Weekly Update: 01/12/2020

This Week

On Wednesday, I’ll be having a weekly meeting with the City Manager, Michael Matthias. All Councilmembers try to have weekly contact to go over questions, concerns. I prefer to do these face to face.

I’ll also be attending a Reach Out Des Moines meeting at Pacific Middle School. This is a group of teachers and Des Moines Community Service Officer Tonya Seaberry, chaired by CHI Franciscan’s Cynthia Ricks-Macottan. The goals are to provide human services for children in the area–particularly Pacific Ridge. Programs include uniforms, camping, advocating for improved school bus service, etc.

Last Week

On Monday I attended the Dept. Of Commerce Study On Sea-Tac Airport Impacts.

Tuesday was the first Port Of Seattle Commission Meeting of the year. New Commissioner Sam Cho was sworn in. They had a party. The cake was merely OK. My public (and later private) comment, concerned enhancing the Port’s Noise Monitor Reporting system. This allows the public to track flights and their noise impacts. We need accurate tracking of noise impacts in order to pressure the airlines for meaningful changes to flight times and paths.

Tuesday afternoon I also attended the first Water District #54 Commission Meeting of the year. Relations with all the local utilities have been strained in recent years and I think they appreciated having a chat about how we can work together better. One issue, which I brought up at the City Council meeting, is our aging infra-structure. The Water Commissioners brought up the chronic complaints from residents on clogged drains, issues with pipes–all things the City can help with. And as the recent Woodmont landslides showed we need to work together to prevent future problems. (The City responded in a heroic way to that incident. But our goal needs to make sure we’re not repeating that heroism too often.)

Wednesday was my first meeting with the entire City Senior Staff. I have to say it was about 55 minutes of Councilmember Martinelli and I listening and about 5 minutes of me asking a couple of questions. As I said last time, I hope this is not an example of things to come.

Thursday I attended the State Second Airport Siting Committee. Des Moines is ably represented by Steve Edmiston as a (non-voting) Citizen Member, plus Sen. Karen Keiser and Rep. Tina Orwall. Just one stat: According to the State’s recent Aviation Capacity Study, the State will need at least the capacity of another Sea-Tac Airport by 2050. And if one were to build a new airport with the same capacity as Sea-Tac it would require at least 4,600 acres of land. Guess how much land Sea-Tac covers? 2,500. That’s right. The 8th largest airport in the country squeezes all those flights onto a footprint that is about half the size it should be. As decision-makers realized thirty years ago when they did the last second airport study, finding 4,600 acres of land anywhere was very difficult–which is why they gave up. Now? It will be impossible. I’m telling you this because I want Des Moines residents to recognize that, although we will likely get a second airport somewhere it will provide us with no relief. And I’ve been screaming about this for several years because that search distracts attention from other efforts that can help us. So let’s stop thinking about that study and move on.

Thursday was the first City Council Meeting of the year and the debut of Anthony Martinelli and moi. THANKS TO EVERYONE WHO SHOWED UP! 🙂

Video here

As expected, Matt Pina was re-elected as Mayor and Matt Mahoney was elected as our new Deputy Mayor, replacing outgoing Councilmember Vic Pennington. Councilmember Martinelli and I abstained. We both indicated that this was not a lack of confidence in either person; it was the fact that we both feel that the process is bad. I promised to give my complete support to Mayor Pina’s office–and I meant it.

However, what the public does not generally know is that councilmembers are not allowed to discuss the whole election process before the meeting. And after the nominations, the vote happens immediately. There is no campaign. No opportunity to interview the nominees. Which suuuuuuuuuuuuuucks. No other ‘election’ you can think of happens that way.

Now: why do you think the rules are set up like that? Because the whole idea of a Weak Mayor system is that the Mayor is supposed to be a ‘ceremonial’ function. There is no accommodation for campaigning because the thinking is that the Mayor doesn’t really have any special ‘powers’, so what’s the diff?

Unfortunately, in practice, this could not be further from the truth. In practice the Weak Mayor system has evolved a bit like how the Senate and Congress have rules which give key figures (Senate Majority Leader, Speaker Of The House) tremendous control never imagined in the Constitution. More below.

My Take: Weak Mayor?

A key moment of the City Council Meeting was the  comments by Mayor Pina. For some reason, the Mayor decided to respond for over nine minutes on three items which he implied were made by Councilmember Martinelli and I, although neither of us said anything like what he was talking about. I’m willing to attribute this to his being sick. But his comments were pretty extraordinary and bear mentioning…

Strong Mayor vs. Weak Mayor

The Mayor talked about why he feels we should not have a Strong Mayor system in Des Moines. The thing is: both Councilmember Martinelli and I agree. Strong Mayor? Bad idea. Neither of us advocated for such a thing. We specifically objected to the process by which the mayor is elected; not our system of government. Why Mayor Pina decided to do a tutorial on this is mysterious.

Executive Session

Second, two members of the public commented on the notion that too many decisions are made in secret. The Mayor responded by giving another tutorial on the process of ‘Executive Session’, using this ‘lecture’ to tell the public that  their concerns were completely unfounded. I think this was a mistake. Although the public may have gotten some of the details wrong, their concerns about transparency are legitimate. During my campaign, even people who did not support me agreed that the Council often operates in a very secretive fashion. The Mayor could have responded by offering to really think about their concerns. More than a missed opportunity in my opinion.

Special powers of our Weak Mayor

Finally, when explaining his reasons for abstaining in the Mayoral Election, Councilmember Martinelli spoke eloquently about the special powers of the current so-called ‘Weak’ mayor system.

The Mayor controls the Agenda of every meeting (ie. the items that are discussed and then voted on; if it’s not on the agenda? It never gets a public discussion and it never has a chance to become law.) So that is huge. No other Councilmember has the ability to get an item on the Agenda without the Mayor or the City Manager’s OK. A group of three councilmembers can also get an item on the agenda, but in real life this rarely occurs unless sponsored by a particular committee.

Speaking of which, under our current rules, the Mayor has sole control over committee assignments–which is the other way that items get on the Agenda. So, regardless of one’s expertise, one may not be assigned to the committees that are the best fit. And if one is not on the appropriate committee, your ideas don’t get on the Agenda. The upshot of all this is that, if you aren’t on the Mayor’s good side, you may well never get your proposal to any kind of public discussion.

As with our current Congress, the Weak Mayor system has developed an elaborate set of rules which were not part of the original notion of that form of governance. And these rules afford a tremendous amount of parliamentary control to the Mayor and his majority. The rules were designed simply to keep meetings ordered, which is great, but they can also be used to concentrate power and limit the full range of expression of Councilmembers. Ultimately, I would like to see the rules return to their original format: a weaker Weak Mayor system–meaning a Council of seven equals where each member has the chance to get a full public hearing on ideas they think important.

Say it three times

For the third time ( 😀 ) , Mayor Pina will have my full support in his office. I bring all this up because none of it was mentioned by our City Attorney in describing the Office of Mayor. And I think the public deserves to understand that there is a lot more to the office than was described.