Report on City Council Retreat

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Tue, Apr 19, 2016, 5:14 am  //  Dick Conoboy

The Bellingham City Council met, along with the mayor, several city department heads and the fire chief, on 16 April at Woodstock Farm to review strategies that  "can be sustainably provided into the future."  These strategies include "cost reductions, alternative delivery models and/or additonal revenues" that are not dependent on one-time savings.  The council also spent several hours in the afternoon reviewing their internal operations and at least one issue involving housing discrimination in rentals.  I was the only Bellingham citizen who attended the open council special meeting, although former council member Jack Weiss was present for the strategies session during the late morning.  The discussion on strategies was facilitated by a consultant, Mary Dumas, to keep the comments on track and to provide a concise summary of the thoughts of the council members. [The retreat agenda can be found here.]

The mayor began the session on strategies by saying that she wanted to avoid, to the greatest extent possible, the diversion of funds in already approved budgets.  As an example she mentioned the funds that had been diverted from street paving to the Public Development Authority ($1 million).  To avoid such "surprises" in the future, the staff created a strategy matrix, which you can view in the attachment at the end of this article.  The matrix was presented by Bellingham Planning Director Rick Sepler, who gave a broad overview, indicating that in the next 2 to 2 1/2 years the city will have to make some hard choices (example EMS levy, forming a Regional Fire Authority or formting a Metropolitan Parks District) and that planning now will help avoid crises. The strategies were meant to be a presentation of issues, not solutions.  What followed was a discussion, facilitated by Ms Dumas, the intent of which was to clarify the issues presented in the matrix.  Much of the discussion revolved around the item labelled Regional Fire Authority, but in the final analysis council members agreed the city ought to go forward, looking more closely at the listed priority strategies (indicated by a check mark in the left column).  We can expect to see these strategies brought forward to the council in the future.

The afternoon session, moderated by council president Pinky Vargas, began with a discussion about staff time. It was generally agreed that individual council members could go to department heads directly with questions but that general council desires for information involving substantial projects needed to go through the mayor so as not to disrupt department work plans.  Similarly, the use of the two council staff members, Mark Gardner and Marie Marchand, for information gathering by individual council members should be limited, and all large projects assigned to Gardner and Marchand should be approved by the council as a whole.

Office space for the council will change soon, as they are moving into city hall space being vacated by Human Resources which will move to the Federal Building. Conference rooms will then be available for council members to meet constituents. Vargas asked council members to accept and use a calendar booking system set up to provide awareness of events they attend and to ensure they are present at certain organizational functions for various invitational events around town.  City attorney Peter Ruffatto indicated there was no violation of state law on open meetings of the City Council if the members (even 4-5) attend an outside event, as long as they are not discussing or deciding issues. 

Council member Dan Hammill raised the issue of housing discrimination, specifically refusal to rent, against veterans, people with disabilities, senior citizens and families and individuals with very low incomes.  The types of income include housing vouchers, Social Security and Section 8. Vancouver, WA, has passed an ordinance against such discrimination to close any loophole that might allow such actions on the part of unscrupulous landlords.

Hammill also expressed concern regarding the timing of the receipt of agenda packets - only a few days before the council meetings - and the lack of supporting documentation, especially for large packets, so council members can prepare questions.  Council members specifically stated that copies of Power Point slides tended not to be informative and would prefer that the agenda bills come with an explanatory memorandum. Interestingly, the public has been complaining about the short notice of agenda bill items for years, a situation that leaves neighborhood boards no time to react to important agenda items. The mayor's office countered that most agenda bills were for information only. 

Council member Gene Knudson then brought forward a suggestion that when a hearing is scheduled, the public comment period be listed on the council agenda as taking place AFTER the hearing(s) If no hearing is scheduled, the comment period would remain on the agenda at its customary place at the beginning of each council meeting and run until all those who wished to comment had the opportunity to do so. This was generally agreed to by all present.  In a related topic, council member April Barker asked about follow-up with individuals who provide comment during the public comment period.  It was generally agreed that individual council members were free to follow-up but there were no formal procedures.  Furthermore, there would continue to be no engagement from the dais with public speakers during the comment period.  This differs from the public comment period at the Whatcom County Council where council members often interact with individual speakers during the public comment period without apparent harm to the proceedings.

The last discussion item was a proposal from council president Vargas to move all committee meetings to one long session of the committee of the whole. The rationale behind this was the existence of, at times, long breaks between individual committee meetings, resulting in council members waiting for the next committee session. The problem is caused by the scheduling requirements of the Sire system used by the council to record the sessions. But there are members of the public who wish to know the time that a certain committee will meet so as not to have to sit through other committee topics.  If the committee of the whole met in one long session, it would be difficult to discern when individual agenda items would be discussed.  There would also be an issue in finding agenda items on a video that has no committee breaks.  With the present system, one can jump directly to the individual committee videos. Additionally, the council's coordinator, Marie Marchand, told the group that Sire has been purchased by OnBase which will occasion some changes this summer that may add to the user-friendliness of the final product. We shall see.

Of all the topics brought forward, the strategy matrix and the issue of discrimination against certain renters are high on the list of importance.  As for rescheduling the public comment period when there are hearings, there already was a protocol in place limiting the comment period to 15 minutes and then brought back after the hearing was completed.  The present action moves the entire comment period to the slot just after the hearing(s) and ensures that the scheduling is noted on the council's agenda.

Attached Files:

-> Proposed Strategies Matrix

Report on City Council Retreat

The Bellingham City Council conducted a retreat on 16 April to discuss a number of issues, including a set of proposed strategies to ensure "sustainable services."

Dick Conoboy
Tue, Apr 19, 2016, 5:14 am
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