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.

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.

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.

Mid-Weekly Update: 06/09/2021

Posted on Categories Environment, Public Safety, Transparency, Weekly UpdatesLeave a comment on Mid-Weekly Update: 06/09/2021

Again, again, running a bit late. Having an ongoing battle with my  web hosting system. 🙂

I was informed by readers that in my last Weekly Update, the ‘This Week’ portion was empty. A little geeky detail: these articles are actually several independent bits that (somehow) get mashed together into the ‘Weekly Update’ you see by a team of highly trained hamsters. Apparently the guy in charge of that portion wasn’t cooperating for a while there. I regret the error.

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: Meeting with 33rd State Representative Tina Orwall. I’m pitching something pretty mundane sounding called Remote Works Better. This may be the only good idea I ever have for immediately reducing noise and pollution around Sea-Tac Airport. The notion is pretty simple: with Zoom we were able painlessly reduce a whole lot of flights and car traffic and we just keep doing that whenever possible. A lot of air travel is simply unnecessary. We just have to realize that in 2020, we proved it.

Monday: I spoke with Noemie Maxwell, who is organizing to stop the removal of the North SeaTac Park in order to build an airport parking lot. The loss of tree cover has been brutal for all the communities surrounding the airport. Please sign her petition: https://www.kctreeequity.org/

Tuesday: Port Of Seattle Meeting. (Agenda) The notable thing here was a presentation on their 2021 Legislative Agenda. You can tell how a government really feels based on two things: their budget (what they spend money on) and their LA (what they are lobbying for.) And frankly, it’s not looking good. After several years of some minor optimism, I have to tell it like it is: the Port is becoming steadily more entrenched against the environmental interests of all airport communities. It has done an absolutely magnificent job of appearing to care about environmental issues, but doing almost nothing material. The pandemic has given the Port the perfect excuse to be even less aggressive (if that was possible) on these issues and leadership in all the fence line communities seem perfectly fine with the notion that “this is as good as it gets.”

Wednesday: Meeting with King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove on the County Climate Action Plan—see Monday. :D. Same topic.

Wednesday: Des Moines Marina Association Meeting. Most of the time was spent discussing ‘dry stack storage’ which we gotta get into at some point. I guess the main stat I want to mention is that the total paid membership is less than 40–so there are, what, seven hundred freeloaders? 😀 But more seriously, the total attendance at these meetings tends to be less than ten–which includes two Councilmembers (the Deputy Mayor and I) and two City Staff. Usually zero members of any Condo association and certainly none of the general public. All I’m getting at is that what is driving a lot of the Marina Redevelopment–is truly only a handful of people. Because oftenn when the discussion seems only of interest to boaters, a lot of the time there is crossover. More soon.

Thursday: Dentist. (just wanted to see if you were paying attention.) 😀

Saturday: 9:00AM Ribbon cutting for the new Organic Blend restaurant off of Marine View Drive and 225th. (I gotta be honest, the address on Google says 22341 but that’s a bit confusing.)  Hope it’s where I think it is–and hope to see you there! 😀

Last Week

Tuesday: Talking with airport community activists all over America. 🙂 The thing I’m trying to get to is what do activists actually want? Obviously, if you asked the average person who lives under any airport flight path, what they mainly want is for the planes to go somewhere else! But the moment you start to go into “how”, there just isn’t agreement. at the moment That’s the problem: a lack of shared strategy.

Thursday: Public Safety Committee (Agenda) The were three of things of note:

  • First off, I gotta let the cat outta the bag here: Committee Meetings are recorded. Not 100% on this, but I’m pretty sure they’ve been recorded since the City first began using Zoom last year. I can’t say exactly why I feel this way. OK, maybe it’s because every time one would attend a meeting the little red light ‘Recording’ left at the top left of the screen would blink? 😀 What is frustrating is that these meetings always include issues the public does care about. But if there’s no recording you’re stuck with my ‘reporting’.  Maybe that upsetting thought along might move the City to start throwing them up on Youtube? 😀
  • Second, the Committee continued work on a Street Racing ordinance that is designed to help with various issues in Redondo. You can see the draft version in the Packet. The only disagreement seemed to be about how severe to make the punishment. So it will likely be approved by the Committee at their 8 July meeting then be voted on by the Council at the following meeting. And no I’m not saying that is ‘the solution’.
  • Finally, there was a verbal-only presentation on the Bodycam Beta-Test which was deemed a success. There were a number of details that caught my.. er… ear.
    1. I guess the batteries need to be changed a lot.
    2. The PD has still not published a policy as to when the officer can turn the thing on and off.
    3. I heard no specifics as to redaction or storage policy. We saw that the video can be pixelated to protect privacy.
    4. However, because it was deemed a success, apparently full deployment is now moving forward– it does seem to require a final vote by the Council.

    Those last three do bug me… especially if we don’t get a vote without all that information. I want all those policies and procedures in public before we proceed. See that’s the thing about open government: it’s slightly inconvenient. I get that there is now apparent enthusiasm for body cameras by all my colleagues as well as the public on the right as well as by many on the left (but for very different reasons.) And that matters: Just saying you have body cameras, may look great. But until there are clear policies in place, I don’t think you can say that they actually provide real trust. No matter how popular, the City should never go ahead with an idea before the Council has all the important information.

Thursday: City Council Meeting (Agenda) (Video) (No Clerk Recap)

We passed a resolution and a proclamation, making Juneteenth a  paid employee holiday. I asked that this book recommendation be put into the packet. This part of American history is amazing: On Juneteenth Annette Gordon-Reed

Under New Business, I asked that the City fix the web site because, honestly, it’s worse than before. Now it used to be that many organizations would have a crappy commercial web site because a lot of old-school business people just didn’t think it mattered (“We should spend money on real things.”) I now realize that, for some people in Des Moines there’s something almost a fatalism along the lines of “Hey, nobody attends meetings so what’s even the point? And the following is my official line on this:

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.

Friday: Adam Smith–the usual airporty stuff. (See above. 🙂 )

Saturday: Des Moines Waterfront Farmer’s Market Grand Opening! It was a great day. Check out the new logo! (And guess what? parking is now free, Free, FREE! on Saturdays!)

Mayor as majority leader

The following is a heavily edited version of a very wonky thing I wrote on one of those Des Moines Facebook Pages. In that post, a resident creates a poll of “who should be mayor!” and then discusses the job in terms of “Rule 5”.  I’m redoing it here because although it’s super-wonky and boring and repetitious, every once in a while I accidentally hit on something that matters about local politics and this is it.

Introducing: The Hidden World Below!

Now, the rest of my original Facebook comment reads to me a bit like one of those grade school film strips trying to get kids to appreciate the wonders of the public sewer system. You know, “The Hidden World Below!” 😀  I mean, OK, you can’t live without it, but do you really want to know what’s going on?

My goal here is not so much to get you to appreciate this particular wonder of local politics anymore than I think you should fall in love with the Midway Sewer District. But I do think you should know that it’s there, whether you see it or not. In fact, I wish there was an ‘explainer’ of the political roles of the Council and Mayor included in every voters packet (or at least as part of Councilmember training). At least then every voter would  learn that, yes even in small town Des Moines, politics is politics

The rules are not the game

The role of Mayor is described in our Council Rules Of Procedure–primarily in these two sentences from Rule 5:

The Mayor shall preside at meetings of the Council, and be recognized as the head of the City for all ceremonial purposes. The Mayor shall have no regular administrative or executive duties.

That makes the job sound pretty innocuous, right? Sort of ‘impartial referee’ at meetings and ‘ribbon cutter’ on weekends. But to describe the job of Mayor in CMG in those terms (or any of the other Rules) is to almost completely misunderstand (or misrepresent) what the position really is. Yes, even in a small town like Des Moines. I would never criticize any individual for putting it that way–after all, that is what the rules say, right? Plus, I’ve heard lots and lots and lots of people put it that way over the years. But we should stop doing that, K? Because Rule 5 is not only a small fraction of the actual job, putting it in terms of any ‘Rule’ can’t actually explain the job.

See the Rules Of Procedure are just like the rules to any game. Yes, they give you some basic instructions, but they can’t tell you how the game is actually played.

Mayor as Majority Leader

OK, so here it is, playah:

The unwritten, but real authority of the Mayor in Council-Manager Government (CMG) is as leader of the majority of the City Council.

It’s a lot like being the Majority Leader of the US Senate. That’s what the job really is in CMG. It was designed as a ceremonial and non-partisan position. But since the first day a majority elected a mayor, every CMG mayor on earth has functioned with that political authority. Yes, even in a small town like Des Moines. And anyone who tells you otherwise either doesn’t know what they’re talking about or wants you to believe something that is not true. (Perhaps because the notion that our lovely town might have a ‘political sewer system’ doesn’t sound all that appealing? 😀 ) Look, I don’t want to torture this metaphor. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s actually essential to how our Council runs. So don’t pretend it doesn’t exist.

The Mayor’s role as majority leader may not be written down anywhere, but again it should be (just like Majority Leader in the Senate). And let’s be clear: I’m not saying I have a better system laying about. I just think the public (and CMs) should properly understand.

Specifics

Now what does it mean to be majority leader?

First of all, a CMG City Council is 100% majoritarian. All or nothing voting. 24/7/365 the Mayor has exactly the authority that the majority supports. Note that I did not say ‘the Council’. Whatever authority a mayor has flows from the majority; not the full Council.

Second, the role presiding officer has an in-built potential for bias. Remember: he gets to vote on every issue, just like every other Councilmember. So to a very real extent, he functions as both judge and jury member. He was elected by his majority–at least in part, to further a shared vision, not because he’s some paragon of impartiality. That doesn’t make impartiality impossible, but this tension should always be freely acknowledged. He is the leader of the majority. Not some ‘referee’.

Third, the Council functions according to a written set of rules. Those rules define both the Council and the Mayor and they are what the majority says they are. These can be formally changed by a majority vote at any time.

Finally, however,  Council Rules are not laws. The City Council is self-policing–again (as always) by a vote of the majority. And that has three big features:

  • At any time, either on or off the dais, the Mayor has great flexibility to interpret or add to or reduce or modify his authority and even, to a large extent, ignore certain rules–so long as the majority does not object. Our current Mayor has done so many times. That’s not being snippy, it’s just a fact. Every CMG mayor does it (at least a teeny, weeny bit) from time to time. So long as the majority is cool? It’s cool.
  • If anyone has a problem with anything the Mayor or the Council does–the majority must agree to take action.
  • There are rarely any external penalties for bending or even breaking meeting rules. At this point, I should probably point out that this is neither complaint or hyperbole. Again, it’s just how CMG works in the State Of Washington. Feel free to Google ‘Open Public Meetings Act Violations in Washington’ (OPMA) or connect with me for specifics.

So… what does that mean for the public?

Well first of all, it means that you should probably understand what  candidates actually believe in–and who he/she is likely to align with and why when you vote. Because it is a member of that majority who will become the next Mayor.

Second, stop acting like we have a strong mayor. If you don’t like something the Mayor is doing? Tell his colleagues.

Focusing attention solely on the Mayor  is not only unfair to him, it’s misinformed and counter-productive. Because it stokes the impossible narrative that you can be a good CM who supports a bad Mayor. C’mon: a ‘good’ CM would always object whenever the Mayor gets out of line. (Did I mention we’re supposed to be self-policing? 🙂 )

Again, again, CMG is 100% majoritarian. All or nothing. Every action the Mayor takes is because of the support (or lack thereof) of the majority. Whenever a Mayor goes beyond a ceremonial function in any way, he is actually working for the majority, not the other way round.

Ironically, the only time I ever focus attention solely on the Mayor? Is in his ceremonial role–when he’s really in his Rule 5 mode. That’s when he is on his own. If he did a bad job at a ribbon cutting? I’d be upset. Our Mayor does a fine job with those sorts of things. 🙂

So it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that there no are good or bad Mayors in CMG. The Mayor can only be as good at any given moment as the majority.

OK, sorry, that was a bit over the top. 😃 There totally are bad CMG Mayors that don’t reflect their council majority. But not many. And BTW, regardless of our ‘differences’, our Mayor is not one of them.

Choose the right majority

If any or all of this seems like some thinly veiled grouse at our current Council, it’s not. All CMG Mayors and Councils have exactly the same incentives and challenges–and that’s the real point: the role of Mayor matters far less than the members of the majority. There are definite requirements for being a good mayor in CMG and they are not chopped liver. But if you have a fair and competent majority, you tend to have fairer rules and better governance regardless of who they choose to be Mayor. If you don’t? You can have all the rules you want, pal! Because, for the umpteenth time, it’s majority rules in this here town.

The purpose of this novella

Anyhoo, I just wanted to describe the political role of Mayor in CMG. Yes, it’s Rule 5, but just as the Senate Majority Leader, our Mayor’s real authority is as head the majority that voted for him/her to be their leader. A Councilmember may not put it like that. They may not like it much. They may not have even thought about it like that. But, not to torture the metaphor, this really is like “The  Hidden World Below” I opened with. You don’t have to talk about it, like it or even know it exists to use it every day. 😀

Mayor as Majority Leader

Posted on Categories Transparency

The following is a heavily edited version of a very wonky thing I wrote on one of those Des Moines Facebook Pages. In that post, a resident creates a poll of “who should be mayor!” and then discusses the job in terms of “Rule 5”.  I’m redoing it here because although it’s super-wonky and boring and repetitious, every once in a while I accidentally hit on something that matters about local politics and this is it.

Introducing: The Hidden World Below!

Now, the rest of my original Facebook comment reads to me a bit like one of those grade school film strips trying to get kids to appreciate the wonders of the public sewer system. You know, “The Hidden World Below!” 😀  I mean, OK, you can’t live without it, but do you really want to know what’s going on?

My goal here is not so much to get you to appreciate this particular wonder of local politics anymore than I think you should fall in love with the Midway Sewer District. But I do think you should know that it’s there, whether you see it or not. In fact, I wish there was an ‘explainer’ of the political roles of the Council and Mayor included in every voters packet (or at least as part of Councilmember training). At least then every voter would  learn that, yes even in small town Des Moines, politics is politics

The rules are not the game

The role of Mayor is described in our Council Rules Of Procedure–primarily in these two sentences from Rule 5:

The Mayor shall preside at meetings of the Council, and be recognized as the head of the City for all ceremonial purposes. The Mayor shall have no regular administrative or executive duties.

That makes the job sound pretty innocuous, right? Sort of ‘impartial referee’ at meetings and ‘ribbon cutter’ on weekends. But to describe the job of Mayor in CMG in those terms (or any of the other Rules) is to almost completely misunderstand (or misrepresent) what the position really is. Yes, even in a small town like Des Moines. I would never criticize any individual for putting it that way–after all, that is what the rules say, right? Plus, I’ve heard lots and lots and lots of people put it that way over the years. But we should stop doing that, K? Because Rule 5 is not only a small fraction of the actual job, putting it in terms of any ‘Rule’ can’t actually explain the job.

See the Rules Of Procedure are just like the rules to any game. Yes, they give you some basic instructions, but they can’t tell you how the game is actually played.

Mayor as Majority Leader

OK, so here it is, playah:

The unwritten, but real authority of the Mayor in Council-Manager Government (CMG) is as leader of the majority of the City Council.

It’s a lot like being the Majority Leader of the US Senate. That’s what the job really is in CMG. It was designed as a ceremonial and non-partisan position. But since the first day a majority elected a mayor, every CMG mayor on earth has functioned with that political authority. Yes, even in a small town like Des Moines. And anyone who tells you otherwise either doesn’t know what they’re talking about or wants you to believe something that is not true. (Perhaps because the notion that our lovely town might have a ‘political sewer system’ doesn’t sound all that appealing? 😀 ) Look, I don’t want to torture this metaphor. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s actually essential to how our Council runs. So don’t pretend it doesn’t exist.

The Mayor’s role as majority leader may not be written down anywhere, but again it should be (just like Majority Leader in the Senate). And let’s be clear: I’m not saying I have a better system laying about. I just think the public (and CMs) should properly understand.

Specifics

Now what does it mean to be majority leader?

First of all, a CMG City Council is 100% majoritarian. All or nothing voting. 24/7/365 the Mayor has exactly the authority that the majority supports. Note that I did not say ‘the Council’. Whatever authority a mayor has flows from the majority; not the full Council.

Second, the role presiding officer has an in-built potential for bias. Remember: he gets to vote on every issue, just like every other Councilmember. So to a very real extent, he functions as both judge and jury member. He was elected by his majority–at least in part, to further a shared vision, not because he’s some paragon of impartiality. That doesn’t make impartiality impossible, but this tension should always be freely acknowledged. He is the leader of the majority. Not some ‘referee’.

Third, the Council functions according to a written set of rules. Those rules define both the Council and the Mayor and they are what the majority says they are. These can be formally changed by a majority vote at any time.

Finally, however,  Council Rules are not laws. The City Council is self-policing–again (as always) by a vote of the majority. And that has three big features:

  • At any time, either on or off the dais, the Mayor has great flexibility to interpret or add to or reduce or modify his authority and even, to a large extent, ignore certain rules–so long as the majority does not object. Our current Mayor has done so many times. That’s not being snippy, it’s just a fact. Every CMG mayor does it (at least a teeny, weeny bit) from time to time. So long as the majority is cool? It’s cool.
  • If anyone has a problem with anything the Mayor or the Council does–the majority must agree to take action.
  • There are rarely any external penalties for bending or even breaking meeting rules. At this point, I should probably point out that this is neither complaint or hyperbole. Again, it’s just how CMG works in the State Of Washington. Feel free to Google ‘Open Public Meetings Act Violations in Washington’ (OPMA) or connect with me for specifics.

So… what does that mean for the public?

Well first of all, it means that you should probably understand what  candidates actually believe in–and who he/she is likely to align with and why when you vote. Because it is a member of that majority who will become the next Mayor.

Second, stop acting like we have a strong mayor. If you don’t like something the Mayor is doing? Tell his colleagues.

Focusing attention solely on the Mayor  is not only unfair to him, it’s misinformed and counter-productive. Because it stokes the impossible narrative that you can be a good CM who supports a bad Mayor. C’mon: a ‘good’ CM would always object whenever the Mayor gets out of line. (Did I mention we’re supposed to be self-policing? 🙂 )

Again, again, CMG is 100% majoritarian. All or nothing. Every action the Mayor takes is because of the support (or lack thereof) of the majority. Whenever a Mayor goes beyond a ceremonial function in any way, he is actually working for the majority, not the other way round.

Ironically, the only time I ever focus attention solely on the Mayor? Is in his ceremonial role–when he’s really in his Rule 5 mode. That’s when he is on his own. If he did a bad job at a ribbon cutting? I’d be upset. Our Mayor does a fine job with those sorts of things. 🙂

So it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that there no are good or bad Mayors in CMG. The Mayor can only be as good at any given moment as the majority.

OK, sorry, that was a bit over the top. 😃 There totally are bad CMG Mayors that don’t reflect their council majority. But not many. And BTW, regardless of our ‘differences’, our Mayor is not one of them.

Choose the right majority

If any or all of this seems like some thinly veiled grouse at our current Council, it’s not. All CMG Mayors and Councils have exactly the same incentives and challenges–and that’s the real point: the role of Mayor matters far less than the members of the majority. There are definite requirements for being a good mayor in CMG and they are not chopped liver. But if you have a fair and competent majority, you tend to have fairer rules and better governance regardless of who they choose to be Mayor. If you don’t? You can have all the rules you want, pal! Because, for the umpteenth time, it’s majority rules in this here town.

The purpose of this novella

Anyhoo, I just wanted to describe the political role of Mayor in CMG. Yes, it’s Rule 5, but just as the Senate Majority Leader, our Mayor’s real authority is as head the majority that voted for him/her to be their leader. A Councilmember may not put it like that. They may not like it much. They may not have even thought about it like that. But, not to torture the metaphor, this really is like “The  Hidden World Below” I opened with. You don’t have to talk about it, like it or even know it exists to use it every day. 😀

Two quick examples of the transparency problem

Posted on Categories Engagement, TransparencyLeave a comment on Two quick examples of the transparency problem

At our last City Council Meeting there was a contentious discussion about providing public comment. But the problem of transparency and public engagement is actually far more profound and I am concerned that the discussion made it seem more trivial than it is.

There is no obvious way for a member of the public to become aware of the existence of committee meetings, what they do, their agendas, or how to attend. And the recent new web site actually makes this situation worse.

How about a quick example?

Let’s say a member of the public actually wanted to attend this week’s Economic Development Committee Meeting or just learn what is on the Agenda. (They’re discussing Marina Redevelopment, so I’d highly recommend it.)

1. They would start by going to the City web site:

https://www.desmoineswa.gov/

There’s no mention of their existence on the home page. And this week’s meetings don’t appear on the home page calendar.

2. OK, so maybe someone told me of their existence and suggested I attend. I have some initiative so I do a search for ‘Committee Meeting’

https://www.desmoineswa.gov/search/default.aspx?q=committee+meeting&type=0,17385004-244742,17385004-117|-1,17385088-124

The URL is totally cockamamie, but the search results are there.  So far so good.

3. Now click on Economic Development Committee Agendas. Good.

https://www.desmoineswa.gov/cms/one.aspx?portalId=17385088&pageId=17516545

4. Now click on the link to the 27 May meeting. You get the PDF. Even better.

https://www.desmoineswa.gov/common/pages/DisplayFile.aspx?itemId=17726545

5. Now click the link in the PDF to attend the meeting.

https://www.desmoineswa.gov/FormCenter/City-Forms-3/Council-Meeting-Comments-49

Oops.

OK, so at that point a lot of people would simply give up. But let’s say you’re persistent. And luckily, you’ve been told by someone else… or were ambitious enough to phone or email the City for help… They would tell you that the way to go is…

6. Enter a GENERAL COUNCIL COMMENT FORM (again with no mention of ‘committee’.)

https://www.desmoineswa.gov/cms/One.aspx?portalId=17385088&pageId=17667089

(And again with the cockamamie URL)

7. Or… if you’re really The Amazing Kreskin you might stumble upon the new ‘Council Portal’ and see that calendar.

https://desmoines.civicweb.net/portal/default.aspx

Unfortunately, the current week’s meetings aren’t there either.

In one sentence

This bears repeating: there is no obvious way for a member of the public to become aware of the existence of committee meetings, what they do, their agendas, or how to attend.

It’s one thing to not to take public comment at committee meetings. It’s another to not want those meetings recorded. But to make a public meeting so difficult to even learn about… let alone attend… in the age of Zoom… sends an obvious message of what we value. It tells the public that the City does not consider their participation in, or even awareness of, the Committee process, of importance.

And then there is the Search problem…

One last nerdish-sounding detail that you actually should pay attention to: almost all city documents are in PDFs which are non-searchable.

What that means is that their content is not part of the Search system.

So if a member of the public wants to know about any action of the Council or Administration, ever, they would need to be either psychic, tediously go through a zillion documents one by one or do a Public Records Request and… wait at least a week for an answer. There is simply no immediate way for the public to learn about almost any Council activity without manually opening document after document after document after document.

For example…

Let’s try a Search on “Passenger Ferry”

Gee. I guess nobody in the City ever thought of discussing a passenger ferry before.

I think it is unacceptable for the City to provide such poor access to information about your government. And I honestly do not understand how anyone can say that they are confident in their knowledge of how our City is doing until these issues are resolved.

So I will continue to strongly advocate for improvements to make it easier for you to find out about your government and to participate in its decision making.

Weekly Update: 05/24/2021

Posted on Categories Environment, Public Safety, Transparency, Weekly Updates2 Comments on Weekly Update: 05/24/2021

Alright, alright, I’m late again. But in my defense, it was filing week for candidates and I seemed to have wall to wall phone calls with people who were thinking about running for various offices. Frankly, it’s kinda refreshing to have people ask for your opinion–since it happens so rarely on my own Council. 😀

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

Last Week

Monday: Destination Des Moines. They are gearing up for the Running Of the Flags, which you should sign up for here. And since the State is going to be opening up at the end of June, you can look for some in-person events in July–including (maybe?) fireworks! Woo hoo!

Wednesday: Reach Out Des Moines. Lots to talk about. More KCS libraries will soon re-open. Check out YETI for some great activities for middle and senior high kids! And Seattle Humane for some animal-related fun stuff for kids.

Thursday: Transportation Committee Meeting (Agenda)

Thursday: Environment Committee Meeting (Agenda) There were several presentations that all revolved around water quality–specifically the many spills over the past year from Midway Sewer. I’m gassing on too much here, but as I’ve written before, it’s funding that’s the real problem. It’s easy to point fingers at Midway Sewer on these lapses, but the issue is super-complex and, ultimately, comes down to money. The fact is that our entire water and sewer infrastructure is at its end of life and is under-capacity. Residents (including moi) go ballistic at any thought of rate increases, so many agencies do the best they can to keep the pipes moving. But at some point, a new system to fund water and sewer will need to be found. Des Moines is blessed with a wealth of shoreline and creeks, but that also means that we have serious challenges ahead in keeping the system safe.

Thursday: City Council Meeting (Agenda) (Video).  Based on requests from several residents, I proposed a proclamation declaring June LGBTQ+ Pride Month in Des Moines. This passed 7-0 and should be on the agenda for our next meeting, June 3rd.

For me the highlight of the meeting was a presentation on our Court by our Judge Lisa Leone. This was not only one of the most informative, but thought-provoking presentations I’ve seen in a long time and I strongly encourage you to watch it. First off, the pandemic forced the City to re-think every process–especially the Court. Judge Leone’s team showed that you can run a Court better utilizing remote technology. (I was also very encouraged to hear that the City will be considering how it can continue doing as much employee work remotely on a permanent basis.) I am convinced that Remote Work is going to be key in making progress on climate change as well as resolving our complaints with Sea-Tac Airport. The amount of work we can now do remotely is huge; we proved it. If we don’t go back to our bad habits, we could reduce road and air traffic by a lot.

Second, with all the talk of ‘defund the police’ last summer, it often gets missed that the justice system–at least at the local level, had already begun a dramatic transformation based not so much on racism, but on m-o-n-e-y. The fact is that a lot of newer interventions, which do not involve traditional ‘punishment’, just work better. They cost less and they decrease recidivism. The DUI program Judge Leone mentions is a fantastic example. People who complete that program are far less likely to re-offend. The only trouble is that we don’t yet have enough available slots. But at some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, I can see where the majority of what we now refer to as ‘public safety’ will be resolved without expensive jails or traditional courts. Obviously, the courts and police will continue to have a big role to play, but I’m sure that they will be as happy as anyone to be able to focus more of their attention on other matters (like getting my stolen car back! 😀 )

(One last note on this: The Des Moines Court is broadcast live on Youtube and here’s the channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCIvlmdlOGbP5rBKJC5PgG_Q)

We also had a New Business discussion on providing Public Comment at Committee Meetings–something I’ve been pushing for since, well, forever. That was voted down 5-2. See below.

Despite that, I will continue to push for getting these meetings recorded, which I think is even more significant. As I keep saying, the real policy discussions happen at the Committee level. By the time an issue reaches the full Council it’s pretty much a done deal. Unfortunately, those meetings occur in the afternoon when most of you are working. The first step towards improving public engagement is to make those meetings watchable for you at your convenience. Other Cities already do this and we should too.

To sign up to provide public comment via Zoom or to provide written public comment, go here. To watch live on Youtube go here.

Public Comment At Committee Debates

I think there is a misunderstanding about the whole ‘public comment’ vote near the end of last week’s Cit Council Meeting. There seems to be a perception that the issue is just one more personality conflict over some minor ‘procedural’ deal. It was not. This is a difference in philosophy so basic that we cannot even discuss it without someone getting personally offended.

We have Councilmember Committee Meetings that are defined as public meetings under the state Open Public Meetings Act. However, these meetings, are neither ‘public’ or ‘committee’ meetings as most of you expect. And I say that because, if you watch the discussion, the City Manager and my colleagues repeatedly feel the need to do an explainer. They obviously feel like if the public understands the purpose, then they will understand that there is no need for public comment or any other reforms to Committee Meetings.

So you have to decide whether this is some ginned-up non-issue or whether the proposal was attempting to address a real problem.

Some background: Our Committee meetings are run by the administration, not by Council. The administration does not merely execute policy, it makes almost all policy. The administration schedules the meetings. They set the agenda for meetings. They cancel meetings if they don’t consider them necessary. A committee meeting consists of a staff presentation, followed by a few questions. That’s it. The vast majority of the time, the main reason for CMs to show up is because we are legally required to do so. The administration prefers this system and so do my colleagues for reasons they describe on the video so I’ll let them speak for themselves..

I disagree with this system. The law says that Councilmembers have two basic jobs: legislation and oversight. For the most part we do neither of those things at Committee Meetings. And I think we should.

For years I have watched many other governments work. And my experience tells me that when committees are driven by electeds and fully engaged with the public, this leads to better services for you, the taxpayer. I’m not talking about some abstract ideal of ‘democracy’. It’s about practical results: roads and public safety and permits and economic development, etc.

Most of you likely feel intuitively some kind of way about this, but honestly, very few of you can decide who is right based on evidence. We have no newspaper and almost none of you get to see how our government works—let alone how governments work in other places. It’s very difficult for you to fairly evaluate how well we’re doing compared with other places. Frankly, you often just have to take us at our word.

My interest in public comment and recording meetings and all the other ‘transparency’ jazz I go on about is somewhat self-serving: I believe that if more of you take the time to see how things actually work, you’ll agree with me and help our government (including our Committees) work more as you expect them. And again, I want to stress that a better process leads to better practical results for you: from public safety to roads to economic development.

My colleagues obviously disagree. They believe that the current system is not merely good, but best in class and that my complaints are not only without merit, but are tactics to make them and our City look bad. That has never been true.

It’s kinda hard to bridge such a wide gulf of trust. So I hope more of you make the effort to attend all our meetings and judge for yourself. I know it’s more challenging than it should be and I applaud those who get engaged.