Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Waterfront Redevelopment: A Grecian Flat Earth Day Theory?

Most often, I find more points of agreement with the Cascadia Weekly's 'Gristle', than otherwise.
Plus, I truly enjoy the editor's talent for putting words together and creating memorable mental images that resonate with experience - or at least his opinion.
But, not today!
And certainly not because today really IS Earth Day.

No, my objection to this piece is that the editor has again succumbed to his predilection against the Port & City's agreeing to cooperate in cleaning up and redeveloping our ailing and inaccessible waterfront.
At least, he is consistent -if not convincing -in opposing such a visionary and cooperative action.

But, what qualifies as a better idea?
Surely not leaving the waterfront as it - is for years and years and more years, for future generations to face!

Or, maybe, instead, selling it to a private developer; say someone like Trillium, which so desperately coveted its ownership?
That way, the theory goes, public expense is somehow minimized, and positive progress is somehow made more certain -arguments that contain more holes and aroma than old swiss cheese!

Or, just continuing to use the waterfront as a political football for various naysayers and ne'er do wells to kick around in pick-up games whenever they feel the urge?

I don't think so!
And neither do most people, despite the hard times we're experiencing right now.
Most folks want to see this site and associated waterway decontaminated responsibly, and not just only because of G-P's mercury wastes.

Did you know that the City of Bellingham will also be cleaning up some of its own sins of the past?
Like 3 or 4 former landfills located at or near the water's edge.
Does anyone doubt this work does not need to be done?

Actually, I suspect the combined City Council and Port Commission votes cast on Monday's agreement probably accurately reflect the ratio of public sentiment on this issue, which has been discussed and debated for what -7 years, now?
The Council's vote was 4 to 2, with 1 absent, who would have voted with the majority.
That's what, 5 out of 7?
That means less than 30% opposed, which is about the average vote count for a poor candidate for elected office.

The Port's vote was unanimous, and why would it not be?
After all, they are on the hook for paying the costs of clean-up, then the lengthy redevelopment of the site into something useful, safe and enjoyable.
That is a big job that is definitely worth doing!

So, rather than boasting about the incremental progress achieved -or beating a dead horse, like the Gristle seems to be doing- its probably better that we just accept this latest decision for what it's worth and move ahead to the next step.
After all, it is no more binding than prior agreements or 'memorials' have been, but with the difference that some necessary basic parameters have now been addressed and more or less decided.

Don't you think it's prudent to periodically document progress and reaffirm commitments?
[Of course, if one against such progress, they won't ever agree]
Anyway, what's done is done and legal, and so its about time we moved on without wasting more time and resources on matters that have been pretty thoroughly considered.

That is not to say everyone will agree, but that is the nature of such things.

All of us have our 'druthers' and predispositions on such matters, and we are certainly entitled to them!
But, at some point decisions that are the product of lengthy and detailed public scrutiny need to be duly made, and honored.
That is clearly where we are now, despite some folks preference to endlessly 'study' things and continue to create expensive shelf art -until, they hope, their fancy is well and truly suited.

Did you find it curious that the Gristle referred to this latest agreement as a 'Pyrrhic' victory, and that this Greek battle was thought to have been fought on flat ground.
And, exactly where does the empty victory fit in?
Methinks its more like an empty defeat.

A better example might have been the stand at Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans held off thousands of Persians, on not so flat ground.
[If the editor had just fast-forwarded a few centuries, he would have found the 'flat earth' theory challenged -even under threat of death- and eventually disproved]
But, you know, that particular result was inevitable, and it still stands; because the Spartans were eventually defeated by attrition down to zero -meaning they all were killed.

That their story lives on speaks of their bravery and determination, but the reality is these Spartans are now relegated to history and exaggerated myth of the sort that attracts Hollywood film-makers.

Maybe a similar result is what the Gristle has in mind?
Brave victims forever?

Aren't there much better things to be remembered for?
On the other hand, if people still believed the Earth is flat, then maybe Columbus wouldn't have set sail......

For those interested, I have reprinted the subject Gristle below:

Flat Earth
April 21 2009

FLAT EARTH: In 280 B.C., the legendary ruler of a kingdom along the Ionian Coast met the legions of Rome and overcame them; yet, in victory this king suffered such destruction to his armies that, in the words of Plutarch, victory had utterly unmade him. His name, Pyrrhus, came to describe a victory with bitter cost to the victor. And while “victory that is no victory” might describe the decision this week by Bellingham City Council and Port of Bellingham commissioners to move swiftly ahead on waterfront planning in the midst of a global repositioning of assumptions about economies, resources and even the future roles of government and public-private partnerships, no, the Gristle’s thinking more of the naming of a thing that brings no honor to the person named.

It is ironic indeed that a diagonal road planned to connect Central Avenue through Bellingham’s redeveloped mill site to the traditional entrance of the mill at Laurel Street is being named for one of the original financiers of that mill. Ironic, because the path of that road, as approved by a divided council and unanimous port commissioners, carves through the footprint of, thereby requiring the removal of, most of the historic mill structures on the site Bloedel’s pioneering career made authentic.

For the second week, and with the efficiency of an employee on the port’s payroll, Mayor Dan Pike chased down fading council opposition to a planning framework for the Waterfront District—a framework that will, in the words of the mayor, “memorialize” (read: set in heavy clay) certain planning assumptions for Bellingham’s central waterfront. Notably, these include an alignment of streets that would require the demolition of nearly all of the historic structures of the former mill site, made in a decision so hasty council could not even convene one public hearing or seek the advice of even one of several citizen advisory committees.

The Waterfront Advisory Group received a draft of the plan late Friday; the plan was adopted in final on Monday. The Historic Preservation Commission, which has had much to report on the value of those structures, met in an emergency session late Friday to request “additional analysis [to] determine the level of re-use potential for each structure based on historical and cultural significance, structural integrity” and other factors. The HPC request—which passed unanimously—was ignored by city officials.

The public has cause for alarm when 100-year plans are “memorialized” in such haste.

Pike ominously warned council members the eyes of Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Rick Larsen were on their agreement this week. The Gristle could find no one who might verify any looming requirement or financial threat from our Congressional delegation; more to the point, none of them would even know anything was amiss in waterfront planning if the port commissioners hadn’t written their dumbass letter in November, withdrawing from cooperative planning, and cc’d it to the world. If concern exists, the port created it. And because of their hasty, fear-based action, Bellingham must continue hasty, fear-based action?

Let’s review:

In October, Bellingham Planning Director Tim Stewart complained to the lead environmental (SEPA) official that “the port’s segmented and piecemealed environmental review fails to consider the cumulative impacts of the proposed demolition of these buildings.” Four neighboring structures—that formerly housed the mill’s steam plant, pulp storage, screen room and bleach plant—are all “buildings of primary significance, according to Georgia-Pacific’s due diligence assessment of the buildings in 2004,” Stewart explained.

In November, Pike told the same official, “The demolition of buildings, in order to accommodate waterfront redevelopment, would tear at the fabric of the downtown, Old Town and our neighborhoods and is not acceptable.” The proposed street alignment “would require the demolition of virtually all of the onsite industrial buildings,” Pike emphasized. “These… assertions raise serious doubts about the integrity of this entire environmental review process.”

Mayor Pike called this out again in the city’s waterfront connections proposal: “Studies have shown that preserved historic districts tend to appreciate more quickly than unprotected areas; historic tourism is one of the fastest growing economic sectors throughout the United States; and most importantly, people hunger for authentic and unique areas that tell a story about who we are.”

As cooperative planning literally slid off the rails in December, a group of architects studied the site plan and urged caution in deciding the fate of these buildings. One of these architects, Dave Christiansen, also serves on HPC, which urged similar support of the architects’ evaluation in their motion last week the city ignored.

What changed between then and now?

Only that the city has caved on the point. What other points have they also caved to in this agreement? What else objectionable now binds the city—in terms of public space, waterfront access, environmental integrity?

Cruelly, only two council members present expressed the curiosity even to ask.

In every distinguishable way, the framework proposal is indistinguishable from the original “flat earth” plan the port has trotted out again and again; and that the public has rejected again and again. Hallelujah, we have joint agreement on “the Bellevue plan.”

Pyrrhic victory? Oh, yes.


Executive Sessions: Necessary Secrets Or Inconvenient Law?

Sometimes, to hear people talk, you'd think executive sessions weren't legal.
But, of course, they are.
And, they are essential to protect people, public funds and legal rights.
That is why they are allowed under law.

Why do you imagine these more secretive sessions are called 'executive sessions'?
Think that has anything to do with the executive branch of government?
Is this system subject to abuse?
You bet it is, just like a lot of things.
But how does one begin to show this suspicion, especially if they don't have access to all the facts?
The answer is they don't have many options, except to watch closely, ask questions and -well- just be suspicious.

As far as questions go, there is no such thing as an 'inappropriate' question.
But, there certainly can be 'inappropriate' answers!
That is why the executive session provision is considered so necessary and legal.

Other, more knowledgeable folks can probably give a better litany of reasons why the executive session provision exists here in the State of Washington, where it was first adopted in 1972.
Since that time the list of 10 legal reasons for justifying executive sessions has morphed into some 300.
One wonders if all of those are really different reasons or just more specific definitions and examples - but politically this expanded list seems to make for great political fodder for some folks.
You know, folks like State AG and politician Rob McKenna, the usual anti-guvmint folks and maybe even a few direct democracy types and anarchists, plus don't forget those desperately trying to fill up space on slow news days without working at it too hard.

But, you know what? All of this is fair game!
After all, we are supposed to be a 'representative' democracy.
That means those fortunate - or unfortunate - enough to be elected to serve get to live in public fishbowls, where their every act is carefully scrutinized, questioned and second-guessed, sometimes seemingly without even a modicum of trust, respect or an attempt at understanding.
You know, knee-jerk stuff that's accepted just because it includes a few 'magic' words that can galvanize people, or simply be instantly interpreted as legitimate, like 'transparency', 'openness', 'public's right to know', etc.
Don't get me wrong, all this inquisitiveness does come with the territory; but that's not to say that some of it isn't spurious, deliberately deceptive, and even wasteful of public resources at times.

And, it is human nature to want to know about what's going on, especially when one is excluded from possibly juicy details!
Why there might be a tasty headline, scoop or just the start of a misguided dialogue hidden among topics covered by executive sessions.
Can't afford to let that happen, can we?
Yet, excessive emphasis on suspicions, speculation and political banter for its own sake have to be partly to blame for the public's loss of interest in traditional media, like newspapers.
Just look at which journalists and publications were recently honored with Pulitzer prizes.
They weren't the tabloids, media with obvious biases or agendas, or reporters and editorialists who do not thoroughly research their work.
That should be instructive, at every level of reporting!
And, this is a simple observation, not a criticism; there is a difference.

Back to local executive sessions for a moment.
Here are just a few examples that relate to typical topics:
It may be useful to keep in mind that the City of Bellingham is a municipal corporation, with elected officials that act as CEO [Mayor] and Board of Directors [Council].

• litigation and potential litigation- the City's Legal budget typically provides annually for millions of dollars in legal liability
• protection of attorney - client privilege; including executive department operations -which do not require separate Council approval
• there are literally millions of dollars in potential liabilities at stake and under active litigation, including those that are simply spurious and without merit and likely to be dismissed with minimal expense to the City -AND its taxpayers.
• there are labor contracts that have resulted from months of collective bargaining negotiations which require Council approval [always made in public] before going into effect.
• there are personnel matters which are sensitive and inappropriate to broadcast widely
• there are purchasing and acquisition opportunities which depend upon a certain amount of confidentiality prior to finalization to insure lowest public cost
* there is an entire list of potential reasons for inclusion of an item into an executive session, and these are readily available for review on public websites, including ACCESS WASHINGTON, MRSC and others.

As with most things, it is likely impossible to reduce each one of them to a pre-defined and certain formula.
Instead, a certain of informed judgement may be required, and this is supplied by the City's legal staff, who represent not only the executive branch, but also the legislative - whose approval is ultimately required in deciding any executive session matter.
Now, I know that just saying 'trust me' isn't something that holds water for many people, but it is essential at times -executive sessions being one such example.

The temptation to know what is going on is not only essential, but very healthy, but it can also overly tempting at times.
But, hey, if a juicy piece can be mined by nosing around executive sessions, why not do it?
After all, any proof to the contrary of an idle suspicion can amount to partial disclosure of the actual facts!
How convenient.

It is always good to question things, especially those things that impact our government and the public interest.
But, have you ever wondered why some folks would rather nose around for juicy, 'secret' gossip than actually cover other events that aren't executive sessions?
Human nature is only part of the answer I suspect.
And it can sell newspapers, plus create instant controversy and a fleeting 'Andy Warhol 15-minutes of fame'.

The really hard -but useful- work would be to research why executive sessions were deemed so important that they are now specifically provided for under our State law, which can always be modified if proven necessary.
If some people think executive sessions are unnecessary or unduly secretive, then it is their real job is to convince the State legislature to make changes to this law.
Of course, just stirring up discontent among the populace might also be deemed helpful to such an effort, as well, as some populist politicians seem always willing to do.

But, failing the finding that executive sessions are inherently fatally flawed, the next best bet is to exert a little more confidence in the system we have, imperfect as it may be.
That also includes making sure that those elected to office are trustworthy and competent, which is no one's responsibility more than citizens themselves!
And, it would be nice to have the same standard of trustworthiness applied to everyone who seriously follows the workings of our local government.
Doesn't it seem fair to have this same standard apply to everyone, whether legally mandated or voluntarily embraced?
If we are to have a system of government that is consistently fact-based, respectful of the law, and responsive to the public, we deserve nothing less.

Executive sessions do have their place and serve a practical purpose.
But, like everything else, improvement is always possible.
Perhaps, the idea of mandatory instruction for elected officials is a good idea that ought be pursued.
If that does come to pass, I hope these training sessions would be held in very public forums and televised for future reference, so that all citizens can exposed to this basic information, and therefore more aware of the useful functions executive sessions do play in government decisions.

In the meantime, there are plenty of subjects to be researched, reported and debated in public, that are NOT executive sessions!
You know, little things like protecting the Lake Whatcom Reservoir, Growth Management, Waterfront Redevelopment, Budget gaps, a new Library, background information on elected officials and candidates for office, etc, etc, might also seem to have some very juicy 'secrets' hiding in plain sight.
They might as well be secrets, if people don't know about them.
And, they aren't being kept 'secret' by any excuse like executive sessions; they some of the many are 'open' secrets that folks just aren't being informed about; maybe because that would be considered too much work, or maybe just boring?
Just a few things like these could stand more research and reporting, what do you think?

Even beginning a discussion about a topic like executive sessions, can be daunting but necessary, and it is good this is being done again, as it has in the past.
When any subject is subject to misunderstanding and/or misinterpretation, that -alone- is a good time to examine it more thoroughly.
The question Then becomes, how best to do this.
Ideally, the method used will engage citizens with factual information, then pose suggestions for actually improving the process, not just questioning in its entirety.

And, surely, some respect must be shown for the decades of thought already put into such matters by the citizens, media and elected officials of the State of Washington!
Those folks may not have been perfect, but who says we are either?

Let's be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water, shall we?