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City View Newsletter

Volume 2, Issue #15  • January 22, 2009
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Joleen and I flew back to Seattle from Washington, D. C. yesterday after spending nearly a week taking in the presidential inauguration, the balls, and one-on-one meetings with members of the state's congressional delegation.  (I personally paid for all expenses related to this trip.  No taxpayer funds were used.)  My observations are below.

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President Obama and Inauguration Impressions

Being in Washington, D. C. for the inauguration of President Barack Obama was truly amazing, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience first hand a historical transformation.

Certainly, the week was fun, exciting, and celebratory.  Just being there and sharing the experience with people from across the country was extraordinary.  The joy in everyone's hearts was evident in the smiles, laughter, and hugs among strangers.   We didn't get through security in time to witness the swearing-in but neither did Mayor Nickels or Chief Kerlikowske. However, Joleen and I rushed back to our hotel and watched the entire event on TV.

Since Tuesday, I have had time to reflect on the President's inaugural address and have concluded that we all-and I personally-can learn from this man.  His address packed a lot of meaning in few words.

Take for example, the lesson in civility.

    "As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals."

    "Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake."

    "[Early generations] understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please."

These words promise policies that are the antithesis of President Bush's war policies.  Yet the phrasing, while direct is not harsh; it is reasoned, I've seen this style-this civility-from President Obama for a long time now, but it was brought into focus in Tuesday's speech.  Hopefully, all of us-including me-will adopt this same civility in our daily encounters.

Take for example, the lesson in bottom-line accountability.

    "What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.  The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.  Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward.  Where the answer is no, programs will end."

This is an emphatic call for accountability, practicality, and bottom-line results in government.  This is exactly what the American people want, even if some pundits and partisans focus on conflict, disputes, and disagreements.  From the federal government to city government, elected leaders must be conscientious in their care of the public's will, treasure, and resources.

Take also the lesson the president taught about core values.

    ". . . we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics."

    "Our challenges may be new.  The instruments with which we meet them may be new.  But those values upon which our success depends-hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism-these things are old.  These things are true."

Here, the president is urging us to step higher, to move beyond narrow, inconsequential political arguments and focus on what really matters.  This is what our people yearn for, an open conversation among all Americans about the problems and challenges facing our country-but one that firmly holds to our core values and desire for the common good.

The president framed this inaugural address-this civics lecture-if you will, in Biblical language.

    "We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things." (I Corinthians 13:11)

This language from Christian scriptures is borrowed from a passage that is often read at weddings or funerals and includes, "And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love."  Here, the president issued a sharp-edged call for us to grow up, focus on vital matters, and stop the (childish) bickering of recent years.  The president's choice of language was a powerful criticism of the Bush presidency.

When President Obama assumed office on Tuesday, he also became our teacher, coach, and cheerleader.  His inaugural words were clear and convincing.  He told America to shape up.  Yes, we can learn from this man!

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Alaskan Way, Spokane, Mercer Corridor Solution

The decision to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a deep-bore tunnel, including improved surface streets and enhanced transit services is a solid, strategically important decision.  (Review many documents, diagrams, budget summaries, and more here.  Scroll to bottom of news advisory and click on various links.)

Here's why.

The plan will enhance and stimulate economic diversity in maritime, manufacturing, freight, tourism, and downtown retail and service industries.  It is estimated that as many as 10,000 new construction jobs will be created by the various projects.  As important, the construction phasing this solution allows-tunnel first, waterfront surface streets next-means the agonizing, business-killing disruption along the waterfront can be minimized.  These business-interruption costs could be staggering if we're not careful.  Thankfully, the agreed-upon solution will limit these associated costs.

The plan will enhance mobility of people through and in and around our central city by bus, streetcar, bicycle, auto, truck, and foot.   Approximately 110,000 vehicles use the viaduct each day, with nearly 70% of these passing through the downtown core.  Many of these 77,000 pass-through vehicles will use the tunnel.  Lowering vehicle traffic in the Alaskan Way Corridor by such a significant amount will make surface streets more manageable.

The plan will enhance and create new public places providing more open space and parks, better sight lines/views, and better connections to the waterfront.  Our Elliott Bay waterfront is a jewel that we have not showcased.  Think forward 10 years.  Imagine the combination of a working waterfront, massive parks, ferries coming and going, pedestrian and bike paths linking Magnolia and Alki, and spectacular, sweeping views.  This is a 100-year decision.  What a legacy to leave our children and grandchildren!  If you think this is a pipedream, take a look at what Chicago and Portland have recently done with their waterfronts. 

The plan will enhance public safety and create an environment where people are safe throughout the downtown district and waterfront.  Public safety-real and perceived-is a constant challenge for great cities.  This plan opens up vast stretches of the waterfront that are now obscured by the viaduct, brings more eyes and ears to the streets, and creates an inviting environment.  The creation of safe public places is a key role for municipal government, a responsibility I take most seriously.  (Check out Project for Public Places.)

The plan allows completion of two related projects, Spokane Street and Two-Way Mercer.  Both of these projects are directly related to the Alaskan Way Corridor, and will maintain or improve traffic flows.  The Mercer project also has multiple other benefits that you can read about here.

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December Snow Storms-Failure to Adapt

People may be over their frustration and anger caused by the December snow storms.  Still, emergency preparedness and response has to always be a priority of city government.  City emergency services during times of crisis are vital; the first responders who answer your call for help are city employees.  We must get it right every time.

So far, our review of how various city departments responded to the storms has allowed me to draw some preliminary conclusions.  These still must be tested against all the facts and refined, but here are my initial thoughts.

I don't believe city officials properly assessed the big picture or strategic scope and impact of the storms.  This failure led to inadequate mobilization of resources.  Most of the testimony we have heard and the documents we have reviewed indicates that there was a keen focus on operational details, but little attention paid to larger, and in some ways more important, implications.

Nevertheless, there are excellent examples of creative thinking and innovation.  For example, the Human Services and Police response to Greyhound's "dumping" of stranded travelers at Seattle Center  Human Service staffers quickly identified alternative shelters and police officers provided rides to those shelters.  There are many, many such examples.  But, what's not clear is who paused during the storms and asked the big picture questions or identified the system-wide failures that were occurring. when its emergency shelter was nearly full.

Flexibility, adaptability, and strategic innovation were sorely lacking.  As one of my colleagues put it, "where was the adaptive management?"  I've been surprised to hear senior city and Metro officials repeatedly acknowledge that "our emergency plan didn't address that" or "that wasn't in our plan." No plan can anticipate every eventuality.  At some point leaders must lead.

Some have suggested that such innovation in this case would have led to an immediate reversal of the "no salt" decision first made in the 1990s by then-Mayor Paul Schell.  I'm not sure about that one, but such innovation would surely have led to much more extensive use of private contractors to augment the city's own snow plows.  Two private contractors were used for three days and they provided a total of four additional plows.

Seattle doesn't have repeated snow emergencies, the last major one was in 1996.  But one of the major lessons learned in 1996 was that the city should aggressively augment its own services with private contractors during unusual occurrences.  We should have done so last month, .

Planning and cooperation with Metro was inadequate.  The city's snow removal work-or lack of snow removal-quickly led to the collapse of bus service to many sections of the city.  It's obvious that such cooperation needs vast improvement.

Mayor Nickels has ordered a review of the city's response and that report is due in February.  It's also likely that the Council will hire an outside emergency management expert to review issue identification and decision making procedures among the city's top executive management.  City Light tapped an outside expert following storms in 2006 and that review led to changes in how our electric utility manages emergency situations.

Read more of what I've written on the December's storms, including what went right.

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City Budget: Change Needed

One of my most frustrating experiences since taking office has been the city budget approval process. The Mayor presents his budget in late September and the Council has about 60 days to change it and adopt a final budget. That is far too short a timeframe. I plan to work with my colleagues to adopt changes that will give the Council more time to review the Mayor's budget.

Another frustration is the scope of our budget review. With rare exception, the Council only reviews additions or cuts to the general operating budget. We don't review the additions from previous years to determine if those were wise; nor do we examine cuts to make sure those were prudent. Our budget review process operates at the margins.

With the city's general operating budget is approaching $1 billion annually, it seems appropriate for the Council to do more than just pass judgment on additions or cuts; there should be rigorous examinations of costs, programs, and budgeting procedures to make certain we are getting the best possible returns on our investments, that we are using the people's money wisely, and that our process is transparent.

I have asked the Council's central staff to research best practices of other municipalities around the county. Perhaps we can learn something that will make our process better.

I've written previously on budget matters here

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Congressional Meetings

This Wednesday, I met, along with my Council colleagues, Jan Drago and Tom Rasmussen, in Washington, D. C. with Congressman Jim McDermott, Senator Maria Cantwell, and key staff members of Senator Murray.  Our conversations focused on the federal financial stimulus, public health funding, criminal justice, and alternative energy benefits and credits.  Each of these representatives understand our most pressing needs in Seattle, and understand the import of the greater metropolitan area to the wellbeing of the entire state of Washington.

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Metro Transit Service: Tough Questions

The Council's Transportation Committee received a report this morning on Metro Transit prepared by the Municipal League of King County.  I'm a bus rider and generally would rate my service very good, but the report is scathing.  Read the report here.

There are four key findings; here are excerpts--

"Metro does not provide easy public access to its performance measures and long-term trends . . . While the agency does use performance data in its service planning, there are no systematic published standards applied and the process is not transparent."

". . . Metro allocates new transit service on a fixed subarea policy that is built not (emphasis mine) on ridership demand, service needs or cost effectiveness, but on a conception of equity and area coverage that does not hold up well under scrutiny."

Metro's strategic plan "needs a much sharper focus on a back-to-basics approach: set clear priorities to fix service problems first, then allocate service to follow demand and land-use standards."

"Metro lacks clarity, accessibility and transparency in its public information."

Metro uses many performance standards but relies primarily on (a) annual boardings, (b) boardings per hour, and (c) on-time performance.  Metro's "costs per revenue service hour in 2005 was $120.30, compared to $114.80 for the average of the 15 largest transit agencies in the country and $98.70 for the average of all transit agencies nationally.  Metro's cost per hour is 22% above the national average."

"The cost per boarding for Metro was $4.10 in 2005, compared to $2.50 among the 15 largest agencies and $2.97 for the national average.  Metro's cost per boarding is 38% above (emphasis mine) the national average."

"Between 2000 and 2007, the total operating costs for Metro's bus service increased 42%, but hours of service delivered increased only 8%."

The Municipal League study has identified some tough questions that need to be answered, including why service allocation is a political decision and not one based on service demand and other transit considerations. 

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