Weekly Update: 03/09/2020

This Week

It’s now all-Corona all-the-time. A lot of the City government is shut down or curtailed now (including the court.) Our City is taking COVID-19 very seriously (as I hope you are) and you can check here for good info from King County on the current status of the situation.

Well, the Port Of Seattle trip all us airport-community electeds had scheduled for Washington D.C. got cancelled (thanks a lot corona virus!) So my dance card is pretty clear this week! Some of my peers in Burien and SeaTac are already there as part of a National League Of Cities convention so they may still be able to have meetings with the FAA, Senator Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Rick Larsen that I had planned. (Des Moines is no longer a member of NLC :(.) The good news is that I can honestly say that there is at least one elected now in each of these cities who is strong on airport issues. So I’m confident that they will advocate strongly in my stead to get Federal funding for HB2315 and HB1847 as well as help in the upcoming SAMP process at Sea-Tac Airport. Hopefully, we can re-schedule the Port trip soon!

Thursday is the next City Council meeting (Agenda). Although the Agenda says that no public comment will be taken, actually public comment will be taken on the ‘code clean-up’ item. If you can, please examine pg. 87 of the packet carefully. Some of those ‘clean-up’ items are quite significant in my opinion and I will be asking questions. More below.

City Manager Michael Matthias will als0 be reporting on his meeting in January on the fate of the StART. More below.

Last Week

Monday I met with electeds from SeaTac, Burien and Tukwila on that ill-fated (get it? 😀 ) trip to D.C. As I wrote above, I’m feel pretty good that we have a few people now on the various city councils who are truly engaged and that is what we’ve needed all along: better electeds.

Thursday I met with the Beacon Hill Quieter Skies Coalition. They get a lot of the same impacts from Sea-Tac Airport that we do and they have some great organizers that can help us get more of our residents engaged.

Saturday morning, the City Of Des Moines employees who completed their  Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training. Unfortunately, all us city council people were ordered not to show up. In fact, a lot of the City government is shut down or curtailed now (including the court.) Our City is taking COVID-19 very seriously (as I hope you are) and you can check the City web site for good info on the current status of the situation.

Also, on Friday and Saturday, both HB2315 and HB1847 passed in the Legislature and are on their way to the Governor’s desk. Kudos to Rep. Tina Orwall and especially to Rep. Mike Pellicciotti for their great work.

Keep It Short

There is a lot of ‘inside baseball’ to any City government–and Des Moines more than most. Part of my writing these Updates is to give the public a sense of that. It’s also a chance for electeds from other cities and activists to gain an understanding of how we differ from other cities. I’m just a ‘noob’ Councilmember here, but I have the somewhat bizarre distinction of being the only person who actually attends council meetings all over the area and I ‘compare and contrast’ a lot. There are more interesting hobbies of course–like this guy.

One detail: Des Moines City Council Meetings tend to be the shortest in the area. Even on nights where there’s, like a Boy Scout presentation or some other long ceremonial deal, meetings are often a mere ninety minutes–half the length of most other Cities. And this is quite intentional. Our current majority has worked to change procedures over the years to make it so. Now don’t get me wrong: no one wants to get home in time for Deep Space Nine any more than me.  But when meetings move along this fast, things can slip by.

What I told the applicants for the recent Council appointment was this: Look at the Consent Agendas. The Consent Agenda (CA) is the long list of items at the beginning of the Agenda which are voted on as one with no discussion. The idea is that they are considered to be routine and completely obvious items and thus require no debate. Typical items will be payroll checks and other payments to vendors.  Often, our CA will have ten or more items, and fiscal impacts of as much as two million dollars. I often cringe at this. In my gut, it feels like we should not just rush through a list of items that long and that expensive.

Similarly the public hearing on ‘code clean-up’ is considered to be merely routine items. But a public hearing is required on any code changes like this for a reason. And if you dig into the code to be ‘cleaned up’ this time, you’ll see several tweaks to zoning that I don’t find routine at all.

The idea of running an efficient meeting is understandable. But here’s the thing: I do not want the meetings to go so fast. I want to ask questions even if they’re obvious questions. Because on many of these items, the City Council meeting is the only chance the public will ever get to hear about a particular issue.

There is an inherent tension in our Council/Manager form of government which I’ll point out again and again, because it matters and because the overwhelming majority of the public does not understand. The government does not work for the City Council. It works for the City Manager. And under our current rules, the Council has exactly zero authority over the City Manager outside of the official meetings. Those meetings are technically the only places to hold the government to account.

Now because of this arrangement, the tension is that whenever one questions the government, the Staff can get defensive–as in, “Are you questioning the way I do my job?” And the answer, of course, is: yes, that’s exactly what I’m doing. 😀 That’s the price of having a government job: you have to be willing to submit to questioning. It’s not questioning one’s competence or integrity. It’s just… asking questions. Again: away from the dais, the Staff is under no obligation to answer questions from Council. The moment we step off the dais, we have actually less authority than a resident with Staff. So it’s up to Councilmembers to make the most of their time on the dais. That’s the one time we have any ‘power’.

Unfortunately, questioning takes time. And that’s why meetings sometimes should be longer in my opinion. Because again, if we don’t use that time on the dais to inquire, we lose our chance at accountability.

So in general, I prefer fewer items on the CA and fewer items considered ‘routine’. I tend to want more discussion and more inquiry. But that’s just me. Other current Councilmembers do not have as many questions and do have families they want to get home to. Their position is that the City Manager and the Staff are doing a great job and unless there is something super-obvious that requires immediate attention, we should let them get on with it and not waste time with a lot of pointless questions at Council meetings.

Again: there’s the tension.