Weekly Update: 07/19/2020

This Week

Monday: Meeting with Tina Orwall and Federal Way Schools on school air quality improvement program.

Tuesday: Burien Airport Committee (Agenda and information on attending via Zoom)

Wednesday: come have lunch with me at the Senior Center. Get an EATS voucher!

Wednesday: Highline Forum. There will be a discussion of recent studies on UltraFine Particulate pollution

Last Week

Wednesday: Lunch at the Senior Center. Get an EATS voucher!

Wednesday: Reach Out Des Moines meeting. The big news is that King County has recognized the great work they do and renewed their grant funding for another three years!

Thursday: Attending Municipal Facilities and Economic Development Committee meetings

Thursday: City Council Meeting (Agenda, Video). See recap below.

Meeting Recap

We’ve been in this state of emergency so long, I think it’s worth reminding people that our current meeting agendas are not ‘normal’. We’re jamming months and months of work from earlier in the year onto our Consent Agenda. It concerns me because all this stuff doesn’t get the same hearing it would in normal times–when such work would be regular agenda items. The view of my colleagues often seems to be “Stop worrying. We have the best City Manager in the State of Washington.”

But that’s not the point. Even if Mr. Matthias was the GOAT of City Managers, it sidesteps one of the two main purposes of a City Council: oversight. If you stop even questioning these decisions, you’re not doing your job. All muscles atrophy when not regularly exercised.

A Consent Agenda is supposed to be routine items that are so obvious as to require no discussion and that’s not what we have on our Consent Agenda. Here are the three items from this meeting, that my colleagues and I thought were worth at least some discussion.

Item #3 Trees

We were asked to approve what, at first glance, looked like a fairly routine adjustment to a building plan at Blueberry Lane. (I have had a lot to say about Blueberry Lane as it relates to the airport.) But in this case we were unknowingly allowing the developer to cut down three Sequoias planted fifty years ago by one of the original employees of Hammond Ashley Violin Shop (Remember them? I sure miss ’em.) Those trees are meant to live 2,000 years. Not 50.

What bugs me in this case is that we have all these policies talking about ‘how much we value our tree canopy’, blah, blah, blah. But there is nothing in the City building code that requires a builder to work around that situation, or even inform that Council when it comes up. In a terrible example of data processing (since fixed–thanks, Bonnie) Councilmembers only got to read an email from this resident ten minutes before the meeting!  For decades we say we’re working to protect the City’s trees, but every time we face a decision? We say, “Oh what a shame” and do nothing. Between the Des Moines Business Park and all the housing developments of the past decade we’ve lost a tremendous amount of tree cover. And we have got to start doing a better job of protecting what remains.

Item 6: Another vote I regret

On the Consent Agenda was approval of a significant raise for our union workers (primarily at the Marina). The negotiations were well under way just before COVID-19 struck. And the Council had an Executive Session to discuss it. We were not given many specifics except that, before we were asked to vote on it, there would be another briefing to flesh out the details. That second briefing never occurred. Instead, the Agenda Packet simply included the contract plus a lengthy explanation of why it was a fantastic deal for all concerned. However, in the Item Description there was also this rather ominous paragraph describing what might happen if we voted ‘no’:

The Council could choose not to approve the Agreement and direct the City Manager to continue negotiations with the Teamsters. However, that would likely damage the City's relationship with the Teamsters following a collaborative negotiation process...

And then…

Should the Council choose not to approve the Agreement, there is a possibility the Teamsters would file an Unfair Labor Practice complaint with the Public Employment Relations Commission.

This is what is known as an ultimatum. By making a handshake agreement with the union before talking to the City Council, the City essentially dared the Council to not approve it. And I don’t like that because my job is to represent you the voters. In other words: the City is not management. You are. It’s your money the City is negotiating.

So I would have preferred to hold off on approving any spending increases until after our August 6th Budget Retreat; or at least to have the promised Executive Session. Because you want to be able to ask questions without annoying the workers (who did negotiate in good faith, of course) and putting the deal at risk.

See here’s the thing: We have been told time and again that we will not understand the City’s finances until that Budget Retreat. So until August 6th none of the Council have any idea where the City’s finances are. My colleagues keep going on about how we can’t approve any spending until we get the numbers. And I could not agreee more. Which is why I find their willingness to sign off on this with no questions asked a bit puzzling.

And let’s be clear: I have been a very happy member of three unions in my career. Organised labour is something I believe in deeply.  But Executive Session (the kind we were promised) was made for this situation. As I keep saying, the Open Public Meetings Act make talking things like this over outside of council meetings almost impossible. You need a way to be able to discuss difficult things like this with candor and Executive Session is that way.

So since I wasn’t able to have that private conversation, I voted with the majority to approve this. Because a deal is a deal. But next time? I want to be asked about the deal before it’s made. Because it’s your money we’re spending.

Item #8: Financial Management System Software

This is really good news. We’ve had absolutely ancient software for years and years. This has made it tougher to get the work done, slowed resident services and basically cost the City a lot of money in reduced productivity. It’s hard to spend money on ‘accounting software’ but this is one expenditure I am glad to say yes to.

The only reason I wanted a discussion is because I had a question about the possibilities of an add-on component which allows for self-service. Self-service is easier to show than tell. So to give you a small taste of what that is, check out ClearGov. Think about how many questions the public routinely asks (like ‘paid parking revenue’ which was supposed to be on this week’s Agenda.) Imagine if the public could get answers to pretty much any routine question about the budget or their taxes or how the city works with a simple search–and without bugging already over-worked staff? That’s one purchase I’d be thrilled to approve.

Coda: Public Records Requests

On a related note: there was all this ricketa-racketa this week about Paid Parking. Many people know I talked it up last year and asked me for all kinds of detailed stats and it was a busy week and I just didn’t have a lot of time for re-litigating that whole thing–especially when it wasn’t actually on the Agenda. So I blew everyone off! There, I said it! 😀 I did not spew back copious stats proving once again what a money-loser that who….

Not gonna do it. 😀

But the silver lining is that even if I let you down, information-wise, you can always do a Public Records Request (PRR) at the City web site. And unlike me, the City will do it’s best to answer your question.  That is State law. So if you have super-detailed questions on anything, the PRR is your friend and more people should use that tool.

Now, no City is necessarily thrilled to hear me advertise this service. PRRs take staff time so a lot of Cities consider them a real pain in the municipal derriere. To which I say, Tough Noogies! Your right to information from your government is constitutional, baby. So take advantage of the service. 🙂

One caveat: we currently have a really onerous PRR system. But that is also something I want to change as we improve our IT systems. You’ll see what I mean when you do your first one–it’s not as quick or easy as it should be. Again, since it’s easier to show than tell, if you want to see what the luxury model PRR System looks like, check out The Port Of Seattle NextRequest System. That is what we need in Des Moines.

Why do we need this? Well, if you look at the Port’s system, maybe the first thing you’ll notice is that you can search through all the historic PRRs. In many cases, someone has already asked exactly the same question (or a very similar question) so you can get the answers you want without even creating a new PRR. That not only improves transparency, it saves them money on staff research. Our PRR system? It has no index. No ‘search’. So you have no idea what has been asked or when or by whom. Maybe ten people have already asked a question like, “How much did the Paid Parking system cost?” But you can’t see that.

(Philosophical loop of the day: You would have to place a PRR in order to find out how many people had previously done PRRs asking “How much did the Paid Parking system cost?” Trippy, right?)

My fondest wish is to make as much of our government’s work as easy to access as possible, both for you and for our staff. The thing I suspected (and then learned after my campaign) is how much room there is for improvement in educating our residents. We don’t have a newspaper and that means we don’t have anyone doing research on the public’s behalf. It’s great that we have ‘social media’, but without actual facts, it’s just people sharing rumours and opinions. Tools like the Public Records Request make it possible for people like you to do real research and then share facts. So the easier we make it for you to lay yer hands on that data, the easier it is for you to spread the word and improve the voting in this here town.

This was always my fiendishly clever political strategy–well-educated voters. 🙂

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