Sawant called recent developments Orwellian.
Sawant called recent developments "Orwellian." CITY OF SEATTLE

We're what? Eight weeks into social distancing measures? The Seattle City Council has been hosting remote meetings via Zoom during this pandemic. Councilmember Alex Pedersen looks like he hasn't slept since the stay-home order started. Councilmember Debora Juarez, who is immunocompromised and has been distancing longer than her colleagues, has finally (mostly) figured out she has a mute button, but she sounds more exasperated by the day.

These remote meetings, and whether they fit under Gov. Jay Inslee's proclamation on the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), have been a particular source of tension lately.

Inslee's proclamation, issued in March and extending through May, states that agencies cannot host in-person meetings. Because, you know, coronavirus. Agencies can have remote meetings, however, as long as they either pertain to the COVID-19 response or, unhelpfully, if they are "necessary and routine matters."

Last week, Council President Lorena González and Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda decided that the council's ongoing deliberations on a prospective business payroll tax (or Amazon Tax) did not fit the governor's requirements. So the legislation, which would provide emergency cash assistance for households, has been put on hold. Its sponsors, Councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Tammy Morales, aren't happy. They made that clear during the Monday morning council briefing.

"Council leadership made a choice to enforce the strictest interpretation of the governor’s proclamation without a conversation about the risk," Morales said. "Consequently, the conversation about emergency relief is halted."

Sawant said that the situation would be "bizarrely hilarious" if people's lives weren't at stake.

The big debate is whether the business payroll tax, which will put a 1.7 percent tax on the payrolls of businesses that report $7 million or more in annual payroll, is a response to the COVID-19 crisis. The original inception of the tax did not include a response to the global pandemic since there wasn't a global pandemic when it was incepted. The main goal of the tax is to fund affordable housing and green infrastructure as it's related to a Green New Deal for Seattle.

However, an immediate emergency cash assistance program was added to address the COVID-19 crisis. That plan is dead in the water currently.

González defended her position to halt the legislation. She is not trying to kill progressive revenue options, she said today, she is trying to protect the council against a lawsuit.

The call was made after legal analysis by the city attorney's office was presented to the Council. That analysis, which is private due to attorney-client privilege, concerned Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who sent a memo about how she didn't feel comfortable participating in the meetings.

"The argument that our virtual, filmed, open broadcast council meetings are not open enough and justifying the cancellation of those meetings in backroom deals is truly Orwellian," Sawant said, "you cannot make this stuff up."

She then cited that in 2018, Herbold and González were some of the council members who made the call to renege on the recently-passed head tax in a "backroom deal" that resulted in an Open Public Meetings Act violation and lawsuit.

Herbold, in her memo regarding legal concerns about the payroll tax meetings, said that she felt uncomfortable not being able to see how audiences react in public meetings and whether “anyone shook their heads in disappointment, frowned or nodded, booed or clapped.”

Sawant mused whether there was "any standard in the OPMA that requires elected officials to be able to discern facial expressions of public."

González bristled at Sawant's push-back.

"For our colleagues Sawant and Morales who apparently think I take great joy in stopping a conversation about progressive revenue," González said. "I want to correct the record on that."

González went on to say that she's been lobbying the governor's office to "soften" the proclamation to "account for how technology works in today" since it now requires, according to González's interpretation of the legal analysis, in-person meetings.

"Engaging in name-calling and ascribing ill-intent of smokey roomed backroom deals—I don’t know where these backrooms are," González said, "Or where this is coming from. I’ve been very transparent."

Juarez then chimed in about how she didn't want to "play politics in the midst of a pandemic" and basically told everyone to knock it off. She seemed confident that if this kind of tax was passed that the council would almost certainly get sued, which echoed González's points.

"Taxpayer money" being used to "settle lawsuits is exactly what would happen" if the council meetings around the payroll tax were to continue in this "reckless" manner, according to González.

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For now, Morales and Sawant can tailor their legislation more specifically to the pandemic response or they can wait until the council is able to meet in person again. That could be months or, realistically, even longer.

Mosqueda said that she was inclined to host public town halls about the tax to further the discussion. Those are different from official city council committee meetings. Sawant said she would like to help Mosqueda with those town halls. González was "heartened" by the idea.

Also, just to put it out there, the silence of all the men on the council is deafening. None of them have participated in the debates around this topic nor have they shared their perspectives in any interviews. All did not return requests for comment from The Stranger last week.

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