Council Member Tanya Woo is “asking for a second opinion” after Executive Director of Seattle Ethics and Elections Wayne Barnett advised her to recuse herself from an upcoming vote on a rollback of the minimum wage for gig workers known as “Pay Up.” 

As one of the most business-friendly members on the council, Woo’s recusal would complicate the path to victory for prime sponsor Council President Sara Nelson and the corporations she represents. Nelson already won over four of her colleagues in committee, but Woo seemed to be the most likely fifth vote, with staunch opposition from Council Member Tammy Morales and some caution from Council Members Joy Hollingsworth and Cathy Moore. Woo’s recusal would even further jeopardize Nelson’s ability to secure a veto-proof majority, as rumors circulate about the Mayor using his executive powers to stop the rollback. 

Woo did not immediately respond to my request for comment. 

Barnett’s Advice

Last week, Woo asked Barnett for advice on the ethics of her discussing and voting on the ordinance, which would put wages $6 below the City minimum for gig delivery drivers. Woo’s father-in-law recently took over Kau Kau BBQ in the Chinatown-International District, which contracts with app-based delivery companies. Barnett said that Woo told him that the business has “seen a reduction in smaller dollar orders since the minimum payment ordinance became effective in January of this year,” according to an email exchange.

“It is my advice that you recuse yourself from the discussion and vote on the council bill,” Barnett wrote in an email to Woo on Friday. “I believe that under the federal rule, you would have a financial interest in changes to pay for app-based workers. One of the goals of the legislation is to boost sales at restaurants like the one owned by your family.”

As for amendments to the bill, Barnett said she may vote on amendments that “are unlikely to reduce costs and boost restaurant sales.”

According to the Seattle Ethics Code, a City official may not participate in a matter in which they or an immediate family member have a financial interest. However, the Code does not define “financial interest,” so Barnett based his decision on the Code of Federal Regulations, which states that “a particular matter will have a ‘direct’ effect on a financial interest if there is a close causal link between any decision or action to be taken in the matter and any expected effect of the matter on the financial interest.” 

The definition goes on to read, “An effect may be direct even though it does not occur immediately. A particular matter will not have a direct effect on a financial interest, however, if the chain of causation is attenuated or is contingent upon the occurrence of events that are speculative or that are independent of, and unrelated to, the matter. A particular matter that has an effect on a financial interest only as a consequence of its effects on the general economy does not have a direct effect within the meaning of this part.”

Barnett noted an exception for legislation that "establishes or adjusts assessments, taxes, fees, or rates for water, utility, or other broadly provided public services or facilities that are applied equally, proportionally, or by the same percentage to the elected official's interest and other businesses, properties, or individuals subject to the assessment, tax, fee, or rate," but he wrote that the minimum wage ordinance would not qualify for this exemption. 

Barnett told Woo, “If you believe my advice is an incorrect interpretation of the Ethics Code, you have the ability to ask for an opinion from the full Ethics and Elections Commission.” Barnett said she’s seeking a second opinion from the commission—“details to come.” 

As for the Rest of Them

Several Council Members have been under public scrutiny for perceived conflicts of interest when it comes to Pay Up rollbacks, but Barnett gave them the greenlight to participate. 

Nelson faced the most criticism, as she recently sold Fremont Brewing, which she co-founded with her husband, to one of the state’s largest hospitality companies, Seattle Hospitality Group. Seattle Hospitality Group’s portfolio contains at least nine restaurants that use DoorDash, businesses Nelson and her supporters say will benefit from lower-paid gig workers. 

In an email to a concerned constituent, Barnett explained that Nelson and her husband both got a small share in the entity created by the merger of Fremont Brewing Company, Pike Brewing, and Alley Brews, but neither of them got a share in Seattle Hospitality Group. Since Fremont Brewing, Pike Brewing, and Alley Brews do not currently use app-based deliveries, her interest lies not in increasing deliveries but in increased beer sales. Barnett wrote, “I cannot draw a line from changing the minimum labor standards, to the elimination of the fee, to increased grocery store sales, to increased beer sales. At least not one that could be described as causal.”

Critics also flagged potential conflicts of interests for Council Member Maritza Rivera. According to her 2023 financial disclosure, her husband Dan Kully partially owned a consulting firm that worked with DoorDash. A partner at her husband’s firm recently met with Rivera to discuss the ordinance, according to City lobbying records.

According to KNKX, Kully severed financial ties with the firm last spring. When Rivera asked for Barnett’s advice, he determined it would not be a conflict of interest for her to participate.