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CityBeat header
March 2012 (Volume 1, Issue 2)
Mike O'Brien

Hello CityBeat reader!

This edition of CityBeat demonstrates the wide gamut of issues that I have the opportunity to work on as your City Councilmember.

In this issue:

Seattle City Light Strategic Plan 2013-2018

Starting in 2012, I became Chair of the Energy and Environment Committee, which is charged with providing guidance and oversight to Seattle City Light and parts of the Office of Sustainability and Environment (specifically, OSE's carbon neutrality work and the Community Power Works program). Councilmembers Burgess and Clark sit on this committee.

Over the next few months, you will likely be hearing more and more about City Light's upcoming 2013-2018 Strategic Plan as it comes through our committee and to the full City Council for review and adoption. The draft strategic plan Council will consider is the culmination of two years of work by the City Light Review Panel. It was developed to set the priorities of our publicly-owned energy utility over the next six years, while providing residential and business customers greater predictability and reliability around future energy rates.

Check out this fact sheet for answers to many common questions about the draft plan.
My office will be teaming up with City Light to inform the public of what is in the draft plan and get feedback that will help Council set priorities for the final adopted plan. We'll be looking for input on the question: what should we be doing over the next six years to help you conserve energy and manage your bills?

We will be holding two public meetings on the draft plan on March 19 and 20. Please consider attending one of these forums to hear about the draft plan and share your thoughts.

South Seattle: March 19, 6:30 - 8 p.m.
New Holly Gathering Hall, 7054 32nd Avenue S

North Seattle: March 20, 6:30 - 8 p.m.
Northgate Community Center, 10510 5th Avenue NE

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Update on the State Legislative Session: What's in it for Seattle?

The City of Seattle has an in-depth state legislative agenda to advocate with in Olympia so that Seattle values are represented in the decisions made by our State Legislators. Seattle also works in coalition with the Association of Washington Cities to advocate for issues facing many cities across Washington.

Washington State Capitol Campus

The biggest issue in Olympia this year, as in the past few years, is the state budget. Washington still faces a slow economic recovery and these are difficult budget times for lawmakers. This is just as true in Seattle as in Olympia, and I recognize the difficult task our state lawmakers face.

Until last Friday, it looked like the legislature would end on time (March 8) and not include the types of devastating cuts we have seen the past few years. However, after Republicans seized control of the Senate late on Friday and passed their own budget with absolutely no public input, the prospects of a special session look much more likely.

The Senate Republican version of the budget includes the loss of basic services like Disability Lifeline, State Food Assistance and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families for many of our friends and neighbors already struggling to make ends meet. Although we are in tough times, it's been shown that these cuts are not the only option. The Senate Democrats' budget protected education, health care, the social safety net, and higher education, all without raising taxes.

The final budget could also result in a loss of millions of dollars in state money allocated to Seattle from our local share of various taxes. More damaging cuts to the City could be made in a special session, so we will be diligently monitoring the situation and strongly advocating for our people and our city.

I have also been personally involved with advocating for a few policy bills this session. The first two bills I will highlight deal with transportation.

Engrossed Senate Substitute Bill 6582 would give Seattle authority to ask voters for a one-cent increase in the gas tax for use on Seattle's road projects. This bill could bring in an additional $3 million for Seattle's road projects by way of a tax tied to people's gas consumption, meaning you can avoid it by driving less or having a more fuel efficient vehicle. This bill is still at play as I write this.

I am disappointed that another bill I was supporting did not pass this year—a bill that would have capped towing rates across the state to $270. Unfortunately, the bill did not allow cities to negotiate with towing companies to set their own rates based on local data, and we believe we could have gotten a better deal for Seattle's residents than the bill would have allowed. For example, towing rates in New York City are capped to $100 to tow and store a vehicle for 24 hours. While the statewide bill technically died this session, it could come back as a budget proviso or in a special session, so we will continue to monitor developments with this bill.

House Bill 2395 would clarify that port truck drivers at the Port of Seattle are employees under state law, rather than independent contracts. I believe this bill is critical to both road safety in Seattle and basic economic justice for these drivers. I have a longer article below that explains my feelings on this issue in depth, and unfortunately this bill did not pass this year but could come back in the future.

Senate Bill 6315 is the Fair Tenant Screening Act and is awaiting a signature by the Governor. Under the new law, when renters are charged a fee for their rental applications, landlords must disclose what types of information will be included in the final reports—including any potential findings that could lead to the application being denied—as well as where the information is coming from. By disclosing what information is collected and what agency provided the information, renters have a better chance of contesting any erroneous information that could lead to them being denied rental housing. This bill is an important step to giving renters, and particularly low-income families, a fair shot at securing housing. An important piece that did not make it into the bill would allow renters to pay one application fee for multiple applications and ask landlords to share the information in the report, but a working group of stakeholders will look into this issue and others to improve access to housing for those in need.

You can learn more about the Washington State Legislature, including who represents you and where specific bills are in the legislative process, at www.leg.wa.gov.

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Port Truckers – Road Safety & Economic Justice

(This article appeared on my blog on 2/22). On President's Day (2/13), I travelled to Olympia to testify in support of House Bill 2395, which would classify short-haul truck drivers at the Port of Seattle, known as drayage truckers, as employees rather than independent contractors.

This issue has been raised in response to the recent stoppage at the Port, when hundreds of drivers walked off the job for two weeks to highlight unfair working conditions.

During the stoppage, I participated in a forum with hundreds of short-haul truck drivers who work at the Port of Seattle. The event was co-sponsored by Port Commissioner Rob Holland and King County Councilmember Joe McDermott. King County Councilmember Larry Gossett and Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell also joined me in the conversation. We heard drivers share stories about the challenges they face earning a living wage in this industry.

The Seattle Times had a good piece from 2008 interviewing drivers, sharing their stories and the challenges they face. Most of these drivers are immigrants and people of color from working-class backgrounds. The average take home pay for these drivers is about $30,000 per year.

Though there has been work to organize these drivers for several years, this work stoppage was sparked in response to recent enforcement of commercial vehicle safety laws by the City of Seattle and Washington State Patrol. Since November 2011, the city has inspected 206 trucks and found 426 tractor and chassis violations, with many of the warnings and citations falling upon drivers.

Last month 100 truck drivers went to Olympia to testify in favor of legislation that would shift some of the responsibilities for road safety and the safe transportation of cargo from the truck drivers, where responsibility currently lies, to the shipping companies, who own the chassis and provide drivers with their loads. Many of the drivers were threatened or retaliated against by their companies for speaking out. Some even had their wages withheld (although, thankfully, it appears they finally got paid).

As drivers have been putting their wages and lives on the line, I have been working to understand the city's role in all of this. Councilmembers Harrell and Licata joined me in signing a letter from the Public Safety and Civil Rights Committee outlining the city's primary interests: road safety and worker fairness.

These issues are inextricably linked. Ensuring that workers have their basic health and safety needs met allows them to attend to the safety of their vehicles. This includes speaking up when they see an unsafe condition or refusing an overweight load. When a driver cannot afford to lose a day's wage or fears retaliation from his employer, the result is unsafe trucks on our city streets.

Despite working for a single employer (a trucking company), when classified as independent contractors, drayage truck drivers do not have access to the workplace protections guaranteed to employees in Washington State, such as workers compensation or unemployment insurance.

Of course, nothing is that straightforward.

There are claims that this proposed state law would be pre-empted by Federal Law; that if we clarify that drivers are employees of trucking companies, then a national entity will sue and the state would have to spend precious public resources in a court battle.

However, I strongly believe these claims must not stop us from finding a solution for these workers and their families.

Even though this bill did not pass this year, this is not the end of this struggle for these drivers, but rather the beginning of work that must be done.

It is unacceptable for workers in our city and our region to be treated as second class citizens. Our community, our economy and the public's safety depend on a safe, efficient and fair drayage industry. The driver stoppage and recent data on vehicle violations suggest we have work to do.

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SpearIt coming to City Hall this Thursday

SpearIt, an Assistant Law Professor at Saint Louis University School of Law

This Thursday, March 8, I am hosting a Brown Bag in City Hall in partnership with the Latino Equity Initiative, Latino City Employees and the Office for Civil Rights.

SpearIt, an Assistant Law Professor at Saint Louis University School of Law, will be giving a talk titled: "Ritual Punishment and Power: Making Sense of Mass Incarceration." As Vice-Chair of the Public Safety and Civil Rights Committee, I am eager to meet SpearIt and hear his presentation.

Prior to becoming a professor at St. Louis University School of Law, SpearIt obtained a master's in theological studies at Harvard Divinity School, a Ph.D. in religious studies at UC Santa Barbara and his law degree from UC Berkeley School of Law. Among other things, he was also a teaching fellow at Harvard University and the Prison University Project at San Quentin State Prison.

The Latino Equity Initiative seeks to organize and activate the voices within the Latino Community to correct injustices.

I'm very excited about this speaker – he has a very impressive resume and has written extensively on a number of topics. Some of his writings (available for free) are below:

  1. Defacing Ruins: Rhetoric, Law, Power
  2. Islam in American Barrios & Prisons: Converts Reclaim Moorish Spain, Reject Church
  3. Post-Racial Rhetoric & The American Dream
  4. Prisons & Structural Violence in the 'Hood
  5. First Year Law: Justice in the Classroom & Beyond
  6. Radical Islam in Prison: Made in the USA
  7. Taking on Hate in the Academy
  8. High Court Opinions in the Age of Digital Reproduction: Soliciting Sympathy or Antipathy

Please attend the Brown Bag if you have your lunch hour free on Thursday, or tune in to the Seattle Channel which will be recording the discussion.

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In other news…

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