Better City Council Meetings #3: Informality

Posted on Categories TransparencyTags

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.

Symptoms

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. 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.

Better City Council Meetings #2: Questions

Posted on Categories TransparencyTags

This is the second in a series of changes to our City Council Meetings I’d like to see. This particular change has to do with questions from Councilmembers about both how the government works and the legislation to be decided on at each meeting. This series began as a result of the especially problematic at the August 6th ‘Budget Retreat’ (Video) so I’ll use that as a reference. As I said in the first article, there is a ‘big picture’ we’ll be getting to soon. All the issues I am raising are features and not ‘bugs’. The current majority have, over time, gradually moulded the system to work the way it does now very intentionally. And they’ve done so because they believe it is the system that is in the best interest of the City.  So none of the issues I will raise are in any way accidental or unintended.

How it works now

Councilmembers receive notice of the Agenda Packet the Friday before the meeting. Exactly as the public does. At first glance that seems like a very generous amount of time to read the Packet, then ask the City for background information ahead of the actual meeting. But there are several catches. Or rather, rules that Councilmembers are expected to follow.

Rule #1: Timeliness.

The City Manager refuses to answer any emailed questions submitted after 4:30pm on Monday. I have sent messages time-stamped 4:33pm and they have been rejected it as ‘after close of business’.

Rule #2: No double dipsies!

In general, you’re only allowed one swing of the bat… ie. if I send a question on a topic and the answer is incomplete… there is often no opportunity to follow up.

In general, your information request is complete if the Administration says it’s complete. ie. if I send a question and the answer doesn’t cover what I asked about fully? Tough Noogies. There is no recourse.

Rule #3: Relevance

If the City Manager rules that a question in not directly germane to the current agenda he simply won’t answer it; or will prevent Staff from answering it. Happens all the time.

Rule #4: No contact with Staff

OK, this is, at least partly, in the State RCW. There is this admonition to Councilmember to not interfere with the City Manager or the Staff. I’ve gone into this many times because it’s so important. But for now I’ll just stress that it is really open to interpretation. And the current Administration interprets it to mean that no Councilmember should ever have one on one meetings with Staff. The only contact a Councilmember may have with Staff is by the explicit permission of the City Manager.

Rule #5: No Councilmember Information Requests

Many cities have an indexed system of requests for information made by Councilmembers over the years. We do not. Think of this like a Public Records Request system, like the one the Port Of Seattle has. When someone asks a question of the Port Of Seattle, not only do they get the answer, but the whole world can see the answer. And since people often ask the same questions over and over (and over and over), this saves both you and the Port oodles of time re-answering the same questions. Again, we don’t do that. There is no way for a Councilmember to access answers to questions from their colleagues over time. So I have no idea who asked what, when.

Rule #6: Majority rules

And on more than one occasion he has refused to answer because (and I am not kidding) “no other Councilmember felt a need to ask any questions.” Apparently, in the vast majority of cases, my fellow Councilmembers never ask any questions ahead of a meeting. According to Michael, Staff find my requests onerous because I’m literally the only one asking questions of them. (Anthony apparently asks Bonnie all sorts of stuff but rarely anything detailed about the Agenda or the mechanics of the City.)

Why it works this way...

The reason it works this way is, as I’ve said many times, once one hires the City Manager, State law provides almost no guidance as to how they conduct their office. Other than a few pesky rules involving, you know, embezzlement, theft, murder, etc. their authority is almost absolute; only constrained by whatever specific legislation the City Council may pass. The current majority has no problem with any of the above so… it’s not a problem. And in fact, I can easily imagine their eye rolls at every word of this post.

Why it actually is a problem…

What I object to is a distinct message of these rules. And I’m being as generous as I can be when I write what I see as the Administration’s view on Councilmember questions:

Dear Councilmember,

Your questions are kind of an imposition. We’ll indulge you as best we can because we’re really nice people. However, please keep them as brief and to the point as possible so we can get back to the real work of serving the public and running the government.

I see two issues, one very practical and one about democracy writ large.

The practical issue is that if you’re uninformed, you can’t govern well. The more difficult you make it for a Councilmember to learn about how the government works in general, and about each issue in particular, the weaker they are. Because you don’t know what you don’t know. And the simple fact is that the City Manager often has access to information that no one else (except his department heads) have. This places tremendous pressure on new Councilmembers in two ways:

  • First, to shut up and wait (literally) years to slowly gain the knowledge one needs in order to feel like you have a real voice.
  • Second, to go along with the majority (and the City Manager) because that’s the only way to get the inside scoop.

Let’s call this what it is, a Seniority System. You’re expected to pay your dues before you get a seat at the big boy table. I didn’t invent that term. I’ve heard Councilmembers use exactly that language going back decades even to the point of, “Hey, I went through it, it sucks, but that’s just the deal. So why should I make life easier for you.”

The larger issue comes down to: Who’s working for who? (Or is it whom? :D.) One can say that the City Manager is independent of the Council. But the City Manager works for the voters through the Council. We (Councilmembers) are your proxies. We represent you. And it is in the voters’ interest to have a well-informed Council that has equal weight to the Administration. In other words, if there is even the appearance that the City Manager can limit access to information, it puts in danger the delicate balance between the Executive and the Legislature. State law is very deficient in this regard so in most Cities there is a real respect for not crossing the line. And as a result, most City Managers try hard to defer to Councilmember requests for information unless they are truly onerous. In other words, in order to keep that balance, the City Manager usually errs on the side of indulging Councilmember requests for information. It creates comity and in turn better governance. Usually, but not always.

How it should work… and why

Rule #1: Timeliness.

I actually have no problem with this. You can’t have The City Manager or Staff waiting hand and foot on Councilmembers. A bit more flex would be welcome, however.

Rule #2: No double dipsies!

This has gotsta go. Sometimes a question may take a Councilmember down a rabbit hole–especially in the beginning where you don’t know what you don’t know. You need the patience and indulgence of the City Manager and Staff in order to get up to speed. Councilmembers should be given the same ‘luxury’ as any other public records requestor–which means that the request is complete when the Councilmember says it’s complete.

Rule #3: Relevance

This has gotsta go. For the simple reason that it violates the spirit of the Public Records act. What I mean is that there is no limit on what the public may request information about. If the City Of Des Moines has that information, you can ask about it, whether it’s a complete pain in the ass to obtain or not. That is State law.

The irony is that, in Des Moines, I as a Councilmember have much less access to information than you a private citizen. A Councilmember should have at least as much authority in this regard as the public, not less. The difference, as I see it is timing and reasonableness. There is no way that Staff can fulfill a mountainous request from a Councilmember ahead of a meeting. Councilmembers should be reasonable in their requests. But the Administration should also make every reasonable effort to give Councilmembers whatever they want.

The City Manager should not be the arbiter of what is relevant for Councilmembers inquiries for many reasons, but here’s just one. Let’s say I want to work on a new piece of legislation. But I need to know some historical data in order to formulate policy. How can I formulate that if I can’t ask questions unrelated to a given Meeting’s Agenda. It makes no sense.

Oh one last thing: It also shouldn’t matter what Committees one is assigned to. In other words, a Councilmember should be able to research ‘roads’ even if she isn’t on the Transportation Committee. I’ve heard that excuse before “Well you’re not even on that committee, why would you want to know that?” And it’s beneath stupid. I mean stupid is here. And that question is three floors below in the sub-basement.

Rule #4: No contact with Staff

This needs to be heavily modified. The stated reasoning, which I can fully appreciate, is that, in the past, Councilmembers were often to be seen wandering about the City offices, pestering workers with all manner of questions all the time. That lack of discipline created chaos. As a small business owner, I get this.

Councilmembers should be able to schedule a fifteen minute meeting with any Department head. I think once a month would about do it.

The pushback I’ve received goes something like this:

If every Councilmember requested a fifteen minute meeting every month that adds up to three hours of Staff time every month!

To which I reply, and…? You have a point you wish to make? 😀 This goes along with the notion that whenever the Administration provides information it is doing Council a favor. It pretty much lays it out there: We think that indulging the Council with 2-3 hours of our time every month would be a waste of valuable Staff time.

Rule #5: No Councilmember Information Requests

This has gotsta go. We should have a Councilmember Request system. Other cities around us have them. So any Councilmember can access a database of questions and answers from Staff which have taken place over years of research. This encourages Staff to provide detailed answers (since they will likely only have to answer that question once). And it is an invaluable resource for new Councilmembers to get up to speed on any issue. It also creates another way for Councilmembers to get a feel for one another. As you know, the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) severely restricts the amount of contact we can have with one another outside of meetings. But if you can see the questions that your peers are asking, you get a better sense of what they care about.

Rule #6: Majority rules

And finally, I can imagine some world where the Administration says something like:

OK, we know that Councilmembers send an average of two email questions per meeting. Therefore the rule is: Councilmembers may ask two questions per meeting from now on.

That’s ridiculous. Maybe the other Councilmembers were super busy. Or already knew the material from previous briefings. Or… and I’m just spitballing here so go with me… maybe one of them just wasn’t all that engaged on the issue? Why should the rest of the Council be hamstrung by that below-average level of engagement?

Summary

State law creates a strict division between the duties of the City Manager and the City Council. However, the law also creates a slew of unintended consequences whereby the City Manager can control access to the information that Councilmembers need to effectively legislate and provide oversight.

Our current government has just about the strictest limits in the State on Councilmember access to information, including Staff.

This state of affairs has several downsides:

  • It makes it very difficult for new Councilmembers to get up to speed. And this leads to a Seniority System whereby one is pressured to go along with the
  • It makes it difficult for Councilmembers to do the research necessary to formulate new legislation. And in fact, almost all legislation is currently not created by Council, but rather initiated by the Administration.
  • It makes it extremely difficult for Councilmembers to provide a necessary layer of oversight.

And as I’ve said before (and will say again) this is intentional; the current majority is not being hood-winked. They believe that this system is in the best interest of Des Moines. I thoroughly disagree and will continue to fight for the above reforms, not only because I find the current system undemocratic, but because I believe that a better-informed Council makes for much better governance.

In my view, there needs to be a cultural shift. Staff needs to be educated to understand that Councilmember requests for information are not an afterthought, to somehow be squeezed into the ‘real’ business of governing. Rather, Councilmember requests are an essential part of governance. Time should be allocated into every staff member’s calendar to make sure that Councilmembers have the information they need.

Better City Council Meetings #1: Eliminate the presentations!

Posted on Categories TransparencyTags

This is the first in a series of changes to our City Council Meetings I’d like to see. This particular change has to do with managing the length of meetings, which was especially problematic at the August 6th ‘Budget Retreat’ (Video). And before we dive in, I don’t want to be a tease, but I want to emphasise that there is a ‘big picture’ we’ll get to talking about after a few articles. See all the issues I will raise are features and not ‘bugs’. The current majority have, over time, gradually moulded the system to work the way it does now very intentionally. And they’ve done so because they believe it is the system that is in the best interest of the City.  So none of the issues I will raise are in any way accidental or unintended.

How it currently works

Currently Councilmembers  get the Agenda Packet the Friday before the Council Meeting. But that initial version of the Packet is pretty skinny. It contains the items to be discussed, but it does not contain any of the Staff presentations (those slide decks you see at most meetings.) Those are often finalised only minutes before the meeting. So we see all those slide presentations cold–just as you do if you attend. (The day after the meeting, the City Clerk attaches the slides to the Agenda.)

Councilmembers are instructed to read the Packet over the weekend and present questions about Agenda Items to the City Manager by the following Monday so that he and his Staff have time to research and reply before the Thursday meeting. But do you see the problem? Since we don’t see the presentations when we get that initial Packet, we frequently don’t have any details on the issue being discussed. So we can’t possibly formulate in-depth questions (you don’t know what you don’t know, right?)

Bad freshman lecture

Look, most of us have been in these kinds of meetings before. A guy I worked with years ago brilliantly labeled them ‘bad freshman lecture’. You know: those college classes which were nothing more than the professor going page by through the contents of the textbook–the stuff you were already supposed to have read before class.  But no one complained, right? The prof was just doing his job, and besides, it saved students having to actually prepare. 😀

Victory laps

know how catty this will sound unless you’ve attended as many of these meetings as I have. Buuuuuut, just between us girls? A certain amount of these presentations are essentially press releases and victory laps. I’ve been to many City Council Meetings where a half hour presentation wasn’t even about new information or a decision to be made. Rather it was simply to show off a particular success story about which the Council had already been informed.

Now look, I enjoy taking the occasional victory lap as much as the next guy.  But certain meetings (like, oh I dunno, a Budget Meeting) are already packed to the rafters with important stuff. And in my view, such meetings should be all business. Because if you include all that P.R. stuff, you’re basically making it impossible to get the real work done in the allotted time.

It’s my meeting; mine, Mine, MINE!

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: City Council Meetings are public meetings, but that does not mean what most of you think it means. They are for us (the City Council) not you. City Council meetings are not meant to inform the public. They’re meant for us to make decisions. You’re allowed in so that you can watch to make sure that business is being conducted on the up and up and to provide public comment. But we are not there to educate or sell the public! If the City wants to do any promotional jazz (which I fully support!) they have far better outlets than a City Council Meeting to reach the entire population.

And what I’m getting at is that if we cut out all the ‘fluff’ we’d have all the time in the world for proper discussion and debate.  In fact, we’d save so much time, we’d still have plenty of spare time left over for the occasional Middle School Science Presentation,  Proclaiming Strawberry Awareness Month and Staff Appreciation Day. 🙂

Meanwhile, back in college…

Now let’s go back to college. After yer first year, you stop screwing around (OK, I stopped screwing around) and holy schnike! you’re given the reading ahead of time. What a concept! Which means that the actual ‘lecture’ is, wait for it I know it will come as a shocker: just for asking questions! Are them college boys smart or what?

And that is how City Council Meetings should be run. The Council should be given the slide deck a few days ahead along with the Packet, and expected to actually learn the material before class (er ‘meeting’. 😀 )  Then each presenter’s job would mainly be to field questions.

How it should work (the mechanics)

Staff should be directed to prepare their presentations for inclusion when the Agenda Packet is released on Friday. That would give Councilmembers the weekend to really digest what is to be decided. Then, when Staff come in on Monday they’re not rushing to complete their presentations. They can focus on replying to Councilmember questions. (Although I suspect that just having the presentations available for Councilmembers would reduce the number of emailed questions.)

Since all parties know what will be discussed, there’s no ‘lecturing’ involved. The slide deck is only there to aid in the discussion. My guess is that this would cut down on meeting length by 50%. It would also dramatically improve the discussion, since 100% of the meeting time would go to useful debate. (By the way: Almost all Staff I’ve talked to over the years really do not revel in doing those presentations. My guess is that they would much prefer not to have to do them.)

I’d like to take credit…

Did I invent this? Of course not. I stole it from other governments–including our State House. That’s how they do it. When you show up to any hearing on a bill, electeds have already received all the supporting materials. A Staffer introduces the bill with a three minute summary and then the hearing is simply interviewing witnesses, pounding them with detailed questions and then voting. It’s the only way to get through the volume of material they need to cover in their very short sessions.

Why it is like it is…

A big part of the current system is human nature. The fluff is fun. Everyone likes to show off the successes. Everyone likes to show their appreciation. And most of us like to be thanked for our hard work. Frankly, all of this is a big part of why a lot of people run for City Council. Which is fine.

The flip side is that the real business of the Council is often unpleasant. All that debating, making unpopular decisions… who wants to focus on that, right? 😀

And also…

We’re the only City in the area that limits Council speeches to four minutes; or limits each Councilmember to speaking twice on any issue. We do everything we can to reduce the amount of time that Councilmembers can inquire or debate any issue. We intentionally leave the lion’s share of meeting time for all those presentations.

Study, study, study! Or bonk, bonk, bad kid.

(Never miss a chance for a Trek meme, right?)

Keeping it short…

Now why do we do all this if it’s so inefficient? Ironically, in order to keep the meetings as short as possible. It is the Mayor’s stated goal to make it less onerous for people to join the Council. In other words, the current majority feels very strongly that most of us have very busy lives and we simply don’t have the time to do all that jazz I propose. We have jobs and kids and lives for goodness sake! We need to keep meetings as short as possible. And you simply cannot expect Councilmembers to study, Study, STUDY or bonk, bonk, bad kid!

So in one sentence, we front load our meetings with lectures and fluff and then allocate whatever time is left over for the actual business of discussion, debate and decision making.

Now here’s the really fun part…

This system also means that the greater the number of important items there are on the Agenda, the less time there will be for the discussion, debate and decision making–because all the important stuff requires slides and lecturing. So: the more items there are to be decided, the less time there will be left over to do the actual decidering. Get it? The more time Council spends listening, the less time there is for talking. And the natural conclusion of that equation is a four hour Budget Meeting which is 100% slides and 0% Councilmember activity.

To those whom much is given…

(Or whatever Peter Parker says. I do Trek, not comics… 😀 )

The only obvious objection to making the change I’ve discussed is that it does ask more of Councilmembers. It means that it is challenging for potential Councilmembers who are raising two year olds or working four twelves or whatever. There’s a reason the job tends to be a better fit for people who sit around all day (like moi) or those with flexible schedules.

But I dunno what to tell ya. This is no joke. The Municipal Corporation of Des Moines, Washington has  a $100 million annual budget. We’re not some small beach town any more and haven’t been for thirty years. We’re actually one of the larger and more complex cities in the entire State Of Washington.

I believe that you cannot run this size organization and successfully plan for our future without Councilmembers who have the time, commitment and skills to do a proper job. When you look at other governments: State, Federal, etc. one big problem they all have is that the electeds are literally not there all that much (in those cases because they’re constantly fund raising.) But regardless of the reason, it takes a certain amount of time to actually do the job and that lack of time is killing our ability to solve problems at every level of government.

To sum it up: We are a complex corporation. We need to structure our meetings a lot better and we need to have Councilmembers who are willing and able to put in the necessary time to do the job. You can reduce the hours you spend doing the job. But you can’t actually reduce the job that needs doing.

Half-Weekly Update: 07/01/2020

Posted on Categories Engagement, Neighborhoods, Policy, Transparency, Weekly UpdatesTags , , Leave a comment on Half-Weekly Update: 07/01/2020

Just a quick note: Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later. After thirty three ‘Weekly Updates’, I finally missed my deadline. So consider this a half-assed weekly update.

This Week

Monday: I attended a very good meeting hosted by our State Representative Tina Orwall to try to move forward on her HEPA Interior Air Quality Study. Also in attendance were Mayor Matt Pina, officials from Highline Schools as well as State Senator Karen Keiser. There have been several encouraging studies now that seem to indicate that better air filtering in schools can lead to not only healthier kids, but also higher test scores. This study will provide valuable information on how we can improve air quality in public buildings and our homes–and what benefits that might yield.

Tuesday: I gave testimony at the Port Of Seattle’s Special Meeting on Policing. Here is the letter I sent to the commissioners. I think their willingness to have a meeting where the public could vent a bit is important and it’s something we should do here as well. I’m also pleased to report  receiving personal replies from two commissioners.

Tuesday: I attended a Highline Good Neighbors Group meeting in Burien. This is the group Melissa Petrini started last year to try to unite residents from all our communities to discuss issues of public safety, homelessness, drugs, etc. The group had made great progress until COVID-19 made things impossible. She’s starting up again with a group of twenty and we’ll see if we can get the ball rolling again. I really think this is the sort of community work that needs to happen in order to make the area safer and–and also tamp down on some of the polarization. If this sounds like something you’d be interested in, just email Melissa with “Highline Good Neighbors” in the subject line.

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

Wednesday: I’ll be speaking with Mark Finstrom the Chief Technology Officer of Highline Schools. The school district intends on a levy to provide better Internet services for students.

Thursday: a briefing from King County Metro on the fiscal challenges facing Metro, and the service changes you can expect this fall.

Saturday: I may (or may not) be doing a 10K run with the Destination Des Moines/Rotary Running Of The Flags fun run (or in my case, dignified stroll. :D) If I do, my route will be the same fairly straight shot I used to do during my campaign: start from the northern most point in DM on Des Moines Memorial Drive and head down to 272nd and 16th Ave. That’s just about 6.2 miles (and 10k). But whether or not I punk out miserably? I’m counting on you to sign up and take your place in history, glory, etc., etc…. 😀

Last Week

Tuesday: Association of Washington Cities (AWC) ‘virtual’ annual conference.

Tuesday: Another one of those darned Port Of Seattle meetings.

Wednesday: An AWC training class. Plus one on one meetings with members of the Puget Sound Clean Air Advisory Committee.

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

Wednesday: Sea-Tac Airport Advisory Roundtable (StART) Meeting. It’s less of a roundtable nowadays–more like a semi-circle, since Des Moines, Burien and Federal Way left. But it still matters.

Thursday: Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) General Assembly. Some time soon I gotta do an explainer on the PSRC. Like I say over and over, it’s the most important government agency no one’s ever heard of.

Thursday was the first Committee meetings of the year. Woo Hoo! Municipal Facilities, Economic Development. (More below.)

And a City Council Meeting to boot! (Agenda and directions on public comment)  Public Hearing on Transportation Plan (2021-2040)

The Committees essay

So, last week was the first City Council committee meetings. And I just want to remind everyone (including the City) that these are public meetings. Which means that you can attend (or watch them in the case of Zoom) by signing up just like any other City Council meeting. Now currently, the City is not accepting ‘live’ public comment, which grinds at me, but you can (and should) be aware of the members of each committee on issues you are interested in. And you should reach out to them by phone or email because it is at the committee level that policy is actually made. That’s important: by the time an issue has made its way to the full council it’s usually a ‘done deal’; the full council is simply approving the actions created by the committee. The time to make your voice heard is when things are being formulated in committee, which is months and months ahead of the full council.

Overview

So, as per usual, I’m gonna get yelled at for ‘over-simplifying, please go here for more on the constant struggle to keep these things short.

There are five main Council committees in Des Moines:

  • Economic Development: Jeremy Nutting (c), Traci Buxton, Matt Pina
  • Municipal Facilities: Jeremy Nutting (c), Luisa Bangs,  Matt Mahoney
  • Public Safety: Luisa Bangs, Anthony Martinelli, Matt Mahoney
  • Transportation: Matt Mahoney, Matt Pina, JC Harris
  • Environment: Matt Pina, Luisa Bangs, JC Harris

There is nothing special about these committee names or their functionality. Other cities have other names for similar functions. And many cities have waaaaaay more Council committees. Eg. Burien has an Airport Committee. SeaTac has a Finance Committee. The full City Council could decide to create a new Committee at any time if it felt the need.

The members of each committee are decided by the Mayor at the beginning of each year. Usually Councilmembers present their choices to aid his decision-making. This process does not thrill me, but to be fair Mayor Pina did give me the choices I told him were most important to me.

Speaking very broadly, the process of each committee is similar: The group works to create one or more short term and long term plans of some sort and then spends the rest of the year fleshing out those goals (schedule, cost) and getting them ready to bring to the full Council for a vote as part of a budget. It’s that annual budget that actually drives pretty much everything. You don’t just pass laws here and there in an ad hoc fashion. You pass them as part of that one main budget process. So the committees are constantly interacting with other teams (eg. Finance) so that all the needs/wants/desires are balanced. Remember: we have to present a balanced budget every year so no committee works in isolation.

A very different year

As it has been in so many ways, this year was different from others in that at the last Council Meeting, we voted on that Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP) mentioned above–even though the Transportation Committee (TC) hasn’t yet met. But if it were a ‘normal’ year, a group of residents, say from Redondo, might have shown up at an early TC meeting and lobbied to get action onto the TIP to remediate complaints of noise, speeding, etc. That’s how it should work.

Ad hoc requests

What the public is seeing in the new Council is somewhat chaotic. Part of that is because of COVID-19 (and not as some people grouse, due to ‘the new guys’.) The Mayor and City Manager shut down the committees almost immediately after the pandemic began and kept them closed longer than any other nearby city. So that has made everything more of of a hash.

A few meetings ago, I made a motion from the dais for the City to purchase patio tables for the Senior Center. As I’ve said, it was something of a stunt–just to get the Senior Center some attention; and frankly to set the stage for  ‘explainers’ like this one. To begin with, I’m not even on the Municipal Facilities Committee (MFC), which controls that sort of spending. I can however, do exactly what I encourage you to do, show up as a resident and try to present public comment–or send them a letter saying what I want, “We want Patio Tables! When do we want ’em? Now!” At that point the members of the MFC might choose to add that purchase to the current year’s work plan and get that into the annual City Budget. That is how laws are supposed to get made: you put down your ideas at the committee level and you get them looked at early enough in the year that your request has a chance to be included in the annual budget. Eg. at the first MFC meeting, Luisa Bangs brought up the notion of a new project for Midway Park. So that will now become part of the discussion in future meetings. That could have been you raising that idea.

Now: as with my ‘patio tables’ some of my colleagues have been proposing legislation outside the committee process–and doing it with abandon, in order to try to get immediate action from the full Council. I get the sentiment: when you don’t have committees, there’s no other way to do legislation. But I want to emphasize: that is not how City government is supposed to work and believe it or not, I do not want it to become routine. City Legislation is supposed to be done according to a really boring, regular process. It’s gotta be a godawful emergency for me to vote for any change in routine procedure. That’s really how I feel. (Don’t believe it? That’s why I always vote against motions to skip second readings on various ordinances that require two meetings. What’s the frickin’ hurry?) But, I digress. 😀

So… how do I find out more?

Now, here’s the challenge–and why I kinda regret not asking to be on the MFC (hey, a guy can’t be everywhere, right?) Because one of the things the MFC controls is… wait for it… the City’s web site and communications. And as you know, it drives me beyond nuts that so many things the City does (like committee meetings) are not well-advertised.

Because if you’ve been reading along, and you’re almost ready to buy into my notion of trying to participate in committee meetings, a question has probably occurred to you: How in the hell do I know when to show up? That’s a very good question. Currently, we don’t make it easy for the public. And frankly, I think that’s kinda intentional.

If you go to any number of committee meetings in our neighbour communities, you’ll often see a whole bunch of residents. In DM, you rarely see civilians at such meetings–and when you do, they tend to be ‘insiders’, people who are part of the big groups which are tightly aligned with the City. You almost never see a Joe/Jane Average at these meetings. Now take a look at the Burien Web Site. See how you can get a list of every meeting–including committees and easily drill down to specific agendas? That is what we should have here.

But I hope you will work with me to change that. These are public meetings and by law you are allowed to be present. And you are allowed to provide your input in some fashion. And as I’ve tried to explain, this is exactly the place where you should provide your input, because full Council meetings are a lot like yer typical Wedding Band: We generally don’t take requests. 😀

The Futures is where it’s at, baby

Until the City makes committee meetings part of the public schedule, the only way I can think of for the public to be aware of what’s coming up is the Futures Agenda, which is basically a Word document consisting of the tentative schedule of the City Council and Committee meetings. It’s not very detailed, and it’s definitely subject to change from week to week. But for example, the first meeting of the Transportation and Environment Committees (which I’m on) is July 9th. But then our next meetings aren’t until September 10th–which seems a looooong way off given how late we are at getting started. You kinda just have to keep looking to see where and when.

So… I’m gonna do my best from here on out to advertise committee meetings both here and on my Facebook page. (Shameless plug: If you sign up to receive these Weekly Updates in yer Inbox you’ll automatically be notified in advance about committee meetings.)

Summary

In short, for most of the issues residents care about, Committees are where the action is.  If you want to get your ideas addressed, you need to get involved at that level. And you need to get your ideas presented before the annual budget meetings if you want to have a chance of getting something done in the next calendar year.

I know that’s a lot of information. Fortunately, there will be no quiz. 😀 But I’m trying to give you tools to get your needs/wants/complaints addressed most effectively. And knowing a bit about these committees gives you a leg up. Because if there’s one thing I want you to keep in mind, if you’re an engaged resident, it’s this: There are always going to be a lot of people in Des Moines who want a lot of things. And usually, it’s the people who want ‘it’ the most who get the most attention.