Future Agendas

Posted on Categories Policy, Transparency 1575

The Future Agendas Report is the most important City document that most people have no idea even exists. It acts as sort of a calendar as to what/when things will be discussed at various upcoming public meetings. For example, if you have an interest in a certain project (eg. when are they redoing the Redondo Fishing Pier) you could look here to know when to show up and give your input.

Now you would think that such an important document would be easy to find. And you would be wrong. Which is why it’s always on my Links page along with all the other important stuff I think you should have easy access to.

Most of the time, our Future Agendas Report is very sparsely populated. As it says right at the top it changes all the time so it’s kinda tough to know when the administration might throw in things to talk about. (Eg. last month the mayor cancelled both the Environment and Transportation Committee meetings because the staff had nothing they wanted to talk about.) Which basically tells you that it is the administration driving the bus on meetings, not the actual members of the Committee.

For example, want to know what is not on the Futures report as of today? Anything about a private passenger ferry. But if you read the latest City Currents Magazine or saw the Deputy Mayor’s posts on social media, you’d probably think that had already been discussed and voted on in the Transportation Committee. Or if not already discussed, perhaps that it would be coming before a Committee soon… or at least the full Council… at some time. Nope.Wanna know what else hasn’t shown up on the Futures report? Marina Re-development. The most significant economic development event in DM in two decades pretty much just popped out of thin air in the last week following the 3-25 Municipal Facilities Committee meeting.

Councilmembers often have no idea what the administration will talk about in advance of meetings. Which can make it kinda tough to ask the right questions.

In the administration’s defense, the City Manager and my colleagues probably consider this state of affairs a feature and not a bug. Last year I proposed that the City Manager be required to post his schedule (since managers in all our sister cities file full reports weekly, I considered this to be pretty easy.) Yeah, that went nowhere. The only logical reason I can come up with for not providing a more structured public calendar is that it afford the administration more flexibility in responding to ‘breaking events’. To which I would reply: Flexibility is fine, but oversight is better. And besides, if you really do need to respond to breaking events, then just update the Future Agendas report when the events… er… ‘break’. 🙂

There are reforms and then there are reforms…

At our 8 April Council Meeting CM Martinelli will be proposing a change to Committee meetings to allow for public comment–which I fully support. But I want the public to understand that this reform, as welcome as it may be, is perhaps 5% of the problem.

Because the truth is, I cannot honestly remember when I was asked to vote on anything at a Committee Meeting, other than to a) appoint a Chair b) approve previous minutes c) adjourn. That’s been the extent of Committee ‘decision-making’. I cannot recall the last time I or my colleagues were asked to take a vote on an issue of policy. I cannot recall the last time the administration asked for a formal direction on a policy. These things do not happen… or if they do, so infrequently that the exception proves the rule.

Even at last week’s Municipal Facilities Committee meeting, there was no vote or ‘ask’. What happens is that the administration does presentations and the Committee members ask a few questions within a very narrow window (usually 45 minutes.) Meetings are almost 100% informational and almost 0% decision-making.

The thing I want the public to understand, once again, is that this is not how local government is supposed to work and in fact it is not how things work in other cities.

Whether the policies being moved forward by our administration are good, bad or indifferent is not the point. Good process matters not just because it fosters a culture of open government, but because they make the government functionally better.

Making the sausage…

For many of you, all this governance jazz I go on about may seem a bit ‘high-falootin’. I get it. For most people, local government is transactional; so long as what you see the City doing seems cool, most of us don’t know or care how the sausage is made. I was exactly the same. I only got involved when the City was doing something that I didn’t like.

But as they say, “fish don’t know they’re wet.” It’s been so long since we’ve had an open culture of government here that you likely don’t have a frame of reference as to the benefits–unless you’re one of the incredibly few people who have experience with how other cities work.

But this lack of transparency is especially important this year.

  • First of all, we are still technically in a State Of Emergency. That gives the City Manager essentially unlimited spending authority. Eg. last year, the City Manager spent almost one million dollars of State aid without a single vote or discussion from the Council. For the record, about $500,000 went to salaries (good.) The other $500k went to grants to twenty six lucky businesses; which also sounds good until you realize that there are over seventeen hundred registered businesses in Des Moines who did not get in on that program. (not good.)
  • Second, this year the prizes are going to be extra special. We’re likely going to get close to eight million in similar State money, which could also be spent by the City Manager without having to take any pesky votes.
  • Third, as I said, this is Marina Redevelopment year. Our plan–for both the waterside (the dock replacements) and the landside (what to do with the Marina floor) is the work of a single individual–no second opinions for us. And the schedule (such as it is) calls for a decision to be made on this plan by August. Which is not exactly a lot of time for public input or, hate to sound like a broken record, Council discussion and votes. The Deputy Mayor has already pre-announced one component (that private ferry) as a done deal without any input from the public or the Council–which should be a good indicator of how the broader roll out will go.

So let’s sum it up: we’re going to be doing more stuff this year than in decades, with a ton of free money and none of the usual constraints on spending due to the ‘State Of Emergency’. We’re also making generational decisions in record time with no second opinion. Oh, and this is an election year.

What could possibly go wrong? 😀

I can dream…

I want to be perfectly clear (now there’s a blast from the past), that I have no idea whether the passenger ferry or the current Marina redevelopment plan or anything are good ideas or bad ideas. Maybe they’re absolutely great ideas. But that’s the point: without better processes, including a much more transparent process, I cannot be sure. In fact, no one can. And with the high stakes involved, we deserve the highest level of confidence possible.

What I would like to see happen this year is:

  1. The administration should be required to update the Futures Report with the full calendar of items that will be discussed throughout the year. There should be almost no last minute surprises at City Council meetings. And as I proposed last year, the City Manager should be required to publish his calendar–as is standard practice in all our sister cities.
  2. The City Council should be brought into separate discussions on any and all spending from the upcoming stimulus.
  3. We should have full discussion of any important issue (like the passenger ferry proposal), including a town hall meeting, before moving ahead. In the case of a ferry, bring in independent voices (like the Puget Sound Regional Council) to outline the true demand opportunities and potential pitfalls.
  4. Hire a third-party to implement any future business or employee grants to insure that everyone in Des Moines gets a fair shot.
  5. Engage a second consultant and an urban planner to give our Marina Redevelopment proposal a once-over. You’d get three bids on a new roof. You’d at least get a second opinion on an important surgery. This is a once in a generation project. We owe it to ourselves to perform due diligence.

Action items…

As I said, there are reforms and then there are reforms. A lot of this is not about creating new rules, it’s about a change in work culture at the City. If you have the right culture, you don’t actually need a lot of these rules; the right things just tend to happen. But until we get there (and it’s probably at least one election off) rule changes such as welcoming public comment at all our City meetings are essential first steps.

As always, if you agree with me that these seem like sensible steps to take, I urge you to write the City Council and show your support.

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