When Mayor Ed Murray announced last week that his staff had found seven possible sites for new tent encampments, he also announced another bureaucratic step in the process. He'd send a resolution listing all the locations to the city council for its sign-off.
Now the council is saying, "No thanks."
In a letter sent yesterday, eight council members explained all the public process they think the mayor's office should go through when considering the encampment sites. Notably, that doesn't include sending a resolution down to the city council. In an e-mail, Council Member Mike O'Brien told the mayor the council was sending the letter "in lieu of taking up the resolution."
Along with urging thorough communication with community groups, the council members write that "the opportunity for community engagement should not be utilized by neighbors and businesses as a platform to exclude transitional encampments from any of our neighborhoods. The council will not lend a sympathetic ear to these efforts." Instead, they write, community engagement should be focused on figuring out how to achieve "co-existence" between homeowners and renters, businesses, and encampments.
Tom Rasmussen was the lone council member who didn't sign the letter. He says that's because "the council hasn’t been provided any information on how the sites meet the requirements for encampments." A law passed by the council in March directed city staff to find potential encampment locations that were in certain zones of the city, large enough to accommodate at least 100 people, and within 1/2 mile of a transit stop. Rasmussen says he wanted to know more about how well all of the potential sites selected by the mayor's office met those criteria before signing the letter.
The knee-jerk reaction may be to think the council is passing the buck here. In a way, they are. If there was no expected backlash about new tent encampments, maybe the council would have taken up the mayor's resolution—and allowed for public comment in the process. But here's the thing: the mayor passed the buck first.
The council already expressed its support for encampments by voting—unanimously—to allow them. Nothing in the encampment law the council passed required Murray to send a resolution to council. Plus, that's not really the way governing usually works. Usually, the council passes a law with some instructions on how to implement it. (In this case: find public lands that are in industrial and commercial zones and close to transit where encampments could potentially be located.) Then, city departments, which answer to the mayor, figure out specifics and implement the law.
In this case, Murray was adding the extra step of going back to the council for approval on how to implement the law. Even though encampment operators will be required to hold public meetings before they start running encampments at any of the potential new sites, Murray wanted some additional council process.
You can see this as the mayor wanting one more step of public input on a controversial new law. Or, you can see it as the mayor looking to drag the council in to share the heat in a process that was sure to piss off one group or another. (The announcement of the locations has already frustrated Ballard business owners, who claim the mayor's office did little or no public outreach.)
Want to take this one step farther and indulge a conspiracy theory with me for a second? Of course you do!
Here it is: The resolution likely would have gone through the council's land use committee, which handled the encampment legislation. There, the council would have faced a bunch of angry public comment from residents and business owners opposed to the locations. In response to that, the council could have held their ground and faced criticism for ignoring their constituents. Or, they could have weenied out and changed or gotten rid of some of the possible sites. Then, encampment supporters and homeless advocates would be calling them out for capitulating to heartless NIMBYs. Either way, at this theoretical point, the council's land use committee would have pissed off a whole bunch of people. Oh, who's the chair of that committee, you ask? The person who looks bad to some group no matter which way this all goes? Mike O'Brien. And who's widely expected to someday run for mayor—maybe even against Ed Murray? Mike O'motherfuckingBrien. Evil genius move, Ed! (And equally genius counter-move, Mike!)
Anyway, back to boring ol' reality. The official line from the mayor's office is that they wanted council buy-in. Mayoral spokesperson Viet Shelton says the resolution wasn't about forcing the council to face public backlash but was meant to give them the chance to "deliberate publicly and hopefully weigh in and express support for the three preferred sites."
"We interpret the letter as doing that," Shelton says.