Over the last few months, the lack of transparency in city processes has been called out repeatedly. First, exactly what is transparency?
One business dictionary defines transparency as a “lack of hidden agendas or conditions, accompanied by the availability of full information required for collaboration, cooperation, and collective decision making.”
One of the primary obligations of city government should be to provide its citizens with early, timely, and ongoing opportunities to participate in, review, understand, and question what the Mayor, city department heads and staff, city council, boards, committees and task forces are planning, developing and implementing. It seems to ACE that many of the ongoing activities within the city take place behind closed doors. This prevents and/or constrains the public’s trust.
Here are some examples in the City of Edmonds where the lack of transparency is evident:
- Task forces are very often hand-picked by the mayor, department heads, and others with no opportunity for public participation. Those selections are often appear to be made so that the group is likely to achieve a preferred outcome.
- Meetings of these hand-picked groups are often held without announcement (i.e. privately) so public attendance is not possible.
- There is often a significant delay in open public meetings between the timing of meeting and the availability of published minutes or meeting notes. Major examples of this are:
- City Council – This process includes online viewing, videos and detailed minutes. However, meeting minutes are not posted online until they are approved at the next regularly scheduled council meeting.
- Planning Board – Meets twice monthly, public input is allowed and detailed minutes are taken and available on the city website. However, minutes of meetings are not available until they are approved two weeks later at the next meeting. Meeting videos do not exist live or online.
- Economic Development Commission – Meets monthly. Meetings are open to the public and comments are allowed. However, minutes of the meetings are not available until approved the following month.
- Housing Strategy – The task force for this effort was appointed by the city in July 2017, held three unpublicized meetings and launched its website on Dec. 7. Only then were summary notes of those meetings available. The task force included not only housing specialists, but also developers. The process included interviews of developers, but no ongoing process for public input. The first (and at that time what appeared to have been the only planned) public open house was held in May 2018 – 10 months after the group began its work. There was much presentation but very little time for public comment and questions. After that open house, there was much citizen outcry and additional opportunities for public input have been provided.
- City Council Committees – Council recently voted not to video or take minutes of these monthly meetings. Public input is not allowed. Recommended actions often go straight to consent agendas and only get council attention and discussion if a council member pulls the item for discussion.
What are some of the solutions to these ongoing problems? ACE suggests the following at a minimum:
- No task forces or committees should be independently and privately appointed at any level. When they are to be formed, an announcement should be made so citizens and interested parties can submit their names for consideration.
- The appointing people or body should make a concerted effort to select not only those who would clearly be supportive of the result, but also to select persons who will present alternative views.
- When task forces or interest groups are formed, the public should be made aware of that and allowed to sit in on the groups’ discussions. In some instances, public comments should be considered depending on the circumstances.
- Public input should be obtained early in the process via live testimony, surveys, and open houses. One glaring example of failure in this area was the lengthy delay between when the Housing Strategy task force was formed (July 2017) and when public input was first allowed (May 2018).
- Minutes or detailed notes of all meetings should be taken, and draft minutes (clearly marked as such) should be posted on the city website. (Note that these are usually provided on request and when obtained are clearly marked DRAFT and should be treated as such.)
- Major body meetings (such as City Council, City Council Committees, Planning Board, and Economic Development Commission) should be video recorded live and available thereafter on the city website. Public attendance should always be allowed and public comments taken.
- Other meetings (such as task forces as just one example) should be publicized, allow public attendance, and in many instances provide for managed public input.
These steps will significantly improve public trust and eliminate what now has in many instances led to deterioration of the relationship between the city, task forces, boards, commissions and the citizens. The city must acknowledge that its citizens are not sheep to be left in the dark until the end of a process, but instead should be active participants in the process from the beginning to end.
John Reed, on behalf of
The Alliance of Citizens for Edmonds (ACE)