Christmas In July: The ARPA Stimulus Money Request

Posted on Categories Economic Development, Engagement2 Comments on Christmas In July: The ARPA Stimulus Money Request

At last night’s City Council Meeting, the City Manager unveiled the City’s ARPA Stimulus money proposal.  In short, the City is receiving $9,000,000 to be used for a limited number of purposes and it must be spent by 2024.

I urge all of you to watch that fifteen minute segment of the meeting and read these two PDFs.

American Rescue Plan – City Manager Recommendations

American Rescue Plan Fact Sheet

It’s only a first draft…

The City Manager gave a rundown of his staff’s initial recommendations. These are only initial recommendations. Councilmembers now will add their recommendations to add new ideas, modify some things on the list and remove others. Nothing will be fixed in stone for quite some time.

Which is where you come in…

I am asking you to send me your ideas and your priorities. Do not feel limited by what you see on that list of initial recommendations. If there is something you feel the City really needs? I want to hear about it. But remember: it must be something that can be done by 2024.

This is probably the biggest injection of one-time money the City will ever see, so we need to spend it wisely. Ideally, our spending choices will not merely help us recover. If we make truly inspired choices, this money has the potential to make Des Moines better than we could ever have achieved otherwise.

Some things I’m thinking about…

I know many of you are hurting. And many of you feel strongly that the City should use this money for short term relief programs like the Food Bank, income relief, business grants, etc. Got it. Loud and clear.

A couple of things, though:

  1. I will be looking at what those programs actually need. Take the Food Bank. That’s often the first thing residents say we should put money into (Often because it’s the only program they know about. Actually we help fund oodles of really great causes!) Anyhoo, on the many occasions I’ve talked to their directors where they’ve indicated that, at that particular moment, money was not the problem–often what they really need are volunteers. My point is that I will be looking at this based on what those agencies tell us they need.
  2. There are any number of human services programs that look great on paper, but frankly have not yet demonstrated their value. I am reluctant to spend money on any program simply because it looks humane. I want to see programs that work.
  3. I am also reluctant to fund any program that requires ongoing revenue. For example, I know many of you desperately want more police officers. But I would only consider that if I can see that we can afford it with the money we have going into the future.
  4. I hope you will also consider long-term projects. Something transformative. This is a once in a lifetime shot at doing something real, like starting a conversation about a community center for the South End or an entirely new park–something we could not achieve under any other circumstance–and which would benefit the entire community forever.
  5. $9,000,000 is actually not that much money. We could spend every drop of it on things like rent-relief or business grants and not make a serious dent in the need. Of course, if you need that relief right now, you feel differently. I get it. All politics is very local. But still, I’m asking you to consider the future, because when the whole city thrives it does benefit you, if only indirectly.

I look forward very much to hearing what you have to say. If nothing else, this is a great chance for me to refresh myself as to what the community is thinking about. And $9,000,000 could be quite a lot of refreshment. 😀 So please wrote or give me a call (206) 878-0578.

GRO Outreach TLDR

Posted on Categories Economic Development, Transparency1 Comment on GRO Outreach TLDR

This is sort of a TLDR for the .01% of people who drill down. If you write what I do, angry people will always say you over-simplified or didn’t provide enough detail and so on. Which is often true. You cannot help but do those things in any short form article. So this is some detail.

Many people have responded to my writings about GRO with comments along the lines of “We need more transparency!”

TLDR

There were 26 applications and 26 acceptances. No denials. That in itself is actually a problem. Because there are close to 32,000 currently licensed businesses in Des Moines. No, many of them would not have qualified under any circumstances. But hundreds surely were at least plausible.

I have no complete statement as to the efforts the City made to reach out to the business community about the program. But this result is completely predictable if you do not do an active outreach program. It doesn’t just look bad, it is bad for reasons discussed below. That is one reason why MRSC recommended that a 3rd Party professional administer the program.

Background

I had an interest in business grants as soon as the pandemic began. I attended my first planning meeting involving ‘business grants’ back in April of 2020–along with the City planner who eventually helped create the GRO program along with our City Manager and the Highline College SBA person.  At the time, everyone in the room agreed that ‘outreach’ would be key. I told one 2civic leader that I would be willing to go door to door if necessary to make sure that every business across town was made aware. That was my level of passion on the issue.

Initially, the Council majority was lukewarm to the entire notion of business grants. They wondered if it was even the place of the City to do such a thing.

In May, the administration announced that they were working on something. I would periodically ask “how are things going?” and the administration would say they were working on it, but did not unveil ‘GRO’ until August 17th. I immediately asked for information on the program:

  • What were the requirements?
  • What was the outreach?
  • What was the scoring system?
  • What was our equity policy?

As so often happens, I was ghosted. I went so far as to ask from dais as to when the Council might receive those policies. And I was told by the City Manager, “…at some point.”

The Council was told by the City Manager that the awards had been chosen and the checks already disbursed. He did not reveal the names or amounts. The Mayor apparently did a photo op with several businesses but did not inform the Council. The first time the public became aware of the recipients was with an October 16th Press Release. I continued to press for answers to the above questions and continued to get nowhere.

So in January 2021, I did a public records request (the fact that a Councilmember should have to do a PRR to get this information, should drive voters insane.)

Let’s just say that I did not receive a complete response. And… if you do not feel like you have received a complete response to a PRR, your only choice is to go to Superior Court. Which sounds tempting, but as an elected, you also gotta take into account how it looks to embarrass the City like that.

But the information I received created almost as many questions as it answered. Here are a few:

  • There is no scoring system. The materials provided by each applicant vary widely. You can’t tell how they were judged for worthiness. There are links to various private Google Drive files, but I can’t see those. And there are references to various Zoom meetings where the actual process and decision making were discussed, but apparently no recording was made. All I can see is that every applicant received what they asked for… or more than they requested. 5I saw no denials.
  • Some applicants received waaaay more than they requested. One guy asked for $2,500 and received $25,000. There is no explanation as to why he received 10 times the requested amount. (Seriously?)
  • There is no mention of how applicants found out about the program.

Discovery and outreach…

I’ll just focus on that last one here. The term of art for ‘how applicants found out about the program’ is discovery. I have no way of knowing how the applicants discovered the program. And that matters.

But first, there was also no mention of what efforts the City made at outreach–again, one of my original questions. I asked the City repeatedly what efforts it had made to advertise the program. As far as I can tell, the only efforts seemed to be to put the notice on the web site and the City’s Facebook Page; what’s known as a traditional passive approach: post a public notice and you’ve done yer due diligence.

Now, most people, especially business owners who are working their asses off 14 hours a day, do not just happen to go to the City web site or even related social media pages every day. Shocking, right? 😀

The one business owner who got publicly upset? His family is super-active on social media and volunteers for numerous city-related stuff. There was no way he was not going to be among the first to discover the program. I’m not being snarky here. I’m glad they got the helped they needed. But this is a real point. I want the people who are digitally clued in to recognize that you are outliers. You are, by definition, elites in Des Moines, because you tend to know things and people that most of us do not.

My point is that all the efforts the City made at outreach were passive and not active. And if you do it that way you get just what happened–26 people, almost all clustered around MVD, with some connection to the City… and yeah, a high likelihood of campaign donors. Because that is exactly the set of people who will hear about the program if you take a passive approach.

Don’t buy it? It’s exactly the same thing that happens with public auctions for stuff like property and automobiles. You almost always get the same people (professionals), because… again, how many people actually read “public notices”? Only the outliers and the friends they clue in. Which is why they get ‘all the deals’.

Game theory…

Again, we have close to 2,000 registered businesses here with only 26 winners. So it’s a lot more than transparency. It’s game theory.

To be clear, I am not saying that some evil guy ‘hand picked’ 26 businesses of his closest pals. This strikes me as a poorly designed game where the rules heavily favor a certain outcome. I’m not splitting hairs here: if the results are the same, they’re both ‘hand picked’. Whether someone intended that result or not is irrelevant. What matters is that when you design a program like this with no active public outreach, you are almost certain to get a 4‘hand picked’ result.

That other number…

I’m seeing some eye rolls. Fine. But there is another uncomfortable truth: this was a zero sum game. The City received roughly $987,000 in CARES funding. The administration spent what it needed on salaries to avoid layoffs (well done!) So one assumes that the City Manager simply decided to spend the entire remainder of $500k on GRO recipients. Sounds fantastic, right? Given the low number of applicants, this allowed a 100% approval rate. It allowed most businesses to get the maximum amount ($25,000). It even allowed some businesses to get more than they requested. Winner, winner, chicken dinner!

OK, about that dinner: If more people had been aware of the program, more would have applied. And again, the dinner was fixed at $500k.

So let’s keep this simple. Let’s say another 26 businesses had applied and that they had all similar application profiles. Now what?

  • Do you give each applicant half their dinner?
  • Do you start being more rigorous in your vetting so that some people get to have dinner and some do not?

There are many possibilities. And there’s also the fact that if you double the number of applicants, you significantly increase the staff and consultant time in administering the program. Does that double? Do you have to find ways to speed the process? Does that mean having a more standardized (and more rigorous) application which the applicants would find more demanding?

Look, the important thing is that the moment you have more applicants, the whole program becomes more expensive, more complex, more contentious and frankly… a whole lot less fun for everyone involved. Because now you have real winners and real losers.

And for me this is the part that makes me most cranky. So let’s cut the comedy: It was not in the self-interest of either the City or any business who received a grant to have the applicant pool increase. Having a low number of applicants was easier. For everybody.

If that would’ve happened, businesses might’ve received less, they might’ve received nothing. Or, pay attention here, if they had again received the full amount, they would’ve been subject a bit more scrutiny than what happened which was basically, “Everyone’s a winner!”

I’m not saying anything untoward was going on. I’m just saying, again, why MRSC recommended that we hire an independent 3rd Party administrator. Because those are the incentives.

But the Mayor and City Manager were so excited with the results, they just gushed at all the above features. And given that, one has at least consider the possibility that the lack of outreach was not some oversight. Remember: the City took at least four months to design the program. This was not something thrown together over a weekend. It wasn’t like, “Sorry guys, this is the best we could do on short notice. Hope it’s OK!” No. The City and majority were over the moon at the fact that the administration “took the extra time to do it right.”

Curses! Foiled by altruism…

After the checks were handed out, I spoke with two  businesses who I had told about the grant just before the deadline (they were unaware of the program), but ultimately chose not apply. Why? “Some businesses are probably hurting way more than me.” That’s a real quote from a guy who is now kicking himself that he did not apply.

There’s also this: some businesses I talked to, frankly, had to be begged to obtain help–some because they’d had a terrible experience with other State and Federal grant programs which were either confusing or simply did not deliver.

Because, remember that back in August 2020,a lot of people thought the pandemic was might be under control. The idea that there might be not one, but two subsequent waves, that were worse than the initial wave? A lot of, frankly, were in a bit of denial. So at least some businesses, in my opinion, should have received a more active message, “Dude, seriously, you need to apply.”

So when these business people see that some applicants got more than they requested? Yeah, they’re not too thrilled.

But for reasons that should be obvious, businesses will never complain.

And again, all of the above is why MRSC recommended that the City hire an outside agency to administer the program.

The counterargument

I can see a certain number of readers saying, “Nonsense. Everyone had exactly the same access to the City web site. There was equal opportunity. If some people didn’t find out about it? Maybe that’s sad, but it’s not unfair. The program was completely fair.”

It’s a lifeboat, not an auction…

I must disagree. This was not a public auction where a few people gather to get great deals on distressed property. GRO was meant as emergency relief. COVID relief  grants were meant as a life line for businesses that were in danger of going under. And thus, a much higher standard of outreach should have applied. You have to make every effort to reach every business in Des Moines.

Even if you’ve never been on a boat, imagine this:

You’re on a boat on a very foggy day out on Puget Sound. Can’t see your hand in front of your face. Suddenly you hear people in the water. Sounds coming from all over the place. 1So you stop the boat, throw out some life preservers and say, “Here we are!”

Now some of those people are near enough so that they hear the sound; or maybe they knew in advance that you had planned to be in that spot. Either way, they know to swim to where you are. They will be saved.

Others do not. They have no idea that help is even out there. So unless you move the boat to where they are? Oops.

You don’t know what you don’t know

Even if the City came forward with tomorrow with completely reasonable explanations for all my questions right now I would not care. And neither should you. The fact is that the City did not provide its electeds with full information about the program design. Even after doing a public records request I do not have answers to the issues I raised. That is what matters most.

And to summarize

  • Most electeds did not bother to even ask for it. I can question their lack of curiosity, but whatever.
  • And the one who did, was stonewalled by the administration. That just bad.
  • And when that one elected went to his colleagues in the majority and asked them to help obtain that information? They refused. That is intolerable.

And about those donors…

Now one of the recipients was very upset that I referred to these twenty six as ‘the lucky few’. That’s a fair point. ‘Luck’ had little to do with the selection process. Perhaps ‘fortunate’ would have been better.

He was also especially offended that I mentioned “look at the campaign donors”. And here is my response, not to any person, but any organization that receives public money.

  1. You receive a grant from a government.
  2. You then make a significant donation to a candidate/elected in the next election.
  3. An elected representative from the opposition party (who is also responsible for oversight of that grant) requests routine information from the executive.
  4. The executive refuses. Repeatedly.
  5. So that same, cranky elected asks your candidate/elected, the guy you just donated to, for assistance in obtaining that information from the executive, and your candidate/elected also refuses.

If that sequence of events occurs? You should write the executive, and your candidate/elected, asking the executive to comply fully with the original request for information.

Because if they don’t? If they don’t happily and with all due speed cough up an appropriate request for information? All that does is create instant and totally reasonable skepticism from the elected, both in your candidate, the executive and, unfortunately you.

Now if people say to me, “I had no idea about any of that crap. I hate politics.” or something along the lines of, “You should’ve just asked me about it. Everybody in town knows me.” or even, “You hate business.”

Sir, I am not angry with you for not following politics. So please don’t be angry with me for just doing my job. The moment the above sequence events happened, that business person enters the conversation. I cannot just go and talk to you about it and ask for your explanation and call it good. That’s not how public money works. And I’m sorry. It has nothing to do with you personally.

But if one still does not see this, forget that we’re talking about a ‘small town’. Just substitute the word Senator and President for ‘elected’ and ‘executive’.

It is exactly the same. I know people like to think of our Councilmembers as sort of small town volunteers. But in reality, we seven are the sole oversight of a $100M corporation and executive with extraordinary authority. It’s my job to raise these kinds of concerns.


1This is not the correct lifesaving procedure, by the way. 😀

2You do understand how much I loathe using euphemisms like “civic leader”, right? But the moment you ‘name names’ you get angry phone calls like, “Dude leave me out of this!” They don’t dispute what I’m writing. They just don’t want to get into ‘politics’.

1This figure is not meant to be precise. The number of active businesses is constantly shifting. People have licenses they don’t use or have bedroom operations.

4In techno-babble, a passive approach strongly selects for a non-random distribution.

5Actually, three obviously not credible denials, but they only show up in the final version of the spreadsheet, not in earlier drafts. But one isn’t located in Des Moines and I don’t even see an application for the others.

Weekly Update: 07/18/2021

Posted on Categories Campaigning, Economic Development, Engagement, Transparency, Weekly UpdatesLeave a comment on Weekly Update: 07/18/2021

You’ve received your ballots. Great! If it’s not too late, I want to add my strong endorsement for Joe Nguyen for King County Executive , especially if you care about reducing the noise and pollution from Sea-Tac Airport. I know that Dow has become a fixture around here, but frankly, he’s one of those politicians that talk like ‘environmentalists’ but in reality have not been great for Des Moines. These people (basically our entire long-standing slate) have engaged in ‘all or nothing thinking for decades when it comes to the airport.

Because Sea-Tac brings in so much moolah for Seattle and the East Side, King County as a whole has tended never lift a finger to consider any reasonable compromise or relief for us. They get the money, we get the noise and pollution. There’s a reason things never change. And it’s simply because we keep voting for the same people who sound like they have our interests but do not. Twelve years is enough. Vote for Joe.

Public Service Announcements

There are now vaccine appointments available every day now, including Walk-Ins at Walgreen’s, Rite-Aid, SeaMar and Healthpoint.

  1. Sign up to attend the Port Of Seattle Commissioner Candidate Forum July 22nd at 7PM!
  2. Hopefully you’ve already seen the Christmas In July post.  Please send me your ideas before our August 5th Budget Retreat!
  3. The City is preparing a survey to update its Parks, Recreation and Senior Services Master Plan. You may get something in the mail or you can fill one out at the Farmers Market any time Saturday July 24th. You can also comment by email: parksmasterplan@desmoineswa.gov
  4. Destination Des Moines is also also sponsoring the  Virtual Waterland Festival on July 24th!
  5. 216th Ave bridge Closure starts July 19th and runs through August 23rd!
  6. We’re embarking on the redevelopment of the Des Moines Marina. This is the largest capital project in our city’s history and we need your input! Please send your questions to marinamasterplan@desmoinewa.gov.
  7. I know you want to help save the Masonic Home. So sign up for the new site hosted by Washington Historic Trust!
  8. City Of Des Moines Minor Home Repair Program This is one of those great programs the City has had in place since forever, but we only advertise every quarter in the City Currents Magazine. Basically, low to moderate income households can get grants to do all sorts of necessary repairs. Just email Minor Home Repair Coordinator Tina Hickey (206) 870-6535.
  9. Every home should have a Carbon Monoxide Detector–especially during the colder months! Full stop. If you need one but money is tight, South King County Fire And Rescue will get you one. Just call their Community Affairs Office at 253-946-7347.
  10. And last, but not least: If you have a Port Package that is having issues, please email SeatacNoise.Info with your address!

This Week

Monday: A meeting with Tina Orwall on some ideas we had at SeatacNoise.Info towards developing a remote work/remote attendance policy at the State level.

Tuesday: SCATBd Meeting.

Tuesday: Burien Airport Committee (Agenda) I am hoping to get Burien (and Des Moines and King County and basically everyone) on board with the same message as I was just mentioning to Rep. Orwall.

Wednesday: Highline Forum (The usual stuff).

Thursday: Transportation Committee (Agenda) First draft of five year TIP.

Thursday: Environment Committee (Agenda)

Thursday: City Council Meeting (Agenda)
First off, a chronic problem for me is that the opening ‘Administration Report’ is blank. But apparently, the City Manager is preparing a presentation on our stimulus money. Which is great, but I hate that. If the administration has a topic planned, it should be in the packet so I can notify the public and prepare questions.

The Consent Agenda is also loaded with stuff I have questions about: Body Cameras, a staff coaching service that I don’t understand, and the appointment of two new people to the Human Services Advisory Committee. This is always of particular interest to me because it’s the group that chooses grants we provide to various community agencies and it’s kind of a black box to me; not only their process, but also how members are chosen. Last year when I asked about this, the other kids were really mean to me. 😀

Thursday: Port Of Seattle Candidates Forum (sign up)

Last Week

Tuesday: Port Of Seattle Commission Meeting (Agenda). I asked the Commission to re-engage on Port Package Updates and got smacked down pretty hard by Commission President Fred Felleman. This is almost a total retrenchment from their February 25, 2020 meeting.

Of some note is that the Commission voted to permanently ban facial recognition from their facilities. As I previously wrote, this sounds fabulous on its face (see what I did there? 😀 ) for privacy activists, except that this is the Port we’re talking about so you may want to read the fine print. 😀 There are some caveats such as ‘subject to State and Federal laws’. And that basically means that, if the FAA decides it wants to allow facial recognition? It’s game on again. The airlines will want this because it will increase throughput if they can validate your identity without the (slow) ID checks.  And one other thing I’ll keep repeating: the ‘chokepoints’ for airport expansion are not up in the sky. There will never be a need for a ‘Fourth Runway’. Whenever you hear about ‘airport expansion’ it will concern moving planes and people around on the ground.

Wednesday: Marina Association seminar on “Understanding Your Marina’s Economic Impact”. I’ve attended several of these over the past few months and more and more I’m convinced that the City Council should have a more formal engagement in the planning and management of the Marina.

Wednesday: Des Moines Marina Association meeting. I was pleased to see a couple of guests from the surrounding condos. Over time, the DMMA has kinda/sorta become a de facto City Advisory Committee for the entire Marina Redevelopment–both land side as well as the docks. The DMMA should rightly and aggressively defend the interests of boat owners. But IMO, they should not be the focus for decisions affecting the entire Marina floor. But until there is another mechanism, I am very grateful that they are so welcoming of guests. 🙂

Saturday: Aviation Summit Part II (solutions) More to follow.

My non-endorsement endorsement…

Part I: Who to vote for

Your ballot for the Primary Election is due August 3rd. 1There is only one race that is significantly contested and that is Position #7 between current Deputy Mayor Matt Mahoney, Soleil Lewis and Yoshiko Matsui Grace.

I am not formally endorsing any single candidate. But after having spent considerable time getting to know who they are, what they stand for and what they hope to achieve, I ask you to consider either Soleil Lewis or Yoshiko Grace Matsui. I believe that both well-qualified but also better qualified to help lead the City Of Des Moines than Mr. Mahoney.

Look, I had not intended to endorse anybody. But you know how the media is always screaming, “This is the most important election since…!” Well, this really is that election for Des Moines. The stakes are as high as they will ever be. Next year will contain some of the most consequential events in our history that you probably haven’t heard about yet. Such as:

  • Marina Redevelopment — the most expensive capital project in our history
  • A major expansion of Sea-Tac Airport
  • Highly controversial Affordable Housing legislation affecting the entire City
  • The largest infusion of Federal stimulus money any of us are ever likely to see

And that’s just for openers.

Soleil Lewis and Yoshiko are very different candidates and I will refer you to their web sites so they can sell themselves. I’ll just tell you what I see: both have made transparency, public engagement and improving the quality of government in Des Moines their top priorities. And those are what is most needed on on our City Council.

In fact, I think it is unfortunate that they did not choose to run for different seats. Des Moines needs more high quality candidates. However, I think it is telling that both chose to run against Matt Mahoney. And that raises the obvious question: why not re-elect Matt Mahoney?

For me, there are two related answers:

The first is policy. I doorbelled 6,000 homes on literally every street in Des Moines in 2019. Most of you told me you had no knowledge about what your City was doing or even how to participate. You said that you wanted more transparency and more public engagement. But since day one, the Council majority have gone in exactly the opposite direction.

    • Our City Manager unilaterally handed out $500,000 in business grants to only 26 selections in a 2deeply flawed process, leaving the vast majority of our businesses unaware and out in the cold. Who are these lucky few? Check the campaign donations.
    • Marina Redevelopment is now  proceeding–but only with input from the small number of boat owners, 80% of which do not live in Des Moines. There has been no public input from Des Moines residents in four years.
    • Sea-Tac Airport is embarking on the largest expansion program since the Third Runway. The Port Of Seattle is now treated as our partner based on a 30 year old myth that the Port provides ‘jobs and economic benefits’ to Des Moines. It. Does. Not. Our former Mayor lobbies for the Port.  What the Port really is: the biggest threat our City faces in terms of health, property values and schools.
    • The City’s digital presence, including its web site, access to meetings and  public outreach are the poorest in the area. It is literally impossible to search for important public documents and access for people with disabilities is beyond frustrating.

And that leads to the second reason: a lack of individual professionalism that is simply unacceptable in a leader of a city with a $100M budget. Mr. Mahoney has engaged in an ongoing campaign of personal insults and  unfounded accusations as tactics to prevent minority Councilmembers from doing their job. When any Councilmember has a reasonable disagreement or shows the kind of initiative you should want from your Councilmembers, he does not communicate or compromise; he simply attacks.

Ironically, my second vote on the Council was for Mr. Mahoney to be Deputy Mayor. But it is now the vote I most deeply regret. Before that vote he told me that he recognized that when voters elected Councilmember Martinelli and myself, they had chosen representatives with perspectives that differed from the majority. So he promised to be someone who would help build consensus and find compromise. That would be leadership. But in reality, Mr. Mahoney has behaved like the high school bully of our City Council. And for that reason alone, he does not deserve your vote.

OK, that’s the business part of this. Stop here if all you needed was a recommendation and some links. The remainder is just me gassing on about why I feel so strongly about the need for reform. 🙂


Part II: Marco Polo

When Marco Polo returned home after years in China, the Italians did not believe his stories of ice cream and spaghetti and gun powder because they had not seen it for themselves. Actually, lots of influential people knew about all that stuff. They just didn’t talk about it.

Perhaps the above seems shocking or ‘sour grapes’ if your only images of City Council are from hand shakes and friendly ribbon cuttings.

We have had no newspaper for many years and almost none of you follow local government. For most of you, your only knowledge of City affairs comes four times a year with the City Currents magazine–a promotional newsletter and not objective news coverage. Hell, key portions of our City’s web site–access to your public information–have been broken now for months and no one seems to know the difference. This is not something I brag about, but I’m probably one of maybe four(?) people who have followed Des Moines politics closely for a continuous period of time. And two of them are/were part of the majority I ran to oppose. You have no way of knowing the objective state of your City.

Yes, there’s a bit of social media, but frankly 99% of that is either official announcements or gossip or CMs doing warm fuzzies. I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I’ve seen any other CM or candidate give their unvarnished opinion on any policy of consequence.

Now, during this campaign season, there will be some ‘candidate forums’. I just saw one tonight and they can be somewhat helpful. But frankly, almost none of you will know the really important questions to ask. I’m not saying that your question isn’t important. It’s just that you don’t know what you don’t know.  And even if you did, you might not be able to tell what’s what.  There’s no fact checking and no follow-up. So candidates, and especially incumbents, can skate by with almost any level of pandering.

I know this will sound snarky, but it’s a real problem: often the most gossip-laden people–those who think they’re well-informed, will get some pretty basic things wrong. But hey, if you heard it from ‘your friend’ on the City Council , the rumors spread and that determines what people think is possible and round and round we go year after year.

Actually, gossip doesn’t even need to come from a friend. Deputy Mayor Mahoney himself has developed quite the habit of talking about things that a few key people are working  on–telling the public stuff like how  ‘A ferry is coming!’ or  ‘We’re looking at hiring four more police officers!’ It’s specifically meant to imply that he has some special insider authority which the ceremonial office of Deputy Mayor does not have.

The In Crowd

However, Mr. Mahoney is not wrong to imply that decision making is limited to ‘a few key people’. It’s not a bug; it’s a feature. A culture of insiderism has been festering in Des Moines for many years now. There is now an almost complete lack of transparency which has become so chronic that the few who do follow City affairs consider our situation ‘normal’ or at least inevitable.  It is not.

I don’t want to make it sound like there’s some group of evil people lingering in the shadows. More often the problem is that good people don’t speak up. Why should they? If you have any connection with the City, you cannot.  And the influencers just assume that because “it’s always been like that” the current system is “as good as it gets.” People like the whole polite small town vibe. So do I. But ironically, this can work against good government. Democracy only works when people really can ‘disagree without being disagreeable’ in public. But at some point, agreeability starts to look an awful lot like a lack of courage.

The only issue…

Frankly, many of us have come to think of fine words like ‘good government’ as somewhat optional. It’s nice to have, but so long as it seems like the City is handling your issue at any given time, many of us don’t care how the sausage is made. Now having seen both sides, both as a concerned citizen before and as your elected now,  I can tell you truthfully that this is incorrect.

I’ll be specific: I’ve made such a deal about Matt Mahoney’s ethical lapses because that should be the entire election. Seriously, good professional conduct should be the baseline, right? Right? 😀

But I doubt any member of the public or candidate will even mention it. Instead, they may ask about ‘differences on the issues’ or ‘hope to bring more cooperation’. Everyone runs away from the issue. As a community we’re constantly sending the message that ethical conduct is just not a big deal. It would be like watching a ball game, knowing that one team is allowed to cheat and then wondering why they tend to win. It’s ridiculous.

Residents have asked for decades why Des Moines has not thrived like so many other waterfront communities. That is the real answer.

What I have written may sound abstract, but it’s not so let me put it in one sentence. It is in your personal interest to have a City Council that functions with transparency, professionalism and fairness. Better government tends to lead to better outcomes for you on every issue you care about. Swear to God.

Every big ticket issue I mentioned: Marina Redevelopment, Airport Expansion, Stimulus money, public safety, even the potholes. Everything is negatively impacted by the current lack of transparency and lack of public engagement in decision making. Everything.

One last thing. If you’ve read this far I know what yer thinking: Nope. This letter has got nuthin’ to do with any party politics. In fact, I have always been a true independent and non-partisan–perhaps the last of a dying breed. 😀 During my campaign, I requested no endorsements from anyone. I also did not ask for campaign donations from any business or organization. I have never represented any political agenda other than my own and I will resist any attempt by any candidate or elected to ever put the interests of any organization ahead of  the residents of Des Moines. I’m just telling you who I think are the best available choices for Position #7 at this one key  moment–because, as I said, this time it really matters.

As always, it is my honor to serve Des Moines.


1Yes, Position #5 is also on the ballot. My advice? Do a write-in. Seriously.

2This is one of the few times I have ever edited an article. The original expression was ‘hand selected’ which offended one local business owner–he thought it created the impression that he was somehow ‘in on it’ which was not at all my intention. My intention was to say that ‘the selection process was poor’, But that sounds far too polite, IMO. Here is some details on that selection process and how tough it has been for me to obtain information about the program. Judge for yourself.

Primary 2021: The non-endorsement, endorsement

Posted on Categories Campaigning, PolicyLeave a comment on Primary 2021: The non-endorsement, endorsement

Part I: Who to vote for

Your ballot for the Primary Election is due August 3rd. 1There is only one race that is significantly contested and that is Position #7 between current Deputy Mayor Matt Mahoney, Soleil Lewis and Yoshiko Matsui Grace.

I am not formally endorsing any single candidate. But after having spent considerable time getting to know who they are, what they stand for and what they hope to achieve, I ask you to consider either Soleil Lewis or Yoshiko Grace Matsui. I believe that both well-qualified but also better qualified to help lead the City Of Des Moines than Mr. Mahoney.

Look, I had not intended to endorse anybody. But you know how the media is always screaming, “This is the most important election since…!” Well, this really is that election for Des Moines. The stakes are as high as they will ever be. Next year will contain some of the most consequential events in our history that you probably haven’t heard about yet. Such as:

  • Marina Redevelopment — the most expensive capital project in our history
  • A major expansion of Sea-Tac Airport
  • Highly controversial Affordable Housing legislation affecting the entire City
  • The largest infusion of Federal stimulus money any of us are ever likely to see

And that’s just for openers.

Soleil Lewis and Yoshiko are very different candidates and I will refer you to their web sites so they can sell themselves. I’ll just tell you what I see: both have made transparency, public engagement and improving the quality of government in Des Moines their top priorities. And those are what is most needed on on our City Council.

In fact, I think it is unfortunate that they did not choose to run for different seats. Des Moines needs more high quality candidates. However, I think it is telling that both chose to run against Matt Mahoney. And that raises the obvious question: why not re-elect Matt Mahoney?

For me, there are two related answers:

The first is policy. I doorbelled 6,000 homes on literally every street in Des Moines in 2019. Most of you told me you had no knowledge about what your City was doing or even how to participate. You said that you wanted more transparency and more public engagement. But since day one, the Council majority have gone in exactly the opposite direction.

    • Our City Manager unilaterally handed out $500,000 in business grants to only 26 selections in a 2deeply flawed process, leaving the vast majority of our businesses unaware and out in the cold. Who are these lucky few? Check the campaign donations.
    • Marina Redevelopment is now  proceeding–but only with input from the small number of boat owners, 80% of which do not live in Des Moines. There has been no public input from Des Moines residents in four years.
    • Sea-Tac Airport is embarking on the largest expansion program since the Third Runway. The Port Of Seattle is now treated as our partner based on a 30 year old myth that the Port provides ‘jobs and economic benefits’ to Des Moines. It. Does. Not. Our former Mayor lobbies for the Port.  What the Port really is: the biggest threat our City faces in terms of health, property values and schools.
    • The City’s digital presence, including its web site, access to meetings and  public outreach are the poorest in the area. It is literally impossible to search for important public documents and access for people with disabilities is beyond frustrating.

And that leads to the second reason: a lack of individual professionalism that is simply unacceptable in a leader of a city with a $100M budget. Mr. Mahoney has engaged in an ongoing campaign of personal insults and  unfounded accusations as tactics to prevent minority Councilmembers from doing their job. When any Councilmember has a reasonable disagreement or shows the kind of initiative you should want from your Councilmembers, he does not communicate or compromise; he simply attacks.

Ironically, my second vote on the Council was for Mr. Mahoney to be Deputy Mayor. But it is now the vote I most deeply regret. Before that vote he told me that he recognized that when voters elected Councilmember Martinelli and myself, they had chosen representatives with perspectives that differed from the majority. So he promised to be someone who would help build consensus and find compromise. That would be leadership. But in reality, Mr. Mahoney has behaved like the high school bully of our City Council. And for that reason alone, he does not deserve your vote.

OK, that’s the business part of this. Stop here if all you needed was a recommendation and some links. The remainder is just me gassing on about why I feel so strongly about the need for reform. 🙂


Part II: Marco Polo

When Marco Polo returned home after years in China, the Italians did not believe his stories of ice cream and spaghetti and gun powder because they had not seen it for themselves. Actually, lots of influential people knew about all that stuff. They just didn’t talk about it.

Perhaps the above seems shocking or ‘sour grapes’ if your only images of City Council are from hand shakes and friendly ribbon cuttings.

We have had no newspaper for many years and almost none of you follow local government. For most of you, your only knowledge of City affairs comes four times a year with the City Currents magazine–a promotional newsletter and not objective news coverage. Hell, key portions of our City’s web site–access to your public information–have been broken now for months and no one seems to know the difference. This is not something I brag about, but I’m probably one of maybe four(?) people who have followed Des Moines politics closely for a continuous period of time. And two of them are/were part of the majority I ran to oppose. You have no way of knowing the objective state of your City.

Yes, there’s a bit of social media, but frankly 99% of that is either official announcements or gossip or CMs doing warm fuzzies. I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I’ve seen any other CM or candidate give their unvarnished opinion on any policy of consequence.

Now, during this campaign season, there will be some ‘candidate forums’. I just saw one tonight and they can be somewhat helpful. But frankly, almost none of you will know the really important questions to ask. I’m not saying that your question isn’t important. It’s just that you don’t know what you don’t know.  And even if you did, you might not be able to tell what’s what.  There’s no fact checking and no follow-up. So candidates, and especially incumbents, can skate by with almost any level of pandering.

I know this will sound snarky, but it’s a real problem: often the most gossip-laden people–those who think they’re well-informed, will get some pretty basic things wrong. But hey, if you heard it from ‘your friend’ on the City Council , the rumors spread and that determines what people think is possible and round and round we go year after year.

Actually, gossip doesn’t even need to come from a friend. Deputy Mayor Mahoney himself has developed quite the habit of talking about things that a few key people are working  on–telling the public stuff like how  ‘A ferry is coming!’ or  ‘We’re looking at hiring four more police officers!’ It’s specifically meant to imply that he has some special insider authority which the ceremonial office of Deputy Mayor does not have.

The In Crowd

However, Mr. Mahoney is not wrong to imply that decision making is limited to ‘a few key people’. It’s not a bug; it’s a feature. A culture of insiderism has been festering in Des Moines for many years now. There is now an almost complete lack of transparency which has become so chronic that the few who do follow City affairs consider our situation ‘normal’ or at least inevitable.  It is not.

I don’t want to make it sound like there’s some group of evil people lingering in the shadows. More often the problem is that good people don’t speak up. Why should they? If you have any connection with the City, you cannot.  And the influencers just assume that because “it’s always been like that” the current system is “as good as it gets.” People like the whole polite small town vibe. So do I. But ironically, this can work against good government. Democracy only works when people really can ‘disagree without being disagreeable’ in public. But at some point, agreeability starts to look an awful lot like a lack of courage.

The only issue…

Frankly, many of us have come to think of fine words like ‘good government’ as somewhat optional. It’s nice to have, but so long as it seems like the City is handling your issue at any given time, many of us don’t care how the sausage is made. Now having seen both sides, both as a concerned citizen before and as your elected now,  I can tell you truthfully that this is incorrect.

I’ll be specific: I’ve made such a deal about Matt Mahoney’s ethical lapses because that should be the entire election. Seriously, good professional conduct should be the baseline, right? Right? 😀

But I doubt any member of the public or candidate will even mention it. Instead, they may ask about ‘differences on the issues’ or ‘hope to bring more cooperation’. Everyone runs away from the issue. As a community we’re constantly sending the message that ethical conduct is just not a big deal. It would be like watching a ball game, knowing that one team is allowed to cheat and then wondering why they tend to win. It’s ridiculous.

Residents have asked for decades why Des Moines has not thrived like so many other waterfront communities. That is the real answer.

What I have written may sound abstract, but it’s not so let me put it in one sentence. It is in your personal interest to have a City Council that functions with transparency, professionalism and fairness. Better government tends to lead to better outcomes for you on every issue you care about. Swear to God.

Every big ticket issue I mentioned: Marina Redevelopment, Airport Expansion, Stimulus money, public safety, even the potholes. Everything is negatively impacted by the current lack of transparency and lack of public engagement in decision making. Everything.

One last thing. If you’ve read this far I know what yer thinking: Nope. This letter has got nuthin’ to do with any party politics. In fact, I have always been a true independent and non-partisan–perhaps the last of a dying breed. 😀 During my campaign, I requested no endorsements from anyone. I also did not ask for campaign donations from any business or organization. I have never represented any political agenda other than my own and I will resist any attempt by any candidate or elected to ever put the interests of any organization ahead of  the residents of Des Moines. I’m just telling you who I think are the best available choices for Position #7 at this one key  moment–because, as I said, this time it really matters.

As always, it is my honor to serve Des Moines.


1Yes, Position #5 is also on the ballot. My advice? Do a write-in. Seriously.

2This is one of the few times I have ever edited an article. The original expression was ‘hand selected’ which offended one local business owner–he thought it created the impression that he was somehow ‘in on it’ which was not at all my intention. My intention was to say that ‘the selection process was poor’, But that sounds far too polite, IMO. Here is some details on that selection process and how tough it has been for me to obtain information about the program. Judge for yourself.

Weekly Update: 07/13/2021

Posted on Categories Economic Development, Engagement, Environment, Neighborhoods, Public Safety, Weekly Updates3 Comments on Weekly Update: 07/13/2021

Yeah, late again. My lame excuse this time was that I was waiting for the presentation and video from last week’s Economic Development Committee Meeting. I strongly urge you to read that bit below–and the Memo on the last page of that Agenda.

Public Service Announcements

There are now vaccine appointments available every day now, including Walk-Ins at Walgreen’s, Rite-Aid, SeaMar and Healthpoint.

  1. Sign up to attend the Port Of Seattle Commissioner Candidate Forum July 22nd at 7PM!
  2. Hopefully you’ve already seen the Christmas In July post.  Please send me your ideas before our August 5th Budget Retreat!
  3. The City is preparing a survey to update its Parks, Recreation and Senior Services Master Plan. You may get something in the mail or you can fill one out at the Farmers Market any time Saturday July 24th. You can also comment by email: parksmasterplan@desmoineswa.gov
  4. Destination Des Moines is also also sponsoring the  Virtual Waterland Festival on July 24th!
  5. 216th Ave bridge Closure starts July 19th and runs through August 23rd!
  6. We’re embarking on the redevelopment of the Des Moines Marina. This is the largest capital project in our city’s history and we need your input! Please send your questions to marinamasterplan@desmoinewa.gov.
  7. I know you want to help save the Masonic Home. So sign up for the new site hosted by Washington Historic Trust!
  8. City Of Des Moines Minor Home Repair Program This is one of those great programs the City has had in place since forever, but we only advertise every quarter in the City Currents Magazine. Basically, low to moderate income households can get grants to do all sorts of necessary repairs. Just email Minor Home Repair Coordinator Tina Hickey (206) 870-6535.
  9. Every home should have a Carbon Monoxide Detector–especially during the colder months! Full stop. If you need one but money is tight, South King County Fire And Rescue will get you one. Just call their Community Affairs Office at 253-946-7347.
  10. And last, but not least: If you have a Port Package that is having issues, please email SeatacNoise.Info with your address!

This Week

Tuesday: Port Of Seattle Commission Meeting (Agenda). Of some note is that the Commission will vote to permanently ban facial recognition from their facilities. Which sounds fabulous for privacy activists, except that this is the Port we’re talking about so you may want to read the fine print. 😀 There are some caveats such as ‘subject to State and Federal laws’. And that basically means that, if the FAA decides it wants to allow facial recognition? It’s game on again. The airlines will want this because it will increase throughput if they can validate your identity without the (slow) ID checks.  And one other thing I’ll keep repeating: the ‘chokepoints’ for airport expansion are not up in the sky. There will never be a need for a ‘Fourth Runway’. Whenever you hear about ‘airport expansion’ it will concern moving planes and people around on the ground.

Wednesday: Marina Association seminar on “Understanding Your Marina’s Economic Impact”. I’ve attended several of these over the past few months and more and more I’m convinced that the City Council should have more formal engagement in the planning and management of the Marina.

Last Week

Thursday: Economic Development Committee Meeting (Agenda).  Well, this took a left turn. The advertised highlight was supposed to be on Tax Increment Financing (TIF) HB1189. Instead, the discussion was concerning HB1220 which is summarized on the last page of the Agenda.

Update: Presentation To summarize, Planner Eric Lane and our lobbyist Anthony Hemstad took turns in describing the hows and whys.

I don’t want to be melodramatic, but this is a big deal because this is where the whole ‘housing’ discussion begins to get real for Des Moines. What is concerning is that my colleagues seemed kinda caught off guard. But this sort of bill has been pushed for years and smaller cities have fought it tooth and nail. However, sooner or later, something like this was going to pass at the State level because, frankly, there has been no will to do so at the local level. It’s just one of those classic State/Local tensions. The majority of State voters say they want to address ‘housing’ and ‘homelessness’. But local voters have also made it clear that they are not thrilled with zoning changes in their City.

The meat of it is that it will limit the City’s ability to use zoning law to prevent emergency and long-term shelters that housing/homelessness advocates want. (Not in this version, but next year) it will make it easier to build ADUs (mother-in-law apartments). It compels the City to create a for realz plan to address affordable housing and to document our real-world efforts we’ve made on reducing homelessness.

HB1220 is not something to freak out about now. But whether you like it or not, it is the beginning and we need to be planning for that long term.

Thursday: City Council Meeting (Agenda) (Video)

Council Meeting Recap: Constructive Criticism…

I got the following message from a resident the morning after our last City Council Meeting :

“It looks like you guys were getting along. What happened?” 😀

I can only speak for myself: I self-censored. I avoided several uncomfortable conversations that should be happening. Frankly, some nights? I just don’t feel like fighting.

Administration Report on Heat Event

Not to bring up unpleasant history, but hearken back to our September 7, 2017 meeting. One of the first things our City Manager did after being promoted was to establish a separate director-level Emergency Management position and head to Maryland along with the Mayor and staff for a week of Emergency Preparedness Training. There was a lot of discussion about making Des Moines the regional leader in emergency preparedness given various risks and our strategic location (earthquake, shoreline, proximity to freeways, airport, etc.) 1We’ve put a lot of money into this program.

Now, it may sound like I’m a bit bitter 😀 but last April I got reamed by Mayor Pina and then Deputy Mayor Mahoney for  being ‘disrespectful’ of our Emergency Operations Center, our staff, the City Of Des Moines–and probably Santa Claus.  Actually, I did nothing of the kind. I was simply asking questions about the program because the City made such a big deal about our exceptional investment in it.

Results

Fifteen months after the declaration, and despite a four year specially-dedicated Emergency Management program, we have not performed much differently than our sister cities in responding to COVID-19. We were slower than other cities to shut down various functions and convert to remote functionality and we’ve been slower now to re-open to the public.

OK, here is a 5piccie from that 2017 meeting. Forget that I’m counting ceiling tiles in back. What COO Dan Brewer is saying in that exact moment is that the City needs to be in constant preparation, not just for ‘disasters’ but weather events.

So now, after all this effort, when I see us not have a plan in place for a hot day (which was predicted a week in advance) and the administration basically says, “Well, who knew, right?” I have even more questions.

Because other cities, who do not have dedicated EM departments,  did have cooling centers ready to go.

This is no joke. We have a large vulnerable population (including a lot of  seniors who are not in air conditioned settings.)  And in my opinion, extreme heat events are things we should already have plans for. We already have detailed plans for ‘Snowmageddon’, right?

Look, it was fantastic that State Rep. Orwall was able to work with Highline College to open up on that Monday. And it’s great that 85 people were helped that day. But it should also be reasonable to ask: Given our Emergency Management program, why did we even need that special intervention?

Other Cities

I don’t want to pile on here, but I get calls and messages several times a week now along the lines of, “Why isn’t (x) facility open? Other Cities are doing (y) so  1WTF, Dude?” And I have exactly the same questions.

Street Racing Ordinance

I voted for the Street Racing Ordinance. I even seconded Mayor Pina’s motion to increase the fine for this Civil Infraction from $256 to $513. I am generally not in favor of heavy penalties unless there is actual data to show that it has a deterrent effect. But as I said from the dais, my former company worked with the ‘performance community’, I’ve been to their conventions, and these people are invested in their cars and their hobby. As with fireworks–they’re well-aware of the illegality. And by the way, a Civil Infraction is not a criminal offense.

Rule 26a

Whenever proposing an ordinance, the administration almost always tacks on an amendment to suspend Rule 26a. And I always vote against that.

By default, all ordinances require a second reading before taking effect–meaning that there need to be two separate votes at two meetings for it to take effect. In my opinion, we should never pass an ordinance without a second reading unless it is a true emergency for this reason: public engagement. Often times, the public only hears about a Council action because of that first reading. I want the public to have every possible opportunity to weigh in. I can’t tell you the number of times someone has given me some suggestion on legislation–only after it was enacted. The second reading gives the Council a final chance to refine the law.

I did not feel like it was a true emergency in this case because before the meeting I asked to see if there was any intelligence to indicate there might be upcoming racing events. Nope.

Burden of proof

One thing I wanted to highlight during the discussion is that, under State law, the burden of proof to prosecute is crazy high. And I don’t think the public understands this. You have to be able to ID the driver, not merely the automobile, in order to obtain a conviction. It is not good enough for a bystander to simply take video of a guy speeding by (or some unidentifiable person lighting off fireworks for that matter) and agree to be testify later. So unless a sworn officer just happens to be in the neighbourhood, good luck. Which is exactly why I want more neighbourhood policing.

Signage

My primary interest in the ordinance was to get signs placed at key points (like the start and end points in Redondo) announcing the ordinance and the penalty. I had calls and messages from several residents asking for this and I was very pleased that my colleagues, specifically Councilmember Bangs provided their support. It may turn out that signage is a bigger deterrent than the actual ordinance.

Fourth Of July

I had at least half a dozen letters and messages complaining about personal fireworks. I had planned to ask the Chief about it at this meeting, however neither the Chief or other PD official were present. This is unusual because a representative of the PD attends almost every meeting to take questions.

All my colleagues (and I) took pains to express our gratitude for the hard work of our Officers on Independence Day. A couple went so far as to say how much quieter things were where they lived.  But that was definitely not my experience living near the old Des Moines Elementary School.

However, the number of calls for service was 15% higher than in 2019,  while the number of citations written was less than half (7 vs. 3).

What I wanted to ask the Chief directly was:

  1. To what do you attribute the lower ticket count?
  2. Did you ask your officers to report on the mood in the community? Was there general willingness to comply? Or were many calls challenging?
  3. Do you have stats by neighborhood?

For me, the point of the increased patrols is as much about data gathering as it is enforcement. I expected more activity this year after the pandemic. But we need to have a sense of how we’re doing year on year. Remember: it costs money. So we need metrics on ROI.

I want to be able to gauge the efficacy of the increased enforcement. Is it going to reduce personal fireworks long term? Do we need to do more? If so, what? Or should we just stay the course? As a Council we should have gotten some sense of this from the administration and we got nothing.

The atmosphere

To be blunt, it is simply not possible with the current Council to ask these kinds of very reasonable questions–the ones that residents ask me about all the time. Because when I do, there is retaliation–as there was about the EOC last year. To ask any question which  that sounds ‘critical’,  that City might have done better on a particular task is to be told that one is ‘un-supportive’ or ‘running down the City’ or worse.

In reality, direct inquiry is basic oversight and at the core of the job of Councilmember. And again, all the questions I’ve listed above are questions that the Council gets. All the time.

I want a City Council that fosters a climate where every member can ask such questions of staff and feel the full support of the entire Council.

My current colleagues and the City Manager take great pains to show support for our staff and to always paint our City in the best possible light. Good. Portraying a positive image of the City is important; as is creating a positive work environment. And for the billionth time: I never want staff to feel unappreciated or attacked.

But in the future I want to have discussions that focus just a bit less on “Great job guys!” and more like “What could we have done better?”

Because you can always do better. There are always lessons to be learned and the City Council Meetings are the public venue to have those discussions.

The Thanksgiving table…

There’s an expression I’ve heard many times since I’ve lived in Des Moines to account for the unwillingness to have frank open discussions. It’s referred to as ‘the Thanksgiving Table’. No one wants to say anything that anyone might find unpleasant–so as not to upset the meal.

But City Council meetings are not family gatherings, they’re supposed to be inquiries leading to serious, well-informed decisions. The goal is neither to court or to avoid conflict, it’s simply to get at the truth. But over time, we’ve slowly made ‘asking questions’ itself into being somehow impolite, “Oh we don’t want to talk about that at the dinner table!”

Candidate Modeling…

Here’s the thing. 2When beginning their campaigns, candidates are always counseled to ‘be positive’. Talk about the good things, never go negative.

Plus, the public definitely is sick of the arguing and bad conduct.

So newly elected CMs generally have no 4model or incentives towards true debate. We’ve demonized any disagreement, either with fellow CMs, or especially the administration, as being somehow intrinsically bad for the City. They may not understand just how critical it is for every CM to have each other’s back so as to never allow the administration the ability to play favorites.

In one sentence, my concern is that even new candidates will come in and unconsciously continue the ‘Thanksgiving Table’ pattern of self-censorship. Because that’s all they know.

So to any new candidates who come to the Council next January: I will always have your back if you want to raise a concern, whether I agree or not.


1And let me be clear: I fully supported this concept. I wrote a detailed letter to the new City Manager after that meeting, asking him to consider the potential importance of the boating community for any disaster planning.

2OK, seniors generally do not express themselves like that in Des Moines. But inside, they feel, it baby. 😀

3Yeah, I totally didn’t do that

4Well, unless they are obsessives like this guy (or moi) who regularly attend City Council meetings all over the place.

5That’s Traci Buxton and Harry Steinmetz who were competing for Position 5. Candidates all tend to start showing up for a few meetings around August. That’s how you can tell it’s an election year. 😀

Constructive Criticism

Posted on Categories Campaigning, Engagement, Neighborhoods, Public Safety

I got the following message from a resident the morning after our last City Council Meeting :

“It looks like you guys were getting along. What happened?” 😀

I can only speak for myself: I self-censored. I avoided several uncomfortable conversations that should be happening. Frankly, some nights? I just don’t feel like fighting.

Administration Report on Heat Event

Not to bring up unpleasant history, but hearken back to our September 7, 2017 meeting. One of the first things our City Manager did after being promoted was to establish a separate director-level Emergency Management position and head to Maryland along with the Mayor and staff for a week of Emergency Preparedness Training. There was a lot of discussion about making Des Moines the regional leader in emergency preparedness given various risks and our strategic location (earthquake, shoreline, proximity to freeways, airport, etc.) 1We’ve put a lot of money into this program.

Now, it may sound like I’m a bit bitter 😀 but last April I got reamed by Mayor Pina and then Deputy Mayor Mahoney for  being ‘disrespectful’ of our Emergency Operations Center, our staff, the City Of Des Moines–and probably Santa Claus.  Actually, I did nothing of the kind. I was simply asking questions about the program because the City made such a big deal about our exceptional investment in it.

Results

Fifteen months after the declaration, and despite a four year specially-dedicated Emergency Management program, we have not performed much differently than our sister cities in responding to COVID-19. We were slower than other cities to shut down various functions and convert to remote functionality and we’ve been slower now to re-open to the public.

OK, here is a 5piccie from that 2017 meeting. Forget that I’m counting ceiling tiles in back. What COO Dan Brewer is saying in that exact moment is that the City needs to be in constant preparation, not just for ‘disasters’ but weather events.

So now, after all this effort, when I see us not have a plan in place for a hot day (which was predicted a week in advance) and the administration basically says, “Well, who knew, right?” I have even more questions.

Because other cities, who do not have dedicated EM departments,  did have cooling centers ready to go.

This is no joke. We have a large vulnerable population (including a lot of  seniors who are not in air conditioned settings.)  And in my opinion, extreme heat events are things we should already have plans for. We already have detailed plans for ‘Snowmageddon’, right?

Look, it was fantastic that State Rep. Orwall was able to work with Highline College to open up on that Monday. And it’s great that 85 people were helped that day. But it should also be reasonable to ask: Given our Emergency Management program, why did we even need that special intervention?

Other Cities

I don’t want to pile on here, but I get calls and messages several times a week now along the lines of, “Why isn’t (x) facility open? Other Cities are doing (y) so  1WTF, Dude?” And I have exactly the same questions.

Street Racing Ordinance

I voted for the Street Racing Ordinance. I even seconded Mayor Pina’s motion to increase the fine for this Civil Infraction from $256 to $513. I am generally not in favor of heavy penalties unless there is actual data to show that it has a deterrent effect. But as I said from the dais, my former company worked with the ‘performance community’, I’ve been to their conventions, and these people are invested in their cars and their hobby. As with fireworks–they’re well-aware of the illegality. And by the way, a Civil Infraction is not a criminal offense.

Rule 26a

Whenever proposing an ordinance, the administration almost always tacks on an amendment to suspend Rule 26a. And I always vote against that.

By default, all ordinances require a second reading before taking effect–meaning that there need to be two separate votes at two meetings for it to take effect. In my opinion, we should never pass an ordinance without a second reading unless it is a true emergency for this reason: public engagement. Often times, the public only hears about a Council action because of that first reading. I want the public to have every possible opportunity to weigh in. I can’t tell you the number of times someone has given me some suggestion on legislation–only after it was enacted. The second reading gives the Council a final chance to refine the law.

I did not feel like it was a true emergency in this case because before the meeting I asked to see if there was any intelligence to indicate there might be upcoming racing events. Nope.

Burden of proof

One thing I wanted to highlight during the discussion is that, under State law, the burden of proof to prosecute is crazy high. And I don’t think the public understands this. You have to be able to ID the driver, not merely the automobile, in order to obtain a conviction. It is not good enough for a bystander to simply take video of a guy speeding by (or some unidentifiable person lighting off fireworks for that matter) and agree to be testify later. So unless a sworn officer just happens to be in the neighbourhood, good luck. Which is exactly why I want more neighbourhood policing.

Signage

My primary interest in the ordinance was to get signs placed at key points (like the start and end points in Redondo) announcing the ordinance and the penalty. I had calls and messages from several residents asking for this and I was very pleased that my colleagues, specifically Councilmember Bangs provided their support. It may turn out that signage is a bigger deterrent than the actual ordinance.

Fourth Of July

I had at least half a dozen letters and messages complaining about personal fireworks. I had planned to ask the Chief about it at this meeting, however neither the Chief or other PD official were present. This is unusual because a representative of the PD attends almost every meeting to take questions.

All my colleagues (and I) took pains to express our gratitude for the hard work of our Officers on Independence Day. A couple went so far as to say how much quieter things were where they lived.  But that was definitely not my experience living near the old Des Moines Elementary School.

However, the number of calls for service was 15% higher than in 2019,  while the number of citations written was less than half (7 vs. 3).

What I wanted to ask the Chief directly was:

  1. To what do you attribute the lower ticket count?
  2. Did you ask your officers to report on the mood in the community? Was there general willingness to comply? Or were many calls challenging?
  3. Do you have stats by neighborhood?

For me, the point of the increased patrols is as much about data gathering as it is enforcement. I expected more activity this year after the pandemic. But we need to have a sense of how we’re doing year on year. Remember: it costs money. So we need metrics on ROI.

I want to be able to gauge the efficacy of the increased enforcement. Is it going to reduce personal fireworks long term? Do we need to do more? If so, what? Or should we just stay the course? As a Council we should have gotten some sense of this from the administration and we got nothing.

The atmosphere

To be blunt, it is simply not possible with the current Council to ask these kinds of very reasonable questions–the ones that residents ask me about all the time. Because when I do, there is retaliation–as there was about the EOC last year. To ask any question which  that sounds ‘critical’,  that City might have done better on a particular task is to be told that one is ‘un-supportive’ or ‘running down the City’ or worse.

In reality, direct inquiry is basic oversight and at the core of the job of Councilmember. And again, all the questions I’ve listed above are questions that the Council gets. All the time.

I want a City Council that fosters a climate where every member can ask such questions of staff and feel the full support of the entire Council.

My current colleagues and the City Manager take great pains to show support for our staff and to always paint our City in the best possible light. Good. Portraying a positive image of the City is important; as is creating a positive work environment. And for the billionth time: I never want staff to feel unappreciated or attacked.

But in the future I want to have discussions that focus just a bit less on “Great job guys!” and more like “What could we have done better?”

Because you can always do better. There are always lessons to be learned and the City Council Meetings are the public venue to have those discussions.

The Thanksgiving table…

There’s an expression I’ve heard many times since I’ve lived in Des Moines to account for the unwillingness to have frank open discussions. It’s referred to as ‘the Thanksgiving Table’. No one wants to say anything that anyone might find unpleasant–so as not to upset the meal.

But City Council meetings are not family gatherings, they’re supposed to be inquiries leading to serious, well-informed decisions. The goal is neither to court or to avoid conflict, it’s simply to get at the truth. But over time, we’ve slowly made ‘asking questions’ itself into being somehow impolite, “Oh we don’t want to talk about that at the dinner table!”

Candidate Modeling…

Here’s the thing. 2When beginning their campaigns, candidates are always counseled to ‘be positive’. Talk about the good things, never go negative.

Plus, the public definitely is sick of the arguing and bad conduct.

So newly elected CMs generally have no 4model or incentives towards true debate. We’ve demonized any disagreement, either with fellow CMs, or especially the administration, as being somehow intrinsically bad for the City. They may not understand just how critical it is for every CM to have each other’s back so as to never allow the administration the ability to play favorites.

In one sentence, my concern is that even new candidates will come in and unconsciously continue the ‘Thanksgiving Table’ pattern of self-censorship. Because that’s all they know.

So to any new candidates who come to the Council next January: I will always have your back if you want to raise a concern, whether I agree or not.


1And let me be clear: I fully supported this concept. I wrote a detailed letter to the new City Manager after that meeting, asking him to consider the potential importance of the boating community for any disaster planning.

2OK, seniors generally do not express themselves like that in Des Moines. But inside, they feel, it baby. 😀

3Yeah, I totally didn’t do that

4Well, unless they are obsessives like this guy (or moi) who regularly attend City Council meetings all over the place.

5That’s Traci Buxton and Harry Steinmetz who were competing for Position 5. Candidates all tend to start showing up for a few meetings around August. That’s how you can tell it’s an election year. 😀

Weekly Update: 07/05/2021

Posted on Categories Engagement, Environment, Public Safety, Weekly UpdatesLeave a comment on Weekly Update: 07/05/2021

Happy Independence Day?

It really is something to celebrate as we near the end of the pandemic (or at least the United States portion of it.) I hope yer doing something special with the newfound freedom–besides blowing off fireworks, of course.

I’m waiting to see how many $503 tickets were written, by the way. I dunno about where you live, but for me, this was, hands down, the most illegal fireworks I’ve experienced since living in Des Moines.

And this just in…

Autopsy: NHL goalie Matiss Kivlenieks killed by firework at Novi house party (clickondetroit.com)

If somebody had told me that a 24 year old NHL goalie would be killed… by fireworks… in a hot tub. I’d assume you were talking about a deleted scene from Hangover 3.

Public Service Announcements

There are now vaccine appointments available every day now, including Walk-Ins at Walgreen’s, Rite-Aid, SeaMar and Healthpoint.

  1. Sign up to attend the Port Of Seattle Commissioner Candidate Forum July 22nd at 7PM!
  2. Hopefully you’ve already seen the Christmas In July post.  Please send me your ideas before our August 5th Budget Retreat!
  3. The City is preparing a survey to update its Parks, Recreation and Senior Services Master Plan. You may get something in the mail or you can fill one out at the Farmers Market any time Saturday July 24th. You can also comment by email: parksmasterplan@desmoineswa.gov
  4. Destination Des Moines is also also sponsoring the  Virtual Waterland Festival on July 24th!
  5. 216th Ave bridge Closure starts July 19th and runs through August 23rd!
  6. We’re embarking on the redevelopment of the Des Moines Marina. This is the largest capital project in our city’s history and we need your input! Please send your questions to marinamasterplan@desmoinewa.gov.
  7. I know you want to help save the Masonic Home. So sign up for the new site hosted by Washington Historic Trust!
  8. City Of Des Moines Minor Home Repair Program This is one of those great programs the City has had in place since forever, but we only advertise every quarter in the City Currents Magazine. Basically, low to moderate income households can get grants to do all sorts of necessary repairs. Just email Minor Home Repair Coordinator Tina Hickey (206) 870-6535.
  9. Every home should have a Carbon Monoxide Detector–especially during the colder months! Full stop. If you need one but money is tight, South King County Fire And Rescue will get you one. Just call their Community Affairs Office at 253-946-7347.
  10. And last, but not least: If you have a Port Package that is having issues, please email SeatacNoise.Info with your address!

This Week

Thursday: Economic Development Committee Meeting (Agenda) There will be presentations on Tax Increment Financing (TIF) rom our lobbyist Anthony Hemstad in response to a new State law  HB1189. WA has been reluctant to adopt TIF and the results in other States have become somewhat controversial. It will be interesting. There will also be a presentation entitled “King County Countywide Planning Policies Update”

Thursday: Public Safety Committee Meeting (No Agenda?) This is on the official City Calendar, but the required notice was not made last Friday so… who knows? (sigh)

Thursday: City Council Meeting (Agenda)

Street RacinG ORDINANCE

Of note is the Street Racing Ordinance. I think it’s a good idea in general, but it’s at least partly in reaction to the constant complaints from Redondo residents. And I’m not sure it actually addresses what those residents are concerned about. But tucked in there on Page 6 is a recommended motion to omit the usual ‘second reading’.

An ordinance generally requires two readings for passage–the idea is to give the public a chance to comment before the vote is taken. Also, the law for Code Cities like DM is that ordinances take effect thirty days after adoption. So if we wait for the second reading (July 22nd), the ordinance would be enforceable on August 22nd.

Normally, I never vote for omitting the second reading. I don’t care how few people show up to meetings or how mundane the language, unless there is a true urgency, I want the public to have every opportunity to weigh in on new law.

On the other hand: I look forward to hearing from you. Do you think that enacting this Street Racing thing is important enough that it can’t wait two more weeks? Please let me know.

Last Week

Wednesday: Burien Climate Action Plan. This is something that every City should be working on: ways that we can reduce our climate footprint, both as a City and to give residents some tools to work as well.

Wednesday: Des Moines Historical Society. This may be their first formal meeting in almost two years. Now that the pandemic is over, I hope to hear how they are moving forward with their plans to remodel and build a better web site. I cannot tell you how important I think this is. Des Moines has an absolutely fascinating history–it was actually one of the first white settlements in the entire region. If we could present this information properly, it would be a tremendous asset, not just in terms of education and civic pride, but also in terms of marketing the City.

Thursday: Puget Sound Regional Council Growth Management Policy Board. The PSRC released an update on their housing strategy which deserves some discussion at some point.

Thursday: Meeting with HealthPoint Midway management. HealthPoint is a fantastic community resource that has been under-utilised. (For example, did you know you could walk over there right now and get your COVID vaccine whether you’re a member or not? I’m talking to you Woodmont.) We’ll discuss ways they and the City could potentially partner up to educate residents in the South end of town on their community programs.

This is a news year…

Introduction

You know you’re in  trouble whenever an article comes with an Introduction. And yes, this is the probably the longest unpaid document I’ve written since college (and even then I was double-spacing if you know what I’m saying.) Although it may seem like just another pissing contest between myself and the current majority, it’s actually another kind of argument–what kind of City Council you want to have going forward.

Frankly, many of us choose City Councilmembers, based on the 153 words in the Voters Guide, some yard signs and maybe some ribbon cuttings and social media posts. How could we not? We have no newspaper and very few public fora. And even when we do there is never a moderator who knows the local issues well enough to put forward the really important questions that the public doesn’t even know to ask.  So the public almost never gets a chance to gain much understanding of important local issues–or how candidates and incumbents think about those issues. We vote with our hearts (Oh, I knew his mother!) rather than our heads.

Ironically, this kerfuffle started as an attempt to address the above. I wrote to a journalism teacher at Highline College to ask if their newspaper, The Thunderword, could start doing some ongoing political coverage. I understood that this was a risky move, but I was encouraged by a couple of good articles their student/reporters did during my campaign in 2019.

As you will read, all that went horribly wrong. But on reflection, it occurred to me that the entire back and forth might be a way to put in one place some of the most important issues I had hoped the reporter might address and some of the very real problems of communication with the current government.

None of this material should be new for people who read my Weekly Updates. But there’s the rub: the problem with the Weekly Updates is that they assume that you are following along–like a TV series. But almost none of you are, of course. You’re just seeing a bit here and a bit there. So if this article seems longer than many Russian Novels, it’s partly because I wanted to provide the public with sort of a one stop shopping experience.

The other reason to gas on like this is because there’s been this ongoing narrative from my colleagues that I’m doing all sorts of bad stuff. So I decided to lay out this one interaction as fully as possible, with all the links and footnotes and let you decide for yourself.

Now, exactly who should slog through all this? Well hopefully the candidates. And also hopefully, a few members of the community who want to get engaged in local politics but don’t know where to begin. Again, without a newspaper, the only way people tend to get involved in Des Moines politics (or even just to really know what is going on) is by having ‘a friend’.

Whether you agree or disagree with my positions, I hope you will ask all the candidates and incumbents to respond to them. Because at the end of the day, if you don’t ask, neither candidates or incumbents have any need to tell you what they really think about anything. In fact, and this is the really  uncomfortable part, if no one asks, people take their seats on the Council all the time not having given serious thought to any of the truly important long term issues of city government.

Now on with the show…

I reach out to Highline College Journalism…

On 4/10/2021 I sent the following email to an instructor in the Highline College Journalism program with the subject line “This is a news year…”:

XXXXXXX,I dunno if you pay attention much to DM City Council these days… and 1I know you’re not my biggest fan… but I want to encourage you to do whatever you can to provide -some- kind of coverage this year.Ya know how they always say, “THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT ELECTION EVER!”? And it’s not true, of course. But this really is the most important political year for DM in at least a decade.

What the public does not understand is that we are still in the Governor’s State Of Emergency. That lifted the City Manager’s spending cap. He can basically spend whatever he likes without a Council vote. Eg. last year the City spent a million dollars in Stimulus money without a single vote of the Council. It is likely that we will spent -8- million in the ARP stimulus this year…again no Council vote required. (Grateful cheering will be recommended, of course.)

Apparently, a passenger ferry is coming to DM? … a multi-million dollar deal… again decided without a vote, presentation to Council or public comment.

We just got the first full Council briefing on a Marina Redevelopment of both the waterside -and- landside. It will certainly be the single largest capital investment in the City’s history. It is being sold as a Prix Fixe… no choosing individual menu items. There has only been one consultant and one proposal. And we will likely approve it in principal by August.

The Port Of Seattle will be going ahead with the SAMP this summer… an expansion program of the airport that most of the public has no idea about, but which will provide for 40% greater capacity. During a time where the airlines admit that demand will not fully recover to current levels for many years.

There’s more, but I’ve taxed yer patience as it is.

Whether you agree or not on policy, I hope you will agree that this -is- a news year. And (literally) no one is covering any of this.

Give it a think.

—JC

I think it’s pretty clear that my intention was to begin a dialogue on how to actually cover Des Moines politics. These were all bullet points for discussion–not the actual ‘story’.

On April 13 I received the following reply:

Hi Councilman:

This is very interesting, and none of it sounds right. Then again, I’ve been skeptical of your city manager for quite some time.

We’ll see what we can do.

On April 26th I received the following from a Thunderword student/reporter:

Hi Mr. Harris,

I’m a reporter with the Thunderword Newspaper at Highline College. I believe another reporter had been in contact with you recently after you reached to XXXXXXXXX with some information on the city council’s recent operations.

If you’re willing, I was hoping you could respond to a few questions to clarify:

– Gov. Inslee’s initial COVID-19 state of emergency declaration was issued way back in early 2020: Has the City Manager been operating without the Council’s input since then?

– When, or under what circumstances is the state of emergency expected to be lifted?

– What are your concerns over the City Manager still having these powers this far into the pandemic?

– What has this situation resulted in thus far? You mention a few major expenditures in your email.

– Has the City Manager ever used these emergency powers to act against the Council’s wishes?

On May 5th I sent this reply:

Sorry for the delay. I really thought hard before replying. At the risk of sounding condescending, I’m going to assume you don’t yet know much about how municipal govt. works–only because less than 1% of voters do. You ask some good questions, I get them all the time from residents, but they’re kinda not the -right- questions. They’re just so broad that I’d have to write a ‘primer’ about as long as War And Peace on local government before getting to the kind of short answers you’re probably looking for.

Almost all the political coverage DM has had for the past 10 years has tended to be terrible: someone watches a City Council Meeting and then comments or pulls quotes out of context with no proper understanding of the issue. Frankly, that’s what this initial round of questions feels like to me. I’m not trying to be mean–it takes time to figure out.

All of which is to say: The original intent of my writing XXXXXXXXX was to suggest that you create an ongoing politics beat. If that’s something you want to take on, I’m happy to talk to you any time to begin that process. I have no desire to control -anything- but I -do- have an interest in getting the story -right-.

So if the goal is to do a single article based on these questions, please… don’t do that. I’d recommend starting with something much simpler and working your way into it.

I do hope to hear from you. Des Moines -needs- regular political coverage.

—JC

And I never heard back.

Thunderword Article

But on May 21, I see the following article in the Thunderword: Confused accusations spread within Des Moines City Council

A minority of Des Moines City Council members have claimed that the city manager is ignoring their input, but the rest of the council disagreesSince the COVID-19 pandemic began last year, the city of Des Moines, like countless other cities, has been operating under a state of emergency declaration. This procedure typically expedites the process of distributing emergency relief, and generally taking action to quell the emergency at hand.

Some Des Moines City Council members, however, have taken issue with the city government’s operation amidst these circumstances.

Specifically, they have accused City Manager Michael Matthias of engaging in widespread spending without permission of the city council. Two of the council’s seven members have expressed this concern.

Councilmember Anthony Martinelli is one such member. He said that much of City Manager Matthias’s spending has taken place without the opportunity for council input.

“The city manager has spent a considerable amount of city funds without council approval,” Martinelli said. “I found out we were moving ahead with a business grant program the same time as the public, and this has been true of several other projects.”

The council’s other five members and several city officials have denied these accusations completely.

Martinelli said that the city manager is legally authorized to pass these expenditures, but that he feels the council should be more involved in the process.

“There’s no reason he shouldn’t be keeping the council more in the loop and making a larger effort to garner their input,” Martinelli said.

2J.C. Harris, another member of the council, has made similar claims. He said that under the statewide state of emergency declaration, the city manager has been allowed to circumvent council approval almost entirely.

“That lifted the city manager’s spending cap,” Harris said. “He can basically spend whatever he likes without a council vote.”

Deputy Mayor Matt Mahoney, speaking on behalf of the council’s other five members including Mayor Matt Pina, said these claims are not grounded in reality.

“There are some things going on in our city by a couple of our council members that have attempted to discredit our city staff and key leaders,” he said. “We have council members that seem to fail to understand what’s really happening.”

Mahoney said that the statewide state of emergency referenced by the accusing council members has had no bearing on the city manager’s spending abilities. The state of emergency declaration the city has been operating under, he said, was initiated by the city council at the start of the pandemic.

“It was a unanimous decision, all seven council members voted for it,” he said. “That gives the city manager some inherent rights, but our city manager hasn’t abused them.”

As part of the city’s emergency relief efforts, Mahoney confirmed that approximately $500,000 were distributed to small businesses through a grant program. But, contrary to Councilmember Martinelli’s claims, he said that none of that was city funds.

“This was all part of the American CARES Act,” Mahoney said. “This was a distribution of funds given to us by the federal government, in accordance with their guidelines.”

Not being city money, distribution of those funds didn’t require council approval, he said.

“In accordance with the CARES Act, our city manager was able to create a program that gave up to $25,000 to businesses that applied,” Mahoney said.

The accusing council members’ other claims, Mahoney said, were equally untrue. He said that the city manager has acted only within his authorized limits to provide emergency relief, and that no city funds whatsoever have been spent without a council vote.

“Both of these guys don’t support what the vision of the majority of the council is, and they are misleading the truth,” he said.

As for where these council members’ concern has come from, Mahoney said their accusations were being made in an attempt to create a sensation and have their voices as a minority heard.

They might be convinced, but they are liars,” he said. “And I hate to say that, it’s appalling — they have misrepresented the truth.”

Although the article was inflammatory and I was not exactly happy with the ‘reporting’, I ignored it because I know the public hates Council in-fighting. My colleague Luisa Bangs made some cryptic comments in the Waterland Blog as to why she was retiring, but since she also had not reached out to me about the article so I crossed my fingers that they were unrelated.  I chalked it up as one of those, “Well, we’re not doing that again” deals and figured that was the end of it.

Apparently not…

However, on June 19th, candidate for City Council Yoshiko Grace Matsui, linked to the article on her Facebook Page with her comment.

“It’s not illegal” is not a great response for obstructing the community (and other Council Members) from understanding how Federal funding was distributed in Des Moines. The underlying concern, from my perspective, is there a lack of communication and transparency from the current administration. The City Manager may not have a legal obligation to seek Council approval, but he and the Council have a obligation to the residents to explain their actions to us. As an elected City Council member, I will push for more public accountability.

And that’s when I weighed in:

Awkward… I applaud the Thunderword as literally the only venue covering local politics. And I appreciate and agree with the sentiments of Candidate Matsui. However…

The original impetus for this article was me reaching out to the Thunderword to ask them to establish an ongoing politics beat… not to do a one-off article. Perhaps the constraints of the journalism program prevents that.

The reporter makes a noble effort, but the GRO Business Grant program (which is what he’s dancing around) is simply too complicated to put in a one-off article. Sadly, the reporter did not reach out to me for my take and there are simply too many errors here to comment on.

(In one paragraph: There are over 1,700 licensed businesses in DM. The GRO program handed out $503k to 26. 26 applied and 26 received 100% or more than their request. No scoring process, no public outreach and no Council review. The 26 chosen all knew to apply because either a) they had an existing relationship with the City or a CM. Among the Deputy Mayor’s misstatements, CARES -was- City money–we received it from the State. 1Allowing the City Manager to run the GRO program in this fashion was the choice of the Council majority, not a requirement.)

The Deputy Mayor calling me a ‘liar’ would be laughable if it were not for the fact that the public has no good way to judge the truth–including just how dodgy the GRO program was. The entire process was a black box and unlike any of our sister cities.

All that said, the City spending process is not illegal… But by giving the City Manager more control than any other regional executive, the Council has abandoned its primary function: oversight. Our main practical task is -oversight-. Despite all the pearl clutching and slanders from my colleagues, we haven’t actually performed that task in any meaningful way for quite some time.

Interested parties can look at my Weekly Updates for information on Council actions and specifics and then judge for themselves. Here’s one which talks about the GRO program as well as a list of budgeting issues I was not thrilled with at our last budget retreat.

https://jcharrisfordesmoines.com/weekly-update-08-24-2020/

I stir it up on the Facebook Des Moines Politics Page

Having been ‘tagged’ (as the kids say), I felt like I could no longer pretend that the Deputy Mayor’s reactions did not exist. So on June 22nd, I linked to the original article on the Facebook Des Moines Politics Page: Way to take the high road, Deputy Mayor

I freely admit that the title was sarcastic and inappropriate to a fellow colleague and I sincerely apologise–not for posting the article, which I think was quite appropriate–but for such a snarky title. I’m not splitting hairs. At the end of the day, Deputy Mayor Mahoney is an elected official and his office deserves courtesy in every official context.

That same day Deputy Mayor Matt Mahoney posted a series of comments. Here is the first:

Councilmember Harris
You initiated this situation. According to the reporter you stated the City Manager has purchased a 1 million dollar passenger ferry without approval. Untrue.
You stated the city manager had approved Marina Development without council approval. Untrue. In fact you’ve been present over past several months where we as a council reviewed and approved many components of this initiative.
The GRO program was fully within legal guidelines and you should applaud we helped our businesses.
Again had you not initiated this with false information to the reporter we wouldn’t be here! Suggest you take your own advice an take the high road by being truthful.

Who are these key leaders of which you speak?

First off, it’s hard to respond to the Deputy Mayor’s ‘quotes’ in the original article because, based on how my comments were misrepresented in the original article, I don’t feel like I can assume that Mr. Mahoney is even quoted accurately.

But again, I never actually spoke to that student/reporter. Apparently, the instructor passed off my initial email to the reporter, who then pasted those ‘quotes’, completely out of context, into an email and sent it to my colleagues for their reactions. No research. No fact checking. Basically a he-said-she-said using raw materials that were never meant for that purpose.

I cannot blame my colleagues for being upset.

However, we all (and especially electeds) have control over how we handle our upsets. Where Deputy Mayor Mahoney wrote, “There are some things going on in our city by a couple of our council members that have attempted to discredit our city staff and key leaders…” I’m not even sure what that sentence means. But it sure is vague.

So let me be less vague:

  • I never, ever, ever mention “staff” when I discuss my disagreements with my colleagues or the City Manager. And I have no idea who he means by “key leaders”.
  • I am not happy with specific policies and conduct of the City Manager and the current five members of the majority who enable him. No one else bears responsibility. I never say or imply otherwise.

But this sort of attack is nothing new. Since my election, the Mayor, Deputy Mayor and City Manager have repeatedly used similar tactics. They have repeatedly charged that I am ‘lying’ or  ‘misrepresenting the City’ or ‘insulting the entire 175 person staff of the City Of Des Moines’ whenever I disagree with a specific policy or their treatment of myself and CM Martinelli. They always make these charges in the most public fora available and without talking to me first. They make these allegations in the most vague terms possible and with no evidence to back up their claims. This has occured repeatedly both 2on the dais  (see Mayor’s comments from 04/09/2020 RCM at 1:00) and off the dais. (Deputy Mayor Mahoney’s letter to the Waterland Blog.) This is a strategy as old as the hills: respond to difficult questions with false accusations; brand the person as ‘not one of us’. (For the sake of completeness, here is my response to both those events in the Waterland Blog. And no, I’m not being ironic. I only wrote that public letter after attempting to phone and email both my colleagues. They never replied.)

As your elected representative my job is, by definition, to ask questions and to agree or disagree as necessary. Under State Law the job of the Council is to provide oversight of the administration. My job is not to automatically vote 7-0 as some of my colleagues explicitly favor.

Now back to Facebook…

But as to Deputy Mayor Mahoney’s comments on Facebook, ironically he is correct in one respect: that article would not have been written had I not reached out to the Journalism Teacher.

One portion I will note:

the email from the reporter was sent to 3 Councilmembers: Buxton, Bangs and Martinelli. Councilmembers Buxton and Bangs alerted the mayor, city staff and myself. Thru a records request I found Councilmember Martinelli responded that he knew nothing of a passenger ferry and that he didn’t like GRO program but knew it was within City Managers responsibility. The reporter stated he had contact with two individuals, Martinelli in his reply above and then in my records request I have you reaching out to the editor coordinating a phone call with the reporter. The below allegations had to be made by you.

We never talk anymore…

Deputy Mayor Mahoney’s first move was not to take five minutes to call or write me before responding to the reporter. Nope. Deputy Mayor Mahoney’s first response was to do a Public Records Request (PRR) of some kind (I suppose that I could do another PRR to find out, but that would mean wasting even more staff time.) No, his first response was to try to find a way to avoid talking to either CM Martinelli or myself.

Again, this has been a chronic problem since my election. My colleagues get upset over something and, instead of talking about it with me, they do that high school move–write a note or talk behind one’s back. In fact, I have received only one phone call from either the Deputy Mayor or Mayor since my election–and those were only to respond 4in the most negative way possible to a proposal I made to use a small portion of CARES funding developed by Highline Schools to improve broadband service for low-income school children.

And this is important: The reason CMs avoid one another is because they can.

The job of Councilmember has been likened, by Mayor Pina, to be that of a director of a board overseeing a $100 million corporation–the City Of Des Moines. But unlike a ‘real’ director position, there’s no 4code of professionalism for Councilmembers. There are no job requirements. You can put in as much time as you like, or not. You can talk, or not. You can say stuff behind each other’s backs rather than dealing directly, or not. To quote our City Manager, “There’s no civility clause in my contract.” In my opinion there should be.

The Answers

Now to the questions the reporter sent to the Deputy Mayor. Remember that these are not my questions. But since he asked them, it would seem cowardly not to address them.

1. Have the City Manager’s spending powers been uncapped under Gov. Inslee’s State Of Emergency (SOE) declaration?

Yes. In ‘normal’ times, the City Manager has pre-defined spending limits–the most well-known is a $50,000 for General Fund items. Anything beyond that requires a vote by the Council, either on an individual request or as part of the formal annual Budget. For example, here is the 2020 Budget.

The main point of  lifting the spending cap during the SOE was to give the City Manager the authority to move quickly. That’s what you want in an emergency: an Executive that can take action without having to wait for a Council vote. And the City Manager can still go to Council for spending authority during an SOE. There’s no requirement that he not do so. In fact, many Cities continued to do normal spending authorization during the pandemic for items that did not require immediate attention. Note that the GRO Business Grant Program took over four months to deploy.

2. Has this allowed the City Manager to spend city funds without a vote from the Council?

Yes. The entirety of our almost $1 million CARES of funding was spent by the City Manager without Council input. He informed the Council of his spending decisions (basically half to GRO and half to employee salaries) after the fact at our Budget Retreat in August 2020. And despite what my colleagues mistakenly wrote above, this was ‘City’ money. Yes, we received it from the State, but guess what, sports fans? We receive most of our money from State, County and Federal agencies in the form of taxes and grants. This is not semantics. We receive monies in various ways, but we decide how to spend it. Or rather, in this case, the City Manager decided how to spend it.

3. We were told several city projects were initiated without Council approval, including the purchase of a “multi-million dollar” passenger ferry and the marina redevelopment: Is this true?

Yes and No. Ish.

  • I addressed the GRO Business Grant program (and by the way, here are the recipients)  as well as the CARES Act funding above.
  • I have written extensively about the lack of transparency and outreach with regard to the Marina Redevelopment. The City has seem almost wilful in its desire to exclude the general public from the discussion (always citing a single ‘open-house’ from 2017.) Questions and Comments were only circulated among the 800 or so boat owners (80% of which do not reside in Des Moines!) And those few who have been in the loop (the DMMA board–representing those same boat owners), far from objecting, have been among the largest donors to the incumbents’ re-election campaigns. Let’s call it what it is: a group of about a dozen self-interested (and mostly un-elected) parties making generational decisions for the entire community.
  • Regarding the Passenger Ferry thing, please see below.

4. If true that the City Manager has been committing to these expenditures without Council input, does this concern you?

No and Yes. Having read the comments my colleagues in the majority made during the City Manager’s recent annual performance review, I know for certain that they have absolutely no concerns about his actions.  Council-Manager-Government is majoritarian, so as a body, the Council has spoken. Totally legal.

However, ‘legal’ and ‘good government’ are often very different things. I believe that the conduct of the City Manager and City Council on the above items (and many others) were not and are not in the best interest of Des Moines.

The unasked question…

Naturally, the reporter did not mention the airport. No one ever mentions the airport–by far the largest source of pollution in King County.

Try to imagine a City residing next to anything as impactful as the eigth largest airport in America: a city along a hurricane-prone area; a city next to a large factory; a city next to a volcano (I’m not kidding.)

Given the nature of all those scenarios, such a government would be expected to have an office and a system in place to provide real and ongoing advocacy and mitigation for its residents. The City Of Des Moines has never had such expertise. Instead, we have engaged in a decade long series of feckless venues such as StART and the Highline Forum (all run by the Port Of Seattle) or a short-lived Aviation Advisory Committee which was so ineffectual that its members resigned in frustration. The City does these things to demonstrate that we’re ‘doing something’. And because 5nothing useful ever happens, the public assumes that nothing can happen. That is simply not true.

Not trying to cop out here, but describing how and why things could be better is beyond the scope of this novella. Interested readers should visit SeatacNoise.Info, a group I helped found to work these issues.

The only thing I want to say at the moment is that these issues are highly political and the result of choices. Perhaps the easiest way to describe the politics would be with three quick anecdotes:

  • The current majority was lead by former Mayor Dave Kaplan, who is now, the Port Of Seattle lobbyist to the City Of Des Moines.
  • Our ‘community representative’ on StART is the aforementioned City Currents publisher and ferry advocate Peter Philips–who actually resides in Normandy Park.
  • At the 04/22/21 City Council Meeting, the City accepted a grant from the Port Of Seattle with language showing support for the Port’s Century Agenda (this is the Port’s long term planning document and explicitly calls for continuing to expand airport operations.) The thing to recognise about that grant is that we literally did not have to include that language of support in order to win the money.

Things could be different. And anyone who says otherwise either does not know what they’re talking about or has some relationship with the Port Of Seattle and the airline industry.

And about that Ferry…

Please turn to page 6 of Spring 2021 City Currents Magazine. It sure sounds like a ferry might be in your future! The article featured the Deputy Mayor’s byline but was actually written by Peter Philips, the publisher of City Currents and an ongoing advocate of passenger ferries in conjunction with Bruce Agnew.

After the December 5 2019, Study Session, the  City commissioned a ‘demand study’ on the idea. But as of March 2021, the City had not released it, only the sales presentation from the vendor. I had asked for this study for months and been point blank refused by the City Manager. And no, no vote had been taken.

The only real study that had been done was by the Puget Sound Regional Commission in August 2020 and in Appendix D they had scored Des Moines at the bottom in terms of demand. I thought there must be some caveat–perhaps a different route would work better, so I talked to the analysts who did the work and they were, frankly, skeptical of any type of daily passenger ferry demand.

So, I did my own Public Records Request to compel the City to release the actual study, which we had paid for last year, finally be released. Here is the actual study.)

Now please look closely at this exchange on April 1, 2021 on NextDoor Des Moines (click on this stub image to see the entire thread–including Deputy Mayor Mahoney’s comments–which I quote from below.)

The Deputy Mayor doubles down on that City Current article. Like Mr. Gracey above he doesn’t say a ferry may be coming. He’s telling people that it is coming.

It’s no April Fools. A few of us at the city have been working hard to provide waterside benefits especially our city manager and we thank Peter too. People will come to our city and eat in our restaurants. Not only can you go to Seattle but Tacoma as well. The development we have planned for Marina and downtown in future will make Des Moines a enviable place to live.Matt Mahoney
Deputy Mayor

…and that will be tested this summer.

Nicholas Seabaugh we hope to test as soon as this summer. Then with coordination and approval from a few entities implement in 2022.

In the immortal words of Tonto, “What you mean we, Kemosabe?” Just to be clear: The Council has not taken a vote on any of that. We have received no data or proposals as to the costs, potential benefits, environmental impacts, parking, scheduling, fees, inter-modal access, shall I go on?

Follow up…

The City has since appeared to 6walk this back significantly. The most recent comments I recall from the City Manager were at a Municipal Facilities Committee meeting in April (for which no recording is currently available), but the phrase he used then was that the whole idea was still in the ‘exploratory stage’. Good. Explore away. But what the City and the Deputy Mayor did with their various updates and then that City Currents article was what anyone who has ever sold for a living understands: they were ‘building buzz’. They were trying to make the project seem inevitable by telling the public that it is inevitable–ginning up interest in the idea long before they had any data to support its actual viability.

And the reason I find this so upsetting is because the public has been so desperate, for so long, for any kind of economic development in Des Moines that all you have to do is whisper words like “ferry” or “grocery store” and people go bananas. Which is precisely why they did it: so that when someone tries to ask reasonable questions, they’d get shot down for being a killjoy.

Why on earth did you expect that I’d read all this?

(aka ‘the essay after the essay’)

Look, the rest of this is speechifyin’ about a bunch of high minded “what kind of government do you want?” crap. You can quit now.

The only reason to go through this sort of exercise is to demonstrate the hours one has to put in documenting the issues I raise. I have to show my work because no one else does. It’s ridiculously easy in Des Moines for a student/reporter or a Deputy Mayor or a guy who works for the Port Of Seattle to create a fog of confusion with just a few irresponsible paragraphs. There’s no fact checking and no push back.

The Deputy Mayor can simply say “liar!” to a student reporter or from the dais because no one will call him out.

You can’t fight City Hall…

And then there’s this other thing, which is the one thing I cannot document without doing some sort of ‘Tell All Book’ and break a lot of confidences. So if I just lost my ‘cred’ with you, I guess I have to live with the pain. 😀 But what follows matters if we are ever to improve long term governance in Des Moines.

If you’ve read this far, the thought must’ve crossed your mind (as it should have), “Gee JC, if things really are like that, how come more people don’t speak up?” This is the answer.

Cities tend to be driven by self interests which are usually on a short timeline. If you own a business, union, civic organisation, etc. your concerns are for your deal, not what is necessarily best for an ever-changing environment and cast of 33,000 residents and over a 25-50 year timeline. I’m not saying these interests are nefarious in any way. Quite the opposite: they all have very important and often wonderful parts to play in the functioning of Des Moines. And often their interests coincide with those of the City writ large. It’s just that these interests are advocating to keep their thing going; as they should.

But notice one thing about all of the above: They do not vote.

Business and civic group leaders tend to go with the status quo, partly out of self-interest, but partly because it’s just easier. Or at least, inevitable. The number of people I’ve encountered over the years who will say what I’m saying now (notably, behind closed doors) is infuriating but a completely understandable and ‘business-like’ attitude. It boils down to this:

“We’ll work with these people.”

This always strikes me as about as likely as when a friend tells you that “I know he’s rough around the edges, but I just know he’ll get better after we get married.” Uh, huh.

9Plus, again, these aren’t some bunch of guys in a smoke filled room. They all have very noble and very different purposes ranging from amazingly dedicated non-profits that the City could not do without to unions to businesses to HOAs and on and on. About the only thing they have in common is, again, they’re just focused on their specific interest and whatever those interests are, they definitely do not involve rocking the boat.

But because these are all very good individual goals, it’s easy for everyone (including the public) to confuse those specific goals with those of Des Moines. (Also, a lot of these constituencies often turn out to be the largest campaign donors and that only adds to the fun.)

Simple example: there might be a construction site that provides well-paid jobs for 2-3 years. Which is great. But maybe those workers don’t actually reside in Des Moines. And maybe that building isn’t something that is in the long term interest of Des Moines over a 25 year time line. But the City gets a one-time check, which is hard to resist. That sort of thing happens all the time. I love jobs. I love unions. I love buildings. I love money. But we’re elected to put the long term  interests of the residents of Des Moines first and all those incentives can also go in the opposite direction.

Not just in this example; in every relationship, business, civic, non-profit, volunteer. Doesn’t matter. Every City like Des Moines has to actively work to keep non-voting interests at arms length because those incentives are so strong.

If only you were nicer…

This dynamic also plays into one of  the most corrosive aspect of local politics: the idea of ‘if only you were nicer’.

I spoke with a Code Enforcement Officer years ago who told me something very interesting. She said  that when she engaged with people who have had a problem with their neighbour, the offending party often defended their position by saying something like, “Well, I probably wouldn’t have done ‘x’ if only they had been nicer.” The person was explaining away their bad conduct by saying that their neighbour hadn’t asked them to stop in a friendlier way.

“Usually when people tell me ‘they didn’t ask nicely’, those people never intended to comply. You could be a saint and it wouldn’t matter.”

Exactly. That kind of behavior is often meant to deflect from the facts and often it works–in all kinds of contexts.

credit where credit is due…

Here’s one more number that used to surprise me: the quantity of those same constituencies I mentioned above who will say (again, privately) how truly unhappy they are with the state of the City (and in particular) the City Manager, while at the same time really liking the various Councilmembers.

Look, as many differences as I may have with our City Manager, I would never insult him like that. The idea that people would hold our City Manager responsible for any perceived failings of the City is both ridiculous to me and deeply unfair. He has precisely the authority the Council gives him. The Deputy Mayor is quite correct in saying that the there is a ‘vision’ that the current majority has decided to move forward. We can argue about whose vision that may be, but ultimately it is their choice.

Which is to say: if you like the way things are going? Credit the majority for having the wisdom to hire the guy and take his advice. If not, hold those same CMs to account for exactly the same reasons.

The fact that so many people, some of the most engaged citizens of Des Moines, have such a profound cognitive disconnect, only reinforces for me just how ‘personality driven’ (as opposed to fact-driven) is the current state of politics in Des Moines.

Over the years, I’ve heard many candidates who campaign by saying, “I know we need more transparency. But we can get there by working together more cooperatively!” And my reaction, based on read of local politics  is this, “Yeah, and I want a brand of de-caf that’s just as tasty as the real thing, pal.”

I doubt any of the candidates follow these events anywhere near closely enough. Many already have years of personal relationships and so will likely come in with established biases that are very hard to correct for.

That’s DM politics.

No memory…

What I tried (and failed) to get across to both the Journalism Teacher and the Reporter is how desperately Des Moines needs good journalism. In hindsight, I suppose making this kind of ask of a student newspaper was not the smartest gamble I’ve ever made. But it was a gamble I felt like someone needed to make. Because, again, there’s literally no way to raise these kinds of issues.

Now we used to have two newspapers and they were often very good, but that was a decade ago now. And that’s a problem:  the majority of you have lived here less than ten years. It’s hard to explain to people who’ve never had something how useful it was. In addition to focusing public attention on City government, these outlets guaranteed that the public would have at least some familiarity with the candidates beyond the yard signs and the 153 words.

And in conclusion…

We’re currently at a moment of great cynicism: “No one shows up so why even bother with the public?” Great. Public engagement and transparency are in the toilet, so why waste time and effort on public engagement? By that logic the solution would seem to be to keep leaving important decision making like the Marina to an ever-shrinking group of self-interested people–because, hey, at least those people kinda/sorta know what’s going on, right?

I honestly don’t know what to do with that approach. It feels to me like  the way people are supposed to manage chronic diseases. The thing is incurable, so let’s make the best of it.

If I seem so harsh on everybody it’s because this state of affairs strikes me as the way we are not dealing with climate change. It’s affecting us–and will continue to do so in ever more dramatic fashion–but we’re currently stuck in a state of denial about how fast the world is changing. Without more transparency and less on ‘if only you were nicer, this is basically as good as it will ever get for Des Moines.

So….

  • If you don’t know how the sausage is being made, you should probably check before you dig in with such gusto. Especially if you intend to stick around more than just a few years. As a voter, you have an active role to play in pushing your candidates and electeds to be better: better prepared, more professional, more engaged with the public.
  •  But if you actually think you know how the sausage is being made, no matter who or what you think you know, you don’t know what’s really going on, because the flow of information is so poor. All you’re getting is one point of view. And the fact that you think that things would be just fine in Des Moines if we just didn’t have so many ‘complainers’ tells me that you probably need to get out more.
  • However, if you are one of those forty or fifty people who are leaders of various groups and beneficiaries of business grants, that definitely means that you currently have an outsize influence on the direction of the City. Whether you like to think of yourself as simply a dedicated volunteer or a small business owner in a small town, you’re what passes for (cough) ‘the elite’ here. We as a City should be doing everything in our power to move away from that mode of thinking, even if it minimizes your specific influence.

But regardless of which category you fall into, I would ask everyone to reflect on the fact that the Councilmembers are elected to represent everybody’s tax dollars and everybody’s future.

1This was sort of a half-joke. The teacher is a personal friend and a supporter of my opponent in 2019. He has been nothing but genial with me, even inviting me to speak to one of his classes during my campaign.

1Actually, I was incorrect. The Council did not ‘allow’ the City Manager to spend the CARES money. He spent it, then reported that fact to the Council. I suppose that technically, the majority could have gotten upset, but there is no ‘undo button’.

2Look, I hate being that guy, but my legal name is ‘JC’. Really. That’s it. People always assume it’s some initials. It isn’t. What can I say. It was Gaeltacht Ireland in the 50’s. People did weird shit.

3No other reporter had been in contact with me.

4The video example from the 04/09/20 City Council Meeting I was going to cite is broken on the City web site! And the Minutes are not available either. I am beyond frustrated now with our City’s basic recordkeeping. I’ve gone out of my way not to criticise ‘staff’ but these are the public documents of official City business and the fact that I have to keep repeatedly asking the City to maintain them properly is upsetting.

5The Mayor told me in no uncertain terms that it was inappropriate for Councilmembers to reach out to Highline College to research such a proposal and that, in fact, I may have somehow damaged the City’s relationship with the School District by doing so. This is patently ridiculous. I’ll just note that one of a Councilmember’s only two formal duties according to the RCW is to propose legislation. Again, this is a part of that recurring theme: not merely disagreeing, but portraying anything the current majority dislikes as being ‘inappropriate’.

6Actually, there is a Rules Of Procedure which has some stuff governing conduct on the dais. There is a rule against ‘slander’. I suppose I could call out my colleagues for their many infractions on this, but since enforcing any rule requires a majority vote, there’s simply no point. While I’m side-ranting, note that there are no rules requiring that a CM perform any training, prepare for meetings, learn how the City works, attend committees or other assigned tasks, study the materials, interact with the the public, read comments or do literally anything else to perform the job. The position is completely self-defining. The law assumes that you will provide oversight, but the only real requirement that you show up and vote at required moments. And there is no method for the public to monitor whether or not the CM is doing anything other than attending full Council meetings.

7And can I just add that every time someone makes a frivolous PRR like this it is a double waste of staff time? You’re asking the Public Records Officer to do some work, which mainly consists of asking the people you should have simply called in the first place.

8Yes, we do get ‘studies’ and I am involved in all of them. But after so many years of ‘studying’ the public often cynically tells me, “Haven’t we had enough studies? We have, indeed. The public has correctly diagnosed that the constant studying is a part of the theatrics. The Port actually encourages ‘more study’.

9Of course, now watch an Argosy boat cruise into the dock unannounced for a ‘test run’ next month. But if that were to happen? It would not be because of any fair evaluation or process involving proper public engagement. It would just be business as usual in Des Moines.

10And to be triple-clear, none of this is unique to Des Moines. All cities and electeds face challenges with the same non-voting constituencies. The trick is to show the proper support, while at the same time, not creating a climate that tells the public “What’s good for (x) is automatically good for Des Moines.” Most of the time it is. But sometimes it ain’t.

This is a news year…

Posted on Categories Marina, Transparency, Transportation

Introduction

You know you’re in  trouble whenever an article comes with an Introduction. And yes, this is the probably the longest unpaid document I’ve written since college (and even then I was double-spacing if you know what I’m saying.) Although it may seem like just another pissing contest between myself and the current majority, it’s actually another kind of argument–what kind of City Council you want to have going forward.

Frankly, many of us choose City Councilmembers, based on the 153 words in the Voters Guide, some yard signs and maybe some ribbon cuttings and social media posts. How could we not? We have no newspaper and very few public fora. And even when we do there is never a moderator who knows the local issues well enough to put forward the really important questions that the public doesn’t even know to ask.  So the public almost never gets a chance to gain much understanding of important local issues–or how candidates and incumbents think about those issues. We vote with our hearts (Oh, I knew his mother!) rather than our heads.

Ironically, this kerfuffle started as an attempt to address the above. I wrote to a journalism teacher at Highline College to ask if their newspaper, The Thunderword, could start doing some ongoing political coverage. I understood that this was a risky move, but I was encouraged by a couple of good articles their student/reporters did during my campaign in 2019.

As you will read, all that went horribly wrong. But on reflection, it occurred to me that the entire back and forth might be a way to put in one place some of the most important issues I had hoped the reporter might address and some of the very real problems of communication with the current government.

None of this material should be new for people who read my Weekly Updates. But there’s the rub: the problem with the Weekly Updates is that they assume that you are following along–like a TV series. But almost none of you are, of course. You’re just seeing a bit here and a bit there. So if this article seems longer than many Russian Novels, it’s partly because I wanted to provide the public with sort of a one stop shopping experience.

The other reason to gas on like this is because there’s been this ongoing narrative from my colleagues that I’m doing all sorts of bad stuff. So I decided to lay out this one interaction as fully as possible, with all the links and footnotes and let you decide for yourself.

Now, exactly who should slog through all this? Well hopefully the candidates. And also hopefully, a few members of the community who want to get engaged in local politics but don’t know where to begin. Again, without a newspaper, the only way people tend to get involved in Des Moines politics (or even just to really know what is going on) is by having ‘a friend’.

Whether you agree or disagree with my positions, I hope you will ask all the candidates and incumbents to respond to them. Because at the end of the day, if you don’t ask, neither candidates or incumbents have any need to tell you what they really think about anything. In fact, and this is the really  uncomfortable part, if no one asks, people take their seats on the Council all the time not having given serious thought to any of the truly important long term issues of city government.

Now on with the show…

I reach out to Highline College Journalism…

On 4/10/2021 I sent the following email to an instructor in the Highline College Journalism program with the subject line “This is a news year…”:

XXXXXXX,I dunno if you pay attention much to DM City Council these days… and 1I know you’re not my biggest fan… but I want to encourage you to do whatever you can to provide -some- kind of coverage this year.Ya know how they always say, “THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT ELECTION EVER!”? And it’s not true, of course. But this really is the most important political year for DM in at least a decade.

What the public does not understand is that we are still in the Governor’s State Of Emergency. That lifted the City Manager’s spending cap. He can basically spend whatever he likes without a Council vote. Eg. last year the City spent a million dollars in Stimulus money without a single vote of the Council. It is likely that we will spent -8- million in the ARP stimulus this year…again no Council vote required. (Grateful cheering will be recommended, of course.)

Apparently, a passenger ferry is coming to DM? … a multi-million dollar deal… again decided without a vote, presentation to Council or public comment.

We just got the first full Council briefing on a Marina Redevelopment of both the waterside -and- landside. It will certainly be the single largest capital investment in the City’s history. It is being sold as a Prix Fixe… no choosing individual menu items. There has only been one consultant and one proposal. And we will likely approve it in principal by August.

The Port Of Seattle will be going ahead with the SAMP this summer… an expansion program of the airport that most of the public has no idea about, but which will provide for 40% greater capacity. During a time where the airlines admit that demand will not fully recover to current levels for many years.

There’s more, but I’ve taxed yer patience as it is.

Whether you agree or not on policy, I hope you will agree that this -is- a news year. And (literally) no one is covering any of this.

Give it a think.

—JC

I think it’s pretty clear that my intention was to begin a dialogue on how to actually cover Des Moines politics. These were all bullet points for discussion–not the actual ‘story’.

On April 13 I received the following reply:

Hi Councilman:

This is very interesting, and none of it sounds right. Then again, I’ve been skeptical of your city manager for quite some time.

We’ll see what we can do.

On April 26th I received the following from a Thunderword student/reporter:

Hi Mr. Harris,

I’m a reporter with the Thunderword Newspaper at Highline College. I believe another reporter had been in contact with you recently after you reached to XXXXXXXXX with some information on the city council’s recent operations.

If you’re willing, I was hoping you could respond to a few questions to clarify:

– Gov. Inslee’s initial COVID-19 state of emergency declaration was issued way back in early 2020: Has the City Manager been operating without the Council’s input since then?

– When, or under what circumstances is the state of emergency expected to be lifted?

– What are your concerns over the City Manager still having these powers this far into the pandemic?

– What has this situation resulted in thus far? You mention a few major expenditures in your email.

– Has the City Manager ever used these emergency powers to act against the Council’s wishes?

On May 5th I sent this reply:

Sorry for the delay. I really thought hard before replying. At the risk of sounding condescending, I’m going to assume you don’t yet know much about how municipal govt. works–only because less than 1% of voters do. You ask some good questions, I get them all the time from residents, but they’re kinda not the -right- questions. They’re just so broad that I’d have to write a ‘primer’ about as long as War And Peace on local government before getting to the kind of short answers you’re probably looking for.

Almost all the political coverage DM has had for the past 10 years has tended to be terrible: someone watches a City Council Meeting and then comments or pulls quotes out of context with no proper understanding of the issue. Frankly, that’s what this initial round of questions feels like to me. I’m not trying to be mean–it takes time to figure out.

All of which is to say: The original intent of my writing XXXXXXXXX was to suggest that you create an ongoing politics beat. If that’s something you want to take on, I’m happy to talk to you any time to begin that process. I have no desire to control -anything- but I -do- have an interest in getting the story -right-.

So if the goal is to do a single article based on these questions, please… don’t do that. I’d recommend starting with something much simpler and working your way into it.

I do hope to hear from you. Des Moines -needs- regular political coverage.

—JC

And I never heard back.

Thunderword Article

But on May 21, I see the following article in the Thunderword: Confused accusations spread within Des Moines City Council

A minority of Des Moines City Council members have claimed that the city manager is ignoring their input, but the rest of the council disagreesSince the COVID-19 pandemic began last year, the city of Des Moines, like countless other cities, has been operating under a state of emergency declaration. This procedure typically expedites the process of distributing emergency relief, and generally taking action to quell the emergency at hand.

Some Des Moines City Council members, however, have taken issue with the city government’s operation amidst these circumstances.

Specifically, they have accused City Manager Michael Matthias of engaging in widespread spending without permission of the city council. Two of the council’s seven members have expressed this concern.

Councilmember Anthony Martinelli is one such member. He said that much of City Manager Matthias’s spending has taken place without the opportunity for council input.

“The city manager has spent a considerable amount of city funds without council approval,” Martinelli said. “I found out we were moving ahead with a business grant program the same time as the public, and this has been true of several other projects.”

The council’s other five members and several city officials have denied these accusations completely.

Martinelli said that the city manager is legally authorized to pass these expenditures, but that he feels the council should be more involved in the process.

“There’s no reason he shouldn’t be keeping the council more in the loop and making a larger effort to garner their input,” Martinelli said.

2J.C. Harris, another member of the council, has made similar claims. He said that under the statewide state of emergency declaration, the city manager has been allowed to circumvent council approval almost entirely.

“That lifted the city manager’s spending cap,” Harris said. “He can basically spend whatever he likes without a council vote.”

Deputy Mayor Matt Mahoney, speaking on behalf of the council’s other five members including Mayor Matt Pina, said these claims are not grounded in reality.

“There are some things going on in our city by a couple of our council members that have attempted to discredit our city staff and key leaders,” he said. “We have council members that seem to fail to understand what’s really happening.”

Mahoney said that the statewide state of emergency referenced by the accusing council members has had no bearing on the city manager’s spending abilities. The state of emergency declaration the city has been operating under, he said, was initiated by the city council at the start of the pandemic.

“It was a unanimous decision, all seven council members voted for it,” he said. “That gives the city manager some inherent rights, but our city manager hasn’t abused them.”

As part of the city’s emergency relief efforts, Mahoney confirmed that approximately $500,000 were distributed to small businesses through a grant program. But, contrary to Councilmember Martinelli’s claims, he said that none of that was city funds.

“This was all part of the American CARES Act,” Mahoney said. “This was a distribution of funds given to us by the federal government, in accordance with their guidelines.”

Not being city money, distribution of those funds didn’t require council approval, he said.

“In accordance with the CARES Act, our city manager was able to create a program that gave up to $25,000 to businesses that applied,” Mahoney said.

The accusing council members’ other claims, Mahoney said, were equally untrue. He said that the city manager has acted only within his authorized limits to provide emergency relief, and that no city funds whatsoever have been spent without a council vote.

“Both of these guys don’t support what the vision of the majority of the council is, and they are misleading the truth,” he said.

As for where these council members’ concern has come from, Mahoney said their accusations were being made in an attempt to create a sensation and have their voices as a minority heard.

They might be convinced, but they are liars,” he said. “And I hate to say that, it’s appalling — they have misrepresented the truth.”

Although the article was inflammatory and I was not exactly happy with the ‘reporting’, I ignored it because I know the public hates Council in-fighting. My colleague Luisa Bangs made some cryptic comments in the Waterland Blog as to why she was retiring, but since she also had not reached out to me about the article so I crossed my fingers that they were unrelated.  I chalked it up as one of those, “Well, we’re not doing that again” deals and figured that was the end of it.

Apparently not…

However, on June 19th, candidate for City Council Yoshiko Grace Matsui, linked to the article on her Facebook Page with her comment.

“It’s not illegal” is not a great response for obstructing the community (and other Council Members) from understanding how Federal funding was distributed in Des Moines. The underlying concern, from my perspective, is there a lack of communication and transparency from the current administration. The City Manager may not have a legal obligation to seek Council approval, but he and the Council have a obligation to the residents to explain their actions to us. As an elected City Council member, I will push for more public accountability.

And that’s when I weighed in:

Awkward… I applaud the Thunderword as literally the only venue covering local politics. And I appreciate and agree with the sentiments of Candidate Matsui. However…

The original impetus for this article was me reaching out to the Thunderword to ask them to establish an ongoing politics beat… not to do a one-off article. Perhaps the constraints of the journalism program prevents that.

The reporter makes a noble effort, but the GRO Business Grant program (which is what he’s dancing around) is simply too complicated to put in a one-off article. Sadly, the reporter did not reach out to me for my take and there are simply too many errors here to comment on.

(In one paragraph: There are over 1,700 licensed businesses in DM. The GRO program handed out $503k to 26. 26 applied and 26 received 100% or more than their request. No scoring process, no public outreach and no Council review. The 26 chosen all knew to apply because either a) they had an existing relationship with the City or a CM. Among the Deputy Mayor’s misstatements, CARES -was- City money–we received it from the State. 1Allowing the City Manager to run the GRO program in this fashion was the choice of the Council majority, not a requirement.)

The Deputy Mayor calling me a ‘liar’ would be laughable if it were not for the fact that the public has no good way to judge the truth–including just how dodgy the GRO program was. The entire process was a black box and unlike any of our sister cities.

All that said, the City spending process is not illegal… But by giving the City Manager more control than any other regional executive, the Council has abandoned its primary function: oversight. Our main practical task is -oversight-. Despite all the pearl clutching and slanders from my colleagues, we haven’t actually performed that task in any meaningful way for quite some time.

Interested parties can look at my Weekly Updates for information on Council actions and specifics and then judge for themselves. Here’s one which talks about the GRO program as well as a list of budgeting issues I was not thrilled with at our last budget retreat.

https://jcharrisfordesmoines.com/weekly-update-08-24-2020/

I stir it up on the Facebook Des Moines Politics Page

Having been ‘tagged’ (as the kids say), I felt like I could no longer pretend that the Deputy Mayor’s reactions did not exist. So on June 22nd, I linked to the original article on the Facebook Des Moines Politics Page: Way to take the high road, Deputy Mayor

I freely admit that the title was sarcastic and inappropriate to a fellow colleague and I sincerely apologise–not for posting the article, which I think was quite appropriate–but for such a snarky title. I’m not splitting hairs. At the end of the day, Deputy Mayor Mahoney is an elected official and his office deserves courtesy in every official context.

That same day Deputy Mayor Matt Mahoney posted a series of comments. Here is the first:

Councilmember Harris
You initiated this situation. According to the reporter you stated the City Manager has purchased a 1 million dollar passenger ferry without approval. Untrue.
You stated the city manager had approved Marina Development without council approval. Untrue. In fact you’ve been present over past several months where we as a council reviewed and approved many components of this initiative.
The GRO program was fully within legal guidelines and you should applaud we helped our businesses.
Again had you not initiated this with false information to the reporter we wouldn’t be here! Suggest you take your own advice an take the high road by being truthful.

Who are these key leaders of which you speak?

First off, it’s hard to respond to the Deputy Mayor’s ‘quotes’ in the original article because, based on how my comments were misrepresented in the original article, I don’t feel like I can assume that Mr. Mahoney is even quoted accurately.

But again, I never actually spoke to that student/reporter. Apparently, the instructor passed off my initial email to the reporter, who then pasted those ‘quotes’, completely out of context, into an email and sent it to my colleagues for their reactions. No research. No fact checking. Basically a he-said-she-said using raw materials that were never meant for that purpose.

I cannot blame my colleagues for being upset.

However, we all (and especially electeds) have control over how we handle our upsets. Where Deputy Mayor Mahoney wrote, “There are some things going on in our city by a couple of our council members that have attempted to discredit our city staff and key leaders…” I’m not even sure what that sentence means. But it sure is vague.

So let me be less vague:

  • I never, ever, ever mention “staff” when I discuss my disagreements with my colleagues or the City Manager. And I have no idea who he means by “key leaders”.
  • I am not happy with specific policies and conduct of the City Manager and the current five members of the majority who enable him. No one else bears responsibility. I never say or imply otherwise.

But this sort of attack is nothing new. Since my election, the Mayor, Deputy Mayor and City Manager have repeatedly used similar tactics. They have repeatedly charged that I am ‘lying’ or  ‘misrepresenting the City’ or ‘insulting the entire 175 person staff of the City Of Des Moines’ whenever I disagree with a specific policy or their treatment of myself and CM Martinelli. They always make these charges in the most public fora available and without talking to me first. They make these allegations in the most vague terms possible and with no evidence to back up their claims. This has occured repeatedly both 2on the dais  (see Mayor’s comments from 04/09/2020 RCM at 1:00) and off the dais. (Deputy Mayor Mahoney’s letter to the Waterland Blog.) This is a strategy as old as the hills: respond to difficult questions with false accusations; brand the person as ‘not one of us’. (For the sake of completeness, here is my response to both those events in the Waterland Blog. And no, I’m not being ironic. I only wrote that public letter after attempting to phone and email both my colleagues. They never replied.)

As your elected representative my job is, by definition, to ask questions and to agree or disagree as necessary. Under State Law the job of the Council is to provide oversight of the administration. My job is not to automatically vote 7-0 as some of my colleagues explicitly favor.

Now back to Facebook…

But as to Deputy Mayor Mahoney’s comments on Facebook, ironically he is correct in one respect: that article would not have been written had I not reached out to the Journalism Teacher.

One portion I will note:

the email from the reporter was sent to 3 Councilmembers: Buxton, Bangs and Martinelli. Councilmembers Buxton and Bangs alerted the mayor, city staff and myself. Thru a records request I found Councilmember Martinelli responded that he knew nothing of a passenger ferry and that he didn’t like GRO program but knew it was within City Managers responsibility. The reporter stated he had contact with two individuals, Martinelli in his reply above and then in my records request I have you reaching out to the editor coordinating a phone call with the reporter. The below allegations had to be made by you.

We never talk anymore…

Deputy Mayor Mahoney’s first move was not to take five minutes to call or write me before responding to the reporter. Nope. Deputy Mayor Mahoney’s first response was to do a Public Records Request (PRR) of some kind (I suppose that I could do another PRR to find out, but that would mean wasting even more staff time.) No, his first response was to try to find a way to avoid talking to either CM Martinelli or myself.

Again, this has been a chronic problem since my election. My colleagues get upset over something and, instead of talking about it with me, they do that high school move–write a note or talk behind one’s back. In fact, I have received only one phone call from either the Deputy Mayor or Mayor since my election–and those were only to respond 4in the most negative way possible to a proposal I made to use a small portion of CARES funding developed by Highline Schools to improve broadband service for low-income school children.

And this is important: The reason CMs avoid one another is because they can.

The job of Councilmember has been likened, by Mayor Pina, to be that of a director of a board overseeing a $100 million corporation–the City Of Des Moines. But unlike a ‘real’ director position, there’s no 4code of professionalism for Councilmembers. There are no job requirements. You can put in as much time as you like, or not. You can talk, or not. You can say stuff behind each other’s backs rather than dealing directly, or not. To quote our City Manager, “There’s no civility clause in my contract.” In my opinion there should be.

The Answers

Now to the questions the reporter sent to the Deputy Mayor. Remember that these are not my questions. But since he asked them, it would seem cowardly not to address them.

1. Have the City Manager’s spending powers been uncapped under Gov. Inslee’s State Of Emergency (SOE) declaration?

Yes. In ‘normal’ times, the City Manager has pre-defined spending limits–the most well-known is a $50,000 for General Fund items. Anything beyond that requires a vote by the Council, either on an individual request or as part of the formal annual Budget. For example, here is the 2020 Budget.

The main point of  lifting the spending cap during the SOE was to give the City Manager the authority to move quickly. That’s what you want in an emergency: an Executive that can take action without having to wait for a Council vote. And the City Manager can still go to Council for spending authority during an SOE. There’s no requirement that he not do so. In fact, many Cities continued to do normal spending authorization during the pandemic for items that did not require immediate attention. Note that the GRO Business Grant Program took over four months to deploy.

2. Has this allowed the City Manager to spend city funds without a vote from the Council?

Yes. The entirety of our almost $1 million CARES of funding was spent by the City Manager without Council input. He informed the Council of his spending decisions (basically half to GRO and half to employee salaries) after the fact at our Budget Retreat in August 2020. And despite what my colleagues mistakenly wrote above, this was ‘City’ money. Yes, we received it from the State, but guess what, sports fans? We receive most of our money from State, County and Federal agencies in the form of taxes and grants. This is not semantics. We receive monies in various ways, but we decide how to spend it. Or rather, in this case, the City Manager decided how to spend it.

3. We were told several city projects were initiated without Council approval, including the purchase of a “multi-million dollar” passenger ferry and the marina redevelopment: Is this true?

Yes and No. Ish.

  • I addressed the GRO Business Grant program (and by the way, here are the recipients)  as well as the CARES Act funding above.
  • I have written extensively about the lack of transparency and outreach with regard to the Marina Redevelopment. The City has seem almost wilful in its desire to exclude the general public from the discussion (always citing a single ‘open-house’ from 2017.) Questions and Comments were only circulated among the 800 or so boat owners (80% of which do not reside in Des Moines!) And those few who have been in the loop (the DMMA board–representing those same boat owners), far from objecting, have been among the largest donors to the incumbents’ re-election campaigns. Let’s call it what it is: a group of about a dozen self-interested (and mostly un-elected) parties making generational decisions for the entire community.
  • Regarding the Passenger Ferry thing, please see below.

4. If true that the City Manager has been committing to these expenditures without Council input, does this concern you?

No and Yes. Having read the comments my colleagues in the majority made during the City Manager’s recent annual performance review, I know for certain that they have absolutely no concerns about his actions.  Council-Manager-Government is majoritarian, so as a body, the Council has spoken. Totally legal.

However, ‘legal’ and ‘good government’ are often very different things. I believe that the conduct of the City Manager and City Council on the above items (and many others) were not and are not in the best interest of Des Moines.

The unasked question…

Naturally, the reporter did not mention the airport. No one ever mentions the airport–by far the largest source of pollution in King County.

Try to imagine a City residing next to anything as impactful as the eigth largest airport in America: a city along a hurricane-prone area; a city next to a large factory; a city next to a volcano (I’m not kidding.)

Given the nature of all those scenarios, such a government would be expected to have an office and a system in place to provide real and ongoing advocacy and mitigation for its residents. The City Of Des Moines has never had such expertise. Instead, we have engaged in a decade long series of feckless venues such as StART and the Highline Forum (all run by the Port Of Seattle) or a short-lived Aviation Advisory Committee which was so ineffectual that its members resigned in frustration. The City does these things to demonstrate that we’re ‘doing something’. And because 5nothing useful ever happens, the public assumes that nothing can happen. That is simply not true.

Not trying to cop out here, but describing how and why things could be better is beyond the scope of this novella. Interested readers should visit SeatacNoise.Info, a group I helped found to work these issues.

The only thing I want to say at the moment is that these issues are highly political and the result of choices. Perhaps the easiest way to describe the politics would be with three quick anecdotes:

  • The current majority was lead by former Mayor Dave Kaplan, who is now, the Port Of Seattle lobbyist to the City Of Des Moines.
  • Our ‘community representative’ on StART is the aforementioned City Currents publisher and ferry advocate Peter Philips–who actually resides in Normandy Park.
  • At the 04/22/21 City Council Meeting, the City accepted a grant from the Port Of Seattle with language showing support for the Port’s Century Agenda (this is the Port’s long term planning document and explicitly calls for continuing to expand airport operations.) The thing to recognise about that grant is that we literally did not have to include that language of support in order to win the money.

Things could be different. And anyone who says otherwise either does not know what they’re talking about or has some relationship with the Port Of Seattle and the airline industry.

And about that Ferry…

Please turn to page 6 of Spring 2021 City Currents Magazine. It sure sounds like a ferry might be in your future! The article featured the Deputy Mayor’s byline but was actually written by Peter Philips, the publisher of City Currents and an ongoing advocate of passenger ferries in conjunction with Bruce Agnew.

After the December 5 2019, Study Session, the  City commissioned a ‘demand study’ on the idea. But as of March 2021, the City had not released it, only the sales presentation from the vendor. I had asked for this study for months and been point blank refused by the City Manager. And no, no vote had been taken.

The only real study that had been done was by the Puget Sound Regional Commission in August 2020 and in Appendix D they had scored Des Moines at the bottom in terms of demand. I thought there must be some caveat–perhaps a different route would work better, so I talked to the analysts who did the work and they were, frankly, skeptical of any type of daily passenger ferry demand.

So, I did my own Public Records Request to compel the City to release the actual study, which we had paid for last year, finally be released. Here is the actual study.)

Now please look closely at this exchange on April 1, 2021 on NextDoor Des Moines (click on this stub image to see the entire thread–including Deputy Mayor Mahoney’s comments–which I quote from below.)

The Deputy Mayor doubles down on that City Current article. Like Mr. Gracey above he doesn’t say a ferry may be coming. He’s telling people that it is coming.

It’s no April Fools. A few of us at the city have been working hard to provide waterside benefits especially our city manager and we thank Peter too. People will come to our city and eat in our restaurants. Not only can you go to Seattle but Tacoma as well. The development we have planned for Marina and downtown in future will make Des Moines a enviable place to live.Matt Mahoney
Deputy Mayor

…and that will be tested this summer.

Nicholas Seabaugh we hope to test as soon as this summer. Then with coordination and approval from a few entities implement in 2022.

In the immortal words of Tonto, “What you mean we, Kemosabe?” Just to be clear: The Council has not taken a vote on any of that. We have received no data or proposals as to the costs, potential benefits, environmental impacts, parking, scheduling, fees, inter-modal access, shall I go on?

Follow up…

The City has since appeared to 6walk this back significantly. The most recent comments I recall from the City Manager were at a Municipal Facilities Committee meeting in April (for which no recording is currently available), but the phrase he used then was that the whole idea was still in the ‘exploratory stage’. Good. Explore away. But what the City and the Deputy Mayor did with their various updates and then that City Currents article was what anyone who has ever sold for a living understands: they were ‘building buzz’. They were trying to make the project seem inevitable by telling the public that it is inevitable–ginning up interest in the idea long before they had any data to support its actual viability.

And the reason I find this so upsetting is because the public has been so desperate, for so long, for any kind of economic development in Des Moines that all you have to do is whisper words like “ferry” or “grocery store” and people go bananas. Which is precisely why they did it: so that when someone tries to ask reasonable questions, they’d get shot down for being a killjoy.

Why on earth did you expect that I’d read all this?

(aka ‘the essay after the essay’)

Look, the rest of this is speechifyin’ about a bunch of high minded “what kind of government do you want?” crap. You can quit now.

The only reason to go through this sort of exercise is to demonstrate the hours one has to put in documenting the issues I raise. I have to show my work because no one else does. It’s ridiculously easy in Des Moines for a student/reporter or a Deputy Mayor or a guy who works for the Port Of Seattle to create a fog of confusion with just a few irresponsible paragraphs. There’s no fact checking and no push back.

The Deputy Mayor can simply say “liar!” to a student reporter or from the dais because no one will call him out.

You can’t fight City Hall…

And then there’s this other thing, which is the one thing I cannot document without doing some sort of ‘Tell All Book’ and break a lot of confidences. So if I just lost my ‘cred’ with you, I guess I have to live with the pain. 😀 But what follows matters if we are ever to improve long term governance in Des Moines.

If you’ve read this far, the thought must’ve crossed your mind (as it should have), “Gee JC, if things really are like that, how come more people don’t speak up?” This is the answer.

Cities tend to be driven by self interests which are usually on a short timeline. If you own a business, union, civic organisation, etc. your concerns are for your deal, not what is necessarily best for an ever-changing environment and cast of 33,000 residents and over a 25-50 year timeline. I’m not saying these interests are nefarious in any way. Quite the opposite: they all have very important and often wonderful parts to play in the functioning of Des Moines. And often their interests coincide with those of the City writ large. It’s just that these interests are advocating to keep their thing going; as they should.

But notice one thing about all of the above: They do not vote.

Business and civic group leaders tend to go with the status quo, partly out of self-interest, but partly because it’s just easier. Or at least, inevitable. The number of people I’ve encountered over the years who will say what I’m saying now (notably, behind closed doors) is infuriating but a completely understandable and ‘business-like’ attitude. It boils down to this:

“We’ll work with these people.”

This always strikes me as about as likely as when a friend tells you that “I know he’s rough around the edges, but I just know he’ll get better after we get married.” Uh, huh.

9Plus, again, these aren’t some bunch of guys in a smoke filled room. They all have very noble and very different purposes ranging from amazingly dedicated non-profits that the City could not do without to unions to businesses to HOAs and on and on. About the only thing they have in common is, again, they’re just focused on their specific interest and whatever those interests are, they definitely do not involve rocking the boat.

But because these are all very good individual goals, it’s easy for everyone (including the public) to confuse those specific goals with those of Des Moines. (Also, a lot of these constituencies often turn out to be the largest campaign donors and that only adds to the fun.)

Simple example: there might be a construction site that provides well-paid jobs for 2-3 years. Which is great. But maybe those workers don’t actually reside in Des Moines. And maybe that building isn’t something that is in the long term interest of Des Moines over a 25 year time line. But the City gets a one-time check, which is hard to resist. That sort of thing happens all the time. I love jobs. I love unions. I love buildings. I love money. But we’re elected to put the long term  interests of the residents of Des Moines first and all those incentives can also go in the opposite direction.

Not just in this example; in every relationship, business, civic, non-profit, volunteer. Doesn’t matter. Every City like Des Moines has to actively work to keep non-voting interests at arms length because those incentives are so strong.

If only you were nicer…

This dynamic also plays into one of  the most corrosive aspect of local politics: the idea of ‘if only you were nicer’.

I spoke with a Code Enforcement Officer years ago who told me something very interesting. She said  that when she engaged with people who have had a problem with their neighbour, the offending party often defended their position by saying something like, “Well, I probably wouldn’t have done ‘x’ if only they had been nicer.” The person was explaining away their bad conduct by saying that their neighbour hadn’t asked them to stop in a friendlier way.

“Usually when people tell me ‘they didn’t ask nicely’, those people never intended to comply. You could be a saint and it wouldn’t matter.”

Exactly. That kind of behavior is often meant to deflect from the facts and often it works–in all kinds of contexts.

credit where credit is due…

Here’s one more number that used to surprise me: the quantity of those same constituencies I mentioned above who will say (again, privately) how truly unhappy they are with the state of the City (and in particular) the City Manager, while at the same time really liking the various Councilmembers.

Look, as many differences as I may have with our City Manager, I would never insult him like that. The idea that people would hold our City Manager responsible for any perceived failings of the City is both ridiculous to me and deeply unfair. He has precisely the authority the Council gives him. The Deputy Mayor is quite correct in saying that the there is a ‘vision’ that the current majority has decided to move forward. We can argue about whose vision that may be, but ultimately it is their choice.

Which is to say: if you like the way things are going? Credit the majority for having the wisdom to hire the guy and take his advice. If not, hold those same CMs to account for exactly the same reasons.

The fact that so many people, some of the most engaged citizens of Des Moines, have such a profound cognitive disconnect, only reinforces for me just how ‘personality driven’ (as opposed to fact-driven) is the current state of politics in Des Moines.

Over the years, I’ve heard many candidates who campaign by saying, “I know we need more transparency. But we can get there by working together more cooperatively!” And my reaction, based on read of local politics  is this, “Yeah, and I want a brand of de-caf that’s just as tasty as the real thing, pal.”

I doubt any of the candidates follow these events anywhere near closely enough. Many already have years of personal relationships and so will likely come in with established biases that are very hard to correct for.

That’s DM politics.

No memory…

What I tried (and failed) to get across to both the Journalism Teacher and the Reporter is how desperately Des Moines needs good journalism. In hindsight, I suppose making this kind of ask of a student newspaper was not the smartest gamble I’ve ever made. But it was a gamble I felt like someone needed to make. Because, again, there’s literally no way to raise these kinds of issues.

Now we used to have two newspapers and they were often very good, but that was a decade ago now. And that’s a problem:  the majority of you have lived here less than ten years. It’s hard to explain to people who’ve never had something how useful it was. In addition to focusing public attention on City government, these outlets guaranteed that the public would have at least some familiarity with the candidates beyond the yard signs and the 153 words.

And in conclusion…

We’re currently at a moment of great cynicism: “No one shows up so why even bother with the public?” Great. Public engagement and transparency are in the toilet, so why waste time and effort on public engagement? By that logic the solution would seem to be to keep leaving important decision making like the Marina to an ever-shrinking group of self-interested people–because, hey, at least those people kinda/sorta know what’s going on, right?

I honestly don’t know what to do with that approach. It feels to me like  the way people are supposed to manage chronic diseases. The thing is incurable, so let’s make the best of it.

If I seem so harsh on everybody it’s because this state of affairs strikes me as the way we are not dealing with climate change. It’s affecting us–and will continue to do so in ever more dramatic fashion–but we’re currently stuck in a state of denial about how fast the world is changing. Without more transparency and less on ‘if only you were nicer, this is basically as good as it will ever get for Des Moines.

So….

  • If you don’t know how the sausage is being made, you should probably check before you dig in with such gusto. Especially if you intend to stick around more than just a few years. As a voter, you have an active role to play in pushing your candidates and electeds to be better: better prepared, more professional, more engaged with the public.
  •  But if you actually think you know how the sausage is being made, no matter who or what you think you know, you don’t know what’s really going on, because the flow of information is so poor. All you’re getting is one point of view. And the fact that you think that things would be just fine in Des Moines if we just didn’t have so many ‘complainers’ tells me that you probably need to get out more.
  • However, if you are one of those forty or fifty people who are leaders of various groups and beneficiaries of business grants, that definitely means that you currently have an outsize influence on the direction of the City. Whether you like to think of yourself as simply a dedicated volunteer or a small business owner in a small town, you’re what passes for (cough) ‘the elite’ here. We as a City should be doing everything in our power to move away from that mode of thinking, even if it minimizes your specific influence.

But regardless of which category you fall into, I would ask everyone to reflect on the fact that the Councilmembers are elected to represent everybody’s tax dollars and everybody’s future.

1This was sort of a half-joke. The teacher is a personal friend and a supporter of my opponent in 2019. He has been nothing but genial with me, even inviting me to speak to one of his classes during my campaign.

1Actually, I was incorrect. The Council did not ‘allow’ the City Manager to spend the CARES money. He spent it, then reported that fact to the Council. I suppose that technically, the majority could have gotten upset, but there is no ‘undo button’.

2Look, I hate being that guy, but my legal name is ‘JC’. Really. That’s it. People always assume it’s some initials. It isn’t. What can I say. It was Gaeltacht Ireland in the 50’s. People did weird shit.

3No other reporter had been in contact with me.

4The video example from the 04/09/20 City Council Meeting I was going to cite is broken on the City web site! And the Minutes are not available either. I am beyond frustrated now with our City’s basic recordkeeping. I’ve gone out of my way not to criticise ‘staff’ but these are the public documents of official City business and the fact that I have to keep repeatedly asking the City to maintain them properly is upsetting.

5The Mayor told me in no uncertain terms that it was inappropriate for Councilmembers to reach out to Highline College to research such a proposal and that, in fact, I may have somehow damaged the City’s relationship with the School District by doing so. This is patently ridiculous. I’ll just note that one of a Councilmember’s only two formal duties according to the RCW is to propose legislation. Again, this is a part of that recurring theme: not merely disagreeing, but portraying anything the current majority dislikes as being ‘inappropriate’.

6Actually, there is a Rules Of Procedure which has some stuff governing conduct on the dais. There is a rule against ‘slander’. I suppose I could call out my colleagues for their many infractions on this, but since enforcing any rule requires a majority vote, there’s simply no point. While I’m side-ranting, note that there are no rules requiring that a CM perform any training, prepare for meetings, learn how the City works, attend committees or other assigned tasks, study the materials, interact with the the public, read comments or do literally anything else to perform the job. The position is completely self-defining. The law assumes that you will provide oversight, but the only real requirement that you show up and vote at required moments. And there is no method for the public to monitor whether or not the CM is doing anything other than attending full Council meetings.

7And can I just add that every time someone makes a frivolous PRR like this it is a double waste of staff time? You’re asking the Public Records Officer to do some work, which mainly consists of asking the people you should have simply called in the first place.

8Yes, we do get ‘studies’ and I am involved in all of them. But after so many years of ‘studying’ the public often cynically tells me, “Haven’t we had enough studies? We have, indeed. The public has correctly diagnosed that the constant studying is a part of the theatrics. The Port actually encourages ‘more study’.

9Of course, now watch an Argosy boat cruise into the dock unannounced for a ‘test run’ next month. But if that were to happen? It would not be because of any fair evaluation or process involving proper public engagement. It would just be business as usual in Des Moines.

10And to be triple-clear, none of this is unique to Des Moines. All cities and electeds face challenges with the same non-voting constituencies. The trick is to show the proper support, while at the same time, not creating a climate that tells the public “What’s good for (x) is automatically good for Des Moines.” Most of the time it is. But sometimes it ain’t.