Two-Weekly Update: 09/14/2020

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Weekly Update, my ass. ๐Ÿ˜€ Sorry. I took a few days to get on the water for a change. And then I come back and the sky has turned orange and the power went out and my computer broke and…

Cats and Dogs! Living together! ๐Ÿ˜€

Anyhoo, I appreciate all the people who actually notice when I don’t do these. Thanks for following along.

PSA #1: Now that the Federal Way light rail construction is really beginning in earnest, you may want to sign up for email updates from Sound Transit. There will be many road closures over the next year or so.

PSA #2: Dude: you really gotta sign up for the Census. We’re getting down to the wire and DM is currently only at about 71% participation (Washington State is actually second best in the nation) BUT STILL NOT ENOUGH! ๐Ÿ˜€ We need every living body counted. Each person counted represents about $30,000 in State and Local funding!

PSA #3: If you have a business in Des Moines, you should fill out a G.R.O. application, the City’s new business grant program. The deadline for applications is Today, Monday September 14th! If you need help filling out forms–especially if you need a translator, please give me a call (206) 878-0578.

This Week

Action packed!

Tuesday: SCAtbd Meeting all that ‘transportation’ stuff–like

Tuesday: Burien Airport Committee (Agenda).

Wednesday: Reach Out Des Moines. Let’s see where we’re at with kids as they get back to school (sort of? ๐Ÿ˜€ )

Wednesday: come have lunch with me at the Senior Center. Get an EATS voucher!

Thursday: Transportation Meeting 3:00pm (Agenda) Please go hereย  if you wish to attend.

Thursday: Environment Committee 4:00pm (Agenda) Please go hereย  if you wish to attend.

Thursday: City Council General Meeting (Agenda) Please go hereย  if you wish to attend.

Saturday: Marina/Beach Cleanup organised by SR3 and Seattle Dive Tours. Now they say they’re all booked up for volunteers. But you just know some people are going to punk out at the last minute so why not just show up and help make our coastline even nicer. ๐Ÿ™‚

Last Week

Tuesday: Port Of Seattle Meeting. (Watch/Agenda) Item 8b. So… this is a long story. If you care about airporty stuff, I strongly recommend you go to SeatacNoise.Info and subscribe to their mailing list. Basically, the Port Of Seattle operates 24 Noise Monitors, which are supposed to give us a detailed picture of not just the noise, but also the number/altitude of flights over each neighborhood. So the thing is: they’ve never exactly worked properly. Which is bad. Because, as I always say, if you don’t have data, you can’t get help. This has been a long-running issue. In fact the Port spent $2M to replace them back in 2015. And the wild thing? In 2016 I started bitchingย  that the replacements weren’t working right! And no one paid much attention. Which was sad for me. ๐Ÿ™ ๐Ÿ˜€ But the good news is that, the Port Commissioners (finally) took complaints from residents like Vashon Island Fair Skies, my colleagues in SeaTac and moi and decided to do something about it. So apparently, their will be an audit and the Port will start releasing data from each Noise Monitor to the public so we can easily double-check that these things actually work. Yay. ๐Ÿ™‚

Wednesday: Lunch at the Senior Center. Occasionally people ask why I show up there so often. Well, first off, the food is usually pretty good. Second, there are those EATS vouchers, which I’m always pushing to get residents to try all our local restaurants! But mainly it’s for the intelligence. ๐Ÿ˜€ A lot of times, these people know stuff that’s going on–you have no idea. ๐Ÿ™‚

Wednesday I had a meeting with the MRSC and phone calls with colleagues in a couple of different Cities to discuss, my favorite subject: Exhaust Systems. ๐Ÿ˜€ A lot of residents want something done about ‘motorists’ who make a lot of noise on the streets–particularly in Redondo. The thing I know is infuriating to residents is how long it seems to take to get relief on things like this. But one part of that ‘process’ is that you kinda have to do some research whenever you propose any sort of policy. More soon.

Wednesday: Des Moines Marina Association meeting. Most of the discussion was about the dreaded Paid Parking. I have three observations:

  1. They did a great job of mobilizing their membership on the whole paid parking thing. I mention that because that is the way to get what you want from City Council.
  2. While I’m belaboring the parking thing, I mentioned a question I have on the issue, which I hope we pursue. When the discussion was put on an earlier City Council Agenda, the City stated that it wanted to work out a system that would be used by both the Marina and Redondo. And I really want to understand why that’s a priority. I mean: what’s the advantage to a shared system?
  3. Have you seen the DMMA’s new web site? Great job! I encourage all local groups to up their game in terms of on-line presence.

Thursday: Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) Transportation Board Meeting. This was a biggee, with discussion about the 2021-2024 Draft Transportation Improvement Program (TIP).ย  The PSRC wants your input. Please do it! More below.

Last Last Week

On Monday I attended the Des Moines Police Advisory Committee meeting, hosted by Chief Ken Thomas.

Wednesday was Lunch at the Senior Center. ๐Ÿ™‚

Friday I was joined by Councilmembers from SeaTac and Burien in a meeting with the local FAA. This was something of a special event. And it shouldn’t be. Among the many issues that have made life next to Sea-Tac Airport so fraught has been a uniquely poor relationship with the local FAA. All airport communities have a difficult relationship with the FAA. The law makes it that way. And in fact, the technical language of the Federal code says that all our interactions with the FAA should go through ‘the operator of the airport’ (The Port Of Seattle). Get that? The Port is supposed to be our advocate, if we have problems with all the noise and pollution. You can’t make this stuff up. ๐Ÿ˜€ However at some airports, the FAA does engage with the local community in a constructive fashion. And we need to try to get toย that form of dialogue because: newsflash: simply yelling all the time does no good.

Snap out of it, dude.

Just between us: I’ve been driving around with expired tabs. (I know! ๐Ÿ˜€ ) The State forgot to send me the annual renewal and I never noticed it. For some reason that seems significant. It’s autumn and there should be a TON of boat stuff or house stuff and so on… but somewhere during the past few months I slowly shifted into what I thought was ‘pandemic mode’ but which is actually more like ‘maรฑana mode’. Nothing seems as urgent these days.

I guess we’re all waiting for ‘a turning point’, maybe the election, maybe a vaccine to ‘swing boldly into action!’ But in the meantime, at the risk of sounding all ‘Puritan’, I can’t help but feel like we’re getting used to being stuck in second gear. Every day there seems to be a ramping down of expectations (and that includes government.)

My point is this: I don’t think there is going to be a ‘turning point’.ย  These challenges aren’t going away. In fact, I think we’re just getting warmed up (unintentional pun.) We’re at a point now where we’re (OK, I’m) tired and in this sort of half-speed mode. But unfortunately, now is the time for governments to actually work harder, because the challenges are only going to keep coming faster with each passing year.

Our City has been under an emergency proclamation since March. Does it feel like an emergency to you now? Me either. So I’m wondering when we make up all the time we’ve lost or what that even means given the overall financial uncertainty.

As I write this, the City has just suffered its second water main break of the year in the south end of town. And Pier 58 down town just collapsed! This is probably not a coincidence. A lot of our basic infrastructure is at the end of its useful life and/or is in geologically sensitive spots. Couple that with the wildfires, the pandemic, and when you look at the big picture, they’re all climate change-related. Not to sound all New-Agey, but the Universe is sending us a message about planning for the future. And we’re just not acting like it’s all that serious.

A couple of quick examples:

  1. Your State Representative Tina Orwall has been working on legislation for two years now to put air filters in local schools under the flight paths. Something that sure would’ve come in handy this past week. But even getting $50,000 to get a tiny project off the ground has been like pulling teeth.
  2. As I wrote above, I spent hundreds of hours over the past four years working on this Noise Monitor jazz–something that should’ve worked properly fifteen years ago.

That’s just two examples out of hundreds of things large and small that all sorts of people in Des Moines are working on stupid hardย to protect our environment and plan for the future.ย  But it shouldn’t be this hard. We’ve been waaaaaaaaay too slow to take issues of environment and health seriously. We have to recognize that what we’re experiencing now is not some aberration, but ‘the future’. And we have to do it now. Because this is the new normal.

I’m not saying I have some big ‘plan’. And I’m certainly not the boss of anything. But for me, and for government in general,ย something needs to happen. Maybe like five Red Bulls. Or maybe just an attitude adjustment.ย  Whatever. It’s time to find a new gear.

Weekly Update: 08/30/2020

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PSA #1: Now that the Federal Way light rail construction is really beginning in earnest, you may want to sign up for email updates from Sound Transit. There will be many road closures over the next year or so.

PSA #2: Dude: you really gotta sign up for the Census. We’re getting down to the wire and DM is currently only at about 71% participation. NOT ENOUGH! We need every living body counted. Each person counted represents about $30,000 in State and Local funding!

PSA #3: If you have a business in Des Moines, you should fill out a G.R.O. application, the City’s new business grant program. The deadline for applications is September 14th!

This Week

Nothing. I got nothing. OK, nothing I can tell you about. ๐Ÿ˜€ But you can always tell me something. Give me a call (206) 878-0578 or let’s schedule a socially-distanced meeting. I promise: it’s always on the down-low.

(Well, unless you’re actually looking for advertising for an event.ย  In which case, hell yeah, I wanna tell everyone about it! ๐Ÿ˜€ )

Last Week

Monday: Helped out local businesses fill out those G.R.O. applications ๐Ÿ™‚ If you would like assistance–especially if you need a translator, please give me a call (206) 878-0578.

Monday: An MRSC Seminar on best practice use of CARES Act funds.

Tuesday: A seminar on how to bring electrification (cars, solar) to Cities. I was pleased to note that several residents attended this. Sea-Tac Airport is aggressively working to provide charging stations. And I really want to see Des Moines start providing a few charging stations.

Wednesday: come have lunch with me at the Senior Center. Get an EATS voucher!

Wednesday: Sea-Tac Airport Roundtable (StART) Meeting. This wase Des Moines’ first meeting since we left along with Burien and Federal Way last year. One thing I’m working on is holding the Port to account on their noise monitor system (a system of 24 gizmos placed throughout our area which count the flights and their noise levels.) It’s been malfunctioning for years (literally not registering flights over head or understating the noise.) I want the Port to fix it and start auditing the system routinely. More on that in a few weeks.

Thursday: Organizing the U.S. Census! Hopefully, we’ll be having at least two more mobile census taker events next week in Redondo, Midway or the Farmer’s Market. We’ll see. We need to sign up everybody!

Advisory Committees

This was supposed to be the second part of my discussion on some of the other parts of City government that you can get involved with. Unfortunately, it went almost (but not entirely) off the rails.

Last time I talked about this, I covered the basics of Councilmember Committees. This current article supposed to be about Advisory Committees–groups that you should (theoretically) be able to directly participate in. Some of these are resident-only and some are a mix of Councilmembers and residents. They all (again, theoretically) work with the Council to help suggest legislation, solve problems, save the world, etc.

These Advisory Committees are super important to me and I want to do whatever I can to encourage you to participate. The City needs you. I need you. I’ve wanted to tell you that for a long time. But, there was always something holding me back.

But before we carry on with this Harlequin Romance, careful readers may notice more than the usual (cough) ‘critique’ of our City’s policies regarding Advisory Committees in general and our City’s web site in particular. Look, this is only because, well, there’s just no other way to say it: they both kinda suck.

And that’s where things went awry. I really wanted to suggest ways for y’all to participate more in local government. But frankly, there are soooo many frickin’ challenges right now to your being able to do that. So this ended up being more a list of things that need to be fixed before you can volunteer. So that’s what this article morphed into: what we need to do to give everyone that wants to participate, the ability to do so.

Because I know that many of you want to help. I just don’t want you to start making phone calls or going to the web site and getting immediately frustrated. We really do need you. But right now there’s a bit more to it than just signing up and showing up.

The choices

To begin with, there is this web page which lists volunteering opportunities:

https://www.desmoineswa.gov/398/Volunteering-in-Des-Moinesย . Here’s a print version.

And then there is this slightly different web page which lists Citizen Advisory Boards:

https://www.desmoineswa.gov/94/Citizen-Advisory-Boards

Now the reason I mentioned the volunteering opportunities page along with the Advisory Boards page is that the two are kinda muddled together. And oddly enough, the only group that always has enough volunteers isn’t even on the Citizen Advisory Board page.

Now choose something else.

And that most popular of all groups is the Police Advisory Group. Which is because so many of you care about public safety (me too.) But that’s kinda the problem: we’re all aware of the same issues as yourself and we’re all hot under the collar about ’em.

So look, if you really want to help Des Moines, we need you at those other groups. We need your time and talentsย  where there is the most need.

That said, I would definitely suggest that you show up for Police Advisory meetings and take their classes. But again, that group doesn’t need more participants–at least not anywhere near to the degree that other groups do.

The City needs volunteers waaaaay more across a whole range of other groups and the reality is that if you make those other groups, you’re helping public safety because it all fits together.

Then what?

Well, the good news is that there are a ton of options. We seem to have aย lot of Advisory Committees. Fantastic! Now here’s the bad news: many of them don’t actually function so well. In fact, many of them haven’t met for ages. A few do meet, but are chronically under-populated. So unless you played Right Field or Left Tackle in high school (you know, one of those people with zero ego, just happy to pitch in wherever you’re needed) your first job may be to actually revive the group. Which is a totally great thing and I want to help get us there.

For example, I have no idea when the last Citizens Advisory Committee met. But if I look at the map I see lots of open spots in various neighborhoods.

The Aviation Advisory Committee? I think everybody quit. Not quite sure. ๐Ÿ˜€

Senior Citizen Advisory Committee? They recently met. Not sure how well things are going.

I think you get my point: Not all the groups on that list are dead. They’re only mostly dead.

And then there are the other organizations

And then there is a whole range of non-government organizations which we’ll get into in another article and which also really need your help. For example, the Des Moines Historical Society isn’t even on here and trust me: If there was one organization that could really do something to help market and brand the City Of Des Moines (in addition to their mission to preserve and educate) it would be the DMHS. Why we don’t do more to support their efforts is absolutely beyond me.

Bringing back the band

Basically, a lot of these Advisory Committees just need a few more people to get involved. If you step forward, you can have an immediate impact on the City simply because no one else is doing that thing. You just need the initiative to organize a bit. Don’t worry about the ‘how’. There are lots of people who will come forward to help if you take the first step. Really. It happens whenever anyone decides to take on something worthwhile in Des Moines and it’s one of the best things about our town. ๐Ÿ™‚ And by all means do not be dismayed if the City kinda blows you off. Again, you will probably have to move forward and then get the City on board later. I know that sounds weird, but just trust me on that.

Start your own band.

And spaking of working on yer own. Keep in mind: there is also nothing in the rules that says you can’t start your own band… er… Advisory Committee. In fact, there are several groups that really should exist right now.

For example: the (not dead, only mostly dead ๐Ÿ˜€ ) Citizens Advisory Committee doesn’t seem to have a Redondo representative. Well, why not start a new Redondo Citizens Advisory Committee. Certainly there are enough people upset about ongoing issues of public safety, traffic, parking, noise, the pier, etc. If you want ongoing attention from the City, that’s the way forward: create the group and make an opportunity to report to the Council on a regular basis.

How?

If you’re concerned about how to create a new group (or revive an existing group), actually the mechanics are pretty simple: Get three Councilmembers to agree to put the idea to a full vote of the Council. I’m pretty sure you can get three of us on board with that idea.

Whether you’re trying to revive an existing group or start a new one, you may be concerned that you don’t know how to organize meetings. Not to worry. The toughest challenge is ordering a gavel on-line. ๐Ÿ˜€ Seriously, the City will help you with all that parliamentarian jazz. If you can demonstrate that you have the bodies to create such a group? The City should back you. And again, you will find lots of residents who want to help you succeed.

An organized Advisory Committee is not only a more effective way to affect policy, it’s also more efficient. Honestly, you can spend hours every month grousing about a particular situation or you can organize a Committee and get it all done in one place–a place where you are guaranteed a periodic audience with the City Council.

It’s not me. It’s you.

Part of the problem is something I’ve mentioned before (and will again, darn tootin’!) There is a dearth of volunteerism in Des Moines. Year after year, you have the same twenty or thirty people involved in everything. (And that includes politics, of course.) I have rather unkindly referred to it as ‘incest’ but that’s kinda what it is. When you always have the same people involved all over the place decade after decade, eventually, it ends up hurting the City. You need fresh blood all the time to keep a City healthy.

Now don’t get me wrong, I salute long-time activists and volunteers for their tireless efforts. But we also need to recognize just how essential it is to be constantly recruiting new people. It doesn’t happen by itself–especially these days when everyone is so busy.

OK, boomer

The median age in Des Moines is now under forty. And yet, the average age of voters is almost sixty. Which means that the average age of people who volunteer is also in that AARP zone. This state of affairs not only makes these Committees hard to populate, it’s also undemocratic. You often have groups that do not look like our residents (using whatever metric you choose.)

Volunteerism used to be the norm for many homeowners. But many people now focus their efforts on other ‘stuff’. However the model of a bedroom community like Des Moines still runs on volunteers–especially these Citizen Advisory Committees.

Bait and switch

OK, so this article was a bit of a bait and switch: I started out telling you how you could volunteer for all these groups. Then I let the cat out of the bag that a lot of these groups don’t currently work all that well. And then I even went so far as to tell you that you might need to start your own group. What a buzzkill!

But look, these are important groups that have needed attention for a good while. One of the biggest issues that came up over and over when I ran was that the City wasn’t doing enough listening and outreach. Improving these Advisory Groups is the way to get more attention.

Why are you always picking on the web site?

At the beginning of this article I said that the web site and the Advisory Group problems were linked. They are, but I’m not a good enough writer to artfully weave the two together. So I’m jamming this bit onto the end. ๐Ÿ˜€

Part of my obsession with ‘the web site’ is because I worked in that field for so many years, specifically in providing Customer Service programs. I cannot stand poor customer service.

An organization’s web site tells customers (that would be you) a lot about how much it wants to help you. If it’s easy to use, if it provides straightforward ways for you to get information and services, that says that they value you enough to want you to know what’s going on and what to do.

A poor web site means that they expect you to ‘do some digging’ to find what you want or to take advantage of an offer. It means that they really don’t care if you find something. In fact, it often means they don’t want you to find things.

As I said in my article on Committees, you need a geiger counter to find out how to attend Committee meetings. And the same goes for these Advisory Committees. By not keeping this information current and easy to find, the City is telling you, straight up, we do not value these groups.

Over the years, I’ve heard the same excuses over and over. “We’re too busy doing ‘important’ stuff.” Which only further proves my contention that keeping the public informed and doing outreach is not a big priority for the current administration. That’s a terrible message, but before we can change it, we have to get the City to see that itย is a problem.

Summary

This is a cultural thing that I’ve been going on about in most of these articles: The City government has been far too closed in for far too long. You’ve got a very small number of people, both electeds, Administrative and a very small group of involved residents who kinda ‘do’ everything–without nearly enough participation from the wider public.

Traditionally, Des Moines has benefited greatly from groups like our Citizen Advisory Committee, but most of these have withered.

We need residents–people like you, to step up and reinvigorate our Citizen Advisory Committees–and perhaps create some new ones which better reflect the current state of the City.

One thing is for sure: Power abhors a vacuum. If you don’t help make decisions in Des Moines, someone else surely will. And probably the same person who’s been doing it for the past decade. ๐Ÿ˜€

Coda: The obligatory disclaimer

Look, I don’t wanna dunk of the City here too much.(Too late? ๐Ÿ˜€ ) I talked a lot here about values. You can tell what any organization values not by what they say but by what they do. There are a ton of things the City does which are best in class. Clearly, we have staff who know how to do great things. And those are the things that the City actually values.

For me communication and engagement are just as important values as any other City function. We just need to elevate those values to the same level as the current tasks the City do so well.

Weekly Update: 08/24/2020

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I apologise up front that this week’s article is longer than some Russian novels. But as I’ve written before, the budget presentation is often considered to be the meeting of the year–and perhaps the reason to have a City Council. So I urge readers to slog through the entire thing like Stalingrad in ’43. I do not pretend that this is complete coverage of the Meeting. It represents the issues I considered of particular importance for Des Moines.

PSA #1: Now that the Federal Way light rail construction is really beginning in earnest, you may want to sign up for email updates from Sound Transit. There will be many road closures over the next year or so.

PSA #2: Dude: you really gotta sign up for the Census. We’re getting down to the wire and DM is currently only at about 71% participation. NOT ENOUGH! We need every living body counted. Each person counted represents about $30,000 in State and Local funding!

PSA #3: If you have a business in Des Moines, you should fill out a G.R.O. application, the City’s new business grant program ๐Ÿ™‚

This Week

Monday: Helping local businesses fill out those G.R.O. applications ๐Ÿ™‚ If you would like assistance–especially if you need a translator, please give me a call (206) 878-0578.

Monday: An MRSC Seminar on best practice use of CARES Act funds.

Tuesday: A seminar on how to bring electrification (cars, solar) to Cities

Wednesday: come have lunch with me at the Senior Center. Get an EATS voucher!

Wednesday: Sea-Tac Airport Roundtable (StART) Meeting. This will be Des Moines’ first meeting since we left along with Burien and Federal Way last year. Are these useful? Not particularly. ๐Ÿ˜€ But they could be. I… guess? ๐Ÿ˜€ I’ll save that for a slow news week.

Last Week

Tuesday: A very timely MRSC seminar on building and planning department functions.

Tuesday: Another meeting of the Burien Airport Committee. If you are interested in airport issues, they have become the nexus of activity for the region so I encourage you to check out their Zoom meetings: (Agenda)

Wednesday: I missed lunch at the Senior Center! Too many things going on’. Special thanks to Wesley resident Kayley Moon for getting me an extra EATS voucher!

Wednesday: A meeting with Port Of Seattle Director Stephen Metruck on the Port’s Port Package Update program. Again, no time for details, but if you have a Port Package or you’re interested in airport issues (and you should be), head over to SeatacNoise.Info.

Wednesday was also the latest Reach Out Des Moines meeting.

Thursday: There was an update on the ongoing PSRC Ferry Study which you can read about here. The upshot: no ferry coming to Des Moines any time soon. Not enough ridership and too many challenges with ‘multi-modality’ (ie. the traffic getting people to other destinations via bus, cab, etc.)

Thursday is a Special City Council Meeting (Agenda). Details below.

Friday: I had a chat with fellow Councilmember Luisa Bangs. Some of you may have noticed the temporary ‘frozen over’ sign at the gates of hell. ๐Ÿ˜€ I’m keeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeding! I very much appreciated the chance to talk with her. ๐Ÿ™‚ Beyond that, I feel like the voters kinda expect all of us to periodically do this, regardless of any differences of opinion. What did we discuss? Tattoos. My general lack of respect for authority. ๐Ÿ˜€ Oh… and public safety–which has been something she has focused on quite a lot over the years. And again, I was glad to get her opinions.

Special Meeting: So many questions

Backin’ up for a second: the 6 August meeting (Agenda, Video), was supposed to beย the ‘budget presentation’. However it went on for almost four hours and we still hadn’t gotten to any Council questions. So the 20 August meeting (Agenda, Video) consisted of all the questions we intended to ask, but did not get a chance to at that August 6th meeting.

Pro Tip: If you did not watch that meeting I would strongly suggest that you simply review the slide deck.ย  Unless you just really find these kinds of presentations riveting. No judgment. ๐Ÿ˜€

Can you hear me now?

Before we get into the questions,ย  if you watched the meeting live or are looking at the video, you’ll notice that it is now on Youtube. This is a major improvement and big thanks to our IT Staff for making that change! By the way, if you’ve seen me looking down at the beginning of meetings it’s usually because between five and ten people are texting me “there’s another problem with the damned video!” And then me plaintively emailing our City Clerk about it–which she really appreciates while she’s trying to work the controls on the meeting :D. Hopefully those days are over.

But first: The FIT Tool!

Before we get into the questions, I want to mention the short presentation from the State Auditor’s Office on their (sorta) new FIT Tool. I cannot recommend this thing highly enough! It provides all kinds of useful information on our City’s finances over the past few years in some very interesting ways, plus, it gives you the ability to compare cities which is even more fascinating.

The opener…

The meeting opened with the Mayor making yet another complaint about what he perceived as Councilmember Martinelli’s and my ‘complaints’ about the last meeting. To add another layer of irony, this is one of those things I complain about in my series of articles on Better City Council Meetings. ๐Ÿ˜€

In a Council/Manager form of government the Mayor has very few ‘special powers’. But they do hold the gavel, which gives them the unstated power to speechify whenever they so choose. There’s no ‘law’ that gives them that ability; they just get it because they run the meeting. In my humble opinion that power should be used only when absolutely necessary. Announcing that the building is on fire comes to mind. ๐Ÿ™‚

The broad strokes

Now, unlike the last meeting, this one lasted a crisp 2-1/2 hours. The structure of the questioning was that each Councilmember got five minutes and we went round-robin.

I had, by far, the most questions. Councilmember Martinelli had the fewest. Councilmember Bangs and Nutting had the next fewest, but in my opinion their comments were practical and of high quality. Councilmember Buxton kept coming back to an issue that several of us raised in various forms: one-time money, and I’ll get to that in a bit because it’s something everyone should be aware of in order to understand the financial strength of the City.

CARES Act

I asked two questions this week related to CARES Act funding. My first question, which I’ve also been pursuing off-line had to do spending authority. If you recall, on March 6, we voted to approve a Proclamation Of Emergency and one of the things that does is to give the City Manager unlimited spending authority. That seemed OK back in April when the sky was falling. But does it look like the sky is falling right now?

What that means is that choices on spending the $1 million dollars in CARES Act funding are being made entirely by the City Manager–with no Council approval of any kind. This does not thrill me. I do not believe any large expenditures should be made without a Council vote–unless the sky really is falling, of course.

My second question was about the new GRO Business Grant program. Many Cities have decided to turn over the administration of such programs to external agencies, like a Chamber Of Commerce or other organisation that has experience in doing this sort of thing so that there are no questions as to fairness. So I asked the City Manager for the scoring system, ie. which restaurants will be chosen and how much they will each get. His response was literally to shrug and said “I suppose so.” *Which I found to be less than optimal. ๐Ÿ˜€

Because when we rolled out the EATS program (we do love our acronyms ๐Ÿ˜€ ) three months ago, with a similar black box process, there were reasonable questions/controversies over not only which restaurants should be included but also in which order. Those concerns could have been addressed ahead of time simply by giving the Council a chance to provide input–and that’s what should have happened here.

Body Cameras

Out of the blue, there is $140,000 on the 1st draft for ‘Body Cameras’. I asked where that dollar amount came from and was told that it was a ‘placeholder’. Now: I’ve been writing financial software since 1987 and I have never seen that term used on a financial statement. Because there’s no such thing. When you put something on a financial statement, you’re saying you intend to do something.

Fortunately, Councilmember Martinelli asked the same question and the Chief Of Police helpfully gave him a straightforward answer (which was nice.) The Chief did some research of 4-5 vendors and that was his best guess for a first year cost of the hardware. Now we’re getting somewhere.

My second question on this was a lot trickier: Why are we doing this?

Background: on May 30, the Chief Of Police published a statement promising to review policing in Des Moines. This was followed up by other statements from the City Manager and support from the dais by Mayor Pina. The upshot is that the City said it was conducting a review of policing practices and an analysis of how what we might do here to deal with ‘systemic racism’.

And yet, when I asked for a report or study showing the results of that work, both the City Manager and the Chief acted puzzled; they had no idea about any of that. So basically we’re spending $140,000 without evidence of need and data.

Dear residents of Des Moines: I do not vote to spend dollar one of your money without evidence and data. To do otherwise is like prescribing Chloroquine for COVID-19. It may sound good at first blush, but… ๐Ÿ˜€

Let me be clear: if the City Manager or Chief presents a legit public safety need, I am right there. Just show me the evidence and the supporting data. After the horrible George Floyd killing, I wrote about my own family’s personal experience with racism and bad policing.ย  So if body cameras are something that would demonstrably reduce incidents of police misconduct and improve relations with the public? I am so there.

But here’s the thing: the Chief obviously feels extremely good about the culture of our police force. As does the City Manager. I’ve asked my colleagues on the City Council and they are similarly confident. I’ve also asked people on the Police Advisory Committee and they have nothing but praise for our Police Force.

OK. If all that is the case, I ask you: where is the problem? If there is no evidence of problems, why spend that kind of money in a budget year so tight that we’re contemplating furloughs and using one-time money?

Again, the one thing I have not seen is data. I have asked for a series of reports on police stops and officer complaints and gotten no response. I was told that such information would be presented to the Public Safety Committee when the body camera issue was brought forward for a vote. Which means that thereย is data, but Councilmembers can’t see it until right before a vote? That is what really bugs me: Putting something on a budget without supporting data? Just. Don’t. Do. It.

All that aside, if there’s no data, no complaints and everyone agrees that our PD is doing a great job, I think I’m showing better support and trust in our Police Department by saying, “we’re good for now”. If there is still $140k on the table? Spend that money where it will have an immediate impact. I can think of at least four spots in Des Moines that desperately need a traffic enforcement officer right now. There is an obvious need which I can see right now.

One-Time Money

It was just a few years ago that you’d hear the phrase ‘one-time money for one-time expenses’ so many times you’d think the Maharishi had given it to the entire Council as a mantra. It means: revenue from things like construction should be set aside for one-time purchases (eg. building something) and not for recurring expenses (eg. salaries, rent.) Recurring expenses should be paid for with recurring revenues (eg property taxes which are dependable.)

Like that new exercise program I’ve been meaning to start for the past five years, it was a noble idea. But unfortunately, we could never seem to actually get round to doing it. Year after year, we’d use those one-time monies just to ‘pay the bills’ rather than do the painful work of creating a budget we could live within. When the current City Manager was hired, the City actually did institute that discipline and it was a significant part of the financial recovery and he deserves credit for that.

So just a few years coming out of that we’re in another financial pickle. We’re doing OK, but we’re not doing as fabulously as the rhetoric from the current majority might lead one to believe. And that is what I have always objected to: the hyperbole. Yes, we’re not as hard up right now as some of our peers, but we’re not exactly rolling in it either.

Even with the new revenues and the financial discipline, the proposed budget will require once again taking going to close to one million in one-time money. And we are being warned that this is also a real possibility again in 2021–which then starts to sound like a trend.

Now, the City is proposing this in order to avoid furloughs or reducing staff levels. And I’m fine with that for 2020. But even Cities which are financially stronger than we are (eg. SeaTac–which has no need to use one-time money) are creating staff-reduction plans and other long-term strategies to plan for future waves. They are talking long-term and that is a big part of why they sound so gloom and doom.

In short, we’ve been lagging behind all our neighbouring cities in providing forecasting to the Council. And we haven’t shown a five year projection–which was something I was trying to pry out of the discussion. Because by not showing a five year projection, by avoiding talk about one-time money over the long-term, we’re avoiding those pesky discussions about worst case scenarios.

Speaking of which: the seawall

The necessary Federal permits for the north bulkhead repair have not come through yet, which means that the funding we were hoping to get to pay for it is also not a sure thing. So, I asked a kinda ‘what if’ question. What if State or Federal grants don’t come through and our budget doesn’t improve and we simply have to tap into our borrowing authority to pay the $10 million in necessary costs? (That is only mildly far-fetched, but that wasn’t the point of the question.)

After the requisite teeth-pulling, the City Manager said something off-handed like borrowing $2-3 million might be OK to borrow for such an emergency spending. That’s helpful, I suppose. That tells me that’s the sort of spending he feels comfortable with in terms of any truly dire expense.

Back up: I’m constantly being asked why the City doesn’t do this, that or the other ‘big thing’ that so many of you want–things that would be transformational. Well, the answer, as Ricky Ricardo used to say, “We can’t afford it, Lucy.”ย  If that north bulkhead fails in a bad storm? Oy, are we screwed. The entire north parking lot, marina, condos? Sayonara! So that’s truly an expense we must deal with.

So: if we can’t justify borrowing a large sum for something as essential as that on our own? The idea of actuallyย investing in something transformational for Des Moines–even before COVID-19–was almost unthinkable.

What I’m getting at is this: I want people to have realistic expectations about our City’s capabilities. Back in 2016, the current majority was able to institute much better financial controls, improve the bond rating and we now pay our bills on time without sweating. Great. But even before COVID-19 we were nowhere near where we need to be in order to make the kinds of changes we’ve all wanted for so many decades. So we still have a very tough row to hoe. We not only have to survive COVID-19, we also have to figure out how to transform our local economy. And I simply haven’t heard any serious discussion of that in all the years I’ve been watching City politics.

So… what do you want?

Glad you asked. ๐Ÿ˜€

  1. At the end of the meeting, the Mayor asked us to vote on using some of the Council’s personal fund to support perhaps 20 families in aย  partnership program between Highline Schools and Comcast to provide broadband internet service to families without. It’s a nice gesture, but there are perhaps a thousand families in Des Moines that have no decent broadband service and that means that those children simply cannot get a decent education. The City Of Burien has already stepped up and will use some of their CARES Act money to help their students and we should do the same. No, this is not a traditional function of municipal government, but then neither are business grants. In this state of emergency I consider helping our students to be as important not fall behind just as important to our City’s future as business grants. The City should be doing everything possible to fund that program.
  2. The City has not budgeted any monies to fight the airport’s expansion plans (aka ‘the SAMP’) and that is a mistake. All my colleagues in other Cities understand that if we are not pro-active in our response, not only will we not stop the expansion, we will (once again) lose any chance for serious mitigation monies–the kind of funding we should have received after the Third Runway was built. What we are doing now is waiting to respond according to the Port’s timeline. It’s a strategic mistake that could cost us millions now in mitigation funding–just as it did twenty years ago.

Summary

Like the entire pandemic, this article seems to go on endlessly. And this is the most critical I’ve been of the current administration. But the Budget Meeting is where the rubber meets the road.ย  There were three basic themes I wanted to present here and they represented the major concerns I brought up as a candidate: authority, transparency, transformation.

1. I want the Council to take a more active role. All policy should emanate from the Council and no large expenses should be undertaken without a Council vote.

2. I want a lot more evidence and data brought before Council. I dislike any spending decisions that are made without hard data and I want to see that data available loooong before a vote comes up so that Council has a real chance to mold policy.

3. I want the City to research, design and commit to a long-term plan to make Des Moines more financially independent–and by that I mean specifically to be able to undertake necessary programs without relying so much on grants from the State or Federal governments. As impossible as it may seem right now, I want the City to start talking about how get to a world where we can think about transformational improvements to Des Moines.

I also want a pony. ๐Ÿ™‚

Which is to say, that my colleagues in the majority disagree completely. They have an extremely high level of trust in the City Manager, both his management of day to day activities and his vision for the future.

I find all this puzzling because my questions are just simple due diligence. That’s how I approach my role on the City Council. It’s literally my job to be skeptical. But never unfriendly or disrespectful. The office is all I care about.

*I’m trying out this new thing this week: understatement. ๐Ÿ˜€

Weekly Update: 08/17/2020

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Sorry I’m late. Again. I ran out of Tonic Water last night and it was just too hot to type without a Gin and Tonic. :D. But, once again, I’ve got not just this update, but another bonus article (see below.) Woo hoo!

This Week

Tuesday: A very timely MRSC seminar on the special requirements for budgeting and permitting during COVID-19.

Tuesday: Another meeting of the Burien Airport Committee. If you are interested in airport issues, they have become the nexus of activity for the region so I encourage you to check out their Zoom meetings: (Agenda)

Wednesday: come have lunch with me at the Senior Center. Get an EATS voucher!

Wednesday: A meeting with Port Of Seattle Director Stephen Metruck. Hopefully we’ll be making some progress on several issues, including the delayed Port Package Updates.

Wednesday is also the next Reach Out Des Moines meeting.

Thursday is a Special City Council Meeting. ‘Special’ meaning there is only one item on the Agenda. More below.

PSA: Now that the Federal Way light rail construction is really beginning in earnest, you may want to sign up for email updates from Sound Transit. There will be many road closures over the next year or so.

Last Week

Monday: I sat in on my first Arts Commission Meeting in a looooong time. They’re working on some cool stuff. More on that in a future article. ๐Ÿ™‚

Tuesday: Port Of Seattle Commission Meeting. The discussion centered around improving the noise monitor program. The problem is that the noise monitors have been highly inaccurate. And this is an opportunity to get the Port to fix them. The reason you should care about this is that if a particular plane is too noisy (I know they’re all noisy, but stick with me) the Port can complain to the airlines and get it removed from service. In other words, the Port can tell Alaska Airlines that their 737 Serial #123456 is noiser than the FAA spec allows for that particular make/model. Every little bit helps. ๐Ÿ™‚

Wednesday: was my first time back at the Senior Center in a couple of weeks. There had been a bit of a kerfuffle for a while there because a staff member at Wesley tested positive for COVID-19. So for two weeks I delivered EATS voucher! to residents there. I’m bringing this up because we are not out of the woods on this. I think most people have kind of settled into this ‘new normal’ where most (but not all) people kinda/sorta ‘mask up’ and just muddle along. But clearly that ain’t good enough. I think we’ll need to do a lot more to get on top of this, yes even at the local level. More in a few days.

Budget Meeting Redux

The last meeting (Agenda, Video) lasted almost four hours and consisted almost entirely of presentations by all the department heads. If you did not watch the meeting I would strongly suggest that you review the slide deck which is available here. In fact, if you read the slides you can basically skip watching the meeting–unless you care about politics, or just really find these kinds of presentationsย riveting. No judgment. ๐Ÿ˜€

So the upcoming meeting (Agenda) will supposedly consist of all the questions we intended to ask, but did not get a chance to at that August 6th meeting.

Although that meeting was a slog, I think it could have and should have been handled much differently. As I wrote last time, it’s such a pivotal meeting and the public has high expectations (as did I) of finding out where we’re at and what the future will look like.

After that meeting, I began writing a series of articles on Better City Council Meetings and I hope you will read the second article which is specifically about how Councilmembers obtain information from the City and how that process might be improved.

It’s a process

That said, the public needs to understand that Budgeting isn’t really one meeting, but rather a process of several meetings culminating in a vote in late November on an Ordinance which makes it ‘official’. The initial meeting is meant to provide a ‘state of the city’. It is not meant to actually ‘decide’ anything. I got many requests this week along the lines of “What are you going to do about…” And that process does not begin until the next meeting in September where the City Manager presents a 1st Draft. From there, we have two public meetings to discuss changes and then there is that final vote to approve.

So I don’t want to be too harsh in my comments on that initial meeting. The City ostensibly did as required. My main beef(s) have to do with not having time for questions–simply because I wanted to be able to ask while the presentation was fresh in my mind. If we were going to end up with two meetings anyhoo, they should have been structured 50/50. Half the departments report and take questions in the first meeting and the other half do the same in the second. Or just do what Councils have done in the past: Just make a day of it.

Weekly Update: 08/09/2020

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Sorry I’m late. A bit under the weather this weekend. But I’ve got not just this update, but a bonus article (see below.) Woo hoo!

This Week

Monday: I’ll be sitting in on the Arts Commission Meeting.

Tuesday: Port Of Seattle Commission Meeting. The discussion will center around improving the noise monitor program.

Wednesday: come have lunch with me at the Senior Center. Get an EATS voucher!

That’s it. Nothing else! (Well, nothing else I can talk about here.) So call me! Ask a question. Complain about something. Share some some gossip. That’s kinda what I’m here for: (206) 878-0578. ๐Ÿ˜€

Last Week

Wednesday: come have lunch with me at the Senior Center. Get an EATS voucher!

PSA: Wednesday is also the day that the Des Moines Library opens for curbside pickup!

Thursday: City Council Meeting (Agenda, Video) the annual Budget Retreat. Discussion below.

Friday: South King County Area Transportation Board (SCATbd) meeting. The highlight was a bit of a shocker, King County Metro General Manager Rob Gannon is leaving to take a job as CFO in Missoula Montana and is being replaced by long-time Deputy Terry White. Why should you care? The bus service is enduring serious problems right now and this is not a great sign for our residents (all those ‘essential workers’), many who have already been seriously impacted by reductions on local routes like the 122 and 156.

Budget Recap: The Cliff Notes

The meeting (Agenda, Video) lasted almost four hours and consisted almost entirely of presentations by all the department heads. If you did not watch the meeting I would strongly suggest that you review the slide deck at the end of the Agenda PDF. In fact, if you read the slides you can basically skip watching the meeting–unless you care about politics, or just really find these kinds of presentationsย riveting. No judgment. ๐Ÿ˜€

Just give it to me in 25 words or less, OK?

No, can do. ๐Ÿ˜€ But long-winded or not, the part you’ve all been waiting for (OK, I was waiting for) was Finance Director Beth Anne Wroe’s bit on the state of the balance sheet, which came around the three hour mark.

Five years? Try five months, pal.

Every budget I’ve seen until this year always has a five year projection. The City Manager and Finance Director both repeatedly indicated how different 2020 is from past years. So not only was there no five year projection, there really was no 2021 projection either. In fact, the presented forecast seemed to lump 2020 and 2021 together. I guess the assumption is that, one way or another, 2021 will be the end of the pandemic and we won’t get back to normal projections until then. So that’s the basic assumption: we’re in a holding pattern for not just the rest of 2020, but also for 2021.

Some highlights

And the news seems to be (and I’m sure someone will correct me for over-simplifying ๐Ÿ˜€ ) but here’s where we are and what the City Manager will likely propose. The

  1. We are currently looking at a 13.5% reduction in the General Fund. But we have not yet received a report from the State or County on several key indicators from the 2nd Quarter (eg. property taxes) so this could change dramatically. Plus, of course, there is no good way to forecast the rest of 2020 since COVID-19 doesn’t seem to be abating.)
  2. There will be no draconian cuts–at least not now.
  3. We’re getting prox. $950k from the CARES Act and $200k will likely be applied to the kind of business relief I mentioned last time.
  4. The major street projects (eg. 24th Ave. around the schools) will continue since they are mostly funded by State grants. But nothing new (including pothole programs) will proceed.
  5. There will be no cuts to public safety, but people retiring will not be replaced with the hire-ahead program.
  6. We’re still on hold with the North Bulkhead repairs at the Marina. That is not a result of COVID-19, but rather a failure to get permitting approval from the Federal government. And we’re now getting so far into the year that we may not be able to get started on any of that work until next year.re
  7. We may or may not get more CARES money in the next stimulus plan.
  8. We may or may not get more State money in the next 105 day session.

So… as they say, I have questions.

Some parliamentary details

At the top of the meeting, the Mayor askedย  Councilmembers to hold questions until the very end of all presentations. We were also warned not to ask any questions regarding ‘pet projects’–that we should confine all questions to the facts of the presentations. The City Manager also warned that the presentations would be lengthier than normal.

At the 2:55 mark (five minutes before the scheduled three hour limit) we were informed that we were nowhere near finished with the presentation slide deck. So we had the first of three votes to extend the meeting in fifteen minute increments ending right before 9pm. So the meeting ended with no questions being asked by any Councilmember. Instead, we were told that we would have opportunities to meet with various department heads in groups of three (to avoid an OPMA violation) and ask our questions.

After the meeting I (and apparently some of my other colleagues) wrote the Mayor encouraging him to schedule a follow-up meeting asap. We received a follow-up from the City indicating that such a special meeting will occur on August 20th at the even specialer time of 5:15pm. As I write this I have two concerns:

  • There is no guarantee that all the department heads will be available.
  • We were told by the City to not send in any written questions for Staff ahead of the meeting. That is also pretty unprecedented as Councilmembers are always given at least some opportunity to email questions ahead of a meeting.

We’ll see.

Backseat Driver

I’m just gonna be straight: The meeting was problematic for me on many levels. (First off, anyone who has ever sits down for a long meeting and is sold right from the jump, “please hold all your questions until the end” knows they’re in for trouble, right?)

This wasn’t a scheduling issue or an accident caused by COVID-19. Rather, it’s part of ongoing structural problems that were part of the reason I ran for office in the first place.

To address these, I’ve started work on a series of posts on Better City Council Meetings. The first one is called Eliminate the presentations!ย  I very much hope you will read them and let me know what you think.

Dude, why are you being such a doormat!

I get multiple messages either during or after every meeting “Dude. Why aren’t you objecting more? Make a motion! Do something!” Which is actually good in a way. It means that people are watching and they notice some of the problems at our meetings. I typically reply with something hopefully notย too defensive like, “You don’t know that half of it, pal!” ๐Ÿ˜€

When you are in a minority such as exists on our current Council, and the majority always votes together, you can’t change any votes. It’s as polarised as the United States Congress. So if you’re me you have a decision to make before every meeting:

A. Stop every meeting at literally multiple points where there are problems in order to educate the public as to what’s goin’ on. Which then makes my colleagues look like absolute fools–and unfortunately makes Staff super-uncomfortable. All that kerfuffle and still I won’t win a single vote.

B. Try to maintain a zen flow of calm, turn the other cheek, center my chi, blah, blah, blah… so everyone can get home in time to watch Star Trek TNG. ๐Ÿ™‚

If you know me a little bit, you know I have no problem with choosing from Column A on the menu. Many of you voted for me specifically to push back on the status quo and I get why. But up until now at least, I have always chosen Column B. (known as either ‘the high road’ or ‘getting punked’ depending on your point of view.)

My thinking thus far has been like this (and yes this will sound completely naive to you), I saw my first year on the Council as an experiment: I didn’t know many of my colleagues personally and I really hoped to try to get to know them and work across the aisle as they say. I figured that if I just remained calm and tried to be pleasant, at least one of my colleagues would at least occasionally step in and object when their were problems.

Well,: I think we can all agree howย that little experiment turned out. ๐Ÿ˜€ After the dozens of parliamentary problems we have all noticed and complained about, I don’t think there is anything further to be gained by remaining silent.

In short: I hear you.

Paid Parking

On a totally unrelated note, the City Manager hinted in his opening remarks that whatever changes will be made to Paid Parking, they will not compromise security at the Marina. This appears to be in response to an organisedย  letter-writing campaign by the condo-dwellers. We’ll circle back to that when it comes to the Committee discussion.

Weekly Update: 08/02/2020

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This Week

Wednesday: come have lunch with me at the Senior Center. Get an EATS voucher!

PSA: Wednesday is also the day that the Des Moines Library opens for curbside pickup!

Thursday: City Council Meeting (Agenda) the annual Budget Retreat. I encourage everyone to watch on Comcast Channel 21 or livestream.

Friday: South King County Area Transportation Board (SCATbd) meeting. Discussion will include the infamous ‘TBD’ fees we all know and love. ๐Ÿ˜€

That’s it. Nothing else! (Well, nothing else I can talk about here.) So call me! Ask a question. Complain about something. Share some some gossip. That’s kinda what I’m here for: (206) 878-0578. ๐Ÿ˜€

Last Week

Wednesday: come have lunch with me at the Senior Center. Get an EATS voucher!

Thursday: Meeting with Rep. Tina Orwall and Port Commissioners on a school air quality improvement program. I’ve been vaguely referring to this for a while now and I should probably give at least a few details. There have now been several legit studies which basically find that if you provide filtered (cleaner) air at schools, the children are not only healthier, they also tend to perform better as students. A lot better. Just the 7-8 hours a child is in school makes a significant difference. This is not brand new, by the way: there have been concerns about the problems of indoor air quality for decades. What’s new is that we now seem to be able to actually do something about it.ย  What we’re trying to study now are the mechanics of making it work with the kinds of pollution unique to aircraft.ย  Explainer.

And also on a related note: there were a whole bunch of constituent kinds of things involving Port Packages. As always, if you have an ongoing problem with your Port Of Seattle sound insulation or want information on qualifying or you’re just interested in helping to reduce noise and pollution from Sea-Tac Airport, contact these guys: SeatacNoise.Info

 

The Budget

So, this is a big one. The whole enchilada. Le grand fromage. (No other food metaphors come to mind right now.) But since I’ve lived here, the ‘August Retreat’ has always been viewed as highly significant because this is where the City basically puts its cards on the table. Frankly, the public (and the full Council) do not often get a full picture of:

  1. How the City is doing financially.
  2. What the ‘the plan’ is likely to be.

I know this is #581 on the list of things that will make eyes roll, but I gotta be honest: the ‘importance’ of this meeting has always struck me as a bit like a religious ceremony. Part of it is tradition and part of it comes down to the challenges of providing data in any government organisation.

Just in time?

As some of you may know, for part of my career I wrote accounting and customer service software. And during that time the entire landscape of corporate reporting shifted from ‘annual reports’ to ‘quarterly reports’ finally to the point where most companies can now tell you what’s what almost every day of the year. The reverence and speculation (and fear) about an organization’s financial position is now mostly a thing of the past. You hear even large corporations talking about the state of their business daily.

Government financial reporting is a different animal. Much of the data you need to create reports comes from higher up the food chain (County, State) so you’re subject to getting results from them and things like tax data only comes out quarterly. Also, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Des Moines has been hampered for a long time by an antiquated accounting system. (Which is why I am so jazzed we’re getting a new accounting system! My hope is that soon we will be able to get more timely information and reduce the ‘surprise’ factor.)

But with all that, it’sย still weird for me to have to wait until August to have a good understanding of where we are in 2020-or to be able to start planning for 2021. And with COVID-19, that curiosity has just that extra soupรงon of nerves.

Comparisons are inevitable…

Adding to the suspense is the fact that our sister communities have already provided their reports and forecasts and for some the news ain’t great. This could make one nervous for Des Moines, but I was warned a long time ago that when it comes to budgets: Every city is different. And the more I learn the more I understand it’s true. Burien, SeaTac, Normandy Park, Tukwila, Federal Way, Kent all have very different strengths and weaknesses. Some cities that were doing great until COVID-19 are now struggling and some that were struggling are feeling pretty good (as good as one can) about their ability to weather the storm.

I also don’t think one can judge any City’s economic planning based on how they’re doing right now. As I’ve said many times, we’ve done a pretty good in fighting COVID-19 healthwise. But we haven’t exactly been perfect. At least some of that ‘success’ (if you want to call it that) has been good fortune, not genius. And much the same might be said for our economic state. As with health, no one can say with a straight face that they had a COVID-19 plan.

Local businesses

One important question going forward is going to be, What do we do to mute the ongoing impacts to local business? I am literally stunned almost every day to hear from some residents that they vehemently oppose the City doing anything to support local businesses. The notion is that those businesses that can adapt will and those that cannot will fall away and be replaced by better firms. (One of the ‘charges’ leveled against me by our Mayor back in April was that I am firmly in this camp; that I literally want to see weak businesses ‘die’.) I know I should let that drop but that really pissed me off. And here’s why:

I used to own a small restaurant. And a restaurant (or any locally owned business), even if it’s not exactly a goldmine is a resource to a small City far beyond its tax revenue. At the most basic level, it is hard to replace any storefront in this age. There just aren’t that many people wanting to open new retail spots in places other than where they’ve always been. Investors seem to be more than happy to keep plowing money over and over into the same spots in downtown Seattle, rather than taking a chance on a place like Des Moines.

Demand

As you probably know, the American Economy is consumer demand driven. The worst possible thing for our economic future is to have no places for people to spend their money now. Again, even a marginally successful business keeps some money flowing. When a storefront goes away the only people that make money are auctioneers. In the short term, our City loses, residents lose, employees lose.

So the prevailing economic theory since the mistakes of the Great Depression, has been to keep demand going. Even arch conservatives who find the entire concept of subsidies abhorrent tend to buy into this notion because when we’ve tried to ‘let market forces work’, things get awful, awfully fast.

Just passing on the wisdom…

Where did I get this great passel of wisdom? Why from our own City Manager at the 16 July Economic Development Committee Meeting. ๐Ÿ™‚ (It’s a shame that we don’t recordย  these meetings.) Goosing demand seems to be something the City is taking seriously and it’s a big part of the reasoning behind the CARES Act, which will shortly distribute almost a million dollars to Des Moines. In one sentence: giving consumers opportunities to spend is a high priority until things return to normal.

So, you know where I’m going with all this…

Look, you may not like it, but we’re gonna have to do something to prop up local businesses. In fact, we probably shoulda been doing something significant all along. I was reluctant to be vocal about it because, first of all I kinda expected the Feds (the people who actuallyย have some money) to swing boldly into action. And second of all because we didn’t have numbers and that’s another reason I keep grousing about the lack of current financials. It’s been driving me absolutely nuts.

But now that we see that this pandemic ain’t going away any time soon, we simply cannot allow keep our business district to fall apart as if it’s being pushed by normal winds of supply and demand. Not because every business is perfect, but because the more places people have to spend money, the less our City suffers. We just need to buy time.

Nostalgia for 2006

People seem to forget that before the ‘Great Recession’ (which seems only ‘Medium-Strength Recession’ right now) our downtown was looking pretty good–even before the pandemic. There were more and more varied restaurants, more shops, more everything. It was a pretty normal thing for families to spend a Friday evening having dinner at a restaurant, having dessert at another place, going to the Theater for a movie and maybe down to the Marina for a stroll. Regardless of how nostalgic you are for ‘the good old days’, that sort of thing just hasn’t happened so much after the Medium-Strength Recession.ย  It’s taken us almost a decade to climb back from the desolation of 2008. And we still weren’t close to that level of activity when the pandemic hit.

My view is that we need to do what we can to keep our businesses (not just downtown, but Pac Highway as well) at least on life support until a properly functioning market can resume. Not just for the businesses, but for us. We have to maintain as much of ‘normal’ as possible until the pandemic is over. That includes everything from mission-critical services like education to more mundane things like having places to spend money. If people just learn to accept getting everything from Amazon and eating frozen dinners, our local economy could take another decade to recover.

Step number one

For all the speechifyin’ this is only Step #1 in the Budget process. No decisions will be made. The goal of this meeting is to have enough information about 2020 to forecast with some authority what will happen in 2021. Based on the comments made at this meeting, the City Manager gets down to work on the actual 2021 document. He brings his proposal back in a few months, then both the Council (and you the public) have two public hearings where you get to weigh in on the intended priorities. And after all that we finally vote on the real deal before Thanksgiving. So the actual vote is usually a formality because both we (and you) have seen several iterations.

Tradition…

Some people would argue that the Budget is the reason a government (especially a small town City Council) exists. And that used to be true, for sure. It was also true that kids needed summer off from school in order to help bring in the harvest. ๐Ÿ˜€ )

As I said at the top, part of the Budget Retreat’s importance also comes down to ‘tradition’. Since the City Manager runs day to day government, once the Budget was done in autumn, lots of town councils (and our State) used to basically wrap it up for many months of the year. As with summer vacation, that tradition has kind of hung on a bit too long in my opinion. It’s created the image of the ‘average citizen’ City Councilmember–a person who just shows up every couple of weeks for a meeting and… hey it’s all good, fellas! ๐Ÿ˜€ That’s just not the reality in 2020.

As you’ll see at the meeting, we’re aย  $100,000,000 corporation, not a one-horse town with some pretty boats and a parade every summer. So while this meeting is a big deal, and I do hope you’ll watch this Thursday, this is not ‘the big show’. It’s just one of many important events every year. There’s a lot on the line and not a whole lot of opportunities to get a glimpse inside the black box.

So I need your help. Keep watching.

Weekly Update: 07/27/2020

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Yes, I’m late, Late, LATE. What can I say? Everybody’s always telling me ‘take a few days off.’ So… ๐Ÿ˜€

This Week

Wednesday: come have lunch with me at the Senior Center. Get an EATS voucher!

Thursday: Meeting with Tina Orwall and Federal Way Schools on school air quality improvement program.

That’s it. Nothing else! (Well, nothing else I can talk about here.) So call me! Ask a question. Complain about something. Share some some gossip. That’s kinda what I’m here for: (206) 878-0578. ๐Ÿ˜€

Last Week

Monday: Meeting with Tina Orwall and Federal Way Schools on school air quality improvement program.

Tuesday: Burien Airport Committee (Agenda and information on attending via Zoom)

Wednesday: come have lunch with me at the Senior Center. Get an EATS voucher!

Wednesday: Highline Forum. There will be a discussion of recent studies on UltraFine Particulate pollution

Rule 5

So… there’s been this ongoing kerfuffle in our Council since the election, not just what their role should be but even more basic, what a Councilmember is ‘allowed’ to do. It first came to a head back in April when you heard our Mayor and Deputy Mayor and other Councilmembers say words to the effect that I (moi? ๐Ÿ˜€ ) am ‘in violation of Rule 5c!’ and that I am ‘representing myself as the City Of Des Moines!’ Sound serious, right?

Yeah…. not so much. Those (cough) ‘charges’ were simply a way to try to intimidate me, so I let it go. As I say over and over, Robert’s Rules Of Orders say that when a meeting is done, Let it go. I told each of my colleagues privately to knock it off and I hoped that would be that.

It’s back…

But at the very end of our last meeting, our Deputy Mayor brought it up again, in response to my fairly routine comment that I had been meeting with various legislators on airport issues–something I’ve done for over four years now. Because of the way Zoom works, I was unable to reply right then (everyone is ‘muted’ until the person running the meeting allows them to speak) So there wasn’t really a way for me to interrupt the nonsense.

The dreaded Rule…

So here are our Rules Of Procedure and the dreaded Rule 5, which basically defines the Mayor’s role in our Council-Manager form of government. Please read carefully. I’ll wait. ๐Ÿ˜€

The Mayor shall preside at meetings of the Council, and be recognized as the head of the City for all ceremonial purposes. The Mayor shall have no regular administrative or executive duties. In case of the Mayor's absence or temporary disability the Deputy Mayor shall act as Mayor during the continuance of the absence. When the Deputy Mayor acts as Mayor by participating in preparation of a Council meeting agenda or study session worksheet, or by presiding at a meeting of the Council, the Deputy Mayor shall have authority only to approve the Council meeting agenda or study session worksheet as to form without introducing or deleting items of business, and to preside at the meeting by following the approved agenda or study session worksheet as written. In case of the absence or temporary disability of the Mayor and the Deputy Mayor, a Deputy Mayor selected by members of the Council shall act as Mayor during the continuance of the absences or disabilities. The Mayor, or Deputy Mayor, is referred to as "Presiding Officer" from time to time in these Rules of Procedure.

(a) The Mayor and the Council have authority to introduce proclamations for a variety of purposes, as approved by the Council. No proclamation shall constitute official City actions unless approved or authorized by a majority of the City Council.

(b) To promote a favorable image of the City and pursue resources that will benefit the community, the Mayor, or another Councilmember designated by the City Council, may take the lead in representing the Des Moines City Council to those from outside the community who are interested in joint ventures and efforts to bring economic development and investments to the City, including other local governments, regional organizations, and federal, state, and international government representatives. Neither the Mayor, nor a Councilmember, can commit the City without authorization of a majority of the City Council.

(c) The Mayor, or another Councilmember designated by the City Council, is the spokesperson on actions taken by the Council. On behalf of the City Council, the Mayor or designated Councilmember may inform the public, media, and staff about issues affecting the community.

But here’s what they think…

Now. My colleagues want you to believe that paragraph (c) actually means somethingย  like:

Unless the full City Council votes to approve otherwise for a specific purpose, only the Mayor may interact with other legislators. Other Councilmembers must haveย explicit permission to do so on a case by case basis. If a Councilmember meets with other legislators or media or basically anyone, without that permission, they are falsely representing themselves as the official voice of the government and are in violation of Rule 5.

I thought hard about even putting that in quotes because I can see someone right now pulling that falsehood out of context and going, “Yes, he admits it!” on social media. ๐Ÿ˜€

I do not think it means what you think…

But look, it’s total nonsense, OK. That’sย not what the Rule says or means. Not at all. It’s so far from what the actual Rule means that it reminds me of the following beloved moment in film history.

However, I was so concerned, that I triple-checked, with two attorneys and the MRSC you see linked to above. And they laughed.

You guys never stop talking!

Remember above where I said that I’ve been meeting with legislators of all kinds for over four years? Well there are always legislators of all shapes, sizes and titles at these meetings. Some are public, some are private. Everybody talk, Talk, TALKING. That’s what politicans do all day. Blabber on in hundreds of configurations to try to figure out ways to work together.

Ya wanna know some things they do not do?

  1. Get permission from someone else before taking a meeting
  2. Provide any introductory disclaimer at the opening of a meeting to wit, “I am here not as the representative of my jurisdiction. I am only speaking for myself. I hope we’re all clear on that. Got it? Good.”

No one ever does that. I speak by phone, email and in person with all manner of electeds and appointees and other high mucky mucks literally every week. And apparently, so does every other councilmember in every other city except Des Moines. (If I were more of a social media kind of guy, this is the spot where I’d carpet bomb you with about 100 piccies of various councilmembers hanging out with Congressmen, Senators, County Executives, etc., etc. I’ll spare you because it’s, frankly, not that exciting.)

Learning to schmooze

Apart from dispelling these bogus claims, I want to make a far more important and positive point. And it is this: you, the residents should want a City Council that engages as much as possible with the wider world. What I mean is that, far from being discouraging, my colleagues should be thrilled when anyone of the Council shows some initiative.

There is a ton of stuff going on in the area at the City, State, Federal level all the time. So much so that there is no way that Staff can cover it all. And even if they could by some space magic, they aren’t in the same position to get meetings with various electeds and then come back and formulate legislation. That is at the heart of a good Councilmember’s job: to bring in ideas.

Oh, and money. (Oh, so now do I have your attention? ๐Ÿ˜€ ) There is a lot of money out in the wider world. I mean a lot. And frankly, the Cities that get out more, get more of that money. That’s why I’m constantly banging on about all the regional organizations (PSRC, SCA, AWC, SCATbd, etc.) that most residents haven’t heard of.

A councilmember may attend a hundred meetings and ninety nine are fruitless, but that one positive meeting can mean a great deal to a City. If that sounds a lot like cold calling to you, you’re catching on. That’s a big part of what the best electeds do. It’s called schmoozing and I’m trying to get better at it.

It’s a bit different…

Electeds work in an odd dynamic that’s a bit different from what most of us deal with in our day jobs. Most of us, occasionally, work with people with whom we disagree. But we’re all working on the same basic goals because hey, our collective job security depends on it, right?

Politicians don’t work like that. We often have profound disagreements on policy (I keep reminding people who didn’t vote for me: the people who did vote for me want me to disagree on some things. So it’s a balancing act. ๐Ÿ™‚ ) And since an elected’s job security doesn’t depend on what their colleagues think, it can create strong incentives to not cooperate or even try to make the people you disagree with look bad (because, hey, if they got their way, we’re all headed to hell. Straight to hell, I tell ya! ๐Ÿ˜€ )

So who do ya trust?

Well, me of course. ๐Ÿ˜€ Seriously, it’s a great question. Many residents have no idea what’s going on in local politics. So when they hear something from someone ‘official’ sitting at some ceremonial dais, they’re apt to believe it. Most of us tend to respect authority–and especially in Des Moines, where we’ve had so little public engagement for so long.

Many of you who are supporters of the current majority have told me that while you still support them, you have been surprised by some of their antics. I’m gonna tell ya the truth: it should not be surprising. And it will become less so over time. I know it’s hard, but keep an open mind and keep watching. Ask me tough questions. Askย  my colleagues the same questions. Try to really listen. If you do that, over time, I think you’ll start to see a clear difference between how things have been done–and how they ought to be done.

Weekly Update: 07/19/2020

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This Week

Monday: Meeting with Tina Orwall and Federal Way Schools on school air quality improvement program.

Tuesday: Burien Airport Committee (Agenda and information on attending via Zoom)

Wednesday: come have lunch with me at the Senior Center. Get an EATS voucher!

Wednesday: Highline Forum. There will be a discussion of recent studies on UltraFine Particulate pollution

Last Week

Wednesday: Lunch at the Senior Center. Get an EATS voucher!

Wednesday: Reach Out Des Moines meeting. The big news is that King County has recognized the great work they do and renewed their grant funding for another three years!

Thursday: Attending Municipal Facilities and Economic Development Committee meetings

Thursday: City Council Meeting (Agenda, Video). See recap below.

Meeting Recap

We’ve been in this state of emergency so long, I think it’s worth reminding people that our current meeting agendas are not ‘normal’. We’re jamming months and months of work from earlier in the year onto our Consent Agenda. It concerns me because all this stuff doesn’t get the same hearing it would in normal times–when such work would be regular agenda items. The view of my colleagues often seems to be “Stop worrying. We have the best City Manager in the State of Washington.”

But that’s not the point. Even if Mr. Matthias was the GOAT of City Managers, it sidesteps one of the two main purposes of a City Council: oversight. If you stop even questioning these decisions, you’re not doing your job. All muscles atrophy when not regularly exercised.

A Consent Agenda is supposed to be routine items that are so obvious as to require no discussion and that’s not what we have on our Consent Agenda. Here are the three items from this meeting, that my colleagues and I thought were worth at least some discussion.

Item #3 Trees

We were asked to approve what, at first glance, looked like a fairly routine adjustment to a building plan at Blueberry Lane. (I have had a lot to say about Blueberry Lane as it relates to the airport.) But in this case we were unknowingly allowing the developer to cut down three Sequoias planted fifty years ago by one of the original employees of Hammond Ashley Violin Shop (Remember them? I sure miss ’em.) Those trees are meant to live 2,000 years. Not 50.

What bugs me in this case is that we have all these policies talking about ‘how much we value our tree canopy’, blah, blah, blah. But there is nothing in the City building code that requires a builder to work around that situation, or even inform that Council when it comes up. In a terrible example of data processing (since fixed–thanks, Bonnie) Councilmembers only got to read an email from this resident ten minutes before the meeting!ย  For decades we say we’re working to protect the City’s trees, but every time we face a decision? We say, “Oh what a shame” and do nothing. Between the Des Moines Business Park and all the housing developments of the past decade we’ve lost a tremendous amount of tree cover. And we have got to start doing a better job of protecting what remains.

Item 6: Another vote I regret

On the Consent Agenda was approval of a significant raise for our union workers (primarily at the Marina). The negotiations were well under way just before COVID-19 struck. And the Council had an Executive Session to discuss it. We were not given many specifics except that, before we were asked to vote on it, there would be another briefing to flesh out the details. That second briefing never occurred. Instead, the Agenda Packet simply included the contract plus a lengthy explanation of why it was a fantastic deal for all concerned. However, in the Item Description there was also this rather ominous paragraph describing what might happen if we voted ‘no’:

The Council could choose not to approve the Agreement and direct the City Manager to continue negotiations with the Teamsters. However, that would likely damage the City's relationship with the Teamsters following a collaborative negotiation process...

And then…

Should the Council choose not to approve the Agreement, there is a possibility the Teamsters would file an Unfair Labor Practice complaint with the Public Employment Relations Commission.

This is what is known as an ultimatum. By making a handshake agreement with the unionย before talking to the City Council, the City essentially dared the Council to not approve it. And I don’t like that because my job is to representย you the voters. In other words: the City is not management. You are. It’s your money the City is negotiating.

So I would have preferred to hold off on approving any spending increases until after our August 6th Budget Retreat; or at least to have the promised Executive Session. Because you want to be able to ask questions without annoying the workers (who did negotiate in good faith, of course) and putting the deal at risk.

See here’s the thing: We have been told time and again that we will not understand the City’s finances until that Budget Retreat. So until August 6th none of the Council have any idea where the City’s finances are. My colleagues keep going on about how we can’t approve any spending until we get the numbers. And I could not agreee more. Which is why I find their willingness to sign off on this with no questions asked a bit puzzling.

And let’s be clear: I have been a very happy member of three unions in my career. Organised labour is something I believe in deeply.ย  But Executive Session (the kind we were promised) was made for this situation. As I keep saying, the Open Public Meetings Act make talking things like this over outside of council meetings almost impossible. You need a way to be able to discuss difficult things like this with candor and Executive Session is that way.

So since I wasn’t able to have that private conversation, I voted with the majority to approve this. Because a deal is a deal. But next time? I want to be asked about the deal before it’s made. Because it’s your money we’re spending.

Item #8: Financial Management System Software

This is really good news. We’ve had absolutelyย ancient software for years and years. This has made it tougher to get the work done, slowed resident services and basically cost the City a lot of money in reduced productivity. It’s hard to spend money on ‘accounting software’ but this is one expenditure I am glad to say yes to.

The only reason I wanted a discussion is because I had a question about the possibilities of an add-on component which allows for self-service. Self-service is easier to show than tell. So to give you a small taste of what that is, check out ClearGov. Think about how many questions the public routinely asks (like ‘paid parking revenue’ which was supposed to be on this week’s Agenda.) Imagine if the public could get answers to pretty much any routine question about the budget or their taxes or how the city works with a simple search–and without bugging already over-worked staff? That’s one purchase I’d be thrilled to approve.

Coda: Public Records Requests

On a related note: there was all this ricketa-racketa this week about Paid Parking. Many people know I talked it up last year and asked me for all kinds of detailed stats and it was a busy week and I just didn’t have a lot of time for re-litigating that whole thing–especially when it wasn’t actually on the Agenda. So I blew everyone off! There, I said it! ๐Ÿ˜€ I did not spew back copious stats proving once again what a money-loser that who….

Not gonna do it. ๐Ÿ˜€

But the silver lining is that even if I let you down, information-wise, you can always do a Public Records Request (PRR) at the City web site. And unlike me, the City will do it’s best to answer your question.ย  That is State law. So if you have super-detailed questions on anything, the PRR is your friend and more people should use that tool.

Now, no City is necessarily thrilled to hear me advertise this service. PRRs take staff time so a lot of Cities consider them a real pain in the municipal derriere. To which I say, Tough Noogies! Your right to information from your government is constitutional, baby. So take advantage of the service. ๐Ÿ™‚

One caveat: we currently have a really onerous PRR system. But that is also something I want to change as we improve our IT systems. You’ll see what I mean when you do your first one–it’s not as quick or easy as it should be. Again, since it’s easier to show than tell, if you want to see what the luxury model PRR System looks like, check out The Port Of Seattle NextRequest System. That is what we need in Des Moines.

Why do we need this? Well, if you look at the Port’s system, maybe the first thing you’ll notice is that you can search through all the historic PRRs. In many cases, someone has already asked exactly the same question (or a very similar question) so you can get the answers you want without even creating a new PRR. That not only improves transparency, it saves them money on staff research. Our PRR system? It has no index. No ‘search’. So you have no idea what has been asked or when or by whom. Maybe ten people have already asked a question like, “How much did the Paid Parking system cost?” But you can’t see that.

(Philosophical loop of the day: You would have to place a PRR in order to find out how many people had previously done PRRs asking “How much did the Paid Parking system cost?” Trippy, right?)

My fondest wish is to make as much of our government’s work as easy to access as possible, both for you and for our staff. The thing I suspected (and then learned after my campaign) is how much room there is for improvement in educating our residents. We don’t have a newspaper and that means we don’t have anyone doing research on the public’s behalf. It’s great that we have ‘social media’, but without actual facts, it’s just people sharing rumours and opinions. Tools like the Public Records Request make it possible for people like you to do real research and then share facts. So the easier we make it for you to lay yer hands on that data, the easier it is for you to spread the word and improve the voting in this here town.

This was always my fiendishly clever political strategy–well-educated voters. ๐Ÿ™‚