Open Letter to Mayor-Elect Harrell: A Roadmap

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Image by TanteTati from Pixabay

Dear Mayor-Elect Harrell:

You are an excellent, focused, and approachable candidate, so I’m not surprised that you ran a smart and effective campaign, resulting in a seeming mandate for change along the lines you articulated (common sense, unity, solving polarized problems). Now, of course, it gets harder. Here are some suggestions for your first 100 days — days which start right now.

Ally with Mayor Jenny Durkan. Mayor Durkan was vindicated in the past election, and she is having a legacy surge in her final 100 days. See where you can help, and strike a rare note of mayoral continuity. One suggestion, since Durkan is keen on sports (NHL, new arena, Storm practice facility, wooing the World Cup), is to name her chair of the committee to land a NBA team, where she has lots of powerful connections. Get behind her breakthrough deal with the School District (elementary school downtown and raising school levy money to modernize Memorial Stadium). Endorse her bonus plan for signing up new police officers. Above all, spend a lot of time with Durkan, so you know what programs are in train.


Transparency. Seattle government has become opaque, leading to distrust by the voters. The real powers have been unelected and backroomy: labor unions, developers, business groups, ethnic brokers. Two ways to counter this trend are: appoint a very trusted press secretary (Essex Porter, Omari Salisbury). The other is to commit to public benchmarks and transparent updating of progress (housing units, new police hires, streets repaved, shoplifting incidents) that will hold you accountable and make clear your measurable priorities.


Appoint effective lieutenants. Key will be a deputy mayor (just one, please) such as Greg Wong, Sung Yang, Jessyn Farrell, and Dwight Dively. Make sure the choice is one who is widely respected, has a strong track record, and really knows the inner workings of City Hall. Many department heads are about to retire, so you will want a committee of solid advisers to vet these appointments and resist special-interest pressures. Lay out clearly what you are looking for, especially for police chief. These chummy appointments have been the weakness of past mayors: Durkan, Murray, McGinn. The first ones you name will set the standards for those who follow, and make more likely candidates who want to be part of an A-Team, not the usual City Hall “mess.”


Restore competence. Some should be appointed, but most should be in an unnamed kitchen cabinet. Some examples for the semi-secret cabinet: Sally Clark, Randy Engstrom, Tim Burgess, Colleen Echohawk, David Domke, Father Mike Ryan, Stephan Blanford, Sally Bagshaw, Ben Franz-Knight, Jim Diers, David Rolf, Casey Sixkiller, Nick Hanauer, Katie Wilson. Listen to these folks and practice forming consensus positions within the group before wrestling with the city council. 


Bridge the generation gap. This is the main crevasse between older liberals and younger, impatient progressives. I like the coaching metaphor you used in the campaign, as coaches have experience and are good at developing young talent, building team spirit, and putting points on the board. But also advocate for some programs that broadly benefit younger people: modified rent control, a version of a domestic peace corps (funded by corporations), expanding Durkan’s free community colleges program (needs tested) to any community college in the West. Empower your children as blunt advisers, since your instinct will be to go with an older generation of community contacts.


Be decisive, not “moderate.” The best way to be moderate is to advocate programs from a broad spectrum, not to split the difference and react late to the debate. Avoid no-win decisions by taking no position on the Sawant recall, by lateraling the homelessness headaches to the regional agency, and finesse the equity debate by favoring more schooling and jobs. 


Start fast. You have heard the voters, so lay out three initiatives that stem from the campaign. Some examples: focused (not universal) density for housing; redevelopment of the west campus in U District as an arts/residential/research zone; stress affordable housing on Georgetown and South Park or SoDo; revive Rainier Beach, particularly transit-oriented development; make parks free of encampments but also more attractive (example: the sorry state of South Lake Union Park).


Plan before proposals. Seattle is averse to planning, in part because developers like it that way. So show your independence from developers (who may think they own you, after all the campaign donations) by taking some areas and doing serious, best-practices urban planning. Put a pro such as Marshall Foster in charge. Downtown both needs help and lacks a plan for what to do about Third Avenue, the downtown streetcar (be decisive and say No), developments along the new waterfront park. Same with Seattle Center (KCTS building, siting of rail transit station, adding performance aspects to the playing field of Memorial Stadium). Do we still believe in the Urban Villages concept, despite underfunding it? Narrowing streets like Madison to accommodate bus “rapid” transit and bike lanes? Remember, for business development, planning means predictability and job growth.


Reach out, continuously. The Port of Seattle (financially stressed and overseen by rookie commissioners). University of Washington. School District (in need of a durable superintendent and a broader agenda than racial equity. King County (building on a tense rapport between Constantine and Durkan). Bellevue (in a resentful raiding mode not an allocation mode). Seattle U, with its new president and need for a broader donor base. Neighborhood business and resident groups, still miffed at Mayor Ed Murray’s predations. (I liked your peace overture to the city council of giving each district representative a pot of money to spend in their district, a gift that will keep on giving.)


Above all, get a reliable friend and informant from each of the progressive and moderate factions at the council. Your visible backing of either Debora Juarez or Teresa Mosqueda to be the new council president could net you a grateful ally. Don’t choose sides on the council, but rather seek unity and honest brokering. Getting miffed and isolated from the council will be a trap hard to avoid, it being the one that sank Mayor Durkan some years ago.

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David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and Crosscut.com. His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.

13 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting opening point – that the election largely was an indictment of the present Seattle City Council, not of Mayor Durkan. Only Mosqueda survived, but by less than an impressive margin against a last-minute inexperienced and underfunded candidate no one knew. A thought to take forward, with care……..

  2. David
    Some excellent suggestions but I suspect the current economics and Real Estate values will not support an arts district in the West Campus. Research and housing are the answers there. Arts needs to find more hospitable and affordable real estate.

  3. +100 on Transparency.

    Whether it was the cozy relationships which tossed $3 million taxpayer dollars at the highly questionable “Black Brilliance” research last year, the surprise we all felt when we read the “System Failure” reports 1 and 2 about frequent offenders (what, precisely was the followup there beyond creating a task force?), or the texts hidden from the public and apparently expunged from the public record, daylight is very much needed at City Hall. A city that only prioritizes the needs of a cozy group of activists or corporations with its leaders is not one that generates great results and trust by the public.

    Three actionable steps:

    1) Open source “Find It, Fix It” reports. Of course, anonymize them to preserve privacy, but wouldn’t it be great to know how these reports are trending, and what the biggest items are? We have some of the best data-scientists in the world, in the UW, startup, AWS, Azure and other communities. We don’t even know all the insights we might be able to glean from a close look at this data and how it’s trending.

    2) Require compliance with the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) for all city and regionally funded dollar-outlays, as was recommended years ago in the Pathways Home report. Better match needs with services on a one-on-one basis. Service providers should be strongly encouraged to track touchpoints, and funding should be tied to some level of this, spot-checked for accuracy. We cannot improve what we do not measure.

    3) Define the key metrics of success for major intervention programs. For instance: diversion. There is likely widespread agreement that diversion programs can be a more compassionate, perhaps more effective program at reducing recidivism. Yet we do not seem to know the recidivism rates for LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) program participants for 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 or 2021, even as many parameters surrounding this program have changed. Given that the program is sold to the public as reducing recidivism, shouldn’t we know what those numbers are?

  4. Nice piece. For incoming mayors, there is no substitute for competence in staff and recognizing that moving an agenda requires mobilizing support across the city and inside the city workforce. The council is both indispensable and troublesome and rarely shows leadership on the toughest issues. And much of a mayor’s time is spent dealing with stuff the public never hears about and yet is critical to the city’s success.

  5. Having seen the mayor-elect in action at City Hall, I vote for this roadmap. It reads true, an insider-outsider take on things, riddled with nuance and even contradiction. Brewster calls out ‘back roominess’ and lionizes transparency, while suggesting informal networks. Should work!

  6. David: Good suggestions for the mayor-elect who (for certain) is getting a a lot of advice. I do quibble, however, with your “semi-secret” kitchen cabinet choices. Sounds too much like an echo chamber. Fresh voices are needed. A few (top of head) suggestions: Marco Lowe, Suzanne Dale Estey, Cathy Tuttle, Kevin Daniels, Ron Chew, Jane Nellams, Brian or Mark Canlis, Ron Sher, Maryanne Tagney, Teresita Bataola, Guadalope Perez, Jordan Royer and David Della.

    • Jean Godden’s points above are good. Moreover, because a deputy mayor should not be beholden to the powerful special interests that pulled mayors’ strings previously Farrell (TCC leader) and Dively (local governments’ leader) shouldn’t be considered for the position.

      City policies already afford ample opportunities for development of “dense housing,” and the Rainier Beach area was upzoned for lots of development over two years ago. If you ride light rail you’ll see huge amounts of new dense housing – it’ll fill in there south of the power lines soon enough.

      “Seattle is averse to planning.” That’s a goofy assertion. The SMC land use ordinances are long, complex, detailed, and growing. The comprehensive plan for land use is hundreds of pages and it is updated regularly. The city always is planning with sister local governments and the state to set and administer land use and transportation policies that will impact residents for years in the future. What Harrell should do with respect to the exceedingly detailed planning is, first, gather relevant data and analyze it re: how businesses and residents will be living and moving around now that remote working is the new normal, and then 2) determine how to improve existing planning so that we get off the bad, inequitable paths his predecessors sent us down. Harrell has some messes to clean up and I hope he’s up to that task, for the sake of the residents of this city now and going forward.

  7. Start fast. One priority should be ensuring police accountability by eliminating roadblocks in the collective bargaining agreements with the police unions. Last year’s detour to defund SPD was a mistake, while true police accountability depends on substantially revamping union contract terms. Harrell should bring in knowledgeable advisors who can help keep the City on track to realize the reforms captured in legislation passed in 2017 but still blocked by the contracts. We need leadership that is committed to and focused on achieving these reforms. Thousands of us who marched in the streets last year consider this a critical priority and do not want it swept aside because of concern about crime and police staffing. And remember that those reforms also called for incentives for selecting new officers with social service and other backgrounds who could improve diversity and police performance.

  8. The new mayor should make police accountability an absolute priority. Pursuing defunding was a mistake and a simplistic attempt to address the need for reform of SPD. The police union contracts block essential elements of accountability that were adopted in 2017 legislation. Harrell needs to bring in experts to help the City focus on achieving those reforms in new contracts. The legislation also included provisions to recruit more sworn officers with diverse and effective skill sets, but those provisions have not been fully deployed – even though SPD staffing is down. Those of us who marched in the streets last year don’t want the critical priority of accountability and fair union contracts swept under the rug of new concerns about crime and SPD staff levels.

  9. Most of these comments illustrate Mayor-elect Harrell’s first real problem: Wonk-Speak. Ideas are cheap, and good ones are difficult to find, even more difficult to recognize. Harrell seems like a smart guy. He won because most voters thought he had the better chance to figure out some extremely difficult and persistent Seattle problems. Absence of advice is not his challenge. Too much will slow things down even more. Give the guy a break. Better yet, extend a helping hand.

  10. Thank you for the thoughts. Use your influence David to make sure that the Mayor Elect sees your column and many of these fine comments. First and foremost he will be judged by his actions on the vagrancy crisis.

    Make it clear that those in the encampments strewn with needles, feces, litter, graffiti and stolen stuff are toxic and unacceptable to the city and themselves. Draw a clear line between this group and those working poor, families and others – who are generally homeless temporarily and do not injure the public – whose sympathetic narratives are paraded out by advocates to confuse and obfuscate reality.

    Provide cover to what needs to be done with shelter, perhaps barrack like, and sweep, re-sweep and repeat the parks and greenbelts until the individuals living there get the message that a new regime and set of assumptions is in place. Ignore the advocates, on whose watch we have gotten to the current state. Ally with other west coast mayors facing similar challenges, but do not seek concensus.

    Support a strong but reformed police department and seek to fill it with officers who care more about the citizens than a perverse anti-vax stance. Likewise other 1st responders and line employees

    And here is a pet-peeve that reflects an anti-citizen bias. The city charges us for using online services even though such use clearly saves the city money. Case in point is parking tickets. I can pay my $44.00 ticket by check for the cost of a stamp. This requires an employee to open the envelope, apply the payment to the right account, deposit the check and deal with bounced checks and other tasks from handling mail. That employee requires space, pay and benefits that we all pay.

    Paying online requires no staff to process the payment. funds are automatically mapped to the account and the money hits the city’s account. There may be a dollar or less in fees for the credit card, but we are charged 4 of 5 dollars as a processing charge. This appears to be little more than a job protection move and not rational. Think about embracing technology and letting costs be shed by the city.

    If you have real courage, focus on the real taks of governance and step back from special interest pandering. Why does our city have and pay an office of immigrant and refugee affairs as one example of several? Lucky individuals who have been admitted to our country are capable of managing their affairs themselves and ought not cost the citizens at large. Stay in the lane of good leadership and governance. Avoid pandering to special interests on the left, right or middle – though you will get serious push-back.

    And David, lastly, write a similar letter to Ann Davison. It is not clear what her limits of power and influence can and will be. The City Attorney, Mayor, Council, Police and others need to work together but how this can and will look is unclear to us on the sidelines.

  11. It boggles the mind that the author could look at an outgoing mayor who, among other troubles (in no particular order):

    a) faces Textgate, one of the largest records scandals in the city’s history
    b) has often been caught flat-footed in dealing with a deeply unpopular city council
    c) was asked to resign by multiple city commissions
    d) has, for most of post-vax H2 2021, refused to remove most homeless encampments from parks, sidewalks, and other public spaces
    e) allowed a national embarrassment, CHOP, to take over six blocks of the city’s densest residential neighborhood for nearly a month, while saying it could be a “summer of love”
    f) failed to declare the emergency closure of the city’s busiest road a ‘civil emergency’ for nearly four months after its closure, and took eight months to decide whether the bridge should be repaired or replaced
    g) over the course of a full term, built less than half of her first year goal of 1,000 tiny houses
    h) rejected FEMA’s offer to pay the entire cost of hotel-based homeless shelters
    i) took the city further away from its Vision Zero goal by cancelling plans to include bike lanes on 35th Ave NE

    and think to make that person a close ally. “Legacy surge,” there is not.

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