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!  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 union 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 represent 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.  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 absolutely 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! 😀 I did not spew back copious stats proving once again what a money-loser that who….

Not gonna do it. 😀

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.  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. 🙂

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. 🙂

Tearing down the Van Gasken House makes Des Moines poorer

Posted on Categories Neighborhoods, Policy, TransparencyTags , ,

Said it before, say it again:  The vote at the July 9 2020 City Council Meeting to demolish the Van Gasken House breaks my heart. The City’s presentation was indeed a presentation; a sales presentation, designed to distract the public from the fact that they had intended to demolish the place all along. And they did it by making a bunch of really misleading and exaggerated arguments about the cost of keeping the place and how little intrinsic value it has for this community. The public deserves objectivity and transparency. And once again, they did not get it. And yeah, I’m mad about it.

This is a long post, mainly because the meeting presentation was basically six against one and there was almost no time to rebut all the blather. Just skip down to the Talking Points section for a quick rundown, then read the rest for more depth.

The original deal

Now when Forterra loaned us the money to purchase the property back in 2017, everyone (including me) thought it was a fantastic idea. I think everyone was also under the assumption that the house would be preserved along with the property. However, we were told that there was some urgency to the financing because it was a three year loan.

So it was quite surprising when the City came up with a way to pay the note back early. This was seen as another example of the excellent financial management we were now experiencing. From financial catastrophe to early pay-offs in less than two years!

Bad faith

However, I object to the way the City paid off the loan. $300,000 of that re-payment money was a State grant that required the City to tear down the home. And then, after already destroying the landscaping and making the place look like absolute hell, the City applied for another $500,000 grant from the same State Agency in order to redevelop the property!

The moment the City applied for that first State grant it knew the house had to come down. Rather than be patient and use the full three years it had to search for ways to repay the initial loan and keep the house, it rushed to get repayment money as quickly as possible–and thus doomed the house.

Think I’m being too harsh? Ask yourself this: Did the City ever call out to any of our very generous local foundations or to the community at large for partnerships in saving the house? I received contact from three County organizations who said that they had never been approached by the City for funding when the property was originally purchased. Typically when there is something beloved in a community that becomes at risk, the public is engaged to find solutions. That never happened. We now have several successful renovation projects under our belts that have been funded in just this way. So the public should have had a chance to weigh in on the issue, understand the urgency and be able to help save the home.

We saved it from the condos!

One argument I heard made over and over at the meeting was, “Maybe we’re losing an iconic house, but at least we prevented another condo!” This is a joke. Yes, the property was zoned as multi-family. But stop and think for a minute: who exactly controls zoning in this town? The State? No. The County? No. The Russians? 😀 No. Your City Council, that’s who. At any time, the City Council could have had the foresight to re-zone various parts of the downtown for better purposes.

Unfortunately, the reason the entire downtown ‘went condo’ starting in the 70’s was because your City Council over and over has decided to let that happen. The idea of giving up the best parts of the city for multi-family units could only have seemed like a good idea in a place that has no concern for long-term planning. It was quick, one-time money.

We could have, at any time, had the foresight to rezone the Van Gasken property to make sure it would be preserved. We didn’t. We lacked vision. That’s on us. As with the grant, even more we painted ourselves into a corner.

So to say, “We saved the place from going condo!” is a bit rich.

It’s not really historic

OK, fine. How do you define historic? George Washington slept there? Harriet Tubman was born there? The Battle Of Des Moines was fought there? (I may have made that up. 😀 ) If any of those were a requirement, none of Capitol Hill would be preserved; none of Tacoma’s older neighborhoods would be preserved. Most of the time, people preserve and refurbish old homes simply because they treasure the look (the aesthetic argument).

Having been built in 1889 (the same year Washington became a State), the simple fact is that the Van Gasken House is one of the oldest standing structures in the entire State Of Washington and certainly one of the first built in Des Moines. The history of the house gives people today a great idea of what life was like here for the original settlers.

Aesthetics?

Frankly most of the arguments come down to aesthetics. (And I’ll bet a lot of people just made up their mind seeing the word ‘aesthetics’ 😀 )

You either think the place is cool and special. Or you don’t. Some of that is generational. Some of it is where you were brought up. Frankly, here on the West Coast, we have less interest in history. Unless you’re Native American, there isn’t much stuff to ‘preseve’. We tend to like ‘new’ out here, at least partly because the entire area is only 130 years old.

Yes, but it’s been updated too many times!

We were told that the home was not historic because it had been ‘updated’. That is a pre-condition that does not exist in many parts of America for a very good reason: it doesn’t make sense. Why? Because–news flash–people actually live in houses! Most the remaining really old homes throughout America have been updated with extravagances like furnaces and linoleum and copper plumbing and… wait for it… electricity. Woooooh. 😀

You can’t expect people to live in a 100 year old home and keep it ‘vintage’ like it was a Model-T or old comic book. It’s not a ‘collectible’, it’s a house. Planning committees in cities all across America understand this basic reality. And home restorers expect to have to remove the ‘updates’ in order to bring the home back to its original condition. To make ‘all original’ a pre-condition for calling a home ‘historic’ makes about as much sense as saying that a classic car is no longer ‘historic’ because the ninth owner added air-conditioning! If you want to restore it to original condition, you simply remove the air-conditioning. Ta Da!

Culturally, we have had very little regard for preservation. The percentage of homes that have been preserved on the West Coast is almost nil compared to the East Coast for the simple reason that: we haven’t valued it. We have typically voted to tear down and rebuild.

So all the zoning and building codes heavily favour ‘new’ over ‘old’. It is very onerous out here to renovate. But  on the East Coast (as well as where I’m from), houses and indeed entire neighborhoods are preserved for no other reason than that they like the look of old places. (And why not? Many areas go back over 300 years!) They tend to value history more than we do. The closest we have to that here are neighborhoods like Capitol Hill or Tacoma. And personally, I think they are among the most attractive neighborhoods anywhere. Here? If a home is more than thirty years? It’s old.

Building Departments here want people to build new and not restore. It’s a cultural choice that people made decades ago when everyone preferred new and shiny out. (They also preferred plastic and TV dinners and Kool-Aid.)

But all that said, a large part of the reason the costs to renovate seemed so high was because we chose a grant that made them high. Again: When we originally bought the property, we could have found other sources of funding that were friendly to preservation. They are out there!

Are we a destination?

Since I’ve lived here, I’ve been hearing about how “We want Des Moines to be a destination!” Destination this, destination that. Destination, destination, destination. I am sick of it. The fact is, we’re not a destination. Which is odd considering we’re a deep water port, with a full-service marina, State Park and not one but two beaches! So why aren’t we a destination?

The fact is that Puget Sound and indeed, the entire length of our coastline has an embarrassment of riches. People in most parts of America would kill for that feature list. But around here? A lot of places have similar offerings. And yet they are destinations and we are not.

For a place to be a ‘destination’, it has to not only have have big ticket draws, it also has to have character. You have to have a story. Think about the places, the hotels, the restaurants you go to that are special. Most of the time it’s not the ocean or the room or the food that’s the entire draw. A nice place has a certain ‘vibe’: a theme, a decor, details that make it memorable. All nice places have great views. But they also have dozens and dozens of ‘extras’ that make people want to come back. Without unique landmarks, without a story there is literally no difference between one waterfront town along Puget Sound and another.

The Van Gasken House is unique. It’s beloved by generations and it has a story. It’s not a huge story, but that’s not the point. Landmarks like the Van Gasken House are exactly the kind of detail that gives a place real character and makes it valuable, not only to the locals, but to visitors. You have to have many such spots in order to make the entire place matter.

Yes, we can put in a nice, modern park. We may even put in some Native American sculpture or commemorative plaque to make ourselves feel good about ourselves. But let’s be honest: such a place will not draw visitors. And the reason is, it will be a contrivance. It can never have the story that the Van Gasken House has that is intrinsic to that place. It will have no character. It will not make visitors care about that spot and want to return over and over. It will add no real value to the place.

Value

And value is what it’s all about. Everyone complained about ‘the cost’ of keeping the property. Let’s put aside the the quoted costs for a moment–because they were based on the dubious notion that we would never be able to find alternate funding. Some people in Des Moines have short memories. I also remember exactly the same complaints every time any we talk about renovating any local landmark. The cries ‘tear it down, it’s too expensive!’ come out.

If we’d listened to these people we would now not have the Fieldhouse (log cabin).

If we’d listened to these people we would now not have the Beach Park.

Those are just two examples of projects that were considered ‘too expensive’. In both cases, your City Council seriously considered tearing them down. And in both cases, wiser heads prevailed and successfully obtained outside funding to renovate them. Can any of us now imagine Des Moines without those buildings? With the benefit of hindsight, it seems ridiculous that we ever thought to destroy them. But that is exactly what we are now doing to the Van Gasken House.

Talking Points

  • The current City management preferred to get rid of the Van Gasken House. From the moment it was purchased they chose to pursue funding, repeatedly that did not allow for preservation.
  • There is no evidence that the City tried to develop a plan for redevelopment that included keeping the house. It could have engaged both the community and local foundations in order to do so as it had done with many other projects.
  • The Van Gasken House has been altered significantly over time. But no more so than thousands of homes that have been renovated as public landmarks. Such ‘updates’ are not unusual. The issue only came up in this case because of the unique requirements of the grant the City chose to re-pay its loan.
  • Des Moines government has a history of not valuing its most precious land. Over the decades, zoning has favored developers and handcuffed the City’s options in preserving important landmarks.
  • It has always been a struggle to preserve local landmarks. Advocates for preservation have had to fight to retain and renovate buildings such as the Fieldhouse and the Beach Park complex.
  • The costs of renovating the Van Gasken House were likely exaggerated in several ways. The City had torn up the property, which created further pressure to accept the grant requiring demolition.
  • We had three years to search for monies that would support restoration but chose instead a rapid repayment scheme which required demolition.
  • There was no evidence presented that the City ever tried to approach other agencies, local foundations or the community with a restoration plan–even though a large majority of the community would have undoubtedly supported such efforts.
  • There is a value to a City in preserving landmarks like the Van Gasken House which cannot be quantified in terms of building costs. Such elements are essential in making towns like Des Moines into real ‘destinations’–far more so than generic parks which have no intrinsic history. Places like the Van Gasken House contribute to making a town a place that residents take more pride in and visitors find more appealing.

Finally

If the City intended all along to tear down the house it should have said so from the beginning. I think the majority of residents would have strongly disagreed with that decision, but at least it would have been out in the open for an honest debate.

Again, if you don’t think history matters or you didn’t like the looks of the Van Gasken House, fine. Some of the public may have thought that the City was saving money (based on the City’s disingenuous presentation), but quite the opposite. Regardless of what is put in its place, the value of Des Moines (both in terms of goodwill and in raw dollars) will be diminished when the house is removed. We just voted to make ourselves poorer.

Weekly Update: 07/12/2020

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This Week

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

Thursday: City Council Meeting (Agenda)

Last Week

Tuesday: Puget Sound Regional Committee (PSRC) Transportation Board Zoom Meeting. (Remember: they’re most important agency nobody knows about.) Discussion of Fast Ferry and about half a billion in regional transportation monies.

Tuesday: phone call with Senator Karen Keiser on air quality monitor stuff.

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

Thursday: My first committee meetings ever. Woo hoo! Transportation and Environment. Not much to report except that we chose a chairman for each and neither was me. 😀 Which is normal, given my n00b status.

Thursday: City Council Meeting Study Session (Agenda, Video)

Meeting Recap

This was a long meeting (four hours).  Part of the length came from quite a number of administrative presentations from various staff before the main events. A lot of people were interested in hearing about the police response to the Fourth Of July. Interestingly, calls for service were down this year (62) vs. last year (68). Only one big ticket ($513) was issued.

Now this meeting was a ‘Study Session’ which means that the agenda was constrained to the two item(s) to be ‘studied’. But two were enough! Both issues were contentious and I’ll just tell you that my vote on both was based on taking the long view. The vote was 5-2 on both. The majority voted with the city manager’s recommendations–and they were both, in my opinion, incredibly short sighted.

I’m devoting this week’s ‘essay’ to the StART. I know many of you are much more concerned about the Van Gasken House. I know this because I received 86 emails and phone calls about the issue and only five were in favor of tearing down the place. I think that must be some kind of record for citizen engagement on a City Council issue. The loss of the Van Gasken House breaks my heart. I’ll have more in a separate post because so many things went wrong with that  it highlights an essential difference between me and my peers.

But I’m about to talk about the StART. And not because this decision on its own was all that important (it really wasn’t) but because there were things said in this discussion that make clear how our city has been mishandling its entire relationship with the Port for a long time. And that is a big deal if you care about the noise, pollution and other negative impacts from Sea-Tac Airport.

Sea-Tac Airport has profoundly affected this City since before it’s incorporation in 1959 (one of the primary drivers to incorporate was to hopefully give residents more of a voice in an upcoming airport expansion. How little things change. 😀 ) The airport is the most important long-term issue facing the City which you almost surely know nothing about. Our City has done a not great job of keeping the public informed so I can’t sum all this stuff up in one post. But suffice it to say, our health, our economy, our property are all heavily impacted by the Port Of Seattle–and usually not for the better.

This relatively small vote was only one of a hundred forks in the road where we’ve made the wrong choice over the years. I’ve spent the last four years, including running for this office, in order to help get our City to change that course.

ReStART

We voted to immediately rejoin the Sea-Tac Airport Roundtable (StART). We left last year in concert with Burien and Federal Way.  But now we are rejoining unilaterally. Look, everything to do with the airport is a soap opera. So there is no way to make this explanation short and sweet. I am so sorry. 😀

Background

After the war between the airport communities and the Port Of Seattle over building the Third Runway, both sides considered it important to have an ongoing dialogue to help mend fences. This is called the Highline Forum. Since 2006, electeds from each of the six cities, plus Highline Schools, have met bi-monthly to share information–mostly about what is going on at the airport. That’s all fine, but that’s not what residents actually wanted which is, of course, negotiation. Concerned citizens have always wanted ways to discuss how the Port might actually work to reduce the negative impacts. That was never the purpose of the Highline Forum.

To address that frustration, in 2018, the City Managers of these same cities responded by creating the Sea-Tac Airport Roundtable. StART is populated by two citizens appointed by each city, plus the Port and reps from both the FAA and the largest Airlines (let’s call them the PFAs for short.)

Unfortunately the StART has been problematic from day one because, frankly, neither side ever agreed on its purpose. The Port saw it as being another ‘Highline Forum for Citizens’; meaning more of the same ‘information sharing’. And the city managers went along–perhaps believing that “half a loaf is better than no loaf.” But you see the problem: more information sharing is not what the community was demanding.

Despite that, each side had strong reasons to plow ahead anyway. There was so much pressure from citizen groups like the Quiet Skies groups to do something. And on the other side the Port had a strong public relations incentive to improve their ‘engagement’ with the public. So it got underway and the fighting over what it was supposed to do and how it was supposed to work began literally at the first meeting. It was only a matter of time before someone got fed up. And they did. So about a year into it, Burien, Des Moines and Federal Way drafted a letter to the Port saying that they were ‘suspending’ their participation. (I’m not divorcing you, Bob. I’m just taking a break. 😀 )

The Cold War

As you can probably tell from my somewhat flippant tone, I was against the StART because I knew that the PFAs were not interested in negotiating (at least, not in that public forum.) But who listens to me, right? 😀 Yes we desperately needed (and still need) dialogue. However, it needed to be of a very different kind in order to get anywhere.

All that said, once we had joined, I felt (as I do now) that we should not be quitters. One way to look at our relationship with Sea-Tac Airport is that it is something of a Cold War that flares up every decade or so when the Port starts another expansion project. So leaving the StART was kinda like America threatening to remove our Embassy from Moscow every time the Soviets did something we disliked. Sure the StART was/is deeply flawed. But cutting off communication like that? That was even worse.

So I was convinced that eventually we were bound to rejoin. And then our city manager decided to do that. Good! However, last night’s vote was a decision to rejoin on our own and with almost no mention of the issues that drove us to leave in the first place. And that’s bad. My goal at last night’s meeting was to simply delay the vote to rejoin until after we had had a chance to talk to Burien and Federal Way and obtain a joint agreement. We left together, we should rejoin together.

Because one problem we’ve always had in obtaining fair treatment from the Port is that we are small cities. The Port always has an easy job dealing with the airport communities when we don’t work together. And sadly, that is often the case. What my colleagues and city manager do not seem to appreciate is that we should always present a united front in discussions with the Port. To a certain extent, the Port is management and we’re labor. And labor is always stronger together.

If you control the agenda…

In his presentation on the StART, our city manager said that one of the chief of objections everyone has to the StART is the way meetings are run:

“…because if you control the agenda, you control the meeting.”

To which I might reply: the man knows of what he speaks. 😀

I hate doing it, but I just gotta be blunt here: The city manager’s (cough) dialogue with me was not good for Des Moines.  His presentation tells me that he does not have a full understanding of the situation. And this does not surprise me. Because in addition to not consulting with me, he also did not get input from our own *Des Moines Aviation Advisory Committee.

Clearly the City Manager feels like the tasks of negotiation should be his alone. I strongly disagree.  And if he could not bring himself to take advantage of my expertise in developing his recommendation to the full Council, the least he could have done would have been to avoid a confrontation.

That aside, the real problem is that Des Moines and Federal Way have largely ignored airport issues since leaving the StART.  And Burien, which had provided leadership in the past, is now struggling to come to a consensus on how to proceed. The point is that there has been almost zero communication and coordination between the three Cities in the past year.

Strategy? What strategy?

Long before my election I began working with electeds in all six cities to try to find some direction we can all agree on. Because I know that there are important actions to be taken regarding the airport literally every week.

Because the issue is not really the StART. The essential problem is a lack of strategy. The fact is that none of the six cities have a coherent strategy. And certainly there is no collective plan.

What we do, what we have always done, is simply react to events as they happen. Which is a ridiculous way to defend one’s interest against an ongoing threat that flares up every few years. It’s a bit like only preparing for hurricanes when it starts raining.

You are not a cog

I also rarely call out individual councilmembers and I don’t like to quote people because I never want to be accused of quoting people out of context. I respect her and her work, but at this meeting Councilmember Buxton basically spoke for the majority view on Des Moines’ relationship with Sea-Tac Airport:

“It’s always been about exploring, settling and securing this region… for commerce.”

“Our cities are a cog in a historical and global machine… It’s a huge, moving commerce machine.”

“Effective advocacy will be more at the regional and national level […] and the most effective interventions will be mitigation.”

These three quotes encapsulate everything that is wrong and has been wrong with our relationship with the Port Of Seattle for the past fifteen years.

The City Of Des Moines and its people are not meant to be ‘cogs’ at the service of a ‘commerce machine’. We are here to raise our families in health and safety and that means doing everything in our power to push back against the PFAs and obtain less noise and less pollution for our families.

Speaking for the majority, Councilmember Buxton made it clear that they believe that there is nothing that we can do to help ourselves. This is factually inaccurate (I cannot stress this enough because it seems that in today’s world all one has to do is repeat a falsehood enough times and suddenly a large number of people will believe it to be the truth.)

But what is especially troubling is that her statements could easily have come from the mouth of a Port Of Seattle public relations employee. Which may seem odd until you realize that our former mayor–and the colleague and mentor of several members of the current majority actually is a Port Of Seattle public relations employee.

And I’ll go further: none of the current Port Commissioners would ever talk that way about Des Moines. They may not be on our side, but they do not consider us to be ‘cogs’ in their machine. And I’m telling you that because if they did think so little of us as human beings, negotiation really would be pointless. It’s not. We just need to have people on our side of the table who really are on our side of the table.

Summary

Our decision to leave the Sea-Tac Airport Roundtable highlighted the two basic reasons we cannot negotiate effectively with Sea-Tac Airport and neither is because we are powerless:

  1. We have a government with no long-term strategy that has shown itself unable to negotiate effectively.
  2. We currently have a council that mouths the Port’s own talking points.

*As I write this, the two remaining members of the DMAAC just submitted a letter of resignation.

Weekly Update: 07/06/2020

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This Week

Tuesday: Puget Sound Regional Committee (PSRC) Transportation Board Zoom Meeting. (Remember: they’re most important agency nobody knows about.) Discussion of Fast Ferry and about half a billion in regional transportation monies. (More below.)

Tuesday: phone call with Senator Karen Keiser on air quality monitor stuff.

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

Thursday: My first committee meetings ever. Woo hoo. Transportation and Environment. You can listen in by signing up here to Zoom in.

Thursday: City Council Meeting Study Session (Agenda) Note: A ‘Study Session’ means that the agenda is constrained to the item(s) to be ‘studied’. The practical effect is that, per Council Rule #10, no public comment will be taken unless it is to do with those items. Which are:

  1. Whether or not to re-join the StART. It looks the majority will vote to re-join. We left last year in concert with Burien and Federal Way.  But now we are re-joining (apparently) unilaterally which I think is a mistake–we left as a group and if we re-join, we should also do so together. For the record, I never thought it was wise to leave in the first place. It’s complicated. 🙂 As the SAMP (airport expansion) approaches, I’ll try to clear up the confusion.
  2. Tearing down the Van Gasken House. This breaks my heart.  Now purchasing this property back in 2017 was a fantastic idea. But apparently the grant the City is using to redevelop the property almost demands it (all grants are loaded with nasty strings like this, see pg 11 of the packet and the essay below.)  The question I have is: was this the plan all along? I mean, did we go into this purchase knowing that we’d have to demolish it in order to get redevelopment money? Can’t we just leave it as is and wait for a grant that gives us the option to save the house? Again: this is where I differ from my colleagues. I think this is the kind of deal where the public should have a chance to weigh in on the issue in a meaningful fashion.

Last Week

Monday: I attended a very good meeting hosted by our State Representative Tina Orwall to try to move forward on her HEPA Interior Air Quality Study. Also in attendance were Mayor Matt Pina, officials from Highline Schools as well as State Senator Karen Keiser. There have been several encouraging studies now that seem to indicate that better air filtering in schools can lead to not only healthier kids, but also higher test scores. This study will provide valuable information on how we can improve air quality in public buildings and our homes–and what benefits that might yield.

Tuesday: I gave testimony at the Port Of Seattle’s Special Meeting on Policing. Here is the letter I sent to the commissioners. I think their willingness to have a meeting where the public could vent a bit is important and it’s something we should do here as well. I’m also pleased to report  receiving personal replies from two commissioners.

Tuesday: I attended a Highline Good Neighbors Group meeting in Burien. This is the group Melissa Petrini started last year in Normandy Park to try to unite residents from all our communities to discuss issues of public safety, homelessness, drugs, etc. The group had made great progress until COVID-19 made things impossible. She’s starting up again with a group of twenty and we’ll see if we can get the ball rolling again. I really think this is the sort of community work that needs to happen in order to make the area safer and–and also tamp down on some of the polarization. If this sounds like something you’d be interested in, just email Melissa with “Highline Good Neighbors” in the subject line.

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

Wednesday: I spoke with Mark Finstrom the Chief Technology Officer of Highline Schools. The school district intends on a levy to provide better technology services for students, but there may be other opportunities to get broadband for our kids, which is a high priority for several Councilmembers.

Thursday: a briefing from King County Metro on the fiscal challenges facing Metro, and the service changes you can expect this fall.

Saturday: OK, I know I said I might do that Running Of The Flags fun run and as it turned out? I LIED. 😀 My excuse is basically that I have old dogs and the blasting started early in the day in my neighbourhood. So with no canine-antidepressants handy, I decided to leave town and give them a break. What does this have to do with City Council? I am told that, as with last year, someone from the Police Department will give a report at the beginning of the next City Council Meeting  as to their response to all the fireworks complaints. So be sure to tune in July 9 at 5pm for that. 🙂

Sidewalks

Surprisingly, I got a bunch of follow-up questions about last week’s rant on Committees. Which is why I’m going to totally ignore them and talk about something completely different this week. 😀 (There is a lot more to say about committees, but I’ve got a plan here with these rants. And besides, we were just talking about the difficulties of ‘grants’, so forgive me changing direction like that.)

In the Top 3 of most residents’ questions (especially women and parents) is undoubtedly “Why don’t we have sidewalks?” It’s a fair question. The short answer is: They cost an absolute fortune. To which you’ll reply, “What? Concrete? How expensive is concrete?” Yes. The cost of concrete (like so many other aspects of construction) is huge. I know you think it’s the five guys who supposedly stand around and do nothing on the crew, but that’s not really it.

Grant Land

So remember I talked after our last City Council Meeting about our Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP)? Go open that and take a gander at the big City project for 2021:  Priority #5 (24th Ave. from 223rd down to Kent Des Moines Road). About ten blocks. Now check the price tag: $4,638,000. Eye popping isn’t it?

The first thing to notice is that the City portion is only about 25% of the total. And that’s typical. The lion’s share of big projects like this are funded from Fed, State and County grants. And by the way, most of the Federal transportation funding to Des Moines actually comes from the PSRC (see Tuesday above) so they’re a big player in this too. All these sources of funding come with pages and pages of †rules and regs

A big portion of our City’s staff time is spent scouring the bowels of State and County programs for opportunities to get the other 75% that small cities like ours can almost never afford on our own.  And while it’s great to get ‘free money’, none of it is really ‘free’ because it takes a ton of work to find and almost all come with *strings. But the biggest drag, in my opinion, is that we don’t control our own fate–we have to win those grants before we can determine what projects we can do, and when. Because we’re always competing with every other city for the same bags of money.

Which brings me to the last thing I wanted to mention about the TIP: Notice how the vast majority of projects have empty spaces next to the funding and scheduling? A City Council could proclaim like feudal kings, “Sidewalks for all!” But until the grants show up? It’s all fantasy.

In short: The costs for sidewalks, even a single block, starts at six figures. So you need to use other people’s money and follow their rules and their schedules.

You can’t be in the game if you’re not on the board

Now despite all my grousing, if you want any traffic project (say a speed bump) it is still very important to get your idea on the TIP as soon as possible. If your idea isn’t on the TIP? No one will even begin looking for money to pay for it. Grants come in all shapes and sizes. If your idea is small, a grant might be found right away and ‘Presto!’ it might be possible to move your idea to the top of the stack. As I always say: advocate, Advocate, ADVOCATE for what you want.

So what’s the answer?

Not to sound flip, but the ‘answer’ to more transportation projects is simple: make more money. 😀 Look, I never promised a “secret sauce.” Because there is no secret sauce. My only goal was to give you some understanding as to why this most basic desire from residents has become so hard to achieve.

There is no way a small city like ours can ever afford sidewalks in established neighborhoods without a lot more revenue. As I see it, there are two solutions, sadly neither of them with instant relief:

1. A radical reform of how Cities are funded (that’s beyond this essay, but in one sentence, most of your tax dollars go to the State; very little actually goes to the City Of Des Moines.) Given how reluctant voters are to trust any changes to the tax system, I ain’t holding my breath. But at some point, some legislation needs to happen to keep more of your taxes here in Des Moines.

2. A dramatic re-think of local economic development. That’s the reason I kept ranting about ‘economic development’ during my campaign. Because business formation is  the only chance a city like Des Moines has to improve its ability to build more sidewalks. Unless you enjoy more taxes, of course. (Where’s the eye roll emoji when you really need it?)

Summary

Sidewalks are very expensive to build in established neighborhoods. Small cities like Des Moines actually keep a small percentage of the taxes you pay to the County and State so transportation projects (like almost all capital projects) are funded overwhelmingly via grants (aka ‘other people’s money’) But grants are often unpredictable and usually come with lots of strings. Those strings limit not only how many projects we can do and when we can do them, but also the design of the things we do end up building.

*Here is one more example of the strings that comes with grant funding: Did you know that concrete is one of the top five contributors to global warming? Really. Making concrete pollutes more than just about anything else you can think of. So one reason construction is so expensive now is that every government tries to specify low-carbon concrete. Which is waaaaaay more expensive than Brand X concrete. That’s just one example of the rules and regs. There are literally hundreds more.

†Another example of a grant rule is that the grant we are using to redevelop the Van Gasken house says you can’t have an existing structure on the redeveloped property–Oops!

Half-Weekly Update: 07/01/2020

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Just a quick note: Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later. After thirty three ‘Weekly Updates’, I finally missed my deadline. So consider this a half-assed weekly update.

This Week

Monday: I attended a very good meeting hosted by our State Representative Tina Orwall to try to move forward on her HEPA Interior Air Quality Study. Also in attendance were Mayor Matt Pina, officials from Highline Schools as well as State Senator Karen Keiser. There have been several encouraging studies now that seem to indicate that better air filtering in schools can lead to not only healthier kids, but also higher test scores. This study will provide valuable information on how we can improve air quality in public buildings and our homes–and what benefits that might yield.

Tuesday: I gave testimony at the Port Of Seattle’s Special Meeting on Policing. Here is the letter I sent to the commissioners. I think their willingness to have a meeting where the public could vent a bit is important and it’s something we should do here as well. I’m also pleased to report  receiving personal replies from two commissioners.

Tuesday: I attended a Highline Good Neighbors Group meeting in Burien. This is the group Melissa Petrini started last year to try to unite residents from all our communities to discuss issues of public safety, homelessness, drugs, etc. The group had made great progress until COVID-19 made things impossible. She’s starting up again with a group of twenty and we’ll see if we can get the ball rolling again. I really think this is the sort of community work that needs to happen in order to make the area safer and–and also tamp down on some of the polarization. If this sounds like something you’d be interested in, just email Melissa with “Highline Good Neighbors” in the subject line.

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

Wednesday: I’ll be speaking with Mark Finstrom the Chief Technology Officer of Highline Schools. The school district intends on a levy to provide better Internet services for students.

Thursday: a briefing from King County Metro on the fiscal challenges facing Metro, and the service changes you can expect this fall.

Saturday: I may (or may not) be doing a 10K run with the Destination Des Moines/Rotary Running Of The Flags fun run (or in my case, dignified stroll. :D) If I do, my route will be the same fairly straight shot I used to do during my campaign: start from the northern most point in DM on Des Moines Memorial Drive and head down to 272nd and 16th Ave. That’s just about 6.2 miles (and 10k). But whether or not I punk out miserably? I’m counting on you to sign up and take your place in history, glory, etc., etc…. 😀

Last Week

Tuesday: Association of Washington Cities (AWC) ‘virtual’ annual conference.

Tuesday: Another one of those darned Port Of Seattle meetings.

Wednesday: An AWC training class. Plus one on one meetings with members of the Puget Sound Clean Air Advisory Committee.

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

Wednesday: Sea-Tac Airport Advisory Roundtable (StART) Meeting. It’s less of a roundtable nowadays–more like a semi-circle, since Des Moines, Burien and Federal Way left. But it still matters.

Thursday: Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) General Assembly. Some time soon I gotta do an explainer on the PSRC. Like I say over and over, it’s the most important government agency no one’s ever heard of.

Thursday was the first Committee meetings of the year. Woo Hoo! Municipal Facilities, Economic Development. (More below.)

And a City Council Meeting to boot! (Agenda and directions on public comment)  Public Hearing on Transportation Plan (2021-2040)

The Committees essay

So, last week was the first City Council committee meetings. And I just want to remind everyone (including the City) that these are public meetings. Which means that you can attend (or watch them in the case of Zoom) by signing up just like any other City Council meeting. Now currently, the City is not accepting ‘live’ public comment, which grinds at me, but you can (and should) be aware of the members of each committee on issues you are interested in. And you should reach out to them by phone or email because it is at the committee level that policy is actually made. That’s important: by the time an issue has made its way to the full council it’s usually a ‘done deal’; the full council is simply approving the actions created by the committee. The time to make your voice heard is when things are being formulated in committee, which is months and months ahead of the full council.

Overview

So, as per usual, I’m gonna get yelled at for ‘over-simplifying, please go here for more on the constant struggle to keep these things short.

There are five main Council committees in Des Moines:

  • Economic Development: Jeremy Nutting (c), Traci Buxton, Matt Pina
  • Municipal Facilities: Jeremy Nutting (c), Luisa Bangs,  Matt Mahoney
  • Public Safety: Luisa Bangs, Anthony Martinelli, Matt Mahoney
  • Transportation: Matt Mahoney, Matt Pina, JC Harris
  • Environment: Matt Pina, Luisa Bangs, JC Harris

There is nothing special about these committee names or their functionality. Other cities have other names for similar functions. And many cities have waaaaaay more Council committees. Eg. Burien has an Airport Committee. SeaTac has a Finance Committee. The full City Council could decide to create a new Committee at any time if it felt the need.

The members of each committee are decided by the Mayor at the beginning of each year. Usually Councilmembers present their choices to aid his decision-making. This process does not thrill me, but to be fair Mayor Pina did give me the choices I told him were most important to me.

Speaking very broadly, the process of each committee is similar: The group works to create one or more short term and long term plans of some sort and then spends the rest of the year fleshing out those goals (schedule, cost) and getting them ready to bring to the full Council for a vote as part of a budget. It’s that annual budget that actually drives pretty much everything. You don’t just pass laws here and there in an ad hoc fashion. You pass them as part of that one main budget process. So the committees are constantly interacting with other teams (eg. Finance) so that all the needs/wants/desires are balanced. Remember: we have to present a balanced budget every year so no committee works in isolation.

A very different year

As it has been in so many ways, this year was different from others in that at the last Council Meeting, we voted on that Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP) mentioned above–even though the Transportation Committee (TC) hasn’t yet met. But if it were a ‘normal’ year, a group of residents, say from Redondo, might have shown up at an early TC meeting and lobbied to get action onto the TIP to remediate complaints of noise, speeding, etc. That’s how it should work.

Ad hoc requests

What the public is seeing in the new Council is somewhat chaotic. Part of that is because of COVID-19 (and not as some people grouse, due to ‘the new guys’.) The Mayor and City Manager shut down the committees almost immediately after the pandemic began and kept them closed longer than any other nearby city. So that has made everything more of of a hash.

A few meetings ago, I made a motion from the dais for the City to purchase patio tables for the Senior Center. As I’ve said, it was something of a stunt–just to get the Senior Center some attention; and frankly to set the stage for  ‘explainers’ like this one. To begin with, I’m not even on the Municipal Facilities Committee (MFC), which controls that sort of spending. I can however, do exactly what I encourage you to do, show up as a resident and try to present public comment–or send them a letter saying what I want, “We want Patio Tables! When do we want ’em? Now!” At that point the members of the MFC might choose to add that purchase to the current year’s work plan and get that into the annual City Budget. That is how laws are supposed to get made: you put down your ideas at the committee level and you get them looked at early enough in the year that your request has a chance to be included in the annual budget. Eg. at the first MFC meeting, Luisa Bangs brought up the notion of a new project for Midway Park. So that will now become part of the discussion in future meetings. That could have been you raising that idea.

Now: as with my ‘patio tables’ some of my colleagues have been proposing legislation outside the committee process–and doing it with abandon, in order to try to get immediate action from the full Council. I get the sentiment: when you don’t have committees, there’s no other way to do legislation. But I want to emphasize: that is not how City government is supposed to work and believe it or not, I do not want it to become routine. City Legislation is supposed to be done according to a really boring, regular process. It’s gotta be a godawful emergency for me to vote for any change in routine procedure. That’s really how I feel. (Don’t believe it? That’s why I always vote against motions to skip second readings on various ordinances that require two meetings. What’s the frickin’ hurry?) But, I digress. 😀

So… how do I find out more?

Now, here’s the challenge–and why I kinda regret not asking to be on the MFC (hey, a guy can’t be everywhere, right?) Because one of the things the MFC controls is… wait for it… the City’s web site and communications. And as you know, it drives me beyond nuts that so many things the City does (like committee meetings) are not well-advertised.

Because if you’ve been reading along, and you’re almost ready to buy into my notion of trying to participate in committee meetings, a question has probably occurred to you: How in the hell do I know when to show up? That’s a very good question. Currently, we don’t make it easy for the public. And frankly, I think that’s kinda intentional.

If you go to any number of committee meetings in our neighbour communities, you’ll often see a whole bunch of residents. In DM, you rarely see civilians at such meetings–and when you do, they tend to be ‘insiders’, people who are part of the big groups which are tightly aligned with the City. You almost never see a Joe/Jane Average at these meetings. Now take a look at the Burien Web Site. See how you can get a list of every meeting–including committees and easily drill down to specific agendas? That is what we should have here.

But I hope you will work with me to change that. These are public meetings and by law you are allowed to be present. And you are allowed to provide your input in some fashion. And as I’ve tried to explain, this is exactly the place where you should provide your input, because full Council meetings are a lot like yer typical Wedding Band: We generally don’t take requests. 😀

The Futures is where it’s at, baby

Until the City makes committee meetings part of the public schedule, the only way I can think of for the public to be aware of what’s coming up is the Futures Agenda, which is basically a Word document consisting of the tentative schedule of the City Council and Committee meetings. It’s not very detailed, and it’s definitely subject to change from week to week. But for example, the first meeting of the Transportation and Environment Committees (which I’m on) is July 9th. But then our next meetings aren’t until September 10th–which seems a looooong way off given how late we are at getting started. You kinda just have to keep looking to see where and when.

So… I’m gonna do my best from here on out to advertise committee meetings both here and on my Facebook page. (Shameless plug: If you sign up to receive these Weekly Updates in yer Inbox you’ll automatically be notified in advance about committee meetings.)

Summary

In short, for most of the issues residents care about, Committees are where the action is.  If you want to get your ideas addressed, you need to get involved at that level. And you need to get your ideas presented before the annual budget meetings if you want to have a chance of getting something done in the next calendar year.

I know that’s a lot of information. Fortunately, there will be no quiz. 😀 But I’m trying to give you tools to get your needs/wants/complaints addressed most effectively. And knowing a bit about these committees gives you a leg up. Because if there’s one thing I want you to keep in mind, if you’re an engaged resident, it’s this: There are always going to be a lot of people in Des Moines who want a lot of things. And usually, it’s the people who want ‘it’ the most who get the most attention.

Weekly Update: 04/13/2020

Posted on Categories Economic Development, Neighborhoods, Policy, Transparency, Weekly UpdatesTags

I’m late (again) because of the holiday. It’s a funny thing what with the whole COVID-19 deal. The Internet is a wonderful invention and it definitely helps in coping. However, especially at Easter, I’m reminded me how much we all need physical connection. Which is to say, I hope you all found new ways to connect and have a blessed holiday (Easter, Pesach, etc.) in spite of the current obstacles. 🙂

This Week

Today there is a Virtual Town Hall with Adam Smith at 5:00pm covering some great information on the new State unemployment benefits. I’ll have posts on my Facebook Page soon. I asked the Congressman to see what he could do to provide a second round of stimulus specific to Cities like Des Moines–specifically for long term capital projects. I also passed along the frustrations I’m hearing from local businesses regarding the SBA Loan process.

Beyond that? Not a clue. 😀

Last Week

The response from the Take Out Des Moines Restaurant Flyer  has been pretty great. And we’ll be doing more… a lot more… soon. For now? Please download that flyer or go to the Take Out Des Moines web site and start ordering some great local food tonight!

So many forms…

I spent a good part of last week doing something pretty basic: Filling out forms. Most of the businesses in Des Moines have rushed to apply for the various SBA Coronavirus Loans and now State grants. But sometimes the biggest hurdle? Simply doing the paperwork. Boy, I wish I spoke about five more languages because translation service is something that a lot of our small businesses need help with.

April 9 City Council Meeting

Thursday was the April 9th City Council Meeting Video, Agenda. This is the second meeting conducted by telephone. There was a brief presentation on the state of the City’s finances (more below). And then there was the big todo you may have seen on social media. There will not be more below. As I’ve said before, when Henry Robert wrote his rules Of Order he was pretty clear that when the meeting is over, the meeting is over. Let it go. I will only say that I know the rules and I am happy to be judged by the voters and the constituents I try to serve every day. And I strongly encourage you to watch that video, write me and tell me what you think?  I have written both the Mayor and Deputy Mayor expressing my concerns and we’ll see how that goes. (Note for fans of transparency: You (the public) can make a Public Records Request at any time to find out how this plays out because all our emails are a matter of public record. Ironic, no? 😀 )

One notable thing is that the next City Council Meeting is set for a month from now May 7. Remember: we still have not had a single committee meeting. What this means is that no new legislation is even being considered right now. If you look at our neighbour cities they have all mastered remote meetings and are conducting council business in a situation pretty close to normal. I’ve been slammed for being critical of our emergency response, but c’mon… we have not found an effective way to keep our Council business running fully and that too should be a high priority in emergency planning. It should have happened by now–especially considering that the current social distancing may be around for a good while longer.

Shiny Penny…

At that City Council Meeting, I made the second vote so far that I regret (I’m not telling what the first one was. 😀 ) I voted twice to give the City Manager authority to spend down one-time revenue in order to offset possible revenue shortages due to COVID-19.

Why I am filled with remorse? Well first off, in a way being in the minority is an enviable position. I haven’t a care in the world. I can vote however I want and it makes absolutely no difference.  Pretty sweet, huh? So sometimes, the hardest decision I have at the dais is: “Do I vote my conscience and slow things down or do I just give in and maybe I’ll get brownie points for being cooperative? 🙂 ” Decisions, decisions.

Anyhoo, there is a somewhat complicated dance one does in passing budget resolutions like this because normally such things require not one but two meetings to become law.  I was always going to vote for the actual resolution (the second vote) because we will likely need that dough to cover current operating expenses. It was the first vote that I regret.

Confused? You weren’t alone 😀 It’s a big deal going outside the budget process, so at the first meeting you introduce the resolution, have a discussion and then decide whether or not to move to the actual vote at the second meeting. You take a couple of extra weeks to mull things over. Our first vote (the one I regret) was to bypass that second meeting because of the state of emergency. I should not have voted for this. I should have voted to delay the resolution to the second meeting.

Still with me? See, I guess I was going for the brownie points. I knew I was voting for the actual resolution (second vote) and frankly, by that point I admit I was pretty disgusted with the meeting. So I just went with it. Bad City Councilmember! Bad City Councilmember! I promise, I’ll never do it again. OK, I’ve confided in you. I’m trusting you. Just. Don’t. Tell. anyone.

Now regarding the budget presentation. I’ve asked several times over the past month for any kind of specifics as to the forecasting and I’ve been told it’s not possible, as in “Gee, I forgot to bring my crystal ball with me.” And given that? I should’ve made as big a stink as possible to get that second meeting. At least then we would’ve had a couple more weeks to try to get more details as to the financial impacts to Des Moines from COVID-19. Even though I had no chance to win that vote, I should’ve pushed harder to as much detail as possible.

Our neighbour cities have been publishing fairly detailed forecasts. I know because… wait for it… I’m able to watch their City Council and Finance Committee presentations using their space-magic-on-line-tech.. (Sorry for the snippy, I’m sooooo frustrated about this.)

The estimates I heard from City Manager Matthias were in the range of 10-20% drop in revenue. And that seems fair because every State and Federal forecast I’ve seen is for something like a twenty percent drop to GDP. So I’m nervous for detail. And… I don’t have the votes to demand more detail.

What I’m trying to say is this:  I’ve gotten a lot of very nice, supportive emails regarding the beating I took at this meeting. Thanks. Really. But I’m going to suggest to you that this may have been an unintended *shiny penny trick. What you should be writing the City Council about is, “I want more details as to financial forecasts!” Maybe the government is already doing all it can and there are simply too many unknown, unknowns. But given the poor level of communication I currently receive, I can’t say. I don’t see ‘the sausage being made’ so I have no way to know. So that’s the thing we should be focused on now, not the bad theatre you keep seeing from the dais.

*I’m always surprised that more Americans haven’t heard the expression ‘shiny penny trick’. It simply means when a children’s magician misdirects the audience away from what is really going on with some distraction (the shiny penny).

Weekly Update: 04/05/2020

Posted on Categories Neighborhoods, Policy, Weekly UpdatesTags

This Week

So, the nice people at Destination Des Moines and the Des Moines Legacy Foundation put together this Restaurant Flyer. I’ll be talking more with them and Seatte South Side Chamber Of Commerce about how to get it out to the entire region. I’d like to see this placed everywhere within five miles of Des Moines and beyond. We have a one-pager you can place in your window or a tri-fold brochure for point-of-sale. Please contact me for details. I’m also hoping the City will formally get behind it.  The City Of Des Moines needs a formal promotional campaign. Not just during this emergency but on an ongoing basis. We need to be selling Des Moines!

Thursday will be another telephone City Council Meeting at the extra special time of 5pm. Why 5pm? Not a clue. Why a curtailed agenda? Not a clue. As I’ve reported, the Governor’s recent changes to OPMA rules makes such a constrained agenda unnecessary. And frankly, I’m getting concerned because other cities are starting to report real problems: https://komonews.com/news/local/tukwila-mulls-worker-wage-cuts-to-offset-steep-losses-from-coronavirus. I got some eye rolls a month ago when I started worrying about finances, but this is no joke. Our City Council has not had any report on the real and projected impacts of COVID-19 and it’s past time.

Last Week

I spent four days volunteering at the Food Bank in the afternoon. I had a couple of talks with Director Kris Van Gasken and Barb Shimizu. A couple of facts: The City used to give $40,000 a year to the Food Bank. We now give around $32k. But $40k, in 2020 dollars is more like $60k. So we are actually currently giving the Food Bank about half of what we used to. However, with the COVID-19 thing, the number of new clients they are now seeing has doubled in the past two weeks–and is expected to stay at that level for the next several months (have you checked the unemployment numbers recently?) The Food Bank’s most immediate need is volunteers. Because of the high volume, they are now doing a lot of ‘grab n go’ meals–which means they need workers to help prep those all day. They also need PPEs and cleaning supplies. Those items are in particularly short supply. They are on the EOC list (see below), but there is such a backlog that they probably can’t expect help any time soon. They also need donations. Let’s get real: ‘Donations’ are a great thing. But there is no way that public small dollar donations can make up for this kind of increase.

One other thing about the Food Bank: School is now basically over this year. Over two thirds of our children are on ‘free lunch’ programs. So who fills in the gap when those programs go away? The Food Bank. They are feeding our children. And it ain’t in their budget.

It is proper for the City to step in at this time. And if you can donate, please do so at the Food Bank web site.

On Thursday I visited the new Joint Emergency Operations Center (JEOC). Which is a room at the Fire Station at 223rd and 24th. 🙂 (Every City has some form of ’emergency operations center’, which coordinates with a County EOC and then a State EOC and then the Feds as the chain of command in any declared emergency scenario.) I spoke with Police Chief Ken Thomas and Fire Chief Vic Pennington. I had no idea what this thing is about. Currently it’s mostly about monitoring the growth of the outbreak here. Thankfully, we’re doing a much better job battling COVID-19 here than many other places  (more below) so there’s less to react to. But one thing they’re really concerned about is, what to do if the first responders start getting sick. Just as with hospitals, people on the front line tend to be the ones who will get sick. So you need a plan to provide continuity of fire, rescue and police–even if a significant portion of those workers test positive.

One thing: I was dismayed to hear from Chief Thomas that efforts on social distancing are still not great. The moment the sun comes out? People go nuts. And worse still, they’ve already had a few ‘compliance issues’ (ie. when the policemen asks you nicely to disperse you refuse.) I can’t imagine that level of disregard for our police (never mind the stupidity from a health perspective.) So I want to thank the Des Moines Police Department for their extra professionalism during this very challenging time. It can’t be easy.

On Thursday I also had a phone call with our State Reps. from the 30th District and got an update on what the State response is to COVID-19. Our lobbyist Anthony Hemstad pointed out the shortage of PPEs for first-responders. I was begging for that same gear for volunteers at the Food Bank. I also asked for consideration for a State moratorium on late fees–not just for residents, but for businesses as well. After seeing what happened to our small business community in the 2008 Great Recession, I’m very concerned for the small businesses in Des Moines. Rep. Pellicciotti pointed out that the Governor’s ban on evictions had a specific note on price gouging. While not a ban on ‘late fees’ per se, it does make it illegal to tack on extra costs of any kind during this emergency. So if you feel that has happened to you, please let me know!

On Friday, I attended a conference call with Congressman Adam Smith. There was great information on SBA Coronavirus Loans. If you have any business, even sole-proprietors and  non-profit you need to check these out! One tiny ‘silver lining’ to this whole crisis is that there will be a second stimulus package and there will be a piece that targets small cities like ours. Fingers crossed.

Yet another lecture…

So the novelty of this whole ‘social distancing’ thing is wearing off. I’m noticing that people are definitely not trying as hard as they were a week ago. I’m especially unnerved to seeing young parents having ‘play dates’ everywhere I go. I can’t stress enough that it is the next two weeks that are going to be the worst (at least nationwide). All the ‘modeling’ says so and ya know, for all of those who are constantly going on about ‘modeling’, guess what: It’s been remarkably accurate so far. (As a former stats guy I get a bit defensive about this sort of thing. 😀 ) What I’m saying is that now is not the time to relax and get sloppy. The boredom and increasing level of annoyance you’re feeling only means that we’re succeeding.

This is real for me: I’ve had three friends die of COVID-19 in the past week. Because of work I made many friends in New York and New Orleans–two of the hardest hit cities in America. What is really notable is that two of these guys were younger  than me. If you recall, New York started getting cases only slightly after we did. But we acted far more aggressively than they did and waaaaaaaay more aggressively than Louisiana. So we are now reaping the benefits. Does it absolutely blow to see all the economic devastation? For sure. But compared to… oh I dunno, DEATH? Not so much So, please try to hang in there. In fact, don’t just ‘hang’, try to step it up a bit. It’s really working.

One really good news I got this week is that wide-spread testing may be coming fairly soon–and when that happens, places like Des Moines that are doing well may be able to get back to work ahead of the other areas that aren’t. In other words, we may not have to wait for the entire country to heal before we can get back to work. Again: Fingers crossed.

Weekly Update: 03/30/2020

Posted on Categories Neighborhoods, Policy, Weekly UpdatesTags

This Week

Late again! Same excuse as last week: waiting for information.  This time I’ve been waiting for details on the City’s new ‘Joint Emergency Operations Center’, which I just found out I’ll be touring on Friday. More below.

You may have noticed that I’ve cobbled together two new links on the home page. Coro’na Virus and Restaurants. I hope you find them useful.

SUPER IMPORTANT: Congressman Adam Smith’s office has a private e-mail list for small business owners to find out how the Federal Government can help. Please contact me to join up. Congressman Smith is concerned that there is such a fire hose of information (and skepticism) that many people are leaving money on the table. Like I’ve been saying, some of the new programs are very generous. Your participation will not only help you, but also other businesses with similar questions.

For the rest of the week, I’m going virtually everywhere and physically nowhere. And I suggest you do the same. I’ve gotten a bunch of messages and e-mails complaining that the restrictions are too severe, some with lines like, “I’m never voting for you again!” And I’m like. “May you live long enough to do so!” I’m probably one of the few people in Des Moines who’s actually had a long-term nasty illness. And brother? You do not want it!

Actually, I’m doing a lot of research. And I’m kinda surprised that so many people are ‘on hold’. This is the perfect time to be thinking about ‘the day after’. Yeah, it’s rough. But when this is over, there will be tremendous opportunities to build stuff. The time to plan is now.

Last Week

On Monday, Governor Inslee put us all on lockdown.

Tuesday was the virtual Port Of Seattle Special Meeting (agenda). Although it will be of great interest to people in Des Moines and I urge you to watch it with me. Not on my couch, of course. But here. It included a contract to (finally) sound insulate Villa Enzi condominiums on 216th and allocates the first money to the new sound insulation initiative I keep banging on about and finalizes the Flight Corridor Safety Program (aka ‘tree cutting along 200th’). Though originally slated to chop down 3,000 trees, it’s been reduced now to 170. Whew.

I also participated in a virtual City Council Meeting (agenda) at the extra-special time of 5pm on Thursday March 26th.

Virtual City Council Meeting 03/26/20

The last City Council Meeting (video) gave me the feels. The annoyed kind. It was held by telephone (fine), but the agenda was severely truncated (not as fine) and the highlight was over thirty minutes of reporting from our City Manager, South King County Fire Chief Vic Pennington and Police Chief Ken Thomas on the whole COVID-19 thing (not fine at all).

Joint Emergency Operations Center

Look, I know I’m asking for trouble, but the three of them talked about this new thing called a ‘Joint Emergency Operations Center’ (JEOC). With a logo and everything. I did not hear one word of information on what it actually is and why we need it. I thought I was being too harsh in my assessment so I went back and listened to the whole thing over again and I wasn’t off in a fog. In addition to being almost content-free, there was no opportunity for questions which ticks me off due to the curtailed meeting agenda. What there was was a lot of backslapping about how fantastic our emergency management is. But so far, I honestly see no difference in our response to COVID-19 and other Cities. I hope that when I see the JEOC I will eat my words. 🙂

Status Report?

Look, I know I sound cranky, but I can only reiterate what I’ve been saying for a while now: I feel blind. And I know at least a few others on the Council feel the same. We were told to expect an update from Finance at the April 9 meeting and I gotta say I’m not thrilled with that speed. Yes, I know everything is ultra-stressful for City employees right now, but I feel like Council should have some idea of what this State Of Emergency is doing to our finances. Getting a first report on that almost two months into the emergency seems wrong. I’m not blaming anyone. I’m just saying that we need to do better. We should consider how to provide better information to Council faster in future emergencies.

Late Fee Motion

The only substantial part of the meeting was a motion injected into the Consent Agenda by Councilmember Martinelli. This motion was to ask the City Attorney to study the possibility of a moratorium on late fees for renters during the emergency. It was voted down 5-2.

I voted ‘yes’ for the same reason I just finished grousing about the lack of information on finances. And the lack of information on the JEOC. I will always vote for more information if the request is reasonable. Councilmembers deserve to have their requests for information honored as part of their job as legislators, full stop. Even if I disagree with an idea, I will almost always want the Council to be able to utilize the power of the City to do the research.

So I was not happy that this was voted down, and not just because at least two Councilmembers are landlords and have a vested interest in the issue. They should have been more generous in at least studying the issue.

But on the other hand, I am also not happy with being blind-sided on this. I would prefer not to have any motions ever involving public policy injected anywhere into a meeting (like, oh I dunno… to triple the City Managers severance package?) Grrrrrr….

But in this case Mr. Martinelli had no choice. There was no reason for the Agenda to be so restrictive since our Governor relaxed OPMA rules last week. So if Mr. Martinelli wanted to get his idea out there he had to do it this way. I voted for this, again, as a courtesy. If it had been a vote on the real issue, without specific data I probably would have voted ‘no’. Not because of the merits, but for the fourth time: because there was no data. (Are ya sending a pattern here? 😀 )

Because here’s the thing: I have no idea how many people might be affected by this: either tenants or landlords. And neither the City or Councilmember Martinelli showed up with any stats. I don’t want to vote on anything where I don’t have data. Right now, I have no idea where the City is at and that makes me wary of any ad hoc spending. And frankly, just saying “They’re doing it in <CityX> doesn’t fly. It may be a huge problem. It may not be much of a problem. I have no idea.

One Size Does Not Fit All

An idea that is very easy for one city might be a terrible idea for another city depending on their finances, impacts to business, the jerks (er ‘Distinguished Councilmembers’ 😀 ) running the show, legal fees, etc.  And here’s an example that I relate to:

Until 7-8 years ago, we had a really good landlord training requirement in Des Moines, run by CSO Tonya Seaberry. I was a part of it. It protected neighborhoods from crap renters by making landlords more accountable. It cut down on Code Enforcement complaints dramatically. But the City dumped it (2012-ish?) after the law was challenged by the Rental Housing Association (RHA). We actually paid them a settlement of over $100k. So that went away. Now: I dearly want to see that law return. But I know we will likely have to be prepared to fight to get there. We have a huge pool of tiny landlords in DM who live off rental income  and they pay dues to RHA.

Anyhoo, when the majority says they’re worried about having to defend a ban on late fees they ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie. It’s a legit concern, especially when there was no specifics as to how many people might be helped or hurt.

Do tenants deserve a break these days? You bet. But all policy ideas should be data-driven in order to obtain support.

I’m interested to hear your thoughts on this, and any little ol’ thang you might want to talk about of course. 🙂