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

Posted on Categories Engagement, Neighborhoods, Policy, Transparency, Weekly UpdatesTags , , , , Leave a comment on Weekly Update: 07/06/2020

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!