bring forward this issue in the NGA, and particularly to lobby McAuliffe and Shumlin to hold a public workshop on this issue and to follow up by requesting that NGA contract with a neutral third party, preferably based at a university, to conduct a national review resulting in an evaluation of the prisoner conditions of privately run state prisons and the public cost the state incurs because of those conditions. That report then becomes a powerful key to opening the door for prison reform. It is not the end however; organizations will need to mobilize public opinion to convince state legislatures to use that key. If they do not, then make it a pivotal issue during their re-election campaign.

The conditions that led to the Attica upraising should never be tolerated again within any of our prisons. Focusing on eliminating privately run public prisons provides the best opportunity to get a victory and address the larger issue of improving prison conditions for all inmates. There is a way to win on this issue, but it will take thoughtful organizing.

(Photo: Associated Press)

WTO

WTO – The Battle in Seattle

By | Urban Politics - Seattle | No Comments

By Nick Licata, former Seattle City Councilmember, who invited demonstrators to Seattle and marched with them; and, author of Becoming A Citizen Activist – Stories, Strategies and Advice for Changing Our World (released January 2016)


 

The freedom to dissent was tested as the US closed out the twentieth century with a demonstration that grabbed the world’s attention. Forty thousand citizens marched through Seattle’s downtown on November 30, 1999, to protest a meeting of the World Trade Organization Ministerial (WTO.) Having decided to hold its third biannual meeting in the US, over forty cities competed to host it. Seattle beat out the others by promising to spend over $9 million, almost twice as much as the nearest bid from Honolulu. The City Council wasn’t asked to approve the offer because the Seattle Host Organization, consisting of membership from the region’s major corporations and chaired by Microsoft’s Bill Gates, promised to pick up the tab, although they ended contributing far less.

This was to be the most important trade conference ever held in the US; the newly formed WTO was assuming powers that far outstripped its predecessors. In particular it would not only continue to regulate manufactured goods, but services, intellectual property, and agriculture would be added. More importantly, it would have the authority to require the elimination of local labor standards and environmental protections if they violated trade agreements. It was a wet dream for corporate leaders bent on expanding trade opportunities, and a nightmare for those defending worker rights and the environment. Without firing a shot, the world was seeing the formation of a new international power. The context for Seattle’s WTO meeting was set, it would not happen without vocal and visible dissent from those affected.

To publicize our own concerns with the WTO, I sponsored, and the council unanimously passed, resolution number 29926 in April, expressing the Council’s ability to regulate and pass laws regarding environmental protection and fair labor practices within its jurisdiction and that it opposed international agreements that could restrict that ability. It was a small attempt to support those opposing WTO’s growing power.

Just as delegates from the 130 countries and the several thousand media correspondents were preparing to attend, so were citizen activists. I met with Mike Dolan from Public Citizen; a Ralph Nader initiated organization, in the spring of 1999 to discuss how to create an open environment in which citizens could be heard. Dolan was building community support by acquiring venues to accommodate a huge number of open educational meetings. Meanwhile another organization from San Francisco, the International Forum on Globalization, organized two-day teach-in the pristine downtown Bennaroya Symphony Hall. Each day more than 2,500 attendees packed the hall to listen to an analysis of how WTO was reshaping the world around profits not human needs.

Opposition to the WTO came from three groupings distinguished by their tactics and objectives. By far the largest one was a precedent setting alliance between organized labor and environmental groups, referred to as the “Teamsters and turtles” coalition, due to hundreds of protestors appearing in sea turtle costumes to protest WTO’s rules harming sea life. Labor leaders, for their part, wanted any new WTO trade agreement to set minimum labor standards in factories around the world, so as not to drag down labor agreements in the US.

Although they tussled over whether saving jobs or the environment was more important, they recognized that they faced a common fate of being sacrificed on the alter-of-trade if they didn’t ultimately shrink WTO’s authority. Their tactic was to organize and lead tens of thousands of demonstrators in a permitted march into downtown. I participated, walking alongside AFL-CIO President Sweeny and Congressman Dennis Kucinich, and a number of other labor and Congressional leaders who were present.

The second group, numbering perhaps a thousand, came together under an umbrella group, the Direct Action Network (DAN) whose publicized objective was to use non- violent civil disobedience (calling for no property destruction) to stop the WTO from meeting. Their long-term goal was to create a mass movement to challenge global capital, “making radical change and social revolution.” Their actions evolved from independent affinity groups that had been training for months on their tactics. They arrived downtown hours before the mass march was to arrive. By forming large circles of protestors with arms interlocked with duct tape or bicycle locks, they successfully blocked major intersections. Delegates were unable to enter the Washington State Convention & Trade Center while buses and cars were suddenly diverted around the downtown retail core to avoid the protestors.

The third and smallest group, numbering a hundred at most, consisted of militant anarchists, referred to the black block. They systematically blockaded streets with newspaper boxes and smashed the windows of retail outlets owned by exploitive corporations. They also reached the downtown core before the mass march. The media showered this group with attention while ignoring the anti-WTO forums. Throwing a garbage can through a store window certainly is more eye- catching than a snapshot of a room full of people listening to a lecture. But I couldn’t help but ask, which is better suited for building a lasting informed social movement for change?

As November 30, 1999 approached, public officials had recognized there would be thousands of protestors. Even President Bill Clinton told the workers at a Harley Davidson factory before heading to Seattle, “Every group in the world with an ax to grind is going to Seattle. I told them all, I wanted them to come…. I want everybody to get this all out of their system…” Mayor Paul Schell, a former war protestor himself, said Seattle would welcome all who came to protest peacefully against WTO. And I got the City Council, through a resolution, to request that the Mayor help accommodate all visitors arriving for the Ministerial, by encouraging “…organizations who are serving demonstrators coming to our community to explore opportunities to ensure adequate lodgings and home stays.” It was going to be needed; Mike Dolan informed me that there were 750 Accredited Non-Governmental Organizations actively recruiting people to attend the WTO ministerial.

I had attended a number of meetings between our police leadership and leaders of the mainstream protestor groups, to see if they could agree promote on how to proceed with the demonstrations. Representatives from both sides were cautious and the meetings were inconclusive. The reality was that dissent would be taking many forms and no amount of volunteer parade marshals could keep folks walking in a straight line down the road. There was anger in the air that the City did not take into account.

Our police showed pictures to the councilmembers of what happened sixteen months earlier at the WTO’s second ministerial conference in Geneva, Switzerland. Five thousand protestors gathered there, firebombing three autos and damaging other cars and stores. The Seattle police were scared but the mainstream protest leaders assured them they would lead a peaceful march.

As I walked down first avenue with thousands other protestors from the huge AFL-CIO rally held about a mile north of downtown, I felt that we would show the world how much opposition there was to WTO’s plans. At the front of the march were labor leaders and Congressmen. When we reached the retail core, we were to proceed to a gathering spot and not continue to the Convention Center; however, some protestors emerged from the march and encouraged us to veer towards it. Confusion reigned and the march splintered into smaller streams of protestors. Meanwhile the DAN group blocked the main intersections and the black block faction attacked Starbuck and Nike stores, spraying graffiti on their windows that had not been smashed.

Perhaps stunned by the violence and not prepared for a strategic response the police initially failed to intervene with those smashing windows. The parades’ monitors took up protective positions outside some of the retail stores, fearing that the plate glass windows being shattered by handkerchief- masked anarchists would overshadow their own orderly protesting. Even as the police began using tear gas to break up DAN’s circles to allow the WTO delegates to enter the Convention Center, a couple of blocks away other protestors, many in costumes, chanted, waved signs and even danced in the streets. David Solnit, one of DAN’s organizers, described the scene as a festival of resistance, from which the labor leaders and congressional representatives quietly slipped away.

With the situation deemed dangerous for the upcoming visit of President Clinton, Mayor Schell declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew on most of downtown starting at 7:00 p.m. The police moved into the crowds in late afternoon using pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets to end the demonstrations and property damage. Several hundred protestors were pushed up into the dense residential Capitol Hill neighborhood abutting the Convention Center. Not confident of securing downtown for the next day, Mayor Schell issued another emergency order establishing a “no protest zone” — in 25 blocks of downtown. Governor Locke called in the National Guard, so that by daylight on Wednesday, troops lined its perimeter. Police then used tear gas to disperse any crowds; more than 500 people, including downtown residents and employees leaving work, were jailed that day for not clearing out from the heart of downtown Seattle. In the evening, hard- core protestors returned to shout and throw debris at the police, who responded with concussion grenades and large quantities of tear gas, fearing they would be overrun. The fire fighters’ union refused a request to turn their fire hoses on the protestors.

Although accusations were repeated in the media that firebombs and bags of urine were thrown at the officers, later investigations revealed them to be unfounded. Wednesday evening, the protestors and the police were once again in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, infuriating residents, as their main retail street became a battleground. Having lived on Capitol Hill for twenty-five years I walked the familiar streets talking to both police officers and protestors, in a vain attempt to lower the level of hostility. There was no room for any rationale dialogue in an atmosphere filled with fear and pepper gas. On Thursday, the President left and both the police and the protestors ratcheting down their confrontations while the WTO meeting petered out.

Did the massive and confrontational expression of citizen dissent achieve its objective? They did play the most visible role in stopping the WTO from reaching a new trade agreement. However, it was also widely acknowledged that intense divisions among its delegates contributed to that failure. It remains as the only one of nine WTO meetings held up to 2013 that did not issue a Ministerial Declaration, perhaps because it was the only one that experienced massive citizen opposition. Other WTO Ministerials were held in places that did not allow or severely restricted demonstrations, like Dubai and Singapore, or were in difficult places to reach with few accommodations like Cancun. And, those that were held in Geneva never saw as many protestors as appeared in Seattle.

Supporters of WTO and those critical of the protestors, accused political leaders of inviting trouble when they encouraged citizens to Seattle to demonstrate their opposition. They ignored the basic principle of our American democracy, a strong faith in the right to assemble and protest. Seattle, known as a tolerant city, was portrayed as naïve in expecting things to go peacefully. Perhaps, but more importantly, the City was not prepared for massive demonstrations. Review reports issued from the ACLU, the Police Department and the City Council all concluded that our police force was not properly trained for crowd control or for moving in quickly to isolate those destroying property.

While both DAN members and the police agreed in advance that their members would be arrested peacefully, the police relied on teargas and pepper spray to accomplish that task, which needlessly affected all those nearby. Perhaps the worse example of police response was their pursuit of protestors up to Capitol Hill where uninvolved residents, business owners and shoppers found themselves breathing in teargas or even arrested for being in the wrong spot while the police rounded up protestors. Those actions and the Mayor’s enactment of a no protest zone treated many citizens as criminals. Eight years later in January 2007, a federal jury found that the city had violated protesters’ Fourth Amendment constitutional rights by arresting them without probable cause or hard evidence.

Although the Council passed the Mayor’s emergency declarations, I and Councilmembers Peter Steinbrueck, and Richard Conlin voted against it. After WTO meeting ended the city council held two public hearings to allow citizens to air their grievances. The first evening went from 4 pm to 1 am and the second one took almost as long, with over three hundred people testifying. Their complaints were similar to the emails I received; a few blamed the protestors for all the trouble but most were critical of the police response.

“Mr. Licata, they are smashing up downtown, you’re personally responsible, since you supported them.”

“You welcomed the protestors, in Seattle 52 years, it’s become a sewer, why aren’t you in Westlake to quite these people down. Why wasn’t City prepared for anarchists? You expect taxpayers to pay for all this? I’d fine them, make them clean it up, and then cut their nuts off.”

“Yesterday Police let hooligans get away with too much. Today people with legitimate protests are being mistreated. Disgusted with situation.”

“I’m upset about Police actions downtown, throwing tear gas canisters at peaceful protestors all day; I’m a resident and taxpayer, and got a mouthful of it. I’m outraged that Police we pay to protect us would do this.”

“I was impartial about events before, but seeing what Mayor and SPD have done is wrong and illegal, going way too far, hope there are repercussions for Mayor and the Police Department.”

“The Police action on Capitol Hill last night, was like a military action, it was indiscriminate, no reason for it. Whoever authorized it should be fired.”

Police Chief Norm Stamper resigned soon after the protestors and the WTO delegates left town. Latter he said using tear gas was wrong and that there was a need to move away from paramilitary tactics in policing. Mayor Paul Schell lost his next election, failing to get past the primary, in part due to the WTO events.

The City Council formed a special WTO Accountability Review Committee, which convened three independent citizen panels and had staff review more than 14,000 documents accompanied by interviews with key individuals. The Council then passed three separate pieces of legislation. The first (Ordinance 120096) required every SPD peace officer to wear a nametag on the outermost layer of the peace officer’s uniform, since many accusations of police abuse could not be traced to any specific officer. The second (Resolution 30340) implemented a new process notifying the Council of any solicitation of major events and allowed them to formally review any requests made of the city. This would allow the City Council an opportunity to have a public process, if necessary, for evaluating the impact of a controversial gathering. Lastly, the procedures used to declare and/or terminate a civil emergency were modified to allow greater Council control over how long one would remain in force.

The WTO meeting came to be known at the Battle in Seattle. Were the protests a legitimate expression of concern for our citizens wanting to protect their jobs and quality of life? Or as critics charged, were they hooligans and anarchists intent on destroying our civil society? Observations from both the police and the media noted that the later group made up less than a half percent of all who protested.

Despite the critics who charged that Seattle’s reputation had been irreversibly damaged, overall holiday sales rose 6 percent in 1999 and Seattle has gone on to become one of the most economic prosperous cities in the country, while still promoting strong labor protection laws and environmental regulations.

All parties agreed that the public suddenly became aware of the WTO and its growing international power. Despite the media’s attention on the vandalizing of property, a month later, in January 2000, a Business Week opinion poll found that 52 percent of Americans sympathized with the WTO protestors in Seattle. What had been had been buried in the back pages of the business section had now emerged as an important topic of debate within our democracy. The massive turn out by thousands of protestors in Seattle proved the effectiveness of citizens exercising their right to publically and forcefully dissent to alter the course of their democracy when it threatens their livelihood and quality of life.

Nick Licata was on the Seattle City Council 18 years and the founding chair of Local Progress. The Nation named him Most Valuable Local Official in 2012.

Six colleges are using Becoming A Citizen Activist for classroom texts. Reviews of his book as well as his other writings are available on the website.

www.BecomingaCitizenActivist.org

Contact him at nick@becomingacitizenactivist.org

Speaking at People’s Convention in Pittsburgh

By | Urban Politics - U.S. | No Comments

by Rebecca Addison at Pittsburgh City Paper – July 6, 2016

In Seattle’s 2013 election, Nick Licata broke the city’s record for the most votes received citywide for a city councilor in a contested race. That same year he was named the country’s Most Valuable Local Official on The Nation’s list of most valuable progressives.

During his time on council, Licata sponsored and passed legislation like paid sick leave and supported a plan to raise Seattle’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, two social-justice objectives sought by activists around the country. At the end of last year, the veteran Seattle city councilor retired after 18 years in office.

That’s not the end of Licata’s social-justice crusade, however. This week he’ll visit Pittsburgh to attend two conventions on social-justice issues and share insights from his recently released book, Becoming a Citizen Activist.

Nick_Pittsburgh

During Donald Trump’s Pittsburgh visit in April, social-justice activists were protesting in full force.

“My primary mission right now,” says Licata, “is to work with both citizens and elected [officials] to recognize that no matter what happens after November, it’s critical that we maintain an activist space at the local level, because we’ve shown at the local level we can accomplish things, and we can continue to accomplish things no matter who is president.”

Pittsburgh and other cities haven’t seen as much progress on paid sick leave and the Fight for $15 as has Licata’s native Seattle. Pittsburgh City Council passed a paid-sick-leave bill last year, but a judge struck it down in December as unenforceable. And while the city and some employers have raised their minimum wage to $15 an hour, a mandatory minimum wage citywide is a ways away.

But Pittsburgh must be doing something right because it was selected to host those two social-justice conventions. The People’s Convention will bring more than 40 national activist organizations to the city, while the Local Progress Convening will see the arrival of hundreds of progressive municipal elected officials.

“Pittsburgh was identified as a place where [the] movement is very real,” says Erin Kramer, executive director of social-justice group One Pittsburgh. “There’s more workers organizing per capita in Pittsburgh than any other city in the country right now. There’s something happening in Pittsburgh right now, and folks want to come see it and learn from it.”

The pairing of the events isn’t an accident. They’re both sponsored by the Center for Popular Democracy, a group that works to build alliances between progressive organizations and politicians. Participants say collaboration between the two bodies is integral to ensuring progressive laws are passed and enacted.

“It is very important for elected officials who are trying to advance social change to have a direct understanding of the specific concerns of communities,” says Ana Maria Archila, co-executive director of Popular Democracy. “And it’s very important for community members to have relationships with elected officials. We know in the places where working families are winning we need both the pressure on the outside and the strategy on the inside.”

Jimmy John’s employee Chris Ellis has worked in the fast-food industry for more than two decades and has become a leader in the local Fight for $15. At the People’s Convention next week, he’ll have the opportunity to meet leaders from movements in other cities throughout the country.

“[I hope to learn] better organizing skills not just for the Fight for $15 movement but for all movements in general,” Ellis says. “I’m the type of person who sees myself trying to organize other fights, because once this fight is over, I’m looking for other fights.”

The interconnectedness of social-justice issues is widely recognized by activists. The People’s Convention will focus on topics like workers’ rights, health care, gun violence and education — issues that One Pittsburgh, which is part of the hosting committee, has been working on for more than a decade. The idea is to collaborate on these issues to build momentum and produce results.

“In Pittsburgh there’s lots of progressive work on half-a-dozen different issues at any given time, and increasingly those organizations are building partnerships with each other,” says Kramer, from One Pittsburgh. “We’ve been getting together to learn from each other and build our campaigns together. What I think folks are increasingly realizing is whether it’s housing, minimum wage or education justice, it’s really the same people who need to come together to build power to build a city that works for all of us.”

The event will develop strategies for appealing to lawmakers, but will also address barriers in cities where the majority of elected officials are already supportive of social-justice movements.

“Increasingly, we find ourselves literally preempted from solving problems at the local level by state legislatures that are unfriendly to the solutions we would propose,” says Kramer. “A good example is where we passed paid-sick-day legislation for tens of thousands of people in Pittsburgh and immediately it goes in front of the court because the restaurant association [the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association] objects. The reason we don’t have a $15-an-hour minimum wage for the vast majority of Pennsylvanians is because you can’t do that at the city level.”

Combating these barriers that stifle progress at the municipal level — and particularly, developing strategies for fighting lawsuits against progressive laws — is something that will be discussed at the Local Progress convention this weekend as well.

“It’s the strategy,” says Licata, a Local Progress co-founder. “It’s smart on [the opposition’s] part, and I think that’s what we’ll see in other cities — corporate strategy to try to limit [these laws]. What I would like to see as we see more of these lawsuits being filed is Local Progress use our network to work on national strategies to fight these corporate challenges through the court system.”

To ensure laws fall within a city’s jurisdiction, Local Progress has also been holding workshops to examine the power that states hold over local municipalities. And they’re also looking into legislation that is being passed to further limit cities’ rights.

“As a rule of thumb, cities are creatures of the state,” says Licata. “Over half the states limit the authority of cities, and one of the ongoing battles we’re having that impacts local politics is the whole issue of states limiting citizens’ rights. We’ve been fighting on that. It’s a major concern.”

Ultimately, as a former activist turned politician turned activism author, Licata says the intersection of the two events and collaboration is important to ensuring that things like paid sick leave and a $15-an-hour minimum wage are realized.

“People at the People’s Convention and the politicians at Local Progress are literally the same people. A lot of the people at Local Progress were activists,” he says. “When someone gets elected to office, people who got the person elected to office think he or she will take care of the problems, and the person who gets elected thinks, ‘Oh, I have to act differently.’ But you have to continue organizing and use the power you get as an elected official to amplify your organizing.

“Government is a tool. It’s not an end-product. I think getting into office does give you more power, but you want to distribute that power so other people have access to power. The main ask of progressive politicians who want to build communities is to disperse the power that was given to them to as many people as possible.”

According to Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, who as city councilor joined Local Progress nearly a decade ago, the group can counterbalance those organizations that are trying to get conservative legislation passed.

“Certainly we’ve learned from other cities through these organizations,” says Peduto. “We hear a lot about ALEC [American Legislative Exchange Council] and how it is a network that is putting state legislatures into very conservative, Tea Party-type of policies, and it networks nationally. Well, this is the answer, and these organizations have become the network that helps progressive policies to work their way into implementation in city halls. And the fact that they chose Pittsburgh to do it shows that we are a part of that network and one of the areas that the rest of the country looks towards.”

Like Peduto, event organizer Popular Democracy hopes its network of activists and politicians will have the ability to shape the future of the country.

“It’s a really important moment politically because our nation is at a crossroads between the politics of hate and xenophobia and the politics of opportunity and interdependence,” says Popular Democracy’s Archila. “We are in the process of a presidential election where the issues that matter to the working-class community are really centrally positioned in the debate. How the solutions are advanced will depend on who is in motion. And we will have in Pittsburgh thousands of people who are in motion across the country and who are helping define the debate for what’s possible in their cities.”

Council Dynamics on Monday’s Surprise Vote

By | Urban Politics - Seattle | No Comments

full_city council

I’ve been to many council meetings over 18 years but yesterday’s full council meeting truly stands out as one for having a surprise ending.
 
Before jumping into how the councilmembers got to their final vote, it was evident that they all had done their homework. The debate was mature and rested entirely on understanding the practical consequences of their actions and the legal restraints that they were operating under. It was one of the best demonstrations one could imagine of how a legislative body should perform.
 
The history of the council supporting a new arena to be built in the SODO area has largely been framed within the context of balancing the public costs and benefits. Those benefits are not only measured in direct public financial subsidies against general economic gain, but also on the impact that project would have on the kind of jobs that would be eliminated and gained, and on the recognition that having a third professional sports team in Seattle would be greatly appreciated by many citizens. 
 
The vote was seemingly a trifle one. It would have simply been a filing with the City Clerk to vacate a public street, i.e. allow a private use of a public piece of property. This was something that had been seen as necessary condition by the proponents of building a new basketball/hockey arena in order to go forward with the project. So, voting against a street vacation was framed as a vote on whether the City should proceed with this project. That was the big picture. The devil of course always hides in the details.
 
By law when the city vacates a public street it must way the value of what the public benefits from giving up a public resource. Vacating this portion of Occidental Street would provide a public benefit of securing a professional basketball team, since a new arena could then be built in this location. The problem for the proponents was that there was no team waiting to come to Seattle. The NBA Commissioner outlined a process for providing Seattle a new team that would easily push that decision into 2018.  The developer and new owner of the proposed team Chris Hansen, only has until November of 2017 to obtain one, in order to meet the requirements set forth in a written agreement with the city, referred to as a Memorandum of Agreement (MOU).
 
If the council passed the legislation yesterday to vacate the street, Hansen would have gained another three and a half years to secure the team and preserved his right to obtain public financing. Without the street being vacated, it is highly unlikely that he will be able to secure a new team for Seattle by next November, hence a no vote was seen as a death knell for his proposed project. That did not eliminate him or another entrepreneur from attracting a team sometime afterwards, but both the SODO location and public financing would have to be renegotiated with the city – an arduous task.
 
Given that background, it was expected that the council would, perhaps reluctantly, agree to vacate the street. Mayor Murray had come out strongly in favor of that option and a prior vote in a council committee, which preceded the Full Council Committee’s meeting yesterday, had voted 4 to 1 (Sally Bagshaw dissenting) in favor of the legislation. The proponents only needed one more vote to pass it and three of the councilmembers (Debora Juarez, Lorena Gonzalez and Kshama Sawant) had not made their positions known. Lisa Herbold had already been critical of the proposed street vacation. (I should mention, as a former critic of the proposal, that I had no words with her or any of the councilmembers on this topic.)
 
The Full Council meeting on this matter began with Councilmember Tim Burgess proposing 3 cleanup amendments, which would make the arena operations accommodate other spectator events in that area and also address some traffic congestions issues: all solid, logical improvements that passed unanimously. These were necessary changes to assure that the other sport teams would not oppose sharing their turf, something that they had raised doubts about in the past. With this move, Burgess may have intended to eliminate one potential significant industry from stopping the legislation. It foreshadowed a victory around the corner for the arena folks.
 
Next, Councilmember Lisa Herbold offered her 3 amendments. The first was the most dangerous to the arena. She cleverly recognized that the MOU required Hansen to secure a team by November of 2017 otherwise it would expire. Her amendment tied the knot on the deal by, not necessarily denying the street vacation but by conditioning it to meet the requirements of the MOU: team was secured by that date, then the vacation would not take effect.
 
O’Brien smartly countered that passing the amendment would not allow for public funds, therefor passing it increased the chance that the arena would be built with private funds, assuming that Hansen did not ask for public funding as he has in the past. His argument played to the sentiment of most of the other councilmembers, who would prefer to have it built with private money and not publicly financed.
Herbold pointed out that public financing was not her main point, she countered that the public benefit is securing the team, without making that a requirement then the public benefit is not necessarily realized.
 
Her amendment went down 6 to 3 (Herbold, Bagshaw and Juarez being the yes votes.) Juarez had not spoken up so it was a bit of a surprise that she took this strong position. However, it was not certain by any means where she would go on the final vote. With only Herbold and Bagshaw expecting to vote no on the street vacation, it was highly unlikely that the councilmembers who voted against limiting the street vacation would then turn around and vote against approving the street vacation.
 
Herbold’s other two amendments, while offering some constraints on the arena project, passed without debate. Likewise an amendment from Lorena Gonzalez’s that safeguarded freedom of speech and assembly on the property of the vacated street also passed without debate. Gonzalez’s amendment was a very good one, but it could be assumed that it had met her major concerns so that she could vote in favor of the street vacation.
 
Bagshaw’s final statement in which she appealed to her colleagues to change their minds and vote against the street vacation, reminded me of the same pitch I had made to the other councilmembers in the past on other long shot efforts and I truly felt for her – an obvious hopeless pitch.
           
When Council President Bruce Harrell (who did a very fair and efficient chairing of the meeting) asked for the final wrap up statements from the other councilmembers, the absolutely best that opponents could count on was losing in a 5 to 4 vote to approve the legislation.
           
It was possible that Juarez might come out against it, given her vote to support Herbold’s amendment. And with a passionate speech she indeed voted against the legislation. Councilmember Kshama Sawant had been quiet during the debate, with the exception of asking some questions, so it was unclear where she would land. When she gave her final statement it continued in that vein until she concluded that she would vote against it. Suddenly the best scenario had played out – 4 votes against vacating the street.
           
All eyes then turned to councilmember Gonzalez. She had been attentive asked critical questions, had introduced a good amendment that passed, so she could have voted in favor of the legislation and justified it by showing that she had taken her job seriously. But then came the surprise. She continued to present her thoughts in a straightforward fashion (reminding me of Burgess’s style) and concluded that she would vote against the street vacation.
           
Everyone, let me repeat, everyone was shocked by the turn of events. Every sign that this legislation was going to pass had been signaled clearly, and yet somehow on the dais, and apparently not before hand, councilmembers were still deciding how to vote. It was a very democratic moment, one that we too often don’t enjoy witnessing.
           
Hansen will have to rethink his strategy and the Mayor has vowed to continue his efforts to bring a professional basketball team to Seattle, so the game is not over. But for one afternoon a legislative body had a thoughtful discussion on how much to bend the rules for those with the most money on the table.