‘Kabuki Theater’ or Genuine Gesture? Port Confuses with ‘Job Quality’ Hearing

Is the Port of Seattle engaging in “Kabuki theater” with a public hearing on “job quality” this afternoon? That’s the contention of Heather Weiner, a spokesperson for SeaTac’s Prop 1, which set a $15 minimum wage for workers at businesses serving the airport.

After voters passed Prop 1 and a number of businesses including Alaska Airlines sued, a King County Superior Court judge blocked implementation of the measure, ruling that only the Port has jurisdiction over the airport. The Port agrees with that assessment, according to spokesperson Jason Kelly, and is arguing as much alongside Alaska Airlines in an appeal that is before the state Supreme Court.

So what is today’s hearing about? It would seem that the Port has already staked out its position—much to the ire of Prop 1 supporters, including 50 elected officials who yesterday delivered a letter to commissioners telling them they were undermining the trust of voters. And there is no other relevant resolution on the table that the hearing taps into, Kelly confirms.

Hence Weiner’s stinging conclusion about the hearing, which she also calls an opportunity for “political contributors to bitch about Prop 1.” She’s referring to scheduled speakers like a vice-president for HMS Host International, a large concessionaire at the airport and a frequent contributor to commissioner campaigns. The port has invited a few workers to speak too and there is a public comment period after the four panels on the agenda, So cynical is the Prop 1 camp, however, that Weiner says nobody from it planning on testifying. “What’s the point?” she asks.

Kelly insists the hearing will serve a genuine function. While there’s no specific resolution pending, the commissioners are mulling over a “new workforce development and job quality policy,” he says. It’s possible that a minimum wage increase could be part of that policy, according to Kelly. But he also adds that commissioners are considering “a whole range of issues,” including working training and “career ladders.”

So it’s far from certain that the Port will act of its own volition on a minimum wage hike. And it’s equally fuzzy about whether it even has the authority to do so. Weiner today circulated a 2011 memo from the port’s airport director to CEO Tay Yoshitani. In it, the director, Mark Reis, holds that the port is a “limited purpose government that does not have the power to mandate that third party employers adopt minimum standards for employment.”

That reading of the law would seem to contradict the Port’s current position in the Prop 1 lawsuit. Kelly, however, maintains that whether a city has the right to set wages at the airport is a “separate issue” from whether the port has that right—even though the port is arguing that it alone controls what goes on at the airport.

In other words, it’s a tortuous legal mess that’s not going to be sorted out at today’s hearing. If you want to watch it anyway, you can do so online, beginning at 1 p.m.

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