Sunday, July 29, 2007

Candidate Questionnaire & Decision Making

Appointments are unusual, but desirable. I know because over 8 eight years ago I was initially appointed to the City Council. Unusual because those appointed are chosen quickly by their peers, mostly based upon their written qualifications, their reputation and service in the Community. Desirable because appointments happen without the up-front burden of a political campaign, which means easier campaigning for re-election, because incumbents usually do enjoy a powerful advantage.

Wouldn't it be nice if we could more easily compare a candidate’s basic qualifications with other candidates before every political campaign or appointment? That is the purpose of the Candidate Questionnaire outlined below.

While specific 'Issues' may come and go, there are some underlying ‘Basics’ that every elected official has, should have, or needs to learn, which support each decision made by our local government. Knowing as much as possible about each candidate's 'Basics', before they are elected or appointed, seems a very useful exercise that might benefit voters. Perhaps some version of these ideas could be adopted for use in both future appointments and election forums.

At the end, I've also added some guidelines I try to use in making Council decisions. Every elected official will find that reason, fairness and consistency is expected of them, regardless of political or idealogical stripe. Often, the temptation will be strong to do what seems popular and pander to to the issue or audience 'du jour'. But, in the end, that strategy is a poor one, because of the high potential for consequences -either intended or not- that cannot be sustained.

Public officials are elected to serve primarily for the benefit of the community as a whole, and it is those benefits that last and define Bellingham.
General questions to help evaluate candidates for elected or appointed office.

• Have you read and understand the implications of the oath of office each Council member must take? Do you understand each Council member is also considered an officer of the Bellingham Municipal Corporation?

• Are you familiar with the Public Disclosure Commission [PDC] and its requirements of all candidates and elected officials?

• What is your understanding of the term 'non-partisan'? Are you aware that the City Charter specifies that all Council members be non-partisan?

• Are you aware that Council members are expected to devote an average of 20 hours per week on signed time-sheets in connection with their duties of office? Are you committed to devoting at least this amount of time if you are selected to serve?

• Are you aware of the Council Committees and other assignments that this office brings with it, in addition to special work sessions, presentations and the like? Can you fulfill these requirements?

• What preparation for this office have you done, or are you prepared to do, in order to 'get up to speed' on both Council procedures and current issues? Any relevant experience in public office? Any voluntary local civic involvement?

• Have you read, reviewed or otherwise become aware of the function of the following documents: Comprehensive Plan; Consolidated Plan; 23 Neighborhood Plans; Budget; Comprehensive Annual Financial Report [CAFR]; Council Goals & Objectives; City Charter; Parks, Recreation & Open Space Plan; Waterfront Redevelopment - Vision & Framework Plan, and Strategic Guidelines & Design Concepts?

• Are you willing to commit to intensive training to learn the basics of serving in public office? ['Welcome to City Hall' Maual; Association of Washington Cities (AWC) Annual & Legislative conferences; meet key City staff; understand legal constraints]

• Have you actively participated in or supported any major issues or campaigns of Community-wide significance? What is your history of activity with Neighborhood Associations? Any written opinions on local issues?

• What is your understanding of the Open Public Meetings Act, and what was intended by this State 'Sunshine' Law? How would this influence your personal decision-making?

• Are you familiar with the purpose and proper use of Executive Sessions and the reasons for strict confidentiality of the information discussed in them?

• Are you familiar with the Parliamentary Rules and procedures adopted by the Council to control its meetings and deliberations?

• Is it your plan to carefully weigh all decisions, make them independently and explain your reasons for support or non-support of any measure? Are you accustomed to operating under pressure and in a fishbowl?

• What are the criteria which you would personally use to consistently arrive at fair, legal and fiscally sustainable decisions for the benefit of the entire community? Would you consistently respect all citizens and viewpoints?

• Are you comfortable with approving controversial legislation with a 4-3 margin? Would you expect this to occur often? What areas would deserve more consensus building? How does an elected Council Member's duties compare to those of a juror?

• Do you have any affiliations with organizations, investments or persons which might become, or be considered, as conflicts of interest?

• Do you have any existing relationships with Council members that either you - or the public - might find problematic if you are selected? Could appearance of fairness become an issue, if you are seen as being unduly influenced by another member?

• What are your personal goals and aspirations for attaining this office? Only until elections produce an elected member? Run for office until the next election. Longer-term after that? Would you run only if appointed? Would you run if not appointed?

• Do you know what remuneration and benefits are due to each Council member?

• Please briefly summarize your personal code of ethics and conduct.

• Any personal references that you wish to cite?

• What relevant experience do you have regarding budgeting in general? Are you familiar with Government budgeting and financial processes? Are there differences that you can explain?

* In your opinion, what is the single most important issue facing the City?
In your estimation. is this being adequately addressed?

* What do you want to see the City accomplish that isn't now being
adequately addressed or is not currently considered a high priority?


There is no set protocol or rulebook with rigid criteria to guide Members in making Council decisions, nor can there be one that would cover all situations possible, or necessarily bind future Councils. Even if such criteria existed, they would be difficult to impossible to enforce. In the interest of making consistently wise decisions, here are some of the general principles I have decided to follow, regardless of the issue:

o whether decisions are legal

o whether they are fair and consistent with established City policy and past precedents

o whether they reasonably comport with the information gathering and/or decision process that developed them

o whether the decision is really my [Council's] responsibility

o whether arguments to overturn or change are factual or political

o whether new precedents will be set that will be difficult to sustain

o whether our professional staff supports specific options, and why

o whether the greatest possible community wide benefit is assured

o whether I have done sufficient homework to understand the rationale and
reasonable options

o whether my decision honors the recommendations of the volunteer boards
and commissions responsible for reviews and recommendations

o whether any adverse unintended consequences may result

o whether decisions are made in sunshine, with reasonable public

o whether public funds are wisely used and benefits outweigh the costs

o whether conflict of interest or appearance of fairness violations may
result, or perceptions of same

Note that none of these 'filters' allows much room for subjective whim or opinion, autocratic authority, or populism. None of those are things are sustainable, because voters and taxpayers rightfully expect consistently better justifications.