On Oct. 29, I met Seattle City Councilmember Sally Clark in her third-floor office. It was a particularly bright autumn day. That morning, she had biked to an event at the University of Washington, returning back to City Hall for a full afternoon schedule. After a few minutes of catching up — Clark and I met in 2002, when she was Neighborhood Development manager for Southeast Seattle for the Department of Neighborhoods, and have maintained a warm, if distant, friendship — we got into several key issues facing Seattle.
City government recently approved Mayor Mike McGinn’s final budget (with some adjustments) — what funding priorities surfaced?
“Not too surprisingly,” she said, “we’re in the same realms we’re usually in. The first tier is public safety.”
I mentioned that, despite broadly publicized violent crimes, the vast majority of personal interactions on the streets of Downtown Seattle are civil. Yet, the day after our interview, a man wielding a knife threatened a shopkeeper downtown, and another man was shot during the lunch meal at the Union Gospel Mission. What can be done to make Seattle safer?
“The Center City Initiative, police staffing levels and response budgets,” she answered.
The Center City Initiative was proposed by McGinn and will raise staffing levels by 15 officers, costing nearly $1.5 million; Mayor-Elect Ed Murray backs the plan, too, but would increase the force by 25 officers.
The plan would also expand an existing Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program from Belltown throughout downtown, so crimes like street-level drug dealing and prostitution can be interrupted with a combination of enforcement and social service. By creating a program that offers quick, effective response, street disturbances could be interrupted and not escalate into street violence. Staffing and response budget increases could benefit other Seattle neighborhoods.
We discussed Westlake Park, intended by city planners to be a central gathering spot for Seattle; now, it’s somewhere people do drugs, commit petty crimes and hang out — particularly young street people.
A 13-year-old boy, Dajohntae Richard, was arrested in October, accused of a rash of thefts and assaults, including the July 19 gang beating of Joey Crudo, a concierge at the Seaboard Building at Westlake, who tried to interrupt a theft. The public response includes two Facebook pages — Seattle Westlake Park Drug Dealers and Seattle Westlake Park Street Urchins — that read like they’re written by the same person.
Seattle Police have been criticized for not intervening. Clark said emphatically, “Police officers need to enforce the laws.”
Mental health, marijuana
The Center City Initiative stresses human services as much as law enforcement. Despite a history of promoting outreach to mentally ill people, Seattle is challenged.
“We urban places,” Clark explained, “not just Seattle, are really so conflicted about what the right answer is. The basic American philosophy is, we are free to do what we will. The promise of community-based treatment has gone unfulfilled. Leaving people ‘free’ to be homeless, preyed upon and a threat to themselves or others, is no great outcome.”
Her tone is at once matter-of-fact and caring: “We never followed through on community-based mental health services. In places like Harborview, we are, in effect, storing people. We don’t have a system to take on these issues. As a city government, that need is immense, and it has not been our line of business in the past.”
Beside the Center City Initiative, what would help Seattle and other American cities address that need?
“We need more federal help. The vast majority of people who have mental health problems are not part of the urban problem,” she said.
What are those parts? “Substance abuse, trauma…and homelessness.”
How will legal marijuana affect street life in Seattle?
Clark commented on the big picture: “It’s positive: It will be unwound from the criminal justice system for small amounts. It will reduce black-market crime. We don’t know how it will affect us 10 to 20 years from now. All of this is a complicated web. We need to be serious about public consumption.”
There are citations for open containers of alcoholic beverages in public; the same standard applies for pot.
Looking to San Francisco
How about transportation?
“The council must decide on how many blocks of sidewalks will be built, how many streets paved, how to invest in infrastructure for Metro,” Clark said.
We didn’t talk it, but Murray did not bring home from the Washington state Legislature a transportation bill to cover that infrastructure bill.
How about a $15-an-hour minimum wage?
Council president Sally Clark is a realist: “How it will change overall poverty rates in an urban setting and address disparity individually makes a difference. We should be careful about the problems we’re trying to solve.”
She described San Francisco’s precedent — it may be a model: “First, anyone doing business with the city pays a living wage. Next, the minimum wage is set.”
For San Francisco, that meant a minimum wage of $10 per hour.
“Debate will be fierce. Advocates may not have a plan sketched out for Seattle,” she said.
The biggest challenge of being an elected to the City Council?
“To get out of the office, to get out of my e-mail. There’s fantastic nooks and crannies of the city, people re-energizing, doing the work. Booking field trips, grabbing lunch some place you’ve never been before. It’s a great city,” she said.
Clark closed about her home: “I have leaves to rake up, my garden needs work, my neighbors might complain!”
We were 20 minutes late. Clark’s next appointment: Councilmember Jean Godden, to strategize placing the P-I globe with the Museum of History & Industry.
CRAIG THOMPSON is a longtime community activist. To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.