Weekly Update: 08/17/2020

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Sorry I’m late. Again. I ran out of Tonic Water last night and it was just too hot to type without a Gin and Tonic. :D. But, once again, I’ve got not just this update, but another bonus article (see below.) Woo hoo!

This Week

Tuesday: A very timely MRSC seminar on the special requirements for budgeting and permitting during COVID-19.

Tuesday: Another meeting of the Burien Airport Committee. If you are interested in airport issues, they have become the nexus of activity for the region so I encourage you to check out their Zoom meetings: (Agenda)

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

Wednesday: A meeting with Port Of Seattle Director Stephen Metruck. Hopefully we’ll be making some progress on several issues, including the delayed Port Package Updates.

Wednesday is also the next Reach Out Des Moines meeting.

Thursday is a Special City Council Meeting. ‘Special’ meaning there is only one item on the Agenda. More below.

PSA: Now that the Federal Way light rail construction is really beginning in earnest, you may want to sign up for email updates from Sound Transit. There will be many road closures over the next year or so.

Last Week

Monday: I sat in on my first Arts Commission Meeting in a looooong time. They’re working on some cool stuff. More on that in a future article. 🙂

Tuesday: Port Of Seattle Commission Meeting. The discussion centered around improving the noise monitor program. The problem is that the noise monitors have been highly inaccurate. And this is an opportunity to get the Port to fix them. The reason you should care about this is that if a particular plane is too noisy (I know they’re all noisy, but stick with me) the Port can complain to the airlines and get it removed from service. In other words, the Port can tell Alaska Airlines that their 737 Serial #123456 is noiser than the FAA spec allows for that particular make/model. Every little bit helps. 🙂

Wednesday: was my first time back at the Senior Center in a couple of weeks. There had been a bit of a kerfuffle for a while there because a staff member at Wesley tested positive for COVID-19. So for two weeks I delivered EATS voucher! to residents there. I’m bringing this up because we are not out of the woods on this. I think most people have kind of settled into this ‘new normal’ where most (but not all) people kinda/sorta ‘mask up’ and just muddle along. But clearly that ain’t good enough. I think we’ll need to do a lot more to get on top of this, yes even at the local level. More in a few days.

Budget Meeting Redux

The last meeting (Agenda, Video) lasted almost four hours and consisted almost entirely of presentations by all the department heads. If you did not watch the meeting I would strongly suggest that you review the slide deck which is available here. In fact, if you read the slides you can basically skip watching the meeting–unless you care about politics, or just really find these kinds of presentations riveting. No judgment. 😀

So the upcoming meeting (Agenda) will supposedly consist of all the questions we intended to ask, but did not get a chance to at that August 6th meeting.

Although that meeting was a slog, I think it could have and should have been handled much differently. As I wrote last time, it’s such a pivotal meeting and the public has high expectations (as did I) of finding out where we’re at and what the future will look like.

After that meeting, I began writing a series of articles on Better City Council Meetings and I hope you will read the second article which is specifically about how Councilmembers obtain information from the City and how that process might be improved.

It’s a process

That said, the public needs to understand that Budgeting isn’t really one meeting, but rather a process of several meetings culminating in a vote in late November on an Ordinance which makes it ‘official’. The initial meeting is meant to provide a ‘state of the city’. It is not meant to actually ‘decide’ anything. I got many requests this week along the lines of “What are you going to do about…” And that process does not begin until the next meeting in September where the City Manager presents a 1st Draft. From there, we have two public meetings to discuss changes and then there is that final vote to approve.

So I don’t want to be too harsh in my comments on that initial meeting. The City ostensibly did as required. My main beef(s) have to do with not having time for questions–simply because I wanted to be able to ask while the presentation was fresh in my mind. If we were going to end up with two meetings anyhoo, they should have been structured 50/50. Half the departments report and take questions in the first meeting and the other half do the same in the second. Or just do what Councils have done in the past: Just make a day of it.

Weekly Update: 08/09/2020

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Sorry I’m late. A bit under the weather this weekend. But I’ve got not just this update, but a bonus article (see below.) Woo hoo!

This Week

Monday: I’ll be sitting in on the Arts Commission Meeting.

Tuesday: Port Of Seattle Commission Meeting. The discussion will center around improving the noise monitor program.

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

That’s it. Nothing else! (Well, nothing else I can talk about here.) So call me! Ask a question. Complain about something. Share some some gossip. That’s kinda what I’m here for: (206) 878-0578. 😀

Last Week

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

PSA: Wednesday is also the day that the Des Moines Library opens for curbside pickup!

Thursday: City Council Meeting (Agenda, Video) the annual Budget Retreat. Discussion below.

Friday: South King County Area Transportation Board (SCATbd) meeting. The highlight was a bit of a shocker, King County Metro General Manager Rob Gannon is leaving to take a job as CFO in Missoula Montana and is being replaced by long-time Deputy Terry White. Why should you care? The bus service is enduring serious problems right now and this is not a great sign for our residents (all those ‘essential workers’), many who have already been seriously impacted by reductions on local routes like the 122 and 156.

Budget Recap: The Cliff Notes

The meeting (Agenda, Video) lasted almost four hours and consisted almost entirely of presentations by all the department heads. If you did not watch the meeting I would strongly suggest that you review the slide deck at the end of the Agenda PDF. In fact, if you read the slides you can basically skip watching the meeting–unless you care about politics, or just really find these kinds of presentations riveting. No judgment. 😀

Just give it to me in 25 words or less, OK?

No, can do. 😀 But long-winded or not, the part you’ve all been waiting for (OK, I was waiting for) was Finance Director Beth Anne Wroe’s bit on the state of the balance sheet, which came around the three hour mark.

Five years? Try five months, pal.

Every budget I’ve seen until this year always has a five year projection. The City Manager and Finance Director both repeatedly indicated how different 2020 is from past years. So not only was there no five year projection, there really was no 2021 projection either. In fact, the presented forecast seemed to lump 2020 and 2021 together. I guess the assumption is that, one way or another, 2021 will be the end of the pandemic and we won’t get back to normal projections until then. So that’s the basic assumption: we’re in a holding pattern for not just the rest of 2020, but also for 2021.

Some highlights

And the news seems to be (and I’m sure someone will correct me for over-simplifying 😀 ) but here’s where we are and what the City Manager will likely propose. The

  1. We are currently looking at a 13.5% reduction in the General Fund. But we have not yet received a report from the State or County on several key indicators from the 2nd Quarter (eg. property taxes) so this could change dramatically. Plus, of course, there is no good way to forecast the rest of 2020 since COVID-19 doesn’t seem to be abating.)
  2. There will be no draconian cuts–at least not now.
  3. We’re getting prox. $950k from the CARES Act and $200k will likely be applied to the kind of business relief I mentioned last time.
  4. The major street projects (eg. 24th Ave. around the schools) will continue since they are mostly funded by State grants. But nothing new (including pothole programs) will proceed.
  5. There will be no cuts to public safety, but people retiring will not be replaced with the hire-ahead program.
  6. We’re still on hold with the North Bulkhead repairs at the Marina. That is not a result of COVID-19, but rather a failure to get permitting approval from the Federal government. And we’re now getting so far into the year that we may not be able to get started on any of that work until next year.re
  7. We may or may not get more CARES money in the next stimulus plan.
  8. We may or may not get more State money in the next 105 day session.

So… as they say, I have questions.

Some parliamentary details

At the top of the meeting, the Mayor asked  Councilmembers to hold questions until the very end of all presentations. We were also warned not to ask any questions regarding ‘pet projects’–that we should confine all questions to the facts of the presentations. The City Manager also warned that the presentations would be lengthier than normal.

At the 2:55 mark (five minutes before the scheduled three hour limit) we were informed that we were nowhere near finished with the presentation slide deck. So we had the first of three votes to extend the meeting in fifteen minute increments ending right before 9pm. So the meeting ended with no questions being asked by any Councilmember. Instead, we were told that we would have opportunities to meet with various department heads in groups of three (to avoid an OPMA violation) and ask our questions.

After the meeting I (and apparently some of my other colleagues) wrote the Mayor encouraging him to schedule a follow-up meeting asap. We received a follow-up from the City indicating that such a special meeting will occur on August 20th at the even specialer time of 5:15pm. As I write this I have two concerns:

  • There is no guarantee that all the department heads will be available.
  • We were told by the City to not send in any written questions for Staff ahead of the meeting. That is also pretty unprecedented as Councilmembers are always given at least some opportunity to email questions ahead of a meeting.

We’ll see.

Backseat Driver

I’m just gonna be straight: The meeting was problematic for me on many levels. (First off, anyone who has ever sits down for a long meeting and is sold right from the jump, “please hold all your questions until the end” knows they’re in for trouble, right?)

This wasn’t a scheduling issue or an accident caused by COVID-19. Rather, it’s part of ongoing structural problems that were part of the reason I ran for office in the first place.

To address these, I’ve started work on a series of posts on Better City Council Meetings. The first one is called Eliminate the presentations!  I very much hope you will read them and let me know what you think.

Dude, why are you being such a doormat!

I get multiple messages either during or after every meeting “Dude. Why aren’t you objecting more? Make a motion! Do something!” Which is actually good in a way. It means that people are watching and they notice some of the problems at our meetings. I typically reply with something hopefully not too defensive like, “You don’t know that half of it, pal!” 😀

When you are in a minority such as exists on our current Council, and the majority always votes together, you can’t change any votes. It’s as polarised as the United States Congress. So if you’re me you have a decision to make before every meeting:

A. Stop every meeting at literally multiple points where there are problems in order to educate the public as to what’s goin’ on. Which then makes my colleagues look like absolute fools–and unfortunately makes Staff super-uncomfortable. All that kerfuffle and still I won’t win a single vote.

B. Try to maintain a zen flow of calm, turn the other cheek, center my chi, blah, blah, blah… so everyone can get home in time to watch Star Trek TNG. 🙂

If you know me a little bit, you know I have no problem with choosing from Column A on the menu. Many of you voted for me specifically to push back on the status quo and I get why. But up until now at least, I have always chosen Column B. (known as either ‘the high road’ or ‘getting punked’ depending on your point of view.)

My thinking thus far has been like this (and yes this will sound completely naive to you), I saw my first year on the Council as an experiment: I didn’t know many of my colleagues personally and I really hoped to try to get to know them and work across the aisle as they say. I figured that if I just remained calm and tried to be pleasant, at least one of my colleagues would at least occasionally step in and object when their were problems.

Well,: I think we can all agree how that little experiment turned out. 😀 After the dozens of parliamentary problems we have all noticed and complained about, I don’t think there is anything further to be gained by remaining silent.

In short: I hear you.

Paid Parking

On a totally unrelated note, the City Manager hinted in his opening remarks that whatever changes will be made to Paid Parking, they will not compromise security at the Marina. This appears to be in response to an organised  letter-writing campaign by the condo-dwellers. We’ll circle back to that when it comes to the Committee discussion.

Weekly Update: 08/02/2020

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This Week

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

PSA: Wednesday is also the day that the Des Moines Library opens for curbside pickup!

Thursday: City Council Meeting (Agenda) the annual Budget Retreat. I encourage everyone to watch on Comcast Channel 21 or livestream.

Friday: South King County Area Transportation Board (SCATbd) meeting. Discussion will include the infamous ‘TBD’ fees we all know and love. 😀

That’s it. Nothing else! (Well, nothing else I can talk about here.) So call me! Ask a question. Complain about something. Share some some gossip. That’s kinda what I’m here for: (206) 878-0578. 😀

Last Week

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

Thursday: Meeting with Rep. Tina Orwall and Port Commissioners on a school air quality improvement program. I’ve been vaguely referring to this for a while now and I should probably give at least a few details. There have now been several legit studies which basically find that if you provide filtered (cleaner) air at schools, the children are not only healthier, they also tend to perform better as students. A lot better. Just the 7-8 hours a child is in school makes a significant difference. This is not brand new, by the way: there have been concerns about the problems of indoor air quality for decades. What’s new is that we now seem to be able to actually do something about it.  What we’re trying to study now are the mechanics of making it work with the kinds of pollution unique to aircraft.  Explainer.

And also on a related note: there were a whole bunch of constituent kinds of things involving Port Packages. As always, if you have an ongoing problem with your Port Of Seattle sound insulation or want information on qualifying or you’re just interested in helping to reduce noise and pollution from Sea-Tac Airport, contact these guys: SeatacNoise.Info

 

The Budget

So, this is a big one. The whole enchilada. Le grand fromage. (No other food metaphors come to mind right now.) But since I’ve lived here, the ‘August Retreat’ has always been viewed as highly significant because this is where the City basically puts its cards on the table. Frankly, the public (and the full Council) do not often get a full picture of:

  1. How the City is doing financially.
  2. What the ‘the plan’ is likely to be.

I know this is #581 on the list of things that will make eyes roll, but I gotta be honest: the ‘importance’ of this meeting has always struck me as a bit like a religious ceremony. Part of it is tradition and part of it comes down to the challenges of providing data in any government organisation.

Just in time?

As some of you may know, for part of my career I wrote accounting and customer service software. And during that time the entire landscape of corporate reporting shifted from ‘annual reports’ to ‘quarterly reports’ finally to the point where most companies can now tell you what’s what almost every day of the year. The reverence and speculation (and fear) about an organization’s financial position is now mostly a thing of the past. You hear even large corporations talking about the state of their business daily.

Government financial reporting is a different animal. Much of the data you need to create reports comes from higher up the food chain (County, State) so you’re subject to getting results from them and things like tax data only comes out quarterly. Also, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Des Moines has been hampered for a long time by an antiquated accounting system. (Which is why I am so jazzed we’re getting a new accounting system! My hope is that soon we will be able to get more timely information and reduce the ‘surprise’ factor.)

But with all that, it’s still weird for me to have to wait until August to have a good understanding of where we are in 2020-or to be able to start planning for 2021. And with COVID-19, that curiosity has just that extra soupçon of nerves.

Comparisons are inevitable…

Adding to the suspense is the fact that our sister communities have already provided their reports and forecasts and for some the news ain’t great. This could make one nervous for Des Moines, but I was warned a long time ago that when it comes to budgets: Every city is different. And the more I learn the more I understand it’s true. Burien, SeaTac, Normandy Park, Tukwila, Federal Way, Kent all have very different strengths and weaknesses. Some cities that were doing great until COVID-19 are now struggling and some that were struggling are feeling pretty good (as good as one can) about their ability to weather the storm.

I also don’t think one can judge any City’s economic planning based on how they’re doing right now. As I’ve said many times, we’ve done a pretty good in fighting COVID-19 healthwise. But we haven’t exactly been perfect. At least some of that ‘success’ (if you want to call it that) has been good fortune, not genius. And much the same might be said for our economic state. As with health, no one can say with a straight face that they had a COVID-19 plan.

Local businesses

One important question going forward is going to be, What do we do to mute the ongoing impacts to local business? I am literally stunned almost every day to hear from some residents that they vehemently oppose the City doing anything to support local businesses. The notion is that those businesses that can adapt will and those that cannot will fall away and be replaced by better firms. (One of the ‘charges’ leveled against me by our Mayor back in April was that I am firmly in this camp; that I literally want to see weak businesses ‘die’.) I know I should let that drop but that really pissed me off. And here’s why:

I used to own a small restaurant. And a restaurant (or any locally owned business), even if it’s not exactly a goldmine is a resource to a small City far beyond its tax revenue. At the most basic level, it is hard to replace any storefront in this age. There just aren’t that many people wanting to open new retail spots in places other than where they’ve always been. Investors seem to be more than happy to keep plowing money over and over into the same spots in downtown Seattle, rather than taking a chance on a place like Des Moines.

Demand

As you probably know, the American Economy is consumer demand driven. The worst possible thing for our economic future is to have no places for people to spend their money now. Again, even a marginally successful business keeps some money flowing. When a storefront goes away the only people that make money are auctioneers. In the short term, our City loses, residents lose, employees lose.

So the prevailing economic theory since the mistakes of the Great Depression, has been to keep demand going. Even arch conservatives who find the entire concept of subsidies abhorrent tend to buy into this notion because when we’ve tried to ‘let market forces work’, things get awful, awfully fast.

Just passing on the wisdom…

Where did I get this great passel of wisdom? Why from our own City Manager at the 16 July Economic Development Committee Meeting. 🙂 (It’s a shame that we don’t record  these meetings.) Goosing demand seems to be something the City is taking seriously and it’s a big part of the reasoning behind the CARES Act, which will shortly distribute almost a million dollars to Des Moines. In one sentence: giving consumers opportunities to spend is a high priority until things return to normal.

So, you know where I’m going with all this…

Look, you may not like it, but we’re gonna have to do something to prop up local businesses. In fact, we probably shoulda been doing something significant all along. I was reluctant to be vocal about it because, first of all I kinda expected the Feds (the people who actually have some money) to swing boldly into action. And second of all because we didn’t have numbers and that’s another reason I keep grousing about the lack of current financials. It’s been driving me absolutely nuts.

But now that we see that this pandemic ain’t going away any time soon, we simply cannot allow keep our business district to fall apart as if it’s being pushed by normal winds of supply and demand. Not because every business is perfect, but because the more places people have to spend money, the less our City suffers. We just need to buy time.

Nostalgia for 2006

People seem to forget that before the ‘Great Recession’ (which seems only ‘Medium-Strength Recession’ right now) our downtown was looking pretty good–even before the pandemic. There were more and more varied restaurants, more shops, more everything. It was a pretty normal thing for families to spend a Friday evening having dinner at a restaurant, having dessert at another place, going to the Theater for a movie and maybe down to the Marina for a stroll. Regardless of how nostalgic you are for ‘the good old days’, that sort of thing just hasn’t happened so much after the Medium-Strength Recession.  It’s taken us almost a decade to climb back from the desolation of 2008. And we still weren’t close to that level of activity when the pandemic hit.

My view is that we need to do what we can to keep our businesses (not just downtown, but Pac Highway as well) at least on life support until a properly functioning market can resume. Not just for the businesses, but for us. We have to maintain as much of ‘normal’ as possible until the pandemic is over. That includes everything from mission-critical services like education to more mundane things like having places to spend money. If people just learn to accept getting everything from Amazon and eating frozen dinners, our local economy could take another decade to recover.

Step number one

For all the speechifyin’ this is only Step #1 in the Budget process. No decisions will be made. The goal of this meeting is to have enough information about 2020 to forecast with some authority what will happen in 2021. Based on the comments made at this meeting, the City Manager gets down to work on the actual 2021 document. He brings his proposal back in a few months, then both the Council (and you the public) have two public hearings where you get to weigh in on the intended priorities. And after all that we finally vote on the real deal before Thanksgiving. So the actual vote is usually a formality because both we (and you) have seen several iterations.

Tradition…

Some people would argue that the Budget is the reason a government (especially a small town City Council) exists. And that used to be true, for sure. It was also true that kids needed summer off from school in order to help bring in the harvest. 😀 )

As I said at the top, part of the Budget Retreat’s importance also comes down to ‘tradition’. Since the City Manager runs day to day government, once the Budget was done in autumn, lots of town councils (and our State) used to basically wrap it up for many months of the year. As with summer vacation, that tradition has kind of hung on a bit too long in my opinion. It’s created the image of the ‘average citizen’ City Councilmember–a person who just shows up every couple of weeks for a meeting and… hey it’s all good, fellas! 😀 That’s just not the reality in 2020.

As you’ll see at the meeting, we’re a  $100,000,000 corporation, not a one-horse town with some pretty boats and a parade every summer. So while this meeting is a big deal, and I do hope you’ll watch this Thursday, this is not ‘the big show’. It’s just one of many important events every year. There’s a lot on the line and not a whole lot of opportunities to get a glimpse inside the black box.

So I need your help. Keep watching.

Weekly Update: 07/27/2020

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Yes, I’m late, Late, LATE. What can I say? Everybody’s always telling me ‘take a few days off.’ So… 😀

This Week

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

Thursday: Meeting with Tina Orwall and Federal Way Schools on school air quality improvement program.

That’s it. Nothing else! (Well, nothing else I can talk about here.) So call me! Ask a question. Complain about something. Share some some gossip. That’s kinda what I’m here for: (206) 878-0578. 😀

Last Week

Monday: Meeting with Tina Orwall and Federal Way Schools on school air quality improvement program.

Tuesday: Burien Airport Committee (Agenda and information on attending via Zoom)

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

Wednesday: Highline Forum. There will be a discussion of recent studies on UltraFine Particulate pollution

Rule 5

So… there’s been this ongoing kerfuffle in our Council since the election, not just what their role should be but even more basic, what a Councilmember is ‘allowed’ to do. It first came to a head back in April when you heard our Mayor and Deputy Mayor and other Councilmembers say words to the effect that I (moi? 😀 ) am ‘in violation of Rule 5c!’ and that I am ‘representing myself as the City Of Des Moines!’ Sound serious, right?

Yeah…. not so much. Those (cough) ‘charges’ were simply a way to try to intimidate me, so I let it go. As I say over and over, Robert’s Rules Of Orders say that when a meeting is done, Let it go. I told each of my colleagues privately to knock it off and I hoped that would be that.

It’s back…

But at the very end of our last meeting, our Deputy Mayor brought it up again, in response to my fairly routine comment that I had been meeting with various legislators on airport issues–something I’ve done for over four years now. Because of the way Zoom works, I was unable to reply right then (everyone is ‘muted’ until the person running the meeting allows them to speak) So there wasn’t really a way for me to interrupt the nonsense.

The dreaded Rule…

So here are our Rules Of Procedure and the dreaded Rule 5, which basically defines the Mayor’s role in our Council-Manager form of government. Please read carefully. I’ll wait. 😀

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. In case of the Mayor's absence or temporary disability the Deputy Mayor shall act as Mayor during the continuance of the absence. When the Deputy Mayor acts as Mayor by participating in preparation of a Council meeting agenda or study session worksheet, or by presiding at a meeting of the Council, the Deputy Mayor shall have authority only to approve the Council meeting agenda or study session worksheet as to form without introducing or deleting items of business, and to preside at the meeting by following the approved agenda or study session worksheet as written. In case of the absence or temporary disability of the Mayor and the Deputy Mayor, a Deputy Mayor selected by members of the Council shall act as Mayor during the continuance of the absences or disabilities. The Mayor, or Deputy Mayor, is referred to as "Presiding Officer" from time to time in these Rules of Procedure.

(a) The Mayor and the Council have authority to introduce proclamations for a variety of purposes, as approved by the Council. No proclamation shall constitute official City actions unless approved or authorized by a majority of the City Council.

(b) To promote a favorable image of the City and pursue resources that will benefit the community, the Mayor, or another Councilmember designated by the City Council, may take the lead in representing the Des Moines City Council to those from outside the community who are interested in joint ventures and efforts to bring economic development and investments to the City, including other local governments, regional organizations, and federal, state, and international government representatives. Neither the Mayor, nor a Councilmember, can commit the City without authorization of a majority of the City Council.

(c) The Mayor, or another Councilmember designated by the City Council, is the spokesperson on actions taken by the Council. On behalf of the City Council, the Mayor or designated Councilmember may inform the public, media, and staff about issues affecting the community.

But here’s what they think…

Now. My colleagues want you to believe that paragraph (c) actually means something  like:

Unless the full City Council votes to approve otherwise for a specific purpose, only the Mayor may interact with other legislators. Other Councilmembers must have explicit permission to do so on a case by case basis. If a Councilmember meets with other legislators or media or basically anyone, without that permission, they are falsely representing themselves as the official voice of the government and are in violation of Rule 5.

I thought hard about even putting that in quotes because I can see someone right now pulling that falsehood out of context and going, “Yes, he admits it!” on social media. 😀

I do not think it means what you think…

But look, it’s total nonsense, OK. That’s not what the Rule says or means. Not at all. It’s so far from what the actual Rule means that it reminds me of the following beloved moment in film history.

However, I was so concerned, that I triple-checked, with two attorneys and the MRSC you see linked to above. And they laughed.

You guys never stop talking!

Remember above where I said that I’ve been meeting with legislators of all kinds for over four years? Well there are always legislators of all shapes, sizes and titles at these meetings. Some are public, some are private. Everybody talk, Talk, TALKING. That’s what politicans do all day. Blabber on in hundreds of configurations to try to figure out ways to work together.

Ya wanna know some things they do not do?

  1. Get permission from someone else before taking a meeting
  2. Provide any introductory disclaimer at the opening of a meeting to wit, “I am here not as the representative of my jurisdiction. I am only speaking for myself. I hope we’re all clear on that. Got it? Good.”

No one ever does that. I speak by phone, email and in person with all manner of electeds and appointees and other high mucky mucks literally every week. And apparently, so does every other councilmember in every other city except Des Moines. (If I were more of a social media kind of guy, this is the spot where I’d carpet bomb you with about 100 piccies of various councilmembers hanging out with Congressmen, Senators, County Executives, etc., etc. I’ll spare you because it’s, frankly, not that exciting.)

Learning to schmooze

Apart from dispelling these bogus claims, I want to make a far more important and positive point. And it is this: you, the residents should want a City Council that engages as much as possible with the wider world. What I mean is that, far from being discouraging, my colleagues should be thrilled when anyone of the Council shows some initiative.

There is a ton of stuff going on in the area at the City, State, Federal level all the time. So much so that there is no way that Staff can cover it all. And even if they could by some space magic, they aren’t in the same position to get meetings with various electeds and then come back and formulate legislation. That is at the heart of a good Councilmember’s job: to bring in ideas.

Oh, and money. (Oh, so now do I have your attention? 😀 ) There is a lot of money out in the wider world. I mean a lot. And frankly, the Cities that get out more, get more of that money. That’s why I’m constantly banging on about all the regional organizations (PSRC, SCA, AWC, SCATbd, etc.) that most residents haven’t heard of.

A councilmember may attend a hundred meetings and ninety nine are fruitless, but that one positive meeting can mean a great deal to a City. If that sounds a lot like cold calling to you, you’re catching on. That’s a big part of what the best electeds do. It’s called schmoozing and I’m trying to get better at it.

It’s a bit different…

Electeds work in an odd dynamic that’s a bit different from what most of us deal with in our day jobs. Most of us, occasionally, work with people with whom we disagree. But we’re all working on the same basic goals because hey, our collective job security depends on it, right?

Politicians don’t work like that. We often have profound disagreements on policy (I keep reminding people who didn’t vote for me: the people who did vote for me want me to disagree on some things. So it’s a balancing act. 🙂 ) And since an elected’s job security doesn’t depend on what their colleagues think, it can create strong incentives to not cooperate or even try to make the people you disagree with look bad (because, hey, if they got their way, we’re all headed to hell. Straight to hell, I tell ya! 😀 )

So who do ya trust?

Well, me of course. 😀 Seriously, it’s a great question. Many residents have no idea what’s going on in local politics. So when they hear something from someone ‘official’ sitting at some ceremonial dais, they’re apt to believe it. Most of us tend to respect authority–and especially in Des Moines, where we’ve had so little public engagement for so long.

Many of you who are supporters of the current majority have told me that while you still support them, you have been surprised by some of their antics. I’m gonna tell ya the truth: it should not be surprising. And it will become less so over time. I know it’s hard, but keep an open mind and keep watching. Ask me tough questions. Ask  my colleagues the same questions. Try to really listen. If you do that, over time, I think you’ll start to see a clear difference between how things have been done–and how they ought to be done.

Weekly Update: 07/19/2020

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This Week

Monday: Meeting with Tina Orwall and Federal Way Schools on school air quality improvement program.

Tuesday: Burien Airport Committee (Agenda and information on attending via Zoom)

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

Wednesday: Highline Forum. There will be a discussion of recent studies on UltraFine Particulate pollution

Last Week

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

Wednesday: Reach Out Des Moines meeting. The big news is that King County has recognized the great work they do and renewed their grant funding for another three years!

Thursday: Attending Municipal Facilities and Economic Development Committee meetings

Thursday: City Council Meeting (Agenda, Video). See recap below.

Meeting Recap

We’ve been in this state of emergency so long, I think it’s worth reminding people that our current meeting agendas are not ‘normal’. We’re jamming months and months of work from earlier in the year onto our Consent Agenda. It concerns me because all this stuff doesn’t get the same hearing it would in normal times–when such work would be regular agenda items. The view of my colleagues often seems to be “Stop worrying. We have the best City Manager in the State of Washington.”

But that’s not the point. Even if Mr. Matthias was the GOAT of City Managers, it sidesteps one of the two main purposes of a City Council: oversight. If you stop even questioning these decisions, you’re not doing your job. All muscles atrophy when not regularly exercised.

A Consent Agenda is supposed to be routine items that are so obvious as to require no discussion and that’s not what we have on our Consent Agenda. Here are the three items from this meeting, that my colleagues and I thought were worth at least some discussion.

Item #3 Trees

We were asked to approve what, at first glance, looked like a fairly routine adjustment to a building plan at Blueberry Lane. (I have had a lot to say about Blueberry Lane as it relates to the airport.) But in this case we were unknowingly allowing the developer to cut down three Sequoias planted fifty years ago by one of the original employees of Hammond Ashley Violin Shop (Remember them? I sure miss ’em.) Those trees are meant to live 2,000 years. Not 50.

What bugs me in this case is that we have all these policies talking about ‘how much we value our tree canopy’, blah, blah, blah. But there is nothing in the City building code that requires a builder to work around that situation, or even inform that Council when it comes up. In a terrible example of data processing (since fixed–thanks, Bonnie) Councilmembers only got to read an email from this resident ten minutes before the meeting!  For decades we say we’re working to protect the City’s trees, but every time we face a decision? We say, “Oh what a shame” and do nothing. Between the Des Moines Business Park and all the housing developments of the past decade we’ve lost a tremendous amount of tree cover. And we have got to start doing a better job of protecting what remains.

Item 6: Another vote I regret

On the Consent Agenda was approval of a significant raise for our union workers (primarily at the Marina). The negotiations were well under way just before COVID-19 struck. And the Council had an Executive Session to discuss it. We were not given many specifics except that, before we were asked to vote on it, there would be another briefing to flesh out the details. That second briefing never occurred. Instead, the Agenda Packet simply included the contract plus a lengthy explanation of why it was a fantastic deal for all concerned. However, in the Item Description there was also this rather ominous paragraph describing what might happen if we voted ‘no’:

The Council could choose not to approve the Agreement and direct the City Manager to continue negotiations with the Teamsters. However, that would likely damage the City's relationship with the Teamsters following a collaborative negotiation process...

And then…

Should the Council choose not to approve the Agreement, there is a possibility the Teamsters would file an Unfair Labor Practice complaint with the Public Employment Relations Commission.

This is what is known as an ultimatum. By making a handshake agreement with the union before talking to the City Council, the City essentially dared the Council to not approve it. And I don’t like that because my job is to represent you the voters. In other words: the City is not management. You are. It’s your money the City is negotiating.

So I would have preferred to hold off on approving any spending increases until after our August 6th Budget Retreat; or at least to have the promised Executive Session. Because you want to be able to ask questions without annoying the workers (who did negotiate in good faith, of course) and putting the deal at risk.

See here’s the thing: We have been told time and again that we will not understand the City’s finances until that Budget Retreat. So until August 6th none of the Council have any idea where the City’s finances are. My colleagues keep going on about how we can’t approve any spending until we get the numbers. And I could not agreee more. Which is why I find their willingness to sign off on this with no questions asked a bit puzzling.

And let’s be clear: I have been a very happy member of three unions in my career. Organised labour is something I believe in deeply.  But Executive Session (the kind we were promised) was made for this situation. As I keep saying, the Open Public Meetings Act make talking things like this over outside of council meetings almost impossible. You need a way to be able to discuss difficult things like this with candor and Executive Session is that way.

So since I wasn’t able to have that private conversation, I voted with the majority to approve this. Because a deal is a deal. But next time? I want to be asked about the deal before it’s made. Because it’s your money we’re spending.

Item #8: Financial Management System Software

This is really good news. We’ve had absolutely ancient software for years and years. This has made it tougher to get the work done, slowed resident services and basically cost the City a lot of money in reduced productivity. It’s hard to spend money on ‘accounting software’ but this is one expenditure I am glad to say yes to.

The only reason I wanted a discussion is because I had a question about the possibilities of an add-on component which allows for self-service. Self-service is easier to show than tell. So to give you a small taste of what that is, check out ClearGov. Think about how many questions the public routinely asks (like ‘paid parking revenue’ which was supposed to be on this week’s Agenda.) Imagine if the public could get answers to pretty much any routine question about the budget or their taxes or how the city works with a simple search–and without bugging already over-worked staff? That’s one purchase I’d be thrilled to approve.

Coda: Public Records Requests

On a related note: there was all this ricketa-racketa this week about Paid Parking. Many people know I talked it up last year and asked me for all kinds of detailed stats and it was a busy week and I just didn’t have a lot of time for re-litigating that whole thing–especially when it wasn’t actually on the Agenda. So I blew everyone off! There, I said it! 😀 I did not spew back copious stats proving once again what a money-loser that who….

Not gonna do it. 😀

But the silver lining is that even if I let you down, information-wise, you can always do a Public Records Request (PRR) at the City web site. And unlike me, the City will do it’s best to answer your question.  That is State law. So if you have super-detailed questions on anything, the PRR is your friend and more people should use that tool.

Now, no City is necessarily thrilled to hear me advertise this service. PRRs take staff time so a lot of Cities consider them a real pain in the municipal derriere. To which I say, Tough Noogies! Your right to information from your government is constitutional, baby. So take advantage of the service. 🙂

One caveat: we currently have a really onerous PRR system. But that is also something I want to change as we improve our IT systems. You’ll see what I mean when you do your first one–it’s not as quick or easy as it should be. Again, since it’s easier to show than tell, if you want to see what the luxury model PRR System looks like, check out The Port Of Seattle NextRequest System. That is what we need in Des Moines.

Why do we need this? Well, if you look at the Port’s system, maybe the first thing you’ll notice is that you can search through all the historic PRRs. In many cases, someone has already asked exactly the same question (or a very similar question) so you can get the answers you want without even creating a new PRR. That not only improves transparency, it saves them money on staff research. Our PRR system? It has no index. No ‘search’. So you have no idea what has been asked or when or by whom. Maybe ten people have already asked a question like, “How much did the Paid Parking system cost?” But you can’t see that.

(Philosophical loop of the day: You would have to place a PRR in order to find out how many people had previously done PRRs asking “How much did the Paid Parking system cost?” Trippy, right?)

My fondest wish is to make as much of our government’s work as easy to access as possible, both for you and for our staff. The thing I suspected (and then learned after my campaign) is how much room there is for improvement in educating our residents. We don’t have a newspaper and that means we don’t have anyone doing research on the public’s behalf. It’s great that we have ‘social media’, but without actual facts, it’s just people sharing rumours and opinions. Tools like the Public Records Request make it possible for people like you to do real research and then share facts. So the easier we make it for you to lay yer hands on that data, the easier it is for you to spread the word and improve the voting in this here town.

This was always my fiendishly clever political strategy–well-educated voters. 🙂

Weekly Update: 07/12/2020

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This Week

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

Thursday: City Council Meeting (Agenda)

Last Week

Tuesday: Puget Sound Regional Committee (PSRC) Transportation Board Zoom Meeting. (Remember: they’re most important agency nobody knows about.) Discussion of Fast Ferry and about half a billion in regional transportation monies.

Tuesday: phone call with Senator Karen Keiser on air quality monitor stuff.

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

Thursday: My first committee meetings ever. Woo hoo! Transportation and Environment. Not much to report except that we chose a chairman for each and neither was me. 😀 Which is normal, given my n00b status.

Thursday: City Council Meeting Study Session (Agenda, Video)

Meeting Recap

This was a long meeting (four hours).  Part of the length came from quite a number of administrative presentations from various staff before the main events. A lot of people were interested in hearing about the police response to the Fourth Of July. Interestingly, calls for service were down this year (62) vs. last year (68). Only one big ticket ($513) was issued.

Now this meeting was a ‘Study Session’ which means that the agenda was constrained to the two item(s) to be ‘studied’. But two were enough! Both issues were contentious and I’ll just tell you that my vote on both was based on taking the long view. The vote was 5-2 on both. The majority voted with the city manager’s recommendations–and they were both, in my opinion, incredibly short sighted.

I’m devoting this week’s ‘essay’ to the StART. I know many of you are much more concerned about the Van Gasken House. I know this because I received 86 emails and phone calls about the issue and only five were in favor of tearing down the place. I think that must be some kind of record for citizen engagement on a City Council issue. The loss of the Van Gasken House breaks my heart. I’ll have more in a separate post because so many things went wrong with that  it highlights an essential difference between me and my peers.

But I’m about to talk about the StART. And not because this decision on its own was all that important (it really wasn’t) but because there were things said in this discussion that make clear how our city has been mishandling its entire relationship with the Port for a long time. And that is a big deal if you care about the noise, pollution and other negative impacts from Sea-Tac Airport.

Sea-Tac Airport has profoundly affected this City since before it’s incorporation in 1959 (one of the primary drivers to incorporate was to hopefully give residents more of a voice in an upcoming airport expansion. How little things change. 😀 ) The airport is the most important long-term issue facing the City which you almost surely know nothing about. Our City has done a not great job of keeping the public informed so I can’t sum all this stuff up in one post. But suffice it to say, our health, our economy, our property are all heavily impacted by the Port Of Seattle–and usually not for the better.

This relatively small vote was only one of a hundred forks in the road where we’ve made the wrong choice over the years. I’ve spent the last four years, including running for this office, in order to help get our City to change that course.

ReStART

We voted to immediately rejoin the Sea-Tac Airport Roundtable (StART). We left last year in concert with Burien and Federal Way.  But now we are rejoining unilaterally. Look, everything to do with the airport is a soap opera. So there is no way to make this explanation short and sweet. I am so sorry. 😀

Background

After the war between the airport communities and the Port Of Seattle over building the Third Runway, both sides considered it important to have an ongoing dialogue to help mend fences. This is called the Highline Forum. Since 2006, electeds from each of the six cities, plus Highline Schools, have met bi-monthly to share information–mostly about what is going on at the airport. That’s all fine, but that’s not what residents actually wanted which is, of course, negotiation. Concerned citizens have always wanted ways to discuss how the Port might actually work to reduce the negative impacts. That was never the purpose of the Highline Forum.

To address that frustration, in 2018, the City Managers of these same cities responded by creating the Sea-Tac Airport Roundtable. StART is populated by two citizens appointed by each city, plus the Port and reps from both the FAA and the largest Airlines (let’s call them the PFAs for short.)

Unfortunately the StART has been problematic from day one because, frankly, neither side ever agreed on its purpose. The Port saw it as being another ‘Highline Forum for Citizens’; meaning more of the same ‘information sharing’. And the city managers went along–perhaps believing that “half a loaf is better than no loaf.” But you see the problem: more information sharing is not what the community was demanding.

Despite that, each side had strong reasons to plow ahead anyway. There was so much pressure from citizen groups like the Quiet Skies groups to do something. And on the other side the Port had a strong public relations incentive to improve their ‘engagement’ with the public. So it got underway and the fighting over what it was supposed to do and how it was supposed to work began literally at the first meeting. It was only a matter of time before someone got fed up. And they did. So about a year into it, Burien, Des Moines and Federal Way drafted a letter to the Port saying that they were ‘suspending’ their participation. (I’m not divorcing you, Bob. I’m just taking a break. 😀 )

The Cold War

As you can probably tell from my somewhat flippant tone, I was against the StART because I knew that the PFAs were not interested in negotiating (at least, not in that public forum.) But who listens to me, right? 😀 Yes we desperately needed (and still need) dialogue. However, it needed to be of a very different kind in order to get anywhere.

All that said, once we had joined, I felt (as I do now) that we should not be quitters. One way to look at our relationship with Sea-Tac Airport is that it is something of a Cold War that flares up every decade or so when the Port starts another expansion project. So leaving the StART was kinda like America threatening to remove our Embassy from Moscow every time the Soviets did something we disliked. Sure the StART was/is deeply flawed. But cutting off communication like that? That was even worse.

So I was convinced that eventually we were bound to rejoin. And then our city manager decided to do that. Good! However, last night’s vote was a decision to rejoin on our own and with almost no mention of the issues that drove us to leave in the first place. And that’s bad. My goal at last night’s meeting was to simply delay the vote to rejoin until after we had had a chance to talk to Burien and Federal Way and obtain a joint agreement. We left together, we should rejoin together.

Because one problem we’ve always had in obtaining fair treatment from the Port is that we are small cities. The Port always has an easy job dealing with the airport communities when we don’t work together. And sadly, that is often the case. What my colleagues and city manager do not seem to appreciate is that we should always present a united front in discussions with the Port. To a certain extent, the Port is management and we’re labor. And labor is always stronger together.

If you control the agenda…

In his presentation on the StART, our city manager said that one of the chief of objections everyone has to the StART is the way meetings are run:

“…because if you control the agenda, you control the meeting.”

To which I might reply: the man knows of what he speaks. 😀

I hate doing it, but I just gotta be blunt here: The city manager’s (cough) dialogue with me was not good for Des Moines.  His presentation tells me that he does not have a full understanding of the situation. And this does not surprise me. Because in addition to not consulting with me, he also did not get input from our own *Des Moines Aviation Advisory Committee.

Clearly the City Manager feels like the tasks of negotiation should be his alone. I strongly disagree.  And if he could not bring himself to take advantage of my expertise in developing his recommendation to the full Council, the least he could have done would have been to avoid a confrontation.

That aside, the real problem is that Des Moines and Federal Way have largely ignored airport issues since leaving the StART.  And Burien, which had provided leadership in the past, is now struggling to come to a consensus on how to proceed. The point is that there has been almost zero communication and coordination between the three Cities in the past year.

Strategy? What strategy?

Long before my election I began working with electeds in all six cities to try to find some direction we can all agree on. Because I know that there are important actions to be taken regarding the airport literally every week.

Because the issue is not really the StART. The essential problem is a lack of strategy. The fact is that none of the six cities have a coherent strategy. And certainly there is no collective plan.

What we do, what we have always done, is simply react to events as they happen. Which is a ridiculous way to defend one’s interest against an ongoing threat that flares up every few years. It’s a bit like only preparing for hurricanes when it starts raining.

You are not a cog

I also rarely call out individual councilmembers and I don’t like to quote people because I never want to be accused of quoting people out of context. I respect her and her work, but at this meeting Councilmember Buxton basically spoke for the majority view on Des Moines’ relationship with Sea-Tac Airport:

“It’s always been about exploring, settling and securing this region… for commerce.”

“Our cities are a cog in a historical and global machine… It’s a huge, moving commerce machine.”

“Effective advocacy will be more at the regional and national level […] and the most effective interventions will be mitigation.”

These three quotes encapsulate everything that is wrong and has been wrong with our relationship with the Port Of Seattle for the past fifteen years.

The City Of Des Moines and its people are not meant to be ‘cogs’ at the service of a ‘commerce machine’. We are here to raise our families in health and safety and that means doing everything in our power to push back against the PFAs and obtain less noise and less pollution for our families.

Speaking for the majority, Councilmember Buxton made it clear that they believe that there is nothing that we can do to help ourselves. This is factually inaccurate (I cannot stress this enough because it seems that in today’s world all one has to do is repeat a falsehood enough times and suddenly a large number of people will believe it to be the truth.)

But what is especially troubling is that her statements could easily have come from the mouth of a Port Of Seattle public relations employee. Which may seem odd until you realize that our former mayor–and the colleague and mentor of several members of the current majority actually is a Port Of Seattle public relations employee.

And I’ll go further: none of the current Port Commissioners would ever talk that way about Des Moines. They may not be on our side, but they do not consider us to be ‘cogs’ in their machine. And I’m telling you that because if they did think so little of us as human beings, negotiation really would be pointless. It’s not. We just need to have people on our side of the table who really are on our side of the table.

Summary

Our decision to leave the Sea-Tac Airport Roundtable highlighted the two basic reasons we cannot negotiate effectively with Sea-Tac Airport and neither is because we are powerless:

  1. We have a government with no long-term strategy that has shown itself unable to negotiate effectively.
  2. We currently have a council that mouths the Port’s own talking points.

*As I write this, the two remaining members of the DMAAC just submitted a letter of resignation.

Weekly Update: 07/06/2020

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This Week

Tuesday: Puget Sound Regional Committee (PSRC) Transportation Board Zoom Meeting. (Remember: they’re most important agency nobody knows about.) Discussion of Fast Ferry and about half a billion in regional transportation monies. (More below.)

Tuesday: phone call with Senator Karen Keiser on air quality monitor stuff.

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

Thursday: My first committee meetings ever. Woo hoo. Transportation and Environment. You can listen in by signing up here to Zoom in.

Thursday: City Council Meeting Study Session (Agenda) Note: A ‘Study Session’ means that the agenda is constrained to the item(s) to be ‘studied’. The practical effect is that, per Council Rule #10, no public comment will be taken unless it is to do with those items. Which are:

  1. Whether or not to re-join the StART. It looks the majority will vote to re-join. We left last year in concert with Burien and Federal Way.  But now we are re-joining (apparently) unilaterally which I think is a mistake–we left as a group and if we re-join, we should also do so together. For the record, I never thought it was wise to leave in the first place. It’s complicated. 🙂 As the SAMP (airport expansion) approaches, I’ll try to clear up the confusion.
  2. Tearing down the Van Gasken House. This breaks my heart.  Now purchasing this property back in 2017 was a fantastic idea. But apparently the grant the City is using to redevelop the property almost demands it (all grants are loaded with nasty strings like this, see pg 11 of the packet and the essay below.)  The question I have is: was this the plan all along? I mean, did we go into this purchase knowing that we’d have to demolish it in order to get redevelopment money? Can’t we just leave it as is and wait for a grant that gives us the option to save the house? Again: this is where I differ from my colleagues. I think this is the kind of deal where the public should have a chance to weigh in on the issue in a meaningful fashion.

Last 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 in Normandy Park 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 lunch at the Senior Center. Get an EATS voucher!

Wednesday: I spoke with Mark Finstrom the Chief Technology Officer of Highline Schools. The school district intends on a levy to provide better technology services for students, but there may be other opportunities to get broadband for our kids, which is a high priority for several Councilmembers.

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

Saturday: OK, I know I said I might do that Running Of The Flags fun run and as it turned out? I LIED. 😀 My excuse is basically that I have old dogs and the blasting started early in the day in my neighbourhood. So with no canine-antidepressants handy, I decided to leave town and give them a break. What does this have to do with City Council? I am told that, as with last year, someone from the Police Department will give a report at the beginning of the next City Council Meeting  as to their response to all the fireworks complaints. So be sure to tune in July 9 at 5pm for that. 🙂

Sidewalks

Surprisingly, I got a bunch of follow-up questions about last week’s rant on Committees. Which is why I’m going to totally ignore them and talk about something completely different this week. 😀 (There is a lot more to say about committees, but I’ve got a plan here with these rants. And besides, we were just talking about the difficulties of ‘grants’, so forgive me changing direction like that.)

In the Top 3 of most residents’ questions (especially women and parents) is undoubtedly “Why don’t we have sidewalks?” It’s a fair question. The short answer is: They cost an absolute fortune. To which you’ll reply, “What? Concrete? How expensive is concrete?” Yes. The cost of concrete (like so many other aspects of construction) is huge. I know you think it’s the five guys who supposedly stand around and do nothing on the crew, but that’s not really it.

Grant Land

So remember I talked after our last City Council Meeting about our Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP)? Go open that and take a gander at the big City project for 2021:  Priority #5 (24th Ave. from 223rd down to Kent Des Moines Road). About ten blocks. Now check the price tag: $4,638,000. Eye popping isn’t it?

The first thing to notice is that the City portion is only about 25% of the total. And that’s typical. The lion’s share of big projects like this are funded from Fed, State and County grants. And by the way, most of the Federal transportation funding to Des Moines actually comes from the PSRC (see Tuesday above) so they’re a big player in this too. All these sources of funding come with pages and pages of †rules and regs

A big portion of our City’s staff time is spent scouring the bowels of State and County programs for opportunities to get the other 75% that small cities like ours can almost never afford on our own.  And while it’s great to get ‘free money’, none of it is really ‘free’ because it takes a ton of work to find and almost all come with *strings. But the biggest drag, in my opinion, is that we don’t control our own fate–we have to win those grants before we can determine what projects we can do, and when. Because we’re always competing with every other city for the same bags of money.

Which brings me to the last thing I wanted to mention about the TIP: Notice how the vast majority of projects have empty spaces next to the funding and scheduling? A City Council could proclaim like feudal kings, “Sidewalks for all!” But until the grants show up? It’s all fantasy.

In short: The costs for sidewalks, even a single block, starts at six figures. So you need to use other people’s money and follow their rules and their schedules.

You can’t be in the game if you’re not on the board

Now despite all my grousing, if you want any traffic project (say a speed bump) it is still very important to get your idea on the TIP as soon as possible. If your idea isn’t on the TIP? No one will even begin looking for money to pay for it. Grants come in all shapes and sizes. If your idea is small, a grant might be found right away and ‘Presto!’ it might be possible to move your idea to the top of the stack. As I always say: advocate, Advocate, ADVOCATE for what you want.

So what’s the answer?

Not to sound flip, but the ‘answer’ to more transportation projects is simple: make more money. 😀 Look, I never promised a “secret sauce.” Because there is no secret sauce. My only goal was to give you some understanding as to why this most basic desire from residents has become so hard to achieve.

There is no way a small city like ours can ever afford sidewalks in established neighborhoods without a lot more revenue. As I see it, there are two solutions, sadly neither of them with instant relief:

1. A radical reform of how Cities are funded (that’s beyond this essay, but in one sentence, most of your tax dollars go to the State; very little actually goes to the City Of Des Moines.) Given how reluctant voters are to trust any changes to the tax system, I ain’t holding my breath. But at some point, some legislation needs to happen to keep more of your taxes here in Des Moines.

2. A dramatic re-think of local economic development. That’s the reason I kept ranting about ‘economic development’ during my campaign. Because business formation is  the only chance a city like Des Moines has to improve its ability to build more sidewalks. Unless you enjoy more taxes, of course. (Where’s the eye roll emoji when you really need it?)

Summary

Sidewalks are very expensive to build in established neighborhoods. Small cities like Des Moines actually keep a small percentage of the taxes you pay to the County and State so transportation projects (like almost all capital projects) are funded overwhelmingly via grants (aka ‘other people’s money’) But grants are often unpredictable and usually come with lots of strings. Those strings limit not only how many projects we can do and when we can do them, but also the design of the things we do end up building.

*Here is one more example of the strings that comes with grant funding: Did you know that concrete is one of the top five contributors to global warming? Really. Making concrete pollutes more than just about anything else you can think of. So one reason construction is so expensive now is that every government tries to specify low-carbon concrete. Which is waaaaaay more expensive than Brand X concrete. That’s just one example of the rules and regs. There are literally hundreds more.

†Another example of a grant rule is that the grant we are using to redevelop the Van Gasken house says you can’t have an existing structure on the redeveloped property–Oops!

Half-Weekly Update: 07/01/2020

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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.