This is the third in a series of changes to our City Council Meetings I’d like to see. This particular change has to do with ‘relationships’ so it may well sound crankier than usual. It’s not meant to. Honest. 😀
But there is a thing that tends to happen with group meetings that is kinda insidious because it is extremely appealing to all the participants. And that is a break down in, for lack of a better word, ‘formality’.
Why our City Council is so informal
There are several aspects to this, but to explain ‘what’ I mean, I was thinking it might be easiest to first to talk about the ‘why’.
We very much like to think of ourselves as a small town, though we’re not. We’re actually among the larger cities in Washington and we’re subject to a whole set of State rules/regulations that puts us in the same category as Cities like Kent and Bellevue. (And I’m sure many of you read that last sentence and go, “Too many damned regulations!” I won’t argue with you there. I’m just telling you the reality we must deal with.) Since we’re not a small town, our decisions are often pretty complicated.
We also currently have what I refer to as ‘Weak Council/Strong Manager’ system. It’s something I’ve mentioned before and it’s not a pejorative at all. Des Moines has a Council/Manager form of government (often referred to as ‘Weak Mayor’). Within that frame you can have a range of power balance between Manager and Council. In our case, we currently have a City Manager who does almost all policy formulation and de facto legislating. And that’s because the current Council likes it that way. As has been quoted to me by my colleagues many times, “We hire the expert and then we leave him alone to do his job.” But it’s worth nothing that in many other Cities the balance leans the other way. So it’s a choice made by the current majority, not ‘a law’. On the plus side a Strong Manager can yield a lot of efficiencies. On the other side, it can lead to all the issues one can imagine when one leaves a single person in charge of most decisions.
There’s also this sort of ‘world-weariness’ that everyone involved in government feels. For example, the Regional Aviation Baseline Study? I’ve heard that same frickin’ presentation like four times now: at Port Meetings, at StART Meetings, at PSRC Meetings, at the Highline Forum. I’m trying to imagine what it must be like for someone like our Mayor, who has 15-20 years of that sort of repetition. (It’s only been a few years for me and it’s already taken a toll on my personality. 😀 ) After a while, hearing the same stuff over and over will make even the most patient person want to take steps to ‘move things along!’ And I have no doubt that factors into why Des Moines City Council Meetings are the shortest in the region. There’s a logic to wanting to skip the repetition, including conversations that one has already had with staff in private. It comes from a good place, but it leads to bad outcomes because what is repetitious to the ‘insider’ is completely new to you the public.
Finally, there is the “we know better than you” syndrome that all experts and decision makers fall into. We’ve all been to a doctor who isn’t even listening to you while you complain about whatever. You’re sure that you’re being patronized because… news flash…. you are being patronized. The doctor sized up your condition twenty seconds after you walked in and now they’re just waiting for you to shut up so they can write the prescription and get you outta there. That’s how we all tend to roll when we’re experts at something (or have experts.) We all can get pretty bad at listening. After a while, we trust our own opinions and the judgments of the administration and tune out the voters and even our colleagues.
So you have this combination of a system where the administration is given a great deal of latitude, a resistance to ‘big town process’, and a natural desire to want to cut out all the boring stuff. Take it all together and that often leads to a number of features.
- Almost no discussion on issues. Or when there is, it’s completely laudatory. When you have complete trust in the management, who needs a lot of back and forth?
- Lack of preparation. Staff will not have presentations or important supporting facts available ahead of the meeting. This not only makes it tough to provide oversight at any given meeting, it’s especially harmful for issues that span multiple meetings (budgets, zoning) because it literally saws off weeks from the decision making process. When you say, “Oh don’t worry, we’ve got the next meeting to talk about this”, what you’re really saying is, “We only need one meeting to do this thing that the law says is supposed to take two meetings.”
- The wall between the ‘board’ (or the electeds) and the ‘staff’ starts to fall away. The board defers too much to the staff, ignoring the ultimate deciderers ( the voters) because frankly, the public (and the electeds) are not usually as well-informed as the experts.
Why should I care about this?
At the local level, there’s a strong emphasis on ‘results’. The further up the ladder you go, the more abstract ‘government’ becomes. Frankly, most of us don’t expect all that much from the State or the Feds. But at the local level, we expect to get things done. Which can be a double-edged sword. One doesn’t like to use the term ‘Machiavellian’, but that’s often how we all tend to feel about local government. Most residents just want their streets to be safe or their garbage picked up and they’re just not all that concerned about ‘how’ that happens; just so long as it happens.
But you should care because sooner or later this sort of informality breeds a lack of transparency. And sooner or later, that invariably leads to real problems; maybe not in the short run, but always in the long term. And usually after the current government has left the scene.
Why formality matters
- To paraphrase good ol’ Don Rumsfeld, there are always Unknown Unknowns. (Or was it Unknowable Unknowables, who knew what that guy was talking about, right? 😀 ) But the reason discussion matters so much is that when you talk to people in person, you almost always find out things you’d never learn in a document. It’s why we do multiple in-person Employee Interviews rather than just evaluate resumes. A lot of times, talking is how you get to the truth.
- Communicating with the public builds trust and that alone should be enough reason to take public engagement more seriously. But it isn’t, of course. We need prodding. So all the formalities work to encourage electeds to listen better.
- Process also slows things down in another helpful way. There is that tendency to blow through items because one is the ‘expert’. But every once in a while, all the procedural crap creates an opportunity to change hearts and minds.
- When things get too informal, it has the psychological effect of reducing the tough questions that electeds should be asking. It may seem wildly impolite to say that, but we all know it’s true. The fact is that the staff are the experts and they run things and that creates a constant pull towards the tail wagging the dog. The formality of process and decorum are the tools to reinforce that line. It is extremely tempting for electeds to respect staff opinions too much and not even listen to *other voices (like those pesky voters) or †even one another! The bosses have to know their roles and the staff have to know theirs. That’s why I constantly stress that we are not a ‘small town’ because this task is much tougher to do in a ‘small town’. Why? Because it just seems so damned rude, right? What I’m writing sounds, why it sounds like I don’t trust my own staff, JC. Outrageous! That’s how touchy this issue gets. But again, anyone who has ever owned a business knows exactly what I’m talking about. Everyone gets along fine, but you maintain a certain professional distance so you can objectively manage the company.
What keeps all this stuff from going off the rails is the process and all that formality–in all its glorious boredom.
Real World Example
From the outside, the Budget process looks like a wonderful example of transparency. Under State law the Council has four bites at the apple to get information from staff and review and amend the Budget. But let’s see what’s happened so far in 2020.
- The first meeting (Budget Retreat) went on for four hours and then was ended without the Council asking any questions. OK, fine we had a follow-up meeting two weeks later. But having to delay those questions–and even having to argue in order to that follow-up meeting was bad. The reality is that this Meeting did not do as it was designed to do: give the Council the best opportunities at a once a year event to ask tough questions. It got flipped into being two less than optimal meetings rather than one good one. It created the appearance of engagement.
- The second bite (October 8th Budget Presentation) occured with no budget being presented. So no questioning was possible with the full Council. Which means that no amendments could be made. Individual Councilmembers can meet with staff to ask questions, but those meetings have no force of government.
- The third bite happens on October 22nd at the 1st Public Hearing. So now this is likely the single place where questions happen with the full Council.
- The 2nd public hearing in November is where the Budget is traditionally approved. But if you look at the Futures Report this suggests that it is the only place where amendments will be entertained. (Actually that’s kind of a misnomer–amendments could be added at any of the two previous meetings–well, if we’d had a Budget to amend that is. 😀 ) Plus, there are lots of other items on that Meeting Agenda.
What this means is that the questions before the full Council are consigned to a single Meeting and the actual amendment process is likely confined to a single meeting. And with our super-tight procedural rules, that right there skews the process towards as few changes as possible. The process is strongly weighted towards accepting the Budget as presented by the City Manager. And this is completely in line with the philosophy of the current majority.
Now, if you think things are going great in Des Moines, you likely are rolling your eyes (What am I saying, if you think things are going great in Des Moines you aren’t even reading this.) But regardless, in my view, our current process is waaaaaaaaaaaay too informal. It basically makes the Budget process a rubber stamp affair. It creates the appearance of engagement. Technically, it crosses all the is and dots all the t’. 😀 But it adheres to the letter of the law rather than the spirit.
Because, hey, why wouldn’t you? We’re a small town.
*That happens to the public with the Port Of Seattle all the time. Someone will contradict a Port Staff member on a matter of fact and then it puts the Commissioners in the position of having to get the staff to move in a direction quite different from the one they’ve been happily moving for years and years. Awkward!
†That wall gets broken down frequently when a Councilmember like, oh for example, moi, will be openly criticized by our City Manager and my colleagues will pile on, literally saying, “I don’t know the facts but…” So the Council instinctively defers to the City Manager–even when it comes to a colleague, without asking a single question.