Week in Review: December 29, 2023 - with Erica Barnett

Week in Review: December 29, 2023 - with Erica Barnett

On this week-in-review, Crystal is joined by Seattle political reporter and editor of PubliCola, Erica Barnett!

Crystal and Erica discuss how a City of Seattle audit of registered rental properties shows a shift from smaller rental properties to larger apartment buildings that mirrors national trends, rather than being a direct reaction to tenant protections that landlords often cite as an issue. They then call out local media outlets republishing a sensational story of a homeless landlord with a “nightmare tenant” without fact checking.

On the public safety front, Crystal and Erica dig into the importance of the upcoming Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) contract and whether all the newcomers to City Council will get up to speed quickly enough. Finally, they chat about the departure of Sound Transit’s CEO and what it signifies about the embattled regional transit agency.

About the Guest

Erica Barnett

Erica Barnett is a Seattle political reporter and editor of PubliCola.

Find Erica Barnett on Twitter/X at @ericacbarnett and on PubliCola.com.


Decline in “Mom and Pop” Rentals Driven by National Trends, Not Local Renter Protections, City Audit Finds” by Erica C. Barnett from PubliCola

“Nightmare Tenant” Story Amplified by Seattle Times Crumbles Under Scrutiny” by Katie Wilson from PubliCola

What a New Seattle Police Guild Contract Could Mean for Reform” by Amy Sundberg from The Urbanist

Seattle police not complying with law requiring lawyer access for kids, audit finds” by David Gutman from The Seattle Times

Only 4% of detained youth are offered attorney access by Seattle police, audit finds” from KUOW

Audit Report on SPD Compliance with Youth Access to Legal Counsel Requirements | Seattle Office of Inspector General

Op-Ed: Quick CEO Ousting Points at Sound Transit Board Deficiencies” by Robert Cruickshank for The Urbanist

Find stories that Crystal is reading here

Listen on your favorite podcast app to all our episodes here


[00:00:00] Crystal Fincher: Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm Crystal Fincher, and I'm a political consultant and your host. On this show, we talk with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy in Washington state through the lens of those doing the work with behind-the-scenes perspectives on what's happening, why it's happening, and what you can do about it. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast to get the full versions of our Tuesday topical show and Friday week-in-review delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, the most helpful thing you can do is leave a review wherever you listen to Hacks & Wonks. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes.

Today, after a hiatus, we are back with our Friday week-in-review shows where we review the news of the week with a co-host. Welcome back to the program, friend of the show and today's co-host: Seattle political reporter and editor of PubliCola, Erica Barnett.

[00:01:11] Erica Barnett: Hi, Crystal.

[00:01:12] Crystal Fincher: Hey - good to have you on. I've been gone for a while and I'm back - so happy to be back, with you on the program. And there were a few really interesting stories that have come out in PubliCola recently - first one I wanted to talk about was about an audit the City did on its housing supply. And really landlords, and whether renter protections - what effect they had - what the types of landlords we have in the city are, what the impacts they're having, and what kinds of things are impacting them. There's been a lot of talk and a lot of conversation about this as we have had broader conversations about the cost of housing - we're in a housing pricing crisis, the cost of housing is way too high - about homelessness and how the cost of housing is contributing to that. What can be done about it? - lots of renter protection initiatives being passed around the state. And this conversation has been happening with a lot of landlords - both big and small - saying - Hey, these are onerous laws and protections. These are gonna push us out of the market. This is gonna create a housing shortage in and of itself. And so the City decided to embark upon an audit to figure out what was really going on. What did they look at, and what did they find?

[00:02:37] Erica Barnett: Well, the audit originally came out of some efforts by a few councilmembers - Kshama Sawant, Alex Pedersen and Sara Nelson - to sort of, I would say on Sawant and Pedersen's part, to demonstrate that so-called "mom and pop" landlords are going out of business as you said. And on Pedersen and Nelson's part - they're the more conservative councilmembers - to sort of demonstrate that all these tenant protections are the reason that landlords are being driven out of the market.

The audit basically found that this is not really a specifically local-to-Seattle problem, it's a national problem. And whether it's a problem or not depends on your perspective. The very, very small rental properties - meaning single family houses or duplexes - are in fact going, the number is going down. Because of sales - because they look at the market and say, I can get a lot of money for selling this house. And they make a rational economic decision and do so. And because of demolitions to build more apartments. So there's broader factors going on here that are contributing to this, but overall - one other interesting finding from the audit is that the number of housing units has been going up, not down, even as these very small, single family houses, things like that are being sold. So there's a trend toward very large apartment buildings and away from these kind of older buildings. And that's just - I mean, it makes sense if you think about - it makes sense that this is a national situation, if you think about sort of how housing stock changes over. Buildings that are 180 years old don't last forever. And at a certain point, it just becomes a good economic decision for the landlord to sell to either a developer or somebody who wants to buy a house.

[00:04:29] Crystal Fincher: And so where - this was one of the issues that they did look at closely - where landlords are saying, Hey, we're being pushed out, we just can't do this anymore. And so were these sales at a loss? Did it look like there was a mass exodus because of this legislation?

[00:04:46] Erica Barnett: Yeah, I mean, I seriously doubt any of these sales, or many of these sales, were at a loss. I mean, just looking at the Seattle market, as you said, I mean, housing prices have been going up - not just rents, but obviously the cost of houses and property has been skyrocketing, particularly during the pandemic. And so I don't get the sense that there is an exodus of landlords getting out of the market at a loss. The audit did include a survey of landlords, but it really needs to be taken with a grain of salt. The survey found that landlords did complain quite a lot about restrictions and all kinds of regulations ranging from the need to let tenants know six months in advance that they're going to be raising rent to a 43-year-old law that says you - essentially it says that you can't evict people without a good reason, you can't just kick people out without having a specific set of reasons. So a lot of landlords don't like these rules - they complain about them, but I don't get the sense that that necessarily correlates with landlords getting out of the market. It seems much more like a market-driven decision in a lot of cases to me.

[00:05:55] Crystal Fincher: It did look like a market-driven trend, particularly looking at - of the small units that were sold, almost 70% were sold between 2019 and 2021 after housing prices spiked by about 20%. And so it does look like it was tied to the potential for profit and selling those - and they are selling to larger landlords, it looks like. So there is a trend, but like you said, it looks like it is a national trend - in line with national trends - that we aren't really unique in this area. It also - just interesting in the poll, especially how we talk about and look at polls across a wide variety of subjects, mostly political. The survey of landlords - the way that questions were asked were really interesting. And it was from an industry association where the only choices that they had were really to complain about something or another - like pick which things you don't like - which obviously is going to impact the answers. Now that doesn't mean that there's no validity to them, or that none of the complaints were valid. Certainly we've heard from landlords who have brought up concerns and talked about having particular challenges, but it doesn't look like that is what is driving trends in landlord ownership and in that department. So what is going to come from this, or what is this going to inform? What comes next?

[00:07:29] Erica Barnett: Well, I think what's going to happen next - I mean, as you said, these are not just made up or illegitimate concerns in many cases. So I also don't want to just dismiss landlords as being universally baseless complainers. SDCI, the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, was sort of the target of this audit. And I think that some of the complaints that landlords made - and particularly again, small landlords who I've reported separately have less access to the City than these big property owners that tend to find it easier to comply with these laws. I think that they have a legitimate gripe with not being able to access SDCI as easily - finding the system that they use for filing information, for keeping up with current regulations - they find it confusing. And so I think what's going to happen next is that the City's Department of Construction and Inspections is going to make some efforts to make things easier, to make things more accessible to landlords and particularly small landlords. And they have indicated that they are willing to comply with that. And in the past, from what I understand, when the auditor has sort of come at SDCI and said you need to do these things, they've done them. So I expect SDCI will be responsive.

Now that does not mean that small landlords are going to stop complaining and they now have a very sympathetic city council. I expect that the new city council will be more sympathetic to small landlords' concerns, complaints - it's a significantly more conservative, less progressive council than the one that we've seen over the last couple of years. So we'll see - it could be that the new council will try to roll back some of these tenant protections in response to these landlord complaints. So stay tuned next year.

[00:09:21] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, definitely will stay tuned. We've also heard that from, especially some smaller landlords, that these protections are overbroad - they're really onerous on smaller landlords - and they treat their tenants like family and they're not the source of the problem. It's these big nameless, faceless corporations that are managing these mega properties. Is that what this audit found?

[00:09:44] Erica Barnett: Well, no. And actually, one really interesting aspect of this audit, which I can say - you know, as a focus group of one - comports with my own experience living in Seattle and renting for over 20 years, is that these family mom and pop landlords were the ones that elicited the most complaints, overwhelmingly the most complaints, from tenants for sort of everything from basic maintenance - building codes, keeping things up to legal standards - to landlord-tenant disputes where the landlords would violate a landlord-tenant law. I mean, I just - I flashback on landlords who would just kind of barge into my apartment without letting me know in advance and giving me the required notice. This stuff is very common and I think it's - this audit shows that it's much more common, at least in terms of complaints, with smaller landlords and ones that say they treat their tenants like family. I mean, maybe they do, but you know, you shouldn't treat your tenants like family if that's how you treat your family. So I think that's just, that was a really interesting finding of the audit.

[00:10:50] Crystal Fincher: Also very interesting finding to me. Now, kind of zooming in a little bit, there was a story that was covered by a lot of local media that Katie Wilson did a little bit of fact checking on for PubliCola and found out that the truth was different than what had been reported, with a story about a supposedly homeless landlord who became homeless because of a tenant nightmare story. What was reported, and what actually occurred here?

[00:11:24] Erica Barnett: Yeah, this story actually got picked up, not just by all the sort of local TV stations and pundits - conservative pundits - but it got picked up nationally. And the basic story that, the basic version of the story that was told was that there's this guy named Jason Roth - he's a working mechanic. And he owned this property and he had a tenant who was illegally trying to rent it out as an Airbnb and refusing to leave. And so he, according to this version, was forced to live in his van and really, you know, was just - really missed the property, so he was often interviewed standing out in front of it. And yeah, there's an ongoing dispute between Roth and this tenant - but as Katie discovered, the story was much more complicated than it seemed.

[00:12:11] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, it seemed like there was - it was a sob story that a lot of outlets were happy to carry. And it seemed like it was almost in response to a number of the renter protection initiatives, a lot of the momentum that increased protections for tenants have been having, and say - Hey, maybe this has gone too far because look at this guy, he's having such a rough go. And my goodness, his tenant has totally taken advantage of him. And now he's just destitute and, you know, homeless in his van, and this has just gone too far. Is that what happened?

[00:12:47] Erica Barnett: Well, no - I mean, what happened is that there was this sort of very complex and I, you know, I'm not gonna try to describe all the ins and outs of it, but there's a very complex business deal between basically this guy, Jason Roth, and his tenant. And you know, these two guys who sort of decided to try to rent out this - the apartment was actually a duplex, so it's a house that's got two units. And they were gonna rent out one as an Airbnb and the tenant was going to serve as the kind of manager of the Airbnb in exchange for a decrease in his rent. He paid rent for a very long time - was renting out the upper unit - but there was a bunch of sort of business machinations that happened. They were using this company, this third party company, to rent an Airbnb. The third party company sort of went out of business, they're also sort of still in business - but anyway, like I said, very complicated situation. But you know, ultimately it boils down to a dispute over a lease that they signed where they were going to go into business together on a different business venture. So these are sort of two bumbling guys - is how I would describe it. But ultimately the tenant was unable to pay his rent - he says, because people were not renting this Airbnb, it's in a kind of industrial area off Rainier - and so he said he wanted out. According to him, Jason Roth, the landlord, said that he needed pay for an entire year. And that is sort of one of the cruxes of this dispute is whether this guy needs to pay him, you know, $40,000 or so. It's in court, they are disputing it back and forth, but it's not as simple as it seemed.

Then on the other side of things - the homeless landlord part of the narrative - Jason Roth is the son of a family that is pretty well off. They own a company, they have a beachfront property that's, you know, $2 million, they own a number of properties - so his kind of contention that he has to live in his van is questionable at best. And his claim to be a mechanic - his work history is very, very hard to verify. And so, at best this is a complicated story about a dispute between two people. And at worst, it's a landlord sort of failing to manage a property very well. The property, by the way, is apparently owned by his parents, not by him. He said that, you know, it's his property. It seems like it's not actually his property. So at worst, he's kind of milking this for media attention - he also has a GoFundMe where he's raising money. Okay, I said I'd give you the short version - it's not really the short version - but everybody should read the story, 'cause it's even more complicated than that.

[00:15:31] Crystal Fincher: There were so many twists and turns. Absolutely everyone should read this story and we will link it in the show notes and on social media. But yeah, just kind of starting off - just beginning to look at this, the very first fact check - Hey, is there a mortgage on this property? Can he not pay the note? Oh, it turns out there's no note, and it looks like it's owned by his dad. And when asked about it, he doesn't want to talk about his personal finances and just said that it was a personal loan.

[00:15:58] Erica Barnett: Yeah.

[00:15:58] Crystal Fincher: So we see another situation where apparently - this is a property owned by your parents that you give to the kid to do something with and manage, and it sounds like he just seriously mismanaged this thing. And to your point, even he admits - Well, yeah, I could go get an inexpensive apartment, I don't have to live in my van. He's choosing to live in his van, which is certainly a different situation than a lot of people who are homeless and forced to live in vehicles who don't have a choice, who are unable to afford anything else. Not to say that it's a desirable position, but it does look like there is a pretty solid paper trail that - one, this tenant did pay rent for at least a year beforehand. Two, it looks like there was an arrangement that they both - the tenant here and this son playing landlord - agreed that the son hire this property management company to basically run an Airbnb, which may not have been legal in the first place. That company did a very poor job, creating a lot of problems for the tenant - including like hostile tenants, hostile renters of the Airbnb confronting the other tenant, who is helpless to do anything about it. And an attempt to remedy and make right that situation seemed to lead to this dispute of what was gonna happen. And it looked like there was a pretty substantial negotiation including equity that was offered in the son's company. And that just didn't turn out to be a fruitful or successful negotiation, which happens sometimes. But this seems to be almost a contractual dispute later on down the line, stemming from mismanagement or lax management of this property and problems that arose from that. So a much different story than one was led to believe from the initial stories and reporting on this.

[00:17:52] Erica Barnett: Yeah, and I think - I mean, there's a couple of things here too. I mean, the sort of deadbeat tenant angle - this tenant was supposed to be paying $4,300 a month, which is, you know, an absolutely, maybe it's not exorbitant depending on how much money you're making, but that's a lot of money. And the assumption was that, you know, he would be renting out an Airbnb. And in fact, the lease - all of the coverage said that he was illegally trying to rent out a vacation home or whatever. It says in his lease that he is permitted to engage in a commercial short and/or midterm rental with website listing service, and, you know, e.g. VRBO, Airbnb, et cetera, to sublet one half of the property. So this was never an illegal arrangement. It was explicitly a legal arrangement within the lease. Now, in the larger sense - yes, it may have been illegal, but that's both Roth and the tenant engaging in activity that may be illegal.

Pulling back, I mean, I think that - everybody from Business Insider to The Seattle Times to Fox News and our local right-wing pundits jumped on this - just says how eager people are to believe, or a certain segment of the population, is to believe that tenants are somehow getting one over on hardworking people. And I mean, the eagerness extended to not doing any fact checking - The Seattle Times ran this piece, Business Insider ran a piece, where they didn't even talk to this tenant. And one thing that he told Katie Wilson, our reporter on this, was that he sent all the information, all the court documents, and his lease, and all this documentation to Business Insider. And he says that they just ignored it because, you know, presumably this sort of homeless landlord story - that's a spicy headline, it sounds like a good story, and it sounds contrarian. So I guess who cares if it's actually true. So I think it's just, it's an indictment of the news media in some ways, the punditocracy, and just even media literacy and people reading the story and believing that this could be true, or assuming - Oh, well, of course that makes sense 'cause tenants are always trying to cheat landlords. I just find it very indicative of sort of where we are - in Seattle and as a nation - between the sort of ownership class and the rental class. So, and in Seattle, of course, most of us are renters. So it's just very interesting that this story caught fire.

[00:20:18] Crystal Fincher: It is very interesting. And seeing the reach and spread of the original, un-fact-checked tale versus the facts that later came out not being quite as viral, not being as eagerly reported for the reasons you just talked about.

But I do want to talk about the potential for a new Seattle Police Guild contract in this next year - it's largely expected that we're going to see a new contract in this new year. And Amy Sundberg did a piece for The Urbanist this week that really got into what that means, or what the potential is for reform. What does it look like is coming, and why is it so important?

[00:21:04] Erica Barnett: Well, I mean, we don't really know what's coming in terms of the specific outlines of the contract. The big kind of eternal dispute, or one of the big eternal disputes, is whether police officers in their contract can negotiate away accountability provisions, or whether accountability is something that can be debated or included in the contract at all, or whether it's just something that should be a baseline - you have to adhere to whatever accountability standards are set and you can't negotiate those away. So that's going to be a big element, I think, of the contract - is that question. And there are other really major disputes over things like arbitration, which is a process where officers can challenge disciplinary decisions and arbitrators who are judges, who may be in other states, often will overturn local decision-making. And so there's sort of a debate over whether we should get rid of or limit arbitration. So there's lots of stuff in this contract beyond just kind of the basic, how much are cops going to get paid?

And the City kind of threw a wrinkle in this earlier in 2023 when they assigned a Memorandum of Understanding, which is separate from the contract - it's kind of a side agreement - that gave the police a lot of things they were asking for without sort of asking anything in return. So they get to get a bonus every time they do a special event and volunteer to staff it - and they get double overtime for special event shifts. And the things that they agreed to in return are pretty minimal - there will be parks rangers outside the downtown area - you know, woo-hoo. They can use parking enforcement officers to help staff some positions - TBD. So the City arguably gave away some of its negotiating power in this MOU. And now we have a new city council and we're entering 2024 with this contract still kind of up in the air.

[00:23:16] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, and a lot is in the air. And you know, one thing that has been talked about before, but I think is really impactful is the impact that this new city council will have. There's a lot to get up to speed on when you take office. And to a person, the new city councilmembers have not held any elected office before. And for anyone - this is not any commentary on their capacity. For anyone - from any kind of background - coming into local elected office, there's just so much to absorb, to learn - just how things are done. Just, you know, how to craft and move legislation. All of the different boards and commissions and advisory bodies, the committees, just the history of what's happened. It's so much to get up to speed on. That takes a while. And we have some pretty impactful and important decisions coming up. And so a lot of people are kind of looking at this - at least this first year, even for some of the new councilmembers who are viewed as savvier perhaps than some of the others, and saying - It's gonna take them a while to get up to speed. So when there is such an issue like this - where there's a lot of technical expertise that is necessary and helpful, as well as just big impactful political and community ramifications here - this is a lot to ask from a brand new councilmember.

[00:24:47] Erica Barnett: And, you know, the council - they don't participate in the negotiations directly, but they do sit on the Labor Relations Policy Committee, which is this kind of obscure committee that determines the parameters, sort of what can be, what subjects are on the table during the negotiations. Five councilmembers sit on that committee and then a city council staffer participates or sits in the room during actual negotiations. So yeah, there's a lot on the line. And of course, council can also lead by taking the bully pulpit and advocating for various things, which has happened in the past - not really successfully, but there was a, you know, there's a landmark accountability legislation that was passed prior to the last contract passing. And of course, the most recent contract did not include those accountability provisions. But, you know, I mean, arguably the council can do a lot to sort of express outrage, raise questions, bring attention to issues. And I mean, like you said, the current council does not have a lot - or the incoming council does not have a lot of experience, are gonna be getting up to speed. If you're Bruce Harrell, you're probably feeling pretty good about this council coming in, you know, with regard to the SPOG contract in particular, because none of these folks are experts on public safety. And so, you know, with the maybe exception of District 5 Councilmember Cathy Moore, who was a judge and has served as a council aide. But yeah, just not a lot of experience in this area on this incoming council.

[00:26:22] Crystal Fincher: Not a lot of experience and, you know, not just - I think it's fair to say that that tips the balance of power in favor of the mayor's office - that they have more power, they have more sway, they have more influence. Because it's not coming from the council at this point in time, 'cause they're just trying to get up to speed - even before you get to the issue of alignment, which the alignment definitely does favor the mayor's office - just their ability to engage is not going to be there to the degree that it would be under most of the council compositions that we've seen before in our lifetimes in the City of Seattle. So that's gonna be another interesting dynamic that comes to play. But one of the biggest things - there was landmark kind of reform legislation passed, but because the contract specifically said, Hey, you know, we're gonna do things a little bit different and where we disagree, the contract is going to supersede any city law - those were basically wiped out. It's gonna be really interesting to see what happens with those provisions and whether, after seeing so many of the challenges that we've seen over the past several years, that the council sees fit to take back some of the power that they ceded. And I, you know, there was more than one councilmember who said that they wish they didn't cede that much power and give away that much power in the contract now - seeing some of the consequences of that happening. So it's gonna be really interesting to see how this plays out.

[00:27:56] Erica Barnett: And I think just, you know, on the question of accountability, I mean, I think it's also true that when the City has enacted accountability measures or the state has, that SPD doesn't always follow them. And I just wanna mention briefly that there was an audit by the Office of Inspector General, which is an accountability body, that found that there's a requirement that when police are arresting youth, they have to let them know that they can access an attorney and they have to provide access to an attorney right away - and, you know, in the car upon arresting them. And this audit found that they were only complying 4% of the time. I mean, and this is a city law that was sort of augmented by state law and police were ignoring it in 96% of cases, are ignoring it in 96% of cases.

[00:28:44] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, and just from, I think, the layman perspective of most people, most residents - I think it's fair to say that in Seattle today, most residents are generally welcoming of police doing the job that they have said that they're supposed to do. But they want police following the law when they do it - and that's where we're seeing a big deficit. It's, you know, accountability for everyone but the police - that doesn't seem like it makes sense. So even for people who are like - Hey, I wanna call 911 and I want a policeman to come, or a policewoman or whoever - you know, someone to respond there. I also want to see them follow the law - that has been borne out in surveys and polls and focus groups - and that's what's missing and that's what the city council has the opportunity to address, is the accountability, is putting the teeth. And when something goes wrong, you can rest assured something can be done about it. And I don't think many people have much confidence in that right now and that is going to be something that has to change.

Finally today, I wanna talk about an op-ed that appeared in The Urbanist by Robert Cruikshank - talking about the deficiencies of the Sound Transit Board, particularly in the light of CEO Julie Timm announcing that she's departing. What could and should happen next? What was the gist of this op-ed?

[00:30:16] Erica Barnett: Yeah, the gist was basically that departing CEO Julie Timm was not the - getting rid of her or, you know, her departure is not gonna fix the financial crisis that Sound Transit is facing, the - just all the different problems that they're facing with their capital program, cost overruns, et cetera. That in fact, the real problem is the composition of the board and the fact that it is made up of elected officials from around the region who don't necessarily have a lot of transit expertise, nor sort of a vested interest in wanting Sound Transit to be a success. And the sort of solution that was proposed in this op-ed was that we should elect Sound Transit board members individually, as opposed to just having somewhat random assortments of elected officials serve in these roles. So it's a long op-ed - it's worth reading and it raises some very interesting points - not all of which I totally agree with. But it makes a great point that the CEO - the buck may stop with the CEO and Julie Timm was there for just a little bit over a year and is walking away with a year of pay - $375,000, you know, essentially departure bonus, so she's doing okay. But that hiring the greatest CEO in the world is not gonna solve this problem.

[00:31:57] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, and so talking about the problem, or I guess diagnosing this problem - do you see the same problem that Robert and many other people do in that there is a Sound Transit board that doesn't seem invested in the transit system that we have, they don't seem like regular users, and they don't seem to really have an eye on providing the best transit service that we possibly can. Do you think that's a fair criticism?

[00:32:26] Erica Barnett: I mean, I do - I don't think that a transit board is going to typically, you know, unfortunately be regular users, especially when you have a very suburban transit board as we do, 'cause it's a regional body. So, you know, I think that's - look, should all the board members ride the bus and ride the train? Sure, but not all of them live on the train line, and a lot of them are - we're talking about rich elected officials - it's kind of like the gotcha of, oh my God, like nobody on the city council is, you know, rents a one bedroom apartment. Well, of course they don't - they make a lot of money, they buy houses. So anyway, but that criticism aside, I do think that there is an issue - not just of sort of suburban city councilmembers and mayors not feeling particularly invested. There's also just a problem of kind of not seeing the forest for the trees.

And, you know, I cover Seattle primarily, and so I'll give a Seattle example, which is that - there is a lot of momentum in Seattle to change the line that is currently being built. There's, you know, Dow Constantine, King County Executive, lives in Seattle, and Mayor Bruce Harrell have proposed a whole bunch of changes to the line that we voted on in downtown Seattle and environs. So we're considering moving the Chinatown International District Station and actually really getting rid of it, building a second station right across from the old one in Pioneer Square - the existing one - moving the station in South Lake Union to accommodate short-term construction concerns by Amazon and Vulcan, getting rid of the Midtown Station - which was supposed to be a replacement for the First Hill Station, which Sound Transit got rid of in the first line of the system. So there's just a lot of kind of short-term and small-bore thinking that is going on that should not be happening, in my opinion. And so I think that, you know, it's not just that - Oh, these suburban people don't ride the bus. It's that like they are all atomized and advocating for their own little areas in various ways, and they're influenced by powerful people in their jurisdictions. And so that just kind of - I don't know, it just nickels and dimes - except the, you know, we're talking more about billions of dollars and it causes all these delays that we're seeing. So I think that is a real problem.

[00:35:05] Crystal Fincher: I think that's a real problem. And I think - one of the main points that Cruickshank was making in this piece is that we need to really fundamentally re-examine the composition of this board and how we're putting it together. And I think, even beyond the composition or how we arrive at the current composition is, who is this board accountable to? And I think part of that informs some of the options that people may look towards, whether it's an elected body, which some people agree with and some people don't, whether it's looking at a different type of composition among electeds, whether there's a different expectation of how people use this system.

And I do want to push back a little bit. Just because people are in the suburbs doesn't mean they [don't] use transit. There are transit-dependent people in all of the suburbs.

[00:36:02] Erica Barnett: Oh totally.

[00:36:03] Crystal Fincher: There are abundant renters in all of the suburbs. Yes. Now that board is coming from existing elected officials - to your point, you are absolutely correct in that they skew much more, a lot richer than their average constituent. You know, renters almost are never represented on suburban boards. I'm related to one of the few of them that are renters on a suburban city council. But it's a different kind of challenge. But I think these are good questions to ask on - what can we be doing better? Because the consequences of continuing in the same way that we've been seem to be these continued delays, the meddling in seemingly basic and well-laid plans that have been established for years, voted on. And the seeming cavalierness with which they approach these changes and these like billion dollar inflation estimates just doesn't seem to - they don't seem accountable to anyone. We're talking about major budget shortfalls. We're talking about delays of 10 plus years, 20 plus years from original timelines. And it just doesn't seem like it's as unacceptable to them as it is to so many of us in the public. And not to mention that a lot of these, especially suburban areas, have been paying for a product that they're not going to see for decades for some people even in their lifetime. And then we talk about - Well, they don't support transit enough and blah, blah, blah. Well, you know, if you're paying for something that you're not receiving, and if you have people who don't seem really interested in delivering the thing that you're paying for, that's going to impact how much you support what they're talking about. We have to do a better job of this. And I guess the question is - is there a way that we can do, that we can improve on what we're currently doing? The idea of electing a board - is it one that you think can address this problem?

[00:38:18] Erica Barnett: Well, I mean, I am very skeptical for a number of reasons. Robert, in this op-ed, cites BART and says - if we elect them, much like in San Francisco where there's nine districted sort of board members for the Bay Area Rapid Transit System, then they can devote their full time to this, or more of their time to this. First of all, I don't know that BART is a perfectly run system. And I don't know that - it seems more that the good things about BART are due to management rather than the sort of elected body that makes the high-level decisions. A lot of stuff at Sound Transit is done by staff and directed by the CEO, at the request and demand of the board. But I also think the idea that if we elect someone to represent, let's say Pierce County or part of Pierce County, then they will automatically be more responsive - well, I don't know that the majority of Pierce County is demanding the things that you and I might want them to demand. They have been marginally supportive of Sound Transit - the voters, I mean, at best. And we might get, if we elect a board of nine people who are from various areas, but you have a specific interest in transit - I was saying before we started recording - we could end up getting nine Rob McKennas. As you also recall, Rob McKenna went on to be the Attorney General of the state, was a board member who was very knowledgeable about Sound Transit and implemented some decisions - advocated for and got some decisions made that were ultimately really bad and are causing some of the problems we have now. So, he was very much an anti-transit Sound Transit member. I don't think that electing people directly is a panacea. I think that there are a lot of other sort of endemic issues and if you have nine people all kind of advocating for their geographic areas, you might just end up with a bloated and even more bloated budget because everybody's putting different things on the Christmas tree.

[00:40:51] Crystal Fincher: We could definitely have that. It is hard for me to see - admittedly, it is hard for me to see how we do much worse than we currently do with an elected board. It's hard for me to not see - because at least there would be an interest in delivering something for the area that they represent, which that doesn't even seem to be a priority at this point in time. And that seemingly you would have people more invested in the system who have more of an interest in the system. Is that a guarantee? Absolutely not. Can you prescribe who is going to be elected in any kind of a process, whether it's redistricting or anything else? That's very, very hard to do and usually doesn't turn out as planned. But I think it's prudent at this point in time to be revisiting how we compose this board, particularly among just the litany of failures and challenges that we see stemming from these big, broad decisions that are coming from the board at this point in time - whether that's putting in a stronger management structure, that may be the thing. But to me, something has got to change here, because we are - to expect the same kind of result is just, seems like it's really sabotaging transit and our region for the longterm and throwing good money after bad.

[00:42:12] Erica Barnett: Yeah, I mean, I do think one caution is - the idea of elected board members - I mean, they would, if we're modeling this on other systems like BART, they're not gonna be paid. And so you're talking about sort of biasing the outcomes toward people who are independently wealthy. I mean, it's kind of like our legislature, right?

[00:42:41] Crystal Fincher: Now, I have to throw in - I'm always in favor of paying for the time of elected officials - for that reason. I'm in favor of proposals to pay our legislators for the time that they have - because if we don't, then we do bias it in favor of the wealthy. And I think that, for the money that we're investing, we should have people who can be dedicated to serving in that capacity.

[00:43:08] Erica Barnett: I will say - if we're gonna be spending money on people, I mean, I think one thing that would really help Sound Transit and something that they're looking to do - who knows how well they'll implement this - is like just hiring some people who are experts in mega-projects. Sound Transit doesn't really have that. And they don't, and they are looking at, as I said, this $54 billion plus mega-project. And I think one of the weaknesses, and in a way - the strength of Julie Timm was that she was actually very focused on rider experience, I think, to the detriment of big picture capital planning. And I think they need some people there - that they're gonna have to pay pretty well to recruit - to look at the big picture. 'Cause a lot of the stuff is not political so much as it is practical, and a lot of the problems are not gonna be fixed by shuffling the political deck. Even if we have a bunch of people who like transit, I mean, that's not gonna change the political realities, or sorry, the financial realities that Sound Transit is facing. And so they need to just kind of have some smart engineering and financial experts come in. Because, I mean, honestly, this agency is not big enough right now to implement this giant program that they've got on their plate. And they don't necessarily have all the right expertise yet, so I think that's also gonna be necessary too. And when they're choosing a new CEO, I think it's important to hire somebody who recognizes and respects that fact, and that like the politicians are not the experts, the CEO is probably not gonna be the expert on all this stuff. And so there's a lot of stuff that needs to change beyond just the board.

[00:44:56] Crystal Fincher: There is absolutely a lot of stuff that needs to change beyond the board. I will say that I think we are seeing a fair amount of politically affiliated interference in this, particularly with the willingness to jettison work and planning that has been done over the years, at seemingly the last moment, with consequences of delay and that in and of itself ballooning project costs. So some of this is absolutely self-inflicted from decisions that are made and remade and changed and re-changed. But to your point, I think that there's a lot of change that needs to happen here. And hopefully we are able to meaningfully examine and identify the root causes, and try to implement some fixes that'll stick.

And with that, we thank you for listening to Hacks & Wonks on this Friday, December 29th, 2023. The producer of Hacks & Wonks is Shannon Cheng. Our insightful co-host today was Seattle political reporter and editor of PubliCola, Erica Barnett. You can find Erica on most major social media platforms right now - on X, formerly known as Twitter, at @ericacbarnett, with two T's at the end. You can follow Hacks & Wonks on Twitter, also, at @HacksWonks. You can follow me on any major social media site at @finchfrii, that's two I's at the end. You can catch Hacks & Wonks on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts - just type "Hacks and Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get the full versions of our Friday week-in-review shows and our Tuesday topical show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, leave a review wherever you listen. You can also get a full transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced in the show at officialhacksandwonks.com and in the podcast episode notes.

Thanks for tuning in - talk to you next time.