City Hall

Council Passes Bill That Gives Youth Jail Opponents Another Chance to Appeal

Council member Mike O'Brien said the change just allows the project to be appealed, as council members always intended.

By Hayat Norimine May 30, 2017

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Seattle council members on Tuesday in a 5-2 vote approved an ordinance that's giving opponents to the new King County youth jail another chance at their appeal. (Council members Debora Juarez and Lorena González were absent.)

After the city construction department approved a master use plan for the King County Children and Family Justice Center in December, a group of activists known as Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) appealed the decision to the city's hearing examiner—a move council member Mike O'Brien said both King County and opponents had been told was allowed. But in March the hearing examiner dismissed the case, ruling that she didn't have the authority to hear the appeal.

The problem? The land use code designated decisions on the jail as Type I—which aren't heard by the hearing examiner—instead of Type II decisions.

"We made a mistake," O'Brien said at the council briefing Tuesday morning. So O'Brien said it was important to change the technical mishap. It's not a vote on whether the jail should exist, he said, rather just allowing the appeal process to move forward. 

But council member Sally Bagshaw said the change could have a significant impact on King County officials' attempts to build the jail, "unraveling" years of work by King County. She proposed an amendment that would've removed language saying the bill is applied "retroactively to the effective date of the ordinance," April 1, 2015. 

"I'm still unclear about what the underlying intentions are," Bagshaw said. "I don't want us to fall into the position where we can't have an honest discussion amongst ourselves to say, what is it we're trying to do?"

O'Brien maintained that's not the decision council members were making. The decision was whether the city would allow activists to appeal the project, he said, which has been the intention since the start. Bagshaw said she supported what O'Brien was trying to do; but when the choice came to approving the bill without her amendment, she and Burgess opposed the ordinance altogether. 

And at the raucous and contentious city council meeting Tuesday, activists shot down King County officials who came to oppose O'Brien's ordinance. King County prosecuting attorney Dan Satterberg said the facility has become a symbol for the criminal justice system. 

"The time for symbolism is over," he said at the public hearing Tuesday. "The only thing that this ordinance will do is cause further delay." Activists followed his speech with boos and jeers. 

"King County and the developers tried to take advantage of a technical mistake made in an ordinance," said Nick Straley, a staff attorney at Columbia Legal Services, who opposes the jail. He said if the legal process had been followed, the hearing examiner process may have been done by now.

King County voters approved a $210 million levy to replace the county's existing juvenile-justice facility with a new detention center that Bagshaw said Tuesday would provide better services and space for youth, their families, and judges. 

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