Looking back on mayoral term marked by years of conflict between Jenny Durkan, city council

Sep 15, 2021, 5:45 AM | Updated: Dec 16, 2021, 7:28 am
ice seattle Durkan, oil furnace...
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan. (File photo, Karen Ducey/Getty Images)
(File photo, Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

Seattle will have a new mayor by the start of the new year, with incumbent Jenny Durkan opting not to run for reelection after just one term. However brief her tenure will end up being, though, it’s one that’s been punctuated by frequent flare-ups of conflict between her office and the city council.

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Those flare-ups have been prevalent since she took office in late 2017, ranging from calls from either side for the other for resign, to back-and-forth debates over policing that persist to this day.

A stalled nomination

In early 2019, Durkan nominated interim Human Services Department head Jason Johnson to fill the role on a permanent basis, triggering a lengthy weeks-long process that saw the city council ultimately scuttle the nomination entirely.

The saga began when Councilmember Kshama Sawant passed a committee resolution to delay the nomination process, objecting to the way Durkan chose Johnson, claiming it was too secretive and didn’t include community buy-in. Durkan later shortened the city’s contract with homeless shelter operators SHARE and WHEEL, a move Sawant claimed was in retaliation against the groups for supporting the councilmember’s bid to expand the search for HSD’s new permanent director.

Durkan eventually opted to withdraw her nomination, citing a “deeply unfair process” that served as “a distraction” to Seattle’s homeless response efforts.

Battle over city’s soda tax

City councilmembers voted in 2017 to approve specific rules for how money from its sweetened beverage tax could be used, with the goal of ensuring funds would go toward expanding healthy food options, supporting local food banks, and promoting healthy eating.

The tax itself had paid immediate dividends since it was enacted in January 2018, earning $22 million, $5.7 million more than the city originally estimated. It faced criticism, though, when that extra money went into the city’s general fund, rather than toward its targeted programs.

Durkan vetoed the council’s ordinance limiting how the money could be spent shortly after it was passed, claiming that it would lead to significant cuts to several community programs, including food banks, senior meals, and child care assistance, and warning that it could lead to a $7 million budget gap.

At the time, then-council president — and now, Seattle’s incoming mayor — Bruce Harrell labeled the mayor’s veto “a complete waste of time.” Current Council President Lorena Gonzalez was similarly critical, stating that she was “disturbed by the rhetoric coming out of the mayor’s office,” with others on the council noting that the legislation did not take money from existing programs.

Councilmembers voted to override Durkan’s veto by a 7-1 margin.

JumpStart tax

In July 2020, the city council passed what represented a landmark tax on corporations with payrolls over $7 million. Under the measure, qualifying businesses are taxed 0.7% for every employee making over $150,000, and 1.4% for employees making over $500,000.

Durkan — who had frequently spoken out against large-scale taxation for big businesses — sent the legislation back to the council unsigned as a law she said she could not support “in its current form.”

“Council’s fast track approach to passing one of the largest taxes proposed in City history has led to serious concerns about not just the legality, size and scale of this tax, but its long-term impacts on the city and our small businesses,” Durkan said at the time.

A lawsuit filed by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce that sought to overturn the tax was struck down by a King County judge in June 2021, although the chamber has since submitted an appeal in state court.

While the levy has yet to begin collecting, it has already figured heavily into Seattle’s spending plans for the future, with its estimated funds widely incorporated into the city’s 2021 budget for COVID-19 relief and homeless response efforts.

Calls to resign

Social justice protests over the death of George Floyd in spring and summer of 2020 had Durkan and councilmembers at odds once again, specifically in the realm of police reform.

That conflict came to a head after a series of protests in the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, where police deployed tear gas and flashbangs on multiple occasions. In the wake of those incidents, Councilmembers Sawant, Teresa Mosqueda, and Tammy Morales all called on Durkan to step down amid vows from several on the council to cut the police department’s budget by as much as 50%.

“I think the mayor should assess in this moment, ask herself if she is the right leader in this moment and resign,” Mosqueda said in June of 2020.

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Weeks later, Durkan issued a letter to Gonzalez calling on the council to investigate and potentially expel Sawant, pointing to what she categorized as “disorderly or otherwise contemptuous behavior.” That behavior included several accusations laid out in a failed recall petition against Sawant that took place in early December.

Gonzalez rebuffed Durkan’s request, arguing that “public airing of issues amongst and between independently elected officials will not advance solutions on the deepening needs of our constituents.”

Clash over COVID relief

In late July of 2020, city council approved a COVID relief bill that would have taken $86 million from the city’s emergency fund to provide small business grants for child care, expand food vouchers, help with rent and shelter space, and support immigrants and refugees. That fund would have then been replenished once the city began collecting its JumpStart big business tax.

Durkan vetoed the bill and responded with a letter to the city clerk, stating that it would be “irresponsible” to drain the entirety of the city’s rainy day and emergency funds in the first few months of what’s likely a multi-year crisis.

“If 2020 is any indication, no one can responsibly project that Seattle will not have additional emergencies this year and next,” she wrote. “Already this year, in addition to the health and economic crisis, we have seen a significant unplanned infrastructure emergency with the closure of the West Seattle Bridge.”

Mosqueda — who chairs the council’s budget committee — issued a response of her own, warning that “the mayor’s veto will flatline Seattle’s recovery.”

After attempts to come to an agreement with the mayor on a less aggressive spending plan, the council voted to override Durkan’s veto, albeit with a $26 million reduction from the original bill.

Debate over police reform

While all but one councilmember ended up backing off a bid to cut SPD’s budget in half, the debate surrounding the department’s funding and staffing heated up late in the summer of 2020.

The city council had initially laid out a proposal to lay off 100 SPD employees, including mounted patrol, the public affairs unit, Harbor Patrol, SWAT, and the now-defunct Navigation Team. Both Durkan and then-SPD Chief Carmen Best held a press conference where they criticized the measure as “reckless,” urging councilmembers to bring the police department and mayor’s office to the negotiating table.

Council President Gonzalez fired back a day later, noting that she had spoken to Durkan “several hours in advance of her press conference,” where she had “openly invited her and the chief to a conversation about how we chart a collaborative path forward.”

“I was disappointed to hear that not only had she accepted that invitation first, but she went then before a set of cameras to continue to misrepresent this council’s willingness to engage collaboratively and in a non-divisive way,” Gonzalez said, accusing Durkan of attempting to “delegitimize, delay, and distract us from this effort in hopes that the political winds will change.”

That debate carried over into the new year, with Durkan blaming the council for the departure of over 250 SPD officers spanning the last year and a half.

“When city leaders talk about cutting a department by 50%, you will lose employees,” she said in July of 2021.

Durkan later transmitted a request to the council to put $15 million in salary savings from departed officers toward hiring bonuses and retention efforts as part of the city’s mid-year amended budget. Councilmembers voted instead to keep $10 million of that funding within SPD, a move that SPD praised for allowing the department to “attempt to mitigate some of these staffing losses, implement new technologies and projects to continue to meet the goals of the consent decree, and to attract and retain the best officers in the nation to serve the people of Seattle.”

One more unsigned bill

Disagreements over police reform resurfaced in early September 2021, after the mayor left another bill unsigned.

The measure was approved by the council in a 7-0 vote in mid-August, seeking to restrict SPD’s use of weapons such as tear gas, pepper spray, and flash bang devices — particularly during protests and demonstrations — while totally banning the use of blast balls and a handful of other crowd control weapons. The bill’s implementation is conditional on approval from the U.S. Department of Justice and federal monitors in charge of the city’s ongoing policing consent decree.

In her letter to the council, Mayor Durkan laid out her objections to the ordinance, claiming that its conditional implementation is “of doubtful legality,” and that if parts of it are struck down by the DOJ, it could “undermine public trust, create confusion, and hasten more departures from SPD.”

In a written statement to MyNorthwest, the council’s Public Safety Committee Chair Lisa Herbold’s office took issue with the mayor’s criticism, noting that she had “met informally” with a federal monitor and the DOJ to discuss the bill as it was being drawn up, and had “made changes to the legislation in response to these conversations.” Herbold further added that it was “developed in compliance with, and respect for, the Consent Decree process.”

Questions, comments, or feedback? Follow Nick Bowman on Twitter at @NickNorthwest to weigh in, or reach him by email at [email protected]

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Looking back on mayoral term marked by years of conflict between Jenny Durkan, city council