At last night’s City Council meeting, an all too familiar cycle played out. Citizens showed up to testify about the c-curb, in many cases (myself included) to praise the city for their reasonable compromise that rolled out last week, which removed the center section of the c-curb from the proposal.
Yet on the way into the meeting, we heard reports that at the earlier work session, Public Works director Ted Carlson (you may remember him as the voice of reason from the moonlighting scandal a few years back) had referred to the missing chunk of c-curb as “delayed.” I heard this confirmed by two people who were in the room at the time. So naturally the citizens, myself included, got all fired up, ready to blast the city for ignoring public input and trying to sneak the c-curb back in behind our backs.
When we spoke at the public comment period, the mayor was perplexed at this furor over a “delayed” c-curb, leaving the public confused and frustrated with the whole process. Is the compromise a go or is this a secret attempt to slip in the c-curb a few years down the line?
This cycle has played out several times with a number of issues and administrations (the waterfront, red light cameras, coal port resolutions, Lake Whatcom, etc). Now it is building again over the new public access proposal the mayor has put forward, but it is not unique to Mayor Linville or this council, but rather a systemic problem.
The basis for this problem is lack of trust. If you talk to anyone who deals with the city, you hear some variation of this line, “Oh, the city staff leads the council around by the nose.” While City Council members are relatively accessible and responsive to public concerns, there is a disconnect between that and any concrete action on city policy. Many feel that the moment they turn their back and return to their (non-political) lives, city staff will go back to whatever their original idea was and the council will approve it.
I am not saying this is what happens, but it is a constant perception of the city process. It strangles public input because they feel they will not be listened to and it promotes an “us versus them” attitude with the good people who work for the city and are just trying to do their jobs. Without that trust, there is a cycle of outrage and resentment with each issue that kills involvement.
Unfortunately, there is no easy solution. Obviously more transparency is always welcome but with an ever-dwindling local media market (tip of the hat to John Stark with the Herald who is retiring this week, you will be missed), it is more and more difficult to get information out to the people who need it and even harder to verify it from an independent third source.
Part of the issue is technical expertise, city staff know what they are talking about. It is their job to know what they are talking about and often citizens are talented amateurs at best. The city often has access to studies and best practices while citizens are left googling what other communities have done, creating an unequal playing field. This causes city staff to dismiss citizen concerns as being ill-informed, or diminish those perspectives in official reports.
Finally, we have a weak council, strong executive system. With the City Council being unable to directly ask staff for information (they must go through the mayor) and with little staff of their own, our seven person council can struggle against the bureaucratic juggernaut that is our executive branch. It is not the fault of a specific administration but rather a structural challenge.
It is absolutely essential to restore trust in the city’s public process. It will not happen overnight but I hope that everyone involved with the city – as advocates, staff or elected representatives (i.e. the entire readership of my blog) – will work to restore that trust on both sides, and it starts with me.
Right after I get confirmation of that “delayed” comment in the meeting minutes.