Friday, January 16, 2009

Greenways: Keeping the Process Honest, Equitable & Public

Some folks are recently claiming 'foul' about a relatively routine matter that the City Council took up for action last Monday night.
There are times when crying 'foul' is appropriate and justified, but this was not one of those times.
Unless, of course, one has a big axe to grind about the results of a very public due process that began back in early 2007.

The 'Greenway Program Land Acquisition Strategic Plan' was deemed necessary to establish clear overarching principles for using public funds to acquire, develop and maintain the City's Parks, Trails & Open Space properties, but without specifically identifying individual properties.

The Parks & Recreation Dept is charged with administering these funds and principles, as well as facilitating the activities of two volunteer advisory committees, the Greenways Advisory Committee and the Parks & Recreation Board. Council gets to confirm the Greenways Advisory Committee members before their appointments are made official.
Both committees are appointed by the Mayor and picked to insure both diversity and dedication to the overall community.
Except for appropriate executive sessions, both committees meet regularly in a public venue and record their proceedings in minutes.

Recommendations from these committees are publicly reported periodically to the Council for its consideration and approval, as was the case with the 'Greenway Program Land Acquisition Strategic Plan', which was 2 years in the making.
With this background, it is hard to see a legitimate justification for claims by certain people that 'inadequate public process' was followed, or that any sort of 'sneaky, back-room deals' were employed.
Those suppositions were, as they sometimes are, used to gain attention and further delay approval of something that someone simply disagrees with.
And, its certainly OK to disagree, but not for a vocal minority to achieve through 11th hour emotion and loud misrepresentation what it could not through reason and hard facts!

For those who may be interested in a more dispassionate view of what has transpired this week, I offer a few comments, preceded by this chronology of events prepared by Council member Jack Weiss:

Greenway Program Land Acquisition Strategic Plan'
Overview of Process

The first 1990 levy and the second Beyond Greenways 1997 levy had planning strategies adopted by the Greenways Advisory Committee (GAC) within months of the passage of the levies.

In keeping with this practical procedure, the GAC started strategic planning discussions soon after the passage of the May 2006 levy. Because of the size of the levy and the general categories in the budget guideline, the GAC first worked to create and pass two documents: Criteria for Property Acquisitions and Acquisition Guidelines. These were adopted in March/April 2007 with consultation with the City Council in public meetings.

GAC and the Parks and Rec Department hold public input meetings on January 31 and March 6, 2007 for suggestions on properties and criteria to consider for acquisition. Over 150 comments were received. Contrary to recent criticism, it is important to understand that these meetings, as announced at the beginning, were to “scope” the different and unique properties to analyze, not to vote on which ones were more popular. One vote for Chuckanut Ridge meant one vote, regardless of how many responded to a single property. When the Census is done next year, we will continue to count Mayor Pike as just one unique person regardless of how popular he is with votes.

The volunteer GAC holds an all day retreat on March 10, 2007 to sort and analyze comments and start the planning process.

GAC holds monthly meetings between March 2007 and October 2008 with updates occasionally reported in public session (Responsible Development President, Joe Yaver, or South neighbor citizen, Christopher Grannis, were present during many of these meetings). Because of the sensitive nature of some of the work related to the possible acquisition of specific properties, much of the strategic plan work was conducted in executive session. This allowed the free flow of information among committee members without jeopardizing or tipping off potential property transactions which would put the City in a compromised bargaining position.

For all of 2006/2007 and part of 2008, five of the 11 GAC members reside in Ward 6, the southern most ward of the City. For citizens concerned with the workings of the GAC or the effort of the committee in executive session, a call or note to Southside residents who served on the GAC for years in the past would be recommended. Consider Seth Fleetwood, Jody Bergsma, or Bobbi Vollendorf to start.

September 29, 2008: City Council holds an executive session concerning property acquisition. Later that evening, the Strategic Plan is announced that it is nearly complete. Some main elements of the Plan are verbally discussed.

October 6, 2008: Council receives a report from the GAC in a public afternoon session and a draft of the Strategic Plan is released for initial Council comment. Council is told that the Plan is ready for GAC and Parks Board approval. Council will receive the final report soon after. Proceedings of afternoon and evening sessions are available at the City website.

The Strategic Plan calls for Greenways III spending $12.96 million in six northside areas, $1 million near Whatcom Creek, and $9.5 million in five southside areas. All money is for acquisition of land only and individual projects and areas are evaluated based on the approved Acquisition Guidelines.

October 16, 2008: GAC approves the Strategic Plan on a 10-0 vote in public session. Four of the 10 committee members reside in Ward 6. The motion was seconded by a member who resides directly adjacent to the Chuckanut Ridge parcel. Barbara Ryan is in attendance as a guest and makes her initial appearance at any GAC meeting since her service as a Councilmember began in 1998.

November 8, 2008: Parks Board approves the Strategic Plan on a 11-0 vote in public session. Two of the 11 committee members reside in Ward 6. An additional member resides in Ward 5 nearby.

January 8, 2009: The agenda for the Council January 12 meeting is publicly available. The agenda contains an item labeled: Approval of Strategic Plan for Greenway 3 Levy Land Acquisition.

January 12, 2009: Council approves the North and Whatcom Creek sections of the Strategic Plan on a 7-0 vote. One councilmember resides in Ward 6. An additional member resides in Ward 5 nearby. The Council further approves a motion on a 6-1 vote to table the South section of the Strategic Plan until the Council meeting that is after 15 days after the release of the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Fairhaven Highlands/Chuckanut Ridge project. Stan Snapp voted against this motion. He resides near Lake Whatcom. Proceedings of afternoon and evening sessions are available at the City website.

The above said, there has been some dialogue on another local blog, NWCitizen, to which I and others have contributed this week.
Here is what I have posted there. You can see for yourself how this was interpreted and responded to:

John Watts // Thu, Jan 15, 2009, 8:45 pm
Former US Senator Moynihan once said that ‘everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.’

Since the author of this piece admits to several years absence -ergo ignorance- in following the Greenways intrigues, let me suggest that he avail himself of a few facts that others are able to verify, including myself, as Council member and chair of the Parks & Recreation Committee in 2006 & 2007.

The Greenways 3 levy language that was agreed to unanimously by the Council contained no money solely designated to purchase any so-called Chuckanut Ridge property. If someone feels otherwise, let them demonstrate credible evidence to the contrary.

I do know that Council members Barbara Ryan and Terry Bornemann wished otherwise and either influenced or sought to influence members Joan Beardsley and Gene Knutson to ‘earmark’ very substantial GW3 funds -up to $10.5 million- for CR purchase, but none of this was ever approved by Council action.
Again, if someone feels otherwise, let them demonstrate credible evidence to the contrary.

The Greenways 3 measure that went to the ballot designated $6 million for ALL southside GW3 purchases, with CR being the largest of several possible.
An additional $2 million was made available for potential purchase of property anywhere, with ‘priority’ given to a credible proposal for acquiring additional right of way that might be required to provide for a trail connection through the CR property. Again, there was no guarantee, or ‘earmark’ in current vernacular.

The above is the plain language that was presented to the voters, which ought to be readily verifiable through the City Attorney’s office.

While there are those who are determined to question and or try to contravene the clear true intent of the Greenways 3 measure, that is already well defined.
But, the penchant for controversy and wishful thinking remains strong among the former so-called Legacy proponents, which explains this latest demonstration of discontent and amateurish political pressure.

Another person who has paid careful attention to the Greenways 3 issue and timely reported on it, is the editor of the Cascadia Weekly, whose Gristle column of January 13 not only got it right on this latest dust-up, but also got it right on three previous Gristle columns which can be easily accessed at the following URL:

It is regrettable that the same people who threatened to ‘hijack’ the Greenways vote in 2007 are still up to mischief making using our valued Greenways program as their instrument of choice to fight a planned infill development.

Democracies are never perfect, but continuing to try to put more lipstick on the ‘100 acre woods’ piglet seems a loser’s game that carries more promise for undermining, rather than improving, the credibility of the CR acquisition advocates.

So, now I've managed to ruffle a few more feathers, including some of the same ones that have been ruffled before on this issue.
Let me say here that all my remarks pertain to the actions of the Council, its deliberations and decisions as duly recorded in the public record.
Those are the things that actually count in determining City policy.

It would be ludicrous to claim that I -or anyone- could know EVERYTHING that went on between other Councils members, citizens and advocates on all sides.
So, I do wonder why would anyone even use that argument to discredit my claim of being aware of what Council did or did not do. Desperation?
Of course, discussions, lobbying, arm-twisting, and all sorts of discourse happen to influence the decisions of elected officials!

The point is that elected officials are required by law to actually -and officially- make their decisions in public, not in secret.
Further, the concepts of due process, Washington's 'sunshine law', and the 'appearance of fairness' demand that openness be inherent in such decisions.

When a quorum of the Council is present, such meetings must be announced in advance as a public meeting.
When a quorum of Council members communicate with each other, whether in writing or not, those communications should be available to the public.

It makes no difference whether all four are in the same room together, or whether they participated in the same communication at the same time, or sequentially, the quorum rule applies.
That is why Freedom of Information Act Requests for public records can be effective in discovering, preventing or reconstructing illegal public meetings.

Of course, timeliness is of the essence, if illegal meetings, 'chain' meetings or other exchanges are to be disclosed before tainted decisions are made.

On this point, I certainly welcome the Washington Attorney General's request for mandatory Open Meetings Act education for all elected officials!
Maybe this should also be extended to members of the public?

So, the question remains, was a firm commitment made between 4 Council members to use $8 million in Greenways funds to acquire part of Chuckanut Ridge, or not?
It sounds like there was such a deal struck outside of official Council business, if for no other reason than because 2 of the 4 verbally admitted to it.
Now, I hear, a third member has also admitted to it.
But, the 4th member seems to continue their denial.

Of course, one of the two members involved is now deceased, so the maximum number of committed Council votes to such a scheme is now only three -one short of the majority needed to actually approve this spending.
Is it likely that another vote can be attracted to this tainted purpose?
I doubt it.
Louise certainly won't go there.
And the three new Council members are smart enough to smell trouble when they see it, even if they did favor acquiring CR.
Let's hope that 4th vote is lost forever!

But, on the plus side, the City will likely get a good chunk of CR -for nothing- as a result of wetlands determinations that will emerge as part of the Environmental Impact Statement [EIS].
If another minor segment of CR is necessary for trail ROW, that is also possible.
But, forget the City buying down this property for anything like $6 to $8 million!
It's not going to happen.
Take that to the bank.
But make sure it's solvent!