There's an interesting battle taking place between Mayor Nickels' office and the Seattle City Council right now: Last Friday, the Council announced a proposal to significantly cut funding to the Office of Sustainability and Environment (OSE), and eliminate the office and its director from the Mayor's Cabinet.
This sounds pretty strange, especially coming from a council under the leadership of Richard Conlin, who has been outspoken in support of sustainability issues like zero-waste and local food.
In the face of cuts to the overall city budget, the Council has proposed the following concerning the OSE:
1. Reduce the OSE budget by 15 percent (this would affect the Office's climate and tree programs).
2. Increase the scope of the work assigned to the OSE by assigning the Office more responsibility for curtailing city greenhouse gas emissions.
3. Eliminate the office altogether, transferring 5 of its 7 staff members to the Office of Policy Management, thus lowering the profile, resources and overall effectiveness of the OSE.
The OSE, which was established in November 2000, was one of the first offices of its kind in the country. Since then, it has been a model for other cities around the nation to establish similar offices to provide central oversight for sustainability and environmental initiatives.
Earlier today, I wrote to Richard Conlin, asking for an explanation that would help me understand the Council's motivation for this proposal, because I believe there has to be one that I'm not seeing. I've heard some public discussion that the funding cut is an effort by the Council to deliver a message to the mayor and to Seattle in the face of a diminishing budget: the OSE is important to Seattle and to voters and needs our support. But I have no confirmation from the Council to support that theory.
Among those who spoke out in defense of the OSE was activist Cary Moon of the People's Waterfront Coalition, who wrote the following letter to the City Council (reprinted with her permission):
Dear Council Members,
I am writing to urge you to keep the Office of Sustainability and Environment intact, and fully fund it.
The leadership you and Mayor Nickels together have shown in making sustainability a priority for cities across America is remarkable. Thanks to your early courageous insights, and OSE's continuing work, Seattle is now recognized as a leader among the nation's cities. The challenges on the horizon are bigger than ever. As we learn the effects of global warming might be far worse than what was initially forecast, and as we see first hand how the volatile energy economy is affecting our local and state economy, we need MORE focused expertise and leadership at the City level to navigate the best path forward. There are multiple new and bigger problems on the horizon, in addition to the still difficult challenge of achieving reduced emissions we committed to. To successfully coordinate multiple initiatives and programs, and figure out how Seattle can best navigate the serious obstacles ahead, a central and high level office offers many advantages.
Many other cities are watching Seattle for guidance, and learning from our successes and failures. Now is not the time to abandon the OSE, and the visible leadership it represents to the rest of the country.
Thanks so much for listening and for your continuing good work on behalf of Seattle.
People's Waterfront Coalition
Earlier this evening, the Council held a public hearing on the issue. We will follow up with results tomorrow, and also with any response we hear from Richard Conlin's office to our inquiry.
The Seattle City Council is scheduled for a final vote on the 2009-10 budget on November 24th.
Photo of Seattle City Hall by flickr/OZinOH, Creative Commons license.