That was fast! Earlier today, I told Stranger readers about a mysterious online ad campaign aimed at influencing the debate over Seattle's homelessness crisis.
The campaign—which involved Facebook ads, a slick web site, and ads on other platforms—was called "City Council: Make It Better," and it was harshly critical of the Seattle City Council in general and Council Member Mike O'Brien in particular.
For example, it prominently quoted O'Brien as saying, "We have no plan"—insinuating that he and the council had zero plan on homelessness. (O'Brien did in fact say "we have no plan" during a KUOW appearance on March 15, but he was referring to, and criticizing, the city's lack of a comprehensive plan for one facet of the homelessness crisis: people living in vehicles.)
So who was behind this O'Brien-bashing, Seattle City Council-bashing, head tax-hating campaign?
As requested, a bunch of Stranger readers sent me clues, tips, screengrabs, and personal ad targeting information over the last couple of hours. But I'd also encouraged the person or group behind the ad campaign to come forward and e-mail me, and at 12:01 pm today this landed in my in-box:
Glad you liked our website! The Chamber has been clear that we’re very frustrated with City Council’s ineffectiveness in their response to our homelessness crisis. We believe this is a regional issue that requires a coordinated regional response with measurable outcomes.
We want more people in stable, permanent housing, and we want to make sure that the City is putting resources towards solutions that help achieve that goal.
We think that this effort has helped focus the public’s attention on this issue and, for now, this campaign has run its course.
Hope that clarifies things—though it might disappoint the conspiracy theorists out there.
Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce
The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, it's worth noting, wrangled $611,000 in independent expenditure contributions to help Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan win election last year.
I wrote back to Kathryn Robertson:
Thanks very much!
To be clear: You’re saying that the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce is behind the MakeItBetterCityCouncil.com web site, as well as the "City Council: Make it Better" Facebook page and the online ads associated with that page?
Interesting to know that this campaign is now over. How much was spent in total on the web site and the online ads?
And do you believe this is an expense that must be publicly reported?
To which the Chamber of Commerce communications manager replied:
Yes, confirming those are our ads and website. Nothing further to add at this time.
Notice that Robertson did not answer my questions about the cost of this ad campaign or whether she believes the campaign was an expense that must be publicly reported.
I'm still waiting to hear from Seattle Ethics and Elections Director Wayne Barnett on whether this political ad campaign is covered by Seattle's unique law on digital ad transparency. My guess is that it may not be, and that these non-election-time issue ads may fall into an unregulated gray area.
So here's an idea, Seattle City Council members:
Strengthen this city's transparency laws—and encourage openness and personal responsibility in our democratic discourse—by making it clear that section 2.04.280 of the Seattle Municipal Code applies not just to online election-year political advertising, but to online political issue ad campaigns like this one, too.