That two-minute video shows you the most emotional moments — out of MANY emotional moments — at tonight’s city-organized public forum about the two West Seattle sites that are among the “final four” possible city-jail locations. Highland Park Elementary teacher Laura Drake truly brought down the house; we were at a table with Highland Park Action Committee leaders and members, and some were dabbing at tears after Drake finished. Concern, as well as raw emotion, also centered around the process, the meeting’s format, the lack of background information about how the city whittled down its original list of sites, and much more – here’s our full report (finalized in the early am):
Also spirited, though in a lower-key way, was HPAC chair Dorsol Plants, who first asked pointedly if future meetings were going to be as tightly formatted as this one (we described the format in this earlier post), then listed the concerns detailed by his tablemates, and ended with a quote from a federal jail-siting study that’s on the city’s own website, followed by one last concern about whether all of the area’s residents really had the chance to hear about the meeting:
Plants, HPAC vice chair Rory Denovan, and others later expressed frustration when — during the “answers to the main questions” section at the end of the meeting — city reps didn’t truly reply to their pleas for detailed information about how and why 30-plus originally proposed sites were cut from the list (the city website has some short explanations). This led to one of many tense back-and-forths with city reps – PR consultant Lee Keller is seen with the city’s Doug Carey, who was also the point person at the very first HPAC meeting on the jail sites more than a month ago (WSB coverage here):
One more exchange in this next clip — attendees were asking why Sodo had been ruled out; the first person you see countering Doug Carey is Kathleen Voss from HPAC:
Meetings like these are usually tightly managed by the public agencies that organize them, and to some degree you can understand why, as you run the risk of anarchy if you invite hundreds with no real plan of how to get through three hours.
However, the format deployed tonight — breaking the room into small groups, each of which makes a list of questions/concerns, then gets a few minutes to present it with the whole room listening, followed by some answers from the officials in attendance and/or promises of later answers online — does not seem optimal for dealing with large crowds whose general sentiment can be predicted in advance to some degree.
We saw an identical format deployed in February at the last Seattle Public Schools-organized public meeting before the school board took its vote on the controversial Denny/Sealth combined-campus project. (WSB in-depth coverage of that meeting is here.) One difference this time: The officials attempted to provide some semblance of answers after the group reps presented their questions, while at that school meeting, the questions were noted, and answers didn’t turn up till a week later, hours before a pivotal school-board meeting.
At tonight’s meeting, as you can see in the last two video clips above, what “answers” were provided did not include the details the attendees were hoping for. The briefing that started the meeting didn’t include new information — though to be fair, the city has stated and restated that it’s early in the public-input process, at least the way it’s seeing that process (jail-site opponents insist the public-input process should have been initiated long before the list got down to a final four).
Perhaps that explains something else opponents complained about – the fact no elected officials were on hand to face their concerns, questions, and yes, even their anger. The only elected official seen in the room, and publicly acknowledged, was the state representative for South Park and parts of White Center, Rep. Zack Hudgins, who worked the crowd before the meeting formally began, scattering business cards to anyone who would take one.
The decisionmakers in this case will ultimately be the Seattle City Council, though the King County Council has a role at this stage of the game, as they are considering a proposal to extend the county’s agreement with the city regarding misdemeanor jail inmates (it’s on the Committee of the Whole agenda for Monday) – the agreement that currently is scheduled to end in a few years, which is why the city is looking at building a jail, albeit reluctantly: “We got out of that business 25 years ago, and didn’t want to get back into it,” Carey reiterated, while making the same point he made at the first Highland Park meeting last month – that this is a project the city isn’t relishing. He also restated that the city is open to extending its agreement with the county – although at last week’s Delridge District Council meeting, as we reported, City Councilmember Sally Clark said it would be a mistake to be distracted by the possibility of a two-year extension, as she believed the city was already behind where it should be in the jail-building process if it needs to be ready by the original deadline.
One issue that continues to surface is how many jail spaces really are needed. As we reported after a public meeting in SeaTac last Friday, King County Sheriff Sue Rahr declared that “building out” the county’s Regional Justice Center in Kent could take care of the problem; she said she personally feels it’s a “waste of taxpayers’ money” for cities to be in the jail business. But in one part of tonight’s briefing, city reps said that building out the RJC would create fewer than 500 spaces, while almost triple that would eventually be needed.
Unexplained is a slide from a presentation that was on the county’s website last week, suggesting that the county jail population is way below projections, with the inference drawn by city-jail opponents that the facility may not be needed.
Even if it is, the site-judging criteria may change — next month, city reps said, they get a consultant report showing whether their “assumptions” were correct regarding a low-rise jail being superior to a high-rise jail. Attendees tonight expressed disbelief and displeasure that the city could have reached this stage without an earlier evaluation of that aspect.
Meantime, there were signs the city is incorporating refutations to common concerns into its presentations as the process evolves (to the degree that some on hand voiced suspicion the city reps were reading from a script, which they said wasn’t true – just printouts from their website). They offered a refutation to the oft-voiced worry that a jail would attract businesses like bail-bonds offices. “That’s not the experience in Issaquah and Renton, which run their own jails,” contended Carey. “Just for context, 10 percent of the people discharged from jail are discharged on bail – we think that might total three per days (in a jail like this).” Wouldn’t make business sense for somebody to set up a bail-bonds office with that clientele level, he suggested.
In other cases, it’s different views of the same reality, depending on which side you’re looking from. Opponents stress that the Myers Way site is close to the huge new senior-housing complex that’s going in; the city stresses that the site is close to the Fire Department’s Joint Training Facility. (Myers, by the way, is the only one of the four finalists that’s wholly owned by the city already; the Marginal Way site includes state, city, and private property.)
An attempted “answer” that drew some derision was the city’s display of jail structures from Kansas and Lake Tahoe, California, as examples of what they suggested to be jails that didn’t really look like jails.
In the end, though as the video shows, attendees didn’t get all the answers they want — particularly the specifics on exactly what led to the ruling out of more than 30 potential sites — they did get to make their points, as none of the table spokespeople really stuck with the framework the city requested for their discussion points:
1. What are the top 5 factors city should consider to choose between sites?
2. What’s the biggest concern you have about these two sites?
3. Given a jail has to go somewhere, if it was one of those sites, what are the top three things the city could do to address those concerns?
Holly Krejci of the Georgetown Community Council countered that she didn’t agree a jail has to go somewhere, and voiced regret that this seems to be deteriorating into another case of north Seattle vs. south (and west) Seattle:
Though the last 20 or so minutes of the meeting were tense, all grew more civil as it adjourned to opportunities for participants to personally question the city reps; Plants and others were last seen in intense conversation with Doug Carey.
WHAT’S NEXT: Monday morning, the King County Council Committee of the Whole, chaired by West Seattle’s County Councilmember Dow Constantine, considers the proposal to extend the county’s jail agreement with the city (agenda here). July 21 is the next meeting of the Highland Park Action Committee (which is updating its jail-sites-fight website section frequently; you’ll find it here, including an online petition to “sign” if you share their opposition to the West Seattle sites); July 26 is the second city public forum on these two sites, 9 am at South Seattle Community College. Then in August, the city plans two public hearings as part of the environmental “scoping” in the process; sites have not yet been announced, and a round of hearings related to SEPA (State Environmental Policy Act components) is due early next year. A final decision is expected in the second quarter of next year. If you want to let any of your elected officials at any level know your thoughts on this issue, they’re listed on the HPAC’s jail-sites page. And watch the Seattle Channel page (plus its on-air channel) for tonight’s meeting videotaped in its entirety.