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.

Weekly Update: 08/09/2020

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

This Week

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

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

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

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

Last Week

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

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

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

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

Budget Recap: The Cliff Notes

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

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

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

Five years? Try five months, pal.

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

Some highlights

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

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

So… as they say, I have questions.

Some parliamentary details

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

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

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

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

We’ll see.

Backseat Driver

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

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

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

Dude, why are you being such a doormat!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In short: I hear you.

Paid Parking

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

Weekly Update: 08/02/2020

Posted on Categories Airport, Economic Development, Engagement, Policy, Taxes, Transparency, Weekly UpdatesTags , Leave a comment on Weekly Update: 08/02/2020

This Week

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

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

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

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

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

Last Week

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

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

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

 

The Budget

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

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

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

Just in time?

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

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

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

Comparisons are inevitable…

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

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

Local businesses

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

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

Demand

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

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

Just passing on the wisdom…

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

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

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

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

Nostalgia for 2006

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

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

Step number one

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

Tradition…

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

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

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

So I need your help. Keep watching.

Weekly Update: 07/27/2020

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

This Week

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

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

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

Last Week

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

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

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

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

Rule 5

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

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

It’s back…

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

The dreaded Rule…

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

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

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

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

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

But here’s what they think…

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

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

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

I do not think it means what you think…

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

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

You guys never stop talking!

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

Ya wanna know some things they do not do?

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

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

Learning to schmooze

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

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

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

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

It’s a bit different…

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

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

So who do ya trust?

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

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

Weekly Update: 07/19/2020

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This Week

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

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

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

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

Last Week

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

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

Thursday: Attending Municipal Facilities and Economic Development Committee meetings

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

Meeting Recap

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

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

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

Item #3 Trees

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

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

Item 6: Another vote I regret

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

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

And then…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Item #8: Financial Management System Software

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

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

Coda: Public Records Requests

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

Not gonna do it. 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was always my fiendishly clever political strategy–well-educated voters. 🙂