The room at the Seattle University Student Center was full to bursting. The double doors leading in had to be opened to allow onlookers standing in the hallway full view of the proceedings inside. Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien urged people standing in the back to sit on the ground near the small table at which he and Councilmember Kshama Sawant stationed themselves.
It was a special meeting of the Sustainability and Transportation Committee, held in the evening at the school just a few blocks from the King County youth detention facility, the subject of the night’s discussion.
O’Brien and Sawant — who represent a quorum of the committee — were there to discuss and vote on a proposal from O’Brien that would put Seattle’s City Council in the middle of a fight between King County and community members over the construction of a new youth jail and court complex in the heart of the Central District.
Community members fought the jail, all the way to appealing the granting of a master use permit that allowed the building to go forward. The hearing examiner refused to consider the appeal, but this proposal by O’Brien would allow opponents of the jail another opportunity.
O’Brien and Sawant voted in favor of the bill, which sends it to a vote of the full council later in May.
County officials said in a statement that the proposal was an unnecessary attempt to delay the construction of the youth jail, which they described as a “modern, therapeutic and community-centered” facility.
Tuesday night’s vote was a foregone conclusion — O’Brien created the legislation, which would make some technical tweaks to allow Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) to appeal a city department’s decision to allow the project to go forward. Sawant has long been a vocal critic of the project, which is sited in her district.
Still, it staked out new ground in the complicated fight over the youth jail, a battle on which city leadership has found itself on all sides.
King County has spearheaded the construction of the Children and Family Justice Center, a $210 million facility paid for through a voter-approved measure in 2012. The county put together the ballot language that did not mention youth detention at all, a point that community members have used to contest the validity of the vote, which was also marred by low turnout.
However, the project falls within the city of Seattle, which means that city departments must give the required permissions to move forward. One of those is special dispensation to build bigger than allowed under the normal zoning code.
King County asked for permission to do so, and the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, on Dec. 22, granted approval of a master use permit, the last hurdle before the county could move forward.
EPIC appealed that decision to the Office of the Hearing Examiner, getting the appeal in just before the two-week window over the winter holidays closed, but Sue Tanner, the hearing examiner assigned to the case, refused to rule on the merits of the appeal. In her ruling, Tanner said that EPIC and the 60 other community organizations that signed on didn’t have the right to appeal the decision because of the classification of the project in the Seattle Municipal Code.
The city of Seattle weighed in, first supporting the county and then refusing to sign on to the move to dismiss. The City Attorney’s Office told Seattle Weekly that they felt it was “inappropriate” to dismiss EPIC’s appeal, and that the group could go to the Superior Court.
O’Brien’s bill would offer another route by retroactively changing the code to reflect what he said was the council’s intent the whole time — to make “youth services centers” appealable to the hearing examiner.
The move doesn’t guarantee that an appeal will be heard, much less successful, but, if approved by the full council, it will give EPIC additional grounds to fight in court. It also doesn’t make up for his initial vote to approve the jail, a decision he regrets, O’Brien said.
“I apologize for my role in sustaining it, including my vote from a few years ago,” O’Brien said.
Though the change would be helpful in future actions, neither epic nor the community are relying on the system to stop the youth jail. The people will do that work, said Senait Brown, a member of epic and outspoken opponent of the jail.
“We are planning to dismantle this building,” Brown said.
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. Twitter @AshleyA_RC
Read the full May 24 issue.
Director's Corner: Real Change joins No New Youth Jail campaign
Seattle backs anti-youth jail motion