Council Member Tim Burgess is going to lose by winning.
This morning, 15 organizations, including several church groups and the ACLU, will band together at a press conference to condemn the city council for ignoring a Seattle Human Right Commission report that warns about the ramifications of an aggressive-solicitation bill. Sponsored by Burgess, the bill says that any suspect who doesn't pay the $50 fine or misses a court date, likely scenarios for homeless people without money or an addresses to receive mail, would automatically be guilty of a criminal misdemeanor. The problem, as the commission notes, is that issuing a citation gives a cop a low burden of proof and gives a suspect no legal right to a lawyer, but the suspect easily winds up with a criminal charge. Nonetheless, the council appears ready to pass the bill next Monday.
The commission—a board tasked by city law to advise the council on policy—also found that data don't support the core claims of Burgess's bill: that aggressive solicitation is a growing public-safety problem in Seattle. "[W]e are concerned that the data are insufficient to support the substance of the proposed ordinance," the commission wrote in a scathing 15-page report.
"I don't remember all the stuff that they said in the human rights commission report," says City Council President Richard Conlin, who says he supports the bill, "but when I went through and looked at the ordinance, it looked like a reasonable and modest step.
"We listen to everybody," Conlins says, "but that doesn't mean we have to agree with everybody."
As it happens, Conlin and Burgess agree with downtown business interests that are behind the bill, led by the Downtown Seattle Association and the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, which have lobbied the council for years to pass another panhandling ordinance (we already have a law on the books that makes aggressive begging a criminal offense). They targeted the council with testimony and letters that overwhelmingly complained about behavior that is already illegal (like assaults) under existing law or is simply annoying (like swearing).
“I haven’t looked at the data that is supposed to substantiate [the bill]," says Conlin, asked about the commission report that debunks claims in the bill. "But what I am hearing is that there are people who perceive street disorder, and that is problematic. I don't know about connection to more serious crime."
Neither Conlin nor Burgess mentioned the report—or the commission's vote to oppose the bill—at a committee meeting last week, nor did they provide copies to the public. Burgess, along council members Conlin and Sally Bagshaw, voted to send the bill to the full council.
However, on Monday night, the 37th District Democrats unanimously voted to oppose the bill, because it fails fund the sort of police and human services that would actually address street crime and contains other flaws detailed by the commission.
David Bloom, a former minister and one of two people who introduced the resolution to the 37th District Dems, says he's not surprised by the council. "They roll over for what the downtown business community wants over and over and over again," he says. "They are, by and large, unwilling to stand up to the political and economic power in downtown Seattle—and that’s what’s really driving this."
The 34th District Democrats and the 46th District Democrats also look poised to vote on similar resolutions tonight and tomorrow, respectively. And the 36th District Democrats may also consider a resolution.
More after the jump.
Fifteen organizations will hold a joint press conference to express "frustration that the Seattle City Council has ignored the Seattle Human Rights Commission’s recent damning report."
The groups: ACLU of Washington, Seattle NAACP, Real Change News, the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness, Interfaith Taskforce on Homelessness, Seattle Displacement Coalition, El Centro de la Raza, Minority Executive Directors Coalition of King County, Lutheran Public Policy Office, Statewide Poverty Action Network, Asian Counseling and Referral Services, Church Council of Greater Seattle, Seattle Community Council Federation, Urban Rest Stop, and Roots.
The bill will probably pass, Bloom acknowledges, but it comes with the scrutiny of people who "will be monitoring it closely and use it for political leverage in the future to mitigate against the harmful affects of the ordinance."
But Burgess—who is widely expected to run for mayor in 2013—is making enemies among grassroots organizations with huge memberships, potentially several District Democratic organizations, human rights advocates, and anyone who doesn't kowtow to downtown money. If Burgess is dead set on muscling through feckless, unjustified, misleading legislation that pisses off those people, it will come with a steep political price.