Weekly Update: 11/01/2020

PSA #1: I’ve made a few tweaks to the web site. Most noticeably that you can now Search for stuff.

PSA #2: You may have heard that there is an election on November 3rd and I encourage you to vote (the nearest Ballot Box is at Highline College.) However I have a comment to make regarding November 4th. Here it is: If by some evil trick of fate your candidate does not win I want to assure you of one thing:

If your candidate doesn’t win? Relax. Get a good night’s sleep. Eat a hearty breakfast. And get back to work.

This Week

Wednesday: Puget Sound Regional Council Economic Development District Board

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

Thursday: Public Safety Committee Meeting (Agenda) How to watch.

Last Week

Tuesday: Port of Seattle regular Commission Meeting (Agenda) This meeting presented the 2021 Tax Levy. Their Budget proposes to increase  this item on your taxes by 3%, which I find outrageous given the pandemic.

Wednesday: I did not lunch at the Senior Center! 😀

Wednesday: Sea-Tac Airport Stakeholder Advisory Round Table (StART) Meeting (Agenda): The discussion included the 2020 Legislative Agenda. Recognizing that this is also the Port’s agenda, it is timid. If you care about airport issues I always feel like I should encourage you to sign up for this.

Thursday: Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) General Assembly (Agenda). If it were any other week, I would have a lot to say about this as they approved their ‘Vision 2050’. Let’s just say that it’s not my vision for Des Moines in 2050. Much more. Soon.

1974

I was all jazzed to start talking about some of the broad regional issues that never get talked about. But let’s face it: no one gives a crap about anything except the Presidential election right now.

Now that’s democracy…

I came to America in February 1974 from leeeetle tiny village on the west coast of Ireland–and we was country, baby. But the second biggest story of that year was when Richard Nixon resigned in August.

The thing that Americans don’t ‘get’ is that, while you thought of it as something of a crisis, for us ‘foreigners’, 1974 was a high watermark in the history of democracy. In 1974, the system worked. Legislators on both sides of the aisle agreed that something was wrong and were willing to put aside their various disagreements and tackle the obvious problem of corruption.

There’s also this: the guy left voluntarily. He wasn’t removed. He understood that his continued position would be chaotic for the country. Ironically, that was pretty darned patriotic if you think about it. My people back home marveled at this. That sort of orderly housekeeping never happens in most of the world.

But that’s not even the best part. Because except for that eensy, weensy detail of being a crook, Nixon was arguably one of the more effective Presidents in American history. He had a gazillion bi-partisan policy achievements that we take for granted today (Clean water, Clean air, EPA.) The list is off the hook.

So I matured into a very deep belief in ‘the system’ of America. I saw it work–ironically, even when it seemed most broken.

What happened?

The current level of politics is somewhat less elevated, of course. And that includes Des Moines. Now I’m not saying or even implying that 2020 in Des Moines is the same as 1974 in Washington D.C. But things could definitely be better. And my hope is that we can think about ways to improve politics in Des Moines, not just in that other Washington. Because the same ongoing political challenges there are also at play here. We tend not to notice it because, as I keep yammering on about, people in friendly small towns  don’t like to think of themselves as engaging in anything as nasty as ‘politics’. Right? 😀

The FOCs

The big problem for Des Moines politics, as with so many small towns, is  that civic engagement keeps getting weaker. We’ve traditionally had a very small group of people who are engaged in what’s going on and this tends to feed on itself. The same people are everywhere and involved in everything. And over time that small gene pool of engaged people tends to only get smaller. And as you learned in high school biology, if you don’t have a big enough gene pool eventually you start running into problems. 😀

I refer to this set of engaged people as ‘Friends Of The City’ (FOCs). These are the people who are somehow connected with the City either by blood or work or some group affiliation. I use this term because these relationships are friendly and effective and I am grateful for everything that everyone contributes because, frankly, the City wouldn’t run otherwise.

(I feel a need to emphasize that I am not, not, NOT using FOC as a pejorative. All I’m going to be arguing is that, despite good intentions, there is also a dark side. Some of my best friends are FOCs. 😀 )

I don’t want to upset you…

First off, friends don’t like to create tension. Even when you know there are problems in the City, you figure that the way to change things is with a friendly visit. Or a phone call. In this view of small town government, there’s rarely a need for confrontation or disagreement–and definitely not in public. (Watching friends argue in public is totally cringe-y, right?) So after a while, people even forget how to disagree. Disagreement itself becomes impolite–something to be avoided at all costs.

However disagreement and open debate is what democracy is all about. Government only works with competing ideas and full access to information. But when the only ‘influencers’ are people who are connected by blood, friendship or financial ties  it makes it almost impossible to be objective, let alone speak truth to power.

Then there’s the issue of risk. Anyone who is on a committee they value or who has a contract with the City or gets some form of grant is simply less likely to want to say something critical. That relationship makes you self-censor. Paradoxically, it’s these people who often have information about something not great going on in the City.

And probably worst of all there’s denial: Most of us simply refuse to acknowledge that we are influenced by this arrangement. (How dare you suggest that I might allow my relationship with the City to colour my… <whatever>!) Conflicts of interest that we would instantly spot in others we refuse to see in ourselves. That’s called Human Nature.

Unfortunately, FOCs are also the people most likely to run for City Council, serve on committees, which only further increases the likelihood that the City will keep moving in the same direction.

He had so much potential

Speaking of that direction… During my campaign a very popular question was, “Why hasn’t Des Moines lived up to its ‘potential’?” (The ‘why aren’t we more like Edmonds’ question.) The funny thing is that people ask it in a rhetorical way–they don’t expect a real answer.  But there is a real answer and the answer is that, over the decades, our City’s leadership has made Des Moines what it is. Now, if you think you have a good idea of where things are heading and are happy? Great. But if you aren’t happy (or more likely have no idea where the City is going), the good news is that, we can change trajectory. Either way, understand that it is a choice.

And the choices the FOCs tend to make have overwhelmingly been focused on the short term. That’s a problem for most small cities. All the incentives tend to point towards leaving all the ‘big picture’ stuff to someone else (like a developer or some other much larger agency like King County.) And again, with so few people ‘in the know’, there is not a great likelihood that a large group of residents can get organized to steer the boat in a different direction.

What to do…

I know one thing for sure: the City has a role to play in reversing this. At the risk of annoying some of you, let’s call it ‘civic affirmative action’. (I can be so annoying, I know. 😀 ) But that’s what it is. I see two broad areas that the City needs to address in order to strengthen local government and get Des Moines pointing more towards its long term ‘potential’.

Increase engagement

First of all, the traditional model where residents join some committee or a group like the Rotary no longer works for most people. (Most young people don’t even know what a Kiwanis or Rotary does.)  So people don’t see a way into the system of local government. As I’ve written here many times, virtually none of the City’s Advisory Committees are even functional due to lack of participation. So we desperately need to find ways to introduce people into what it’s like to work with ‘the system’. And the City is the only vehicle with the resources to do that.

Increase awareness

We have no newspaper. Without a newspaper there’s no way for most of you to gain an objective understanding of what is going on. Again: the information you get from any government is biased. I’ll keep hammering on this for as long as I’m doing this: our City government is no different from a State or Federal government. We put out press releases. We don’t tell the whole story. Not by a country mile. And people who work for our government should have no problem with this paragraph, because it’s just the truth.

Twenty years ago we had the same issues of FOCs as we have today. But at least back then, you’d see the occasional piece of investigative journalism and that kept things in check. Today? If there was the same kind of corruption in Des Moines we had less *than twenty years ago, I doubt you’d even hear about it.

So to protect democracy (and I’m not being hyperbolic here) the City needs to reach out to a wider group of people, both to inform them and also to increase the public’s involvement in civic life.

On the other hand…

Of course, providing more information and reaching out to a wider group of residents runs contrary to the interests of many of the FOCs. To a certain portion of the City, things are going along just peachy and all the points I’m raising are at a minimum silly or perhaps even harmful to the positive image the City wants to always portray.

And of course, ethics and transparency are rarely big winners at the local level because, as I keep saying, local government tends to be about tangible stuff like roads and schools and having a cop around when you need one. Unless there’s some dramatic level of corruption (like Nixon or what we had here twenty years ago), a lot of people don’t care too much. For many voters ‘ethics’ is kinda like getting more fiber in yer diet–it’s a nice goal, but not exactly a must have.

Darn that other Washington!

The whole national situation has completely sucked the oxygen out of any attempts I’ve made to get more people to pay attention to City politics. And that’s a shame because, for most of us, what happens at City Council has more of a direct impact on your life than what happens in Washington D.C.

But if you’re, like me, in it for the long run, you also should care about those issues here in Des Moines. We may disagree as to who made the swamp and whose draining it (or backing up the truck to add to the landfill). But the fact is that the same issues that plague national politics are also a challenge right here. Government is government.

Summary

It’s my contention that the reason Des Moines hasn’t lived up to its potential is at least partially for the same reasons the Federal government doesn’t: the number of people actually involved in the system keeps shrinking. (Ironically, many people voted for Donald Trump precisely for this reason.) Regardless of your preferred candidate, do you really believe either of those two clowns are the best we could come up with out of 328 million Americans? I don’t think that and I doubt that most of you do either.

Similarly, the only way Des Moines gets where it oughta go is by broadening the gene pool beyond the same batch of FOCs. And with your help, I hope to get the City working on that in the next few years. The irony, of course, is that we will also need some help from those same FOCs.

The sun’ll come out, tomorrow! 😀

*Google former Des Moines Mayor Don Wasson.

5 thoughts on “Weekly Update: 11/01/2020”

  1. Remember back when all those wonderful well-meaning citizens ran for the open office of Vic Pennington, and the FOC’s of the city council board places a never elected old member back. That’s what J.C.’s talking about.

  2. I am a Des Moines resident, reader of regional and national newspapers and magazines (ie, aware of the impact of journalism and the lack of it), and eager to get involved in democratic participation in Des Moines. But I don’t know how! I’m glad you’re writing about this. I am pretty open minded about how to get started.

    1. I always ask people to think about what they’re interested in and then I can suggest some options. For a number of reasons, it’s not as easy as going to a menu and choosing. You can always give me a call or an email to discuss. (206) 878-0578

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