My Farewell to Edmonds City Council
I will not be running for re-election to the Edmonds City Council; it has never been my intention to go beyond one term. I want to thank the voters of Edmonds who put their trust in me. My goal has been, for current and future generations, to be a good steward of our city. That was my sole reason for running for office, and that's how I, and I hope others, evaluate my term.
I want to state what I have learned from the experience, what I feel good about, and less good about. My hope is that my thoughts will help both future Council Members, and the decision-making process of those who vote in future elections.
My campaign focused on stewardship(http://www.edmondsforum.com/2011/08/11/stewardship-not-politics/): open government; efficient use of taxpayers' money; affordable living for all generations; and a balance of housing, parks, businesses, and entertainment. How has that played out, so far?
There's a scene in the movie, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planes,Trains and Automobiles), where the main characters, played by Steve Martin and John Candy, head onto the freeway via the off ramp. It’s late at night, and the freeway is empty, so there are no cars yet coming at them. As they head down the lane, a couple from another car (on the other side of the concrete barrier, who are going the right way) yell, “Stop! You're going the wrong way!” So it is with Edmonds. Regarding open government, we're going the wrong way: we're becoming more secretive. Your Council is becoming more secretive, with more closed sessions, the results of these sessions never being disclosed, even when they can be, legally. The Mayor and his staff are becoming more secretive, with behind-the-scenes deals, committing tax money, sans Council approval. Their double-secret motto: Ask forgiveness, not permission — hold the ask forgiveness part.
When I began my term, I had pushed for a Council blog, believing that we should be communicating directly with the people of Edmonds. Given the negative response, you'd think I had asked the Council to install webcams in our showers.
With the rejection of a Council blog, we're left with the same old thing: we depend on the kindness of the Beacon and MyEdmondsNews.com. This has been, and will always be, a bad idea. Our so-called journalistic outlets are not neutral in their interests. They are businesses, which depend on ad income from the business interests of Edmonds — interests that support development that is too often interpreted by how many tons of concrete are poured. Interests that would be happy to see height-limits compromised that would change the character of Edmonds. Our local journals (especially, MyEdmondsNews.com) may be subtle in their pro-development, pro-Mayor bias, but it's there.
As the basis of democracy, I cannot think of a more important issue than open government, and the one with which elected officials have the most difficulty. As one of our City's citizens^1 has reported, repeatedly, Edmonds' organizational chart starts with the citizens at the top. That the citizens are at the top of any governing body should be obvious for all democratic governments, local and beyond. Why is that so hard for elected officials and government employees to understand?
Since the tragic events of 9/11, our Federal government (all three branches) has become increasingly contemptuous of our rights to privacy, as guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. What does this have to do with local government, with Edmonds? It's obvious that democracy is not maintained by what’s written on paper. Democracy is maintained by the ongoing expectations of citizens that their rights and interests be honored. I believe that the most important experience a local government can provide for its citizens is the opportunity to develop the habit of democracy. This should not be difficult. It's largely accomplished by appreciating that elected officials and government staff are not the bosses of their citizens, they are the employees of their citizens.^2
What we expect from government can be influenced with great subtlety. For example, why should a process exist such as a "Public Records Request." If they're public records, why aren't they situated like public library items? In the past, where records were recorded on paper, which needed to be secure, it made sense to keep them in a secure place. But now, records stored on computers are easily secured: programmers can give permission to read them, but withhold permission to alter them. There is no longer any rationale for not making city records easily accessible to all on the city website.
Early in my term, the Council turned down a request to record on audio Executive Sessions. These private sessions are allowed, because of issues, such as lawsuits, that have arisen or might arise. Once an issue has expired, and/or legal exposure has passed, the record of these sessions are supposed to be available to the public. But, without an audio recording, there really isn't a true record.^3
Since I took office, three years ago, our City government has become more secretive, and the fault is shared by the Council, the Mayor, and his senior staff.^4
Efficient use of taxpayers' money
While this is primarily the responsibility of the Mayor's office, the Council holds hearings on, and approves, asks for modifications, or turns down, contracts. During my term, I believe we've done a decent job of looking after taxpayers' money, but we can do better. I think there has been a lot of money wasted on consultants, who were hired to do the impossible or irrelevant,^5 and who in one case, the proposed Harbor Square Master Plan, were even hired to feed us propaganda.
I believe we left money on the table in our police contract with Woodway, for some bizarre concept of neighborliness. Why couldn't Woodway be neighborly, and give us more money?
Regarding the Fire District 1 contract, that's the Mayor's responsibility. The ball was dropped in this and prior administrations.
The Mayor's staff seems to think that money earmarked, for a particular purpose or program, can be turned into a discretionary fund for their preferred projects.^6
We lose way too much money in settling lawsuits — money that could be used to buy land for parks, repave roads, and build sidewalks. A major reason for these lawsuits is City code that has been a mess for ages. We have money to settle lawsuits, but not to make a code re-write a priority.
Affordable living for all generations
I believe that affordable housing is something that the entire Council and the Mayor would like to see happen but, either we have very different ideas on the best approach, or very different ideas on the meaning of affordable. For example, there had been a push for affordable housing within the (defeated) Harbor Square plan(http://www.edmondsforum.com/2013/03/11/lets-not-play-on-their-turf/), but any housing situated in one of the most desirable locations in the area is not going to be on anyone's budget list. Housing for the newly employed, and for young families, must include rental units and smallish condos; and they must be located outside the costly bowl.^7
From Highway 99 to the waterfront, Edmonds has many areas of varying ambience. Some taller residential buildings might work, but it would be unfair to create ugly places in the name of expanding our tax base. People live there. Those in affected neighborhoods should have a strong voice in any building plans, plans which should enhance, not destroy, their quality of life.
Parks and Recreation
I've never heard anyone say, "I wish we had fewer parks." Severe budget constraints come and go, but developed open spaces, and lost opportunities for parks, are forever. Because in the last couple of decades, so many small homes have given way to large homes and multiple dwellings, we need to assure, now more than ever, that we have adequate open spaces.
How I've felt about my term so far
Overall, I wish I had spent more time on what I was for, rather than what I've opposed. Much of that is due to the nature of the job. Our role, despite the model of national politics, is not to come into office with a major agenda. Our role is to represent the will of the people of Edmonds, and pass laws that make what they want to have happen, happen as smoothly as possible.
Given that, we have two major tasks which are often in conflict: We must use our laws to evaluate projects, and reject projects proposed by staff that go against the will of the Edmonds populace. And we must implement the County's Growth Management Plan through legislation.
The Mayor and his senior staff typically wish to implement the Growth Management Plan via mega projects. But top-down planning from so-called experts is hit and miss. The problem with mega-projects is that there is no undo. You break it, you bought it. Name one top-down mega-project that our City residents have loved. I’ll wait…
I can’t think of one either. What have residents loved? Bottom-up designed(http://www.edmondsforum.com/2009/03/01/we-have-met-the-solution-and-he-is-us/) projects. More accurate, undesigned projects, where people vote with their feet. Someone, or a small group has a good idea — people swarm to it. More of it happens. Examples in Edmonds: The Museum garden and summer markets, the Third-Thursday art walk, and restaurant happy hours.
Imagine a version of the Seattle Public Market that serves Snohomish County, and Northern King County, at the Edmonds waterfront. I have for years(http://www.edmondsforum.com/2012/03/30/year-round-market/). The family owners of Salish Crossing began a mid-week Farmer's market a few years ago, and other than my announcements during Council comments of this new addition to our markets, no City support was apparent. Staff doesn’t seem to like any ideas that originate outside their authority — the not invented here attitude. Instead of getting to focus on great bottom-up ideas, such as a year-round market, I have had to spent my efforts on helping to defeat top-down planned mega-projects, such as the Harbor Square Master Plan.
Defeat of the Harbor Square Master Plan
It's clear that many on the Port, the City staff, and the Mayor envision the waterfront as a potential tax-base boon, if only the Council would allow condos and raise the height limits. Time and time again, Edmonds voters have voted against Council Members who wished to raise heights, yet such proposals continue to pop up like in a game of Whack-a-Doodle. Most recently, the Port Commissioners and Port staff used expensive marketing tactics to promote a so-called urban village on the waterfront. The Mayor and City staff joined in, by ignoring the significant costs of engineering, parking, and current tenant lease buyout.
The rational for the urban village was dubious(http://www.edmondsforum.com/2011/06/28/the-waterfront-urban-village-is-a-fantasy-solution/). Mixing residential and commercial is not a proven formula for success. And the fantasy that the Sounder train and an urban village will bring young commuters to live in Edmonds is not based on any evidence. And will there even be commuter train service, once light rail expands to Lynnwood in a few years?
Let’s move on to the Council.
Edmonds City Council has two chief roles: the official role of making law, and the unofficial role of being the scapegoat for everything that citizens, local businesses, volunteer committees, department directors, and the Mayor, dislike. My favorite illustration of this is a citizen complaint that the Council did nothing to fix a neighborhood electrical power outage. If we had an earthquake occurrence, I'm sure we'd be blamed for that. If I had the kind of authority many believe I have, I'd make the rain stop when I want to work in my garden.
The favorite clichéd insult directed at Council is that we're dysfunctional. It's true, we could get along better. We could do one or more of the following:
- If the Mayor supports something, we could just follow his lead. Many believe that we should. But, then, why have a Council? If we're just his lackeys, then let's not bother with all the hassle of elections, Council meetings with public participation, and discomforting disagreements among elected officials. We could even save a bit of money by not paying seven Council Members minimum wage.
- We could decide that consensus is more important than representing the various points of view of citizens. We'll never have to decide anything, we'll just throw our opinions into a hat, and divide by seven. Half the Council wants to keep building heights at 35 feet, half want to raise it to 45 feet, and one is undecided. Forty feet it is! That was easy.
- We could hire more consultants to engage us in family therapy (dysfunctional used in the sense of dysfunctional Council, is a term invented by family therapists). That might work — if our charge was to get along better. But, let's face it, we're not raising children together. We operate by rules, and vote on proposals. Whether or not we want to get a beer together, afterwards (and only three of us, at a time, would be allowed to do that) is irrelevant to our responsibilities.
- At all times, we could treat each other with respect. The Mayor and City staff, committee volunteers, and each Council Member, could help each other for the good of Edmonds. With that, I'm on board!
How to have a better Council
Council Members are paid $1000 a month, and receive medical and dental insurance. I dedicate 24 to 30 hours a week to Council business, but I'll be conservative and round to 100 hours per month. If my health insurance is valued at about $700/mo (not the City's cost, but what I'd have to pay to get the equivalent), I'm making, including benefits, about $17/Hr. That amounts to an annual rate (rate, not total), of $34,000. Remember, that number includes the health insurance. No wonder most Council Members are either retired, semi-retired, or live primarily off a spouse’s income. This does not make for a group that represents the population of Edmonds. We do not have true representation on the Council.
How do we improve the Council?
First, higher pay. It's absurd that we're told that we have to pay high salaries to city staff, if we want good people, while the Council Members are paid like interns.
Second, clarify who’s responsible for what. The Council, the Mayor, and City Attorney need to clarify the codified authority of each entity. Who does what sometimes feels like no more than a land grab. After we figure out who's in charge of what, maybe the public can figure that out as well.
Third, a legislative staff member that’s dedicated to assist Council’s research needs. Seven Council Members currently share a half-time executive assistant. Her responsibilities are extensive.
Fourth, better candidate vetting by the voters.
I understand that government happens, while people are living their lives: they’re trying to get educated, earn a living, stay healthy, raise children, and have a bit of fun. How many citizens have time to dissect the often veiled words of political candidates? At the local level, there’s not enough money to hire professional BS artists to create fully made-up facades. And yet, voters still appear to have little idea what candidates really stand for. During the campaign, candidates (including the current Mayor in the last election) can get away with vague statements during their campaigns, because no one asks for details. For an example, let's analyze the height-limits slippery slope game:
During the campaign, because they have no chance of being elected otherwise, candidates said that they’re for continued height limits in the downtown corridor. Following being elected, they said they meant that they won’t vote to relax height limits between 6th and 3rd, and Main and Dayton, six whole square blocks. Beyond the “corridor” (a made-up sector), they’ll ignore that protection from tall buildings, if the builder promises amenities.
These amenities end up at the discretion of the builder and (too often) a lenient City official. We get a tall building and, well, nothing really (see the Gregory condos on 5th and Walnut). ^8
Dave Earling stated when campaigning for Mayor (in his literature, and web site) that the height-limit issue was settled. After being elected, he supported increased heights at the waterfront.
Fourth, vote out (or against) hobbyists. Sometimes, we get a candidate who enjoys the ego trip of having influence, but doesn't do his or her homework, and pretty much just votes the way the Mayor wants. These Members don't appear to have read the large amount of material passed to us, prior to every Council meeting — information assembled to aid our decisions. And it's obvious that they don't make any effort to discover information on their own. They offer little or no insight into the important legislation that will affect Edmonds for generations. Their remarks during meetings are glib, at best, totally absent at worst. Their lack of effort is an insult to their fellow Council Members, and more important, to all Edmonds citizens.
Fifth, be wary of the ambitious politician. If a Council Member is using their term(s) as a stepping stone to higher office, they may be less interested in the well-being of Edmonds, and more interested in courting favor with those who can help them get to the next level. At the Council level, party politics is nearly irrelevant, while success at courting higher-level party members is essential for the ambitious politician.
How can voters do a better job of vetting candidates? Do not depend on vague statements you’ll hear in forums, or read in brochures and flyers. In any venue available, hold out for detailed explanations. That requires persistence. For example, ask pointed questions about the candidates stances on open government: (1) Will you legislate easy availability of public records? If yes, then how? (2) Will you legislate the recording of Executive Sessions, and will you legislate the release of these recordings as soon as legally allowed? (3) Will you (as Mayor) order your staff to fully cooperate, by making any information requested by the legislative branch (Council) readily available, during both public and private sessions. (4) Will you (as Mayor) bring the legislative branch (Council) into the loop, at the start of any process on which they’ll have to vote?
I’ve made suggestions on vetting candidates, based on what I find most important. Every voter must figure what matters most to him or her. Democracy is not a thing, it’s a living process.
They don’t want to govern. They want to rule.<br />
-Former State Texas Senator, Gonzalo Barrientos
Soon after I was elected, my husband ran into the Mayor at Starbucks. Mr. Earling took the opportunity to explain to him that now I would have to learn how government really works. Later, Mr. Earling congratulated me, and suggested that behind the scenes he supported my election bid. (I don’t dispute that. My opponent was an ally of the outgoing Mayor.) It was apparent to me that Mayor Earling was attempting to turn me into a political ally. His right, of course, but what he was suggesting to my husband and me was that it was time for me to join the good old boys’ network or, as one of my supporters characterized it, to join the clubhouse.
What Mr. Earling did not realize, apparently, is that I ran for office, not to learn how government really works, but because I didn’t like how it really works. I hope there are many candidates in the upcoming election who aren’t interested in joining the clubhouse, but instead are motivated to become a steward of our city.
^1: By consistently pointing out when officials don't follow the law, Ken Reidy annoys many in Edmonds government.
^2: Which does not mean that government employees (or any employees) should be treated with contempt.
^3: On several occasions, I have had to make corrections to the written record.
^5: Council, and the Council and Mayor do not have a communication problem. We know what each other thinks; we often just disagree. Our job is not to reach a consensus; our job is to vote according to what we believe the citizens of Edmonds desire.
^6: Specifically, money earmarked for neighborhood traffic calming was transferred to the dubiously needed $586,434 crosswalk that serves the Point Edwards condos. Oh, and the original estimate was $310,000.
^7: There have been no affordable (roughly, one-third of income) housing in proposed developments.
^8: For further adventures of the erosion of height limits, let’s return to several years ago. To avoid a bunch of flat-roofed buildings, Council votes to allow an extra 5 feet for a modulated roof line. We’re now at 25 feet plus 5 feet for the better-looking roof line. Later, Council changes roof provisions to step back provisions, which is soon seen as useless. However, rather then return to 25 feet, Council votes to do away with the any 5-foot provisions, by making the new height limit 30 feet. Thirty feet is the new 25 feet.