It's a curious silence. Two people elected to city hall last November—Mayor Mike McGinn and City Attorney Pete Holmes—have yet to weigh in on a controversial bill moving through a city council committee. Sponsored by Seattle City Council member Tim Burgess, the measure would create a $50 fine for aggressive solicitation. And downtown business interests—the same business interests that rallied for McGinn's and Holmes's opponents—are backing Burgess's bill.
The ACLU of Washington warned the city council in a recent letter that the "unnecessary" law could be applied to target "undesirable" people; the ACLU also cited existing laws against aggressive begging, threatening behavior, violent behavior, and assault. "Actions that would be effective in dealing with safety include increased police foot patrols and augmenting services," writes Jennifer Shaw, deputy director of the ACLU of Washington. In contrast, lawyers working with Burgess have crafted a bill that claims, "Prohibiting aggressive solicitation is reasonably necessary" as a way to address "a serious public safety problem in Seattle."
"Lawyers on both sides are reading this in fairly diametrically opposed ways," says Tim Harris, executive director of Real Change.
The perspective of Holmes—the former chair of a city police accountability board and well versed in law enforcement—is particularly necessary to determine if this law would be helpful or burdensome. But so far McGinn and Holmes—both attorneys—have repeatedly refused to take a position on the bill.
Meanwhile Burgess and other backers of the bill are being quite vocal. They cite a growing anxiety about public safety and the ominous statistic that serious crime rose 22 percent downtown (from Pioneer Square to South Lake Union) last year. Conventional wisdom suggests something must be done and that it would be politically risky for McGinn or Holmes to take on the vengeful mob. But the facts are against the vengeful mob.
For example, according to a Downtown Seattle Association (DSA) survey, between 2007 and 2009, residents' extreme concerns about aggressive panhandling in the downtown core actually dropped from 57 percent to 32 percent. Meanwhile, an examination of Seattle Police Department (SPD) crime records by The Stranger shows that from 2008 to 2009, the combined number of assaults and robberies in the four police beats that make up the downtown core from James Street to Denny Way increased less than 1 percent (a police beat including Pioneer Square was not counted because it included areas far south of downtown). SPD reported 1,028 such incidents in 2008 and 1,036 incidents in 2009). That's after 2008 marked a 40-year low for crime in Seattle. The rise in crime downtown that Burgess cites comes largely from theft—which his bill does nothing to address.
Burgess, who is expected to run for mayor in 2013, is engaged in pure political posturing and wasting city time and resources courting powerful benefactors with deep pockets who could help him in 2013.
"As long as we have been around, we have been concerned about aggressive panhandling and have wanted someone to address this very critical issue," George Allen, vice president of government relations of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, told Burgess's Public Safety & Education committee on March 17. The DSA, meanwhile, cites "panhandling legislation" among its top five priorities.
Jon Scholes, policy director of the DSA and a leading proponent of the bill, contributed to Tom Carr's campaign last year. Allen contributed to Joe Mallahan. And the chamber of commerce's political wing endorsed Mallahan.
But Seattle voters decisively rejected Mallahan and Carr. Now that Holmes and McGinn are in office, and weren't elected by the DSA or the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, they don't need to cater to their legislative goals—particularly when that agenda is grounded in irrational fears and not facts.
So, again, what do McGinn and Holmes think about this bill?