Posted by: sweeneyblog | June 10, 2014

Trust in the Public Process and the City of Bellingham

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.

Mayor Kelli Linville

Mayor Kelli Linville

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.

Frustration Junction: What's Your Function?

Frustration Junction: What’s Your Function?

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. 

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Responses

  1. Communication is everything when citizens come to discuss pending government actions and Riley is right when he says that the public is sorta handicapped by a lack of facts and an urge to form consensus ahead of actual law making.
    But there was no delayed C-Curb planned and likewise,
    no consultants controlling public access to expanded BTV10 programming either.
    Engineering studies are proposed on the effects of the accepted plan for a partial C-Curb, assuming the DOT grant allows for such a safety modification,
    and citizen contractors not consultants, are slated to form policy and programming for new public access TV over the existing network.
    Voicing concerns over misconceptions is fine – that’s what humans do.
    But please don’t place the blame for those errors on the system or its deaf ears since,
    from what I can tell, it works pretty much the way it’s supposed to work when official actions are modified to fit the needs of constituents.

    • “But there was no delayed C-Curb planned . . .” On the 6/9/2014, Public Works and Public Safety Committee video, at 51:12, Ted Carlson does indeed say “essentially the big change on this other alternative is to just delay on the c-curb.” That sure sounds like a delayed c-curb is in the works.

      • During the meeting,
        I’m pretty sure I heard Ted Carlson explain under council questioning that any changes to staff recommendations involved a post-action engineering study – presumably required by DOT – to be sure the end goals of the project were met in keeping with the grant.
        So in essence this did ‘delay’ the implementation of the entire C-Curb design, but for reasons that had nothing to do with stalling resident involvement.
        Roosevelt neighbors are not the only players in the Alabama drama and maybe staff figured that what was good for commuters would have to suffice for residents too.
        But I can certainly relate to the frustration of being the last to know about such major developments in your area and
        congratulations on getting at least part of what you asked for.

    • What residents worry about with Ted’s remark is that staff consider that the part of the c-curb they will omit is just “delayed” and not actually NOT happening.

      And as for this: “maybe staff figured that what was good for commuters would have to suffice for residents too”

      That is not a decision staff should be making. Certainly not without full feedback from all involved.

      • OK, But staff had one over-riding responsibility – to make Alabama safer to the satisfaction of the DOT who controls the grant money.
        I’m not sure citizens should be interacting directly with staff anyway other than getting those pesky facts we all need to make informed decisions.
        The council is the proper avenue for concerns and compromises as they are the go-between for all things citizenry and administrative and that’s largely how it works out in reality.
        As Clayton pointed out,
        the DOT and their happiness is the ‘temporary’ wild card in this new plan for C-Curbing and there’s no way around that for anyone involved.

  2. Regarding the “technical expertise” of staff, those citizens who are more than talented amateurs (and we have many in our city who are, whether they be professionals in other jurisdictions or in the private sector) will tell you that the “expertise” part in that phrase is often debatable. Some have almost no real experience in their identified field (or if they do, it doesn’t come into play in their dealings with the public).

    My better half is a storm water expert, as well as a talented in-stream restoration pro (he has built a number of the few engineered in-river restoration log jams on the west side that have actually succeeded) and planner. When we have attempted to raise issues with city staff we have been dismissed summarily, treated like rubes and worse, and/or denigrated in writing or in public hearings. As an added bonus, city staff evidently hold grudges, and have delayed or increased expense exponentially to projects we’ve needed permitted (all small projects, all the types of improvements the city likes), and been rude and unprofessional to boot – and clear that delays to anything we bring forward are due to our having opinions on other matters in which both my husband and I have expertise.

    Staff has forgotten that they are there as technical experts, not “deciders” (there is a difference), and, as a result, they do ignore council and the public. As you say, the problem is structural. I just hope someone can sort out how to rein it in and alter the culture of deferring to staff as the sole experts on all matters – and the culture of staff that it’s somehow their “due” to be arbiters of all things.

    • Council is the proper pressure point for citizen concerns about staff actions, especially during public hearings and open comment periods.
      I hear the city council asking for staff clarification all the time and directing staff towards certain goals and working tasks.
      I can’t imagine how the council would ever allow staff to ‘ignore’ them or the public they represent but I can see how frustration and personal feelings can color the experience with any bureaucracy.

      • Well, I’ve watched staff do just that (ignore council) on many occasions. On a multitude of issues, and not just ones in which I take an interest. So my “personal feelings” aside, yes, they ignore council and direction of both code and elected officials. Having worked as government staff, as well as outside of government, I have seen it from the inside (I have watched staff flat out ignore direction from policymakers). I have more perspective than just as an “outsider” and “amateur” which is how people dismiss interested citizens.

        And frankly, I’ve worked in other states (not as a government employee, but directly with agencies and staff) and not seen this level of “staff-as-deciders” anywhere else. It’s rather fascinating, actually. In VA, MD, PA, and NJ (where I’ve done the bulk of my work with government) those staffers would find their butts sitting on the curb, post-haste.

        We are a provincial little burg, and I say that with criticism, but also with all the love in my heart as a Bellingham native born to Bellingham natives. I also wonder whether what the public experiences at the hands of our staff would’ve been tolerated by my grandfather’s generation. Unlikely.

      • As an aside (and in the interest of full disclosure), my husband currently works as a planner for another jurisdiction. He and his colleagues are actually improving their city’s reputation among its citizens – in transparency, openness, and courtesy. So it really doesn’t have to be the way it is here.

  3. There is a lack of trust in local, state and national government because they cannot be trusted. There is a perception that the “gubbmint” doesn’t listen to us because they don’t. Anyone who hasn’t been living their life in a closet knows this.

    • I have been in the closet since I was 15 and I know it. Check your facts W.H. I think there are A LOT of us who know this.QED!

    • Walter, for once I agree with you 100%. Good show!

  4. I agree with Riley. We have a serious trust issue between council, city, and citizens. Could it also be that beyond trust, its power to be the major decider is also a part of this (and many other) issues? Alittle more communication (transparency) wouldn’t hurt any of these groups either. Get along people! It’s everyone’s community.

  5. well done Riley, as usual…I’ve been on the record for years about what I call “Administrative government,” wherein both unelected and elected officials do more and more as a matter of course, employ pre-determined plans to manifest what they chosen to do…the smaller the municipality, studies are beginning to reveal, the more prevalent undemocratic means appear to be. I submit the issue is ‘resignation’ bordering on pure ambivalence regarding citizen participation, the mantra associated being,”They do what they want, and the ‘public input’ is a matter of law, and no more than that…a mere formality.” Examples abound in this County, and the poster child for administrative governing is my own town of Ferndale—Being committed to “transparency” as our mayor claims to be, only means for us that if we look, we’ll see clearly what they’re doing without our implicit or tacit consent…’openness’ and democratic means are not one & the same, though they must both be present in the process for it to work properly…

  6. I watched the work session as it was happening and recall nothing about the C-Curb being delayed. The committee voted to pass along the staff alternative (C curb removed in that section) with a proposal to reduce the speed limit some undetermined amount. Then again, the COB website’s feed crashed on me before that meeting adjourned. Common sense dictates they can’t delay anything on this project. It must be completed by September 2015. -RS

  7. This is a subject upon which I feel well qualified to comment. City council is liable for giving away its power and almost always siding with the mayor over the public. Last night, they provided the staff with another blank check… who approves a program moving forward before they are given any details or information, in the face of public objections, and their own misgivings, when this is a real departure from all prior understandings of how the program would work? That is not a structural problem.

    With the waterfront, the city council allowed itself be to be railroaded by not understanding the ramifications and full implications of a very complex proposal, in part because they complied, without question, with artificial deadlines fabricated by the mayor that had no connection to reality. Again, they signed blank checks under the guise of “flexibility”, accommodated staff requests to approve and fund projects for the waterfront, amending the budget and other comprehensive city planning documents, far in advance of approving the waterfront master plan, making it impossible for real changes at the end of the comprehensive planning process. There was consistent dissent by the public, with labor and environmentalists forming an alliance, and still being ignored.

    There was only one issue that council pushed back on… a comprehensive habitat and wildlife assessment. The mayor and staff raised every bad faith argument they could muster, but in the end, had to agree. But Ted Carlson came back with a drafted ordinance that tricked the council into signing a nearshore habitat restoration project…which failed to analyze habitat and corridors upland. Once the duplicity was revealed… guess what? Council was fine with it… they actually allowed the staff to undermine their own directives and instructions. Again, this is not a structural problem.

    Now lets talk about the mayor and staff. Here is the stupidest part. The staff regard themselves as project advocates, but the process is set up on the false belief that they will guide the council as unbiased technical experts… that is a structural problem. But it is one that is clearly visible. And the staff excels at withholdling information, providing confusing or misleading responses, or admitting problems, but justifying things in a twisted inaccurate way. (When I worked for the government, I saw my job as upholding the law fairly, whether or not it was in my clients interest. Guess what? Some of my clients did not like me.. boo, hoo, hoo…in the meanwhile, no one questioned the validity of my advice. So I have no sympathy for the staff.)

    The city administration marginalizes those that are the most outspoken critics. It is, like everything else the staff does, not done openly and transparently. The more informed you are, the more likely you are too be disregarded and quietly have your credibility attacked. But the most dangerous trend is the issuance of propaganda. We are no longer provided full and accurate information. We are given stories about how everything is great, all of our projects are wonderful, and things keep getting better and better. We are no longer told about conflicts, alternatives, lost opportunity costs, or cumulative impacts and harm. And it is especially dangerous when we are told that the city is in complete agreement with the county, the port, other cities, etc. That is a wake up call that back room deals are being made before anything is told to the public. Planning is messy, takes a long time and is full of inherent conflicts.. . there is no way that everything is good and everyone agrees.

    The reality is the Linville agenda is growth and infill and she is ruthless is plowing over opposition, and in providing special privileges and incentives to developers, all of which are public subsidies in one form or another. Think I am exaggerating? Look around… see anyone openly criticizing the mayor? Doesn’t that say it all…. unless you really believe that this mayor makes NO mistakes and the last mayor made nothing but mistakes. The world is not that simple, and lets stop pretending it is. Wake up Bellinghamsters and smell the oppression of the administration, aided by the city council.

  8. Having sat through most of Council’s committee sessions this week, I guess I am a little at a loss to understand the angst and annoyance of their process.

    They surrendered to the neighborhoods on the issue of the C-curb and granted the speed reduction. They’ve caved on the rental licensing program to the point where it is toothless. They’re moving ahead, although crippled, on the BTV10 matter. They split the difference on PeaceHealth and are rebating back 75% of the B&O tax based on public comment.

    I guess I don’t see the tyranny, at least in the recent performance. Maybe I’m just naive. Shrug.

    • Actually, they didn’t “surrender” to the neighborhoods” on the c-curb. They kept two-thirds of the c-curb against the wishes of the neighborhoods. While this may be all they can do at this time, and while this appreciated by those of us who live, a better, safe solution COULD have been implemented.

      The angst about the process comes from not being told that even was a c-curb planned until March, and then being told multiple times by Public Works that any other solution was impossible, when obviously this is NOT true.

      The angst is about having to “fight” to have any say in our own neighborhood’s future. The public process should not be last-minute notification, dismissal and lack of transparency by Public Works, vague and half truthful answers to direct questions, emails telling residents (in all CAPS with exclamation marks, no less, from a city staff member) to stop spreading misinformation, or that the staff member will not answer any more questions (I’m not talking about irate, unreasonable questions, either, I’m talking about very reasonable, well formed questions asked by residents).

      Residents don’t trust the process because while City Council members are, for the most part, accessible and responsive (and tasked with very difficult decisions), residents often don’t even get informed of what is actually happening. Residents had to be watchdogs in order to be properly informed on the c-curb issue. They had to demand information that should have been supplied without question, they had to PICKET, for goodness sake. And still, they ended up with c-curb on long stretches of Alabama they do not want and probably do not need. Slower speeds, adequate crossings, all this is wonderful. C-curb just because Public Works decides to give it to us (and STILL won’t verify whether it’s required to receive their grant) is not wonderful. This is NOT how government should work.

  9. Tim, only my first paragraph addressed the public access channel issue (and the city moving along without public input and transparency was never part of the game plan and changes the outcome.) The remainder of my criticism involved the waterfront, or more general problems with stifled public process in the city. You yourself have been a big critic of the waterfront process. Are you denying that there are serious public process and input problems with the city? Or that developers are provided special deals? No one would accuse you of being naive, so I think that you are understating the extent of the problem, generally.

  10. Riley, you outdid yourself this time by stirring up a Hornet’s Nest. Good show!

  11. We now have an MNAC that has rendered itself toothless by voting itself out of the FORMAL planning process on the advice of the mayor and the subsequent agreement of the city council. Too much neighborhood input, I guess. MNAC served as a counterbalance, of sorts to a Planning Commission now composed solely of developers, consultants to developers, real estate agents and associated businesses such as architects , not to mention an oil industry apologist. You can read more about that here: http://www.nwcitizen.com/entry/planning-or-development-commission
    In 2011, the city council voted the neighborhoods out of the docketing process for site-specific plan amendments (21.10.150 Type VI process – City council legislative decisions.)

    For years I have complained about the ridiculously short timelines to respond to various actions in the planning process. Individual citizens and neighborhoods are unable to react to these deadlines in an effective manner for there is no time to digest and respond effectively to the volumes of paperwork, some of which is technical in nature. The deck is stacked and the people know it.

  12. Thank you, Riley, for posting this, and for speaking at City Council’s meeting on Monday night. You rock!

    And for the record, it was at 51:12 in the June 9 Public Works and Safety Committee meeting when Ted Carlson used the words, “delay on the c-curb.”

    • Interesting although when I went to look at the video it was on another topic at 51:12.

      Maybe I missed it, but Schwartz reported the city had given out problematic data and was going to release new data. Did that happen and I didn’t see it or ?

      • I watched the video, using Chrome, just before posting the time. Checked it just now on Foxfire and it’s still the same. Did you look at the morning work session entitled, Public Works and Safety Committee Meeting?

      • Clayton, I think you must have been watching the wrong video. On the 6/9/2014, Public Works and Public Safety Committee video, at 51:12, Ted Carlson does indeed say “essentially the big change on this other alternative is to just delay on the c-curb”. He is talking about the alternative plan the Council voted for on Monday night.

    • OK, I did listen to the wrong one. I did find it and listen – if you go back a few minutes, Mr. Carlson says that they are fine with omitting the C-curb IF DOT will approve the project without it AND that they would want to monitor things. The key for your effort is when he says that If the accidents don’t lower to an acceptable amount, they would go back in and add the center curb later. Basically “we’ll try it but if it doesn’t work, we’ll put them in anyway”

      I believe the road diet from James to Cornwall is a bad idea and I don’t think they are addressing the big problem areas. I posted my letter in the other blog Riley put last week if you want to read it.

  13. I just sent this to the Council and Mayor:

    Dear Mayor and Council Members,

    Again, thank you so much for voting for the alternative c-curb plan for the central section of Roosevelt. We residents appreciate your thoughtfulness on this issue. However, after listening to the morning meeting between Public Works and Council Committee members that took place June 9th regarding this alternative plan, I feel like I need to express my concern.

    During the meeting, when Ted Carlson presented the alternative c-curb option, he said (at 48:45) that he would like “ongoing monitoring of the corridor” and would expect to (at 49:00) “always have the option of moving in in the future with c-curbing if the improvements are not successful enough.” He also said (at 51:12) that “the big change (in the alternative plan) “is just to delay on the c-curb.”

    This is the kind of language that makes residents feel that they are being duped. Though the recommendation to continue monitoring the corridor does appear in the public document where staff records their recommendation, none of the language about “delay” of the c-curb or “having the option to move in “in the future with c-curbing” appear. The public can read the documents, attend the evening Council Meeting, feel that they have been heard and go home happily ignorant that future c-curbing is an option.

    I would request that the Mayor and the Council do some very specific things to improve the transparency of this:

    1) Make any WSDOT traffic monitoring data public as it is received by Public Works. Put it in the COB website and call attention to it.
    2) Make it clear who decides and based on what criteria whether “improvements are not successful enough.”
    3) If improvements are proven to be unsuccessful, find a different way to improve them, that does NOT include further c-curbing on Alabama.

    Clearly, residents do not want further c-curbing. They did not want ANY c-curbing. Please find alternatives (as we know, many exist which are appropriate for secondary arterials).

    If any residents feel the same, I’m sure they will email you at mayorsoffice@cob.org and ccmail@cob.org, and let you know this.

    Thank you for your consideration,

    Teri Hall

  14. […] “ready from day one” and “willing to ask questions”. The council has grappled with how to best provide oversight for the strong mayor’s office – a fact of which the council members are very aware. […]


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