Letter to the editor: Transparency in city processes need improvement

Editor:

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) 
www.aceedmonds.org 

11 Replies to “Letter to the editor: Transparency in city processes need improvement”

  1. This is a well written letter. I didn’t know many of these things were happening. Great idea, who could argue with this well written letter.

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  2. I totally agree with John Reed’s letter. I am appalled at the lack of transperancy and suggest the Council members rethink or the voters will.

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  3. Good points John. Some times a lot of information is available from the city but it is nearly impossible to find. For example, I asked the city for how to find out about the financial reserve policy and where it could be found on the web cite. The answer was “it is not posted on the web but I may be able to find it in some council minutes”. Searching for “financial reserve policy” on the city web site produced one result, a park and rec program that has nothing to do with the policy.

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    1. In this region, to the picayune yokels, a “Developer” is consider a dirty word or insult. This unsophisticated, narrow-minded or provincial view is a that all are suspect, usually greedy, and have no concern for the local community.

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      1. You are so right. Here are some comments that I recently wrote:
        ” Mr. Malgarin often references a large campaign contribution received by our Mayor from a real estate organization, indicating that that causes the Mayor to inappropriately support builders and developers. I have taken (when I was a city councilmember) the same kind of contributions, as have most elected officials. The contributors would obviously like to receive some special treatment, but they know that the best that they can hope for is to be treated reasonably and fairly. I have dealt with many builders and developers and have learned that all they are seeking is fair and reasonable treatment.
        Finally I want to say that I have no connection with any builder or developer, but the idea that they are “ripping off” taxpayers is difficult to buy. In good economic cycles, like now, they undoubtedly are making above average profits. However, the profits from good times aren’t generally adequate to offset their losses during bad times. For proof of that you need go back just a few years ago to the last downturn when virtually all builders and developers of multi-family projects in Edmonds went bankrupt.”

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  4. John’s point is about the openness of the input and discussion and not the input or integrity of the developer. He is absolutely correct on the poor public notice and the lack of public input during the study phase. Nothing John said is incorrect and the process was less to open and transparent. We find that same process with other parts of city business during the discussion and decision phases. His point is about process.

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  5. With apologies to Will Rogers or whoever said it first, the above seems to be evidence “we have the best politicians money can buy.” Of course what do I know? I’m just a “picayune yokel”, who votes by the way, without fail.

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  6. Clint, if we raised the salary for council to compensate them for the time they spend on city business we my be able to change the council members we “buy”

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  7. Yes, I’m sure none of the good City Council folks are in it for the great pay. Probably doesn’t translate to much per hour. On the other hand, the Mayor seems to be pretty well compensated in Edmonds.

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