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.

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. 😀

2003 Furniture Store Guy

Posted on Categories Economic Development, Engagement, Neighborhoods, Transparency

Another old guy reference: There’s this moment in the movie Amadeus, where the Emperor walks in on a rehearsal of Mozart’s newest music and he sees something so obviously wrong he’s rendered speechless with confusion.

My ‘fix the web site’ proposal

At last week’s City Council Meeting, I felt a lot like this guy (not like an Emperor 😀 ). You have an issue you care about and you can’t understand why other people don’t see what you see. It’s just obvious. 😀

That’s how I feel about our City’s web site. So I made one of the the stupider speeches of my relatively short career–basically along the lines of

“um… er… could… um… er… somebody… um… you know… please… er… uh…  well… fix it?’)

Really productive.

I’ve been thinking about this because, at the end of the day, you get elected to convince people to do things, not to be ‘right’. If neither your colleagues  (or the public) sees what you see, you’re kind of a failure.

Two other issues…

Beyond the transparency and public engagement issues there are two other problems that I thought were kinda obvious for both my colleagues and the public. They are not and I guess that’s also on me. I’ll summarize here and then, if you give a crap, some details below.

  • The current web site is challenging for a significant percentage of our community–many seniors, but also people with disabilities and ESL. That is a not small number of residents (Have I mentioned recently that seniors vote upwards of 90% in some neighborhoods? For a City that prides itself on a commitment to seniors that’s not great.)
  • Our digital presence does not properly promote the City’s image and values. It does not look like the web site of a $100 million corporation that wants to attract entrepreneurs and growth.

These are not separate deals. They demonstrate a mindset that goes way beyond a web site. At my old company we had a nickname for it, we called it “Furniture Store Guy”.

Ah, the good ol’ days…

At the dawn of history, when many organizations still had either no or terrible web sites (you know, 2003 😀 ), my company would have a fairly regular argument with skeptical clients about ‘good enough’. How much dough did they really need to put into their digital presence? Here’s a quote from a client who owned a chain of furniture stores (the kind that used to advertise every week in newspapers.)

“Nobody visits the web site, so why are you telling me to spend money on the web site?”

Now I have some problems with this logic, but this guy was no dummy. He had built a successful business. He felt that it was the best use of his resources to put money into things that had been working for decades. However, he didn’t see that the world about to shift from newspapers to smartphones. And he didn’t see how the rest of the world was starting to see his stores as kinda long in the tooth. So he made the decision to have a digital presence that he considered ‘good enough’.

This is democracy…

It took me a while to grasp that the City’s digital presence is really my problem. It’s not only OK with my colleagues and the administration, it’s also just fine with a lot of our businesses and residents.It never dawned on me (really) that so many people don’t see what I see.

I think there are two reasons for this:

  • For some, it’s likely because they already have the digital literacy to navigate the site as it is. They don’t recognize how much of a struggle it is for others.
  • And for a lot of people and businesses, they just don’t seen the value of the City’s digital presence for them. They don’t see a good digital presence as being the business card, the branding of the City Of Des Moines for the outside world and for our future.

City response…

Early this week I sent an email to the administration with a laundry list of things I see as important fixes. This was totally cringey for many reasons, not the least of which being that I’m sure it comes off as the worst kind of ‘back seat driving’ to staff. But if yer asking people to work on something they don’t see, you gotta be specific.

On Friday, I received a detailed  and thoughtful reply from our IT department to each item, which I will over-simplify as “We were already working on it–we had planned to get this done over the summer.”

Which is good and bad. I am glad that some of the major (not all) issues I raised  will be addressed. But it’s bad because the City felt like these issues were just not that urgent.

My takeaway:

  1. Our digital presence is just not a high priority, either to my colleagues or the administration or a good deal of the public. It’s good enough.
  2. This is exactly the kind of thing that could (and should) be handled in private. But because the relationship between Council and the administration is so verkachte, the only way for me to raise this sort of issue (even to get an update as to what is going on) is to raise it from the dais.

Everything comes down to marketing…

Look, I did a terrible job of explaining why people should care about our City’s digital presence, but this is not about ‘fix the web site’. One of my main goals is to market Des Moines. When people perpetually ask “Why hasn’t Des Moines reached its ‘potential’?”, it hasn’t just been a money issue. It’s also been a marketing issue. A large portion of our residents wanted (and still want) to stay a ‘hidden gem’. For a long time, I was one of those people. We never properly marketed the City. That has to change.

My colleagues often talk about promoting business. The first thing interaction most of the world will have with Des Moines is through some form of digital presence–likely our web site. That’s the first impression, the chance to show a potential resident or business owner or developer who we are and what we value. We can look relatively sophisticated and innovative, or… you know… not.

The best way to look sophisticated and innovative is, you know, to actually do something sophisticated and innovative. 😀 Great marketing tends to be very expensive and time consuming. A decent web site is a cheap way to show the world (and our residents) the kind of community we are and the entrepreneurs we want to attract. At the end of the day, all this jazz about ‘transparency’ and ‘engagement’ and ‘accessibility’ and ‘branding’ is just good marketing. And marketing is what this city has always needed as much as any new building project.

At the risk of sounding passive aggressive, I misunderstood how much selling there is to do here. It’s my fault. At my old company, we turned Furniture Store Guy into a running joke for being stuck in the past. But again, he was not a joke. He rationally chose to stay on a path that had always worked for him. We failed. It was our job to show him that times were changing and that it would be in his best interest to invest in his digital presence.

Because here’s the thing: by the time it became obvious to him that he needed a better digital presence, it was too late. Someone else, more savvy, came into his market and became dominant. He didn’t go out of business. He just never reached his potential.

A specific use case

Since I have so many bitches, and I’ve already traveled deep into cringey back seat driving, I figured, what the hell? I should give you at least one specific example of what ‘better’ looks like. This is a modest City web site that punches above its weight… and it’s right next door: https://normandyparkwa.gov/  🙂

It’s not just that it’s more accessible. Or that it actually invites feedback from visitors on how better to serve. What catches my eye is that their government had the very sensible notion to hire a for realz marketing agency to develop and project an image and a message. They took their branding and image seriously. It’s not the specific image or branding or message that matters. Or even the fact that they hired an outside company.  What matters is that any visitor (whether they are conscious of it or not) immediately sees that the City Of Normandy Park really cares about the image they’re trying to project.

Footnote: Some previous rants I’ve had about the site’s lack of accessibility:

  1. Apart from any of the other shortcomings of the web site, at least a portion of this discussion trivialises the lack of accessibility for a very large number of our residents.Using any performance metric such as the number of people watching Council meetings or searching for information is not only irrelevant it’s just plain wrong. By such logic, ADA ramps would never have been mandated.

    If the site isn’t easy to use for seniors, the disabled and the large number of people who speak other languages, we cannot call ourselves an ‘inclusive’ community.

    Inclusion means fair access for everyone, not just the people lucky enough to own an iPhone, have no disabilities, read English fluently–and already possess a level of digital literacy that is apparently taken for granted by people here. Maybe that’s still the majority in Des Moines, but even if it is I could care less.

    The web site is a cue as to what the City values, not just in terms of transparency, but in terms of which types of people.

    If it cost a million dollars to have a proper web site, I wouldn’t squawk. It doesn’t–it’s actually less than putting in a single ADA ramp.

  2. An explainer about Section 508 and making the digital world more accessible.
  3. Shortly after my election, before I was banned any communication with staff, I inquired as to when/if/how the City web site might be updated. I was told that there was no specific plan. However I was also told that in the past, when the City had previously done web site updates, they had requested input from residents and Councilmembers as to how it might be improved–and that such a process would be employed when/if any update would occur. The new site was rolled out with no prior notice and no opportunity for either public or Councilmember input.

The Minority Report (Part 2 of 2: Policy)

Posted on Categories Airport, Economic Development, Engagement, Marina, Policy, Public Safety, Taxes, Transparency, Transportation
This is the second half of our response to the April 15th State Of The City presentation. Part 1 discussed our objections to the way it was carried out. Here we’ll talk about some specific policy differences. For those of you short on time, you can follow along with this presentation packet.

As noted last time, one of the many ways the presentation was unusual was the fact that our colleagues were also presenters! That risks making our comments sound personal. We can also hear howls that we are somehow criticizing our great staff. Neither could be further from the truth. This is about policy, which is set by the Council and City Manager. The discussion stops there.

The big picture

Over the years, the number of Des Moines residents hasn’t changed much, but the composition has. Most notably, we are now younger and more diverse. Also, remember that the original City was very small and the current town is actually the result of many small annexations. But the majority of services and programs are still focused around that original core.

The City must recognize these changes and adapt to better address the needs of residents in all neighborhoods.

Challenges

In Part 1, we stated that the presentation was ‘all positive and no negative’ but at first glance a few slides imply otherwise. For example, Slide #6 showed an assessment of the City from a 1962 report outlining many of problems we still see today.

But far from (finally) offering some solutions, the message seemed to be that we just have to learn to live with most of these structural problems. We disagree. Most of these challenges come down to choices as much as ‘fate’. Governments decide which issues to tackle aggressively–and which to avoid.

The Past 5 Years

As Slide #7 states, the City is now on much better financial footing than after the 2008 financial crisis and our credit rating is now solidly competitive with comparable cities.

But what the presentation referred to as ‘diversified revenue streams’ actually means strategies like raising your utility taxes to the highest allowable rates. This disproportionately affects low and middle income residents and turns away businesses.

Balancing the books shows operational skills (good), but it does not automatically signal a long term strategy that benefits you or business.

Marina Redevelopment

The Marina discussion is being driven by the fact that the docks are at their end of life. This will be the largest and longest capital project in our history. But there is a separate discussion concerning the land side which is, unfortunately, being sold together as a ‘package deal’ and that is wrong.

To be clear: the Marina docks do require replacement and that work (and that work alone) should begin now. 

In 2017, the City installed a highly flawed paid parking system despite ongoing public opposition. That same year the administration held a single open house to gather public input on land side redevelopment. Four years ago. Last month, City Currents Magazine published a highly misleading editorial about passenger ferry service–with no vote or presentation to Council. And this month, the City finally unveiled its Marina redevelopment proposals, which appear identical to the renderings shown at that 2017 open house.

There is a pattern here: of poor public engagement, questionable decision-making and no transparency. The current majority is using the legitimate urgency of dock replacement to rush through a land side development with inadequate information, oversight or public buy-in.

The City should engage an independent professional to review any land side plans before moving ahead. We at least deserve a second opinion to confirm that we are headed in the right direction on such a large decision.

Economic Development

We are always happy to see new businesses in Des Moines. However, the essential challenges to the downtown and to all our business community are still not being addressed. Frankly, we have watched many small shops come and go over the decades and very few have been sticky. Almost none have leveraged more visitors to Des Moines.

We also appreciate the continued investment in Des Moines by Wesley and we look forward to their continued partnership. At the same time,  the City should be focusing economic development efforts far more on our increasingly youthful population.

We were far ahead of our colleagues in advocating for business grants at the start of the pandemic. The City responded too slowly, finally offering a program with no independent oversight. We gave over $500,000 to only 26 businesses located almost exclusively in our downtown. In fact there were hundreds of businesses throughout Des Moines completely unaware of the program. That was not only unfair and unethical, it’s just bad for business. All future business grant programs should be run independently.

Transportation

One thing to understand about transportation spending in Des Moines is how little of it there actually is. Almost all road improvements comes from highly competitive regional grants, currently limiting us to only one or two projects every few years. It may seem obvious, but the two best ways to fund more projects are to improve the business environment and increase our  presence in regional government.

The Community Connections Shuttle was a wonderful addition to Des Moines–five years ago. However, the majority of residents who need transit live in other areas–where services are poorest. We urgently need another such shuttle and we need much stronger advocacy for transit throughout the City.

Public Safety

We fully support our police department. In fact, we’d like to see more police deployed in your neighborhood. Although the administration refers to our department as ‘fully staffed’, the number of officers is now far smaller than in 2007.

We applaud the administration’s vocal support for police reform–such as adopting the #8Can’tWait campaign. However a recent letter of resignation from one member of the Diversity Advisory Committee raises concerns as to the City’s true commitment.

Parks, Recreation, Senior Services

The City groups several very important (and very different!) functions into one block called ‘human services’ and these are all undervalued. $175,000 out of a $24.5 million dollar general fund is simply not adequate–especially during a pandemic. Programs serving kids, seniors, families and people with special needs should never be outsourced.

We also acknowledge the recent work the City has done to improve places like Midway Park. But it is important to note that these upgrades began only after great volunteers laid the foundation. Currently, volunteerism for all City-related groups is at an all time low. We must do more to reverse that trend–including making the process much easier. It is volunteers who do so much to keep Des Moines running.

The Masonic Home

The Masonic Home is one of the most historically significant buildings in the entire state and has tremendous strategic potential. Yes, it has been problematic for years, but repeatedly the City chose to leave its fate to private developers–as if it were just another building. If and when a new opportunity appears we should be ready to provide every resource to support its rebirth as an economic engine for South Des Moines.

Sea-Tac Airport

The airport has been and will continue to be the single biggest threat to the City and its residents, having contributed to declines in our schools, property values and the health of our residents. Despite the public perception, very little of the airport’s money or well-paid jobs are in Des Moines.

The City has repeatedly made this situation worse for residents, publicly bemoaning the noise and pollution, while supporting the Port’s agenda in policy. Our Airport Advisory Committee resigned last year in frustration.

With little fanfare, Sea-Tac will soon begin a new expansion referred to as the SAMP. Unless vigorously opposed, this will add tens of thousands of flights over Des Moines.

There is a great deal we can do to improve this situation, but we must change our approach immediately.

In closing

This message is firm because the circumstances demand it. However it includes not only constructive criticisms but also solutions for improving our government and making your City better. In a letter like this, it is impossible to go into detail. But we welcome discussion of those details with both our colleagues and the public. It is offered to our colleagues and to all residents of Des Moines with sincerity and with absolutely no rancor.

It is our honor to serve Des Moines.

Councilmember JC Harris,
Councilmember Anthony Martinelli

Weekly Update: 01/17/2021

Posted on Categories Economic Development, Neighborhoods, Weekly Updates7 Comments on Weekly Update: 01/17/2021

If you check the site you’ll see a few tweaks. The Public Service Announcements now have their own page so you can always see what’s current. And the COVID-19 info has moved to the top next to the hat. You should check there because there are some big changes to do with finding out where/when you can get vaccinated and which new benefits are available for small business and unemployment.

Public Service Announcements

  1. The new round of Federal PPP loan program just opened up. And it is much better than the first round last year. If you need more information, here is a presentation from the Small Business Administration with lots of links to more information.
  2. There is new State Unemployment Benefits. But you gotta read and follow the instructions!
  3. Last month’s article in the Seattle Times regarding the Masonic Home has gotten a lot of people talking. As you know, working to save the place has been on my agenda for years. Please contact me or Barbara McMichael of SoCoCulture.org at info@sococulture.org to get involved! She is compiling a mailing list and is coordinating efforts to save the place. 🙂
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Rental Assistance for Low Income King County Bar Association – The Housing Justice Project is requesting community based providers assistance to identify households who owe 10K or more in back-rent. “We can zero out $10K or more of rent for folks who are at 50% AMI or below these income limits. If you know anyone, can you have them email fwblackcollective@gmail.com for navigation with case managers or give them this link which has all the paperwork to complete and email to edmundw@kcba.org to get their rent payed out.   Forms to Eliminate Back Rent: https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=1fUdYAwMFH_V_B1vTD_urmir_ltI8Wfnw.   Completed forms can be emailed to edmundw@kcba.org.”

This Week

  1. Thursday: Environment Committee Meeting (Agenda)
  2. Thursday: Transportation Committee Meeting (Agenda)
  3. Thursday: City Council Meeting (Agenda)

You can (and should) attend any of these meetings by signing up at:  https://www.desmoineswa.gov/FormCenter/City-Forms-3/Council-Meeting-Comments-49 by 4PM the day of the meeting.

Last Week

  1. Wednesday: I attended a small business administration webinar hosted by Congressman Adam Smith. There was some great info on the new PPP loan program. Check it out!
  2. Wednesday: Des Moines Marina Association meeting.
  3. Somewhere in there I had a meeting with the University Of Washington Department Of Environment And Occupational Health Sciences (UWDEOHS), the people who are doing so much great work on air quality around Sea-Tac Airport. This meeting was  to finalize the air quality monitor proposal. Please read that proposal. Now!
  4. Saturday: There was a Downtown Clean-Up organized by Salon Michelle’s Michelle Fawcett-Johnson. And I had absolutely nothing to do with it. But that ain’t gonna stop me from talking about it, no sirree! 😀

Now what?

As I said, I conveniently missed the downtown cleanup. So I walked along MVD and 7th Avenue today seeing the results and talking to local business people. Everyone is grateful of course, but there’s also the question of, “OK, Now what?”

One reason I am so jazzed about the idea of ‘cleanups’ in general is not about the trash per sé, but because they can act as a catalyst towards much more transformational change.

For example, what got Midway Park turned around was at least partly the cleanups and the Garden organized by Alena Rogers. At first, it was a bit disheartening to me because the trash began re-appearing almost immediately. So… another one was organized. And then another. And another. And for whatever reason, after a couple of years the changes became somewhat ‘sticky’. The cleanups are necessary less often. The crime has been reduced dramatically. It turns out that if people pay attention, good things happen. And after the area became more inviting, then the City came in with grants and new equipment. Next year the park will be extended even further. That’s one way real change occurs.

I’m so glad that Michelle got fired up enough to organize this. She did a great job. And I’m sure she’ll get even more people for the next cleanup. So perhaps, as with Midway Park, it will become a ‘thing’ beyond one person’s activism and drive much more substantial change.

But again, what will that change look like? I ask because we’ve already made a number of cosmetic improvements to MVD in the past few years–like the summer planters that everyone loves. Cool. But my feeling is that it’s time to really consider moving beyond cosmetics. You can make the place cleaner. You can reduce the number of vagrants. Those are good things and I am not minimizing those changes at all. They are real. But then you gotta take it to the next level.

So what does that look like? How can we leverage this enthusiasm into something more transformational–as is happening at Midway Park and Pacific Ridge?

Backwards

One thing that young people don’t realize is that what we think of as ‘the ‘business district’ along Marine View Drive isn’t where it’s supposed to be.  The reason MVD acts as such a traffic magnet is because it was always supposed to be the road heading south. The ‘business district’ should actually have been along Sixth and Seventh Avenues. Those two streets are the ‘walkable neighborhood’ that everyone always dreams about.

Somewhere along the way, previous city governments made the absolutely terrible decisions to literally flip those two functions–zoning for apartments and condos where the walkable business center should be. And then promoting businesses on cockamamie strip malls along MVD. That is what now makes it so difficult to create a cohesive ‘downtown’. And we did it for the same reason we’ve always done such things: short term cash from developers, with no consideration for the long-term implications. And that Dear Reader, is why I always grouse about ‘planning’.

Apparently, it’s not useful crying over spilt milk. But at the end of the day, that’s gonna be the challenge if we ever want to make Des Moines a ‘destination’. We’re gonna have to start incentivizing development to move the gravity of downtown back to where it was always meant to be. Which should take, oh I dunno, five maybe six weeks, right? 😀

Seriously, it’s gonna be hard. And it’s gonna take years. Which means that there will be resistance–as there is to anything challenging.  There is a momentum to planning mistakes which often keeps nudging one down the road to even more mistakes (like losing the Masonic Home and the Van Gasken House). It’s like a strong current in a river. But at some point, if you ever want your City to live up to its potential, you gotta start pushing back against that current.

Where was I?

Oh yeah, Michelle’s cleanup. 😀 I’m so glad that so many people signed up and followed through. Whenever I see a group of Des Moines residents get organized to do something like this I gets to dreaming about bigger things. 😉

Mid-Weekly Update: 01/14/2021

Posted on Categories Economic Development, Neighborhoods, Weekly Updates3 Comments on Mid-Weekly Update: 01/14/2021

This Weekly Update is even later than usual due to a big outage at my web hosting company. The entire web site was down, up, then down again for three days. Apparently, someone forgot to feed the hamster. 😀 Sorry for the inconvenience, but as always, it’s interesting to see just how many people are actually even noticing this thing. 😀

And yes, I did get my car back. It’s in the shop now trying to determine why the check engine light is now on.  😯 Thanks for all the nice notes. 🙂

Public Service Announcements

  1. The new round of Federal PPP loan program just opened up. And it is much better than the first round last year. If you need more information, here is a presentation from the Small Business Administration with lots of links to more information.
  2. There will be a Downtown Clean-Up this Saturday January 16th at 10AM organized by Salon Michelle’s Michelle Fawcett-Johnson. Show up at Salon Michelle to take part.
  3. Last month’s article in the Seattle Times regarding the Masonic Home has gotten a lot of people talking. As you know, working to save the place has been on my agenda for years. Please contact me or Barbara McMichael of SoCoCulture.org at info@sococulture.org to get involved! She is compiling a mailing list and is coordinating efforts to save the place. 🙂
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Rental Assistance for Low Income King County Bar Association – The Housing Justice Project is requesting community based providers assistance to identify households who owe 10K or more in back-rent. “We can zero out $10K or more of rent for folks who are at 50% AMI or below these income limits. If you know anyone, can you have them email fwblackcollective@gmail.com for navigation with case managers or give them this link which has all the paperwork to complete and email to edmundw@kcba.org to get their rent payed out.   Forms to Eliminate Back Rent: https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=1fUdYAwMFH_V_B1vTD_urmir_ltI8Wfnw.   Completed forms can be emailed to edmundw@kcba.org.”

This Week

Well…. this week is almost over so… You’ll just have to read about it next week. 😀

Last Week

Thursday: City Council Meeting (Agenda, Video, Recap)

Council Meeting Recap

Executive Session

The meeting opened with an Executive Session regarding possible legal stuff involving land stuff. I was admonished by the City Attorney to not be any more specific than that. 😀 No, really. But I will say that there was one attorney there who was not Tim George and who spoke for almost 50 minutes about how bad it might be for the City if any CM talks in public with regard to that possible legal land stuff. And then I asked some questions about how the public might do something about… er… something. The most titillating moments of the discussion involved the phrases ‘safe sex’ and ‘abstinence’. 😯 And then a couple of other CMs asked some questions… regarding this blog.  😀 Because, at the end, when the attorney who was not Tim George said at least twenty times, “I’m not singling out any particular Councilmember” I got the clear impression that about 50% of the whole thing was definitely for the benefit of one particular Councilmember.

But as I said from the dais: I’m about 100% sure that almost none of this should have been private. In fact, it contained information that the public should know about the proper role of the City (and Councilmembers) when it comes to…er…. ‘land stuff’. 😀 But ironically none of it was about that ‘land stuff’. Rather it was mainly about how concerned Cities must be about litigation. In short: it was an interesting civics lesson that we should try to find a legal way to present to interested residents.

Tree Cover

There was a really good presentation by Ali Lakehart of the Green Cities Partnership on tree cover in Des Moines. For me, the takeaway is that we have to find ways to have more trees in DM. The current estimated tree cover is 29%–which is a lot less than in the past due to the Port and commercial development. New residential developments tend not to have as many trees as older neighborhoods. Plus businesses have very few trees on their properties. Aside from aesthetics, trees are especially important in an airport community to maintain air quality and provide noise reduction. They can even improve yer mood. 🙂 (Seriously–look at the presentation.)

Masonic Home

But speaking of something which could not possibly have anything to do with the aforementioned Executive Session, City Manager Michael Matthias gave a great presentation on the current state of the Masonic Home.

And… that was about it. 😀 No, actually there was a Consent Agenda which was, unlike so many other meetings, exactly what a Unanimous Consent Agenda should be. Non-controversial. 🙂

Councilmember Comments

There were three sets of comments that were noteworthy. Which is about… oh… three more than usual. (I’m keeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeding. 😀 )

Deputy Mayor Matt Mahoney spoke practically about the storm water situation–how residents can and should report problems. Here is the City Fixit Form for reporting any kind of general problem you want the City to look at. He also reminded residents that it’s fine (and appreciated) to help out  and clear minor storm water clogs. (I would caution trying to unclog big openings, especially during storms like last night. The drains process tons of water and it’s slippier than ya think. We don’t want anyone getting injured trying to be a good citizen. 🙂 ) Frankly, as a member of the Environment Committee, I should be making those sorts of suggestions. Darn him. 😀

Luisa Bangs made a speech regarding the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol in Washington D.C. I generally don’t comment on national events unless they have a direct connection to something specific for Des Moines , but I agree with much of what she said and especially her passion on issues of racism.

The bulk of my comments had to do with a national issue that definitely has a direct link to Des Moines: The large number of people, especially people who serve the public, who are deciding not to receive COVID-19 vaccinations. Frankly, I find this to be completely unacceptable.

All the leading scientists are quite clear: we will not get past COVID-19 until 80-90% of people are vaccinated. If electeds, public employees, front-line workers, business owners, religious leader and other influencers opt out that sets a horrible example for the rest of the public. We simply must create a sense of shared civic duty around this issue. I want to encourage every employee of the City Of Des Moines to set the right example and get vaccinated the moment it is offered. And as a resident, I want you also to get the shots as soon as possible! I know many of you have your reasons for not wanting the vaccine (eg. if yer a Black person in America you totally have yer reasons.) But do it anyway.  This is the only way we will all be able to be safe and go back to living normal lives.

As a nation, we’ve done just about everything wrong when it came to dealing with the pandemic. This is our chance to take control of the situation and finally put it to an end. Do the right thing. Get vaccinated. No excuses.