(12/29 WSB photo)
Seattle Public Utilities is the focus of our third report (first one: snow-clearing; second one: Metro) on today’s three-hour Seattle City Council briefing regarding Snowstorm ’08 and how public services were delivered while the city was snowbound. SPU reps actually talked with council members about gearing up for possible pipe trouble during the pre-snow deep freeze, and gearing up for possible urban flooding when the snowmelt began, but since neither of those happened – and trash troubles DID – that’s the part of the discussion we’re writing about – read on for details:
First: This didn’t come up till SPU’s section of the briefing was almost over, but councilmembers seemed stunned that the department’s director Chuck Clarke – who recently resigned but is still on the job for another 10 days – didn’t show up for the briefing. He was also out of town during at least part of the storm period, according to assistant director Sharon White, one of SPU’s three reps at the briefing: “He was in daily contact with me as assistant director, he received status reports …” City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen interrupted her to ask, “Is he in town now? What isn’t he here?” Yes, he’s in town now, said White, “(but) I was involved (with the storm response) as assistant director from the very beginning and I will be here when Chuck leaves, so there’s continuity.”
Councilmembers still weren’t particularly happy with that response. We checked later with SPU’s communications team to ask about an official explanation for Clarke not attending today’s briefing; spokesperson Cornell Amaya explained, “As for Chuck’s absence from today’s council briefing, he asked that the people in charge of operations present to council since they were the ones directing their operational areas and knew the details. Tim Croll and Nick Pealy are the people that direct operations for solid waste and drainage and it was those business areas most affected by the storm.”
Those are the two men who joined White at the briefing; Croll runs solid waste (trash, recycling, yard waste) for the city. (Last Wednesday, as we mentioned in our report then, he joined Mayor Nickels and SDOT director Grace Crunican at the media briefing which revealed the change of heart about road salt, among other things, but he did not speak [nor did she].)
White began today’s briefing with slides dating SPU’s storm preparations back to the December 8th forecast of subfreezing temperatures ahead, and mentioning an “Incident Command System” that was triggered, including “strategy and contingency plans” for solid-waste operations (as well as water and drainage, which, again, we’re not going to get into here). These plans included increased staffing for the “24-hour operation response center” and the “call center,” per the slides, as well as daily status meetings and “communications strategy.”
We did a double-take when a slide came up stating that garbage pickup was “caught up” as of January 3rd; Council President Richard Conlin — who runs one of the two committees that presided at today’s hearing (Environment, Emergency Management, and Utilities) — called attention to it later, saying, “January 3rd is just a little optimistic – there were some folks not picked up till Monday or today.” Croll responded, “Even on a bright August day, we will still have a hundred misses in the city.”
Other council questions zeroed in rather quickly on the issues of communicating clearly and accurately regarding when people’s trash, recycling, and yard waste would be picked up. White continued reiterating that information was provided through the media (which, as you know if you were here for continuous WSB storm coverage, is true – SPU’s media team was responsive – the challenge was that reality frequently digressed from the utility’s hoped-for plan, at least for many people in West Seattle). But Conlin wanted to know, “Did you use reverse 911?” (That’s a phone system that dials out to homes and businesses, usually to provide information about emergencies, but also used for something that needs to be communicated widely – Seattle Public Schools started using this type of system this year, for example, to communicate school closures and delays.)
White’s answer: “No.”
Conlin: “Was there any consideration of using it?”
Conlin: “Under what circumstances WOULD you consider using it?”
White tried to explain that this situation didn’t seem to be a good case in which to use “reverse 911,” because different areas of the city ended up with different situations regarding pickup: “For the first snow,” she elaborated, “we were able to get most of the northeast collection, but we only got half of the West Seattle collections. There was no way to know in a way that would establish a boundary for what calls to make to what customers.”
Councilmember Sally Clark asked, hadn’t there been a “small test” in the southeast Seattle area? “There must be a way (to sort out who would be called and who wouldn’t).”
White could only say, “We felt it wasn’t a good way to communicate.”
“So I would have to find out through the media?” Councilmember Jean Godden interjected. “I didn’t get a paper for eight days … so I’d have to hear it on the radio?”
Croll noted at that point, “We kept the city website updated.”
Conlin kept pressing the point: “For example, then, if half of West Seattle was missed, you should have used (the reverse 911) system to notify them … We spent a lot of money for that system.”
(WSB aside: We thought we recalled a fairly recent use of this system — research in fact reminds us, it was used to make advance calls to homes and businesses in two areas, including along Alki Avenue, that were to be affected by road closures during last summer’s “Car-Free Days” events – here’s what we wrote about it.)
On the next line of questioning from Conlin, about what kind of commitment was made to people whose collections were missed, Croll discussed the regular city policy – “you phone it in that evening, we pick it up the next day, unless you’re a Saturday customer – then it’s Monday” – and what he referred to as “standard snow policy – leave it out because we might get it the next day; if we don’t, take it in and bring it out the next week. That’s our STANDARD (snow) policy … we did, on the weekend of the 27th and 28th, think we had some windows of opportunities to get caught up; we were half successful on that Saturday, then we were only able to get a small number (that) Sunday, then we tried to send out a message, we’d catch up with everybody on their regular collection day the next week.”
Conlin didn’t seem to have heard that the mayor announced last week a rebate plan was in the works, because he went on to ask “Given that some people were missed as much as three times in West Seattle in particular, what can we do to make it up to those customers?”
Croll again took pains to mention “normal” policy first: “Here’s what we do in the normal course of events: We instituted a policy last year that if you are missed (twice in six months), we give you a rebate. This time, the mayor is saying, even though it was Mother Nature and we were trying our best to get the resources out there, … the mayor directed us to prepare options for customers missed twice.”
He said details were to be discussed at a meeting later in the day, and then the billing department should be able to “implement it promptly” once details are finalized.
Conlin asked if the plan would require “legislative authority” (such as, a council vote). No, Croll said. What Conlin was really getting at was revealed next – “given the significance of this” (the rebate plan), he said, the council should at least have an opportunity to comment on whatever plan SPU and the mayor come up with. (Croll, by the way, said the plan, so far, is for it to appear on bills automatically, NOT to require customers to request it; he added that the accounting department “will err on the side of overinclusion.”)
The discussion meandered in a few other directions, including Councilmember Richard McIver vividly describing critter concerns with the trash in his neighborhood: “They got into the trash cans, so many of us couldn’t leave our cans out, and needed the service, but didn’t know when you were coming, so we put them out, took them back in, put them out, took them back in … Is there any kind of new garbage lid that maybe squirrels don’t chew through?”
That generated a nearly universal laugh – and an answer in the negative.
No one, by the way, pressed for details on why the trucks couldn’t make their rounds for so long, and whether anything could have been done to render them capable of getting around in the snow and ice.
Next scheduled council discussion of the storm response is at 9:30 am next Monday; however, Conlin indicated there might be a change in the plan (possibly an evening event with a chance for public comment? only six people took the chance at today’s briefing) – stay tuned for more on that. The County Council has a hearing scheduled next Monday morning as well. If you have something to say to elected city leaders, from a complaint to a suggestion for how to handle things better next time, now’s the time to send it — while it’s clear that some, if not all, of them are aware of what’s being said on sites like WSB, the most “oomph” comes from comments they receive directly. Council addresses can be found from their web section at seattle.gov/council – for the mayor, seattle.gov/mayor.
Meantime, if you missed our two earlier stories focused on other aspects of today’s briefing — the one about road-clearing is here; the one about Metro’s troubles is here (and our wrapup of the first, shorter briefing yesterday is here).