Council rescinds coal/oil train measure, commits to Regional Rail Safety Task Force: 8.15.16 Council Meeting Recap

On August 15th, City Council had to make a tough decision about whether or not to remove the oil/train ordinance we placed on the ballot three weeks ago. Council voted 5-2 to rescind the ordinance (CM Beggs and Kinnear voted against). This was a tough position for me because I want to change how certain types of oil and coal are transported through Spokane. I don’t believe some of the produce is safely packaged and transported and we deserve better from our railroad industry. I personally haven’t received any promises from BNSF and Union Pacific and I’m doubtful they will make necessary changes without tremendous pressure and regulation from citizens and their local, State and Federal governments. I appreciate the work of CM Beggs, CM Kinnear and CM Stuckart to put forward an ordinance that would try to address this for the voters to consider.

But to get the outcomes we want we need to be strategic.

As I said several weeks ago when the Council (including me) voted on placing this ordinance on the ballot, I had concerns about this local ordinance being preempted by Federal law. I also had concerns about how much time the Council and community had to review the measure – we made a decision in a short period of time due to the County Election’s office deadline for ballot measures. But, I was willing to give the ordinance a chance.

Over the past three weeks, I’ve spoken to a lot of people from all perspectives. The majority feedback to me was that while most citizens of Spokane support the goal of achieving coal trains that are covered and safer oil trains that reduce the risk of explosion, there is a belief that the Council could be much more strategic and that the ordinance in its current form would have too many challenges.

When Council President came to me and told me he was reconsidering the measure and asked me to support him, I engaged with citizens and other Council members and did further research on State/Federal laws that have attempted to regulate these trains. In the end, I did vote to rescind the ordinance, take a step back, and work to make the ordinance legally stronger or to find alternative strategies. I also think our efforts will be stronger if we work with other local jurisdictions like the cities of Spokane Valley, Sandpoint, Cheney, Pasco to develop joint strategies and responses, so I support the idea of forming a Regional Rail Safety Task Force.

I’m encouraged to hear from the residents who are interested in achieving greater safety and interested in working to roll up their sleeves and educate their neighbors. However, I’m interested in more strategic ways to get us where we want to go. Together, as a community, if we take the time to build relationships with our railroad partners, environmental partners, emergency responders, and other regional cities, we can deliver change more quickly and effectively. I’m open to alternatives that have a greater chance of achieving success and that have more community feedback and buy-in.

Council votes to place Coal & Oil Train Safety Ordinance on Ballot: 7.25.16 Council Meeting Recap

I don’t think anyone would argue that cleaning up the Spokane River and protecting our sole source aquifer is critical to the economic health and future our City and our region. Protecting our aquifer and human health and safety is a shared value of our community. How we best go about doing this is, of course, the challenge. We don’t have a lot of power at the local level to control sources of pollution unless they are directly flowing out of one of our pipes in the River.

On Monday, July 25th, City Council voted 6-0 to place an ordinance that was brought forward by CM Breean Beggs on the Nov. 2016 ballot that would make it illegal to bring uncovered coal trains or certain types of flammable crude oil through Downtown Spokane.

Why did I vote to place this ordinance on the ballot? The City is making massive improvements to our Wastewater Treatment Facility to treat our water and building sewer overflow tanks to reduce pollutants from entering our River – we are investing over $300M of our ratepayer dollars to accomplish a cleaner river…and we still have a ways to go to clean up cancer-causing PCBs. The Mosier, Oregon train derailment showed us that we are not immune here in the Northwest to oil spills and impacts to surface water and groundwater. A train derailment like the one in Mosier over our River/aquifer could reverse all the efforts and financial investments we have made to clean up our River and hurt business and potentially devastate our local economy.

I am not naïve to the fact that oil trains have been coming through Spokane for decades and that rail is a viable form of transportation for products that you and I use every day. My concern is that the game has changed – the volatility of the products like Bakken crude has changed the game and so far, technology has not caught up to reduce the risk to human health. That is why I suggested changes to the ordinance that specifically defines crude oil with a specific vapor pressure and flash point and allows for the ordinance to be reviewed in the context of new technology and best practices that can be implemented for safety.

I’ve done a lot of reflection about this proposed ordinance and whether or not I would support placing it on the ballot. I support protecting human health and safety and I have also been a strong advocate for higher safety standards for oil and coal trains. However, local governments have little power to regulate what comes through on rail. If this ordinance is approved by voters, it will most likely be legally challenged and we may lose.
Is this an action worth taking? Are there alternative approaches that can achieve the health/safety goals we all share?

I’m open to all ideas about ways we can work with the oil/train industry to make oil and coal products safer and preventing train accidents/reducing risk in the near future. Almost every month, crude oil train derailments are causing damage to human health and the environment. Railcar improvements are moving at a snail’s pace. I voted to place this ordinance on the ballot in order for voters to have a chance to review and weigh in in this important conversation. I look forward to hearing more from our citizens in the coming weeks.

A Focus on Human Trafficking: 7.11.16 & 7.18.16 Council Meeting Recap

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.

2017 Budget priorities; homeless shelter funding: 5.16.2016 and 5.23.15 Council meeting recap

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.