There may be troubled waters ahead for Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant and her plan to continue the conversation around her Tax Amazon legislation.
The rug was pulled out from under Sawant's feet last week when Seattle City Council President Lorena González, based on confidential legal analysis from the Seattle City Attorney's office, argued that further meetings on the bill violated the Open Public Meetings Act, and so recommended suspending discussion.
Laws around meetings were cinched by a proclamation Gov. Jay Inslee issued in response to the COVID-19 crisis: agencies can hold meetings remotely, but they can only take "action" on "necessary and routine" matters, or on matters related to the COVID-19 response and the current public health emergency. The council argued the Tax Amazon package (which includes some COVID-19 cash assistance) was neither. It was shelved.
Sawant, however, announced Friday morning that if the rest of the council won't hear the legislation then she'd hear it herself, dammit. She does not believe that the legal analysis the council received is correct, and will be hosting further conversations on the legislation in the Sustainability & Renters' Rights Committee that she chairs. Because the bills were originally assigned to a different committee, however, Sawant cannot hold a vote on the legislation.
One big hiccup: she needs a quorum.
Sawant's committee is comprised of herself, Councilmembers Tammy Morales (who co-sponsored the Tax Amazon package), Debora Juarez (who admonished Sawant for "play[ing] politics" in the council's last meeting), Alex Pedersen (who penned this anti-Tax Amazon op-ed), and Andrew Lewis, who confirmed to The Stranger that he would not be attending the meeting.
Pedersen and Morales told me that they had no comment. Juarez, Councilmember Dan Strauss, and Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda did not respond to requests for comment, either. Councilmember Lisa Herbold wrote in a text that she hadn't "reviewed anything new from [Sawant] re [sic] a new legal analysis."
As for Lewis...
"I am definitely not attending that committee meeting," Lewis told me. He doesn't think the committee meeting is compliant with the analysis provided by the legal department or with guidance from Council President Lorena González. "Under OPMA we, as individuals, are liable to legal action. I’m not going because I don’t want to expose myself to possibly violating OPMA."
Lewis, a lawyer, does not want to get sued. The other lawyers on the council, such as González (who was eyeing an attorney general run) and Juarez, are also not in support of meeting about this bill until the governor's proclamation expires, which is slated for the end of the month.
"You know," Lewis said, "we’ve received legal advice which is quite good and has firmly told us that we are in over our skis here."
Sawant's team thinks the concern over getting sued is "a bullshit reason to hide behind the political excuse of defending big business,” according Sawant aide Jonathan Rosenblum.
"It’s ridiculous," Rosenblum said. "The governor's proclamation is not enforceable. No one is going to get sued and lose over attending the city council meetings. It’s absurd."
Lawyers who Sawant has conferred with apparently have a different legal analysis of the proclamation than the city's attorneys. As Rich Smith reported this morning, labor attorney Dmitri Iglitzin believes that virtual meetings meet the requirements of the OPMA, and that "the Governor's emergency powers don't give him the authority to prevent agencies from discussing certain subjects in a meeting."
Lewis rejected that idea. He believes that the governor "clearly and squarely has the authority to do that" because of "the emergency powers he has under the constitution," Lewis said. Lewis continued: "I think it’s great that we found a project that brings Kshama Sawant and Tim Eyman together."
However, nowhere in Inslee's state of emergency powers does it say the governor has that power. I asked Lewis if he could point me to where he got that analysis. Lewis reiterated his point while adding the law code and using a bit of Latin, but did not point out anything specifically. Later, he specified the part of the emergency proclamation that grants the governor authority over "any state agency if strict compliance with the provision of any statute, order, rule, or regulation would in any way prevent, hinder, or delay necessary action in coping with the emergency."
Currently, it seems like Sawant's meeting, if it goes ahead as planned, may end up breaking council rules. Council rules that were amended this year require three council members to be present during committee meetings. So far, Lewis has confirmed he's a no-show, and you'd have to be crazy to expect Pedersen or Juarez to show up with bells on.
Sawant plans to go ahead with the meeting anyway, regardless of which council members don't turn up. Rosenblum, her aide, isn't sure what happens if they break those rules.
"It's not like they'll shut the lights out and say 'okay, bye,'" Rosenblum said. "Quorum or no quorum this is moving forward. We’ll have a discussion on the topic regardless of whether other council members show up or not."
The council is expected to return to City Hall chambers at the end of the month, when the proclamation is scheduled to end. There's a possibility that the order could be extended, but, in that case, a hearing on the Tax Amazon package could happen as quickly as within two weeks.
"There's a massive budget shortfall that's going to have an impact on social services," Lewis said, referring to what could be as much as a $350 million hole in the city's budget this year. "We need to make sure we’re talking about progressive revenue in that equation." That doesn't need to be decided immediately, he said. Just as long as the bill is talked about before budget meetings in the fall.
"I think we can afford to wait a month on this if it means complying with the law," Lewis said.
Sawant's committee meeting is scheduled for Thursday, May 21 at 6 p.m. If she doesn't get three council members to attend it may not happen.