What do you want to know about the Tethys UGA expansion proposal?

August 21, 2012 23:58 by Ryan

imageOn Tuesday, September 4, the City Council will discuss the proposed resolution to ratify the mayor’s unauthorized application to the County to expand the Anacortes Urban Growth Area on behalf of Tethys Enterprises (ostensibly for a bottled water plant). A number of commenters at last night’s meeting had concerns about Tethys’s plans and questions that we need answers to before our next council discussion.

So what do you want to know?

In preparation for that discussion, I plan to send questions to city staff and Tethys representatives. Let me know with a note in the comments below what you’d like to know about their proposal. Feel free to elaborate on why it’s important.

Will there be public comment tonight?

August 13, 2012 14:26 by Ryan

According to this article on Anacortes Now, many people may be mobilizing to attend tonight’s City Council meeting where the Council will discuss, for the first time, the mayor’s request to add 11 acres to the Anacortes Urban Growth Area to accommodate the Tethys water bottling plant. If the public would like to speak to the issue, when will they get the chance?

The City Council’s 1995 Rules of Procedure designate the second and fourth Monday meetings as “study sessions.” Public comment is usually not taken at study sessions, but in fact, Section 3 of the rules provides that “Study sessions will be held in a variety of formats, to best accomplish their purpose. Some will allow for public input and discussion.” Section 6 also provides that “In matters not involving public hearings, the council will welcome, at appropriate points on the agenda, information, questions or comments from the public, pertinent to the matters under discussion at the Study Session…”

Although no time for public comment is explicitly listed on tonight’s agenda, consistent with the proper understanding that these are council meetings, the Council should be able to consider a motion to allow public comment at any time. Some have suggested that the Council can’t make motions at study sessions. But there’s no authority at all for that proposition in the Council’s rules of procedures, nor in the state Open Public Meetings Act. Study sessions aren’t recognized by state law as any special kind of meeting where motions aren’t allowed; each of our regularly-scheduled meetings are just “regular meetings.”

Even if there were a rule in the Council’s Rules of Procedure resolution prohibiting public comment or anything else the Council wanted to do, the Council could suspend that rule at any time. A resolution is simply a written form of a motion, and the Council can vote to override that prior decision with a later decision.

The upshot is that the Council is not limited by anything other than its own preference as to whether we take public comment tonight. We may choose to defer public comment to next week, but if we do, that means attendees will have to come to a second meeting to say their piece, and our discussion tonight won’t be informed by what the public thinks.

Leadership Scholarship Award Winner Mason Cole

August 13, 2012 10:52 by Ryan

At this year’s Association of Washington Cities Annual Conference in June, I was very pleased to be able to introduce recent Anacortes High School graduate Mason Cole. Mason was one of four winners statewide of AWC’s Center for Quality Communities student leadership scholarship of $1,000.

AWC Center for Quality Communities Winner Mason Cole

The City Council recognized Mason at last week’s meeting, but without noting the important reasons he received the scholarship. Among other things, Mason is an excellent drama and choir student. My mom, who is the high school receptionist, can vouch that he’s a terrific singer.

But Mason has also been a real leader at our high school and in our community. During his senior year of high school, Mason served as the student representative to the Anacortes School Board. To fulfill his responsibilities in that role, he held lunchtime focus groups in the high school cafeteria so he could hear from his constituents.

“Being a leader,” he said, “is about being successful at speaking for the people, and listening to the people.” That’s something we should all remember.

Who sets the City Council agenda?

July 19, 2012 01:55 by Ryan

A couple of recent letters to the editor in the Anacortes American have highlighted a tense exchange between the mayor and myself at the June 4 Council meeting. The upshot of the dispute was that the three-member Council Planning Committee wanted to add a discussion item to the next Council study session agenda. Under the Council's adopted rules of procedure, three members of the Council can add any item to the first available agenda. In the meeting, the mayor declared that he didn't care about that rule, and after the meeting he told me that state law provides that he "controls the agenda."

The mayor is incorrect. By state statute, the City Council has the power to regulate the conduct of its own meetings, including adding an item to a meeting's agenda. The mayor (or technically, the clerk) may prepare the agenda, but he does not control it. This MRSC article supports this position.

Frankly, the authority of the City Council to run its own meetings should be self-evident to both city councilmembers and the public; the fact that it is not is a sign of the longtime dysfunction under which our city government continues to operate. Moreover, I didn't campaign on a platform of business-as-usual. The tired refrain that "that's how we do things" is not persuasive to me when that tradition contradicts both the statute and the City Council's own rules.

The public should be able to expect the City Council to perform its role as the legislative branch of City government, and the City Council needs to assert itself as that separate and independent branch—which it can't reasonably call itself if it isn't even willing to enforce its own rules of procedure.

In this case, the mayor's purported concern was that the upcoming agendas were full of previously-scheduled items. That turned out to be false as well. In the weeks since the June 4 request, we've had meetings that lasted only 90 minutes, then an hour, then just 45 minutes. And although the mayor lacks authority to cancel a City Council meeting, he did so July 9 for lack of pressing business. We're now told that we'll get to finally discuss the topic at next week's meeting. More on that next.

Here Comes the Debate on the Hearing Examiner

June 26, 2012 22:38 by Ryan

The Anacortes City Council is (finally) poised to debate the Planning Department's proposal to adopt a Hearing Examiner, which the City has been slowly working through since 2010. Although we've had several meetings about the proposal, we have yet to actually debate the central issue: do we replace the citizen Planning Commission with an unelected hearing examiner appointed by the mayor?

In summary, the proposal would accomplish the following:

  • Transfer the duty to review conditional use permit and other discretionary permit applications from the Planning Commission to a hearing examiner. Note that Title 19 "Option B" would leave this responsibility with the Planning Commission, and not create a hearing examiner.
  • Revise the procedural provisions of our land use code, and consolidate those provisions in the new Title 19.
  • Make other necessary changes to the other titles to accomplish the above.

The City Council will hold a public hearing on the proposal on Monday, July 2, at 7pm. This is your chance to voice your opinion in person to the entire City Council.

Benchmarking Anacortes Governance

March 10, 2012 13:43 by Ryan

Although the Mayor rarely provides the City Council much notice of upcoming agenda items, last week was especially egregious when we received the City’s 200-page Water System Plan just four days before the vote. Although other councilmembers have complained about the lack of time we have to review agenda items, the Mayor has brushed off those concerns, protesting that staff need more time to submit items for the agenda.

Agendas and Agenda Packets

I thought it valuable to ask our neighboring cities how far in advance their staff is able provide their councilmembers with council packets. Here’s a table with the answers. Unsurprisingly, no city listed gives as few days notice to councilmembers as Anacortes, and most give much more time.

CityAgenda
Available
Packet
Published
Council
Meeting
Days with
Packet
Workdays
with Packet
Anacortes Thursday Friday Monday 4 2
Burlington Friday Friday Thursday* 7 5
La Conner Wednesday Friday at noon Tuesday 5 3
Mount Vernon Friday by 4:30 Friday Wednesday 6 4
Oak Harbor Wednesday (draft) Thursday at noon Tuesday 6 4
Sedro-Woolley Friday Friday Wednesday 6 4

The number of workdays the Council has before the meeting is key, because staff aren’t available to answer questions on weekends. With Anacortes’s current system, Councilmembers who work Monday through Friday have essentially no time to get questions answered: if you read your packet Friday night or over the weekend, and email a question over the weekend, you can’t get an answer before Monday…leaving very little to time actually read the response between getting off work and the council meeting time.

Agenda Detail

Most of these other cities also provide much more detail on their agendas and in the packets. For example, most of the cities list whether the Mayor is requesting action (approval, discussion, or public hearing) on the agenda item. Some also list the dates, times, and locations of upcoming council committee meetings and public hearings. Oak Harbor even includes in their council packets a list of pending agenda items for future meetings—another thing that our councilmembers have requested, and we know the Mayor has, but he has refused to provide.

The Case of the Garbage Truck

It’s also useful to compare the content of those packets. For example, at our January 17, 2012, meeting, the City Council approved the purchase of a garbage truck. The packet the Mayor provided the Council included this memo and this 2007 generic purchasing agreement. Notably, the packet didn’t contain the description of the truck, or even the price of the truck. Not until the day of the meeting—only because I asked—did I learn the price was $320,000.

Contrast that with the City of Sedro-Woolley, which also just purchased a garbage truck. This excerpt from their February 22 council packet includes a much more detailed memo from the department head, including the cost of the truck and the balance and expected revenues for the fund from which they expected to pay for it. Their packet also included a detailed quote for the truck, so the council could see exactly what they were buying.

Maybe Sedro-Woolley bought a different truck than we did. Or maybe as a result of their more open process, where the specs on the truck they wanted to buy were open to public view, Sedro-Woolley spent just $292,000 on their garbage truck—almost $30,000 less than we spent.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Both the cities of Mount Vernon and Oak Harbor, and the Town of La Conner, set the deadline for agenda availability in their municipal code. They did so by passing a law, which is the way the legislative branch of government properly checks the action of the executive. That’s what the Anacortes City Council needs to do if it cares about performing its job at the level the voters expect.

* Correction March 19, 2012: This post originally indicated Burlington's City Council meets Fridays. They meet Thursdays.

Why I voted no on the Water System Plan

March 8, 2012 00:30 by Ryan

On Monday, the Anacortes City Council approved an update to the city's Water System Plan, the document that charts the course for the City's largest utility. I voted against it. Here's why.

  • We didn't have time to read the document. Although the document is 200 pages long, the Mayor didn't provide the City Council notice that it would be coming to us for approval until we received the agenda on Thursday. Our meeting packets appear online Friday, which leaves very little time for us to read the material. For those of us that work full-time, if we have questions, there's essentially no time to receive and read answers from staff. Moreover, the Mayor didn't actually even provide us a copy of the plan. Our packets included only the executive summary. The plan appears on the City website, but in 30 separate PDF files, some only a single page long, which makes it still harder to read.
  • We didn't receive the comments. The Mayor didn't provide us copies of the comments the City received from agencies or the public on the draft plan, and they're not on the website. This is completely unacceptable, especially because the ordinance the City Council approved includes a line (1.8) stating that the Council had considered the comments on the plan. It's obviously important for the Council, as the authority charged with approving the plan, to be able to review those comments. The comments the City received on its 2000 plan were included in the plan itself.
  • We used up our once-per-year opportunity to amend the Comprehensive Plan. The ordinance the Council approved explicitly amends the Comprehensive Plan, and makes various statements about how the plan supersedes any existing City policy or plan. State law (RCW 36.70A.130) allows a city to amend its comprehensive plan only once per year. This is a well-established and well-understood limitation that ensures a city doesn't change its comprehensive plan too frequently, and without understanding the cumulative effects of many small changes. Now that the City has amended the comprehensive plan, we can't do so again until next year.
  • The conservation goal set in the plan is anemic. The goal amounts to 4.28 million gallons of water saved per year, which might sound like a lot until you consider that in 2007, the system supplied 6,790 million gallons of water, so the conservation goal is equivalent to only 0.06% of the total or 0.2% of the residential demand. The only real conservation measure identified in the plan is that the City will make available dye tablets to help you check if your toilet leaks. The conservation element in Skagit PUD's Water System Plan, by contrast, is much more robust. Most significantly, and unlike PUD, Anacortes does not use conservation pricing even though it is recommended by the State Department of Health. In fact, Anacortes recently doubled base water rates, which will have the effect of further reducing the incentive to conserve.

After the presentation from Public Works, I moved to postpone consideration of the plan to next week so that we would have a chance to actually read it. At our February 3 council retreat, in the context of a discussion about the very short amount of time we have to review materials for meetings, the Mayor promised that "Council does not have to take action on any issue until it is ready to do so." But when I actually requested more time, the Mayor was considerably less than supportive of delaying consideration by even a week, and later made various vague but ominous statements that councilmembers were "personally liable" for having a robust water system and implying we would face some unspecified consequences if we failed to immediately approve the plan—particularly ironic because the City adopted its last required six-year plan twelve years ago.

Other councilmembers have also complained about the amount of time we have to review agenda items, and the level of detail provided in our packets. If we take our jobs as elected officials seriously, it's time to do something about it.

What’s next with the Hearing Examiner?

January 25, 2012 00:41 by Ryan

The City Council’s consideration of a switch to a Hearing Examiner system for review and approval of land use applications is moving forward. Here is the process the Planning Director proposed at Monday night’s City Council study session. The City Council did not adopt any process, so what follows is only one possible (but also probable) general approach. We may decide to modify the process as we get into it further.

  1. The City Council will begin discussion of the proposal (changes to Anacortes Municipal Code Titles 16-18, and new Title 19) at a study session on March 12. The City Council might suggest alternative language, and would need to decide at the conclusion of the study session how next to proceed.
  2. Staff will send the document with the City Council suggestions to an attorney for review.
  3. The City Council will discuss the attorney-reviewed document and might consider further changes.
  4. At a later meeting, the City Council would itself hold a public hearing on the near-final document.
  5. Either immediately following the public hearing, or at some later meeting, the City Council would hold further deliberations, make any (minor) final changes, and then adopt or reject the proposal.

Note that the current draft of the proposal (available here as various documents beginning with the word “Title”) includes two options—one to revise land uses procedures using a Hearing Examiner (Title 19 Option A), and one to revise without adopting a Hearing Examiner (Title 19 Option B). I have repeatedly stated my opposition to adopting a Hearing Examiner system at this time (and I’ll detail that opposition further on this blog sometime later), but I am supportive in concept of reforming our land use procedures, which are currently a sorry mess.

Your comments are welcome. This is a purely legislative (as opposed to quasi-judicial) matter, and you may contact me about it at any time. If you want your comments made part of the record, however, you should submit them through participation in the City’s formal process (i.e. at the public hearing or during an advertised written comment period).

Council Committees

January 19, 2012 11:24 by Ryan

Councilmember Erica Pickett, who the Council elected Mayor Pro-Tem at our first meeting of the year, has assigned each councilmember to four council committees, based on our requests. My committee assignments are:

  • Finance
  • Parks and Rec
  • Personnel
  • Planning
  • Port/City Liaison (as an alternate)

Although it has improved with Councilmember Adams's efforts to update it, the meeting list on the City’s website still lacks accurate time and place details for these meetings, so I'm maintaining my own version of the list here. My committees are already juggling times to make meetings work with our schedules, so it may take some work to keep it up-to-date.

Much as Oak Harbor and other communities are doing, and as I promised during my campaign, I’ll be working to make these committee meetings more frequent, open, and advertised, and to allow public participation.

Go play in the snow!

January 18, 2012 19:05 by Ryan

Lights will be on at Storvik Park tonight until 9 pm. More winter/snow information.