Public Comment At Committee Meetings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Times

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We have this Council Rule #19, which no other City has, where a Councilmember is limited to speaking more than twice on any issue… and no more than four minutes. It was introduced at this meeting, right after CM Martinelli and I were elected in November 2019 (Start at about 1:53):

I hope you watch the discussion, while remembering that this was the last time the full Council met before the new rules were implemented. And if you’ve seen any meetings since then (where CM Martinelli and I are members) you’ll immediately notice the difference.

As you can see from this video, before the new rules, meetings were far more conversational. Now, meetings don’t even approach what might be characterized as a real discussion. Councilmembers now just say their bit, a vote is taken, and boom that’s it. In the past, I’ve railed at how the previous Councils voted in lockstep all the time, but at least there were occasional real discussions. Now, it’s not only performative, it’s basically 100% pro forma.

At that 14 November discussion, several Councilmembers do try to soften the harsh edges of some of the new rules. They express concerns over the time limits and getting to speak only twice. Mayor Pina calms those fears by saying how reasonable and flexible everyone is going to be.

So much for flexibility. 😀

Personality or process?

There is this totally false narrative that somehow Councilmember Martinelli and I are to blame for the lack of harmony. Those meetings ran better (so the story goes) because that Council were more cooperative. In fact, it is these new rules, that the majority put in place at that meeting, that contribute to the bad environment. If you want proof, just attend any current Committee Meeting, where there are no such artificial limitations. There are few open hostilities and it’s mostly just down to business. And as soon as we start recording Committee Meetings, I’m sure more of you will be able to see what I’m saying. Fair process makes a difference.

I’m not saying that improved process will solve all problems. There is certainly personal animus on the Council right now. But these new rules are like itching powder that only exacerbate problems and I hope to convince my colleagues that it is in their best interest that they should all be rescinded. Because at the end of the day there are three facts:

  1. Whether Councilmembers speak twice or a hundred times, the majority still wins all the votes. These rules offer no political advantage.
  2. They do not speed up meetings (as was assumed.) No one wants to hear it, but our meetings are still, by a county mile, shorter than council meetings in other cities. And the only reason they ever went on in the past was because we had (sorry, guys but you know it’s true) some occasionally pretty windy speechifying from Councilmembers not named Harris or Martinelli.
  3. We have to work together. And given that fact, we shouldn’t have any rules that make the process any less pleasant than it needs to be. That’s in everybody’s interest.

Majoritarian… oh no, not another Civics lesson!

If I can accomplish only one thing in office to educate the public about our City it’s this: Council-Manager government (CMG), as we have in Des Moines, is 100% majoritarian.  The majority runs the table on everything, including the way meetings run, how much authority the City Manager or Mayor have. Everything.

So I never lay blame for the new rules or being muted or any of the crappy behavior solely at the Mayor’s feet. Again: it’s a majoritarian body. And since I joined the Council, every time something bad happens procedure-wise, none of my colleagues in that majority ever speaks up. Not once.

The incentives…

Unlike the State or Federal governments which you know a lot more about from civics class there is no ‘power sharing’ And there are zero ‘brakes’ or ‘veto points’ for the minority. CMG was designed that way. The base assumption is that in smaller towns most people will agree on things and so you want a system which gets things done with a minimum of fuss. And that creates certain incentives.

The first is that it gives a longstanding Council majority absolutely zero incentives to compromise, let alone collaborate. That’s why, sooner or later most cities with CMG devolve into blocs. The incentive to obtain a strong, single-minded majority is baked into the system.

Second, it encourages the City Manager to become a political actor–not to stay above the fray and avoid Council politics, but to actively and strongly align with the majority. Because that’s the most efficient way for the Executive to get things done. That’s not a slam against any individual. It’s just an incentive that all executives are subject to.

The counterbalance to these tendencies is, basically, good will–of the majority. Remember: the minority has no power! So everything, including the tone of the Council and any deference to opposing points of view on the Council depends entirely on the good will of the majority–and also, frankly, the ability of the City Manager to remain above that fray. It’s an honor system, pure and simple. And it’s asking an awful lot of people, even under the best of circumstances.

The Good Winner…

There is this huge thing in our culture about being a ‘good loser’. It’s one of the first things we teach our kids: how to lose gracefully. But what I’m trying to say to you is that Council-Manager government depends far more on ‘good winners’ to successfully represent the community.

Because that’s the thing: Even though everyone (including minority members) are elected by the same voters, if you’re in the Council majority, you win everything, all the time.

Think about that for a second: you’re in a softball league and you show up every two weeks already knowing the outcome of the game. Month after month or even year after year. That must feel pretty awesome if you’re on the winning side. But if yer not? Yeah, not so much.

So in my view, it just seems the gracious thing to do to treat the people who are inevitably going to be on the losing side with a measure of empathy and deference.

Seriously, under these circumstances who can more easily afford to be ‘big’ about things? The people who win every vote or those who always have to take it in the neck.

Letter of resignation from Des Moines Diversity Task Force: Meg Tapucol-Provo

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Subject: Stepping down from the DMPD Diversity Task Force

To: Chief Ken Thomas,  Des Moines Police Guild, City Council, etc.

To the Members of the Des Moines Police Department Diversity Task Force,

I am regretfully writing to inform you that I am stepping down from the Diversity Task Force.

In joining this Task Force, my hope was built upon the expectation that the lived experiences of marginalized community members would be respected and prioritized.  I was told that the goal of the task force was to implement training on unconscious bias, and that opinions that provided different perspectives were welcome, particularly since I was not only a woman of color, but I had been working in the field of diversity and inclusion for over two decades.  I have facilitated Diversity and Inclusion Workshops throughout the country, from Atlanta to Hawaii, and all points in between and I have worked with all levels of employees, from line workers to CEO’s, from police officers, to scientists, to politicians.  I’ve taught college-level classes on Diversity and Multiculturalism for 13 years and I worked with educators as a facilitator for the Anti-Defamation League’s A World of Difference Institute leading prejudice reduction workshops.  So I came into this Task Force with a wealth and breadth of experience.  Social justice is something in which I believe passionately, and I was honored to be asked to be on the Task Force.

The first meeting was in August and I am still not clear on what the goal of the task force is.  There was one sparsely attended meeting in the fall in which diversity topics weren’t discussed at all.  I’m really not sure why.  At the end of that particular meeting, body cams were discussed, but for the most part I can’t recall what was discussed; I only remember thinking to myself, what does this have to do with diversity?

It is now March, seven months after the initial meeting and absolutely nothing has been accomplished.  There has been no discussion of training.  I feel that whenever issues around race are brought up, there is a feeling of defensiveness and attempts to justify actions by the police.  I tried to open up an honest conversation about the disparity between how black protesters are treated vs. the way white protesters are treated given what happened at the Capitol on January 6th.  There appeared to be a clear division between the people of color on the task force and the white officers on the task force, with the people of color feeling strongly that there is a disparity between how POC and white people are treated by law enforcement.  This is a quote from Robin DiAngelo: “If you haven’t spent years of sustained study, struggle and focus on issues of racism, then your opinion is necessarily limited.”  Whose opinion on racism holds more weight—those who have experienced racism, or those who haven’t?  What I felt was the invisible blue wall of silence go up.  What I believe is not understood by everyone in this Task Force is that racism does not necessarily have to be intentional.  Racism is a structure that maintains whiteness as the status quo. In this police department, whiteness is the status quo. If this Diversity Task Force cannot agree on what the realities are on racism in policing, what is the point of having the Task Force?

It was brought up during the first meeting that there were officers who weren’t happy that the Diversity Task Force was being put together.  As a former Diversity Consultant, I have worked with Police Officers in another jurisdiction and there was definitely a lot of reluctance going through Diversity Training on their part, so I don’t find this surprising. During the January meeting, I brought that issue up again, asking WHY those officers weren’t happy. The response to that question skirted the issue, stating that there were “different opinions” about the Diversity Task Force.  But the different opinions about the Task Force were never specified, leaving one to wonder, just exactly what ARE those differing opinions? And in fact, if there are officers who aren’t happy that the Diversity Task Force exists, why is that?  Does it conflict with their value system, their ideology?  Do they not value diversity and inclusion?  The only way we would know is if we knew what their opinions were.

Too often I have seen Diversity and Inclusion programs or Task Forces be implemented yet no change take place.  Organizations do this just to “check the box”, to say they did what they were supposed to do.  In the wake of the George Floyd murder, maybe it looks good to take that step.  But if this is just performative, then this is not the right task force for me.

Des Moines’ demographics have been steadily changing over the past two decades.  I’ve put together the attached Excel graphic (Des Moines Demographics 2000-2020) to show how the population has been changing since 2000.  There are currently about an equal number of people of color in Des Moines as there are white people, yet the police department does not reflect that reality.  If your department doesn’t reflect who they represent, how can you adequately protect and serve them?  These numbers will continue to change and people of color will become the majority.  How is the police department going to adequately understand the needs of the population it serves if the 99% of the officers continue to view things through their own cultural lenses?

One suggestion I have is that a third party outside of the police department with professional experience in diversity and inclusion act as a facilitator for the task force.  I believe that would be a better way to conduct task force meetings and to keep topics focused on diversity-related issues.  I also feel there should be more gender diversity among the people of color—where are the men of color who are not police officers?  Whether intentional or unintentional, there seems to be an out-of-balance power dynamic when the police officers are almost all White males and the citizens are all women of color.  Also, since this is a city government organization, I don’t see why City Council members should be banned from attending task force meetings.  I am aware that Councilmember J.C. Harris has asked to attend the task force meeting and was denied, and I am not sure I understand why.  It would seem to me that complete transparency would be a good thing.

I’ve attached some articles for your information.  I hope that in the near future you are able to determine what your diversity and inclusion goals are and accomplish them.

And I strongly urge EVERYONE on the task force to read “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo.

Also, I think you will find this an eye-opening video to watch:  A Conversation With the Police – Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man – Emmanuel Acho has a conversation with the Petaluma Police Department “Proximity breeds care; distance breeds fear.” –  Emmanuel Acho

Meg Tapucol-Provo

Notes on the attached articles:

  1. “10 Things We Know About Race and Policing in the U.S.”, an excellent article by the Pew Research Center.  One big takeaway from this article is that Black police officers view fatal encounters between law enforcement and Black people very differently than White police officers.  The majority of Black police officers view these incidents as signs of a larger problem between the police and Black people, whereas only 26% of White police officers believe this to be true.  In fact, the majority of Americans, both Black and White, believe Blacks are treated less fairly than Whites by law enforcement and by the criminal justice system.
  2. “The Numbers Don’t Speak for Themselves: Racial Disparities and the Persistence of Inequality in the Criminal Justice System”.  A great article exploring the way different people interpret statistical analyses about racism based on their own stereotypes about different groups of people and strategies on how to mitigate the unintended consequences of these stereotypes.
  3. “Racial Bias and Disparities in Policing”.  A thorough exploration of the racial bias and disparities in policing.
  4. “Federal judge holds Seattle Police Department in contempt for use of pepper spray, blast balls during Black Lives Matter protests”.  Seattle Times article shows that Seattle police did in fact use violence on peaceful BLM protesters, in contrast to what was claimed during January task force meeting.
  5. “The Inaction of Capitol Police Was by Design”.  “In December, a 111-page investigative report about the New York Police Department revealed that last year’s Black Lives Matter protests had been grossly mishandled by officers. The report, conducted by a city oversight agency, confirmed what millions of Americans had seen after the killing of George Floyd on May 25: Police responses during peaceful protests were characterized by “excessive enforcement” and the violation of First Amendment rights. Yet one month before Floyd’s death, on April 30, the country had watched as white protesters, some of them heavily armed, swarmed the Michigan state capitol to object to stay-at-home orders, resulting in little incident from Michigan State Police troopers and only two arrests.” – Excerpt from the article
  6. “Police Shrugged Off the Proud Boys, Until They Attacked the Capitol”, New York Times article does a deep dive into local police departments and how sometimes they have even appeared to side with the Proud Boys, especially when they have squared off against leftists openly critical of law enforcement.
  7. “Stop Turning Your Head: Black Cops Speak Out Against Blanket of Racism”,   “A department leadership that condones or ignores these levels of racism among its officers and fails to establish strict policies against it, or hold officers who break those policies accountable creates a culture of acceptance, denial and inaction that breeds bad behavior, Williams and others told The Crime Report.  ‘Old habits, old traditions, old structures are hard to break,’ said Williams. ‘It’s easy when you’re not affected by it to make an excuse for it, deny it, and just turn your head.’ However, willful ignorance by the leadership feeds a culture that can have dangerous consequences for communities around the country.” – Excerpt from the article.

A letter to Port Of Seattle Commission re. SR509 property acquisition

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I have been watching with interest your purchase of the plot of land you
refer to as 'SR 509 Surplus'.  Residents of Des Moines refer to it as
'the forest off of 216th'.

We call it that because that entire area used to be forested. The
development of the Business Park and FAA buildings are all very well,
but they have come at the cost of literally thousands of trees. Couple
that with the tree cutting you've been doing on the other side of that
forest (200th) to appease the FAA and it adds up to a significant
reduction in the entire tree cover of our Des Moines. There are
virtually no trees left anywhere on those properties. And my fear is
that your new acquisition will meet a similar fate.

Last month, our Council received an update from Green City Partners on
the tree cover in Des Moines and the news is not great. We are now at
29%, which is -far- less than we used to be and far less than cities in
north and east King County. In short: your very laudable goals for
economic development in Des Moines also came at an unmitigated cost to
our environment.

So I'm asking you to do better moving forward.

To do that, I'm asking that the Port begin a discussion to make trees an
integral part of any development plans you may have on that site. Surely
there are ways to develop the land with the minimum loss of trees and
even to re-plant with better species. But that 'green' practice has to
be part of the process from the beginning, not an afterthought.

Please let me know how we can get this discussion started.



Dear Applicant: There may be a quiz

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Dear Applicant,

Thank you for stepping up to serve the City Of Des Moines.

Since you have applied for the open City Council position, you will be interviewed at the Thursday February 6 Study Session. According to the Agenda, I will have an opportunity to ask you one question.

I can’t tell you what question I will ask (I honestly don’t know yet.) But I can tell you that it may well involve the January 23rd City Council Meeting which was the last meeting of Vic Pennington (the position you will be filling.)

So, if you did not attend that meeting, I strongly urge you to watch that video because, as they say in school… “there may be a quiz.” 😀


Hi there…

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My duties include creating legislation and providing oversight of our City government. But my job is also to listen to you, the people, businesses and organizations of Des Moines. City Council positions are at large, which means that I represent all of Des Moines. No matter where you live, I’m here to serve you.

If you have questions, concerns or suggestions about how we can make Des Moines better place for you, your family, your business or your organization, I urge you to contact me.

Some quick notes:

Tough Noogies

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Every frickin’ time I write anything I get at least one person who insists I either: a) didn’t include enough information b) over-simplified or c) just plain exaggerated. To which I reply, in my best Bill Murray voice: *tough noogies.

It is simply impossible to write anything for ‘beginners’ describing municipal government without a) leaving out information b) over-simplifying or c) just plain exaggerating. Not if you’re going to make a piece under 5,000 words.

Because, just between you and me and the wall, most registered voters have a really, Really, REALLY poor understanding how all this junk works. Heck, I don’t claim to understand how all this junk works. Doing something about that was one of the main reasons I wanted to serve on the Council.

The purpose of most of my writing here is to introduce these topics without assuming that the reader has any background. And to do that, keep things interesting, and above all keep things short, you have to cut corners.

As I get a sense that more people are engaged in the basics, I’ll try to add back in all the corners I’ve savagely chopped away at.

For now, all I can do is beg your pardon if you’re one of the few who is clued in enough to know which corners I’m cutting. I always try to emphasize: I’m learning a lot of this just like you are. Mistakes will be made. And crow will be eaten–with a smile. I hope you’ll come to understand and trust that it’s for a good purpose and that it all worked out well in the end.

And if not? Well…. 😀

No seriously… comments and critiques are always welcome.

*I am told that the expression ‘tough noogies’ is pretty old. I first heard it on an old Saturday Night Live skit where Bill Murray tortures Gilda Radner. It was funnier than that sounds.