Here's something that's very grave and has huge implications for the future of our city: Seattle's multibillion-dollar budget. In fact, the budget is probably the most important thing the Seattle City Council works on, according to the council's elder stateswoman, Jean Godden. In cold dollars and cents, it separates the funded programs from the just-paid-lip-service programs, and in the process affects hundreds of thousands of lives.
So if five out of our nine Seattle City Council members were to, say, suspend all of their major budget work for days at a time in order to attend a retreat at Suncadia Resort in Cle Elum, a 90-minute drive away from Seattle, that might be strange. And this fall jaunt into the countryside would be extra strange if these five council members each paid $1,350 of taxpayer money to the retreat's host, the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, in order to attend. (The Chamber represents thousands of large businesses, including behemoths like Boeing and Microsoft and Vulcan Real Estate, with council-related lobbying agendas.) If some of these council members later claimed there were actually diverse voices represented at the conference, and then it turned out there were no labor leaders at the resort to speak up for working people, that would be strange, too.
And it would be super odd—but completely coincidental, of course—if several of the council members who attended the retreat were relying on contributions from the Chamber or its political action committee to pad their 2015 campaign accounts (and the three members who didn't go to the retreat were not).
Yet this actually happened, from October 15 to 17. And it easily could have been six council members—a veto-proof majority—at that Suncadia retreat: Bruce Harrell, who also received Chamber donations, registered to attend, but didn't go because of a recent death in the family.
Council members Mike O'Brien and Kshama Sawant, who skipped the retreat, have never received money from the Chamber, according to O'Brien's office and campaign finance records. Jean Godden, who also skipped the retreat, last received a contribution from the Chamber three years ago but doesn't currently have any Chamber money in her campaign account. With the exception of Licata, the rest of the council—Council President Tim Burgess and members Sally Bagshaw, Tom Rasmussen, Sally Clark, and Harrell—either received Chamber contributions in recent years or are rolling over past contributions of between $350 and $700 to fund their 2015 campaign accounts. (The maximum allowed contribution to a Seattle City Council member is $700.)
Sawant blew the whistle on the Chamber retreat on October 16, calling it "a clear display of brazen corporate favoritism" in a press release blast. If she hadn't, it's unlikely you'd be reading about it now. The annual Chamber-sponsored retreat has been going on since 1987 without much public concern.
The next leftmost member of the council, Nick Licata, is the one council member who attended the retreat but didn't receive any money from the Chamber this year. After he returned to Seattle, he posted an online statement questioning whether the retreat was too one-sided. "An example that comes to mind," he said, "was the topic on the agenda about 'megatrends'... In this case, the presenter did not identify rising income disparity as a megatrend." (Some non-council-member attendees pointed out the omission and called for higher taxes, Licata noted, even though they knew the position was unpopular in the room.)
Council President Tim Burgess insists the retreat represents an "excellent opportunity to connect with community leaders," and that in general the leaders there include people from "municipal, county, and state governments, business, labor, public education, philanthropy, and nonprofit advocacy groups." Burgess added: "I don't know why labor was not present this year. Perhaps the minimum wage battles were too fresh."
None of this appears to violate any Seattle ethics rules, according to Wayne Barnett, the director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.
But there's also the matter of the state's open meetings law, which bars five council members (or more) from talking about "official business" outside of a public meeting. If all of them sat at the same dinner table, for example, and talked about council affairs, that would violate the law. Council Member Sally Clark says they sat separately from one another.
By far the most incendiary charge that Sawant leveled at her colleagues was that they were "taking down marching orders from the Chamber." That was sure to rankle a council that prides itself on building consensus through endless committees (and, often, committees to oversee those committees). Licata dismissed the charge. And Clark, who frequently spars with Sawant on the council dais, shot back in an e-mail to The Stranger: "To say anyone receives marching orders mischaracterizes the work sessions and doesn't give me or others much credit for having a brain."
But two well-placed sources in city hall told me that at the retreat, developers raised objections to a resolution—just a resolution, not a law—that was scheduled to come to a vote the following Monday, October 20. The resolution, which passed, approved of the idea of using new "linkage fees" on construction to fund affordable housing.
At the Monday hearing on the resolution, Council Member Sally Bagshaw, recently back from the retreat, introduced a last-minute amendment (which failed) that would have made the already nonbinding resolution even more toothless by removing the proposed fee amounts from the language.
Bagshaw didn't respond specifically to a question about her reasons for the amendment. But she said she attended the Chamber's retreat in order to "learn from others and unite people to solve problems. That is done by building relationships one conversation at a time."
This article has been updated to reflect that council members Sally Clark and Sally Bagshaw received contributions from the Chamber of Commerce or its political arm, the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy, last year, not this year. A portion of the contribution to Clark's campaign was rolled over from last year.