Attending a city council meeting

So about local government…

Not the city I’m writing about. Not even in the US. (Wikimedia Commons Picture of the day)

After all the US-wide, uh, excitement over the last four years, I started paying more attention to local government in the city where I live. I’ve been attending public meetings, reading the briefing packets… I even sat in on the budget process.

A couple of observations from attending a bunch of these meetings over the last year or so, followed by some specific notes from the meeting yesterday to give a sense of what meetings are like.

The biggest thing: public sector is hard and the interface between ‘elected officials’ and ‘civil servants’ is hard.

I really wish there’d been something about civics at school, and the operational reality of when public and private interact.

There’s a lot of ritual, mostly with purpose (transparency and fairness)… and from an outsider’s point of view, lots of room to improve.

What happens, and doesn’t happen, typically falls out of “process” and “procedure” (which looks like ritual the first few times I saw it). What Mitch McConnell pulls off? Yeah, I get it now. It shouldn’t surprise me. Is it really that different from writing code? I don’t want to think about it that way.

For example, deciding what topics / issues get discussed and which don’t involves judgment, and (ideally) over time in the private sector people end up with more or less responsibility based on the consequences of the judgment they show.

When it’s local government, there’s a process. Even at the scale of a small (population ~3000) city, the business of government is a profession.

Also, bikeshedding isn’t as awful a problem as I expected.

Here’s the outline, which is pretty consistent across meetings:

  1. Pledge of allegiance (yes, they do this, even when just about everyone is remote)
  2. Roll call
  3. Approval of agenda (yeah, Robert’s Rules are for real)
  4. Approval of minutes from last meeting
  5. “Oral communications: Opportunity for brief comments to the City Council” (this is when members of the public can say something. I thanked the city for how it’s been holding meetings online and expressed hope it continues even after the plague. Mayor says “will be discussed elsewhere.”)
  6. Report On Meetings And Regional Items Of Interest (ex local neighboring cities that the city coordinates with, the county organization that runs emergency response, etc. Details at the end)
  7. Public Hearings — none this time.
  8. Executive session, or “mayor and council (elected officials) disappear with appointed officials to have a private meeting.” No idea what happens there. There’s probably another post to write about the different kind of cities in WA state (ex is the mayor elected directly, or does the elected council choose a mayor among themselves) and how services work (ex this city has its own police and contracts out for fire; a neighboring city contracts with this city for police).
  9. Motions for consideration (ex taking action… details at the end)
  10. Department reports (ex Public Works, Police/Fire, Finances — details at the end)
  11. Payment Of The Monthly Bills — discussion (actual v plan) followed by “Consideration of a motion to approve the June 2021 bills as presented” and council people seconding the motion. This month the person said “I suggest we pay our bills. I mean, I move we pay our bills.”
  12. New Business — nothing this month
  13. Adjourn — “Motion to adjourn” and… it was unanimous, as usual.

That’s about two hours.

Detail 1 of 3: Report On Meetings And Regional Items Of Interest

  1. Related & Points Cities Mayors’ Meeting. Sample detail: Slow transition back to in-person in operations; re July 4th celebrations, ‘Hunts Point will not disappoint.’ Typically these events have contracts etc set months in advance. So, not much expected this time around. Medina, neighboring town that has a dog park, has made changes to dog leash rules… “Will get more detail for the newsletter.” Public health update about COVID as well as homeless encampment (discussion: litter and needles as safety issue).
  2. Eastside Transportation Project. Sample detail: discussion from state legislature re priorities and funding, esp I-405 funding.
  3. Sound Cities Association. Sample detail: affordable housing dashboard getting attention. Equity & Justice training series continue; challenging biases a good thing. Details available. Levies and Ballot measures in the fall.
  4. Metropolitan Solid Waste Management Advisory Committee. Sample detail: (1) finalized agreements to support rate increase, ~$0.70/mo per resident (2) now there’s a sitting advisory group for a new transfer station in Kirkland… it’s early on & will take years (3) Overall rate restructure ahead.
  5. Lake Washington/Cedar/Sammamish Watershed (WRIA 8). For example: fisheries and studies about them! I did not follow the discussion TBH. Watersheds remain a mystery to me. As in most things, there are experts who Know Stuff and really do this for a living, and elected and appointed officials who are involved in the goal setting, planning, and execution.
  6. North East King County Regional Public Safety Communication Agency (NORCOM). Sample detail: major upgrade of emergency comms system went well! There’s an annual report available at City Hall. Lots of data about responsiveness… ex: ~284K incoming calls; dispatched ~64K (fire EMS more), met the 60 second standard 82% of the time…
  7. Emergency Management Advisory Committee (EMAC). No meeting last month.
  8. Traffic Sub-Committee. Actual data about speeding! Well, about average speed at a bunch of different places around the city. Well, perhaps averaging too much: the report averaged northbound and southbound traffic on a bigger road. The problem is that it’s a big hill and people have a way of speeding going down the hill. So, the report will be revised.

Detail 2 of 3: Motions for consideration

  1. Authorize the Mayor to enter into an amended contract for traffic signal services
  2. Discussion re: how the meeting actually runs, stuff like setting up the agenda. Actual public discussion from mayor and council.

(DH comment: again, this is the government transparency thing, and public agreement/disagreement between elected officials. This is the part that shows up in movies and TV shows… except that Aaron Sorkin is not writing the dialog.)

3. Discussion about having a Budget Advisory Committee, again, and 2022 Budget Process dates.

(DH comment: a lot of discussion on this one too. Even a question about “is there a motion here or is this discussion only?”)

Detail 3 of 3: Department reports.

  1. Administrator’s Report. There are a lot of details in running a city… from consolidating the three petty cash boxes for different departments into a single box, to the city getting ~$900K (a bump up from the initially expected ~$700K) from some relief program, to re-newing the contract for banking services for the city. Juneteenth was just made a state holiday for next year — and that has some impact on some part of planning for next year. The topic of reconvening in person comes up here, and vaccination levels and mask rules are part of the discussion. Oh, and there’s a Facilities Master plan, and it will have its own meetings!
  2. Building Report (Building & Permits). First new permit issued in a long time. Editorial comment: new construction / remodeling are important revenue sources for the city.
  3. Public Works Report. The public works leader is retiring, and offered a kind thank you to the city. Really nice guy, served a long time; many thank you’s back at him. And: lots and lots of details, some “FYI here’s what’s going on” and some “here’s a question for the elected folks to decide.” Things like stormwater treatment, cel towers, water meters, and street lights (“the financial impact of replacing all [power company]-owned street lights…”). There was an analysis of options on streetlights; turns out that one of them will break-even in 77 years. The staff person gently recommended that the council members choose a different option. Also, finance has some other wrinkles, like taking into account that “well the ongoing cost for this comes out of this budget but the replacement cost is from this other budget…”
  4. Financial Report. Plan v actual for revenue and spend, with lots of interesting complications (ex some funds are restricted in their use; the County has funds available for the city to use on a park but nothing else).
  5. Police/Fire Report. Non-zero domestic violence numbers are always disturbing. And lots of time and energy on training and accreditation (the Washington Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs has standards). The evidence room needs burglar and fire alarms. An expected $3K cost went to $14K after the Fire Marshall inspected the city’s plan for an improvement to part of the the police/city hall building and said “No, I won’t approve this plan, here’s what you need to do.” And something about N95 mask fit testing.