It was great to get back in the office last week after a restful vacation with my family. Yes, I really mean it! Catching up on just two weeks out of the office can be quite challenging and my family was very patient with me as I worked late hours last week to catch up.
What are the hot topics around the City Council office? Our last two Council meetings have been fairly short with few action intems. However, I was very impressed at the turnout last night of citizens and leaders in our community in support of Council member Lori Kinnear’s human trafficking resolution. Every since Lori worked in the City Council office for former City Councilman Richard Rush, she has had a strong interest in addressing this very difficult, criminal issue in our society and our city. Last night, Council voted 6-0 (CM Fagan absent) in favor of several strategies. One, that our police department participate in the local human trafficking task force; two, that Council received regular updates on the strategies and efforts of this task force to address underage sex trafficking in our community; and three, that this task force work with the city and community partners on education strategies to inform businesses, citizens and engage our community in preventing trafficking, supporting victims, and bringing perpetrators to justice.
Human trafficking is truly a heinous activity that makes me angry, sick and determined to see a difference in our community. I am very thankful to the Lutheran Community Services, Union Gospel Mission, Hotel/Restaurant Association, Juvenile Court and Spokane Police Department, among other organizations, for their efforts. And many thanks to CM Kinnear for faithfully working to bring awareness and change to how our community addresses trafficking. If we work deliberately and educate ourselves about why trafficking occurs and how we can better support our youth, we can change lives and prevent trauma and abuse.
The other major topic of conversation is around oil and coal transport through Spokane. Several Councilmembers have introduced an ordinance to stop shipments through the heart of Spokane and are requesting it be placed on the November ballot for voters to weigh in. I just received the draft ordinance yesterday and I will be looking it over and considering whether to support placing it on the ballot. There is also a citizens initiative that has been filed with the City regarding a charter change to stop oil and coal transport and that will be moving forward for signature gathering.
On Monday, May 16th, I was pleased to co-sponsor a resolution with CP Stuckart that lays out the Council’s budget priorities for 2017. I’ve worked on this process for the past three years and it has been an effective way to start the communication with the Administration to achieve a balanced budget by the end of the year with public input and continued dialogue. You can read the Council’s priorities here. Most of our focus was on increased funding for public safety and criminal justice reform, but there are other priorities around human service needs the Council would like to build into next year’s budget.
The other item of interest was establishing a North Monroe Corridor Advisory Board to assist the City with gathering stakeholder input into the redesign of North Monroe to improve safety for autos and pedestrians, support the small businesses along the corridor, and promote neighborhood revitalization. I look forward to approving the list of stakeholders to sit on this Board very soon so they can spend the next six months working on preliminary designs that create investment opportunities and increase the safety of this important business corridor in our city.
On Monday, May 23rd, Council addressed several items. First, we allocated $200,000 of money that was 2015 carryover towards House of Charity to be able to keep the doors of this emergency shelter open more often this summer. Due to declining Federal funding for shelters, Catholic Charities has less funding available for daytime use and has asked the City to provide this emergency funding while a more permanent fundraising strategy can be developed. I believe having a shelter for homeless individuals to gather during the day is very important for public safety in the Downtown area and I look forward to Spokane County and other businesses to also step up in support. Thanks to the Downtown Spokane Partnership for allocating $50K toward this effort, as well.
Council also approved on a 6-1 vote (Fagan opposed) a request that Mayor Condon hire an attorney to oversee the investigator who has been hired jointly by the Mayor/Council to understand the chain of events that resulted in former Police Chief Straub leaving the City. The investigator has completed all the interviews she can and will soon be releasing the first phase of her report. However, in order to have access to attorney-client privileged materials and interview several attorneys at City Hall with information, she must be working “under” a city attorney. Council hopes the Mayor will quickly approve the hiring this attorney for a short duration in order for the investigator to have access to the privileged communication so she can determine if it impacts any of the conclusions of her report.
Monday May 2nd, I presided over a short Council meeting where the main item of business was a resolution in support of continuing and expanding the affordable housing tax credit at the Federal level, which was co-sponsored by CM Kinnear and CM Fagan (6-0, CP Stuckart absent). The tax credit is heavily used by affordable housing developers here in Spokane and critical to helping make these projects pencil. The lack of dollars available in the WA State Housing Trust Fund makes this tax credit even more critical for projects in Washington State.
Council President Stuckart returned on May 9th to a full agenda, which included a vote to allow the Spokane Fire Department to purchase several drones for use during emergency management situations such as hazardous material fires, etc. Sending in a drone to survey a situation where hazardous materials are present is faster and safer than sending in people. It could help save lives, property and protect first responders. Council deferred this item from the April 25th agenda because we had more questions and wanted to make sure these drones would only be used for the purpose described above (not for any police or other activity). The Fire Chief and Assistant Chief answered all our questions and we approved the purchase on a 7-0 vote.
Council also approved the limited use of electric fences in Spokane City heavy industrial zones (5-2, CM Fagan and Mumm opposed). This was a code amendment that was requested by an electric fence company. Our code allows a private entity or citizen to pay a fee and propose code changes. I don’t think this has ever happened before on my time on Council. I mention this because the Council may look at changing the process on private code amendments to have the Council weigh in earlier in the process to ensure there is actually interest in making a code change. This particular process took about a year, including time of Planning staff and Plan Commission. Originally, the proposal was to allow these fences in all commercial and industrial zones. However, there are a safety, liability, aesthetic and other issues that most Councilmembers (including myself) had with the use of these fences in a dense urban environment. It would have been good to determine these concerns early in the process and considerably shorten the time investment by all involved.
The other major discussion and vote was related to the City’s initiatives and referendums process. CP Stuckart had taken the past 6-9 months to review issues that have come up and make changes to clarify these things in the code — for instance, how many times can signature gatherers come back with more signatures if they do not meet the threshold by the deadline? Can the person or organization responsible for the signature campaign unilaterally request that a measure not be placed on the ballot, even if enough signatures are gathered? We addressed these concerns, as well as requiring signature gatherers to sign each page not only to attest that they gathered the names appropriately, but as a contact person in case of any questions. Also, after the ballot language is approved by City Legal, it cannot be altered by the signature gatherers. I thought most of the changes were reasonable. It seems we find a few things we need to adjust and clarify every several years. It’s good to continue improving upon the process to protect and enhance the integrity of the process.
I was pleased to preside over my first Council meeting in City Council Chambers as Council President Pro Tem. CP Stuckart was traveling to Ireland with the Sister City Society. I think I did pretty well…except trying to read the ordinance summaries before City Clerk Teri Pfister had a chance!
On April 25th, Council approved a resolution in favor of considering tiny homes as an infill housing choice in our city (6-0). This was a resolution introduced by CM Stratton and CM Fagan. Tiny homes are basically what they sound like — they are smaller than an average-size home. Multiple homes can fit on one parcel & provide shelter for small families or individuals at a lower cost.
Council also voted to support continuing a parklet pilot project in Downtown Spokane (5-1, Fagan opposed). Parklets are small, designed areas that have green space and seating that can be placed in the right of way to activate spaces and support small business activity and street music, etc. One parklet was tried last year on Main St. downtown for only one month. This resolution would support continuing the project in two locations downtown for the entire summer.
Council also chose to override the Mayor’s veto of the TBD transit option we approved several weeks ago (5-1, Fagan opposed). As I stated last week, the STA Board’s decision to put a measure on the ballot this Nov. means we don’t need to exercise a city-only transit option at this time. This is great news because regionally-funded transit will be able to support extended hours and buses throughout the County. However, I disagree with the Mayor that the option needs to be eliminated from the TBD. I think the City should ensure that our citizens have all options available to them for future transportation needs, which the TBD is designed to support. Removing this option before we know the outcome of the November ballot measure is premature.