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Originally published Thursday, April 24, 2008 at 12:00 AM


Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

Richard's World, Part 2

As Richard Conlin settles in as president of the Seattle City Council, we are living more and more in Richard's World. This is a place where...

As Richard Conlin settles in as president of the Seattle City Council, we are living more and more in Richard's World.

This is a place where we close our eyes and block out the sounds of the bustling city, where we awaken each day and think about rutabagas, turnips and alfalfa sprouts.

Conlin's latest proposal is a wide-ranging resolution that aims to strengthen "Seattle's food system sustainability and security." The measure promotes healthy eating, militant vegetable growing, greenhouse-gas-reduction opportunities related to food. It aims to address obesity and food waste and improve everyday access to farmers markets.

If that sounds like a nanny state in a bib overall, it's much more. It's 12 pages of enviro-dogma that might, finally, take the green-city bit overboard ... into the compost bin.

Some steps Conlin advocates — linking food systems in rural areas with urban areas, promoting healthy eating, shoring up emergency food supplies — are fine, no problem. But parts of this proposal seem like feel-good platitudes, with little overall impact on the environment. Closing one coal plant in China would have a bigger effect.

Since becoming council president a few months ago, he has become Conlin Unplugged, pushing Seattle to the forefront of sustainable living. Sometimes it seems he is trying to out-Berkeley Berkeley.

The proud architect of the city's pygmy-goat policy — he pushed to permit miniature goats as licensed pets — seems more focused on Green Acres than Green Lake.

Conlin is a social engineer who clearly sees himself as the overseer, left unchecked, of Seattle as one giant kibbutz. Pesticide-free, of course.

Conlin has pushed a plan to recycle kitchen waste, whether customers want to or not. Starting next year, many Seattleites will be issued another container for garbage, to pull food waste out of the waste stream.

About a year ago, San Francisco outlawed plastic bags at large grocery stores. Conlin and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels go further. Conlin is a proponent of the plan to charge 20 cents per paper and plastic bag in grocery, drug and convenience stores to reduce landfill space and cut greenhouse-gas emissions.

One gets the impression no price tag is too high if Conlin and his pals can feel they are saving the Earth with every breath they take and every move they make.

Middle- and lower-income residents have limits. Most will follow along, grab a canvas bag and do the right thing. But where does it end? Bit by bit, baby step by baby step, we are pricing the middle class out of the city — sometimes in an effort to turn our city into one giant commune.

Conlin might tell himself his actions are positive and forward-looking. But Richard's World is becoming a place where we perform all the chores in a given day Conlin assigns us.

Councilman Richard McIver is voting no on the food proposal. "It's like putting tutus on elephants," he said. "There are people out here actually starving and looking for shelter and we're worried about what food people can eat. What happened to personal responsibility?"

Conlin wants to reduce food waste; assess and mitigate the negative environmental effects relating to food-system activities; review and improve food-system security for emergency preparedness; and integrate food-system policies and planning into land use, transportation and urban activities. He removed a section of the bill in an earlier draft that might have reduced the number of fast-food establishments.

Grab a raw spear of asparagus and let's talk. In a resolution to be considered by the council Monday, Conlin would direct city departments to look at various angles of the food production, location and distribution systems.

I am all for farmers markets and food grown close to home. I sometimes shop at the Puget Consumers Co-op in my neighborhood, which procures some vegetables a few miles from where my mother-in-law lives in Sequim. I favor reasonable behavior changes — steps like conserving water and energy to be green and help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

But give me — no, give our residents — a break. This is not a commune. This is a big urban city.

The question that should be asked by all council members is when are we taking symbolic green steps for the sake of taking symbolic green steps?

Conlin's latest proposal is a test of the new council. Are council members over-the-top politically correct? Or do they understand they can take this stuff too far by forcing a set of ideas on the general populace.

Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is">; for a podcast Q&A with the author, go to Opinion at

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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