Council Dynamics on Monday’s Surprise Vote

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.