Last week when Seattle council members unanimously approved a city income tax, another much smaller, seemingly uncontroversial council bill got put on hold—an ordinance by Lisa Herbold that would expand the Office of Civil Rights commissions from 16 to 21 members each. The additional volunteer positions allowed the four commissions to handle more work, commission members, council members, and mayor Ed Murray all agreed. Three council members unanimously passed the bill out of the civil rights committee weeks earlier.
Yet the legislation was delayed for another two weeks—Herbold instead scheduled it for a vote this Monday—after Murray made it clear he would oppose the bill if it passed through council. The commission's members have since been contacting council members to garner support and see whether the bill would be veto-proof. And the tension between the mayor and the Human Rights Commission seems to beg the question of how much independence the commissions should have.
"The mayor deeply values the contributions each of the four commissions makes to the city, and wants to support their work," Anthony Auriemma, director of council relations for Murray, wrote in an email to council members July 7, three days before the bill was scheduled for a vote. "However, he does not support the legislation in its current form. We urge a modification to the legislation prior to sending the bill to the mayor."
What Murray had a problem with: Adding more commission-appointed seats. The bill would allow each of the four commissions (Human Rights Commission, LGBTQ Commission, Commission for People with DisAbilities, and Seattle Women's Commission) to appoint four of their members instead of one or two. For years, the commissions had a hard time filling vacant seats, and a report this year found that the positions left vacant for the longest amount of time were those appointed by the mayor's office.
Over the span of two years—from June 2015 to May 2017—45 of the total 69 positions have been vacant at one point; 43 of those 45 positions were either appointed by the mayor or city council, with an average vacancy period of about seven months. With more members chosen by the commission, supporters hoped there would be fewer vacancies and that they'd be filled far more quickly. (By comparison, two out of five of the commission-appointed positions were vacant at one point, for an average period of two months.) Murray is instead proposing an amendment to add a time limit to appointments.
The mayor's office argues that because the commission members serve as advisory roles to the mayor and council, they should be the ones to choose those members. Auriemma's email stated that appointments to commissions are typically split 50-50 between the mayor and the council, and that the proposed bill would "greatly" expand the number of members chosen by the commission—"this would be unprecedented," the email read. (It would change the number of commission-appointed members from roughly 7 percent of total members to 19 percent.) Murray's spokesperson, Benton Strong, said "it's pretty straightforward"; they're city commissions, therefore aren't independent and should be appointed by city officials.
The Human Rights Commission disagrees. In a letter responding to Murray's criticisms, the members said they have a responsibility to criticize "policies that run afoul of social justice principles"—for example, its opposition to the sweetened beverage tax after council members removed diet soda, despite the racial equity toolkit's recommendations. Herbold said she delayed the bill to give commission members more time to garner support from council members for their version.
"This attitude can only create an echo chamber between the commissions and the city's political branches," the commission wrote on July 10. "We fear that your position imperils our role and disregards the community groups that we strive to partner with on pressing matters.
The commission also wrote that Murray's proposed amendment wouldn't be a solution, but worried it would lead to rushed jobs in finding someone to fill the seat. Commission members, by contrast, are familiar with the needs of the specific commissions and fill positions based on those needs, leading to better retention rates, the commission wrote.
"We question why, even if 'unprecedented,' this is objectionable," the letter went on. "Frankly, the commissions are growing increasingly frustrated by your continued opposition to what seems to be such a minor but functionally important change."
Updated July 20, 2017, at 3:25pm: This post includes that Herbold delayed the bill to give more time for commission members to garner support from council members.