Budget memo sparks debate; public hearing on amendments Feb. 1

Susan Paine
Diane Buckshnis

After weeks of smooth sailing, including several unanimous votes, the Edmonds City Council found itself back in choppy waters for a bit Tuesday night when councilmembers began discussing amendments that had been proposed to the council’s already-approved 2022 budget.

Considering amendments to the budget, which was approved by the council in November, was proposed by Councilmembers Diane Buckshnis and Kristiana Johnson. Two other councilmembers also submitted amendments, Buckshnis said.

The amendment list was accompanied by a council agenda memo that became the flashpoint for discussion Tuesday night. The memo repeated assertions — made by some councilmembers last fall — that the budget process was accelerated beyond its traditional schedule, and suggested the possibility that it was not compliant with the state’s Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA).

Councilmember Susan Paine, who oversaw the budget deliberation process while serving as 2021 council president, pushed back hard against the memo language. She called it “highly personalized,” noting it specifically mentioned her by name five times, and declared as false the memo’s claim that the council didn’t have adequate time to consider it. “This has not been an unvetted budget,” Paine said.

Both Paine and Councilmember Laura Johnson disputed the memo’s allegation that the budget process violated the OPMA. “That’s not accurate at all,” Paine said. To reinforce that point, Laura Johnson asked City Attorney Jeff Taraday to confirm his earlier statement — made during the 2021 budget deliberations — that the council’s process in his opinion didn’t violate the OPMA — which he did.

“Having this sort of information here in an agenda memo is entirely wrong,” Paine added. She made a motion — seconded by Laura Johnson — to strike out all of the information in the agenda memo, and that was approved by a 4-1 vote, with Council President Vivian Olson and Councilmember Neil Tibbott joining Paine and Johnson in voting yes. Councilmember Kristiana Johnson voted no while Councilmembers Buckshnis and Will Chen abstained.

There was also a spirited discussion about whether the council should take any votes on the proposed amendments Tuesday night, since a public hearing on them has been scheduled for Feb. 1 — and the public should weigh in first.  Buckshnis had proposed the council narrow the list of amendments Tuesday night to those receiving a supermajority (five or more) vote of councilmembers, since a supermajority is what will ultimately be required to approve changes to the budget.

But in the end, the councilmembers voted 6-1 (Councilmember Kristiana Johnson against) to support Chen’s motion to vote on budget amendments Feb. 8, during a special meeting to be called after regularly scheduled council committee meetings.

Among the amendments under consideration: removing a full-time police commander, police body cameras and the police scuba team; deleting a solar grant program for low-income households; removing an additional $200,000 for the city’s human services department; and removing a new full-time position to manage the city’s capital projects. There is also an amendment to remove the new full-time Race, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (REDI) program manager, stating that using a consultant for this purpose is sufficient.

The amendments also include adding several expenditures; among them, $70,000 for the city’s Diversity Commission, $100,000 for the Creative District’s 4th Avenue Cultural Corridor project, $60,000 for a study of a police station and/or city hall relocation and $150,000 for streetlights in the Lake Ballinger area.

You can read all of the proposals here.

In other business, the council heard an update from City Wastewater Treatment Plant Manager Pamela Randolph on the city’s carbon recovery project. For background, the project will process the city’s wastewater treatment plant sludge using pyrolysis and gasification. The process also produces a biochar product that can be marketed as a soil amendment. The new system is replacing Edmonds’ aging mechanical sludge incinerator, which had become increasingly expensive to maintain due to more stringent air quality standards. The total cost of the project is $26 million, but because three other municipalities — the City of Mountlake Terrace, the Olympic View Water and Sewer District, and the Ronald Sewer District — send their sewage to Edmonds for treatment and disposal, the cost of the new system is being split, with Edmonds paying 50%.

The council in October 2020 passed an ordinance authorizing nearly $14.4 million in revenue bonds to finance the project.

During her virtual presentation to the council Tuesday night, Wastewater Treatment Plant Manager Pamela Randolph (upper right) shares photos of the demolition process for the city’s sludge incinerator. This included removing some pieces “brick by brick,” she said, as illustrated in photo at right.

During her presentation, Randolph explained the tight footprint the city is working around to replace the existing equipment. Much of it has had to be removed by hand, including the incinerator that was taken out “brick by brick,” she said.

She also pointed to several challenges the project has faced. Initially, she said, there were “quite a few problems with odor,” due to the fact the city has been transporting untreated sludge to the landfill temporarily until the project comes online. The city has addressed those, for now, by purchasing odorant to mask the smell, but in February there could be additional short-term odor issues while the city temporarily shuts down its solids processing, Randolph said.

The project has also experienced construction impacts due to supply chain and staffing challenges that have caused “significant cost overruns,” she said. The COVID-19 pandemic has played a role as well, since it has limited staff’s ability to meet with partners and contractors face to face to team-build and problem-solve.

All of these issues could potentially add to the project’s scope of work, but the city is in negotiation to resolve those, she said.

In addition, the project received notice of an asbestos violation following an impromptu inspection from the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, after an inspector noted that renovations had begun without an updated Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act report. Work was stopped until the report was obtained. The city believes it was following regulations as written, and the matter has been appealed to the Pollution Control Hearings Board, Randolph said.

On the bright side, Randolph said the city is seeking potential funding sourses for cost overruns, including energy incentives, grants and tax savings.

Long-term, Randolph mentioned another challenge that Edmonds and many other treatment plants statewide also face. The Washington State Dept of Ecology has issued new requirements for nutrient removal — known as the Puget Sound Nutrient General Permit. These requirements will increase treatment plant costs and reduce plant capacity — and will also require the city to engage in another capital project down the road to accommodate the requirements.The council also:

The council also:

–Learned more about a proposed city code amendment that would require the inclusion of facilities for short- and long-term bicycle parking in all multifamily and non-residential development. Development Director Susan McLaughlin began the presentation by noting that providing bike parking ties to the city’s sustainability goals. City Senior Planner Eric Engmann then explained the difference between short-term bike parking, such as bike racks at building entrances, and long-term parking that includes a secure, on-premises space. Under the proposal, required short-term bike parking would be 1 space per 10 in multiple dwelling units and 1 per 12 vehicle parking spaces in non-residential units. For long-term parking, the requirement would be 0.75 per unit in multifamily housing and 1 per 25,000 square feet of floor area in non-residential units.

– Considered a proposal by the city’s administrative services department to replace existing Enterprise Resource Planning Software (Eden) with a five-year contract for the OpenGov Budget Suite. Administrative Services Deputy Director Megan Menkveld said that the proposed budget system would provide a more user friendly interface for both staff and the public, including a feature that allows those interested to access an interactive online budget book. The cost (revised upward slightly from earlier estimates) is $394,610 for a five-year contract. It would be funded by federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars. This item is scheduled for approval at next week’s council meeting.

– Recognized the work of 30-year city employee and current Planning Manager Rob Chave, who is retiring from the city Jan. 31. Mayor Mike Nelson called Chave “a class act who does not rattle easily,” adding he “will be greatly, greatly missed.”

– Unanimously approved the city’s Non-Represented Employees Compensation Study, which determined that the city’s current non-represented salary scale is approximately 6% below market rate. You can read more in our previous story here.

– Received a proclamation for Lunar New Year Edmonds, which is taking place this Saturday, Jan. 29. (Learn more here.)

— By Teresa Wippel

 

12 Replies to “Budget memo sparks debate; public hearing on amendments Feb. 1”

  1. Is there no understanding among Councilmembers that, even if he thought the OPMA had been violated, the City Attorney might not say so openly, during a Council Meeting? Doing so hampers his ability to defend Councilmembers if an OPMA lawsuit is filed in the future. The City Attorney is an attorney, not a judge. Is it surprising that his “opinion” is that Council’s process didn’t violate the OPMA?

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  2. This was kind of an odd moment at the council meeting, asking the City Attorney if the OPMA I’ve been violated. Was he supposed to admit culpability? I’m not a mind reader, but his body language said he was really uncomfortable being put in that position in a public open meeting and of course he knows the difference between an advocate and a judge.

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  3. Agreed Brian. I think elected officials can benefit from additional training in this area. I’ve actually heard a City Councilmember ask during a Council Meeting: Hasn’t Jeff already RULED on that?

    MRSC has a great resource, just updated in January of 2022. It is easy to find on the internet:

    Knowing the Territory: Basic Legal Guidelines for Washington City, County and Special Purpose District Officials

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    1. On the wastewater treatment plant topic. Did anyone see how much of an overrun we’re talking about or how far behind schedule we are? An expense and budget chart and a progress-to-plan chart should have been shown. These are basic program management principles to assure there are no surprises. All I heard was wishful thinking, not grounded in facts and data. Then they want more money for additional options. The kicker was that we’re going to end up with a third less capacity. How much trouble are we in? Our utility bills are high enough already. Were we sold a bill of goods?

      The City Council needs to start asking the tough questions and holding this administration accountable for poor performance.

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      1. They didn’t go into details about cost issues but staff did promise to come back and talk more about that once they had a better handle on it.

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        1. My point is that they should have monthly budget and performance-to-plan charts for all projects. That should have been shared with the Council yesterday and not have them wait until it’s too late to do something about it. I heard the same thing as you did, another promise. We should be paying for results.

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      2. Jim first I heard of 1/3 less capacity. If true I don’t know how they could have done this knowing they are going to need increased capacity due to higher population density. I guess this means most of the time we have cleaner discharge but during high volume we end up with more untreated discharge days closed beaches and more polluted waters.

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  4. Try as they could, Mayor Nelson and the City Attorney could not save Susan Paine and Lora Johnson from themselves last night. That was really a sad display of irrelevant to the discussion histrionics that did nothing more than waste an hour of time. Susan and Lora, please grow up and realize no one cares, but you, if your feelings got hurt by something that was said or that you disagreed with it’s veracity. You should have just taken yes for an answer from Diane to delete the introduction comments and moved on. Spoiler alert, you are on TV; people are watching and you just came across as childish in that exchange last night.

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    1. Yes, I hated hearing and seeing that myself. It was a good meeting until then. Since I am working on not being hostile all I will say is this. You are right people are watching and seeing them behave this way. It may prevent them from being elected again. Maybe they don’t care?

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  5. Mostly I think Susan and Laura’s actions simply demonstrated utter disregard for their counterparts on the Councl, in terms of wasting time, and the citizens, in terms of those who they and the Mayor attempted to silence at the meeting of the 16th. Dec. I won’t be voting for any of them again for sure.

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  6. On August 11, 2020, City Council spent nearly two hours reviewing and discussing a proposed Code of Conduct. Councilmember Laura Johnson stated that she had initiated research before she was on Council and that the underlying theme of the Code of Conduct is respect. Further discussion took place on January 12, 2021 and January 19, 2021. On January 26, 2021, City Council adopted its Code of Conduct via a 5-2 vote.

    The Code of Conduct adopted on January 26, 2021 stated the Code of Conduct SHALL be reviewed and reaffirmed annually by the City Council.

    The January 25, 2022 Council Meeting was the final opportunity for the City Council to review and reaffirm its Code of Conduct.

    Instead, we witnessed new allegations of Code of Conduct violations by Councilmembers Susan Paine and Laura Johnson.

    Has the Code of Conduct made any difference in any fashion since it was adopted? Have we seen an underlying theme of respect during City Council Meetings since January 26, 2021? My opinion is City Council Conduct has failed to represent “respect” fairly regularly since the Code of Conduct was adopted.

    I wonder what City Council will do now that City Council has failed to reaffirm the Code of Conduct within the required time frame.

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  7. Maybe as much as a code of conduct there needs to be some sort of do’s and don’t’s instruction manual for exactly how to be a City Council Person. For example Susan Paine needed to be advised in advance that she wasn’t supposed to be Mayor Nelson’s executive assistant. Laura Johnson needed to be instructed that she isn’t supposed to be a cheer leader for all things Left leaning politics. Luke Distelhorst needed to be instructed that being the Mayor’s pal and rubber stamp isn’t part of the job even if that’s how he got his job. If Luke had functioned as a more open minded and independent thinker he would probably be still be on the City Council. Mike N., Susan, Laura and Luke are all intelligent and highly capable people but they come across as blatantly partisan and serving some sort of a cause all the time, which isn’t their proper function. They all need to be in other jobs that more suit what they want to do and be.

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