Updated Feb. 26 with additional details on Open Public Meetings Act training, duties of council assistants.
It can be difficult to look at yourself in the mirror. That’s how Edmonds City Council members spent Friday — looking inside themselves, to examine how the council makes decisions, what they can do to be more efficient, and touching on some of the emotions that have permeated past council meetings.
The occasion was the annual council retreat – held this year again via Zoom – a year complicated by COVID, by remote meetings, by emotions and frustrations not just in the council, but in every neighborhood in the city. The session was as remarkable for what members did not talk about as what they did discuss. There was no talk about city projects, or the budget or long-range plans. As the day progressed, the council focus turned more toward what they need to do — as individuals and as a group — to work better together. It was, at times, a difficult conversation.
That surfaced in a session on “positive communication.” Career and communications coach Debra Rich Gettleman posed the concept that the better the communication, the better the team. She asked each member to rate how well, on a scale of 1-5, the council communicated with each other and the city.
Despite their personal points of view, councilmembers signaled that they know that they have a lot of work to do. Neil Tibbott rated communications as “pretty low,” 1 or 2 on the scale. Diane Buckshinis rated them a 3 or 4, saying ‘”we’re attempting to do the best we can.” Will Chen gave the council a 2; then added that he “wants to stay positive and be positive.”
Vivian Olson agreed that “I still think there is a big gap between communication and where we want to be.”Kristiana Johnson said she felt “the last two years have felt very oppressive and non-communicative; I want to move up the ladder and work at a 4-5 level.” Susan Paine added it’s “going to be up to us to be respectful and I don’t think it has always been respectful; sometimes the emotional things that happened in the past get in the way of productive discussions.” Laura Johnson did not participate in the communications exercise. My Edmonds News has reached out to Johnson to ask why and has not received an answer.
Gettleman calls her workshop “improv-communications” and uses some of the techniques that improv comics do. She reminded councilmembers that to be a high-functioning team, several things have to happen – find common ground, build trust and be clear about your intentions.
Earlier in the day, Edmonds Port Commissioner Jay Grant, who also served on the Edmonds Salary Commission, held a session on efficiency and council process, something the council admits it has struggled with. Grant is former director of the U.S. Port Security Council, works as secretary general of the International Organization of Airport/Seaport Police and has a 30-year career in government related positions.
He talked about five qualities organizations need to succeed: civility, equality, responsibility, respect and relationships. “Not everything is fair,” Grant told the group, “but processes are supposed to be equitable.” He had been asked to examine the council’s efficiency and how it uses its committee time. “Sometimes,” he told the members, “you get into a lot of minutiae because the facts are not presented to you” before council meetings. Grant asked members to look at how they structure their committees; that committee time should be used to get into the details so that when issues reach the full council, “it’s all laid out.”
Kristiana Johnson agreed that council meetings are not managed efficiently, that some things go to the whole council, bypassing committees which results in “laborious, nitpicking discussion among the seven of us.”
Others agreed the committee structure should be used more efficiently. Diane Buckshnis added that “some of our meetings seem to have gone astray because they (items) weren’t on the agenda.” She put some of the blame on Zoom meetings, which she said slow things down, make it difficult to establish a good flow of business and restrict easy public comment. All agreed that council meetings have become too long; last week’s went until 11 p.m.
Members did endorse the idea of putting all motions in writing to cut down on”‘surprises” in meetings and give the council more time to understand what is in the motions. Laura Johnson said cutting out surprise motions gives members a better opportunity to vet what is on the agenda; but believes that councilmembers must retain the power to bring issues to the floor as needed.
Laura Johnson said she was not comfortable with the way this part of the retreat was coming together; that citing specific examples of problem issues was putting some members “on the spot.” Grant said that was not his intent. Johnson countered that “we’ve just come through five weeks of a very emotional review of the budget discussion, and this is not helping right now.”
There is a belief, by some members, that they are not getting enough access to resources from the city administration. Kristiana Johnson said that members have to go through a department director rather than going directly to department staff. Will Chen agreed. “I have a sense that we don’t have access to the directors or to staff,” he said. “I have a sense that we are not supposed to talk to the directors.” Diane Buckshinis said that she’s gotten used to how the current administration releases information, adding that she “has never had trouble getting information” from department directors. Susan Paine told the group, “I haven’t found anybody who did not get back to me.”
The council spent a portion of the afternoon in a workshop with City Attorney Jeff Taraday receiving training on the Open Public Meetings Act. It requires all government meetings be open to the public. The act defines “regular” and “special” meetings, executive sessions, the types of notice that must be given for meetings, the conduct of meetings, and the penalties for violations.
The council should be getting more support from two new assistants introduced Friday.
Susan Babcock has worked for the Edmonds Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Department for nine years. She has helped develop COVID plans for the Edmonds Summer Market, worked with the cemetery management on software design, on the Edmonds Underwater Dive Park, and with the city arborist on urban forestry funds.
When she lived in the San Juan Islands, Babcock was a founding member of the senior center; has taught in Los Angeles, and is an artist who does wildlife illustrations. She painted the Winter Walk mural across from Edmonds City Hall.
Beckie Peterson said she “sort of’” grew up in Edmonds, spending a lot of time with her grandparents here and now living in their house. She has worked in human resources, organization and business development, primarily in health care. Peterson said she has spent a lot of time in planning and community development issues and is part of the group that founded the Edmonds Comedy Night. As a military spouse, she says she’s learned a lot about blended “melting pot’”neighborhoods and about “bringing people together”.
The assistants will share one full-time position and start next week. This is a contract position, replacing the one aide who previously worked with councilmembers. Their duties include administrative support for the full council and researching issues for members.
The council went into this retreat knowing what some of its issues are and focused on opening up lines of communication as one way it might improve this year. As the Council looked into that mirror and saw some potential paths forward, Council President Vivian Olson reminded members that the definition of “community” is “common unity.”
— By Bob Throndsen