MAKING IT WORK
The purpose of this newsletter is to provide information, inspire involvement, and make things work in this great city. You can request additional information or comment on the newsletter by emailing email@example.com.
“It is not only our responsibility to make the right known, it is also our responsibility to make it prevalent.”
- Edmund Burke
COUNCIL REIMPOSES HOLD ON MERCER PROJECT BUDGET
On Monday, April 6, the Council unanimously approved my proposal to put a hold on the construction of the Two-Way Mercer project. The proviso will remain in affect until the City has secured the funding to complete the entire project. The legislation carefully balances the support for the project, which eight members of the Council have consistently affirmed, with a fiscally responsible approach: proceeding with a project only when you know you can pay for it.
The legislation was necessary because several weeks previously the Council had lifted an existing budget proviso, after being informed that it was necessary to remove all legal obstacles in order to secure federal stimulus funding. That was enough to persuade six of us to vote to lift the hold, with Councilmembers Rasmussen, Licata, and Clark voting no.
Unfortunately, it soon became clear that the Council had been misinformed as to the conditions of eligibility for federal funding funneled through the state. After Council lifted the proviso, the Washington legislature did not fund this project, and legislative leaders indicated that it had never been seriously considered.
The project remains controversial with some community members, although there have been design changes that have greatly reduced the number of issues. Controversy is likely to continue until final design and funding are completed.
The Mercer project will remain on hold unless and until the funding required to complete the project is secured through other sources. The Council authorized the Transportation Department to complete property acquisition and request bids on the project, but not to proceed with construction.
The full text of the ordinance
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OPENING UP THE DOORS OF CITY GOVERNMENT
The Seattle City Council embraces the goal of open, transparent, and accessible government. All of our meetings are not just open, but broadcast live on both television and the web. We post legislation on our website when it is introduced, and update it through the process. The Council has a model set of rules to ensure public access to public records. And we have a series of policies that encourage citizens to get information, get involved, and tell us what they would like to have happen.
We’ve even taken a strong stand in favor of open government at the state level, endorsing legislation that requires the taping of Council Executive Sessions and allowing a judge to review it to ensure that the session was closed for a reason provided for in state law – most local governments (including the Association of Washington Cities) opposed this.
But we know we can do better. That’s why I have convened a Special Committee on Open Government, which will review policies and procedures throughout the City to make sure that we are using best practices for public records disclosure and open meetings. Beyond that, we will consider how we can improve communication about potential Council actions so that citizens can be fully engaged in decision making for their City.
Our first task has been to take the Council’s open public records process, combine it with model rules developed by the State Auditor and Attorney General, and create an ordinance requiring every Department to adopt best practices within a ‘culture of compliance’ for public records management. These rules must include:
- Ensuring that there is a central point of contact in each department;
- Developing a system that informs a requesting party of the amount of time needed to respond to the request, a reasonable estimate of when responsive records would be available and the reasons why a requested record was not made available;
- Developing an internet-based approach to both submitting and receiving records that can be accessed with a single click;
- Explaining how an appeal of a denial of a records request is submitted;
- Tracking all staff time and expenditures related to responses to records requests;
- Indicating all charges for providing copies of responsive documents or records (in print, electronic form or for large requests) and waiving or reducing charges for small requests;
- Publishing the hours and dates when public records are available for inspection and reproduction;
- Publishing all records retention policies;
Our second task is to review the rules for the Council and City Boards and Commissions to ensure that all meetings are appropriately open and information about agendas, issues, and the opportunity for public comment are widely publicized, and to provide for orderly processes for considering decisions that ensure that citizens know when and how their input can be submitted and will be included.
We will also review comments and suggestions made by citizens and organizations concerned with open government, and look at the City’s procedures for public hearings on major projects to ensure that these are properly organized, publicized, and provide genuine opportunities to be involved before decisions are made.
Finally, we will take up the issue of how to make government, not just open, but participatory. There are lots of ways we interact with the public – emails, phone calls, letters, town meetings, public hearings, and visiting community organizations. But often these interactions are not systematic, and many Seattleites either don’t find out about them or don’t know when their input is most useful and when the train has left the station.
Sometimes people confuse endless meetings and perpetual process with real citizen engagement. That is actually the opposite of real engagement – it confuses and frustrates people, and often means that a decision (if one is ever reached…) is dominated by the ‘last ones standing’.
Citizen engagement can only become real if:
- There is a clear end point and decision to be made;
- Citizens can get full information about the issue and what alternatives are being considered;
- There are effective and well-defined ways to make public voices heard; and
- There is accountability on the part of decision makers – to listen to those public voices, and to explain what decision is actually made and how public input shaped that input – especially to those who may see themselves on the losing side of the issue.
We will consider new – and old – ideas to achieve those goals, and craft a Council policy that will improve our processes. And we will launch some experiments in improving our interactions.
Councilmember Bruce Harrell has suggested an on-line Citizen Engagement Portal for informing and polling citizens on City legislative issues. That could be one way to improve communications and engage people who are not currently involved. Other ideas we will consider include:
- Expanding notification and outreach for major policy initiatives, capital improvements, and budget actions;
- Finding ways to ensure that affected parties and underrepresented constituencies have equal access to legislative and budget processes;
- Working out how to balance the input of well organized/funded interests with those that are less aware of and engaged in the legislative process;
- Reviewing and evaluating current notification processes, public hearings, and other means of soliciting citizen input;
- Looking at other new avenues for input, such as facilitated processes developed by the Center for Wise Democracy and America Speaks, and the new approaches being developed by the Obama Administration at the federal level.
Open, transparent, and participatory government is a journey that must be continually reviewed and tested. We don’t expect to find a perfect process, and will probably stumble a couple of times as we work through difficult issues – balancing privacy concerns with open public records, balancing citizen input with the responsibility of elected officials to make difficult decisions. We are committed to undertaking this journey, and to working with and for the people of Seattle to strengthen our democracy.
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PARKS PROJECTS START SEATTLE TOWARDS ECONOMIC RECOVERY
Seattle is about to embark on a flurry of legislation to invest in economic recovery projects, beginning with new federal money, and including advancing City capital projects that voters approved in the 2008 Parks for All Levy.
The City has already received $15 million for the Spokane Street Viaduct project from the initial federal transportation package and $6 million for energy conservation investments. The City is currently taking bids on the Spokane Street projects and there’s a good chance that work will begin this year.
The City will also receive some $3.3 million in Community Development Block Grants for loans to small businesses and to build and remodel community facilities. The Jewish Family Services Food Bank, Bush Hotel Congregate Meal Facility, Pike Place Childcare and Preschool, and Goodwill Teen Parent Home are all slated for support. We will also rehabilitate and repair seven Senior Housing buildings, a total of 216 units.
We have also applied for $70 million in New Market Tax Credits to finance mixed use projects in areas around light rail stations, $250,000 in National Endowment for the Arts grants, about $1 million for youth employment projects, $800,000 for employment assistance and other support for victims of domestic violence, and up to $12 million for environment restoration projects on Thornton Creek and the Tolt and Cedar Rivers.
The federal government is publishing regulations for specific programs on an almost daily basis, with two to three week deadlines for submitting grant applications. The Council will use a streamlined process to consider these applications and accept the money (if awarded), with briefings every Monday, and legislation going directly to Full Council without passing through Committees. We are committed to doing everything we can to secure as much federal funding as possible for projects and programs that will make a difference in supporting people and businesses in the work of economic recovery.
Federal construction grants are usually required to be for ‘shovel-ready’ projects, meaning those that are already through the design, engineering, and permitting processes and are ready to begin construction.
The City, however, also has access to financial resources on our own, and we are adopting a broader policy approach that recognizes that even projects that are still in the development phase will employ people in the community (like architects and engineers) who are also part of the economic downturn.
Because of our good credit rating and careful budgeting, we have been successful in issuing bonds to support City capital expenditures. Most recently, in early March, Seattle issued almost $100 million in bonds for various capital projects at an interest rate of only 3.5%. Seattle also has a substantial reserve of cash that can be advanced to projects where there is a guaranteed funding stream that can be counted on to replenish the cash reserves.
The Parks for All Levy has provided Seattle with a great opportunity to make some of those advance investments that can put people back to work and Council is considering legislation to expedite the construction of some projects. Much of the $145 million approved by the voters is for well-defined projects such as playgrounds and new athletic facilities. Other parts of the levy, such as the $2 million set aside for community garden development, can be also be deployed to fund projects that have been identified and need only a modest amount of work to be ready to proceed. While the City won’t collect the first portion of the property tax for the Levy until July, it is a stable source of funding that can be counted on the repay any funds advanced for these projects.
The first round of Parks investments will come to the Council in mid-April and we expect to have a second round a few weeks later. We estimate that between $40 and $50 million worth of these projects can be underway in 2009 – and that the taxpayers will get great benefits from this advance construction, because construction contracts are now typically coming in up to 20% below budget projections.
Stay tuned for other activities that the Council will launch as part of our economic recovery work, the highest priority for 2009.
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THE NEVERENDING SNOW STORM STORY
The Council has completed its review of the City's After Action Reports on the December snow storms, and has drafted a recommended course of action that includes a number of specific changes designed to improve the City's management of future events. As the Council was working to bring to a conclusion its assessment of the City’s performance during the snow storms, new information was uncovered by the Seattle Times about the effectiveness of the City's management and evaluation of these events.
The recent Times articles included several additional allegations about the snow response, and Councilmembers are reviewing the documents used by the Times, as well as other information about SDOT management. Council is also examining the experience of other similar cities to see how Seattle's actions and management compare.
The Council's staff and the City Auditor will look at this information, and will report back to the Council by around mid-April as to whether these articles raise new questions that might cause us to add additional points to our proposed changes. If there appear to be major issues that require additional work, the Council may ask for a formal audit by the City Auditor, or may engage an external consultant if additional expertise seems necessary.
Our goal is to wrap up the investigation and review phase as rapidly as possible in order to get on with the work of improving preparedness for future events, but we will take the time necessary to ensure that we have examined all relevant issues.
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NEW NOISE LAW PROVIDES BETTER ENFORCEMENT AND MITIGATION
On Monday, March 2, the Council unanimously approved amendments to the Noise Ordinance which are designed to make the process more rational for both those applying for permits for construction projects and for communities and members of the public who experience negative impacts from violations of the noise code.
The ordinance establishes a new Major Public Projects Variance, which can match the length of time that a project will be in construction and replace the current pattern of two-week variances. In order to qualify for this new code provision, a project will be required to develop a comprehensive noise mitigation plan with community input. Under amendments adopted by the Council, both the initial conditions of the variance and its required reevaluation after a one-year period are appealable to the Hearing Examiner. At any time the variance can be suspended or revoked for non-compliance.
The ordinance also dramatically increases the effectiveness of City noise enforcement efforts by adding a civil penalty provision, which is much easier to enforce than criminal penalties, adding the ability of the City to issue stop work orders, and providing new authority and a process for revoking noise variances.
Most of the amendments proposed by members of the public were accepted by the Council, with the exception of an amendment sponsored by Councilmember Licata that would have supplemented the reevaluation after one year with an annual check-in for Major Public Project Construction Variances that last longer than two years. I voted for this amendment, which unfortunately failed by a 5 to 4 margin.
The revised ordinance provides for better enforcement against noise violations, while also creating a way for major projects to develop a long-term mitigation plan. This should provide more certainty and save costs for major public projects, while also creating a better opportunity for the community to be protected against excessive noise. While I would have preferred the annual check-in proposed by Councilmember Licata, in practical terms, there will be very few public projects that will require noise variances for longer than two years, and it is very unlikely that there will be major issues outstanding that were not identified and managed after the first year.
Completing major construction projects while protecting communities from noise is a difficult balancing act. This ordinance should make win-win agreements possible, while providing strong protection for communities if a project does not live up to the terms of these negotiations.
The full text of the ordinance
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"It is the state policy that emergencies are held to a minimum and are rarely found to exist."
-- Alaska State Code, Section 44.62.270
Citizen participation and engagement are critical for maintaining democracy -- fostering it is a key task of elected officials. It's my hope that this newsletter will inform you about issues, inspire you to get involved, and that together we can make things work better in this great city. Please send me your feedback, so we can keep things lively, interesting, and useful. And please forward it along to friends who might be interested. You can get more information or send me feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org
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