Weekly Update: 01/24/2021

Public Service Announcements

  1. The new round of Federal PPP loan program just opened up. And it is much better than the first round last year. If you need more information, here is a presentation from the Small Business Administration with lots of links to more information.
  2. There are new State Unemployment Benefits. But you gotta read and follow the instructions!
  3. Last month’s article in the Seattle Times regarding the Masonic Home has gotten a lot of people talking. As you know, working to save the place has been on my agenda for years. Please contact me or Barbara McMichael of SoCoCulture.org at info@sococulture.org to get involved! She is compiling a mailing list and is coordinating efforts to save the place. 🙂
  4. City Of Des Moines Minor Home Repair Program This is one of those great programs the City has had in place since forever, but we only advertise every quarter in the City Currents Magazine. Basically, low to moderate income households can get grants to do all sorts of necessary repairs. Just email Minor Home Repair Coordinator Tina Hickey (206) 870-6535.
  5. Every home should have a Carbon Monoxide Detector–especially during the colder months! Full stop. If you need one but money is tight, South King County Fire And Rescue will get you one. Just call their Community Affairs Office at 253-946-7347.
  6. Rental Assistance for Low Income King County Bar Association – The Housing Justice Project is requesting community based providers assistance to identify households who owe 10K or more in back-rent. “We can zero out $10K or more of rent for folks who are at 50% AMI or below these income limits. If you know anyone, can you have them email fwblackcollective@gmail.com for navigation with case managers or give them this link which has all the paperwork to complete and email to edmundw@kcba.org to get their rent payed out.   Forms to Eliminate Back Rent: https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=1fUdYAwMFH_V_B1vTD_urmir_ltI8Wfnw.   Completed forms can be emailed to edmundw@kcba.org.”
  7. If you wish to sign up for future City Clean Ups Michelle Johansson Fawcett: cleanuri.com/pj4RQ5
  8. And last, but not least: If you have a Port Package that is having issues, please email SeatacNoise.Info with your address!

This Week

I am doing a ton of site visits for SeatacNoise.Info. Checking on Port Packages that are breaking down or have mold. If that sounds like you? Please e-mail them.

  1. Monday: SCA Meeting with King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci
  2. Wednesday: PSRC Operations Meeting
  3. Thursday: 3:00PM Municipal Facilities Committee Meeting (Agenda)
  4. Thursday: 4:00PM Economic Development Committee Meeting (Agenda)

You can (and should) attend any of these meetings by signing up at:  https://www.desmoineswa.gov/FormCenter/City-Forms-3/Council-Meeting-Comments-49.

Last Week

  1. Thursday: Environment Committee Meeting (Agenda)
  2. Thursday: Transportation Committee Meeting (Agenda)
  3. Thursday: City Council Meeting (Agenda)  (Video)

For both the Environment and Transpo Committees, the meetings were basically about setting the yearly Calendar. On the Environment Committee, I asked (again) for some background information on ‘Storm Water For Dummies’ and was once again rebuffed. (And just to be clear ‘Storm Water’ is about 90% of the Environment Committee’s calendar.) This did not make me happy and assuming I stick around long enough to see the wheel come round, this will change. Every Councilmember who asks a reasonable question deserves a cheerful, prompt and fulsome answer from staff. I’m not picking on any individual. But it’s ridonculous.

Council Meeting Notes: Homelessness

(Agenda)  (Video) Bonnie’s recap

We had a presentation on ‘homelessness’. I don’t wanna sound harsh. The staff had some very good things to say. But it did not exactly kill me for a couple of reasons. First off because it seemed to (unintentionally?) conflate ‘homelessness’ with criminality (eg. there was a crime graph displayed which had nothing to do with the presentation.) This is not only untrue it’s unproductive. We spend a lot of money on policing this issue and everyone agrees that it doesn’t work. Secondly it furthered the constant narrative that the problem is ‘so big’ that small Cities can do very little which I also find unhelpful. I’ll leave it there for today.

That said, I want to praise the City and Chief Thomas for Item #6 on the Consent Agenda–basically a State grant to have mental health pros ride-along with police on appropriate calls. This is not only good policy, it’s good politics. The police needed someone else’s money to test the waters and see for themselves that this can work. If it tests out as well as it has in other places around the country, it will give small Cities like DM the confidence to then re-allocate our own resources towards more effective policing strategies. Smart.

Research

Please read the following short email exchange. In it I’m asking our IT Manager, Dale Southwick how long it would take him to make a very minor change to the City’s web site. As required (it’s a social norm to always CC the City Manager when contacting staff), I cc’d the City Manager. Instead of getting an answer from Dale, I got a reply from Mr. Matthias.

From: JC Harris
Sent: Tuesday, January 19, 2021 11:23 PM
To: Dale Southwick <DSouthwick@desmoineswa.gov>
Cc: Michael Matthias <MMatthias@desmoineswa.gov>
Subject: Question re. web site

Hi Dale,

Hope ya well.

I have a quick research-y question re. the web site--specifically this thing:

1. Roughly how long would it take you guys to re-do the Community Services PDF into an HTML page using the current platform? Does the CMS theme auto-magically format things to be mobile-friendly or do you have to actually write html/css?

2. How much work is it to redo the links to be a bit more friendly? ie. Can you do redirects like /community-services-directory without all the /DocumentCenter/View/4/ goop?

3. Finally: How long do you think it might take to put a link to the aforementioned page on the home page of the web site? Are we talking man-years here? :D

TIA,

--JC

From: Michael Matthias
Sent: Wednesday, January 20, 2021 11:22 AM
To: JC Harris <JCHarris@desmoineswa.gov>

If there is a policy question here (and direction to evaluate policy options requires a majority vote by the City Council) you can ask me, otherwise I have asked Dale not to spend valuable time on a response.

Five Minutes

Before we dig into why this matters, I want you to understand that the task I asked Dale about would take less than an hour to complete. And it woulda taken Dale about five (5) minutes to write back to tell me that.

Also, full props to Mr. Matthias. The reply is wonderful writing: concise, clear and packed with information. In one sentence, he manages to sum up everything that is wrong with the current government.

The point: Mr. Matthias is saying flat out that he will not allow an individual Councilmember to ask any question of staff without a vote of the majority of the Council (which can only happen in a Council Meeting prox. 20 times a year.) No matter how big or how small, you gotta get the majority to vote on it.

Can he really do that?

That’s the question I am most often asked when I’ve brought this up. The answer is ‘yes’. Under State law, a City Manager is basically God.  There are literally no laws concerning ‘conduct’ or ‘ethics’. The power and behavior of a City Manager is almost solely constrained by a majority vote of the  Council. Now in order to keep their jobs (and be ethical human beings 🙂 ) there tend to be ‘norms’ that 99% of City Managers follow, but those are only social norms. But neither he (or the Council) currently follow those norms. And I need you to understand just how exceptional Des Moines is in this regard.

Also, again under State law, a Councilmember has only two main jobs: legislation and oversight of the City Manager. All that jazz of parades and doing public events? Strictly optional. People may vote for someone after seeing them do all that fun stuff, but that’s not the j.o.b.

Two problems

The City Manager’s policies create two problems. First, you can’t create legislation if you can’t get the government to help you do research. In the example above, I wanted to know how to make a tiny improvement to the City’s web site. So I asked the IT guy for a simple cost estimate. If it had been a big deal? I wouldn’t have asked. But it would be the same deal if I wanted to suggest something bigger like a crosswalk or anything, regardless of scope.

Which is why the Port, County, State and Federal governments all have research staff for their legislators. Small cities generally don’t have the budget for a dedicated research staff.

So one of the ‘norms’ I mentioned is that the staff in 99% of Washington Cities are expected to allocate at least some time every week to answer questions from electeds. Just not Des Moines.

Second problem: Oversight. That means occasionally obtaining documents and asking questions of staff to verify the work carried out by our City.

Why Social Norms matter

Both these problems indicate why the violation of ‘social norms’ I mentioned is so poisonous. If the City Manager doesn’t want a Councilmember asking questions–and the majority supports that–there is simply no possibility to craft legislation or conduct oversight. You literally cannot do the job that is mandated by the State Of Washington. (You’re totally free to do the whole parade thing, of course, which is doubtless what the City Manager and majority would prefer. 😀 )

The enablers

Speaking of which, let’s be clear: This is obstruction and stonewalling, pure and simple. And the support of the current majority (including Mayor and Deputy Mayor) is what makes this possible. They are completely aware of the situation and 100% on board. I know this because I’ve asked four of them directly. The other doesn’t return my calls. 😀

Whether you agree or disagree with me on various policies, you should definitely not want this to continue because it is so blatantly unethical. It cannot be the case that such undemocratic behavior is good for Des Moines because it takes away that whole things about ‘checks and balances’. Unless of course you believe that might makes right. Or the one book you keep by your nightstand was written by some guy named Machiavelli.

You don’t know what you don’t know

Going back to the City Manager’s report, once again, bear in mind that you’re always getting the Administration’s point of view (which is why Councilmembers are well-advised to get out and see how things are done in other places once in a while.)  But if a Councilmember needs the permission of the majority to conduct any inquiry? You can never get an accurate read as to how biased the Administration’s message really is.

Because that’s the thing: this isn’t just about obtaining information. It’s also a practical matter of building trust. If you can’t get even get an answer to a 5-minute question, it then kinda makes a guy wonder what’s going on with all those big ticket items we routinely vote on without so much as a single question.

One number

And just so ya know, as of this writing I’ve been in office about 384 days. And this is the forty seventh (47) time I have gotten a refusal to answer a simple question like this. That’s about one every two weeks. Sometimes they even come with a bonus letter from the City Attorney.

This must change. All Councilmembers deserve to be able to fully do the job  as described by the law. And you should ask my colleagues why they think it’s OK that any Councilmember be denied a 5-minute reply from staff to reasonable questions concerning research and oversight.

3 thoughts on “Weekly Update: 01/24/2021”

  1. I totally agree. The arrogance of the City manager to act with zero input from elected council members and the willingness of the majority of council members to be sycophants rather than concerned, elected officials should inform our voting. I hope we have some options on the next ballot, so you will be in the majority of council and can help effect change.

  2. From what I read the Council members job and the City Manger job description are i conflict? Is that correct?? Crazy ..

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