Urban Politics #111: Getting Public Toilets


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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

With assistance from my Legislative Assistant Newell Aldrich on this issue.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.

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Getting Public Toilets

Yesterday the City Council passed a resolution essentially giving the contract for establishing 5 public toilets toa company that did not present the most competitive proposal. I believe the process that led us to this situation was flawed. Consequently in good conscious I could not vote for the legislation despite having been a long time advocate for public toilets.

Some Council Members have opposed the proposed automated self-cleaning public toilets because of their price tag. Automated Public Toilets are not cheap because they require sophisticated, constant maintenance. But neither is cleaning our alleyways when they are used for bathrooms and it happens by even those who are not homeless when there is not a bathroom available.

Nevertheless I believe the Council owes it to our ratepayers, who will be picking up a yearly bill of $638,000, to make sure we have the best deal possible. Before I get into the details let me first provide a little background on the need for these facilities.

The call for public toilets hasbeen most vocal for our downtown district. Back in 1989 the Downtown District Council prioritized public toilets as their highest concern. Several years before that the Downtown Human Services Council found “the lack of public restrooms to be the number one problem” for downtown residents and transients.

I have outlined the history of the City’s attempt to fund public toilets in prior issues of Urban Politics (Here are links to the relevant UP issues 72 and 75).

Since cost has been a major obstacle to establishing them the City has considered and rejected the option of having their cost paid through off-site advertising. A provider of public toilets would supply them to the City for free but in exchange they would require that the City allow them to display advertising on kiosks orbus shelters distributed throughout the city. That increase in the amount of public advertising might be tolerable but if the City allowed such a practice the current sign ordinance that restricts outdoor advertising would have to be amended. It is quite possible that such an amendment could also lead to permitting other advertisers to erect new billboards around the city or the entire sign ordinance restricting outdoor advertising to being challenged incourt.

So for the past 15 years the City government has been trying to figure out how to get public toilets by either supporting them with advertising or paying for them directly out of the general fund or out of our utility payments. Past Mayors and Councils have considered and rejected the option of allowing our sign ordinance to be weakened in exchange for obtaining the pubic toilets. They have also rejected paying the perceived high cost of leasing and operating them.

This last go around, which began two years ago, saw the Council once again reject the advertising strategy. Instead they decided to pursue funding them from the utility rates.

A request for proposals went out and the City received only one response before the deadline. Most, if not all the other companies in the public toilet business, provide them only when accompanied by off-site advertising. Consequently the Council was about to decide to accept the latest bid and proceed with leasing 5 public toilets (2 in downtown, 1 in Chinatown/I.D., 1 in the UniversityDistrict, 1 in Ballard).

And I was prepared to vote for them as well, despite the cost, until it was brought to my attention that the bidding process missed a company that was willing to provide similar public toilets for $100,000 a year less. Consequently at Monday’s meeting I asked the Council to delay the vote for one week so that we could review the facts to determine if we could save our ratepayers some money.

Some Council Members spoke in opposition to my proposal because they felt it would be unfair to re-open the bid process. However, our law department informed me that it is common language in our contracts to reserve the City the right to reject any bid before final acceptance.

I was also concerned that the consultant we hired had assumed that the company offering the lower bid was not interested in bidding on the contract and therefore was not notified. The way I see it, if we hire a consultant to assist the City with the bidding process they should take considerable responsibility for doing outreach beyond the minimum legal requirements such as running an advertisement in the Daily Journal of Commerce. I may be wrong about that, so a weeks delay would have allowed a review of the consultant’s contract to determine what was the scope of his outreach responsibilities.

My motion failed on a 4 to 5 vote (For: Licata, Steinbrueck, Compton and McIver; Against: Nicastro, Conlin,Pageler, Drago and Wills).

I was disappointed that we did not take this additional time and believe that despite the long process preceding this vote the public was not being well served by moving ahead when we had a better proposal in hand.

Some Council Members argued that it was time to move on and finally make a decision. I agree that the Council process can cycle endlessly around itself without ever reaching a conclusion. And it would appear that we had been in that mode for a while in obtaining public toilets. But there is a difference between the length and the quality of a process and a long process is not the same as a correct one.

The next motion was to proceed with a resolution supporting the bid before the Council.I could not agree with this approach because of the significant questions still outstanding. The counter argument was that current bidder had informed the Council that they would not stick around if we re-opened the bid process. However I did not see any correspondence to that effect. If a contractor had a competitive product would it not still be competitive 60 days later? That would be the amount of time needed to solicit, collect and evaluate new bids.

The best strategy would have been to take a week to review the bid process that had occurred and evaluate the other bid we had received. If necessary we could have conducted and completed a new bid process before the end of September and proceed at that time with selecting a contractor for the public toilets. The same Council Members who currently support public toilets would still be supporting them two months from now, and we could have installed public toilets at a lower cost.

The vote on the resolution to proceed with the current bid passed by a 5 to 4 vote (For: Nicastro, Conlin, Drago, Wills and Compton; Against: Licata, Steinbrueck,McIver and Pageler).

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