Jean Godden: Somehow both pro- and anti-12 weeks of paid parental leave.
Jean Godden: Somehow both pro- and anti-12 weeks of paid parental leave. City of Seattle

The Seattle City Council today voted to approve the budget that will govern how the city spends its money next year. Considering all the bickering they've already done, today's final vote was basically their chance to let bygones become bitter grudges and say "yes" to the final package all that fighting created.

But Council Member Kshama Sawant still came in and stirred some shit up, as she does, and today's meeting dragged on for a couple of argumentative hours. By the end, on the issue of the day—expanding paid parental leave for city employees—Sawant had lost and Council President Tim Burgess had won.

To refresh: last week, Sawant proposed setting aside $1.5 million in next year's budget to expand paid parental leave for city employees. Employees currently get four weeks; she wanted to expand that to 12. Her colleagues killed the idea with a 4-4 vote, so she brought it back today to try again.

Council Member Bruce Harrell was absent last week, resulting in the tie. He was back today and he voted "yes." Good news, right?


While Harrell added a new vote to Sawant's "yes" column, Sally Bagshaw reversed her support from last week and voted against the proposal today.

That's because Bagshaw instead supported a different plan from Council President Tim Burgess.

At the last minute today, Burgess introduced a budget amendment to do some more planning before actually expanding parental leave for city employees.

Instead of expanding parental leave now, his proposal will give the city's human resources department an extra $78,000 to create a work plan about how the city could expand parental leave and other benefits (more on those in a second) for city employees. That plan will be due by July 1, 2016, around the same time the city will release a one-year report about how its four-week parental leave policy is going.

"In city government," Burgess told his colleagues and a crowd of people in chambers holding signs calling for 12 weeks of paid parental leave, "process is sometimes as important as policy."

Burgess's proposal is broad and vague. It calls on HR to create a plan with "specific recommendations to improve workforce equity. In addition to "potentially" expanding parental leave, it asks HR to look at all this stuff too:

elder relative care leave; alternative work arrangements including telecommuting; on-site child care and/or childcare subsidies; targeted recruitment, retention and training; internships or similar programs that help create smoother transition opportunities into City employment; and other established employer practices focused on increasing and enhancing overall workforce equity

That is, obviously, not the same as actually expanding parental leave right now.

Sawant wasn't against this proposal. She voted for it, as did all of the other council members. But she and those who supported her plan didn't see it as an adequate replacement. They wanted both—more parental leave now and a plan to look at all that other stuff too.

"We need to give workers the best of everything,” she said.

But a majority of her colleagues sided with Burgess's approach. All nine members of the council approved his plan, and when the time came to vote on Sawant's proposal, it failed 5-4 (with the Burgess approach supported by Jean Godden, Tom Rasmussen, John Okamoto, and Sally Bagshaw).

Godden has positioned herself as a champion of gender equity issues and admitted that the city's four-week policy is only a first step (“Is this benefit enough? Absolutely not," Godden said earlier this year). But today she said Sawant's proposal was not "fiscally responsible."

That criticism was based on where the money to increase parental leave was coming from: real estate taxes,* which are a one-time rather than ongoing source. Sawant's plan would have left it up to the new city council to figure out the specifics of spending this money and funding leave in the future.

Supporters of Sawant's amendment had faith next year's council could find the money; opponents argued that wasn't good governance.

But Godden made another argument. She said she thinks the city should focus on expanding paid parental leave to the private sector instead of just making life better city employees. Yes! So true! So, what great stuff does Burgess's alternative plan do for expanding parental leave to the private sector?

Oh. Nothing. The "roadmap" his amendment will create is focused on city employees, not private sector workers, Burgess said at the meeting.

So, after all of this drama, what did we end up with?

City workers will continue to get four weeks of parental leave. Come July, the city will have a new report outlining whether its HR department thinks the city should expand parental leave and if so, how to do that. Then the city council will very likely have to wait until this time next year to find the money to actually expand that policy.

Good work, everybody!

In the end, Sawant was the only "no" vote against the budget as a whole. Like last year, she objected to a "business as usual" budget that she doesn't think does enough to tax the rich or fund social services and mass transit.

Other council members praised the additions they made to the mayor's budget. Those included new funding for jobs programs, homelessness, and the Tenants Union of Washington State; money to give low-income public school students free ORCA cards; and new funding for alternatives to youth incarceration. (More on those here and an exhaustive list right here.)

"There are some really, really good gems in here," Harrell said and the council approved the budget 8-1.

* For the wonks: Technically, the real estate tax money can only fund certain things. So that money would pay for other city needs, freeing up general fund money to pay for parental leave.