Democracy, Olympia Style

Inspired by the John Oliver’s segment on Gerrymandering…

I got to thinking some more about changes I’d like to see here in Olympia.

I first broached this topic in my grandiosely titled piece, A New Way Forward for Olympia, where I got a bit too far into the weeds. I want to fix that by going back up to the 10,000-foot level and providing a simpler layout of my plan.

What I’m talking about is a city charter. To get there we have to either convince our sitting council to put it on the ballot or gather the requisite signatures from voters via citizen initiative. After the charter vote, we have to have a freeholder election. 15 freeholders would need to be elected at-large who would then write the new charter for the city.

“But what do you want to DO, Rob?!”

Glad you asked. There are four things I want the charter to address and will urge freeholders to adopt:

  1. Districts
  2. Elected Executive
  3. Oversight Committees
  4. A Path Straight to the Ballot for Citizen Initiatives

First, let’s establish some grounds for discussion: 1. None of these things can happen overnight and will require phases; in some cases spanning years. 2. There are a lot of details and legalities to be sorted out and let’s not argue over specifics, but instead, find common ground and consensus on a set of goals like the ones I’m proposing here. 3. All of this is very possible, and I’m not proposing anything that has not been done before.

Ok, let’s get into it.

Districts – Quite simply put, our history of electing councilmembers has skewed dramatically toward the SE quadrant of our city. In juxtaposition, the SW quadrant, which contains the highest poverty rates in the entire county, have not been represented at least as long as I’ve been paying attention. We need better direct representation of ALL our neighborhoods.

I propose we split the city into 5 segments based on Emmett O’Connell’s map.

We would need to ensure that our districts can’t be gerrymandered so some kind of check would need to be baked into the charter that prevented a simple vote of the council from drawing new lines. An update to the map would need to require public approval of some sort.

Elected Executive – Right now the way our city operates, one person controls the entire city and its operations. The City Manager is not elected by the people but hired by the city council, which sets goals and priorities and passes ordinances and resolutions. The City Manager is not beholden to the Open Meetings Act and is free to “advocate” for issues behind closed doors without any public disclosure. Changing to a Strong Mayor System would remedy this and bring some sunlight into City Hall.

Oversight Committees – In my previous piece on this topic I laid out the “advisory boards and committees” that I would want in place and the structure I’d like them to take. I want to update that by changing the thrust from “advisory” to “oversight”. This isn’t just a semantic change, I would give each committee actual oversight powers. If you have a grievance, you can take it to the committee and they’ll review it. The process for that is something we can build out later but I think it’s very important that people know where to take their issue. Council, as we know it today, doesn’t have the time or capacity to take on this role which means a lot of people feel unheard.

A Path Straight to the Ballot for Citizen Initiatives – This one is pretty simple. If the people get together and gather signatures to put something on the ballot, then it goes on the ballot. Last year we saw council attempt to block an initiative that met all the requirements to go on the ballot. They argued against the merits of the initiative, and whether it would hold up in court. Well, I don’t think that’s appropriate and I think it’s undemocratic. Right now the initiative process is the only direct way the people of Olympia can influence city government. So, if the people meet the requirements of the initiative process then it shouldn’t pass through council first, it should just go on the ballot. Then we vote and if the initiative passes it’s City Hall’s job to bring it into compliance and put it back up for a vote.

I’ll reiterate that there are a lot of details to be sorted, but if freeholders can agree on these four goals then I think we’ll make some great headway and steer the ship of local government towards participation, transparency, accountability, and inclusiveness.

If you actually read this far, THANK YOU. Share it with someone you think would appreciate it!

Obamacare v. Trumpcare

A few big differences:

ObamaCare expanded Medicaid to cover 11 million people who weren’t covered before. TrumpCare gets rid of that expansion. So right off the bat millions of people will lose their coverage.

ObamaCare contained an individual mandate. TrumpCare removes it but allows insurance companies to charge you a 30% penalty for lapses in coverage. This seems totally nefarious. They’re not getting rid of the mandate at all, they’re shifting enforcement to corporations. All those penalties that would have gone into public coffers will now go to the insurance companies.

ObamaCare required large employers to provide affordable insurance to their employees. TrumpCare eliminates the employer mandate. Pretty straightforward, millions more will lose coverage.

ObamaCare distributed subsidies based on income. TrumpCare distributes subsidies by age. Age-based distribution is arbitrary and won’t help people who need it the most.

ObamaCare included tax credits for out-of-pocket expenses. TrumpCare eliminates those credits. Another big hit on low-income people who can’t afford those expenses.

ObamaCare capped the amount insurance companies can deduct from taxes for top level executives’ salaries. TrumpCare allows them to write off the entire amount of their executive’s salaries. The Obamacare cap was $500,000. This lifting of the cap incentivizes higher pay for corporate executives.

TrumpCare prevents Medicaid from funding Planned Parenthood, a potential $500 million loss of funding because they provide abortion services. Although ZERO federal funds go to abortion services, as mandated by the Hyde Amendment. The actual language states “abortion providers” but you don’t have to be a science rocket to know who they’re talking about. This is a direct assault on Planned Parenthood and a big reason we need to get active and fight Trumpcare.

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING

COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

#VoteHimOut

Lisa Parshley for Olympia City Council, Pos 5

It’s local campaign season again and I’m jumping into it with a focus on winning progressive majorities on the Olympia City Council and the Olympia Port Commission. I’ll be Campaign Manager for a couple of candidates this year, and I wanted to tell you a little bit about one of them.

Lisa Parshley, a newcomer to local politics, is running for Olympia City Council, Position 5.

A little about Lisa… she is a doctor, a veterinary oncologist. She and her husband Tom own and operate the Olympia Veterinary Cancer Center. They have 50+ employees, pay everyone a minimum of $15, cover all medical and dental, and offer 3 weeks vacation every year. A consensus builder, she has held a couple of statewide leadership positions in veterinary industry groups, including helping one recover from financial turmoil, leading it through adversity among members and bringing divergent sides together, saving and strengthening the organization in the process. Lisa is running on a progressive platform with three main pillars:

Business For The Peopleour small businesses should be encouraged through opportunities, incentives, and by the example we set as a council to always consider the social, environmental, and economic interests of the community as a whole. A progressive business community can be the catalyst for social change and environmental protection; and it can lead the way toward a vibrant and robust local economy that inspires innovation and incubates great ideas.

Healthy Community/Healthy Environment –  For a city to be healthy it must embrace and protect all its people, without exception. This means ensuring diversity in our hiring practices and crafting policies that are inclusive both in outcome and in the language we use to write them. We also need to be decisive in our actions to meet the climate challenges ahead of us. By looking both “upstream and downstream” at the impact of our decisions, and by drawing upon the expertise right here in Olympia, we can act sooner rather than too late to address climate change.

Responsible Downtown – Downtown Olympia has always been about vibrancy and setting trends. Let’s harness that spirit to guide this great neighborhood through the period of growth it’s slated to experience over the next 15-20 years. As a regional hub, it bears the great responsibility of being the home, living room, playground, backyard, or job site of a half a million people from Grays Harbor to JBLM, and from Chehalis to Shelton. This also means we’ll continue to see folks who need our help, and it’s our responsibility to make sure no one is left behind, or falls through the cracks, especially if they’re suffering on our streets from untreated mental health or addiction issues.

I hope you’ll reach out to meet Lisa, I think if you do you’ll like her as much as I do. I should have website and donation systems set up this week and I’ll update everybody when I have it. Please donate! We’ll need volunteers to help with yard signs (nudgenudge Rob Alschwede), canvassing, house parties, and writing letters.

Thanks everybody, see you around the bend!

A Note to Olympia City Council Regarding Hate Speech

Text of an email I sent to council this morning. If you agree, please send them a note as well – citycouncil@ci.olympia.wa.us


Mayor Selby and Members of Council,

At the February 7th Olympia City Council meeting, during public comment, a citizen referred to people experiencing homelessness as cockroaches.
“Cockroaches” is a commonly used slur against this segment of our community. It strips people, who are suffering, of their humanity, and makes us think of them as a disgusting pest, to be stomped on. I’ve heard it used since I got started as a street outreach worker, about a dozen years ago.
This doesn’t represent my values, nor the values I’ve come to expect from Olympia, and I don’t believe it represents the values you hold, as a governing body, or as individuals.
I ask you to rebuke the use of this hateful term, and other such speech against this unprotected and marginalized group of people, and reaffirm the values you set in December in both the Charter for Compassion and Olympia Sanctuary City decisions.
I also ask that at future meetings, if hate speech is used against any group or person, that you immediately call it out, and remind the speaker of this community’s values.
I thank you for the work you do, the time you put in, and specifically for being innovative and taking the lead in our region on the issue of addressing poverty. Though we have a long way to go, the work is made easier by being inclusive, not exclusive.
Sincerely,
Rob Richards

Camp Quixote Ten Year Anniversary Retrospective

In the fall of 2006 I had been a live-in volunteer at Bread & Roses in Olympia, Washington for about three years. That’s three years of experiencing and witnessing the direct effects of homelessness in the lives of people whom I had come to care for and love. Daily, they were tormented by predators, police, and policies – all things compounding to make it nearly impossible to recover from the cycle of homelessness. One co-worker described it as “being stuck on the side of the freeway, trying to pull into traffic, but cars keep whipping by, leaving you stuck where you’re at.” Resources were scarce and getting scarcer. Politics in Olympia had shifted toward a very pro-business/anti-homeless track. Getting rid of homeless people was the goal, as opposed to helping them to get off of the streets. This trend culminated in the summer of 2006 in the form of a Pedestrian Interference Ordinance that would strip people’s right to gather in public spaces – namely, our sidewalks – during certain times of day.

As an advocate, I felt powerless – which was a reflection of the powerlessness I saw in the faces of the people I advocated for daily. They were sad, scared, angry, and they didn’t know what to do – the typical thing would have been to just take their lumps without putting up a fight.

People were resigned to being relegated to second-class citizen status. My friend Tim (a particularly vocal member of our little community, who had been houseless off and on most of his life) was angry and wanted to do something about it. He and I had been regularly having a movie night with another Bread & Roses worker, Matt Kellegrew. We would watch political documentaries and movies, and then have long discussions about them and how they applied to what was happening locally.

It was during one of these movie nights, we watched The Battle of Algiers, that the conversation began about a political action in response to the ordinance. The three of us, that night, laid the groundwork for the birth of what would become known as Camp Quixote – a name which I’m proud to say I came up with, as a show of solidarity to a group in Paris, who were involved in a similar tent city protest. They called themselves The Children of Don Quixote. We also chose a name for our newly conceived conglomerate, the Poor People’s Union (PPU), which would serve as the organizing body of the camp.

The first meeting of the PPU was held on a Saturday afternoon at the Bread & Roses Advocacy Center. It drew (probably because of the coffee and pizza) about two dozen people. Matt, Tim, and I laid out our vision to create a tent city where folks could live in community, and work toward a permanent site that they owned, and could farm, free of the pressures of the social service system, able to recover at their own pace. We didn’t know how people would respond going into that first meeting, and I don’t think any of us were expecting the response we received. People bought in almost immediately. The idea that they could be in control of their destiny for once, and not sit idly by while more ordinances went into effect, while they just took it and did nothing – that instilled in people a sense of hope that the future held something more for them, and that they were a part of something; a community, a movement.

We then began having general meetings every Saturday, where we would plan every aspect of the camp. Different people were stepping up to coordinate the committees that would take on various roles in the camp’s management. We had committees handling aspects such as the Kitchen, Security, Camp Layout, and Communications. Each of these committees would meet independently and give progress reports at each general meeting. The camp was coming together, and the PPU was getting stronger and larger by the week. Members of the advocacy and activist community caught wind of what was in the works and offered up support. Those of us who were not members of the street community were very careful to make sure that all decisions were made by consensus and any decision that affected only the street community was made by only members of the street community. We didn’t want local activists to come in and take over, we wanted them to come in and take direction from the campers.

Eventually the Site Selection Committee determined that the best site we could choose would be a City of Olympia owned lot on Columbia Street in our Downtown. As a member of this committee I researched multiple locations, both public and private, before settling on the final lot. We had various reasons why we ended up where we did. First, our fight was with the City of Olympia, so locating on property they owned made sense. We would avoid having a dispute with a private citizen, and all of the challenges that could come out of that. Second, the lot was located in the Downtown core, on one of the busiest streets in Thurston County, so it was highly visible. That provided multiple benefits, but mainly exposure. Thousands of people would drive by every day that otherwise might not have known the camp existed. Many got curious and pulled off to ask us questions. Many of those people came back with supplies or to volunteer. That proved critical, for morale, as well as logistically.

After the PPU consented to the location, we set February 1st, 2007 as move-in day (also the day that the ordinance had been slated to take effect). That gave us only a couple of months to finish our preparations. Supplies needed to be stockpiled, and materials gathered. We spent those final two months busily staging materials and methodically crafting the action plan for move in day.

When February 1st rolled around, we set our plan in motion, first going in to set up the tents. Pallets and tarps were laid, tents erected and waterproofed. Simultaneously, I was coordinating the delivery of two port-a-potties, and the kitchen crew was setting up the kitchen tent, and prepping for dinner. By the end of that first day, we had over twenty tents set up, and we all were able to have a meal together.

Day two brought more people, and more tents had to be set up. The committee in charge of camp layout took on the newcomers and gave them jobs in the camp. Jobs included a rotating 24-hour security detail, kitchen crew, camp maintenance, and clean up.

On day three, we finished staging our materials for the community center that we had drawn up plans for, and the construction crew set to work. They built out the frames for the walls and roof, and just like an old fashioned barn raising, we all helped to pull them upright and hold them in place while others hammered everything together. While this was happening, the kitchen crew had been prepping a huge chicken dinner – a local grocery store had donate a couple dozen pounds of chicken and some other fixings – and veggies donated by members of the community.

That night was one of the most joyous nights I’ve ever experienced. We all ate together, danced, laughed, and enjoyed one another’s company inside of this grand hall that we had built together, as a community and as a family.

I’ve never felt more alive than I did that night. Seeing those faces that for years had been weighed down by the pressure of life on the streets, the constant fear, stress, humiliation – all of that lifted away and you could see their inner beauty shining through, what was inside them, what could be drawn out of a person if we just choose to bring people in, rather than push them away.

The response from the community at large to our presence, at least from our perspective, was for the most part positive. Ben Moore’s, a restaurant on the same block, brought us a huge batch of hot soup everyday – and a “We heart Camp Quixote” sign hung in their window. We were inundated with donations. Blankets, tarps, sleeping bags, warm clothes, food, and much more were coming in steadily. Parents would bring their children down to visit and have conversations with them about homelessness, and why the camp was there.

The City of Olympia, on the other hand, was not as supportive. They informed us that we were trespassing and were subject to arrest and confiscation of our belongings. From that point forward, there was a looming sense of inevitability that the camp could be swept away at any time. We quickly formed an intelligence gathering committee that would monitor the police band and scout out locations where the police would stage for such a sweep in order to have the earliest possible warning we could get, so that we could get people out who couldn’t risk arrest, or might be at greater risk if the police used violence, pepper spray, tear gas, etc. The majority of the Olympia City Council voted to instruct staff to serve notice to us that we were trespassing, and to vacate or they would send in OPD to disperse the camp.

The local media, The Olympian, was equally unsupportive. They ran an editorial urging the City to break up the camp and arrest those who remained.

We knew that the stress caused by the threat of a police raid at any moment was weighing on folks heavily, so we started creating a plan to move the camp. We began exploring many options, including moving to a different lot downtown, or finding a space hidden out in the woods somewhere. Finally, one member of our extended support network had the idea of asking a church, specifically her church, the Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation (OUUC). The OUUC board was having a meeting the following evening and our supporter volunteered to attend, and request sanctuary on their property.

When the news came in that the OUUC Board had decided to grant us temporary sanctuary, the news hit the camp and spread fast. People were elated. We began making plans to move the next morning. We arranged for the port-a-potties to be moved and coordinated volunteers to help us start at first light.

It turns out that the City of Olympia had other plans for us.

At 5am the next morning, with everyone except the security watch sound asleep, OPD descended upon the camp in a loud, showy display of their might. An Olympian reporter was on the scene along with a photographer, no doubt tipped off by someone at the city. Maybe Steve Hall, who showed up to watch the festivities he created.

It caused a tremendous amount of stress to the campers, some of whom fled and abandoned their belongings. Others stayed but were shaken and fearful from the shock of such an unexpected and violent awakening. Some of the people who fled weren’t seen for weeks because they were afraid to be seen in public, afraid that OPD was after them.

As morning broke and the shock subsided, our volunteers arrived to help us move things and get the new camp set up. I remember feeling a sense of accomplishment and sharing it with the campers and volunteers. It was the end of the first chapter in what would be a story with many twists and turns.

A couple of weeks later the congregants at OUUC voted to allow the camp to stay. Work began to create structure and formalize the relationship. The City of Olympia got involved, and the Thurston County Health Department, in order to regulate health and safety at the camp. The Panza Board formed, and like the famous sidekick of Don Quixote, was there to support the camp in its journey, not to govern it (in keeping with the camp’s intent to be self-governed), an ideal that has held firm throughout the years.

Personally, I stayed involved with Panza and the camp for a couple of months after the move, and then decided to let it go. It had evolved, there was new energy, and I didn’t want to risk holding it back by taking too much ownership over it. The faith community had stepped up and seemed eager and excited to support the camp, setting up a hosting rotation among them, and working with the City to make a homeless encampment a part of their land use codes. My job, for the moment, seemed done.

Years, seemingly lifetimes later, I had gone to college, was working as Director of Communications at a software company, and my civic engagement had progressed to the point where I had a seat on the Olympia Planning Commission, a body that makes land use and long-range planning recommendations to the Olympia City Council. It was as a member of that body that the camp came back into my life.

The matter before us was whether or not to allow a permanent homeless encampment inside the City of Olympia. I obviously had no problem with it, but my fellow commissioners weren’t all with me. I was in a position where I needed to make sure I had enough votes to float a motion to allow Camp Quixote to have its site. I succeeded, and when the meeting came, my motion passed. It was an incredibly fulfilling moment and one I’m proud to have been a part of. A vision that we all created, all those years ago, of having a permanent site, with little houses and a garden, was becoming a reality.

When the day of the groundbreaking came, I stood on the empty lot that one day would be Quixote Village, and watched my old friend Kevin, one of the original campers, plunge that golden shovel into the rocky soil, breaking ground and initiating the final phase of the Camp’s evolution, I could not have been prouder. I fought tears as I relived in my mind those eight days in February of ’07.

And now on the 1o year anniversary of the camp I think of those beautiful people, so often marginalized and kicked around. They were the bravest people I’ve ever met. They displayed such vigor and resilience and it instilled in me the drive to swallow my own fears and fight harder for them.

The camp succeeded, and is living out its ultimate dream today because we allowed the campers to lead us. That I got to play a small part in the camp’s formation, and then years later another small part in its continued success is something that I will never forget. I will always keep with me the lessons I learned from this experience – especially that the power of love and community will always persevere, and if we draw on the strength of our community in our own times of need, and be there for them in theirs, no obstacle is insurmountable and no goal is unachievable.

Love and Respect.

What’s Next?

The sort of gatherings we saw across the country yesterday typically would shake a new presidential administration. Even your least favorite former president would set an agenda to reach out and build bridges, knowing that their power is a careful and precise balance and they can’t ignore half the people, but have to be responsive.

We can’t count on this administration to do that. The man at the top might be literally incapable of empathy or introspection. We know he doesn’t listen to advisors much, and so even reasonable voices around him will likely be ignored. We actually have to assume the worst.

I think we should keep all of our options on the table. There are particular issues that should be hard lines in the sand. We should define those now, and hold every elected official to them, by any means necessary…

…a Muslim registry is completely out of the question and while going down and signing up for it in solidarity is a nice gesture, and I’ll do that too, this is one issue where we get out our torches and pitchforks and go shut things down until they buckle…

…same with any sort of legislation or policy that renders people “illegals” or takes a hardline white-nationalist stance against immigrants or any people of color….

…abortion rights, the limiting of birth control, or women’s rights to choose. This isn’t just about access to healthcare, this is about subjugating over half of our population…

…any governmental move, especially on the local level, that targets a group of people based on their socio-economic status, ie, anti-homeless laws, regressive taxes, and including inaction on providing simple basic needs when the solutions are apparent…

These are just few of my lines I will hold, that I’d urge you to help me hold, whatever it takes.

What else?

Love is the Greatest Resistance

It’s been hard to watch, but sometimes you have to look your enemy in the eye, square your shoulders and steel yourself. Resistance is a word thrown around a lot these days, and it has been in my head a lot also.

Resistance happens in a thousand micro-decisions we make every day. It happens in our small actions. It happens when we stand with our neighbors when they’re struggling or targeted. When we treat people with love. In his speech, DJT said he’s going to put America First. MY first act of resistance is to choose to put Love First, and challenge you to join me. And love is an action, not just an idea.

Resistance begins in each of us. Decide to resist and you create the spark. Then find a way to cultivate that spark. You might gather your friends to make care packages for the warming center, volunteer for a local candidate who will fight for justice, pick an elected official and meet with them, tell them what you expect of them, and hold them to it. Get creative, get engaged, and build a movement.

Don’t let the fog and the spectacle of national politics distract you. Local and direct action is the quickest and most impactful way to make a difference. We don’t need to wait for someone on the national or state level to save us. Help is NOT on the way. It’s just us. Whatever way you choose to resist, I support you. We’re all in this together. I love you.