Better City Council Meetings #3: Informality

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This is the third in a series of changes to our City Council Meetings I’d like to see. This particular change has to do with ‘relationships’ so it may well sound crankier than usual. It’s not meant to. Honest. 😀

But there is a thing that tends to happen with group meetings that is kinda insidious because it is extremely appealing to all the participants. And that is a break down in, for lack of a better word, ‘formality’.

Why our City Council is so informal

There are several aspects to this, but to explain ‘what’ I mean, I was thinking it might be easiest to first to talk about the ‘why’.

We very much like to think of ourselves as a small town, though we’re not. We’re actually among the larger cities in Washington and we’re subject to a whole set of State rules/regulations that puts us in the same category as Cities like Kent and Bellevue. (And I’m sure many of you read that last sentence and go, “Too many damned regulations!” I won’t argue with you there. I’m just telling you the reality we must deal with.) Since we’re not a small town, our decisions are often pretty complicated.

We also currently have what I refer to as  ‘Weak Council/Strong Manager’ system. It’s something I’ve mentioned before and it’s not a pejorative at all. Des Moines has a Council/Manager form of government (often referred to as ‘Weak Mayor’). Within that frame you can have a range of power balance between Manager and Council. In our case, we currently have a City Manager who does almost all policy formulation and de facto legislating. And that’s because the current Council likes it that way. As has been quoted to me by my colleagues many times, “We hire the expert and then we leave him alone to do his job.” But it’s worth nothing that in many other Cities the balance leans the other way. So it’s a choice made by the current majority, not ‘a law’. On the plus side a Strong Manager can yield a lot of efficiencies. On the other side, it can lead to all the issues one can imagine when one leaves a single person in charge of most decisions.

There’s also this sort of ‘world-weariness’ that everyone involved in government feels. For example, the Regional Aviation Baseline Study? I’ve heard that same frickin’ presentation like four times now: at Port Meetings, at StART Meetings, at PSRC Meetings, at the Highline Forum. I’m trying to imagine what it must be like for someone like our Mayor, who has 15-20 years of that sort of repetition. (It’s only been a few years for me and it’s already taken a toll on my personality. 😀 )  After a while, hearing the same stuff over and over will make even the most patient person want to take steps to ‘move things along!’ And I have no doubt that factors into why Des Moines City Council Meetings are the shortest in the region. There’s a  logic to wanting to skip the repetition, including conversations that one has already had with staff in private.  It comes from a good place, but it leads to bad outcomes because what is repetitious to the ‘insider’ is completely new to you the public.

Finally, there is the “we know better than you” syndrome that all experts and decision makers fall into. We’ve all been to a doctor who isn’t even listening to you while you complain about whatever. You’re sure that you’re being patronized because… news flash…. you are being patronized. The doctor sized up your condition twenty seconds after you walked in and now they’re just waiting for you to shut up so they can write the prescription and get you outta there. That’s how we all tend to roll when we’re experts at something (or have experts.) We all can get pretty bad at listening. After a while, we trust our own opinions and the judgments of the administration and tune out the voters and even our colleagues.

Symptoms

So you have this combination of a system where the administration is given a great deal of latitude, a resistance to ‘big town process’, and a natural desire to want to cut out all the boring stuff. Take it all together and that often leads to a number of features.

  • Almost no discussion on issues. Or when there is, it’s completely laudatory. When you have complete trust in the management, who needs a lot of back and forth?
  • Lack of preparation. Staff will not have presentations or important supporting facts available ahead of the meeting. This not only makes it tough to provide oversight at any given meeting, it’s especially harmful for issues that span multiple meetings (budgets, zoning) because it literally saws off weeks from the decision making process. When you say, “Oh don’t worry, we’ve got the next meeting to talk about this”, what you’re really saying is, “We only need one meeting to do this thing that the law says is supposed to take two meetings.”
  • The wall between the ‘board’ (or the electeds) and the ‘staff’ starts to fall away. The board defers too much to the staff, ignoring the ultimate deciderers ( the voters) because frankly, the public (and the electeds) are not usually as well-informed as the experts.

Why should I care about this?

At the local level, there’s a strong emphasis on ‘results’. The further up the ladder you go, the more abstract ‘government’ becomes. Frankly, most of us don’t expect all that much from the State or the Feds. But at the local level, we expect to get things done. Which can be a double-edged sword. One doesn’t like to use the term ‘Machiavellian’, but that’s often how we all tend to feel about local government. Most residents just want their streets to be safe or their garbage picked up and they’re just not all that concerned about ‘how’ that happens; just so long as it happens.

But you should care because sooner or later this sort of informality breeds a lack of transparency. And sooner or later,  that invariably leads to real problems; maybe not in the short run, but always in the long term. And usually after the current government has left the scene.

Why formality matters

  1. To paraphrase good ol’ Don Rumsfeld, there are always Unknown Unknowns. (Or was it Unknowable Unknowables, who knew what that guy was talking about, right? 😀 ) But the reason discussion matters so much is that when you talk to people in person, you almost always find out things you’d never learn in a document. It’s why we do multiple in-person Employee Interviews rather than just evaluate resumes. A lot of times, talking is how you get to the truth.
  2. Communicating with the public builds trust and that alone should be enough reason to take public engagement more seriously. But it isn’t, of course. We need prodding. So all the formalities work to encourage electeds to listen better.
  3. Process also slows things down in another helpful way. There is that tendency to blow through items because one is the ‘expert’. But every once in a while, all the procedural crap creates an opportunity to change hearts and minds.
  4. When things get too informal, it has the psychological effect of reducing the tough questions that electeds should be asking. It may seem wildly impolite to say that, but we all know it’s true. The fact is that the staff are the experts and they run things and that creates a constant pull towards the tail wagging the dog. The formality of process and decorum are the tools to reinforce that line. It is extremely tempting for electeds to respect staff opinions too much and not even listen to *other voices (like those pesky voters) or †even one another!  The bosses have to know their roles and the staff have to know theirs. That’s why I constantly stress that we are not a ‘small town’ because this task is much tougher to do in a ‘small town’. Why? Because it just seems so damned rude, right? What I’m writing sounds, why it sounds like I don’t trust my own staff, JC. Outrageous! That’s how touchy this issue gets. But again, anyone who has ever owned a business knows exactly what I’m talking about. Everyone gets along fine, but you maintain a certain professional distance so you can objectively manage the company.

What keeps all this stuff from going off the rails is the process and all that formality–in all its glorious boredom.

Real World Example

From the outside, the Budget process looks like a wonderful example of transparency. Under State law the Council has four bites at the apple to get information from staff and review and amend the Budget. But let’s see what’s happened so far in 2020.

    1. The first meeting (Budget Retreat) went on for four hours and then was ended without the Council asking any questions. OK, fine we had a follow-up meeting two weeks later. But having to delay those questions–and even having to argue in order to that follow-up meeting was bad. The reality is that this Meeting did not do as it was designed to do: give the Council the best opportunities at a once a year event to ask tough questions. It got flipped into being two less than optimal meetings rather than one good one. It created the appearance of engagement.
    2. The second bite (October 8th Budget Presentation) occured with no budget being presented. So no questioning was possible with the full Council. Which means that no amendments could be made. Individual Councilmembers can meet with staff to ask questions, but those meetings have no force of government.
    3. The third bite happens on October 22nd at the 1st Public Hearing. So now this is likely the single place where questions happen with the full Council.
    4. The 2nd public hearing in November is where the Budget is traditionally approved. But if you look at the Futures Report this suggests that it is the only place where amendments will be entertained. (Actually that’s kind of a misnomer–amendments could be added at any of the two previous meetings–well, if we’d had a Budget to amend that is. 😀 ) Plus, there are lots of other items on that Meeting Agenda.

What this means is that the questions before the full Council are consigned to a single Meeting and the  actual amendment process is likely confined to a single meeting. And with our super-tight procedural rules, that right there skews the process towards as few changes as possible. The process is strongly weighted towards accepting the Budget as presented by the City Manager. And this is completely in line with the philosophy of the current majority.

Now, if you think things are going great in Des Moines, you likely are rolling your eyes (What am I saying, if you think things are going great in Des Moines you aren’t even reading this.) But regardless, in my view, our current process is waaaaaaaaaaaay too informal. It basically makes the Budget process a rubber stamp affair. It creates the appearance of engagement. Technically, it crosses all the is and dots all the t’. 😀 But it adheres to the letter of the law rather than the spirit.

Because, hey, why wouldn’t you? We’re a small town.


*That happens to the public with the Port Of Seattle all the time. Someone will contradict a Port Staff member on a matter of fact and then it puts the Commissioners in the position of having to get the staff to move in a direction quite different from the one they’ve been happily moving for years and years. Awkward!

 

†That wall gets broken down frequently when a Councilmember like, oh for example, moi, will be openly criticized by our City Manager and my colleagues will pile on, literally saying, “I don’t know the facts but…” So the Council instinctively defers to the City Manager–even when it comes to a colleague, without asking a single question.

Weekly Update: 10/04/2020

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PSA: We’re getting down to the wire! 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! 😀 We need every living body counted. Each person counted represents about $30,000 in State and Local funding!

This Week

Tuesday: Police Department Advisory Board, hosted by Chief Of Police Ken Thomas.

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

Wednesday: Puget Sound Regional Council Economic Development Committee.

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

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

Last Week

Thursday: Public Safety Committee meeting. The big discussion this time was about body cameras. Our City Manager has already added $140k for this to the 2021 budget so I guess that’s a done deal?

What’s Your Position On?

I do get questions from residents.

Body cameras

The interesting thing about that last Public Safety Committee Meeting was that there was 100% agreement, but almost no data. The position of the Police Guild is that, while they are not opposed to the idea in principle, they think that the money could be spent better elsewhere. And I agree. The Chief has said repeatedly that we get very few officer complaints, however offered no supporting data. And I think that was a mistake. Basic data regarding complaints should be constantly available and certainly when making a presentation on this issue. But, taking him at his word, I say again: we’re in the biggest budget shortfall in years, so why spend money now if there’s no problem? One comment from Councilmember Bangs was that “if we don’t spend this money for body cameras it may not be available for other public safety programs. It may just go away.” I would remind her that we the Council control the budget. Well, in theory, anyhoo. 😉

Redondo

To quote our Chief Of Police, “the best solution to crime is an engineered solution.” In other words, you want to organize traffic or buildings or whatever to avoid having to call the cops or have an ordinance. The best law enforcement is where no law enforcement is needed. And I agree.

However, there are some situations, and I’m starting to think Redondo is one of them, where there is nothing like a cop on the beat. This is where I’d like to spend that $140k–where there is a demonstrable problem that can clearly be solved with the presence of an officer. However, the Chief seems to be resistant to this notion. At his last Police Advisory Meeting, he made an interesting comment, “every interaction is a chance for something to go wrong.” Which I hope to ask him about because I think that if you ask most residents they want to see more police in their neighborhoods. I’ve done a bit of research and other law enforcement professionals express this sentiment.  The thing is, in places like Redondo, where there is no obvious ‘engineered’ answer to chronic speeding, loud cars, etc., having an officer on patrol (and writing tickets) may be the best solution.

Midway Sewer District

I’ve reached out to the Sewer District, as usual, mainly to learn how everything works and they seem pretty confident that it’s a one-off. OK, maybe this incident won’t happen again. However we’ve now had at least four water infrastructure problems just this year. My interest is in seeing if there are ways that all the players (Water Districts, Sewer Districts, City) need to be thinking long term.

Taken as a whole, Des Moines has an amazingly complex water system from wells like Water District #54 to the Marina, Redondo, Saltwater State Park, creeks, commercial shell-fishing. There are at least six agencies I can think of off the top of my head that govern various aspects of ‘water’ from your house out to Puget Sound. When people think of ‘complex bureaucracy’ water management is exactly what you’re thinking of.

I know people want something like those air quality ‘dashboards’ with a little water quality indicator color: Green good, Yellow caution, Red bad. Simple. But that is not how it currently works. (Actually, what you really want is to never have to think about ‘water’.) But in addition to all the ‘agencies’ we have an aging system–especially in areas like Lower Woodmont and increasing pressure to reduce pollutants. So my prediction is that we’re going to be talking about ‘water’ a lot more in the coming years.

G.R.O. business grant program

So, due to the nonsense at the last City Council Meeting I never got to ask questions about the program. I just want to reiterate that I am thrilled to support local business grants. In fact, I started pushing for this concept back in April in meetings with people from Rotary, Destination Des Moines, SCCOC and staff from the City Of Des Moines.

However, I have had questions of the process. I talk to lots and lots of businesses and I had several concerns:

1. Lack of awareness. Many businesses were unaware that the City even had a program. In fact, everyone at those initial SCCOC meetings agreed that ‘getting the word out’ would be one of the most challenging parts of any such program. I saw very little public marketing from the City and I wish there had been more.

2. Aside from basic awareness, there was also many psychological hurdles that you can’t really understand unless you’ve had a small business. Many business owners had an absolutely terrible experience with both the Federal and State grant programs earlier in the year. They were either subjected to a very confusing process, or delays or were outright denied.  Any number of business owners I spoke with literally had to be talked into applying for these grants. Again, after the bad experience with the Federal/State programs, a lot of people felt like, “Forget it. I’ll just try and muddle through.”

3. Accessibility. We have any number of business owners who have trouble with language issues or basic computer skills. One can argue that this is on them, but they are hard working and they provide products and services that many of us all benefit from. Without a certain amount of ‘hand holding’ (which their banker provided in the case of Federal programs) they found the process a struggle.

4. The fact that there were 26 applications and 26 acceptances strikes me as, at minimum, unusual. (Eg. how many employers do you know that accept 100% of their applicants?) I found it unnerving that the City did not publish the names or the dollar amounts. All I know is that we gave out $432k without a Council vote. I found it irresponsible that not a single one of my colleagues had any questions or concerns–which just seem like basic due diligence to me.

To deal with these concerns, all our sister cities utilized an independent firm to manage their grant program–as recommended by MRSC. Here is an example from Burien (which is now in round two of their program.) The idea was to have

Now, none of the above takes away from the benefit I’m sure the winners feel or the hard work of our City Staff. Again, no one is more thrilled than me to help local businesses. But ultimately, I work for you. It’s your money and I’m supposed to ask these kinds of questions.

Student Internet Access

I posted on Facebook an article in the Seattle Times about the uncertainty over how many students don’t have access to the Internet. We have a similar issue here. According to Highline Schools, there are close to a 1,000 students in Des Moines who may have poor or no Internet service. Other cities devoted a portion of their CARES Act money to helping them through the pandemic. We did not. The Mayor offered a token gesture to help twenty students which is only a drop in the bucket.

We have to offer a competitive education to every student in order to improve Des Moines. Quality of schools is number one on many people’s lists when choosing a place to live.  So even if you don’t have children in public school it is in your self-interest to help these students.

I want to remind the reader that we received $1.4 million in CARES Act funding. 100% of that money was spent by our City Manager and 0% was voted on by our City Council.

Education is such an important issue that there should have at least been an opportunity for discussion on that CARES funding from the dais. But even if I can’t convince you that education is your priority, I hope we can agree that the Council (as your representative) should’ve had the opportunity to weigh in on how that money was spent. It’s your money.

COVID-19

At our last Transportation Committee meeting I expressed my support for Roundabouts in Des Moines–to which the City Manager quipped, “Amazing, I am in agreement with Councilmember Harris!” To which I replied, “Hey, even a broken clock is right twice a day.” 😀

Although I doubt we’d currently agree as to who is the clock in that metaphor, I wanted to return the favor by applauding his recent policy statement on face coverings.

That letter shows that the City is continuing to be serious about the pandemic and I want to encourage all of you to do the same.

Let’s be honest: with each passing week I see fewer and fewer people using masks, doing the ‘six feet’ thing. It almost seems like the same game we all play at the airport with taking off our shoes.

I know we’re all sick of it and emotionally checked out, but it’s not going away. Not even close. Rates have risen sharply in the past few weeks and I’m begging y’all to take a breath and re-commit to good habits–before the cold weather.

Weekly Update: 09/29/2020

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Mea Culpa: Yeah, late again. But this time I have a really really good excuse, Ma! I’m working on this SeatacNoise.Info history thingee and… Oh, never mind. 🙂

Kudos: To our Communications Director Bonnie Wilkins for publishing her own Meeting Recaps which you can find on the City’s Facebook Page and the official web site. They’re not ‘Minutes’, more like the Agenda sheet with all the fluff stripped out. But they are definitely useful in summarizing the issues that were discussed and voted on–and which I don’t have time to get into here. Well done.

PSA: We’re getting down to the wire! 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! 😀 We need every living body counted. Each person counted represents about $30,000 in State and Local funding!

This Week

Thursday: Public Safety Committee meetings. These are public meetings so sign up  to listen in and comment. I believe the big discussion this time will be about body cameras. Our City Manager has already added $140k for this to the 2021 budget so I guess that’s a done deal?

Last Week

Tuesday: Port Of Seattle Regular Meeting and Audit Meetings (Agendas). What I’m watching and lobbying for is money specifically set aside for Port Package Updates.

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

Wednesday: Highline Forum. This is a bi-monthly meeting hosted by the Port Of Seattle. It is attended by electeds from the six airport communities, plus Highline Schools. It was started years ago in the aftermath of the Third Runway conflicts. Do I sound bored yet? 😀 The communities wish it would be more like an ongoing negotiation but it really isn’t. There’s usually some presentation re. noise, pollution, construction. It’s worth attending to get up to speed and to get an idea of which communities are engaged and which are not.

Wednesday: Puget Sound Regional Council Aviation Baseline Study Open House.

Thursday: Municipal Facilities Committee and Economic Development Committee meetings. There was a discussion regarding the G.R.O. business grant program as well as the five year Capital Improvement Projects budget.

Thursday: City Council Meeting (Agenda)  (Video1, Video2) Much of the discussion centered around recaps of the MFP and ED committee presentations. As I wrote last week, the highlight (for me) will be the first reading of approving our first Comcast agreement in ten years. I was, frankly, surprised that there was no public comment on this–given how much grousing there is on social media regarding Comcast’s pricing and service.

Gaslight

When people ask me about Des Moines politics I often refer to a truly great movie from 1944, Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman. It’s the story of a woman who witnesses a terrible crime and as a result gradually starts thinking she is going insane. The twist is that it’s her husband and his friends who are actually working to convince her (and everyone around her) that she’s nuts in order to cover up the fact that he is the criminal. The expression ‘gaslighting’ comes this movie/play–the tactic of trying to explain away bad behaviour by convincing people that it is the accusers who are batty.

 

At our last City Council Meeting I was once again attacked (Video go to 36:00)–this time by our City Manager and then scolded by my Councilmembers for having done whatever. Of course, as before, they have no facts or evidence or even a specific ‘charge’. They just believed the City Manager’s spiel and decided it was good idea to pile on because if one is doing anything he dislikes, hey, it’s time to get the cuffs, ossifer.

You and me both have grown weary of these cases of funny business. At the risk of sounding blasphemous, at night, I occasionally ask Jesus to bring some real investigative journalism to Des Moines. Until then, I’ll do what I’ve done before: document what happened and publish the results next week. For now…

Business Grants

This case revolves around my desire to help local businesses participate in the City’s G.R.O. business grant program . You would think that wanting to increase participation would be welcomed by our City, but apparently not.

What is frustrating for me is how ‘black box’ the program has been. According to the presentation there are 26 businesses to be assisted (which is great) for a total of $432,000. However some of them will receive more than they requested (which does raise an eyebrow.) We know Richard Shockley from the Highline College Small Business Development Center. But we have not been given the business’ names or the methodology used to evaluate their applications. And I find that a bit unusual.

And apparently, other Cities agree. Because the common practice, and what MRSC recommends, is that Cities outsource these sorts of programs to an external agency (like a Chamber Of Commerce or other group with specific expertise) so that there can be no question of outreach or bias or equity.

On the other hand

Now 26 businesses get $432,000 sounds pretty sweet. But on the other hand, there are literally hundreds and hundreds of businesses operating in Des Moines. Yes, many of them do not qualify for grants for various obvious reasons, but still:  twenty six ain’t exactly ‘huge’ given the number of operating establishments. And then there’s this: there was 100% acceptance. Literally everyone who applied got a grant. Those were the only Des Moines businesses with genuine needs?

So forgive me if I ask at least a few questions regarding how our program was set up. I’m not being vindictive. I just want all the facts, before I render judgment.

*The City Of Des Moines was given $1.4 million dollars in Federal CARES Act money. Our City Manager spent it, all on his own, without a single vote or input from our City Council. And the rest of the Council had no problem with that. In fact, as the City Manager has talked about this spending there has not been a single objection or even question about it–only applause, which I find kinda nuts.

What is wrong with you?

But if one asks reasonable questions about the program design, the response is, “So you’re against business grants? You’re against money for the Food Bank? You’re against money to prevent lay-offs?” What are you, nuts? 😀

No. I’m not nuts. I’m trying to look out for your money. It’s your tax money. Whether or not twenty six businesses got much needed money is not the whole story. What really matters is that one person ultimately decided how to spend every dollar of that money. And that ain’t how public spending is supposed to work. How it’s supposed to work is that we, the Council, put forward proposals which represent what we think you want and best represents your interests.

Boys Town

I’ll just close by pointing out one bust out lie from the dais which I’ve heard over and over. One doesn’t usually like to use the ‘L’ word, but I admit I’ve kinda lost patience with this one thing.

It’s the plaint, “We’ve reached out to JC many times and tried to guide him….” Aside from the fact that this isn’t Boys Town and I’m not some wayward youth to be put back on the straight and narrow by Father Flanagan, this is simply untrue.

I want to make it clear that almost 100% of the ‘reaching out’ that has happened since my election has been me reaching out to my colleagues. Every Councilmember knows that I have tried to reach out to them–not just in Des Moines, but regionally. Councilmembers across all of Puget Sound know that I really value a collaborative approach. But in fact, the only members of the Council who have actually initiated contact with me since November have been Traci Buxton and Luisa Bangs–which I welcomed. But they weren’t exactly “Let’s all work together!” kinda deals. There were never any sincere, high-minded discussions like that. If I had a dime for all the number of un-returned emails and phone calls… I’d have a lot of dimes. 🙂  In fact, I’ve had DM Councilmembers make appointments with me and simply not show up. Not just once, but many times. What is this, Tinder for local government? 😀

So with regard to this latest attack (or any prior issues), you might think that my colleagues would at least, Oh I dunno, try to talk to me about the issue before sounding off. But you’d be wrong. They simply took the City Manager’s bogus narrative at face value. In short, it’s just more of the same ‘7-0’ deal I campaigned against.

And the reason you should care about it, apart from my delicate ‘feelings’ or whatever, is that, remember, the City Council is the oversight of government. We like to think of local government as not subject to the same pettiness and partisanship as the State or Federal levels, but that was and is simply not true.

One way to tell…

See, you the public can’t know directly what’s what because you don’t get to see the ‘inside baseball’. But I’ll just leave you with this:

If you think back to the Mayor and Deputy Mayor’s made up attacks back in April there is a recurring theme of making accusations that are not only vague but serve no civic purpose. They’re not about an ordinance or action that can be taken. They’re simply an attempt at public embarrassment, dressed up to sound authoritative, when in truth they are empty words–merely an expression of personal annoyance. In short, a waste of the Council’s time. It’s bad enough when politicians do it. But an administrator who is paid really well to stay above the fray should never go there.

Man, I hate sounding so ‘cranky’. Because that just plays into the narrative I’ve heard over and over since the night I made my first public comment at a Des Moines City Council Meeting. But that was always just the gaslighting playbook: Don’t pay attention to what is actually being said. Just be charming. And label all those inconvenient facts (and people) as ‘cranky’.

*As one example of alternative spending. According to Highline Schools, there are close to a 1,000 students in Des Moines who may have poor or no Internet service. Other cities devoted a portion of their CARES Act money to helping them through the pandemic. We did not. But education is such an important issue that there should have at least been an opportunity for discussion from the dais. That’s the problem with a pre-decided system: it sounds great until you start to think about the options that were not thought of.

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. 😀 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.  In which case, hell yeah, I wanna tell everyone about it! 😀 )

Last Week

Monday: Helped out local businesses fill out those G.R.O. applications 🙂 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-Moines . 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 and Police Foundation Groups. 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 talents  where there is the most need.

That said, I would definitely suggest that you try to show up for Police Advisory meetings or Police Foundation events and take their classes. But again, those groups usually don’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 a 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. 😀

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 like Rotary, Des Moines Legacy and Destination Des Moines, 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. 🙂 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 speaking 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 😀 ) 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. 😀 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. 😀

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 it 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. 😀

Coda: The obligatory disclaimer

Look, I don’t wanna dunk of the City here too much.(Too late? 😀 ) 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 🙂

This Week

Monday: Helping local businesses fill out those G.R.O. applications 🙂 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. 😀 But they could be. I… guess? 😀 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. 😀 I’m keeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeding! I very much appreciated the chance to talk with her. 🙂 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. 😀 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 be 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.  Unless you just really find these kinds of presentations riveting. No judgment. 😀

Can you hear me now?

Before we get into the questions,  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. 😀

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. 🙂

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. 😀

Because when we rolled out the EATS program (we do love our acronyms 😀 ) 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… 😀

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.  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 there 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.”  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 actually 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. 😀

  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 a  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.  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. 🙂

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. 😀

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. 🙂

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. 🙂

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 presentations riveting. No judgment. 😀

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.

Better City Council Meetings #2: Questions

Posted on Categories TransparencyTags

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

How it works now

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

Rule #1: Timeliness.

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

Rule #2: No double dipsies!

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

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

Rule #3: Relevance

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

Rule #4: No contact with Staff

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

Rule #5: No Councilmember Information Requests

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

Rule #6: Majority rules

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

Why it works this way...

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

Why it actually is a problem…

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

Dear Councilmember,

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

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

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

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

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

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

How it should work… and why

Rule #1: Timeliness.

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

Rule #2: No double dipsies!

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

Rule #3: Relevance

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

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

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

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

Rule #4: No contact with Staff

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

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

The pushback I’ve received goes something like this:

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

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

Rule #5: No Councilmember Information Requests

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

Rule #6: Majority rules

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

This state of affairs has several downsides:

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

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

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

Better City Council Meetings #1: Eliminate the presentations!

Posted on Categories TransparencyTags

This is the first in a series of changes to our City Council Meetings I’d like to see. This particular change has to do with managing the length of meetings, which was especially problematic at the August 6th ‘Budget Retreat’ (Video). And before we dive in, I don’t want to be a tease, but I want to emphasise that there is a ‘big picture’ we’ll get to talking about after a few articles. See all the issues I will raise are features and not ‘bugs’. The current majority have, over time, gradually moulded the system to work the way it does now very intentionally. And they’ve done so because they believe it is the system that is in the best interest of the City.  So none of the issues I will raise are in any way accidental or unintended.

How it currently works

Currently Councilmembers  get the Agenda Packet the Friday before the Council Meeting. But that initial version of the Packet is pretty skinny. It contains the items to be discussed, but it does not contain any of the Staff presentations (those slide decks you see at most meetings.) Those are often finalised only minutes before the meeting. So we see all those slide presentations cold–just as you do if you attend. (The day after the meeting, the City Clerk attaches the slides to the Agenda.)

Councilmembers are instructed to read the Packet over the weekend and present questions about Agenda Items to the City Manager by the following Monday so that he and his Staff have time to research and reply before the Thursday meeting. But do you see the problem? Since we don’t see the presentations when we get that initial Packet, we frequently don’t have any details on the issue being discussed. So we can’t possibly formulate in-depth questions (you don’t know what you don’t know, right?)

Bad freshman lecture

Look, most of us have been in these kinds of meetings before. A guy I worked with years ago brilliantly labeled them ‘bad freshman lecture’. You know: those college classes which were nothing more than the professor going page by through the contents of the textbook–the stuff you were already supposed to have read before class.  But no one complained, right? The prof was just doing his job, and besides, it saved students having to actually prepare. 😀

Victory laps

know how catty this will sound unless you’ve attended as many of these meetings as I have. Buuuuuut, just between us girls? A certain amount of these presentations are essentially press releases and victory laps. I’ve been to many City Council Meetings where a half hour presentation wasn’t even about new information or a decision to be made. Rather it was simply to show off a particular success story about which the Council had already been informed.

Now look, I enjoy taking the occasional victory lap as much as the next guy.  But certain meetings (like, oh I dunno, a Budget Meeting) are already packed to the rafters with important stuff. And in my view, such meetings should be all business. Because if you include all that P.R. stuff, you’re basically making it impossible to get the real work done in the allotted time.

It’s my meeting; mine, Mine, MINE!

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: City Council Meetings are public meetings, but that does not mean what most of you think it means. They are for us (the City Council) not you. City Council meetings are not meant to inform the public. They’re meant for us to make decisions. You’re allowed in so that you can watch to make sure that business is being conducted on the up and up and to provide public comment. But we are not there to educate or sell the public! If the City wants to do any promotional jazz (which I fully support!) they have far better outlets than a City Council Meeting to reach the entire population.

And what I’m getting at is that if we cut out all the ‘fluff’ we’d have all the time in the world for proper discussion and debate.  In fact, we’d save so much time, we’d still have plenty of spare time left over for the occasional Middle School Science Presentation,  Proclaiming Strawberry Awareness Month and Staff Appreciation Day. 🙂

Meanwhile, back in college…

Now let’s go back to college. After yer first year, you stop screwing around (OK, I stopped screwing around) and holy schnike! you’re given the reading ahead of time. What a concept! Which means that the actual ‘lecture’ is, wait for it I know it will come as a shocker: just for asking questions! Are them college boys smart or what?

And that is how City Council Meetings should be run. The Council should be given the slide deck a few days ahead along with the Packet, and expected to actually learn the material before class (er ‘meeting’. 😀 )  Then each presenter’s job would mainly be to field questions.

How it should work (the mechanics)

Staff should be directed to prepare their presentations for inclusion when the Agenda Packet is released on Friday. That would give Councilmembers the weekend to really digest what is to be decided. Then, when Staff come in on Monday they’re not rushing to complete their presentations. They can focus on replying to Councilmember questions. (Although I suspect that just having the presentations available for Councilmembers would reduce the number of emailed questions.)

Since all parties know what will be discussed, there’s no ‘lecturing’ involved. The slide deck is only there to aid in the discussion. My guess is that this would cut down on meeting length by 50%. It would also dramatically improve the discussion, since 100% of the meeting time would go to useful debate. (By the way: Almost all Staff I’ve talked to over the years really do not revel in doing those presentations. My guess is that they would much prefer not to have to do them.)

I’d like to take credit…

Did I invent this? Of course not. I stole it from other governments–including our State House. That’s how they do it. When you show up to any hearing on a bill, electeds have already received all the supporting materials. A Staffer introduces the bill with a three minute summary and then the hearing is simply interviewing witnesses, pounding them with detailed questions and then voting. It’s the only way to get through the volume of material they need to cover in their very short sessions.

Why it is like it is…

A big part of the current system is human nature. The fluff is fun. Everyone likes to show off the successes. Everyone likes to show their appreciation. And most of us like to be thanked for our hard work. Frankly, all of this is a big part of why a lot of people run for City Council. Which is fine.

The flip side is that the real business of the Council is often unpleasant. All that debating, making unpopular decisions… who wants to focus on that, right? 😀

And also…

We’re the only City in the area that limits Council speeches to four minutes; or limits each Councilmember to speaking twice on any issue. We do everything we can to reduce the amount of time that Councilmembers can inquire or debate any issue. We intentionally leave the lion’s share of meeting time for all those presentations.

Study, study, study! Or bonk, bonk, bad kid.

(Never miss a chance for a Trek meme, right?)

Keeping it short…

Now why do we do all this if it’s so inefficient? Ironically, in order to keep the meetings as short as possible. It is the Mayor’s stated goal to make it less onerous for people to join the Council. In other words, the current majority feels very strongly that most of us have very busy lives and we simply don’t have the time to do all that jazz I propose. We have jobs and kids and lives for goodness sake! We need to keep meetings as short as possible. And you simply cannot expect Councilmembers to study, Study, STUDY or bonk, bonk, bad kid!

So in one sentence, we front load our meetings with lectures and fluff and then allocate whatever time is left over for the actual business of discussion, debate and decision making.

Now here’s the really fun part…

This system also means that the greater the number of important items there are on the Agenda, the less time there will be for the discussion, debate and decision making–because all the important stuff requires slides and lecturing. So: the more items there are to be decided, the less time there will be left over to do the actual decidering. Get it? The more time Council spends listening, the less time there is for talking. And the natural conclusion of that equation is a four hour Budget Meeting which is 100% slides and 0% Councilmember activity.

To those whom much is given…

(Or whatever Peter Parker says. I do Trek, not comics… 😀 )

The only obvious objection to making the change I’ve discussed is that it does ask more of Councilmembers. It means that it is challenging for potential Councilmembers who are raising two year olds or working four twelves or whatever. There’s a reason the job tends to be a better fit for people who sit around all day (like moi) or those with flexible schedules.

But I dunno what to tell ya. This is no joke. The Municipal Corporation of Des Moines, Washington has  a $100 million annual budget. We’re not some small beach town any more and haven’t been for thirty years. We’re actually one of the larger and more complex cities in the entire State Of Washington.

I believe that you cannot run this size organization and successfully plan for our future without Councilmembers who have the time, commitment and skills to do a proper job. When you look at other governments: State, Federal, etc. one big problem they all have is that the electeds are literally not there all that much (in those cases because they’re constantly fund raising.) But regardless of the reason, it takes a certain amount of time to actually do the job and that lack of time is killing our ability to solve problems at every level of government.

To sum it up: We are a complex corporation. We need to structure our meetings a lot better and we need to have Councilmembers who are willing and able to put in the necessary time to do the job. You can reduce the hours you spend doing the job. But you can’t actually reduce the job that needs doing.