After getting challenged by protestors against the new youth jail on Monday when he was speaking at newly-elected U.S. representative Pramila Jayapal’s (D-WA, 7) “Hate Free Washington” event, and then getting picketed again on Tuesday when anti-youth jail protesters chanted outside his home in Capitol Hill’s Roanoke neighborhood, Mayor Ed Murray issued a statement on the project late Wednesday afternoon saying he didn’t have the authority to stop the project.
Protesters see the jail as part of the government’s prison industrial complex that ushers black youth into the criminal justice system instead of striving for equity by funding social services and education. Protesters are focusing on Murray because, even though the jail is a King County project (protesters heckled King County Executive Dow Constantine at the Monday event as well), the city is currently reviewing a land use permit for the $210 million project. The anti-youth jail activists want the city to deny the permit.
Yesterday, after pointing out that King County voters approved the project, Murray said: “The Office of the Mayor cannot intervene in any permitting decision, including this one, as it is a technical decision based on the county’s application…I recognize that significant racial disparities exist in our City and the ultimately our goal is to keep all young people from entering the criminal justice system and I will continue to direct city resources to ending these disparities in foundational areas such as education, employment, and criminal justice.”
Murray’s statement came with a series of bullet points cataloging the work his administration has done supporting youth jobs, education, and police reform, including expanded pre-school funding, wrap arounds services for at-risk youth, and a 250 percent increase in job placement through the city’s youth jobs program since Murray took office.
As for intervening in permitting decisions: Murray actually waded into a permitting decision in May of 2015 for political reasons, when, coming out against Arctic drilling, he announced that Foss Maritime would have to reapply for its Terminal Five permit at the Port of Seattle because his department of planning and land use determined that the Shell Oil drilling ships that Foss planned to moor at the port didn’t sync up with the permit they’d applied for. Murray said Foss would have to reapply for a different permit, which he acknowledged was a political tactic aimed at getting the Port itself to reconsider the lease.
The city’s hearing examiner took up an appeal from Foss and decided in their favor that September, allowing Shell to dock there. Shell had suspended its Arctic drilling project by then, though, so the issue had been resolved anyway.
Murray referred to Terminal Five ruling also yesterday, saying: “As the city hearing examiner’s decision on Terminal 5 at the Port of Seattle clarified, the city must base any permit decision on the technical design facts in a permit application, and not on any policy considerations.”
Is that true?
While the hearing examiner decision did deal explicitly with technical stuff, getting into commas and precise definitions to rule that Murray’s planning department was wrong—and Foss, in fact, didn’t need a different permit, the ruling doesn’t actually appear to make any sweeping, clarifying statements that limit the city’s ability to challenge permits on whatever grounds it sees fit.
I have a call in to the mayor’s office to get clarity on what they’re referring to in the September 2015 ruling that they believe sets a precedent on that score.
UPDATE: Murray's office says what they meant by referencing the Foss ruling was that the mayor can't just stop a project because he doesn't like it; projects are only reviewed based on language that's in the code. They lost the Foss decision because the code didn't back them up, clarifying for them, they say, that blocking permits is strictly based on reading the code. They don't see any code discrepancies to stop the youth jail permit, the say, adding that Murray doesn't have the authority to call up the planning department and just order them to pull the permit.
Murray, however, has yet clarify what he thinks about the jail itself, regardless of whether he has the power to stop it.
End the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC), the group opposing the jail, issued a statement this afternoon disagreeing with Murray's reading of the Shell ruling. Dean Spade, a Seattle University professor who opposes the jail, was quoted in the release saying “The notion that the Mayor cannot intervene is simply false. This is a totally different situation from the Shell decision he cites. Unlike in that case, there is no existing permit and the code does not support the master use permit. While the City cannot ignore the code, the code here supported denial.”
They're arguing that in the Shell Oil case, the city was seeking to change the terms of the permit after the fact, but in this case there's no permit in the first place, so the situations aren't analogous. Second, they say the code actually supports denying the permit because the permit doesn't fit the stated need in terms size; there are only 27 youths currently housed in the existing jail, and on average there's only about 60 housed there. Meanwhile, the new jail is designed to hold 150 youths. As youth detention becomes even less a part of the city's policy equation per the city's own stated goal, EPIC argues, the code for a site sized to hold 150 youths is the wrong match.
"There was no follow up questions about the justification," says EPIC attorney Knoll Lowney, "showing that this was less of a permit decision and more of a political favor to [King County Executive] Dow Constantine."
Former Mayor Mike McGinn also once attempted to use the land use for political purposes in 2013 when he issued a statement against granting an alley vacation to a mixed-use project in West Seattle, arguing that the project shouldn’t get the vacation because the anchor tenant, Whole Foods, wasn’t unionized. The store was out of sync with Seattle’s values, he argued, and wasn’t providing enough of a public benefit in return for the alley vacation. The mayor doesn’t have authority over street vacations—making his protest more symbolic than anything— and he lost that one; the first residential component of that project, located on Fauntleroy, opened this month.