As the Seattle City Council gets used to its newest formation, questions abound about the policy decisions that may come about in the next year. Business advocates say they are hopeful for new collaborative governance, while progressives fear council members could roll back renter protections and cut investments to affordable housing and services. New developments have begun to crystallize this conservative shift, previewing what 2024 will look like for Seattle politics.
The first big test for the council is the appointment of an interim city council member after King County Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who served for six years on the city council, vacated her seat on Jan. 2. According to the city charter, the city council must replace Mosqueda by Jan. 23. The eight existing city council members narrowed down the field from 72 applicants to eight finalists on Jan. 12. The decisions could further tip the political balance of the council to the right, with former city council candidate Tanya Woo rumored to be the favorite among right-leaning council members.
A controversial firing
After just one week into 2024, the Seattle City Council already got embroiled in its first political controversy. On the afternoon of Jan. 8, the new Council President Sara Nelson fired central staff director Esther Handy, a decision that was first reported by KUOW.
According to the report, Nelson nominated Ben Noble, a longtime city government official who has served as central staff director in the past, to replace Handy.
The city council central staff are a nonpartisan division of the city council made up of workers who draft policy and do research to support council members in drafting legislation.
It was not immediately clear why Nelson fired Handy, who had been in the role for two and half years. Handy had been hired by former Council President Lorena González, whom Nelson succeeded after winning the 2021 November elections. González was significantly more progressive-leaning than Nelson.
The Stranger reporter Hannah Krieg has hypothesized the move may have been politically motivated. Handy had previously worked for two progressive nonprofit advocacy groups as well as former Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who was also politically left-leaning.
King County Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who served for six years as a Seattle City Council member before taking up her seat at King County this January, said Handy had worked in a non-partisan manner.
“Her work history is impeccable,” Mosqueda said. “She worked with all the council members, no matter their political leaning. It’s really important that the central staff be apartisan [and] nonpartisan; and she absolutely was that.”
Mosqueda added that when the city council hired Handy, it had gone through a lengthy hiring process to find the best candidate.
“In some ways it’s unprecedented,” she said. “I haven’t seen a council president come in and immediately do this.”
A spokesperson for the Seattle City Council wrote to Real Change that it “doesn’t comment on personnel matters.”
Handy’s firing may be a larger signal of what’s to come as the new city council members, most of whom are right-wing on issues like economics and policing, settle into their roles.
For years, the Seattle Police Department has failed to recruit more cops than it is losing, despite efforts from multiple mayors and city council members. However, in an interview with Real Change, District 7 Councilmember Bob Kettle said he thinks that new leadership at the city council could encourage more recruits.
Kettle, who is the new public safety committee chair, compared the issue of police staffing to insights he learned during his time serving in the U.S. Navy.
“There’s parallels to the Navy in terms of presence, like the number of ships we have and to be in different places around the world,” Kettle said. “To be in these neighborhoods, to be on that corner engaging with the small business owner, to engage with that community group to be around that library that I mentioned earlier.”
Another aspect of the council’s political shift to the right could be a reluctance to make solidarity statements. In November, the city council passed a symbolic resolution advocating for a cease-fire in Israel’s war on Gaza as well as condemning antisemitism and Islamophobia.
In 2015, then-Deputy Police Chief Carmen Best went on a training trip to Israel. In September 2021 the city council narrowly voted down an ordinance that would have banned SPD from training with Israel and other alleged human rights violators. When asked about if he would support a similar ban on training trips if the International Court of Justice issues provisional measures indicating it is plausible Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza, Kettle dismissed the prospect.
“This has been a problem over the last number of years with the city council and city government overall,” Kettle said. “We need to be focusing on the local issues and working these pieces for the people of Seattle. So getting into the Israeli-Palestinian [conflict], the Gaza war pieces — I’m not gonna go there.”
Budget battles and renters’ rights
A major source of anxiety about the new city council for progressives is the status of Seattle’s landmark tenant protections. Over the past decade, advocates have successfully won regulations such as the requirement for six months notice for rent increases, mandatory relocation assistance in cases where a rent hike leads to dislocation and a moratorium on winter evictions.
In the past, Nelson has opposed capping rental late fees and said that too many regulations can lead to landlords leaving the housing market.
Transit Riders Union campaign coordinator Katie Wilson said she was concerned about previous actions Nelson has taken, such as convening a small landlord stakeholder group.
“One of my biggest worries moving forward with her as council president and with the new composition of the council is that there will be an effort to roll back renters’ rights,” Wilson said.
Nelson was unable to do an interview with Real Change due to the council vacancy process taking up much of her work time.
While it is optional for the Seattle City Council to address rental regulations in 2024, the council must address an impending $200 million general budget deficit for 2025 and 2026.
To do this, the council could either cut services and investments, levy new taxes or both. Wilson said that the prime target for cuts will be the JumpStart payroll tax on big corporations. This tax brings in an annual revenue of about $250 million and goes to new investments in affordable housing, addressing climate change, housing development for communities of color and small business support. However, the council could opt to siphon off these funds to pay for general city expenses.
“I think it’s important to be clear that the JumpStart solution — diverting that revenue to the general fund — that is [a] cut,” Wilson said. “That is cuts to what should be 1000s of new units of affordable housing over the coming years; that is cuts to Green New Deal investments that should be getting Seattle closer to our climate goals.”
While progressives said touching JumpStart funds was a redline, some business advocates have said that the city council should consider shifting those funds to pay for general expenses. Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce CEO Rachel Smith said she’d like to see restrictions on taxes like JumpStart reviewed. Smith also said that the city council should identify potential programs that could be cut in the 2025 and 2026 budget cycles.
“I think there’s a huge opportunity to look at this budget deficit and and approach it in a really thoughtful and transparent and accountable way,” she said. “Looking at eliminating or reducing programs or spending that has either grown faster than real world demand has actually grown, is duplicative of other efforts or agencies, isn’t getting desired outcomes or is ... not required by the charter or no longer a priority or not an expected function of local government.”
Read more of the Jan. 17–24, 2024 issue.