This week, the Seattle City Council published its proposed committee structure, to be approved at the new council’s first full meeting next Monday. The committees and their membership give a strong indication of the topics that each councilmember will be focused on, as well as the likely power-brokers in a time of great change for the council.
A bit of context: in the past there have been nine standing committees, with each councilmember chairing one committee. Committee chairs have much power over their committee’s area of responsibility: they can control whether and when an item makes it onto the agenda and eventually is voted out of committee. While officially each committee has a chair, a vice-chair, and a “member” and “alternate,” in practice all of the committees have been run as “committees of the whole,” in which any of the nine coouncilmembers can show up to any committee meeting, participate in deliberations, and vote on amendments and bills.
For the last month, rumors have swirled that in 2020 there would be fewer than nine committees. As a precursor to such a change, early last month the council approved a modification to its rules such that every standing committee would have at least four members, attendance by members would be required (or an excused absence sought), and most notably, only committee members could vote on issues in front of that committee.
The council’s committee list published this week has eight standing committees, each with a chair, a vice-chair, and three voting members, along with an alternate who may attend and vote if one of the five members is absent. As is customary after every election, the specific responsibilities of the committees has been reshuffled.
Here’s how it now looks:
Community Economic Development Committee. Chair: Morales. Vice-Chair: Lewis. Members: Juarez, Pedersen, Sawant. Alternate: Herbold. This committee will oversee the Office of Economic Development and the Office for Civil Rights, and focus on small business development and support, workforce development, arts and cultural activities, film and music, and the Equitable Development Initiative.
Finance and Housing Committee. Chair: Mosqueda. Vice-Chair: Herbold. Members: Gonzalez, Lewis, Strauss. Alternate: Morales. This committee will oversee budget and finance activities outside of the annual budget process, public works projects, the Department of Finance and Administrative Services, the City Budget Office, the Office of Housing, and the Office of Labor Standards.
Governance and Education Committee. Chair: Gonzalez. Vice-Chair: Juarez. Members: Mosqueda, Sawant, Strauss. Alternate: Lewis. This committee will oversee the Office of Intergovernmental Relations, The City Auditor, the Hearing Examiner, the Office of the Employee Ombud, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Committee, the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, and the Department of Education and Early Learning.
Land Use and Neighborhoods Committee. Chair: Strauss. Vice-Chair: Mosqueda. Members: Juarez, Lewis, Pedersen. Alternate: Gonzalez. This committee wil handle land use and zoning issues, the upcoming update to the city’s Comprehensive Plan, and oversee the Department of Construction and Inspections, the Office of Planning and Community Development, and the Office of Neighborhoods.
Public Assets and Native Communities Committee. Chair: Juarez. Vice-Chair: Pedersen. Members: Herbold, Mosqueda, Sawant. Alternate: Strauss. This is the one committee that is still largely unchanged from last year: Juarez’s committee will continue to oversee the Parks Department, the Office of the Waterfront, Seattle Public Libraries, and Seattle Center. It will also continue to take up issues related to Native Americans.
Public Safety and Human Services Committee. Chair: Herbold. Vice-Chair: Gonzalez. Members: Lewis, Morales, Sawant. Alternate: Pedersen. This committee will oversee the Seattle Police Department, the Seattle Fire Department, the Office of Emergency Management, and the Human Service Department — though HSD will be shrinking this year as responsibilities and resources shift over to the new regional authority for homelessness. It will continue to take the lead on the council’s involvement with the Consent Decree and police accountability.
Sustainability and Renters’ Rights Committee. Chair: Sawant. Vice-Chair: Morales. Members: Juarez, Lewis, Pedersen. Alternate: Mosqueda. This committee will oversee the Office of Sustainability and Environment, and take the lead on the city’s Green New Deal and tenant protections.
Transportation and Utilities Committee. Chair: Pedersen. Vice-Chair: Strauss. Members: Gonzalez, Herbold, Morales. Alternate: Juarez. This is another committee with a big portfolio, including three of the largest city departments: the Department of Transportation, Seattle City Light, and Seattle Public Utilities. Those three also make up the bulk of the city’s physical infrastructure. It will also take the lead on legislation related to the city’s Pedestrian, Bicycle and Freight Master Plans, to Vision Zero, to bike and scooter share programs, and to the Center City Connector streetcar.
Here are some thoughts and observations on these committees:
- There are four powerful committees, and four not-so-powerful. The big ones with the weighty responsibilities are Finance and Housing, Land Use and Neighborhoods, Public Safety and Human Services, and Transportation and Utilities. That means as a first approximation the chairs of those four committees, Mosqueda, Strauss, Herbold and Pedersen, will be the power brokers for the top issues facing the city. As incoming Council President, Gonzalez will also have her share of power on the second floor of City Hall. That leaves Juarez, Lewis, Morales, and Sawant somewhat at a disadvantage in trying to move big agendas forward. And since new Councilmember Lewis is the only councilmember who doesn’t chair a committee, he is even more sidelined.
- However, the power of the committee chairs will be tempered a bit by the changes in committee membership and voting rights. Four councilmembers (Herbold, Strauss, Lewis, and Gonzalez) are each on three of the four big committees. That raises Lewis’ stature among his peers. It also lowers that of Sawant and Juarez, who each are on only one of the four big committees.
- It is not surprising that Gonzalez isn’t chairing one of the four big committees, given her additional responsibilities as Council President. However, it is a bit surprising that she was willing to hand over police accountability to Herbold after four years leading on that issue and before the city crosses the finish line on the Consent Decree. On the flip side, Mosqueda’s chairing of the Finance and Housing Committee means that she will also be Budget Chair — a hefty responsibility (and time commitment), generally thought to be the second most powerful position on the Council after Council President.
- While most of the names of this year’s committees have been pared back and no longer list the personal policy objectives of their respective chairs, there remain some interesting carve-outs for specific chairs in the portfolios of their committees. Labor leader Mosqueda will continue to keep the Office of Labor Standards in her purview. Despite housing policy being under Mosqueda, Sawant is responsible for tenant protections. Oversight of the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs will remain under Gonzalez.
- In a further sign of the relative power and workload of the committees, the four lower-tier committees will only meet once a month, instead of the traditional twice-monthly schedule. Also, there are no standing committee meetings scheduled for Thursdays this year; other than for special meetings, Thursday and Friday will be meeting-free.
- While council committees have had vice-chairs for some time, traditionally the position is nearly meaningless and has only had import when a committee chair is absent for an extended period of time or leaves office in the middle of a term. However, given that Mosqueda will begin the year on maternity leave, and Gonzalez is scheduled to begin her maternity leave in the middle of January, the vice-chairs of their respective committees may find themselves with some extra responsibilities in the early months of 2020.
- Separately, the council published their proposed assignments to external city, county, regional, and state boards. Of note: despite the fact that Juarez is only the alternate on the council’s own Transportation and Utilities committee, she will be representing the city on the King County Regional Transit Committee, the Puget Sound Regional Council Transportation Policy Board, the Sound Transit Board, and the Move Seattle Levy Oversight Committee. Also, Sawant has only one external committee assignment: the regional Trade Development Alliance. Sawant has a reputation for poor attendance at her current committee assignments, a point which was raised recently in the King County Regional Policy Committee meetings on establishing the regional homeless authority.
With these committee assignments, what can we expect each of the Council members to be focused on?
Gonzalez: running the Legislative Department; immigrant issues.
Herbold: spinning up the regional homeless authority, and spinning off pieces of HSD to it; police accountability, re-negotiating the SPOG contract, and the Consent Decree.
Morales: the Equitable Development Initiative; small business and workforce development; sorting out the mess with the city’s film and music office.
Sawant: tenant protections, including rent control and prohibiting winter evictions; the Green New Deal.
Pedersen: the details of light rail expansion to Ballard and West Seattle; bike and scooter share programs; bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure; Seattle City Light’s new strategic plan.
Juarez: the Waterfront LID and redevelopment project; services for Native Americans; and continuing to push for equity in service offerings in North Seattle.
Strauss: the update to the city’s Comprehensive Plan; considering whether to rezone single-family residential zones in the city to allow for higher-density homebuilding; a steady flow of post-MHA requests for property rezones; updates to the city’s tree-protection ordinance.
Lewis: diffcult to say, though he already has his first win as a new councilmember: he anounced at his swearing-in ceremony that the UpGarden P-patch on the roof of Seattle Center’s parking structure has been saved. UPDATE: According to the Seattle Times’ Daniel Beekman, Lewis will chair the council’s Select Committee on Homelessness.
Mosqueda: funding additional affordable housing projects; the budget; labor protections; childcare-related legislation.