Letters to the EditorSpotlight

Declaration of climate emergency

The City Council meeting of December 10, 2019 was an abnormally long meeting due to it being one of the last meetings of the year. Topics included a Washington cities first declaration of climate emergency, mandatory closed captioning, the mayor’s youth commission, revision of the multi-family housing tax exemptions, and so much more that I may not be able to do it all justice. 

The meeting began by proclaiming December 10 as Student Government Day, and was actually preceded by a mock council meeting where members of high school student governments from across the city were present, some of which stayed to accept the proclamation. Next the Lincoln Abes football team was recognized and awarded proclamations. 

Around forty individuals signed up to speak during public comment, most of whom were young people sharing their experiences growing up in a collapsing climate and global ecosystem. Commentators made it clear that they were glad the city was putting this forward, but that it’s only the first step of many. Most of the young people (myself included) were members of the Sunrise Movement, a youth led organization dedicated to fighting climate change and for the Green New Deal.

Two Puyallup Tribal Council members spoke on the issue as well, Anna Bean and Annette Bryan, bringing forward the context that the Puyallup Tribe of Indians had passed a declaration of climate emergency earlier in the day, being the first U.S. tribe to do so. Bryan also brought the news that the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency approved the final permit for Puget Sound Energy’s Liquefied Natural Gas Facility in the Port of Tacoma, and while she commended the council for the resolution, she called them out for allowing this to happen. The tribe is prepared to both work with and fight the city on the issues of man-made climate disruption, something they made crystal clear. 

Many members of Tacoma’s deaf community came out to sign their support for an ordinance requiring closed captioning in public spaces, some advocates also coming from Seattle and Portland after passing identical ordinances there. The owner of Advanced Streams also made an appearance to tell city council that he had won against them in court, and that Click! Network could not be sold in the way the city has tried. 

For the sake of brevity, I’m going to skip over the three purchasing resolutions and talk about the main resolutions from the night. First a resolution was passed that created, or rather formalized the Mayor’s Youth Commission to advise on policies. Mayor Woodards had initially intended to structure the committee similar to other standing committees, but due to the high volume of interest (over a hundred applicants) they decided to make it open to all. 

The next resolutions I’ll briefly mention as the spotlight was off them, the first designated a house located a 423 North D street as a city landmark, placing it on the Tacoma register of Historic Places. Then resolutions were adopted creating the “Co-Responder Program”, amending the 2019–2020 Annual Action Plan for Housing and Community Development Projects, adopting priority issues for the city for the 2020 legislative session, and formalizing efforts to harmonize operations between the city and Tacoma Public Utilities. 

Relevant to this meeting, the council approved changes to procedure, adopting both a “best practices” outline for introducing amendments and changing the name of Citizen’s Forum, the monthly forum where Tacoma Residents voice their concerns to “Community Forum”, to be more inclusive to non-citizen residents. A member of the Tacoma Human Rights Commission was present to advocate for this change as well as lend support to the climate resolution. 

The City of Tacoma is now the first city in Washington state to declare a climate emergency, something that was spurred on by hard working activists in 350 Tacoma, the Sunrise Movement, Youth Climate Strike, and Councilmembers Ryan Mello and Chris Beale. Mayor Woodards and Councilmember Mello reiterated that this was just a first step, and Mello did go into detail about how the resolution would direct the city to track fossil fuel expansion and update its climate policies. The resolution passed unanimously as activists held aloft Sunrise banners in what was a genuinely emotional moment for organizers and council members alike, a momentary victory while much more work lies ahead. 

In keeping with the ideal of a green future, a resolution was passed requiring electric vehicle charging infrastructure for new buildings. A handful of other resolutions put the city in alignment with state law, for example the state minimum wage is set to outpace the city minimum wage, so that was updated with enforcement being handed over to state L&I. The Neighborhood Council system was also changed, allowing for new councils to be created. 

Finally, the ordinance requiring closed captioning was passed, a first reading of amendments to Tacoma’s Multi-family housing developments tax exemption — MFTEs —  were proposed, and a handful of weary souls stuck around to comment on the last “Citizen’s Forum” for the year, and technically ever as the name will now be “Community Forum”. The proposal to amend the MFTEs offered fixes to several issues the community had with the program. The eight year developer tax exemption currently requires no affordable units to be built, this would change that to twenty percent. The definition of “affordable” is also currently set at eighty percent of the area median income of Pierce County (AMI), which comes out to something like sixty thousand a year, this amendment would change the definition to seventy percent AMI, which more closely reflects the average income in Tacoma. What city staff had found is that developers kept choosing the eight year exemption to build market rate housing, having no real incentive to build any affordable housing. Additionally, the eight year incentive resulted in the development of only 59 units of affordable housing out of thousands of market rate units. One developer spoke out in public comment to pump the breaks on this change, and during the presentation. 

Councilmember Thoms also seemed unfriendly to the ordinance. Councilmember Ibsen took the opposite position, saying he was in full support of the changes. During Citizen’s Forum, community members talked a bit more about climate change, concerns over police using facial recognition software, fraudulent house-flippers, and stopping the development of the wetlands behind Tacoma Community College. I personally used my time to advocate for public banking, more engagement around city legislative priorities, and went out on a limb and suggested that the city considers annexing the town of Ruston. City council adjourned around 10 p.m. 

For agendas, video, and audio recordings of council meetings check out the city’s website https://cityoftacoma.legistar.com/DepartmentDetail.aspx?ID=22566&GUID=F23EE68E-8E57-4BEC-8601-B969C461E3B3&R=8b32d8c2-d42b-4f41-a78b-413ef88fee15
As always, students can contact me at asuwtcl@uw.edu to engage with city issues