By Mahlon Meyer
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Sometimes, a doctoral dissertation may give a hint of a person’s values. Written during the frenzy and stress of graduate school, it nevertheless is supposed to represent one’s original contribution, and thus may serve as a blueprint for one’s emerging style of thinking.
Take Seattle city council president, Sara Nelson. While at the University of Washington, her dissertation dealt with police stations that were staffed solely by women—to deal with crimes committed against women. Though these outwardly feminist agencies were not always perfect (the attitudes of the officers often replicated the patriarchal attitudes of that society), they helped raise consciousness in Brazil, where Nelson did her fieldwork.
Fast forward 25 years, and in a conversation with Northwest Asian Weekly, in which she shared her priorities and values, Nelson seemed at some points to be mirroring the discoveries of her dissertation.
Nelson, above all, emphasized careful consultation with stakeholders on all sides of an issue, close cooperation and solidarity with other council members, and an attitude of humility. She repeatedly talked about learning the details of various areas of city policy. In some cases, she almost seemed to be selling herself short.
Still, her priorities and the processes she described seemed almost reminiscent of the development of the all-female police stations she described in her dissertation. Born out of political reform and opening in Brazil and a strong feminist movement, the agencies came about through a long and complicated process of extensive consultations and community input.
Such approaches seem almost to define Nelson’s priorities.
For instance, asked about how the city will be accountable for the money it spends, she emphasized that each council member will have the agency and scope to define what that means within his or her purview. At the same time, she stressed that everyone had made the same commitment to accountability.
“When there’s a will, there’s a way,” she said.
Overall, she said, “We have to define more explicitly what we want and then define how we are going to measure whether or not we’re getting it.”
She named substance abuse, as an example.
“Personally, I feel we want to make sure people have access to a wide range of services, and recovery-based treatment,” she said. “And once we’ve established outcomes, we can look back and see whether or not people have been enrolled in treatment programs.”
KCRHA and homelessness
She was frank that she was learning about the metrics governing the success of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) while sitting on its board, as well as on the Board of Health.
But, at the same time, she said she would make sure to establish outcomes to measure the success of both the KCRHA and specific issues.
The agreement between Seattle and King County about the KCRHA establishes a five-year horizon that continues unless changes are made. This fall is the endpoint of the first horizon.
“This is a natural point in time to start thinking about how it’s going and making any kind of reforms,” she said. “And you can believe me, I will be looking at everything.”
But then her commitment to consultation steps in. She shared she had just received a briefing.
“We want to make sure it’s a regional effort and that other cities are participating in the solution,” she said.
Past administrations have argued that homelessness is a national problem—and that Seattle needs to form a coalition with Washington state congressional representatives. Nelson said her “first responsibility” is to “make sure that the funds Seattle does receive are well spent.”
But she said that the work of reaching out to state representatives is “already happening,” referring to the city’s Office of Intergovernmental Relations.
Police accountability and public safety
She again used the word “learning” in talking about police accountability and public safety. She will be on the labor committee inheriting negotiation of the contract between the city and the Seattle Police Officers Guild.
“I will soon be learning about what is on the table for the renewal of that,” she said.
But Nelson may have a tendency to downplay her strengths. For the last two years, she has been meeting regularly with the Community Police Commission to learn about their work. Accountability and public safety are by no means in opposition, she said. “I think it was Carmen Best who said, ‘You can walk and chew gum at the same time.’”
Asked about “depolicing,” when officers, in the past, have cut back on doing their jobs in order to protest against changes in use of force policies or other reforms—as characterized at the time by the federal monitor—Nelson said she is “looking forward, not back.”
Her responsibility, she said, is to ensure that officers are deployed across the city—the charter demands that. That way, officers can respond to 911 calls and other calls for help and investigate and prevent crimes.
“That is the top concern,” she said. “When we bring staffing numbers back up, it will improve policing and trust between the community and officers.”
Improvements have been made since the consent decree was put in place—in 2012—and there is ongoing work for accountability, she said.
The new council and position 8
At the same time, she is optimistic about the solidarity of the new city council.
“We are all in 100% agreement that we are going to work together for the people of Seattle, to reset the tone,” she said.
This will happen, in part, because coming to work in person, now, will allow council members to build relationships.
“This is the foundation for working well together,” she said.
The “incredibly professionally diverse set of council members with really valuable skills” will help “make sure existing policy isn’t having negative impacts and unintended consequences,” she said.
The new council members will follow the same principle in choosing a new colleague for the vacant seat—position 8. There is no law that says the soon-to-be appointed council member must campaign in 2025, after being appointed for the remainder of this year.
“All public service is a voluntary decision,” she said. “We’re not stating a preference for a placeholder because we can’t enforce a preference. We’re just choosing based on what we think would best serve Seattle.”
The Chinatown-International District (CID) will be a “main focus,” she said. “Whether or not it’s in the downtown official boundary. It is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, and an endangered neighborhood,” she said.
She promised to listen to business owners and building owners and “the people that are actually in the community.”
“If the city makes a plan without the input of the people who it will impact, that is the recipe for bad policy,” she said.
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.