City Council Showdown: Mayor’s Budget Veto Overturned

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Last night the City Council voted 7-2 to override Mayor Durkan’s veto of its “rebalanced” 2020 budget.

Here is my article from earlier this week previewing today’s vote and the issues at stake.

Council members Juarez and Pedersen voted to sustain the veto.

It took three hours of political theater for the Council members to get to the final vote. The meeting began with 90 minutes of public comment, as usual much of it AstroTurfed by advocacy groups and by Council member Sawant’s office. Then there was another 90 minutes of Council members giving speeches explaining their individual votes, often enhancing the political theater by dragging out the reveal of the their decision. Council member Sawant accused her colleagues of trying to negotiate a back-room deal with the Mayor, potentially in violation of the Open Public Meetings Act; several Council members swore that they did not participate in any negotiations at all, and Council President Gonzalez, who led the negotiations over a compromise bill, asserted that meeting and negotiating with the Mayor is not an OPMA violation.

Gonzalez continued to position the compromise bill — which in the end didn’t even come up for consideration — as a backstop in case the Council couldn’t muster the votes to override the Mayor’s veto. But it was clear from the speeches that several of the Council members were weighing the original budget and the compromise bill against each other as the two options they needed to choose from. And there is truth to that: if the Mayor’s veto stood, then the city would not have a balanced 2020 budget and the Council would immediately need to go back to work to create one. The compromise bill, however, would have filled that gap.

Many of the Council members expressed some interest in the compromise bill as an alternative, but found some fatal flaw in it. For some, it was the removal of (relatively minor) cuts to SPD; for others, it was the reduced funding for community investments and capacity building in community-led organizations that could eventually be part of a re-imagined public-safety system for Seattle. For Sawant, who was the sole vote against the rebalanced 2020 budget when the Council first passed it, the motivation had nothing to do with faults in the compromise bill and everything to do with opposing Mayor Durkan.

The good news is that there is now a balanced 2020 budget again. The bad news is that problems still remain. First and foremost, the Council can’t force the Mayor to spend money that it has appropriated, so the next three months will be a continual effort to force the Mayor to comply with the Council’s wishes. And that leads to the second problem: the relationship between the City Council and the Mayor is still broken. Today’s vote probably made it worse, as several Council members expressed their hope that the Mayor would still follow through on several significant concessions she made in the compromise bill — even though the Council flatly rejected it. “We are rejecting the deal we negotiated, but we still want you hold you to the concessions you made in the process of negotiating it” is not a good start to rebuilding the relationship.

Nevertheless, they need to fix it now, because next Tuesday the 2021 budget development process kicks off with the Mayor unveiling her proposed budget. At least Gonzalez realizes this, as her speech this afternoon dwelled on this point. “It is time for us to get past this back and forth, and get back to work,” she said.  Gonzalez commented on the double-edged sword of the negotiations over the compromise bill: while they found some common ground and each made some concessions, she that the it became clear that the Council and the Mayor have different visions on how to move forward on police reform, on the Navigation Team, and on what it means to involve the community in re-imagining public safety. Having clarity on their disagreements helps at one level, but only if there is enough trust, communication and commitment on both sides to bridge them — and at the moment, it’s not at all clear that there is.

Another festering problem is that the Council’s budget, now fully enacted, is arguably in violation of the 2012 Consent Decree, in that it cuts funding for required officer training and makes cuts to SPD units that are mandated under the Consent Decree. Last month Judge James Robart, who oversees the Consent Decree implementation, warned the Council that he is keeping an eye on their legislative activities and reminded them of their responsibilities to follow through on all of the terms of the agreement. That warning came shortly after he issued an injunction blocking the Council’s ban on SPD’s use of crowd-control weapons. The U.S. Department of Justice, which yesterday declared Seattle to be an “anarchist jurisdiction,” is unlikely to look favorably on the Council once again unilaterally implementing changes that impact the Consent Decree; don’t be surprised if they raise the issue with Judge Robart in the coming days.

In short: there’s a balanced 2020 budget on paper that the Mayor isn’t eager to implement, and the acrimony between her and the City Council seems likely to extend through the upcoming budget season and into next year.

This story first ran on our partner site SCCInsight.

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