Letter to the editor: What can be learned from a failed legislative process? 

Editor:

The City of Edmonds Planning Board serves in an advisory capacity to the city in regional and local planning. The Planning Board assists in the development of the comprehensive plan and zoning ordinances. The Planning Board also advises the mayor and city council on the acquisition and development of all city parks and recreation facilities.

Over the years, I have been extremely impressed with the quality of work done by our Planning Board.

Between July 2019 and September 2019, Planning Board was tasked with a review of the city’s laws governing street vacations. City staff initiated this even though no related state laws had changed since Edmonds City Council passed Ordinance No. 3910 on Feb. 5, 2013. Ordinance No. 3910 amended the city’s street vacation laws, and the amendments adopted under Ordinance No. 3910 are consistent with the related State law, RCW 35.79.030.

I spoke at the following five Planning Board meetings related to city staff’s effort in 2019 to change the city’s laws governing street vacations:

July 10, 2019

July 24, 2019

Aug. 14, 2019

Sept. 11, 2019

Sept. 25, 2019

The related Planning Board meeting minutes are available on the city’s website. I think the minutes provide an excellent example of the high quality of Planning Board deliberations, the advisory process and citizen involvement with such.

On Sept. 25, 2019, Planning Board voted on recommendations to make to city council about street vacation laws. I think it fair for me to say that Planning Board’s recommendations were not exactly what city staff hoped for.

On Oct. 1, 2019, city staff introduced the proposed street vacation code amendments to city council. City staff chose to not simply provide Planning Board’s recommendations to city council. City staff decided to retain staff’s recommendations and present staff’s recommendations alongside Planning Board’s recommendations.

The related public hearing was scheduled for Oct. 15, 2019.

Four citizens spoke at the Oct. 15, 2019 public hearing in front of city council.  The public comments are available on the city’s website.

The 2019 city council was unable to reach a final decision. Instead, the 2019 city council voted to initiate a two-step process to resolve the differences between the Planning Board and the staff recommendations and to add a second public hearing. The 2019 city council clearly tasked city staff with responsibilities. The city attorney was asked to help city staff with drafting the related ordinance.

The last words on the topic are documented in the Oct. 15, 2019 city council meeting minutes:

“Mayor Earling assumed this would be done by the end of the year or the process would need to start over.”

What city council requested was not done by the end of 2019. It is still not done as we approach the end of 2021. City staff and the city attorney did not do what the 2019 city council asked them to do.

The “street vacation code update” has been listed as a future unscheduled item on city council’s extended agenda for almost two years.

A great amount of Planning Board work and citizen work was expended in response to city staff’s effort to update our street vacation code. I felt called to get involved as a citizen and I spent many hours working on this. I knew very well what Edmonds city government is willing to do to property owners. I suspected our city staff was not doing this on behalf of our property owners. I believe my fears were confirmed during the Aug. 14, 2019 Planning Board meeting when City Attorney Jeff Taraday told the Planning Board:

I represent the City of Edmonds. I’m here to advance the interest of the City of Edmonds, not individual property owners.

Yes, he really said that.

What must happen when city staff and city attorney fail to do what city council asks them to do? This massive legislative process was initiated by city staff. The action city staff initiated required much time to be spent by our valuable Planning Board. Citizens were made to choose to participate or stand by passively and allow city staff to be the only voices Planning Board and city council would hear.

I am very disappointed that city officials allow this conduct to take place. Why have city staff and the city attorney not been held accountable for not doing what they were asked to do by city council on Oct. 15, 2019?

Will this process now have to start over as represented by former Mayor Earling on Oct. 15, 2019? If it starts over, are Planning Board members and citizens going to have to spend more time, over and above what was expended the first time? City staff gets paid while working on stuff like this. Planning Board and citizens aren’t compensated with public money while working hard on legislation.

My hope is that a higher level of respect will be afforded our advisory boards and citizens who participate in the legislative process. I encourage city officials to learn from this failed legislative effort, an effort initiated by city staff.

City council is scheduled to discuss a resolution adopting Council Rules of Procedure during a special meeting on Nov. 18, 2021. I strongly request city council consider its constituents while doing this. Please adopt rules governing the measures that will be taken when city staff or the city attorney do not do what city council asks them to do. Thank you.

Ken Reidy
Edmonds

  1. THIS. The government should put citizen input, Advisory panel, with more weight than unelected bureaucrats. City staff?

    1. I would like to know how people are chosen for all of our many boards. The planning board for instance, who chooses them? I feel this is important for all citizens to know. And I want to know. Can ya help me out Jim?

      1. Only in vague terms there are many types of citizens groups many have specific agendas. Some do a better job than others. In some cases participants are chosen for specific views on topics. Who chooses these members is depend on the group in government these members are chosen by elected officials. The administration mayor, council, staff in this case has chosen not to act on this group’s recommendation. I just find interesting why you would have a citizen advisory panel, group, comission and then not follow their recommendations. Or work out some sort of compromise.

  2. Thank you Ken! I second your sentiments and also agree with Jim. I personally have had the experience of city staff overriding the city council and citizen input. The City Attorney is not on the side of the citizens. We know he often takes council down a rabbit hole. It’s extremely disturbing how much power city staff has been given and allowed to have. So much for who’s at the top of the org board. The process you mentioned should not be started over if it can still be handled, otherwise more taxpayer money to repeat the same process will simply be flushed down the commode. The lines between who holds what power and responsibility have been blurred almost beyond recognition. I’m thankful that citizens like you can inform us of important matters.

  3. Our streets go on *vacation*? Never heard of this. Very cool.
    I’m probably a not very informed citizen because I’m not aware of this terminology and it’s not defined in the article; but I definitely support vacations, no matter what kind.

  4. I apologize to the readers. My previous comment was a bit snarky.

    I did look up the this terminology and learned, that according to Wikipedia: “A street vacation, also known as an alley vacation or vacation of public access, is a type of easement in which a government transfers the right-of-way of a public street, highway or alley to a private property owner.”

    1. The sad thing to me about much of this is the fact the citizens to my recollection never voted on their preference of whether to close down our shopping core. Shut down to all of those who have no parking there because of these. This means all of the citizens of Edmonds. I have along with my desire to find parking as I won’t be standing in the rain, walking blocks and blocks in the rain to shop in the Bowl. Another thing I find a bit contradicting is the fact we are trying to rid our city of plastic. I am all for that and have done it in my home for quite some time now. SO these are plastic streateries and to my knowledge propane heated??? Another thing that is frowned upon right? Not by me but by who??? SO is this hypocrisy? I don’t know what do you think? These streateries should be removed immediately. THIS week before Thanks giving begins…

  5. Edmonds city government, just like our national government, operates on a kind of honor system. It is only as good as the people we elect acting honorably and doing the right thing for the people, simply because it is the right thing to do. Systems like this break down when we do not elect honorable people with a true desire to SERVE all the people who elect them. Serving an ideological viewpoint does not solve problems nationally or locally.

    Mr. Reidy asks OUR City Council to “adopt rules that govern the measures that will be taken if the city staff or the city attorney fail to do what the city council asks them to do.” That is all well and good, but it begs the question of how these “rules” will be enforced by a city council with no actual power to enforce or administrate anything?

    For example when Vivian Olson looks into the actual facts surrounding a potential city appointment by the mayor, and discovers some issues, she is rebuked by the City Council President for operating out of her limited lane in executive functions. When Council Persons actually try to look out for the citizens as constituents they are routinely reminded that they are out of order if they question the actions of the mayor and staff, especially if they do so openly and in public. What kind of fair system is this? It’s time to work toward changing the system because the Council just does not currently have the power to fix it. Strong Mayor/weak Council needs to go away yesterday in Edmonds.

  6. I just retired from the planning board, served on it for five years, participated in this meeting, and I remember it very well. In particular, I remember the feeling of being gobsmacked when I finally understood that the staff’s position was to try to maximize the amount of money that could be extracted from citizen’s through the street vacation process.

    I was proud of the work we did on the planning board to align that code with our City values and was disappointed that the city staff felt it appropriate to subvert our work. And make no mistake, that’s what happened. It’s not complicated, the staff didn’t like our recommendation (which they felt should be a rubber stamp of their position) so they kept their thumb on the scale because they felt they knew best. It’s a culture problem.

  7. Thanks Ken for taking the time to educate us on this issue in a constructive way. This is a tangible example of why it’s important for more residents to follow what’s happening with Council and the city and then get involved.

    If issues like street vacations are not being addressed using the appropriate process, are other issues being neglected or mismangaged? I don’t know.

    The codes/ordinances/decisions, etc. passed by Council and how they are being presented to Council needs to be a priority to each one of us. As residents, public participation is the way we can directly influence, shape and improve our local government. People talk about shopping local, let’s also focus on governing local. Each of us has a responsibility to stay informed and participate beyond voting.

    I encourage more residents to get up to speed on this issue and others currently facing Edmonds, read the council agenda and see what’s going on, participate in the council meetings – speak during audience comments, watch the entire meeting (live or recorded) – apply to serve on boards and commissions and encourage your neighbors to get involved for the good of Edmonds.

    This week’s Council meeting agenda…https://edmondswa.iqm2.com/Citizens/FileOpen.aspx?Type=14&ID=3021&Inline=True

  8. Nathan,

    I have similar observations having been on the Housing Commission. City staff controlled and steered the approach and direction the Housing Commission took. This resulted in a set of policy recommendations without providing the complete (pros and cons) narrative behind them.

    So, this is a systemic problem with the way our city is run. We tend to focus on the Mayor and City Council, where the city staff all too often controls the narrative. They will present only their side of a proposal to City Council and not a balanced view. It’s as much a sin of omission (what they elect not to tell) as it is a sin of commission (telling half-truths). It’s then left up to City Council to be able to ask the detailed probing questions to uncover the complete story. This is a difficult ask for any City Council. That’s where the citizens can help by being vocal. However, we need a Council with ears that are willing to hear us. I’m not seeing many on the current Council willing to listen.

  9. Thanks for the great comments!

    For anybody desiring more information about street vacations and rights-of-way, MRSC.org has a great article titled “What is the Nature of a Public Right-of-Way?”. The article informs readers that abutting property owners typically own the fee title to the property underlying a street or alley and that a street vacation removes the easement encumbrance from the property.

    The article also states property owners can typically use the portion of their property encumbered by a right-of-way easement prior to the City improving and opening a street or alley. This use of property can be observed around Edmonds. The City has many right-of-way easements the City has never needed to use for a public purpose.

    On July 24, 2019, Planning Board asked City staff to bring an overhead photo of a specific unopened easement to the next Planning Board Meeting. City staff refused to do so.

    As to who hires City staff, the Mayor is in charge of all departments and employees, with authority to designate assistants and department heads. The Mayor is responsible for almost all hiring. Director level appointments, however, are subject to City Council confirmation. The only City employee I know of not hired by the Mayor is the Executive Assistant to Council, a contract employee hired on an annual basis by the City Council. The City Attorney is not an employee. The City Council approves an individual or firm to be designated as City Attorney by its contract.

    I think the influence City staff and City Attorney have on our legislation should be given great thought by elected officials and our citizens. Should City staff and the City Attorney be granted greater ability to impact legislation than citizens have? Should they be allowed to not do what City Council asks them to do? Can we change the culture?

    I think Advisory Board recommendations and citizen input should be afforded a high level of respect by City staff and elected officials.

    I support a detailed study of FORM of City government.

    There is much to do in the pursuit of better City government.

    1. Thank you MR. Reidy. This is all very interesting and honestly very disappointing to hear the Mayor himself does all of the hiring??? WOW.

  10. Great discussion here. How about it, at least four city council members, in place, after tonight’s lame duck group is happily gone. Will you start the process of trying to change our form of city government to Weak Mayor/Strong Council/City Manager style, or at least some hybrid that honestly brings the citizens into the equation? Assuming your victory stands up, Mr. Chen, I especially ask you, which side of this would you be on? Mr. Tibbot, same question to you? Kristiana Johnson, you’ve run for Mayor in the past, which side would you be on? Ms. Paine, would you be willing to put this on the agenda, or is your loyalty to the current Mayor and staff just too strong to even think about allowing this discussion to take place? I have way too much respect for the efforts Diane Bucksnis and Vivian Olson have put into trying to look out for all the citizens with tough questions and demands for open, honest information, to put them on the spot about this. I think I know which way they would go, if given half a chance. Same for Kristiana J. too, I suspect.

  11. Here are some examples of thing we may discuss in the near future. Sometime we will again discuss the need for some sort of emergency access to the waterfront. We will also discuss if we want to purchase the Unocal property and if so how would we use it. While the 2nd track through town is not our decision to make it will impact our entire WF. When will we discuss and decide on what’s next for the Sunset project?

    Looking at the capital plan will also give us a few things that will be discussed. If we do not know the timing for some of these items it still may be useful to have in one place the list to keep folks informed.

    1. Read this before the one above.
      While it is nice to talk about changing our form of government that will drag on with endless debate, pros and cons and all that. Then folks have said we can change things with our vote. It remains to be seen if that will produce the changes some folks want. But the next vote will give folks a way to elect whom they want for various positions in city government. But what can we do now to improve the government we have? Most elected folks say at one time or another things like “public input” and “transparency” and all the nice good government principles. If the existing elected come up short on PI and T then what can we do about it. Here is an idea that may help shape the public discussion of our issues. 1. What are the issues that will be discussed and decided in the next year. 2. When and by whom will they be discussed. If we had a Public Discussion and Decision Calendar all in one place it would help. The council has their extended agenda calendar and it also includes a list of items to be discussed but not yet posted. The planning board and other boards and commissions also have a list of items they will be discussing. Looking at the items in the budget their are many topics that will come to the table for discussion and decision. Each Director already has a timeline plan for most of their major items for the whole year. If we just posted in one place the items above and keep it updated then folks would know what and when things will be discussed and decided. Maybe council could create a “Public Calendar Commission” to do the work to gather and post the information in one place. A citizen driven plan may be more productive than just asking staff to do it. In a follow on post I will list some other ideas on what will need to be decided in the near term.

  12. I hear you Darrol and understand your desire to bring the detail realities to the forefront of our public discussion. That said, how do you talk to and work with people who openly state the desire to, and actually vote to, stifle your input, for the purpose of gaining the vote of a lame duck C.P. who always votes in lockstep with Mayor and staff and other highly biased C.P.s? You are trying to work on and fix a worn out Model T government when you really need a Tesla government to make any headway toward solving very real problems.

  13. Darrol, commenting on your first comment above, I think we would make more headway with improved access to the waterfront, if we throw out the notion that there is some big pending emergency necessity to act sooner than a little later or even much later. The Connector didn’t fail because it was the wrong idea; it failed because it was the wrong and inadequate Connector in the wrong place. The “emergency” thing was a scare tactic designed by the Mayor and Staff to sell it. So my advice would be to leave “emergency” out of the future discussion as much as possible. We need two good ways to access the waterfront, one of which would negate whatever the R.R. and the Ferry System do in the future. The trains we have no control over and the ferries, little control over. The best thing to do short term is nothing, depending on water and air access for any emergencies that might crop up. The British evacuated Dunkirk with small boats. There are lots of small boats in our harbor that could evacuate people in the highly unlikely event that it is ever necessary. Air rescue helicopters are readily available for medical emergencies. There is no reason a fire pumper truck couldn’t be parked West of the tracks unmanned but ready. The water supply is obvious. Even if you have to buy a brand new truck it would be a minor expense compared to building an over pass, especially in the wrong place.

  14. As a follow up to this Letter, please know that City Council’s November 18, 2021 Special Meeting for a Resolution adopting Council Rules of Procedure was cancelled.

    Roughly 20 months ago, the March 3, 2020 City Council Agenda included:

    “Resolution adopting Council Rules of Procedure and updating the Council Code of Conduct”

    The Agenda item indicated that the Staff Lead was “Council/Laura Johnson”.

    The Staff Recommendation was:

    “Direct staff to draft a resolution adopting updated Council rules of procedure/code of conduct for adoption at a future meeting.”

    I don’t know why City Council has been unable to adopt Council Rules of Procedure over the past 20 months. I can’t imagine any other City Council anywhere not being able to accomplish such a basic task in 20 months or less.

    Council was able to adopt a Code of Conduct via motion during the January 26, 2021 Meeting That Code of Conduct includes:

    The City Council finds that Councilmembers should seek to continually improve the quality of public service and ensure public confidence in the integrity of local government and its effective, transparent, and equitable operation.

    Councilmembers have a public stage and privileged platform to show how individuals with contrasting points of view can find common ground, demonstrate problem-solving approaches, and achieve solutions that benefit the community as a whole.

    Central to these principles is that civility and decorum shall apply to all Councilmember conduct in relation to city business.

    Councilmembers shall focus discussions and debates on vision, policies, and their implementation.

    No Councilmember shall dominate proceedings during Council or other public meetings.

    Personal, insulting, or intimidating language, body language and actions, are not allowed. Councilmembers may raise a point of order for ruling by the Chair or by the Body to address inappropriate remarks.

    No signs of partiality, prejudice, or disrespect should be evident on the part of Councilmembers toward any individual participating in a public meeting. Every effort should be made to be respectful in listening to Council, staff and public testimony and discussions.

    I encourage citizens to ask City Council how its Code of Conduct is enforced.

  15. City Council is once again scheduled to discuss a Resolution adopting Council Rules of Procedure during a Special Meeting. This time such will take place during a May 3, 2022 Special Meeting, an evening during which City Council will also have a Regular Meeting.

    I continue to strongly request City Council consider its constituents while doing this. Please adopt rules governing the measures that will be taken when city staff or the city attorney do not do what City Council asks them to do.

    Thank you.

  16. Update as of November 25, 2022:

    City Council has still not adopted Council Rules of Procedure.

    I encourage City Council to adopt rules governing the measures that will be taken when city staff or the city attorney do not do what City Council asks them to do.

    The Street Vacation Code Update has now sat on City Council’s Extended Agenda for over three years.

    Also, the 2022 City Council failed to issue an RFQ for legal services even though it has been known for years that the current contract expires December 31, 2022.

    On July 23, 2022, I emailed City Council an email that included the following:

    “Please inform citizens of Edmonds when an RFQ for City Attorney legal services will be released.”

    Edmonds City Council is now representing that City Council must take action to establish a one-year contract with Lighthouse commencing on January 1, 2023 to provide additional time for City Council to consider options for legal representation and complete its due diligence in assessing the pricing and quality of Lighthouse’s services relative to alternative providers.

    City Council had plenty of time to do this. Why would City Council now need an additional year to do so?

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