1. In anticipation of tonight's fourth district candidate forum at Roosevelt High School, I asked two of the candidates, Transportation Choices Coalition director Rob Johnson and Democratic party activist Michael Maddux, how they would have voted on the U District business improvement area (BIA) that council passed this week. The defining hyperlocal issue (the U District is in the heart of the Wallingford-to–Sand Point district) drew protesters to city hall this week, including a third candidate, local neighborhood district council leader Tony Provine.
Wearing a red scarf representing a map that had labeled the nonsupportive property owners in red, Provine testified against the BIA (he called it "taxation without representation"), while yet another candidate in the race, the incumbent up on the dais, Jean Godden, voted for it. Godden called it an "amazing BIA" and praised the UW ("one of our biggest assets") for "putting in 50 percent of the money."
BIAs are districts where local property owners agree to pay higher property taxes in return for enhanced services, such as street cleaning.
The catch is: It takes owners who represent 60 percent of the assessed value of the area to greenlight a BIA as opposed to 60 percent of the property owners themselves. The university, by far the local property owner with the highest assessments, was able to create the BIA with just 38 percent of the non-UW property supporting the proposal—that means 62 percent of the remaining neighborhood property owners didn't sign off on the idea. (Granted, overall, the U—assessment value aside—literally owns 47 percent of the local property—and is responsible for much of the non-UW property owners' livelihood. Additionally, a one-property-owner-one-vote system could be equally unfair, allowing a majority to make one big owner that is potentially opposed to a BIA shoulder the bill for enhanced services. That, of course, isn't what happened here, though. It's the reverse. And neighbors, such as Provine, complained that the new U District BIA came with "no clearly defined benefit" with "most of the tangible benefits confined" to the area immediately around the UW. Neighbors also aren't clear on what $470,000 for line items such as "events and marketing," "economic development," and particularly "urban design" are for. Is "urban design" code for an upzone, one nervous neighbor asked the council.)
BIAs do have a track record of success, though. Belltown neighbors, for example, eventually decided to join the Belltown BIA after first staying out of it for several years.
Maddux, a leader in passing last year's parks district measure and an insider with the 43rd district and King County Democrats (he won the fourth district straw poll in the 43rd this month), told me succinctly:
"I am concerned that the spending proposal is along University Way only, leaving Roosevelt out of the spending while collecting from Roosevelt west to I-5. Exactly what 'clean up' means I would like to learn. Just beautification, or will this include funding for police and, if so, will we see expansion of LEAD to the Ave? I missed the vote, and would have hoped that there would have been greater discussion on these issues that have been raised by residents of the neighborhood." (LEAD is a highly praised, joint SPD-King County diversion program.)
Urban planning nerd Rob Johnson gave me a nerdy answer, venturing into academic buzzword jags about "economic gardening"—which has to do with nurturing "stage two" companies that have survived the startup phase, he says.
He was a definite yes vote on the BIA, telling me, in part (I've weeded out some of the gardening stuff):
"I'm a strong supporter of the U District BIA. I've met with several organizations that are supporting the BIA including businesses and nonprofits, and to a person, they have been advocating for a BIA because they believe it can foster a culture like the one created through the downtown BIA. The goals as I've heard them state are around cleanliness, public safety, and business retention and attraction. I think those are good goals.
"One of the benefits of the new district model will be more intentional economic development strategies focused on urban villages with council members being more accountable to the businesses (big and small) in their districts. But we also need to ensure that council members continue to think across jurisdictional boundaries and have an open door to all members of our community. As a city we should be continuing to foster economic incubation through [the Office of Economic Development], private collaborations like the HUB in Pioneer Square, public collaborations with the University of Washington, Seattle University, SPU, and our Seattle community colleges. Also, I might add that frequently academics are finding that businesses colocating near frequent transit corridors, pedestrian zones, and dedicated bike facilities result in increased customers—due both to increased discretionary income for those that live nearby and increased sales due to higher volumes of possible consumers passing by. Increasing the walkability, bikeability, and transit frequency in our city will result in increased economic activity as well."
Asked to specifically address Provine's "taxation without representation" concern that "the vast majority" are opposed to expanding the BIA beyond the heart of the U District, Johnson said: "The opposition I've heard is from some of the residents that live there that feel they won't be getting the kind of public benefit that the businesses are. To which I respond that a BIA focused on cleanliness, working with the community on public safety issues, and focused on business recruitment and retention will be good for the neighborhood and for property values."
2. While I had Maddux and Johnson on the line, I also asked them about this week's other controversial council vote. Where were they on the great Sharon Maeda/John Okamoto debate? (The council voted five to three on Monday to appoint Okamoto to Sally Clark's vacant seat; Clark resigned this month to take a director's job at the UW and/or to escape the Kshama Sawant show.)
Maddux sided with council lefties Nick Licata, Mike O'Brien, and Sawant, telling me he would have gone with social justice vet Maeda. However, he says his real choice was Low Income Housing Institute director Sharon Lee: "I have worked with Sharon on the Parks Levy Oversight Committee for years, and am regularly impressed with her eye on social justice and access to parks and programs for all residents, regardless of income, age, or ability. I think she would have been an excellent choice. I don't know Mr. Okamoto but am hopeful that he will be a vote for meaningful investments in housing for low and moderate income families and will be able to look to more progressive sources of revenue for our human infrastructure needs."
When and if Godden, who voted for Okamoto, asks voters to push for gender balance on the council, she should be asked why she didn't do the same.
Johnson was less definitive: "I've worked with both of them and highly respect the work of both. I was out of town for the deliberations on Friday, so I didn't have a chance to see either's testimony or responses to council questions, but I think both would have been great choices."
I have a message in to Provine's campaign for his take.
As for Godden, she voted, along with the council's moderate bloc, for mayor Ed Murray's apparent pick Okamoto, a former city director (engineering department), Port of Seattle administrator (controversy), union leader (the Washington Education Association), and most recently, Murray's interim human services director.
Keep this in mind tonight as Godden plays up her feminist cred and frames the debate around the fact that she's the only woman on stage with Johnson, Maddux, and Provine. (There was a fourth man in the race, Taso Lagos, but he suspended his campaign last week.) When and if Godden makes the case tonight that she needs to be reelected because there are only three woman on the council, the fact remains that she opted to vote for John Okamoto (one of just three male finalists) over Sharon Maeda (among five female options). If she does exhort voters to strive for gender balance on the council, she should be asked why she didn't do the same.
UPDATE: Provine got back to me and said he would have chosen Maeda over Okamoto. Provine tells Fizz: “The city council had a tough choice between two qualified candidates. Had I been on the council for this vote, I would have supported Sharon Maeda. She has an impressive background and great credibility, and would have brought a refreshing outside voice to the city council.”