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District 3 candidates face off on Seattle’s mental health issues — sort of

Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant and seven other council candidates from across the city met Tuesday night to discuss mental health and its connections to housing, the criminal justice system, and other issues.

Several candidates did not participate, including District 3 challenger Egan Orion, who told CHS in a text message, “I never saw an invite for it.” The forum was hosted by the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness at the 2100 Building in South Seattle. Forum organizers had told CHS both D3 candidates were expected to attend.

UPDATE 9/5/19: Not to make a mountain out of a molehill on this but it’s taken us a few days to clear up what happened with candidate Orion’s invitation to the forum. NAMI representatives want it made clear they definitely invited the candidate and that his campaign had responded:

His claim that he was “never notified” of this forum is something we must take seriously at NAMI Seattle. As a 501(c)(3) nonpartisan organization, NAMI Seattle is required to provide equal access to all candidates regarding invitations and access to any forum materials. Failure to do so can risk our nonprofit status, and we performed our due diligence to comply by calling and emailing all candidates in all districts.

Orion’s campaign manager Olga Laskin provided a statement today acknowledging that any mix-up was the campaign’s issue:

We had some confusion on the campaign side with scheduling for this event. We apologize for the confusion and did not mean to imply any bias on the part of NAMI. We appreciate NAMI’s effort in organizing this event and regret that Egan was unable to attend.

Original report: Sawant focused often on her usual call to tax big business; in this case, to fund programs related to mental health issues and building a social movement.

“If you vote for progressive council members and you become part of the movement, then we can bring a massive expansion of permanent supportive housing that can be funded by taxing big business, but for that we need political will on the council,” she said. Sawant often pointed to the dichotomy in many of the races between candidates with ideas similar to her and more moderate contestants, like Orion, who has been endorsed by the business-friendly Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce


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Responding to an audience question on Seattle Public Schools students dealing with mental health issues, Sawant called the state’s underfunding of public education “criminal” and called for a tax on big business to correct this. Later, she also advocated for corporate developer impact fees and a vacancy tax to fund expensive mental health programs.

The discussion comes amid a statewide mental health crisis with a shortage of beds for those in need and a smaller workforce to aid them.

“Our jails and prisons have replaced hospitals for decades as the result of criminalization of mental illness,” Jeremiah Bainbridge, who as NAMI Seattle’s development and fundraising manager moderated the forum, said to begin the event. “Those living with a mental illness are highly vulnerable to homelessness, unemployment, and they face a shorter life expectancy without treatment.”

The issue has increasingly become a priority for both Republicans and Democrats alike at the Washington Legislature, where lawmakers this year passed a suite of measures with hundreds of millions of dollars to fund new facilities, train more qualified workers, and develop new kinds of treatment centers.

Sawant called for “massively expanded diversion programs,” increased de-escalation training for Seattle Police Department (SPD) officers, more behavioral health specialists in the police force, and an enlarged city-funded program to pay for attorneys to aid renters in eviction proceedings.

Washington voters passed Initiative 940 — the aim of which was to create a good faith test to determine when the use of deadly force by police is justifiable as well as mandate de-escalation and mental health training — in November 2018 with nearly 60% of the vote. The Legislature then passed a bill this year setting the standard for deadly force. The legislation, which passed both chambers unanimously in January, asks whether another police officer acting reasonably in the same circumstances would have believed deadly force was necessary.

But on police, Sawant said the biggest problem is accountability.

“The problem that police officers can — are allowed to — cause harm and sometimes fatal harm to people, especially the most vulnerable people, with impunity,” Sawant said, before noting she was the only council member to vote against the police-union contract last year.

U.S. District Judge James Robart recently noted issues in that contract, such as the lack of subpoena power to gather information on police officers, that undercut public trust in SPD’s disciplinary mechanisms.

Sawant said Tuesday she supported calls for an independently elected community oversight board with “full powers over the police department.”

Despite not making the forum, Orion weighed in on the issue of mental health more broadly, which he argued is “contributing to other crises, including homelessness.”

“I want to see treatment on demand for mental health care issues and substance use disorder for all who need it,” the Broadway Business Improvement Area head said in a text message. “The window for someone asking for care is so small that on-demand services are the only way to make a dent in the challenges we have around mental health.”

He added that, as a member of the LGBTQ community, “marginalized communities like mine are more susceptible to issues around mental health and addiction.”

This event is one of several in the coming weeks meant to give Orion and Sawant a chance to talk to constituents and debate their visions for the city. On September 10th, the GSBA is hosting a forum for candidates from several districts, including D3, at the Broadway Performance Hall and the Seattle City Club is leading a D3-centric debate at Town Hall Seattle late this month.

Face to Face GSBA Candidate Forum

Tuesday’s forum was livestream by NAMI Seattle on Facebook.

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