The Seattle City Council will not consider a plan to raise $500 million from the city’s largest businesses until the council can meet in person over concerns that passing the legislation would violate state guidelines for online public meetings.
The decision, announced May 7 by Council President Lorena Gonzalez and first reported by The Seattle Times, was a blow to yet another effort to tax large businesses, including Amazon. The newest iteration, sponsored by Councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Tammy Morales, aimed to put money in the pockets of low-income households immediately and toward affordable housing and climate-friendly building renovations in the medium term.
However, such legislation is covered by the Washington Open Public Meetings Act, which requires opportunity for public comment and discussion. Gov. Jay Inslee suspended public gatherings in March, which precluded in-person local government meetings.
In lieu of traditional meetings, the governor and Attorney General Bob Ferguson put out guidance for limited use of digital meetings to continue the public business. Specifically, that guidance allows for bills that are “routine and necessary” or necessary for combatting the coronavirus.
The City Council held two virtual meetings to discuss the tax proposal before making the decision to shelve it. According to The Seattle Times, Councilmember Lisa Herbold convinced Gonzalez and Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who chairs the budget committee, that the legislation did not fit the conditions necessary under the governor’s guidance.
Sawant decried the decision in a series of tweets, calling it a “naked attempt to break the momentum of our movement”.
She also pointed out that councilmembers had violated the Open Public Meetings Act before voting on a repeal of a business tax in 2018 after The Seattle Times and SCC Insight found that councilmembers had engaged in a “serial meeting” by exchanging messages about the viability of the legislation.
Herbold raised similar concerns when the council considered modifications to the design review process, which had stalled since design review boards do not yet have access to virtual meeting spaces. That caused a bottleneck in new housing production that the council aimed to solve by temporarily allowing administrative review of certain projects and simple approval from the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections for affordable housing projects.
Herbold argued that removing affordable housing from design review violated the governor’s guidance on open meetings because such projects already received priority in the administrative review process and that changes were neither “routine and necessary” nor meant to help solve the coronavirus crisis.
That time, her colleagues disagreed.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more in the May 13-19, 2020 issue.