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February 3, 2013 19:11 by Ryan

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City Council Resolutions Now Online

February 3, 2013 17:24 by Ryan

File FolderThanks to a grant from the State Archives, the City was able to have all City Council resolutions back to 1901 scanned into TIFF format. No council resolutions appear on the city’s website—not even current resolutions—but I’ve made them all available in an easily-browsable (although unfortunately not searchable) format at this link. Because these are TIFF files, you will need to download the document and open in a TIFF viewer to read beyond the first page.

Please let me know by posting a comment below whether you find this service helpful.

Improving City Council Meetings

January 13, 2013 12:22 by Ryan

Robert's Rules In Brief, available at WatermarkAt a couple of recent meetings, the City Council has plodded through a set of summary procedural rules that we’ve spent a great deal of money having our city attorney draft. This has been a pointless exercise for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that we’re not learning anything about the very point of parliamentary procedure (to enable the majority to make decisions, while protecting the rights of the minority to participate) nor the theory supporting procedural motions and their standard characteristics.

I argue that a better course would be to adopt Robert’s Rules of Order, and arrange for training for the mayor and council on how to work within that standard framework.

Why Robert’s Rules of Order?

It’s the Standard

Adopting Robert’s Rules of Order is, in fact, the norm for local governments. For example, the following nearby city governing bodies have adopted Robert:

By some estimates, ninety percent of the voluntary associations in our country use Robert.

Moreover, if a governing body doesn’t adopt any rules at all, the common law still requires the body to follow general parliamentary law. See Paul McClintock in the MRSC article “Meeting Tips and Myths.”

It’s Flexible

Jurassic ParliamentRobert’s Rules includes a set of modified rules for small boards, i.e. groups of less than 12. In Robert’s Rules In Brief, see page 158. Jurassic Parliament , the meeting consultant the Association of Washington Cities has offered at recent trainings, recommends adoption of a modified set of rules for small boards. See this Jurassic Parliament Tip Sheet. I purchased a copy of this document for each city councilmember.

It’s a Complete Reference

The rules of procedure drafted by our City Attorney are far from complete. They lack an explanation of the fundamentals of parliamentary procedure, for example:

  • No explanation of the four basic types of motions (see pages 126-129 of In Brief)
  • No explanation of how motions are presented (page 20)
  • No explanation of how debate is structured to preserve decorum (page 31)
  • No explanation of how to make amendments (page 39)
  • No information on the precedence of motions (page 105)
  • No explanation of the role of the chair (see below)
  • No explanation of the notion of “suspending the rules” (see efficiency, below)

It’s not necessary or wise to spend time and dollars drafting new versions of established rules. Instead, we should just adopt Robert’s Rules as the baseline.

It Establishes the Role of the Chair

The chair’s role as moderator of the meeting is to impartially run the meeting according to its rules—not to participate in the debate by offering rebuttal after each member’s remarks. In Robert’s Rules In Brief, see page 69. The set of rules drafted by our City Attorney omit this important principle.

Each of the examples above are important to have in writing in order for group to exercise its will. In the absence of rules, the chair becomes a dictator by necessity. That’s not democracy.

It Promotes Efficiency

Robert includes easy methods to move the meeting along while preserving the rights of the body to govern itself. Today, the mayor makes many decisions about the course of the meeting on his own, effectively usurping the right of the council to govern its own affairs. Under Robert, these decisions require approval of the members—but getting such approval need not be onerous. In In Brief, see page 68 for a description of “unanimous consent”—a streamlined procedure for handling matters upon which there is actual consensus.

It Defines the Role of the Council

The City Council should understand that it can do what it wants. The Council is not dependent on the mayor or staff to add items to agendas, nor is it constrained by any of the rules it has adopted or will adopt. At any time, the Council could vote by 2/3 to “suspend the rules” to do what it needs to do. See page 93 of In Brief.

How would we adopt Robert?

Adopting Resolution

Both our currently-adopted and city attorney-proposed rules of procedure amount to 2-3 pages dedicated to procedures covered by Robert. We could replace all that imprecise verbiage with the following:

The rules contained in the current edition of Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised govern City Council meetings in all cases to which they are applicable and in which they are not inconsistent with state law, city ordinances, or any special rules of order the Council may adopt.

We could then adopt any special rules of order (e.g. the rules for small boards) subsequently in our revised procedures resolution.

Parliamentary Procedure Training

All of us—council, mayor, and city attorney—would plainly benefit from real training in parliamentary procedure and best practices in conducting a meeting. We don’t have to search for an expert: I’ve repeatedly suggested Ann Macfarlane, a recognized local authority on parliamentary procedure and meeting protocol. Macfarlane regularly presents at AWC meetings and writes for the Council/Commission Advisor column for the MRSC website.

Macfarlane offers a 3-4 hour interactive training through her consulting firm, Jurassic Parliament. Eric Johnson and I participated in one of her trainings at last year’s AWC Newly Elected Officials training. She presented again at the AWC Annual Meeting I attended in June:

AWC Annual Conference 2012

The Oak Harbor City Council held a training with her last year, and I arranged for her to train the Skagit County Planning Commission. Each of these trainings has been fun, engaging, and extremely helpful. As you can tell, I’m a big fan. The Planning Commission and other city boards and commissions could also benefit from and participate in the training. With a little introduction, Robert is accessible to everyone and it could help correct ongoing problems with the way our City Council operates.

Ward 1 Meeting: January 24

January 13, 2013 10:50 by Ryan

At our Ward 1 meeting last fall, attendees asked for additional meetings on a quarterly schedule to discuss new topics of interest or get updates on topics we’ve covered before. To that end, I’ll be hosting another Ward 1 public meeting on January 24 at 6pm in the public library’s main meeting room. I’ll be there to hear your questions, suggestions, comments, and complaints, so hope to see you then!

A Year’s Worth of City Council Paper

January 1, 2013 15:44 by Ryan

It’s recycling day at my house.

Paperwork 005

The photo above represents about 12 months worth of unnecessary paper associated with my first year on the City Council—my attempts to reject it notwithstanding. The piles would stack higher if I’d rifled through it all, but most of it goes unread or untouched, because almost everything in City Council packets is available on the City’s website, from which both councilmembers and the public can read it online.

I contend that City Council should use the online packet exclusively for several reasons:

  • First, using only the online packet would ensure that the public has access to everything that councilmembers have. If we receive an item on paper, then we can’t be sure the public has it as well.
  • Second, using only the online packet would dramatically reduce the staff time associated with preparing agenda items for the council. As a staff member for another local government, I know that printing and copying paper documents is an unexpectedly-significant time suck.
  • Finally, using only the online packet reduces resource costs. The expense associated with paper isn’t just the paper—it’s the ordering, copier rental, copier maintenance, toner, electricity, envelopes, postage, delivery, filing, storage, heating and air conditioning, indexing, records management, search/retrieval time, recycling, and disposal. Each of those costs are eliminated or mitigated by managing documents exclusively electronically.

Councilmember Eric Johnson and I already read the online packet using our laptops and tablet PCs. It’s entirely doable; today’s tools allow quick navigation, markup, and notes—especially when staff provide packet documents in native-electronic format (as opposed to scans of paper).

So one of my New Year’s resolutions is to actively refuse paper versions of documents and work harder to expand and improve electronic access to city records. We can do better.

Planning for a New County Jail

November 11, 2012 19:50 by Ryan

The Skagit Valley Herald recently concluded an excellent five-week series on our serious need for more space at the Skagit County Jail. Each piece is worth a read:

Many aspects of design and construction of the new jail are complex, but the basic fact that we need a significant number of new beds is not reasonably disputed.

The County has assembled a "Jail Coordinating Council" of local elected officials to discuss these options. Anacortes is represented by the mayor and Councilmember Bill Turner. You can read minutes and view video of these meetings on the council website.

Playing by the Rules

September 25, 2012 08:08 by Ryan

Although the City Council hasn’t formally adopted Robert’s Rules of Order, we do seem to operate under some rudimentary form of parliamentary procedure.

Except when we don’t.

During last night’s debate on the Tethys UGA expansion application, I moved to postpone consideration of the motion to approve the application until December 1, which is the deadline in the Tethys contract to provide us their location for their bottling plant. The city attorney determined that I couldn’t make such a motion; that I instead had to make a motion to table.

Oops. Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 11th Edition:

§ 14. The subsidiary motion to Postpone to a Certain Time (or Postpone Definitely, or Postpone) is the motion by which action on a pending question can be put off, within limits, to a definite day, meeting, or hour, or until after a certain event.

A motion to table is not the right motion:

§ 17. The motion to Lay on the Table enables the assembly to lay the pending question aside temporarily when something else of immediate urgency has arisen or when something else needs to be addressed before consideration of the pending question is resumed, in such a way that: there is no set time for taking the matter up again…This motion is commonly misused in ordinary assemblies—in place of the motion to Postpone Indefinitely, to Postpone to a Certain Time, or other motions…

The other problem with a motion to lay on the table is that such a motion is not debatable. A motion to postpone consideration is debatable, and would have served to focus discussion on why and how to delay a vote on the UGA expansion. Rules matter, and applying the rules in a predictable way is important to fundamental fairness in a deliberative body.

At both Association of Washington Cities events I recently attended, we received fun and easy training from this noted parliamentarian, who has trained the Oak Harbor City Council and the Skagit County Planning Commission, among others. The Anacortes City Council would greatly benefit from such training.

Charging for Records Retrievals will Curb Access

September 20, 2012 22:54 by Ryan

Also published in the Anacortes American on September 12, 2012:

A recent letter to the editor (“Public records ‘witch hunt’ cost city a bundle,” September 5) claims that requests for public records are excessively burdening the City of Anacortes and argues the Legislature should amend the Public Records Act so that requestors can be billed for research costs. In my view, the complaint is overstated, and the proposed solution is a bad one.

The right to access government records is an essential right of citizens of a democracy. The state Public Records Act is the result of a 1972 citizen initiative that famously declared, “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.”

Under the state law, government is allowed to charge 15 cents per page for photocopies, but is not allowed to charge for staff time retrieving records. Allowing government to charge for records retrieval would dramatically curtail the public’s access to its government, and would eliminate the incentive government has to keep its records organized so it can quickly retrieve them.

The City’s calculations that some requests cost thousands of dollars to process appear to be based on a inflated staff pay rate of $65/hour. The mayor has gone so far as to publish a list of community members who have requested records, including these questionable cost calculations alongside their names in an obvious attempt to shame them out of submitting further requests.

Calling out members of the public for exercising their rights under state law to legitimate access to their records is a mistake. I don’t know where we get the idea that the City shouldn’t have to comply with state laws that happen to cost money to comply with. Lots of things cost the City money—like voter registration, redistricting, and indigent defense. We still have to pay for these things, and our community and government are better off because we do.

To the extent that records retrieval costs are an actual problem for the City of Anacortes, the solution is not restricting access to records, but instead affirmative disclosure and greater transparency. For example, a look back at the City’s most significant records requests for 2011 reveals that each of the most expansive requests were prompted by the Tethys contract, where the City has been less than forthcoming about what it’s doing and for what reasons. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once declared, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

Careful Stewardship, Not Blank Checks

September 9, 2012 13:27 by Ryan

Fountain Pen Lying Across a Blank CheckThe Skagit Valley Herald has a guest column worth reading today entitled “This special place that is our Skagit Valley” (available on GoSkagit or in the e-Edition) that notes the many “jobs” proposals we’ve seen over the years:

  • The aluminum plant on Guemes Island.
  • The nuclear power plants at Hamilton and on Kiket and Samish islands.
  • The canals and homes (a la South Florida) for Padilla Bay.
  • The offshore tanker and pipeline base in Burrows Bay.
  • The floating nori farm east of Guemes.
  • The fish farms.
  • The residential development of Allen Island.
  • The residential development and resort with hotels and golf on Cypress Island.
  • The amusement park at Cook Road and I-5.
  • The water slide park at Campbell Lake near Deception Pass.
  • The coal terminal at Cherry Point and the trains required to support it.

The spectacular natural amenities that provide us “quality of life” is why many of us choose to live here. If we are to maintain those values, we can do it only through careful stewardship by careful vetting and ensuring that development minimizes or avoids impacts on the surrounding natural and built environment—not by writing blank checks to any proposal that promises (or predicts) jobs.

What does Envision Skagit say about industrial land?

September 6, 2012 22:30 by Ryan

Several proponents of the Tethys UGA expansion application have tried to use the County’s Envision Skagit 2060project (an EPA-funded study to project growth in Skagit County through the year 2060) to justify the addition of industrial land to the City of Anacortes for the Tethys water plant.

The Envision Skagit Citizen Committee issued an 85-page report in October of last year that includes a number of recommendations for how to best navigate the next 50 years of growth. But what does the report actually say about expansion of UGAs and how to obtain additional industrial acreage?

You be the judge [italics mine]:

1.3: The Committee recommends establishing a new industrial tax revenue sharing mechanism (“Industrial Tax Basket”), to develop a more regional and effective approach to designating and marketing industrial lands, while providing tax revenue benefits in an equitable manner to all participating jurisdictions.

The concept is to provide some regional tax base support for cities and towns that accept residential growth consistent with a 90/10 ratio of urban vs. rural growth, while reducing the need to expand their UGAs to do so.

and then:

1.4: Identify 1,600 acres in the Bayview Ridge Urban Growth Area for light industrial use and redirect projected residential growth from Bayview Ridge into existing cities with established municipal services and tax structures…The new industrial land would be subject to the industrial tax basket for distribution of resulting tax revenues.

The Port of Skagit County estimates that 3,429 acres of industrial land will be needed in the county by 2060 to meet employment goals, while only 1,772 acres exist today, leaving a deficit of 1,657 acres. This is an important land use to plan for far in advance, to ensure that desirable industrial lands are not occupied by other land uses whose siting needs are much more flexible.

Much of the land surrounding the Skagit Regional Airport at Bayview Ridge meets key criteria for industrial designation: it is relatively undeveloped currently, falls within the airport environs and is therefore less desirable for residential use, is adjacent to existing industrial uses, is served by appropriate infrastructure, is within reasonable trucking distance of I-5 or SR 20, and lies outside of the floodplain and NRL land.

and later:

4.4: Establish higher thresholds than currently exist in the Countywide Planning Policies, county, city and town comprehensive plan policies and the adopted UGA expansion criteria for when urban growth areas are eligible to expand. This will encourage greater infill, redevelopment, and intensification within our existing urban areas.

and finally:

4.5: Existing Urban Growth Areas should be prohibited from expanding into environmentally sensitive areas…