Better City Council Meetings #2: Questions

This is the second in a series of changes to our City Council Meetings I’d like to see. This particular change has to do with questions from Councilmembers about both how the government works and the legislation to be decided on at each meeting. This series began as a result of the especially problematic at the August 6th ‘Budget Retreat’ (Video) so I’ll use that as a reference. As I said in the first article, there is a ‘big picture’ we’ll be getting to soon. All the issues I am raising are features and not ‘bugs’. The current majority have, over time, gradually moulded the system to work the way it does now very intentionally. And they’ve done so because they believe it is the system that is in the best interest of the City.  So none of the issues I will raise are in any way accidental or unintended.

How it works now

Councilmembers receive notice of the Agenda Packet the Friday before the meeting. Exactly as the public does. At first glance that seems like a very generous amount of time to read the Packet, then ask the City for background information ahead of the actual meeting. But there are several catches. Or rather, rules that Councilmembers are expected to follow.

Rule #1: Timeliness.

The City Manager refuses to answer any emailed questions submitted after 4:30pm on Monday. I have sent messages time-stamped 4:33pm and they have been rejected it as ‘after close of business’.

Rule #2: No double dipsies!

In general, you’re only allowed one swing of the bat… ie. if I send a question on a topic and the answer is incomplete… there is often no opportunity to follow up.

In general, your information request is complete if the Administration says it’s complete. ie. if I send a question and the answer doesn’t cover what I asked about fully? Tough Noogies. There is no recourse.

Rule #3: Relevance

If the City Manager rules that a question in not directly germane to the current agenda he simply won’t answer it; or will prevent Staff from answering it. Happens all the time.

Rule #4: No contact with Staff

OK, this is, at least partly, in the State RCW. There is this admonition to Councilmember to not interfere with the City Manager or the Staff. I’ve gone into this many times because it’s so important. But for now I’ll just stress that it is really open to interpretation. And the current Administration interprets it to mean that no Councilmember should ever have one on one meetings with Staff. The only contact a Councilmember may have with Staff is by the explicit permission of the City Manager.

Rule #5: No Councilmember Information Requests

Many cities have an indexed system of requests for information made by Councilmembers over the years. We do not. Think of this like a Public Records Request system, like the one the Port Of Seattle has. When someone asks a question of the Port Of Seattle, not only do they get the answer, but the whole world can see the answer. And since people often ask the same questions over and over (and over and over), this saves both you and the Port oodles of time re-answering the same questions. Again, we don’t do that. There is no way for a Councilmember to access answers to questions from their colleagues over time. So I have no idea who asked what, when.

Rule #6: Majority rules

And on more than one occasion he has refused to answer because (and I am not kidding) “no other Councilmember felt a need to ask any questions.” Apparently, in the vast majority of cases, my fellow Councilmembers never ask any questions ahead of a meeting. According to Michael, Staff find my requests onerous because I’m literally the only one asking questions of them. (Anthony apparently asks Bonnie all sorts of stuff but rarely anything detailed about the Agenda or the mechanics of the City.)

Why it works this way...

The reason it works this way is, as I’ve said many times, once one hires the City Manager, State law provides almost no guidance as to how they conduct their office. Other than a few pesky rules involving, you know, embezzlement, theft, murder, etc. their authority is almost absolute; only constrained by whatever specific legislation the City Council may pass. The current majority has no problem with any of the above so… it’s not a problem. And in fact, I can easily imagine their eye rolls at every word of this post.

Why it actually is a problem…

What I object to is a distinct message of these rules. And I’m being as generous as I can be when I write what I see as the Administration’s view on Councilmember questions:

Dear Councilmember,

Your questions are kind of an imposition. We’ll indulge you as best we can because we’re really nice people. However, please keep them as brief and to the point as possible so we can get back to the real work of serving the public and running the government.

I see two issues, one very practical and one about democracy writ large.

The practical issue is that if you’re uninformed, you can’t govern well. The more difficult you make it for a Councilmember to learn about how the government works in general, and about each issue in particular, the weaker they are. Because you don’t know what you don’t know. And the simple fact is that the City Manager often has access to information that no one else (except his department heads) have. This places tremendous pressure on new Councilmembers in two ways:

  • First, to shut up and wait (literally) years to slowly gain the knowledge one needs in order to feel like you have a real voice.
  • Second, to go along with the majority (and the City Manager) because that’s the only way to get the inside scoop.

Let’s call this what it is, a Seniority System. You’re expected to pay your dues before you get a seat at the big boy table. I didn’t invent that term. I’ve heard Councilmembers use exactly that language going back decades even to the point of, “Hey, I went through it, it sucks, but that’s just the deal. So why should I make life easier for you.”

The larger issue comes down to: Who’s working for who? (Or is it whom? :D.) One can say that the City Manager is independent of the Council. But the City Manager works for the voters through the Council. We (Councilmembers) are your proxies. We represent you. And it is in the voters’ interest to have a well-informed Council that has equal weight to the Administration. In other words, if there is even the appearance that the City Manager can limit access to information, it puts in danger the delicate balance between the Executive and the Legislature. State law is very deficient in this regard so in most Cities there is a real respect for not crossing the line. And as a result, most City Managers try hard to defer to Councilmember requests for information unless they are truly onerous. In other words, in order to keep that balance, the City Manager usually errs on the side of indulging Councilmember requests for information. It creates comity and in turn better governance. Usually, but not always.

How it should work… and why

Rule #1: Timeliness.

I actually have no problem with this. You can’t have The City Manager or Staff waiting hand and foot on Councilmembers. A bit more flex would be welcome, however.

Rule #2: No double dipsies!

This has gotsta go. Sometimes a question may take a Councilmember down a rabbit hole–especially in the beginning where you don’t know what you don’t know. You need the patience and indulgence of the City Manager and Staff in order to get up to speed. Councilmembers should be given the same ‘luxury’ as any other public records requestor–which means that the request is complete when the Councilmember says it’s complete.

Rule #3: Relevance

This has gotsta go. For the simple reason that it violates the spirit of the Public Records act. What I mean is that there is no limit on what the public may request information about. If the City Of Des Moines has that information, you can ask about it, whether it’s a complete pain in the ass to obtain or not. That is State law.

The irony is that, in Des Moines, I as a Councilmember have much less access to information than you a private citizen. A Councilmember should have at least as much authority in this regard as the public, not less. The difference, as I see it is timing and reasonableness. There is no way that Staff can fulfill a mountainous request from a Councilmember ahead of a meeting. Councilmembers should be reasonable in their requests. But the Administration should also make every reasonable effort to give Councilmembers whatever they want.

The City Manager should not be the arbiter of what is relevant for Councilmembers inquiries for many reasons, but here’s just one. Let’s say I want to work on a new piece of legislation. But I need to know some historical data in order to formulate policy. How can I formulate that if I can’t ask questions unrelated to a given Meeting’s Agenda. It makes no sense.

Oh one last thing: It also shouldn’t matter what Committees one is assigned to. In other words, a Councilmember should be able to research ‘roads’ even if she isn’t on the Transportation Committee. I’ve heard that excuse before “Well you’re not even on that committee, why would you want to know that?” And it’s beneath stupid. I mean stupid is here. And that question is three floors below in the sub-basement.

Rule #4: No contact with Staff

This needs to be heavily modified. The stated reasoning, which I can fully appreciate, is that, in the past, Councilmembers were often to be seen wandering about the City offices, pestering workers with all manner of questions all the time. That lack of discipline created chaos. As a small business owner, I get this.

Councilmembers should be able to schedule a fifteen minute meeting with any Department head. I think once a month would about do it.

The pushback I’ve received goes something like this:

If every Councilmember requested a fifteen minute meeting every month that adds up to three hours of Staff time every month!

To which I reply, and…? You have a point you wish to make? 😀 This goes along with the notion that whenever the Administration provides information it is doing Council a favor. It pretty much lays it out there: We think that indulging the Council with 2-3 hours of our time every month would be a waste of valuable Staff time.

Rule #5: No Councilmember Information Requests

This has gotsta go. We should have a Councilmember Request system. Other cities around us have them. So any Councilmember can access a database of questions and answers from Staff which have taken place over years of research. This encourages Staff to provide detailed answers (since they will likely only have to answer that question once). And it is an invaluable resource for new Councilmembers to get up to speed on any issue. It also creates another way for Councilmembers to get a feel for one another. As you know, the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) severely restricts the amount of contact we can have with one another outside of meetings. But if you can see the questions that your peers are asking, you get a better sense of what they care about.

Rule #6: Majority rules

And finally, I can imagine some world where the Administration says something like:

OK, we know that Councilmembers send an average of two email questions per meeting. Therefore the rule is: Councilmembers may ask two questions per meeting from now on.

That’s ridiculous. Maybe the other Councilmembers were super busy. Or already knew the material from previous briefings. Or… and I’m just spitballing here so go with me… maybe one of them just wasn’t all that engaged on the issue? Why should the rest of the Council be hamstrung by that below-average level of engagement?

Summary

State law creates a strict division between the duties of the City Manager and the City Council. However, the law also creates a slew of unintended consequences whereby the City Manager can control access to the information that Councilmembers need to effectively legislate and provide oversight.

Our current government has just about the strictest limits in the State on Councilmember access to information, including Staff.

This state of affairs has several downsides:

  • It makes it very difficult for new Councilmembers to get up to speed. And this leads to a Seniority System whereby one is pressured to go along with the
  • It makes it difficult for Councilmembers to do the research necessary to formulate new legislation. And in fact, almost all legislation is currently not created by Council, but rather initiated by the Administration.
  • It makes it extremely difficult for Councilmembers to provide a necessary layer of oversight.

And as I’ve said before (and will say again) this is intentional; the current majority is not being hood-winked. They believe that this system is in the best interest of Des Moines. I thoroughly disagree and will continue to fight for the above reforms, not only because I find the current system undemocratic, but because I believe that a better-informed Council makes for much better governance.

In my view, there needs to be a cultural shift. Staff needs to be educated to understand that Councilmember requests for information are not an afterthought, to somehow be squeezed into the ‘real’ business of governing. Rather, Councilmember requests are an essential part of governance. Time should be allocated into every staff member’s calendar to make sure that Councilmembers have the information they need.

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