Happy Presidents' Day? What to Look for This Week in Seattle Politics

Key Seattle City Council votes of the week, the Uber saga continues, and Senator Miloscia raises the stakes in his fight against King County safe consumption sites.

By Rianna Hidalgo February 20, 2017

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If you're finding it difficult to get excited about celebrating all presidents today, take solace in this: Officially, today honors George Washington’s birthday, which we celebrate on the third Monday in February, thanks to a 1968 bill meant to create more three-day weekends for federal employees. Efforts to change “George Washington’s Birthday” to “Presidents' Day” never actually succeeded, but the title stuck. Anyway: 

1. On Tuesday, after the mayor delivers his State of the City address at Idriss Mosque in North Seattle, the city council will vote on the University District rezone—the culmination of years ruminating on how to guide growth in the area before a new light rail station opens in 2021. Business owners like Rick McLaughlin of Big Time Brewery, who are concerned that the changes will lead to displacement and loss of character in the neighborhood, will likely testify, alongside developers and community groups. The land-use committee already added an amendment delaying zoning changes on University Way, known as the Ave, to allow more time to study potential effects. As a whole, it is the first piece of legislation to trigger the city’s new mandate that developers build or contribute money to affordable housing. Council member Mike O’Brien is pushing for a bump in the percentage of new units that must be set aside for affordable housing in high-rise buildings, from 9 to 10 percent. It's a small increase; in a 300-unit high-rise, it would create an additional three affordable units, but O'Brien said he believes it would "set the tone" for future projects.

The council will also vote Tuesday on legislation that would help the city use some or all of the funds from the $29 million bond approved for creating affordable housing in 2017. As it stands, the money would not be accessible for projects until 2018. In a committee meeting last Wednesday, council member Rob Johnson brought up the recent 2,100 applications for 108 spots in a new low-income rental building as a reason to push ahead. “I think that that reinforces how critical it is for us to be putting these resources forward now,” he said.

2. The ongoing saga of efforts to unionize for-hire, independent contract drivers (think Uber) in Seattle continues, and every development is uncharted territory. Last week, the Teamsters Local 117 submitted its application with the city to become a qualified driver representative, which would allow it to represent drivers in collective bargaining negotiations with companies like Uber and Lyft. The submission quickly prompted backlash from Uber; attorneys for Drive Forward (Uber is a member) delivered a letter on Friday asking the city’s director of finance and administrative services to reject the application. Brooke Steger, general manager for Uber in the Pacific Northwest, said in a statement that the Teamsters are “uniquely unqualified.” Friday’s letter, not mincing words, stated the Teamsters have a conflict of interest based on affiliation with the taxicab industry, which has historically lobbied for limits to competing ride-share companies. It calls the application an attempt to “reverse field” by “superficially embracing those drivers against whose very interests they have been fighting for so long.”

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Drivers testify about the city’s recommendations for outlining union guidelines at city hall last December.

But Teamsters and some drivers argue that Uber has been attempting to block genuine organizing efforts to improve working conditions at every turn. Unionization—especially the question of which drivers would get to vote—seemed to have drivers split at a raucous city hall meeting in December, where some complained of low wages, lack of insurance, and a missing voice within the company. Other drivers argued joining a union would jeopardize their flexibility and autonomy, a go-to argument from numerous ad campaigns by Uber discouraging drivers from collective bargaining. 

According to finance and administrative services rules, director Fred Podesta must determine if the Teamsters, the only organization to apply, meet the criteria within two weeks. Then, the Teamsters would have 120 days to gather signatures of approval from a majority of drivers.  The 2015 legislation allowing Seattle's independent contract drivers to unionize was the first of its kind, eliciting lawsuits from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, since dismissed as premature, and Uber, with the next hearing date now on March 17.

3. Last week, Republican state senator Mark Miloscia sent a letter to attorney general Jeff Sessions (yup, he is actually the attorney general now), asking him to intervene in King County’s plan to open the nation’s first safe consumption sites, where addicts can use drugs under supervision. Research shows the sites reduce fatalities and help connect users to services—read Josh Feit's beautiful piece from the December issue of Seattle Met. But Miloscia called it "unconscionable," saying King County would set a “dangerous precedent." A bill Miloscia introduced in the state legislature that would effectively ban safe consumption sites passed out of committee on Friday.

Updated February 28, 2017. A previous correction, on February 24, changed the spelling of Idriss to Idris. Today's correction restores the spelling of the mosque’s name as originally published. While some materials spell it with one S, Idriss conforms to the spelling used by the family that helped establish the mosque and matches the dedication plaque on the building.

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