march of silence

BLMSKC Files For Seattle Ethics and Elections Investigation Into Seattle City Council

by Carolyn Bick

Black Lives Matter Seattle – King County (BLMSKC) has filed for a Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC) investigation into the Seattle City Council (SCC), according to a press release and letters received by the Emerald.

In a letter released on the morning of Sept. 14, BLMSKC called on the SEEC to “immediately, transparently, and aggressively investigate” the SCC for 12 different counts of what the press release containing the letter calls “potential incidents” involving both the entire SCC or specifically named members. The letter specifically states that it “makes no accusations” but that the issues outlined within the letter “are gravely concerning to Black Lives Matter Seattle King County.”

One of these questions raised for investigation explicitly names SCC member Lisa Herbold (District 1), about whom BLMSKC raises questions in the letter regarding whether Herbold “misrepresented to individuals she believed to be associated with the Black Lives Matter movement or organization, how she had come to identify them individually, on or about June 8,” and whether that alleged misrepresentation was done to conceal illegal or unethical access of confidential information about supposed BLM organizers and whether that information was shared with others, including certain members of the public. 

BLMSKC also raises questions in the letter about whether Herbold’s alleged “misrepresentation was done in order to falsely implicate another City employee for providing otherwise confidential information,” and “was done in order to take punitive, discriminatory, or retaliatory action against anyone employed by the City of Seattle.”

Late in the afternoon, after this story had broken, the Emerald received a response SCC Director of Communications Dana Robinson Slote said was attributable to Herbold. In the response, Herbold said that in an early June conversation with “the Executive” — she did not specify if she meant King County Executive Dow Constantine — and fellow councilmembers, “we were told that BLM leaders supported the decision to replace bike rack barriers with hard, immovable barriers.”

“Subsequent to that meeting and upon my request, I was given, by Deputy Mayor Shefali Ranganathan, names of [three] BLM leaders that were said to support Chief Best’s decision to erect hard barriers, replacing bike racks, blocking protestors from the public right of way in front of the East Precinct,” the response read, before going on to detail part of a message Herbold said she wrote to one of these three BLM leaders on July 7. The response read, Herbold said, that “I understand there’s strong community support for Chief Best’s leadership.  I do not want to undermine that.  But I want to confirm what the Chief told me today and that is that BLM leaders support the tactic of the new hard barriers and their location as best way to keep peace.”

Herbold then said that “I, subsequent to the message above” — referring to the message she sent to the BLM leader — “had a conversation with this individual and confirmed that this was consistent with their conversation with Chief Best.”

The letter also raises questions about Kshama Sawant (District 3), regarding her Seattle City Hall appearance. The letter asks the SEEC to look into whether Sawant “violated Wash. Rev. Code § 42.30.030” when she “provided access to City Hall outside of operating hours and in defiance of a public health order to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” and whether the action “was a proper or responsible use of City resources,” whether “such action was designed and intended to serve the best interests of the whole of the City,” and whether the involved SCC members “violated the rights of the public in holding a meeting where direct action was taken in attempt to remove another government official.”

Another question asks “[w]hether any staff or elected official within the Office of Seattle City Council including but not limited to Councilmembers Herbold, Sawant, and Mosqueda, unlawfully or unethically sought to limit, discredit, or discount information provided to City Council from local and/or state fire officials regarding hazards within, around, or under the East Precinct, and what threat such hazards could pose to public safety if the structural integrity of the building were jeopardized,” and whether the SCC properly notified the public of a potential threat to their safety.

Broader-scale questions posed to the SEEC for investigation include whether “the council acted for the benefit of public peace when engaging law enforcement outside the East Precinct June 5-11, 2020” and “[w]hether communications from Councilmembers to Seattle law enforcement arise to or give the appearance of violating The Charter of the City of Seattle.”

It also asks whether SCC members “acted in accordance and within the proper channels and procedures of the government structure when proposing or taking action to realign the City budget disproportionately through cuts to the Seattle Police Department,” and “[w]hether Councilmembers made or should have made public disclosures of intent prior to doing so,” as well as “[w]hether notice was given to the public prior to the Council meeting.”

The letter also raises other questions about the SCC’s procedural propriety, including whether the SCC sought written advice from the SEEC on the appearance of impropriety or influence from “outside actors” before “potentially removing the Office of Police Accountability from its current department in order to re-align the budget.”

In addition to the BLMSKC letter to the SEEC, the Emerald received a letter the organization sent to SCC President Lorena González, dated Sept. 14. According to the letter to González, it appears that, beginning in June, BLMSKC had already written more than once to the council. BLMSKC said that these letters contained concerns about the council’s conduct, including while the council was present in the community, public, and on social media, as well as its conduct during meetings. It also said BLMSKC raised concerns regarding council decisions and votes that directly affected police accountability and divestment efforts, as well as the BLM movement and its organizers and participants.

The Sept. 14 letter to González also acknowledged the receipt of a July 1 letter from González and other SCC members, which, according to the Sept. 14 letter, said that the SCC members who signed the letter accepted and acknowledged “responsibility for the poor behavior of our Councilmember colleagues, ourselves, and any other member of the Legislative Department that has harmed your membership, leadership, or members of the community at-large.”

“In no way is it acceptable for any employee of the Seattle City Council to further perpetuate the racism and anti-Blackness that has left in its wake generations of trauma and individual and collective damage to Seattle’s Black community,” the July 1 letter from the council to BLMSKC continued, before going on to detail actions González, Sawant, and Herbold had taken.

In the Sept. 14 letter to González, BLMSKC said that though it had had an initially “promising” meeting with the council, concerns have continued to arise since then, which include some of the questions raised in BLMSKC’s letter to the SEEC. BLMSKC also explicitly stated in the letter to González that the BLM movement is not meant to be a talking point for politicians.

“Council has failed to propose a responsible divestment pathway or plan, putting the cart squarely before the horse. Further, Council has failed to come close to meeting community demands equitably, and the questions outlined in the letter to the SEEC will help everyone understand what is preventing Council from doing that,” the letter to González read, before closing with the hope that the council will cooperate with the SEEC process of investigation.

The Emerald will update this story if more information becomes available or the SCC sends along responses from other councilmembers.

Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. You can reach them here and here.

Featured photo: Demonstrators begin the March of Silence just outside Judkins Park on 23rd Ave. South, Seattle, Washington, on June 12, 2020. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)