One of the issues that I haven't really talked a lot about here is the question of government subcontracting, and public-private partnerships. Also gas-powered leaf blowers. Those should just be banned.
On point - the question of municipal subcontracts and public-private partnerships has found its way into the discussions of folks running for office this year. I first saw it pop up with respect to the Green Lake Community Center. By way of background, this community center and pool needs some work. This is where the agreement ends.
There are some who want to explore a public-private partnership with a group like the YMCA or Boys & Girls Club that would effectively have them make the investments and take on the asset, while ostensibly allowing the same access for the public that currently exists, and additional private access for members and folks affiliated with the nonprofits.
On the other side, people believe that this should be 100% publicly own and run, and that the city must find funding to do the major repairs the structure needs. Notably, some in this camp point to the councilmanic authority to increase revenue through the Seattle Park District in order to pay for needed repairs, despite the promise the city made to voters that the district wouldn't do that within the first six years, and instead put together a new list of priorities beginning in 2021.
It's an important discussion, because it opens numerous questions that should be asked. When we campaign and make promises, at what point do we break them? What is the benefit of public-private partnerships, and how do we define that such a partnership best benefits the people of our city? What labor and public disclosure standards do we apply to these partnerships and subcontracting our government does? While the city itself may have a minimum that it pays people through wages and benefits, do we require that for all private entities with which we engage in business?
This is spilling over into a race that has no direct involvement in the Green Lake Community Center conversation: Seattle City Attorney. Before I go any further, some full disclosure: I have previously endorsed Pete Holmes, donated to his campaign, and hosted a small-donor fundraiser for his 2009 campaign. Scott Lindsay's wife is one of my favorite electeds to hang out with, and donated to my 2015 campaign debt relief. I also highlighted some shitty Tweets from Lindsay about a month ago.
So imagine my shock when Lindsay asked for my thoughts on this issue. (a bit of background: David Kroman sent out a tweet about not getting enough likes on a tweet, so I went and just "liked" all of his tweets for the day, and one was about this issue). See, when someone Tweets at me that they are curious about my opinion on an issue - I mean, who am I to say no? Especially when I'm afforded an opportunity to not just talk about the obscene amount of money some people make, but also prison labor and needed reforms in how we treat folks who are incarcerated. Because they're all connected.
The issue giving rise to this Tweet is a budget shortfall that is being blamed by some on expenditures by the City Attorney's office for contracted counsel and settlements that is above what was previously budgeted. What makes it stick (in part) is the 2009 City Attorney campaign, wherein Holmes ran against incumbent Tom Carr, citing to the city's failure to send out civil defense work in a competitive bid process, but only using one firm whose attorneys had supported Carr's elections. The point made now is that some of the attorneys getting city contracts are on the criminal prosecution side, charging a purported $800+ per hour for municipal court trial work, and are in firms that are donating to Holmes' campaign.
Before I dive into that specific point - Jesus Christ people make too much money. A recent article about just how rich the two folks running for Seattle Mayor noted that Jenny Durkan's net worth is about $2 MILLION less than it could be because she is taking one year off of work as an attorney. Nobody should make $2,000,0000.00 in a year. That our tax structure in this country allows that without steep penalties by way of taxation to fund things like health care and transit is a fucking travesty.
Now, back on point - in the instance of necessary city services such as providing legal advice, prosecuting offenders, and defending in civil lawsuits, there is an immediate question as to the efficacy of contracting out the work. By doing so, the message I hear is that existing staff are somehow incapable of doing the work, which in my experience means there is too much workload for the amount of staff.
Having worked in law for a spell, I have found that attorneys working for the government are typically very good at their jobs (sometimes much to my chagrin). Fancy degrees don't make good attorneys - the ability to examine a case and make a deal where possible, and research and use the law in briefing when deals aren't an option has less to do with your higher education and more to do with you as an individual. I mean, I never went to law school, but goddamn I write a good brief. While government attorneys don't make $2,000,000 per year, we're not paying them peanuts. Many attorneys in the private sector would kill to have stable income and benefits that come with a government attorney job.
So imagine my disappointment that we are farming out basic criminal prosecution work. Now, I will freely admit that I don't have enough information on the details, but the amount paid in total suggests that this wasn't to cover an emergency, but instead is a systemic problem. Something like this doesn't just happen - if there was a need for more attorneys and support staff, that can and should have been a budget ask long ago. In fact, it appears that staff agree there is a need to have more counsel that are city employees.
This ties into my general belief that government is good, and in many instances should be in the business of hiring staff to do the work of government, rather than farming it out. Take Sound Transit security - here we have folks from a private company that may or may not treat its workers well ostensibly ensuring that the light rail stations are safe and welcoming. These are permanent jobs, and why we pay another company to provide them - which means we are paying them to pay their workers and supervisors AND make a profit with taxpayer dollars - is beyond me.
Going to the bottom of the pay scale for farming out work is the whole bit about using prison labor to conduct encampment sweeps. This issue came up in a recent debate between Pete Holmes and Scott Lindsay (for folks who don't know - they're running against each other for City Attorney this year. And they do not like each other).
But here's the rub: yes, the administration to which Lindsay worked was using prison labor, and yes that was atrocious. But where was the City Attorney's office coming in to stop it, or require adherence to Seattle labor law? It's loosely similar to the Attorney General's office suing for the private company that runs the Federal Detention Center to pay inmates based on our Washington State wage and benefit standards, all while Washington prisons continue to engage in what is effectively slave labor practices for inmates in state prisons. To this I say: a pox on all houses.
So what are we to do about these things. For one, we should actually encourage the two of them to keep up this talk about whose using subcontractors for what. And then direct our actions to the City Council. The City Attorney should have adequate funding to meet its staffing needs. And when it can't, it should have a limitation on how much it can spend on outside support counsel. In federal court, for instance, when there is a need for a specialized defense or overflow support, the CJA provides for contracting, and sets rates that are reasonable. There is no reason to allow for windfalls on prosecutions that occur in municipal court (not to denigrate muni, but there are no felonies, only misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors, which are generally much less complex than what one sees in Superior Court).
At the same time, we can refuse to utilize prisoner labor that does not ensure our wage and benefit standards are met for the worker involved. Setting aside for a minute my position on sweeps, my position on subcontracting is simple enough: pay people what we expect people to be paid, and if you don't, we'll hire someone else who will (or, even better, just hire people directly).
Whoever wins this race must also be held accountable. The City Attorney is the attorney for our elected officials, but also us the public. Where the Administration is failing to uphold our values in contracting, our City Attorney must be willing to intervene and, where necessary, engage in litigation to protect workers and the people of our city.
More broadly, we have to consider how our values play into the minutia of city business. What is the stamp of approval we require before doling out contracts, and how do public-private partnerships play into diversification of revenue. The people who make the decisions are the ones on our ballot, and I'm pretty stoked that we're afforded conversations on what otherwise might be ignored roles of government.