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Ed cetera

Join the informed, opinionated journalists of The Times' editorial staff in lively discussions at our blog Ed Cetera.

January 29, 2015 at 3:17 PM

Seattle's urban villages strategy is working — but more planning is needed in the next 20 years

Last night I sat in a packed auditorium in Seattle’s City Hall to hear about how the urban villages plan is faring. The conclusion: They work.

Some people want Seattle to stay the same or dislike the changes they see happening. Those are valid concerns, but I'm the type of person who gets excited about urban development and seeing cities go from sleepy to vibrant. And, in some ways, it may seem like Seattle's growth is happening out of control, but the city did come up with a vision for growth as part of the urban villages plan in 1994. Some parts of it came to fruition.

Last year, Seattle's planning department hired research firm Steinbrueck Urban Strategies to analyze the city’s 30 urban villages and figure out what has and hasn’t worked. The firm produced a 181-page report that representatives discussed at the event I attended Wednesday night.

I think the study, which is part of the Seattle Sustainable Neighborhoods Project, is more of a jumping-off point than a definitive treatise on Seattle's development in the past 20 years. It takes more than just adding more housing to create a true urban experience in which people can walk around, catch a bus, shop, eat out or take their toddlers to the park.

Here are a few takeaways and food for thought:

  • The urban village model works. One of the goals of the strategy was to direct development to concentrated areas. In the past 20 years, close to 75 percent of the city’s new housing sprang up in urban villages which researchers said constitutes an overall success. But, some urban villages saw more growth than others and some, like Rainier Beach, haven't seen much new development at all.
  • The city’s population grew on target, but jobs didn’t. Back in 1994, Seattle city officials predicted that between 50,000 to 60,000 people would move here. Lo and behold, 60,524 did. But on the jobs front, the prediction was that up to 146,000 new jobs would come to Seattle, but closer to 57,000 did. Why the big gap? Well, one factor is that since 1994 the economy experienced a few major recessions (think 2001 and 2007).
  • Seattle is highly interconnected with its surrounding cities. Most people consider Seattle the epicenter of the region’s jobs, but it turns out about 60 percent of Seattle residents commute outside the city. That’s an interesting phenomenon pointing to the fact that Seattle is a desirable place to live even if one’s job isn’t here. Peter Steinbrueck, founder of the research firm, who presented the findings, said that means Seattle is attracting people who can afford to live here and much of the city’s workforce is coming from other places.
  • Pockets of poverty persist. Income inequality is a top concern in Seattle these days, as it seems to be growing worse. According to the study’s findings, Seattle has numerous areas where poverty levels have been higher for decades than the rest of the city — not just during the recent economic recovery. So even while Seattle as a whole is experiencing significant economic development, there are some neighborhoods that are not changing.

The analysis raises some interesting challenges and trends, but also highlights the role cities can play in crafting their own destinies. Seattle came up with the plan for urban villages 20 years ago. While not perfect, it helped the city manage most of its growth, and in the process protected neighborhoods that are predominately made up of single-family homes. Many of the challenges Seattle faces going forward are not new: how to increase and improve public transit, how to encourage housing for low income people, and how to define or preserve neighborhood character and charm.

The conversation continues, especially given that the city projects more than 100,000 people will move here by 2035. Another plan to serve as a guide to the next 20 years, known as Seattle 2035, is already in the works.

If you want to learn more, the report will be available on the city’s web site and a recording of the presentation will be broadcast on the Seattle Channel soon.

January 28, 2015 at 6:20 AM

Should marijuana home grows be legal in Washington?

2015 is going to be a big year in marijuana policy and politics. But the most provocative question in pot has yet to be heard in Olympia, or even debated much: legalizing home growing.

Seattle Democrat Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, the Legislature's senior stateswoman on marijuana, proposes allowing six-plant home grows for everyone over 21 years old as part of her omnibus marijuana reform bill. Kohl-Welles' reasoning goes something like this: All other states that have legalized recreational marijuana (Colorado, Oregon, Alaska and District of Columbia) allow home grows. And if the Legislature is going to fold the unregulated medical pot into the highly regulated recreational market, home grows would be a kind of relief valve for market pressure.

Her bill is big, complex and thoughtful. But it has not even been scheduled for a hearing in the state Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, chaired by Spokane Republican Michael Baumgartner. His office didn't respond to my call.

He should, because the question of home growing is a good one. On the pro side, I'd list the fact that marijuana is already a home-grow product, just not a legal one. A national drug survey estimated that 3.9 percent of marijuana users grow their own. Acknowledging that fact would bring marijuana in line with once-banned home beer brewing, and recognize that industrious adults like to make their own adult intoxicants.

Rick Steves, the travel guru and legalization advocate, summed up the libertarian take during the 2012 legalization campaign:

"I'm a hardworking, churchgoing, child-raising, taxpaying citizen. If I want to go home and smoke a joint and stare at the fireplace for two hours, that's my civil liberty."

Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs Executive Director Mitch Barker said cops just want "bright lines" to enforce, so the current marijuana regulation mess is the opposite of helpful. When I asked Barker about home grows, he essentially shrugged. They're not ideal, said Barker, because it adds a complication. But police simply want clarity on the law, he said.

On the con side of the home-grow argument is the fact that voters said yes to marijuana, but with regulations. The Seattle Times editorial board was a big and early supporter of legalization, but it has emphasized the need for regulations, especially to limit youth access. Opening up home grows could mean simply a lot more pot, with unexpected costs.

State Sen. Ann Rivers, the Republican's leader on marijuana issues, channeled that concern. Home grows would "make [Initiative 502] look like the nose under the tent flap," said Rivers, R-La Center. "502 had tight regulation. This is about allowing everyone to grow." She said the GOP majority in the Senate probably wouldn't go for it.

Personally, I'm with Rick Steves on this. The state has decided to treat marijuana like alcohol. Small home grows would be as much of a threat to pot regulations as a home brewer is to Red Hook. Home growing is already here, so it's time to acknowledge the obvious.

What do you think?

January 21, 2015 at 5:35 AM

Washington legislators must protect homeless students in K-12 schools

My column in today's Seattle Times follows up with Solomon Muche, a young immigrant who overcame homelessness in high school and now studies at the University of Washington. He recently spoke to other kids staying at Mary's Place about the importance of asking for help and finding opportunities to better their circumstances. Right now, thousands of children without permanent housing are struggling to get through the public education system.

Muche's success is a testament to that age-old idea that everyone has potential, but they need someone to help them reach their goals. That "someone" for many students in Washington is the homeless student liaison, a position the state Legislature supports on paper and is required to provide under federal law, but has not been able to fund or expand to every district in the state.

Meanwhile, the Washington Legislature was informed on Monday of some bad numbers.  The state's homeless-student population has jumped from 30,609 kids in the 2012-2013 school year to 32,494 the following academic year. As Seattle Times reporter Joseph O'Sullivan points out in this news story, some of that increase could be attributed to better data gathering. Whatever the reason, the problem is getting worse. Black and Native American kids in the K-12 system are three times more likely to be homeless compared to white students.

What to do about this? First, local and state officials must continue to require school districts to track the numbers. On Friday, volunteers will sweep the streets of Seattle and King County for the annual One Night Count, an effort to estimate how many people are living without shelter. (Mayor Ed Murray says he "fully expect[s]" the number to be higher this year.) Once policymakers grasp the extent of the problem, policies are easier to form and implement.

Readers should also keep an eye on Olympia, where legislators in the Senate Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee heard public testimony Tuesday on SB 5065. The Homeless Student Stability Act would require the state to fund dedicated staff liaisons in school districts that have 50 or more homeless students. Part-time and full-time liaisons from around the state testified before the committee about the importance of ensuring homeless kids have a person at their school dedicated to connecting them to housing, clothing and wraparound services that might improve their chances of staying on the path to graduation. Watch what proponents of the bill told lawmakers in the video below (at about the 10-minute mark), courtesy of TVW:

There's a hefty price tag to hire those homeless liaisons, but bill sponsor state Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, makes a compelling case for funding it by tying this issue to the state's efforts to close a widening opportunity gap among students.

"It's not just throwing money at the problem," he said. "It'll add to more stability and more supports so we can keep [homeless students] in school and give them a better chance in life as they hopefully move toward graduation."

Also, advocates pointed out the state spent close to $18 million on transportation for homeless students last year.  They argue significant savings could be achieved if students were able to find housing closer to their home district rather than taking taxis to get from a shelter in downtown Seattle to their school outside the city. Lawmakers should continue to dig into this claim and make changes if necessary to spend taxpayer dollars more effectively.

As if the state Supreme Court's McCleary ruling and Initiative 1351 are not already dominating the education funding conversation, legislators will have to find the political will to protect programs that are focused on homeless students. In the long run, the cost of letting these kids fall through the cracks is too high.

 

 

January 16, 2015 at 11:47 AM

Seattle-Green Bay smack talk: Columnists face off about who has the cultural edge

From the gridiron to the newsroom, we can’t get Sunday’s big game — the NFC Championship Game pitting the Seahawks against Green Bay — off our minds. Here, Seattle Times and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnists go head-to-head to prove which region is better — off the field.

Which city and state do you think is better? Add to the smack talk in the comments.


Put down your beers and find some taste

Mark Higgins

Times editorial columnist

This is that special time of year when Green Bay’s infatuation with its storied football team allows residents there to actually forget where they live.

If you don’t know Green Bay, Wis., think of it as Everett without the charm, and caked in dirty slush.

When Seattle brags about building the world’s best jetliners, Green Bay persists on being known as the “toilet paper capital of the world” because, you know, it invented splinter-free toilet paper.

To be fair, Seattle fans hold a smidgen of respect for Green Bay. It was the Packers’ former coach Mike Holmgren who helped turn the Seahawks franchise into what it is today — simply the best team in the NFC.

As Sunday’s championship game draws near, you can almost hear Green Bay fans praying for a miracle. Please, the plea goes, heal Aaron Rodgers’ left calf.

It’s understandable. Green Bay fans have witnessed the Legion of Boom and the tip of the spear — the high-leaping Seahawks safety, Kam Chancellor. Rodgers’ calf, it turns out, means more right now to Green Bay than all its upcoming ice-fishing derbies and beloved snowmobiles, combined.

Let’s be clear, Seattle expects a Sunday smackdown, a repeat of September’s bludgeoning of Green Bay. We want those cheesehead fans, with their green and mustard-colored jerseys, to suffer the Pioneer Square Walk of Shame after the game, knowing that not only is Seattle a better team but so, too, is our city and state.

Here are seven (obvious) reasons why:

    • Music: Wisconsin claims Liberace, the flamboyant pianist who lived by the motto, “Too much of a good thing is wonderful.” Seattle has Jimi, Kurt, Eddie and new guy Macklemore, to name just a few.
    • Business: OK, would you rather have Microsoft, Boeing, Starbucks and Amazon.com in your backyard or Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance, Johnsonville Sausage and Western States Envelope & Label?
    • Outdoor gear: Seattle has REI, the mothership of outdoor gear and apparel. Wisconsin has ... OshKosh B’gosh, manufacturer of really durable baby clothes.
    • Bikes: OK, we mean motorcycles, and for that we give a hat tip to Wisconsin, home of Harley Davidson. But, hey, here in Seattle we custom-craft some pretty sick fixed-gear bicycles.
    • Weather: Green Bay has its polar vortex and subzero temperatures. And you never know if your submerged car will be carried away by a snow plow. Seattleites have snow — for about 10 minutes until the next rain. And, yes, we do have the Seattle Freeze, our collective urge to be polite but somewhat standoffish.
    • Food: OK, we get it. Wisconsin likes cheese. The medical term for cheesehead is actually “Cheese on the Brain.” They might want to get that checked out. And bratwursts? When we wrap it up, it’s not with pig intestines but rather salad wraps and rice paper. And those Wisconsin fish frys of beer-battered walleye or bluegill? Try our smoked wild salmon.

  • Beer: Milwaukee proclaims it to be the beer capital of the United States, founded by German immigrants in the 1800s. But Prohibition really messed things up and now that state drinks watered-down, Wisconsin swill — Miller, Pabst, Milwaukee’s Best. Serious suds come from Seattle — craft-brewed, our heavy-hopped IPAs would body-slam Wisconites’ tender taste buds — and not to mention that Washington grows three-quarters of the nation’s hops. You can thank us over a craft-brewed cold one.

Mark Higgins is deputy opinion editor for The Seattle Times. Email: mhiggins@seattletimes.com


Seattle needs a good shaving

David Haynes

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Opinion editor

A few years ago, I did some reconnaissance in Seattle while reporting on another important matter — my vacation. The experience has me convinced that the Green Bay Packers must defeat the Seattle Seahawks in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.

I didn’t know much about Seattle people then, except that they seemed like a swell lot. Who couldn’t help but like the adorable Bobby Sherman in “Here Come the Brides” and the perky Meg Ryan in “Sleepless in Seattle?”

But three days in Seattle revealed a dark underbelly and a gray sky. I learned that Seattle people were not at all like Bobby and Meg.

This is why sending the Seahawks to the Super Bowl for a second straight year would send exactly the wrong message to impressionable Americans such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Walker might get the idea that it’s OK to forget to shave, listen to unnatural music or a Richard Sherman interview.

After crawling through Belltown, riding the Space Needle and patrolling Lake Washington, I learned that people in Seattle don’t cut their hair — anywhere on their bodies — and that many wear clothing best described as “teenage roustabout chic.” They ride bicycles — everywhere — even though it appeared that they still had lanes for cars.

They believe in a mountain they call Rainier, which they claim exists just beyond the fog, rain and clouds. Even University of Washington academics are bewitched by this mountain god and tell prospective students they’ll see it every day on their way to class. But here’s the thing: No one has actually ever seen this alleged outcropping.

Persistent cloud cover does strange things. It makes people drink coffee. Then more coffee. And then it makes them open Starbucks outlets on every corner. It also makes them listen to a low, grumbling music that I believe they called Grunge. Or perhaps that described the bathrooms in the coffeehouses.

After all that coffee, Seattle people don’t feel the buzz anymore. All they feel is a steady hum inside their heads and a ringing in their ears. And they start seeing a mountain and invent Windows 8. Then they crash — and so does Windows 8.

In Seattle, I witnessed a woman ride up to a fine restaurant in a bicycle towing a cart that carried a toy poodle. The dog, which was belted in, wore a hat. I am not kidding. In Wisconsin, our dogs hunt for grouse and bear. They fetch the newspaper. They provide a convenient footstool. We understand that dogs work for us.

We have our challenges in Wisconsin. We are addicted to cheese ... cheesehead hats, cheese footballs, cheese keyrings, cheese neckties and cheese shirts and pants and cheese underwear.

But we know what’s right. Most of us get haircuts every couple of weeks, know the business end of a razor and appreciate a good brat and a beer.

Western civilization may depend on the outcome Sunday. This is the NFL — at least that much is at stake. We cannot allow the world to believe that Seattle is normal, which another trip to the Super Bowl by the Seahawks would risk. Let me say clearly: Richard Sherman and Bill Gates are not normal. “College Navy,” “Wolf Gray” and “Action Green” — the Seahawks’ colors — not normal. Dogs in rickshaws — not normal.

Aaron Rodgers. Beer. Brats. Green. Gold. Cheesehead hats. Beer bellies. Lambeau Leaps. That’s normal.

Pass me a Miller. And a brat with kraut.

Go Pack!

David D. Haynes is the editorial page editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Email: dhaynes@jrn.com

January 16, 2015 at 6:00 AM

Relax, Seattle’s rental market is not in a crisis

Stories about tenants being priced out of their apartments are beginning to feel too familiar: An older apartment building trades hands, then the new owner imposes huge rental increases on tenants, some of whom are on fixed incomes or have been paying below-market rents for years or decades.

Such a story graced the front page of The Seattle Times this week and metro columnist Danny Westneat vehemently reacted to the news.

While the story of an owner of a nine-unit apartment building more than doubling rents is shocking, it doesn’t represent the larger picture of Seattle’s housing market.

Rents rose about 18 percent in Seattle during the past two years and about 16 percent in the Seattle-Bellevue-Tacoma Census area, according to apartment research firm RealFacts.

Despite the dramatic rent increases, Seattle remains relatively affordable. In addressing the issue of housing affordability, it’s more important to think about how to protect vulnerable tenants versus cursing landlords who want to maximize their revenues, which is in their right as business owners.

Some context to keep in mind: Seattle is experiencing significant growth that has attracted thousands of new residents to the area and promises to attract about 100,000 more people and 115,000 more jobs by 2035.

And while some people argue that all the high-paying jobs are going to techie transplants, it’s still notable that Seattle’s income levels grew 2.8 percent — the third fastest in the nation — during the fourth quarter of 2014, according to a report in the Puget Sound Business Journal.

Seattle added about 35,600 units of housing from 2005 to 2013, which is about double the housing production of San Francisco, a city of 800,000 people compared to Seattle's 650,000. People in San Francisco envy Seattle for “getting it right” on housing production, as I reported for the San Francisco Business Times last summer.

Instead of asking why landlords are hiking up rent, we should ask what we can do to help people in the bottom rungs of the income ladder. That is what Arthur Sullivan, program manager for A Regional Coalition for Housing (ARCH), an East King County partnership of cities, has been trying to address in his 30-year career. He recalls similar displacement narratives during other economic cycles such as when he started working in Bellevue in the early 1990s.

No city or region has ever been able to provide enough affordable housing for the bottom third of the income spectrum, he said, but they should at least try.

A major concern with current housing development is that it caters to the high-end. Typically, new housing is priced more than older inventory because it’s new. But usually that means that older, outdated units are less expensive and become what people call “naturally affordable.”

In Seattle, many of those “naturally affordable” units are seeing big rent increases because of high demand or because a new owner comes in and renovates.

Stan Humphries, chief economist at Zillow, told me one unsolved mystery right now is why the private housing market isn’t delivering more housing aimed at middle-income people.

Zillow also found that rental affordability has steadily declined in Seattle for the last two decades, which is also happening nationally.

In Seattle, renters were paying an average of 31 percent of their income in rent in September 2014, up from 26 percent in September 2004. Across the country, the average is about 30 percent up from a long-term average of 25 percent.

“We’re not providing enough rental properties that the typical renter can afford,” Humphries said. “We have documented well the affordable rental crisis in this country. Now we need to look at why.”

January 15, 2015 at 6:25 AM

King County's one-stop shopping for government benefits

Joshua Stanton stopped by a King County office yesterday to sign up for insurance under the Affordable Care Act. "I'm going to be able to get my teeth taken care of," said

Stanton, 30, who lives on Capitol Hill.

By the time he walked out a bit later, Stanton got a check up for much more. The office he visited, at the King Street Center in Pioneer Square, can help people check their eligibility for an array of government benefits, including subsidized health insurance, food stamps, child care subsidies, federal and city energy assistance, and new reduced fare card on Metro.

It turns out that Stanton qualified for the Metro's ORCA Lift, the reduced fare program set to take effect in March. "It makes things so much easier," said Stanton, who is in King County drug diversion court for a 2014 criminal case.

His visit was timely. In addition to the new reduced fare, the deadline for new and renewed health care insurance enrollment under the Affordable Care Act - aka Obamacare - is February 15. King County did an amazing job last year, signing up nearly 200,000 people, and it is making a strong push to spread the word and get as many people signed up for both, ASAP.

Anyone who has signed up for government benefits knows that it is difficult and time-consuming, so getting it all done at once, for an array of benefits, minimizes the pain. King County Executive Dow Constantine said this model is based on the idea that citizens are "customers," and government services are "products." "We want people to get services for which they are eligible, and which help them succeed in life," he said.

Click here for a list of locations across the county (caveat: not all sites have staff qualified to enroll people for all types of services).

This type of integration reminds me of the much-loved but sometimes-mocked customer service focus of former Governor Gary Locke, who set a target of processing driver's licenses in something like 15 minutes. Constantine has clearly picked up the unsexy but very welcomed goal of making this part of government more efficient.

In a region with skyrocketing rent, this focus can save struggling county residents lots of money. King County public health manager Daphne Pie, who helped mobilize the county's health insurance enrollment army, rattled off the potential savings for a single person making about $23,000 a year: up to $200 a month in food assistance, about $75 on the every-other-month utility bills, and bus fares at about half the normal rate.

Sign-up for ORCA Lift begins next week. Cards begin to go out in February, and the fare reduction kicks in March 1, when all Metro fares are set to rise by about a quarter. For more information, go to Metro's ORCA Lift FAQ page.

January 8, 2015 at 10:15 AM

Replay: Video chat on how to meet our state's transportation needs

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tmBZ_uj9Qe0

Readers of Monday's Opinion page heard from state Sen. Curtis King and Rep. Judy Clibborn, each with their own perspective on statewide transportation needs and how best to pay a multi-billion dollar price tag. King and Clibborn chair the Senate and House transportation committees, respectively.

At noon Thursday, join them and two other guests here in a live video discussion about transportation and whether the state Legislature can agree on an approach forward on this critical issue. Lawmakers convene their 2015 session  on Monday. Thanh Tan, Seattle Times multimedia editorial writer and columnist, will moderate the discussion.

Panelists include:

  • Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, represents the 41st legislative district and is a former mayor of Mercer Island.
  • State Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, represents Eastern Washington's 14th legislative district. He also serves on the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee.
  • Charles Knutson is Gov. Jay Inslee's senior policy advisor specializing in transportation and land use.
  • Bob Pishue is transportation director at the Washington Policy Center, an independent policy-research organization.

Have a question for the panel before the event begins? Send it to letters@seattletimes.com and it may be discussed during the chat. The Hangout will take place in the video player below (Discuss the panelists’ points and send in questions during the chat in the chat window under the video player:

January 2, 2015 at 12:02 PM

Poll: Will you drive less in 2015?

I would love to see more people living in and around Seattle ditch driving in 2015 – and it looks like that could happen.

Heavy traffic is ballooning out of control resulting in two-hour commutes to travel 30 miles in the Seattle region. In addition, Washington prides itself on residents' concern for the environment. Striving to drive less should be second nature in the Emerald City and Evergreen State.

Some good news: The Seattle Times' Daniel Beekman reported that more than a million bikes went over the Fremont Bridge in Seattle this year. That constitutes a 10 percent bump in ridership. But wait, there’s more. The Seattle Department of Transportation plans to add or expand bike lanes from the Fremont Bridge to downtown and in South Lake Union along Westlake Avenue North and Dexter Avenue.

I don’t cycle, but I do take the bus most days to work. I feel relieved when my express bus breezes over the West Seattle Bridge during the morning rush.

With Seattle voters approving Proposition 1, a measure that raises sales taxes and car tab fees to pay for public transit improvements, more people could become bus commuters very soon.

Vote in the poll below:

Most people living in this metropolitan region agree traffic seems to worsen by the day. This newspaper also reported recently about some horrendous commutes that stretch to two or three hours on Interstate 405. Wider freeways could help, but wouldn't it be better to reduce the number of cars on the road?

For many Eastsiders, driving is the only option. Our region has to provide better options even some that seem unlikely such as reusing the Eastside rail line.

And, as the area’s population and job base grows, more traffic seems inevitable unless people are willing to leave their cars parked.

I have to admit that I ride the bus most of the way to work. I drive about a mile to reach a convenient Rapid Ride stop and also walk about 12 minutes to reach my office. For some people, those added steps might make them scrap taking the bus altogether.

Most Americans are fine paying for transit services, but that doesn’t always mean they will use public transportation more, according a recent story in the Atlantic. It turns out, disincentives to drive such as spikes in gas prices are more effective.

Nationwide, only about 5 percent of Americans commute by bus to work, the Atlantic found. In Seattle, of the 350,673 workers, 18.5 percent took public transportation, 3.4 percent biked and 9.1 percent walked, according to the 2014 the American Community Survey from the U.S. Census.

Sound Transit saw an overall ridership bump of 8 percent in 2013 compared with 2012 and an 11 percent jump on Central Link light rail.

The King County Department of Transportation reports that bus ridership on Metro is up 2.3 percent in 2014 compared with last year. The biggest jump in usage is on the Rapid Ride, which has been adding and replacing previous lines. It looks like making transit convenient and fast works.

Sure, many people would love to leave home, jump in the car, sail through streets devoid of traffic and arrive at a destination where free parking awaits. But that just isn’t realistic in this fast-growing urban metropolis.

It’s time to embrace other pleasures like buses that run on time or dedicated bike lanes so that the people who do have to drive don’t stare at seas of red brake lights for hours.

January 2, 2015 at 5:45 AM

Map: Why measuring disparities in King County matters

Government can't solve all of society's problems, but you have to applaud King County's willingness to put out its annual Equity and Social Justice report for the sixth straight year. Released in late November, this document is a fascinating read because it measures access to those opportunities that are necessary for people to be healthy and prosper.

It will take years to reform a system that has inadvertently created inequity for many of the county's estimated 2 million residents, but at least county officials acknowledge that disparities persist, and are taking action to reverse negative trends.

Read Friday's editorial on the report, then come back here to look at the heat map below.

This is a powerful snapshot of where health and economic disparities are clustered throughout King County. The red areas (concentrated in South King County) are most impacted by risk factors such as adverse child experiences, mental distress, smoking, obesity and diabetes. Add in poor housing conditions and fewer jobs, and we see that the average person in the Auburn area might live for 74 years compared to someone in the Redmond area, where the populations are least impacted by risk factors and life expectancy is 87 years.

I hope readers do not view this map and assume that anyone who lives in  Tukwila and Federal Way is unhealthy. Rather, this map is an opportunity to see where disparities are the most obvious, and to encourage lawmakers to invest time and resources in those areas where they are most needed.

As the editorial mentions, there are many ways the county is trying to close opportunity gaps. Change will take time to see, but we have to start somewhere. We have to measure the results. We have to keep trying.

 

 

 

December 31, 2014 at 6:06 AM

Some cities sour on traffic cameras

The last six weeks have been tough on traffic camera programs across the country. Whether it's the 469 communities with red-light camera programs, or the 137 that use speeding cameras, backlash from disgruntled motorists and inconsistent impacts on safety have caused many politicians to abandon their use.

Here are some notable examples:

  • Nov. 17 - Auburn City Council vote to let its red-light camera contract expire.
  • Nov. 20 - Texas Rep. Steve Stockman introduced legislation that would prohibit the District of Columbia from using traffic cameras. From 2011-2013, D.C.'s automated cameras generated $240 million, according to a D.C. municipal report.
  • Dec. 2 - The Missouri Supreme Court began hearing arguments in three separate cases seeking to outlaw traffic cameras in the state. Earlier in the year, state lawmakers tried to create a legal framework for the cameras, but the measure failed to pass during the legislative session.
  • Dec. 8 - Suffolk County, N.Y., officials preemptively terminated their school-zone speed cameras after a yearlong analysis projected that the cameras would be too expensive and complicated.
  • Dec. 15 - Nassau County, N.Y.,  ended its speed camera program after the issuance of more than 400,000 tickets in less than two months.
  • Dec. 18 - A divided Ohio Supreme Court upheld a second challenge to municipal traffic cameras.
  • Dec. 19 - Gov. John Kasich signed a bill requiring a police officer to be posted by every camera, removing their staffing and cost benefit.
  • Dec. 19 - A study commissioned by The Chicago Tribune found that Chicago’s 350 red-light cameras, which garnered more than $500 million since 2002, did not deliver on its safety promises and was responsible for some crash increases that caused injuries.
  • Dec. 22 - A Chicago mayoral candidate called for the city's program to be scrapped.
  • Dec. 31 - New Jersey’s unpopular five-year pilot program lapses out of existence, after Gov. Chris Christie chose not to intervene.

December 31, 2014 at 6:03 AM

Traffic cameras aren't ideal for every municipality

The effectiveness of traffic cameras can be boiled down to a tale of two cities – in this case Seattle and Auburn.

In Seattle, where traffic cameras have been installed in up to 30 intersections since 2006, the program is considered a public safety and public coffers success.

“In general, where red light cameras have been put in … we have seen notable reductions in collisions,” said Mike Morris-Lent, senior civil engineer in Seattle’s Department of Transportation. “The cameras are doing what they are supposed to be doing, reducing … collisions which tend to be severe and result in injury.”

Data from the two years before and after Seattle’s traffic cameras were installed shows that collisions declined in 17 of 20 intersections, and overall by about 23 percent. Meanwhile, some 263,465 red-light camera citations have been issued, generating $24.6 million in revenue, according to Seattle Police.

But in Auburn, city officials decided last month to scrap their program, citing no clear reduction in collisions although violations plummeted. Essentially, while the cameras caused drivers to be more vigilant, they’re still having accidents.

Nationwide, the cameras became political lightning rods in 2014, with public officials dueling over their use in Ohio, Missouri, New Jersey, parts of New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

While nothing definitively accounts for the cameras’ contrasting outcomes, the objective of the programs could explain the difference for Seattle and Auburn.

Proponents of the devices say the cameras serve as a formidable deterrent to drivers running red lights and the life-threatening collisions they can cause.

Cynics, however, see the devices as a blatant money grab for cash-strapped municipalities. They can easily double and sometimes triple citations at a busy intersection in just one year. Chicago generated more than half a billion dollars since implementing traffic camera program, according to a Chicago Tribune study.

Full disclosure, I got a traffic camera speeding ticket in D.C. a few years ago. Being cited remotely for a traffic violation left me feeling violated and powerless to fight back. The citation I received in the mail included images of my license plate and a reporting of my speed from an electronic monitoring device.

And since many cities now use cameras to monitor public spaces, any attempt to cling to a distant sense of public privacy is folly.

But the devices will remain controversial. Drivers will keep on disliking them. And municipalities will keep on loving their easy cash flow.

Still, cities big and small should carefully consider whether traffic cameras are right for their municipality. And if they choose to use cameras, cities should follow Auburn and Seattle’s lead and monitor whether they really save lives.

December 25, 2014 at 6:02 AM

The day I stopped ignoring homeless people

I stepped off my bus Monday morning with a mission. The day before my church distributed gift packages for parishioners to give to homeless people.

I felt as if my church had entrusted me with a special task. The large Ziplock bag contained packs of raisins, crackers, band-aids, as well as a knit hat and gloves among other items.

My commute by bus takes me from West Seattle to Belltown and then I walk to The Seattle Times’ office in South Lake Union. I see at least a handful of people who look like they could use some help each day near my stop by Third Avenue and Lenora Street. I figured it wouldn’t be hard to find a worthy recipient.

The mission seemed simple enough: find a needy-looking person and hand over the package. Soon after of arriving at my stop, I saw an elderly woman with a walker and a cart.

I had seen her near that corner before. I remembered her because her feet seemed to be wrapped in various layers and covered with plastic bags.

I asked her if she would like a gift bag and she said, “Sure.” Then we exchanged a “Happy Holidays,” and “Merry Christmas.” I set off for my office.

The act was simple, but during my commute I felt anxious about not finding a homeless person or worse mistaking someone for homeless if they weren’t. Would someone find it offensive? Strangers ask for money all the time, but would I make someone feel uncomfortable or patronized if approached them? I pondered the bigger picture: how much can a stuffed Ziplock bag help vs. larger needs like landing a job or stable housing?

The experience made me think about my own attitudes about the less fortunate and homeless people I encounter on a daily basis. I tend to set up barriers between myself and strangers by thinking about the larger policy and economic issues vs. the faces I see on the street.

One of the things I love about cities is the opportunity to engage with other people, but I rarely interact with anyone who’s homeless.

Most of the time I say “no” when strangers ask for money because I question where the cash is going (and the fact that I rarely carry cash). I wonder if the person will use it for drugs or alcohol or if they might rob me if I take out my wallet. That’s why I was excited to offer a package of supplies instead.

In an editorial this week, The Seattle Times called for long-term solutions to homelessness and better use of resources. King County’s goal of eradicating homelessness in 10 years came and went and the work continues.

I'm glad that local government and nonprofits set a high bar for addressing the issue of homelessness even if they haven’t come close to solving the problem.

Some people may not care about helping the homeless, but I’m sure plenty of us do. I started with one Ziplock bag. I hope in that the future, we can all do more.

December 17, 2014 at 12:05 PM

Thanks for the sales tax deduction, but what about fixing the tax code?

In another example of Congress kicking the can down the road, lawmakers approved a one-year extension of a sales-tax deduction on federal income-tax returns.

The extension gives some relief to about 28 percent of Washington taxpayers who itemize their tax return and claim an average deduction of $600, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts.

The certainty is fleeting considering that about this time next year we’ll be waiting to find out if Congress will grant another extension on the deduction — something Congress has done each year since 2004.

A Seattle Times editorial urged lawmakers to keep the deduction going. Taxpayers in Washington benefit from the deduction because we are one of eight states in the nation that do not collect state income tax. The federal government allows people who pay state income tax to deduct it on their federal tax return. Washington residents deserve a break, too, right?

Making the deduction permanent, however, would make much more sense than year after year of extensions. U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has pushed several bills to do so, but Congress hasn't passed any.

The sales-tax-deduction issue raises some broader questions about tax policy. One reason the sales-tax deduction comes up for a vote each year is because Congress wants to overhaul the entire tax system. The  question is, when is Congress going to reform the tax code? A Seattle Times reader, in response to our sales-tax deduction editorial, wrote to us suggesting that instead of focusing on a sales-tax deduction, which less than one-third of Washington taxpayers take advantage of, why not talk about establishing a state income tax and then everyone would get to take a deduction? That is not the way to solve tax policy, but does highlight the need for a comprehensive look at taxes.

Taxes are tedious, but we’re stuck with them. Creating a simpler, fairer and streamlined federal tax policy would make sense. But, so would a Congress that passes more laws instead of pushing real action down the line.

December 17, 2014 at 9:35 AM

A glimpse inside Washington's gun culture after Initiative 594

On Saturday morning, I found myself surrounded by knives, guns and ammo. Lots and lots of it.

I went with some friends to check out the first gun and knife show in Centralia since the roll-out of Initiative 594 on Dec. 4. The new law, passed overwhelmingly by a majority of voters, closes the "gun show loophole." Under current federal law, background checks are required only for sales by licensed firearms dealers. I-594 expands those background checks to private transfers or sales, common to gun shows.

"Remember to dress Lewis County and not Seattle-USC," my friend text messaged me beforehand. I think I blended in just fine, other than the fact I was one of only two people of color there. At the entrance of the venue, a huge sign read "NO LOADED GUNS." Security guards at the entrance provided zip ties to help people lock guns they wanted to bring inside to trade.

Once inside, the whole thing felt like an indoor swap meet. The place had the festive mood of a holiday bazaar with a whole lot of camo colors. For about an hour, we perused aisles and aisles of rifles, shotguns, bullets, stun guns, handcrafted knives, holsters, jackets, war paraphernalia, National Rifle Association pamphlets on Second Amendment rights, and even dehydrated food for hunters. I could purchase an AR-15 assault-style rifle for $600. Or perhaps three gun cleaning kits for $90, as advertised in a sign that enticed buyers with this friendly reminder: "X-mas is coming! Best present ever! Will fit in man's stocking!"

For the full experience, I went through a free background check after eying a $300 Winchester shotgun. Bremerton-based Palmer Ordnance was there to run the background checks using the federal database. I filled out a private-party transfer information sheet and a federal Firearms Transaction Record known as Form 4473. There was only one guy ahead of me but he had such a common name, it was taking a while to find him in the system. If your name is John Smith and a felon shares your name and birth date, it could cause delay.  Eventually, the man was told something like he would have to wait as long as three business days for the background check to be completed before he could purchase the gun. The buyer shook his head, canceled the deal and walked away.

Then it was my turn. We had a slight problem.  The vintage gun I was interested in purchasing did not have a serial number. Someone brought it over from the dealer's table. No digits anywhere, but that didn't stop the process. They started the check; I was cleared almost instantly. I suppose that's one advantage to having an uncommon full name and a felony-free record.

To complete the trade, I would have to show the dealer this confirmation note:

There were certainly big dealers at the show, but most of the exhibitors appeared to be hobbyists and small-business owners. One seller from West Seattle did not need a license to set up a table. He was trying to help an elderly friend sell some of her late husband's guns. It had taken two years for them to figure out the combination to his old safe. Inside, they found more than $4,000 worth of guns, including a vintage German Nazi pistol. If he could sell a few of those, he said, "it sure would help this widow get through a tough time."

Another seller several rows over waved around a copy of the initiative as he tried to explain to a customer how taxes would be collected under the new law. He looked frustrated. (According to a non-partisan legislative analysis, retail sales tax does not apply to sales or transfers between two unlicensed people if they've complied with all background checks. A licensed dealer who facilitates the transfer of a firearm between unlicensed people "is not obligated" to collect a use tax.)

Some of the wording in the new law could be clarified. But from my experience,  I just don't view the concept of background checks as a huge burden. Of course, there are many others who adamantly disagree. On that same morning, just 25 miles away in Olympia, hundreds of gun-rights protesters met and openly exchanged their weapons in defiance of Initiative 594. (Read The Seattle Times' news story.) The people in this crowd spoke as though gun-control supporters, including myself, are out to take away their right to bear any arms. That's not true.

Back at the gun show in Centralia, I walked the Winchester back to the dealer, thanked him for letting me explore the screening process and pondered what had just happened. Technically, I was not supposed to handle the firearm at all until the background check was complete and the seller was notified, but the gun had no ammunition and I probably looked harmless. In any case, there was no way anyone there was going to enforce the rule.

I left the show with a pro-gun sticker, an old Vietnam War medal and a book. No gun.

My friend, who has been to these swap meets many times before, encouraged me to take one last look around. I saw law-abiding people, some of whom probably feel unfairly targeted by the provisions in I-594. They shouldn't.

The new law will hopefully prevent sellers from inadvertently selling arms to people with bad intentions. And though some gun enthusiasts might be annoyed at the prospect of having to go through a background check and maybe waiting a few extra days to be cleared, state law does not prohibit responsible owners from purchasing weapons in Washington state.

December 16, 2014 at 12:04 PM

Inslee promises $2.3B more for schools, but does he go far enough?

Gov. Jay Inslee on Monday night presented a $2.3 billion proposal on education spending for the next two years.

The announcement is part of the governor’s multi-day rollout this week of his budget priorities. His decision to announce different parts of his plan on separate days and wait until Thursday to provide funding details makes it harder to put his numbers into context.

Inslee said his education plan would fulfill the McCleary obligation -- a state Supreme Court decision mandating the state to fully fund basic education -- a year early. It also would provide more funding for early education and higher education. The governor’s plan calls for $1.3 billion toward McCleary in 2015-17 and $2.4 billion more to be spent in 2017-19.

Not everyone agrees on the cost of McCleary. The state Office of Financial Management has projected that fulfilling the mandate would cost the state about $5.7 billion during the next four years.

“The Governor’s proposal is far short of the complete plan the Court has ordered, and will, in my opinion, lead to sanctions by the Supreme Court if adopted,” said Randy Dorn, State Superintendent of Public Schools, in a statement.

Inslee’s spending package also doesn’t include funding for Initiative 1351, a measure voters approved in November that limits class size from kindergarten through high school and calls for adding 25,000 new staff to public schools.

The initiative was drafted without a funding source, leaving it up to the Legislature and governor to figure out how to pay for the hefty cost – estimated at about $4.7 billion over the next four years.

State lawmakers like Ross Hunter, D-Medina, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, have repeatedly said the state just doesn’t have the money to pay for it on top of meeting the McCleary obligation.

Lawmakers, however, will likely not have an easy time ignoring Initiative 1351 without a fight.

“It’s the law — he can’t propose not to fund it,” said Jonathan Knapp, president of the Seattle Education Association, a major supporter of 1351, in a Seattle Times news story by education reporter Katherine Long.

Overall, the governor’s package, which he called “new investments” in a statement, includes some juicy bits such as:

  • $156.3 million for early education
  • $144.8 million for special education
  • $386 million for teacher raises
  • $125.5 million for college scholarship programs
  • A promise to continue freezing college tuition at state schools

Inslee’s plan would make education spending 47 percent of the state general fund. That's up from 39 percent in 2007 and up from 45 percent in the most recent budget cycle.

Still, it’s unclear at this point how education spending fits into the rest of Inslee's budget and what taxes he wants to use to pay for it.

December 15, 2014 at 12:01 PM

Are Washington state lawmakers riding the free-meal gravy train?

On Monday, The Seattle Times weighed in on a new policy limiting state legislators to 12 meals per year paid for by lobbyists. Is that too many or too few? There's really no need to get hung up on the number. What really matters is transparency.

Lobbyists currently lack an easy way to report whom they have met with and how much they have spent. The Public Disclosure Commission needs new software to make that information simple to record and accessible to citizens. (Surely a programming genius out there could create an app for this?)

None of this would even matter if lawmakers were banned from receiving free meals and entertainment. Alas, politics is all about relationships. No rules would ever stop lobbyists and lawmakers from chatting — whether it's in a hallway, over a sandwich, coffee shop or steak dinner.

Lawmakers each earn $42,106 annually, in addition to a $120 daily stipend while they are in session. From the outside, that would seem like plenty of money for a part-time politician to pay his or her own way. But after speaking with several legislators, I'm not so sure about that. (Scroll down to vote in our poll asking whether legislators should be paid more or receive free meals.)

Washington's citizen Legislature model means both chambers are filled by people from all parts of the socioeconomic spectrum, from middle-class teachers and farmers to attorneys, small-business owners, wealthy retirees and former tech executives. Some take a leave of absence from their full-time jobs during the session; others don't or can't. Some still get paid by their regular employers; some don't.

State Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, says he makes ends meet by working full-time for Regence BlueShield in addition to his duties as a lawmaker representing South Seattle. Legislators meet in Olympia for a few months each year, but they must respond to constituents' concerns and attend meetings year-round. The truth is being a lawmaker is a privilege, but it's also a 24/7 job. Pettigrew says he is offended by the caricature of the politician as a free-loader who can be won over by a free shrimp plate.

"Influence happens in a whole bunch of different ways. I’ve never had a meal with you, but you could still have an impact on thoughts I have," he says, adding the current salary and benefits offered to lawmakers restricts who can run for office.

"It’s expensive. The only way you can afford it is you have to live off of that [$42,106] salary, which is hard for anybody that has a family. Or you are wealthy enough where it doesn’t impact your bottom line. Or you’re in a place like me, where I work. I have a full-time job and I’m a legislator."

State Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, is a political science professor at Central Washington University. He uses his $120 daily stipend to pay for child care, while his legislator salary helps to pay for monthly expenses, including travel, food, a rental in Olympia and his house payment back home. There is not much left over. He says he understood what he was getting into when he ran for office, but he is concerned that placing limits on the number of meals that can be picked up by lobbyists might lead to unintended consequences.

"I’ll get to 12 meals and I’ll just pass on dinner invitations, because I can't afford to eat out at Mercato [in Olympia] three days a week," Manweller said. "At the end of the day, rich lobbyists will sit down with rich legislators to make decisions for the rest of us. The lower middle class and the middle-class legislators simply won’t be at the table where these important decisions are made."

Keep in mind legislators are often invited to several receptions and meals each day (under PDC rules, general receptions open to all legislators won't count toward the Legislative Ethics Board's 12-meal limit).

"We’re not trying to get a free meal," Manweller says. "Trust me, we want to be home with our families, but a lunch or dinner is the only time you can get 8 or 9 legislators and lobbyists in the same place. There are different perspectives. They’re all being challenged."

What do you think? Vote in our poll.

 

 

December 15, 2014 at 6:20 AM

As Gov. Inslee asks for $1 billion more, where are the promised efficiencies?

UPDATE: A state human resources report cited below, showing a 13 percent jump in overtime for state workers, has been updated to fix an inaccuracy. In fact, overtime dropped three percent from 2013, according to the new report. Ralph Thomas, spokesman for the Office of Financial Management, writes:

The overtime pay figures come from an annual report by our State Human Resources division that tracks a wide range of HR-related issues such as hiring, turnover and overtime. Last year, during a Lean improvement process, State Human Resources discovered that nearly two dozen wage types were not being captured in their overtime report. So they fixed that before gathering data for the 2014 report.

Trouble was, when we posted the FY 2014 overtime figure, we failed to point out that it could not be compared - apples to apples - to the FY 2013 overtime figure. So we asked State Human Resources to redo the 2013 report using the new data gathering method.

ORIGINAL POST, published Dec. 15:

As Gov. Jay Inslee rolls out his first two-year budget this week, pay attention to how many times he talks about tax revenue and how rarely he talks about making government more efficient.

His budget director, David Schumacher, last week had a telling quote in The Seattle Times:

“After seven years of cuts, the ability to get significant amounts of revenue from quote ‘efficiencies’ is just not there anymore,” Schumacher said Tuesday afternoon in a briefing with reporters.

Making government more efficient is not just about cutting. It should be a focus on remaking calcified bureaucracies into responsive, innovative service delivery agencies. But as Inslee makes a case this week for at least $1 billion or more in new revenue, savings via lean management would help taxpayers' faith in the government. That's what he promised as a candidate.

Top of Inslee's government reform agenda has been "lean management," a set of principles borrowed from the private sector "to give taxpayers the best service at the lowest possible cost." A report to the Legislature details efficiencies thus far. For example, the state Department of Financial Institutions reports streamlining oversight of consumer loan companies. They cut a process involving seven-plus employees that took nine months down to one employee, using an automated system.

Great. That might have saved the agency some money. Why haven't those savings been passed on to taxpayers?

Sen. Andy Hill, the Republican's lead budget-writer, wonders too. "In the last two budgets I’ve written, he’s resisted violently booking any savings based on lean management. It was a hard no."

Compare candidate Inslee's government reform white paper with his Governor's office website, and you'll see that "reducing middle management" has dropped off. That idea referred to the Washington Management Service, a job class created in the 1990's to draw private sector talent to government. Wages for the mostly non-union jobs are higher, and pay raises are discretionary (and have tended to be bigger than rank-and-file). That drew the ire of unions and of fiscal conservatives, prompting reforms in 2005 that limited the ranks of Washington Management Service employees.

Although Inslee promised to "thin" the "overabundance" of mid-level managers, that's not happened. I also can't find evidence of his pledge to review the Washington Management Service.

In fact, the percent of Washington Management Service jobs has grown under Inslee.

Covering government for two decades, I've consistently heard from line workers that they're poorly managed, and that contributes to poor morale and a rigid workplace. An interesting note in a recent state workforce report: overtime is up 13 percent in 2014, at a cost of $91 million. Is that good management?

Hill, a presumptive rival for Inslee in 2016, suggests Inslee should borrow from former Gov. Gary Locke's "Priorities of Government" effort that forced agencies to rank the importance of their work.

"That only works if you have an executive willing to say, 'No, I need you to really tell me what your high priorities are to do.' We don’t see any of that."

Government reform isn't just about squeezing savings out of the $33.7 billion biennial state budget. But when you're asking taxpayers for a billion more, it certainly helps.

December 12, 2014 at 6:01 AM

With mistrust running rampant, careful screening of potential cops is crucial

As daily protests prompt the nation to have uncomfortable conversations about police use of force, it's important to also reflect on a powerful and persistent cop stereotype – namely that too many are hyper-aggressive, infatuated by weaponry, and so psychologically damaged that they’d be rejected by the military.

Those are big assumptions. However, some versions of them are probably shared by poor and minority communities disproportionately at the wrong end of night sticks and service pistols.

But I know most officers don’t fit that ominous caricature. Most are brave public servants who surpassed highly selective and costly recruiting standards that weed out far more applicants than are accepted.

Ideally, those who make the grade are intelligent, able to evaluate their surroundings and the actions of others, are good communicators, have a good authoritative presence, strong integrity, ethics, sound decision-making skills, and are even-tempered, according to Susan Saxe-Clifford, a nationally recognized California-based police psychologist.

“When you put a gun in someone’s hands, that’s the ultimate responsibility in society,” Saxe-Clifford said. “You can choose them well, and train them well, but when an incident occurs, it’s all judgment.”

Still, for most police departments the dire need for highly functioning officers can cause standards to waiver. And few departments administer routine psychological assessments.

“I don’t know of any agency that does ongoing psych testing,” said Sue Rahr, director of the Washington state police academy. “My guess is that I don’t think the unions would tolerate it.”

Rahr, who advocates that police be more guardian than warrior, has requested about $140,000 from the state to expand a study of her training philosophy. With the additional funds, she’ll use confidential surveys to track former cadets up to 10 years into police service to see if her training stuck.

Meanwhile, nationally recognized standards for psychological assessment – which crucially includes an interview with a specialist before a candidate even becomes a cadet – are varied in their application. And, they cryptically determine if an applicant is fit or unfit for duty, but don't always explain why.

“Close to half the states … don’t do anything close to what would be considered a professional level of psychological screening,” said Stephen Curran, a Maryland police psychologist with decades of experience. “And there are some states that have no interviews with a psychologist.”

In Seattle, even relatively new Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole says she had to answer the department's 1,800-question psychological exam, go through an interview with a psychologist, and submit to a polygraph test to get the job. But it's the type of advance evaluation she said is necessary for the stressful and demanding job.

"I want to be certain that we're fair and produce the right candidates, and that we select people who will succeed," O'Toole said.

Absent that it’s not hard to imagine one of those psychologically unfit applicants making their way into active policing. And that’s how an unfit cop – and his or her inevitable poor judgments – can be the brush that paints an entire profession.

December 10, 2014 at 4:43 PM

Participate in a video chat on the recreational and medical marijuana markets

Readers learned last Sunday in a Times editorial how easy it is to get medical marijuana in Washington — without medical authorization. Is this what voters thought the market would look like when they legalized marijuana?

Join panelists in a live video discussion in this post Thursday at noon about the competing medical and recreational markets. Panelists include:

  • John Schochet is deputy chief of staff to Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, who was a prime sponsor of the 2012 marijuana legalization initiative. Schochet, a Virginia law school graduate, has been a policy adviser and special counsel to Holmes since 2010.
  • David Mendoza is a policy adviser on marijuana issues for Seattle Mayor Ed Murray. Mendoza, a Seattle University law school graduate, previously worked for the state House Democratic caucus and Puget Sound Sage.
  • State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles has represented Seattle’s 36th District in the state Senate since 1994. Kohl-Welles was prime sponsor of a 2011 medical marijuana regulation law that was partially vetoed by then-Gov. Christine Gregoire. Kohl-Welles has worked on medical marijuana legislation since 1998.
  • Rick Garza is the director of the Washington State Liquor Control Board, the agency that regulates the recreational marijuana market. Garza, who was appointed to lead the Liquor Control Board last year, has been with the agency since 1997.
  • Muraco Kyashna-tochá is an anthropologist who runs Green Buddha, the oldest medical marijuana collective in Washington state. A cannabis activist and award-winning educator, Muraco has been featured in the New Yorker magazine, New York Times and NPR.

Have a question for the panel before the event begins? Send it to nlasbo@seattletimes.com and it may be discussed during the chat. The Hangout will take place in the video player below (allow. Discuss the panelists' points and send in questions during the chat in the chat window surrounding the video player:

December 10, 2014 at 12:17 PM

The arrogance of Uber elsewhere hits home in Seattle

Timing changes everything.

When Uber started illegally operating  its taxi-like network in Seattle in 2013, I applauded the company's disruptive business model because it filled a basic demand for transportation alternatives. Over the next year, the Seattle City Council and Mayor Ed Murray worked in good faith to establish a regulatory framework that allowed taxis to co-exist with ride-services such as uberX and Lyft.  From my own experience using both those networks and the Flywheel app on my smartphone, as well as hailing the occasional taxi — I have noticed a shift in customer service for the better. This is why competition is good.

Seattle became the first city in the nation to embrace and work out a business environment that addressed (some, though not all) liability issues for drivers and provided consumers with more options for getting around. There was something so responsive and organic about the process. Many believed other cities would quickly embrace the same approach.

That has not happened. Something has definitely changed. What works for Seattle has not worked for our neighbors down south in Portland, where leaders have steadfastly refused to allow Uber to enter the market until they work out some sort of compromise. The network's decision last weekend to thumb its nose at local authorities and start rolling through the Rose City anyway smacks of arrogance.

On Monday, the city of Portland filed a lawsuit against Uber. (Here's a Dec. 10 news story by KGW.) According to The San Francisco Business Times, prosecutors in San Francisco and Los Angeles also announced this week lawsuits against Uber for alleged consumer protection and business practice violations.

Uber can blame only itself for its troubles in the court of law and public opinion.

This company I've defended in previous blog posts (and in a CBC interview just last month) is beginning to remind me of the old boyfriend who acts so nice and humble at first. But once he gets what he wants, he reveals himself to be self-serving and immature. Uber dreamy? More like uber jerk.

Even worse, Uber has morphed into the guy who won't take no for an answer; the  man who believes he is entitled to the entire cake.

I don't recognize the version of Uber making headlines for corporate raider behavior and misogynistic marketing schemes. Times like this call for a Biggie Smalls reference: "Mo money, mo problems."

Uber's valuation at $40 billion has inflated the egos of its CEO, Travis Kalanick, and his executive team. The last few months have been a public relations nightmare for the company, as outlined in many, many stories. Here's a partial list of Uber's tactics that have come to light:

I want the old scrappy start-up I fell for. Until then, I have made the personal decision to delete the app from my smartphone. My intention in doing so is not to punish Uber's drivers on the ground in Seattle, though that is the effect. Many of Uber's drivers are immigrants and people trying to make an honest living. They have probably purchased vehicles for this very purpose. If they are going to make that investment, they deserve honest leadership at the top, not a bunch of tone-deaf executives who resort to unethical means to make money and kill competition.

Kalanick's Dec. 4 promise in a blog post to run a "more humble company" reads as if it is from a man with a giant ego trying to buy his way out of an image crisis with expensive public relations messaging. Uber's latest troubles in Portland and elsewhere indicate the company still doesn't quite get it: Consumers reward sincerity, not hubris.

December 10, 2014 at 5:05 AM

Reader callout: What headlines would you like to see in 2015?

Another year gone by, and it has been a busy one for us. No one could have predicted the crazy news year that unfolded, but that doesn't mean we didn't try last New Year's Day in a headlines contest. Click on the image to the right to read the headlines The Times editorial board and our readers wished to see in 2014 in an archived page of our Jan. 1, 2014, paper. And participate in this year's contest at the bottom of this post (or by clicking this link) to possibly win some Seattle Times swag and get published in the paper and online.

So how'd we do last year? Some we nailed:

Boeing to build 777X in Wash. state

Wash. expands background checks to all firearm sales

Some were half-true:

Free Macklemore concert draws record crowds following Seahawks Super Bowl win — The Seahawks won, of course, but Macklemore was only spotted in the Seahawks locker room after the win.

Woodland Park Zoo retires elephants to a sanctuary, closes exhibit permanently — The zoo announced in November it's closing the exhibit, but the elephants seem to be headed to another zoo instead of a sanctuary.

Gas prices sink to $1 a gallon — a gas station in Oklahoma recently advertised $2-a-gallon gas. Not quite to $1, yet.

Bill Clinton returns from North Korea with Kenneth Bae — Bae was released in November, but it took a visit from director of national intelligence, James Clapper Jr., to secure his release.

Tim Eyman drafts initiative to save King County Metro Transit — Prop. 1 passed in November to expand Metro service, but Tim Eyman was a no-show at the drafting party.

Wash. farms and tech companies fill all jobs after Congress reforms immigration — Immigration reform is on the way after an executive order from President Obama, with no help from Congress.

And some are comical, or sad (based on your views), considering events that happened in 2014:

Patty Murray becomes U.S. Senate majority leader — not only is Sen. Patty Murray not majority leader, but Democrats lost control of the U.S. Senate entirely.

Steve Ballmer's new job: Bring NBA back, find a new arena site — Ballmer skipped town, found a great site in L.A.

Bertha leaves town: Hwy 99 tunnel under budget, nearly complete — There's always 2015 right?

December 8, 2014 at 11:30 AM

Why do small police departments need 18-ton armor-plated assault vehicles?

The U.S. Department of Defense's 1033 program was a mostly obscure surplus military equipment program until the Ferguson, Mo., riots, when America suddenly alerted to the creeping militarization of local police.

Details of the decades-old program, which has given away about $5 billion in weapons and equipment since 1990, were opaque until last month, when the Defense Department suddenly granted public disclosure requests. Voila, we now have a nifty database, thanks to the Marshall Project, a new nonprofit journalism outfit focusing on criminal justice.

How did America's police become an Army? This is how, with details for $30 million in military gear obtained by Washington State law enforcement under the 1033 program (click here to see for yourself).

Scrolling through data posted thanks to a records request for Washington state agencies , you might wonder whether small police forces in  Grandview, and Oak Harbor, and the Mason County Sheriff really need a $733,000, 18-ton Mine-Resistant Ambush Vehicle (MRAP). That's  a fully armor-plated assault vehicle used by the U.S. military in Iraq. In all, 17 law enforcement agencies have received them via the 1033 program.

Several agencies (police departments in CentraliaConnellLong Beach, Moxee, Napavine, Quincy, Raymond, Soap Lake, South Bend, Wapato, Westport, and sheriffs departments in Franklin, GrantLewis, Pend Oreille and Stevens counties) got enough combat-quality rifles (7.62- and 5.56-millimeter) to outfit all or almost all of their entire forces. (Note: the number of sworn officers comes from the FBI's Crime in the U.S. report).

Does every officer need SWAT-type gear?

Special note, however, goes to the Wahkiakum County Sheriff and Snoqualmie Police. With seven officers serving 4,000 people in a county so small the department has just one incorporated town, the Wahkiakum sheriff got 18 combat rifles, six .45-caliber automatic pistols and six 12-gauge shotguns. Watch yourself in Cathlamet, folks.

The 14-member Snoqualmie department received a mine-resistant vehicle and an armored truck, six combat rifles and six sights. Most surprising: it got three bomb robots ($10,000 a piece), one for every four officers. Really?

The Evergreen State College police department -- perhaps preparing for a Star Trek convention gone wrong -- received two combat helmets and bullet-proof armor plating.

The Puyallup Tribal and Sequim police departments each got enough night-vision goggles to see through just about anything. The Skamania County Sheriff (19 officers) got a bomb robot and an armored truck

The Thurston County Sheriff, the Forest Service office in Clarkston and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection all tricked out their gyms, getting tens of thousands of dollars of weights, treadmills, elliptical machines, "steppers" and recreational equipment.

In all, it's an amazing array of gear -- outdoor grills, TVs, fax machines, underwear, snowshoes, portable generators, scooters, a lawn mower, field kitchens.

Why is this proliferation of weaponry necessary? I asked Mason County Sheriff Det. William Adam, whose department got an MRAP, an armored truck, 13 combat rifles and 10 bayonets and scabbards (Bayonets? Really?).

"It has nothing to do with the military except they were prior military equipment," Adam said. "Everything we’ve used is for public safety and public trust."

The MRAP, for example, was used in a domestic violence situation this summer, allowing officers to get near the house of a barricaded suspect without exposing officers to potential gun fire. I pointed out the sheriff already has what Adam called a "tank" -- a smaller armored vehicle. The MRAP, he said, is so intimidating that suspects will simply give up. "We call that a win-win situation," he said.

The bayonets, he said, are basically oversized utility knives, useful for backwoods search-and-rescue and wilderness training. "Yes, the way they’re described is odd," he conceded.

He notes that small police departments disproportionately benefit from surplus gear because they're more cash-strapped than urban forces. "We’re interested in getting equipment that does not cost us anything. Our budget has been so curtailed, so we have to find ways to stretch the dollar," said Adam.

I respect the dollar-stretching, but law enforcement is missing the costs -- to public trust, and to potential misuse -- of appearing to gear up for battle with civilians.

Here's the Marshall Project's widget detailing 1033 program donations. What do you see?

December 6, 2014 at 4:20 PM

How I learned it's ridiculously easy to buy pot at Seattle medical marijuana dispensaries without a "green card"

Last summer, some friends visiting from the Southwest were full of questions about what it was like for us Washingtonians to come out of the shadows and just buy  marijuana over the counter, like civilized people. I  didn't know, even though I voted for Initiative 502 to legalize recreational marijuana. When my friends tried to buy,  they found that none of the area's recreational stores were stocked. I suspect they left the land of marijuana legalization a bit disappointed.

If only I'd known then what I know now: It is ridiculously easy to buy weed at some medical dispensaries in Seattle, without going through the hassle of getting a doctor's authorization.

Sunday's editorial refers to a Seattle Times writer purchasing 2 grams of marijuana for $20 at two out of three random dispensaries without a so-called "green card" authorization. Yes, that was me.

Store No. 1

I've never purchased marijuana in my life, and made no attempts to cover up that fact when I entered the 420 Collective on Rainier Avenue South. I'd driven by the shop when it was a nail supply store with its windows completely covered up. The place was so shady looking even back then I never ventured in to get a manicure. It was hardly surprising to see the sign change to "Medical Cannabis Health Services." A second sign, with a giant marijuana leaf, pointed toward the store's rear entrance.

I walked into what appeared to be a waiting room similar to a doctor's office. Three friendly guys saw me and opened the door to the room with "the goods." The place reminded me of a candy shop — except instead of bright gumballs, there were big jars on the counter with the most unappetizing looking wads of weed.

A big man behind the counter asked what I was looking for and how much I wanted to spend. He said he could work something out for about $15 a gram, and proceeded to open up a bunch of jars for me to smell. Quite the salesman, that guy.  I said I only wanted to spend $10. He said he would work something out. One of the other guys asked if I was planning to smoke on my own. I said no.

As they weighed my order, I asked if I needed to have a medical license. Yes, they said.

I told them I didn't have one. They seemed to pause, so I said, "What if I’m gonna get one?”

One of the guys asked how old I was. I replied truthfully. Their responses included a variation of “What? You look way younger than that!” and “No way.” (Uh, thank you?)

“Just as long as you’re of age," one guy said.  I asked one more time, “I’m supposed to have a license?” The seller behind the counter gave me the equivalent of a wink and a nod and said something like, “Yeah, but it’s okay this time.”

They never asked for proof of age. Within a few minutes, I left with $10 and a gram of "cherry pie" in a sandwich bag.

Store  No. 2:

The moment I walked in The Green Door, located next to a Taiwanese boba shop on South Jackson Street, I just knew I wasn't going to get far. A big gold sticker outside the entrance listed the King County Sheriff's Office as an ally. There was a members-only sign to the left. I had to be buzzed into a small waiting room with a bank-teller type window. On the other side a guy with dreads, asked what I wanted. I didn't see any pot visible, so I just asked if I could purchase something without a license.

He said no, and suggested I try other shops.  If they didn’t work, he told me to try Cannabis City, Seattle's first legal recreational marijuana store.

So I walked three doors down to the next shop.

Store No. 3:

Walking those few steps made me feel nostalgic. Growing up, my family would come up to this plaza in Little Saigon for Vietnamese food. We spent many a meal at Huong Binh. Today, that restaurant is right next to a new dispensary called "Seattle Caregivers."

At first, I thought the shop wasn’t open because its windows were covered up, as if it were being remodeled, but the door opened. There is a big sparse waiting room with a window and an unlocked door to yet another room where the marijuana is on full display. The salesman invited me in and asked me to excuse the mess. I noticed dozens of small jars of weed on the counters and in the display case. I told him I just wanted a little, like a gram. About $10 worth. He said he could work with that.

I told him I didn’t know much about this stuff and would take his recommendation. He knew I was not purchasing just for me because he said something like, “Does she know what she’s doing? Or maybe it’s a he?”

I felt like I was reliving that moment I'd had barely 20 minutes earlier at the 420 Collective. This guy started to weigh a gram of marijuana on a digital scale. I asked if I needed a medical license, because I didn’t have one. He said yeah, but did I have my driver’s license? He’d just need to see that. I said it was in the car and started stepping back as if I was leaving to get my wallet (which was true).

Before I could even turn around, he said, “That’s okay. What year were you born?” Again, I told him the truth. “Oh, so you’re 32? You’re older than me!” he said lightheartedly. Nope, I said. “I’m 33.”

I handed him the cash, and he gave me a bag of weed. The flavor? Pineapple express.

Final thoughts:

As I drove home following this random experiment, all I could do was ask myself, Why did these guys have to make it so easy, especially if they thought I looked too young? What if I were an underage kid?

The point is that two of the three stores didn't seem to care who they sold to.  I'm sure not all medical dispensaries are staffed by careless bad apples, but it's disturbing to see some dispensaries making a quick buck with impunity. As the editorial stated, the two businesses that sold to me did not have so much as a business license to operate. I'm also disturbed that, the less affluent the area, the more ubiquitous these green medical signs seem to be. What's up with that? As if this is an activity only immigrants and low-income folks partake in?

I was one of those voters who happily checked the box to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012. Having dealers move their operations from the black market to the medical dispensaries is not what I — or other voters — had in mind.

December 4, 2014 at 11:30 AM

Recap: 8 things to know about Seattle, King County's sex trafficking crisis

In case you missed Wednesday's Google+ Hangout On Air about sex trafficking in Seattle, watch the full 43-minute video below. (To see the same video with links to related articles and resources, go to this link.)

http://youtu.be/WZQtPl4K1cw

I hosted the discussion featuring Tim Matsui, director of  “The Long Night," King County senior deputy prosecutor Val Richey, Organization for Prostitution Survivors co-founder Noel Gomez, Seattle Against Slavery executive director Robert Beiser, and Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking executive director Mar Brettman.

The panel offered their insight on several key issues, including: the lack of data available to identify how many children are being commercially exploited, a disturbing rise in demand fueled by the Internet, the potential legalization of prostitution and ways the community can take action.

Watch “The Long Night” for free through the end of the week at thelongnightmovie.com.

Below are excerpted quotes and takeaway points from the video chat that illustrate the complex nature of sex trafficking and potential solutions to prevent other kids from becoming victims of exploitation.

Prostitution is not a victimless crime.

The reason for that is the world of prostitution and sex trafficking is not pretty. One of the important things this film does is dispel the misleading notion that prostitution is really just a victimless crime between two consenting adults. When you watch the worlds of Natalie and Lisa, you come to realize how grim this existence can be and how important it is that we have comprehensive, meaningful services for people trying to get out of the life.

— Val Richey, King County senior deputy prosecutor

Once in, a life in prostitution is difficult to leave behind.

I don’t think people understand what a struggle it is to get out of that life once you’re so deeply entrenched in it. That’s the struggle that hundreds and hundreds of women and girls are having in the streets of Seattle. Every night, every day. Doesn’t stop on holidays. All the time... It is NOT a choice... These girls grow into adults, nothing is ever dealt with and they end up back out on the streets.

— Noel Gomez, Organization for Prostitution Survivors

Demand changes depending on the medium used to solicit sex. White, educated and wealthier men tend to buy sex online, but buyers generally come from all socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds.

“It’s important to set aside any perceptions we have for who we think the sex buyer is and start to look at the data for who they actually are.”

— Val Richey

Some fessed up to what they were doing. Some didn't think that much about it, and some were confrontational. It's proven — it's the guy next door. It's everybody. Demand is across the board. It's kind of crazy in that respect, I think.

— Tim Matsui, director of "The Long Night"

"In our society for men, we sort of accept this practice going on, even knowing how violent it is and how traumatic it can be and the things it leads to — people coping through drug use and alcohol use just to deal with that experience, and yet you don't hear a big public outcry about the need for men to not buy sex, even from men who aren't engaging in it themselves."

— Robert Beiser, Seattle Against Slavery

Legalization of prostitution is not the only answer. The Nordic model is widely considered the most effective model for curbing demand.

The problem is that legalization has consistently been shown not to work. What happens in a legalization system is that more men buy sex. And when more men buy sex, that increases sex trafficking. That increases child prostitution. That results in more exploitation. So in systems like the Netherlands or in Germany where they have tried legalization, or in Nevada where they’ve tried legalization, the result has actually been an increase in all those things we’re trying not to have more of, like harm against women and children.

A much more effective model has been shown to be the Nordic model in Sweden and has now been adopted in Norway, Iceland and a similar model in Canada. That model is to focus on offering services and not prosecuting the people who are in prostitution, those who are being prostituted. To not prosecute them, to not criminalize them. T0 not stigmatize them by putting them in jail and giving them a conviction. On the other hand, that system or that model also focuses on prosecuting and holding the buyers accountable for the demand for sex that they create. That system has been shown to dramatically reduce the sex trafficking in countries where it’s been used. And it’s probably the most effective model that’s been designed for dealing with this issue.

— Val Richey

Demand reduction leads to crime reduction. Businesses can help.

If we can reduce demand, then we can reduce the crime. One way that we want to start working with businesses in the future is to start educating them around the risks that sex buyers employed by their company actually pose to their company, so we'd love to get businesses involved in demand reduction efforts.

Another thing is businesses often unknowingly facilitate the crime. So the perfect example is the one that you brought up earlier, which is motels and hotels. And so we started with the Washington Lodging Association a few years ago, and members from their association were very supportive of bringing training to members throughout the state. So we worked with Val and Noel and others to create best practices for hotels and then we did training in King County to start. And we thought, hopefully we'll get 80 people, and we ended up with over 100. This says to us the hoteliers in our community are incredibly compassionate people. We kept hearing things like, "I have a 14-year old daughter. I'd never want this to happen on my watch in my hotel. "

They've been on the front lines of fighting it, working with law enforcement. We've now trained over 500 throughout the state in about six counties [to help identify trafficked individuals and refer them to services].

— Mar Brettman, Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking (BEST)

Nonprofits can't fix the problem alone. They need state funding and community engagement.

I think if we were doing more on the state level so that nonprofits didn’t have to be educating all the businesses and all the cities—that would be a huge thing that we could do that would prevent this issue. No one wants lots of trafficking victims and then lots of services to serve them. I think everyone wants people to not have to go through this in the first place. And I’d say for everyone tuned in, when Mar talks about engaging business — this isn’t waiting for some big corporation somewhere to take this on. If you work someplace, this is something where you can get involved.

— Robert Beiser

Ending sex trafficking requires understanding the root causes.

I think that trafficking for labor or for sex is really just a symptom of underlying issues. Sometimes it’s demand for sex or cheap labor or inexpensive food. And that creates a market... and if we then don’t look at things like heath care and education and sexual violence at home and because of lack of economic opportunity — those things create vulnerability and feeds the demand that we have for those cheap products.

If you’re moved by the stories about trafficking, then look at your level of influence within your sphere and see how it relates to a root cause that might cause vulnerability.

— Tim Matsui

Long-term advocacy and mentorship is key to help girls and women leave the life.

"These women and girls need a consistent person in their life, whether they’re in the life or trying to get out. no matter where they’re at...

At some point, they’re going to be ready and they’re going to leave. And if we’re not there consistently for them over the years, then where do they go? There was no help for me when I was getting out. And that’s why we started [Organization for Prostitution Survivors]. There’s so much need.

— Noel Gomez, prostitution survivor

 

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