Why we need to change our system of government in Olympia. And How.
“Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made,” quipped Otto von Bismarck
Over the past decade, I’ve seen a lot of sausage made. I’ve learned a lot about how our local government works from serving on various advisory bodies, including:
- Human Services Review Council (Inter-jurisdictional)
- Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (Olympia)
- HOME Consortium citizen advisory committee (Thurston County)
- Community Renewal Area advisory committee (Olympia)
- Olympia Planning Commission, Chair, Comprehensive Plan Subcommittee
The three years I spent on the Planning Commission probably gave me the most insight into how things work. It was a thorough indoctrination into how our city operates, and how politics play into the decisions made. It taught me a lot about how things get done behind the scenes. On nearly every issue that came before us there was community or political pressure to choose a particular path – especially when it came to issues such as shorelines, density, and any new development projects. You almost always had to make a choice that would anger someone, somewhere, because they disagreed with you, and sometimes vehemently.
At its worst, it was the most frustrating, maddening experience I ever had. At its best, it was some of the work I’ve done in my life that I’m proudest of. More than anything, I learned that we come up with better solutions if we work together. What helps me is to not take disagreements personally, but to step back and remind myself that simply being at the same table makes reciprocity possible.
Olympia has challenges. We have the highest concentration of poverty in Thurston County with no plan to confront it. We have youth and young adults pushed around from one place to another for generations, and no youth center. We have people with untreated mental illness being preyed upon on our streets without low-barrier services to point them to. We have severe drug addiction problems, and all of the ancillary issues that come with it, and we don’t have detox beds for people who want to get clean. We’ve got major population growth on the horizon and we don’t have a housing strategy. Those are just a few of the issues we need to address as a community.
During my time on the Planning Commission, we held many public hearings, on issues ranging from urban agriculture to Quixote Village. For larger items, like the Comprehensive Plan, there might be months of hearings, forums, workshops, etc., all intended to glean as much from the public as possible before we started crafting our recommendations to council. It was often the case that upon releasing our final recommendations to council, members of the public would be upset by portions of it. We would hear from them that we didn’t listen, or that we didn’t do enough to include the public in the process – essentially they were telling us that they didn’t feel heard. Sometimes, the people who were expressing this feeling were also at every, or most, of the meetings, and spoke on the issues at length throughout the process. Somehow, even after providing input and taking part in the process provided, they didn’t feel heard. I believe there is something inherently wrong with a system or a process if at the end of the day people don’t feel included, heard, or like their values and input resonate in the final outcome.
We would react to this by having more and, what we thought at the time was better, public process the next time around – the assumption being that more meetings and forums means more access, means people will feel included. In hindsight, it was like trying to fix gridlock by adding lanes to a street, you just create more room for gridlock. People weren’t feeling engaged in the process, and we just gave them more opportunities to not feel engaged. At the end of the day, more isn’t better – we need quality not quantity. I believe we need to take a serious look at how our local government is structured in order to increase representation and engagement of citizens all over our city. Just like lower student/teacher ratios make for better functioning classrooms, a more direct democracy on the municipal level can begin to fix our community gridlock.
Where We Are
Currently we have what’s referred to as a council-manager government. Basically, this means that our city council is a purely legislative body – they set goals and policy, and city staff executes them. That’s where the “manager” comes in. Our city manager is like our CEO. Let’s say council decides that in next year’s budget, a certain amount of money be allocated to redoing sidewalks Downtown. The City Manager would then relay this new priority to the Department Heads and they would develop a plan to meet council goals. The city manager is ultimately responsible for carrying out these priorities.
Our present City Manager, Steve Hall, has been in his job for 12 years – add 13 he spent as Assistant City Manager, and that’s 25 years of one person being at the top of our Executive Branch in Olympia. This is not an elected position, the city manager is hired by our council. To put it in perspective, it’s as if our Congress were to pick our president – and pay them quite a lot of money, with little public input, and no term limits.
Our system is also what’s referred to as a “weak mayor” system, because our mayor has no more power than any other council member when it comes to voting on any particular issue; no veto power, no power over the process, just one vote like everyone else on council. They have a bit of extra responsibility in that they facilitate the meetings, and do some agenda setting, but other than that, unless you have a very compelling personality, being mayor doesn’t give you any extra advantages.
Finally, all seven of our city council seats are what is referred to as “at-large.” This means they’re elected city-wide, and all of the seats are meant to represent the whole city, as opposed to smaller geographic areas within the city.
What we currently spend on the executive and legislative levels:
City Manager salary: $153,000/year
Assistant City Manager salary: $135,000/year
SUBTOTAL – $288,000/year
Mayor salary: $19,968/year
Mayor Pro-Tem salary: $18,304/year
Councilmember salary: $16,640/year x5
SUBTOTAL – $121,472/year
TOTAL – $409,472
The following is a framework for how I feel we need to restructure our city government in order to be ready for population growth as well as to eliminate the gridlock created by disengaged citizens.
Districts – the city should be split into 5 districts – Central, NE, NW, SE, and SW – with an individually elected District Manager from each district.
Mayor – $80,000/year – The mayor should be a full-time position elected city-wide. They would serve as the chief executive, direct the administrative structure of the city, and appoint/remove department heads (with council oversight). They would be responsible for managing day to day operations of the city, and promoting council goals.
Deputy Mayor – $70,000/year – The deputy mayor should also be full-time and elected city-wide. They would preside over the city council, but would only vote in the case of a tie. Their primary role would be to serve as the liaison to district councils, the PBIA, and other interjurisdictional bodies. They would serve as mayor if the mayor is absent.
District Managers – $30,000/year x5 – There should be five council seats, each representing, residing in, and directly elected by their district. The positions would be halftime. Each council member would be responsible for appointing one resident from their district to each of the city’s advisory bodies. District Managers are responsible for appointing one district resident to each Advisory Commission, as detailed below. The District Manager and their appointees will form a District Council that shall meet no less than monthly, and serve as a direct conduit between city government and district residents.
Total council salary would be $300,000/year. This of course doesn’t include the cost of taxes and benefits, which I assume would add around $60,000, still bring the total salary cost under what we’re spending today.
Advisory and Oversight Commissions
The following describes a restructure of our existing advisory bodies in order to better fit our new system.
Each advisory body should shrink to 5 members, with one representative from each district. Each member would also be a member of their respective district council. Additionally, advisory bodies should be tasked with oversight of the city. If there is a grievance, or incident, a citizen should be able to go to the relevant advisory body with their grievance and be assured that their grievance will be reviewed. District councils would also be a venue to bring your grievance and have it forwarded to the relevant advisory commission.
Planning and Sustainability Commission – stewardship, development and maintenance of the City’s Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Code. By holding public hearings and discussing issues and proposals, the PSC develops recommendations to share with City Council in hopes of creating a more prosperous, educated, healthy and equitable city.
Budget Advisory Board – participates in City Council budget deliberations, advises Council regarding proposed amendments to the budget, drafts annual Capital Facilities Plan recommendation, and assists the Council in reviewing budget plans against results to date.
Citizen Police Oversight Committee – improve police accountability, promote higher standards of police services, and increase public confidence, in order to perform four primary functions:
- Gather community concerns about police services.
- Develop policy recommendations to address patterns of problems with police services and conduct.
- Review and advise on the complaint handling process.
- Hear appeals from complainants and officers and publicly report its findings.
Human Rights Commission – help eliminate discrimination and bigotry, to strengthen inter-group relationships and foster greater understanding, inclusion and justice for those who live, work, study, worship, travel and play in the City of Olympia. The Human Rights Commission is guided by the principles embodied in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Public Involvement Advisory Council – charged with developing policy proposals to strengthen and institutionalize the City’s commitment to public involvement.
Arts & Culture Commission – is the steward of public investment in arts and culture, and works to create an environment in which the arts and culture of the region can flourish and prosper.
Utility Review Board – advise the City Council, on behalf of and for the benefit of the citizens of Olympia, on water, sewer, stormwater, and solid waste financial plans and rates. The Board will advise Council on the establishment of fair and equitable rates, consistent with customer needs, legal mandates, existing public policies, operational requirements, and the long term financial stability and viability of the utilities.
While I feel these commissions cover most of the issues that we need public oversight and input on, there will be emergent issues, and instead of trying to make the issue fit one of the advisory bodies, we should always lean toward forming ad hoc community advisory committees to study and make recommendations to council. This will ensure that we don’t overwork our community volunteers already serving on commissions, as well as engaging even more community expertise in our process.
The process for making these changes would require a charter campaign and a vote of the citizenry. I won’t go into the technical details, but really, it’s not too terribly difficult a thing to do. Making it happen will increase community engagement, create a clear accountability structure, and make our city government more responsive to ALL.