Council sets confident tone

But city staff say the effects of budget cuts aren’t yet appreciated.

There were no motions, no votes and no hearings.

But at the end of a Saturday morning “retreat” held before TV cameras and a group of citizens at City Hall, council members and city staff expressed a feeling of accomplishment at having laid the groundwork for a rigorous January with a cooperative tone.

“I think we as a council have renewed contact with the staff in a positive manner, and on a positive note,” recently reelected council member Bill Knobloch said late in the meeting.

“We’ll have potholes along the way, but we’re positive problem solvers, and when we hit those potholes, we’ll get through them.”

Though tackling few specifics the council discussed how best to approach impending business, including a fresh round of budget planning.

This year the city will draft a 2009-2010 biennial budget and Capital Facilities Plan, making for an even more complex process.

“It will now be compounded by us looking at a two-year window, not one,” city finance director Elray Konkel said.

But first the council must consider a lingering pothole from the 2007 council, the unresolved 2008 CFP.

New council member Barry Peters said finishing the CFP could be an opportunity to show the public that the council can act decisively.

“I’d just like to recognize the challenge of dealing with the carryover from a process that didn’t work,” he said. “That means finding a way to get through the carryover assignment as expeditiously as possible. I’d love to see us to move forward as quickly as we can to a new plan.”

Council member Debbie Vancil said the 2008 CFP needed closure but was too important to be rushed.

“What we do with this one will help determine our future, so we need to take some time on it,” she said.

As for setting priorities for the budget and city policy, council members agreed that more community involvement was needed, whether by surveys or added workshops.

To that end, Konkel said he would like to bring in a consultant as soon as possible to help coordinate a public survey early enough to be useful in decision-making this year.

Council members expressed unofficial approval of the plan, which will likely be brought up for approval at today’s meeting.

‘Wish list’

Fresh from the 2008 budget process, which saw operating budgets cut to accommodate large capital projects, council and staff mulled how to keep community priority input from digressing into a “wish list” for city spending.

Public Works Director Randy Witt and Police Chief Matt Haney reminded the council that the pain of operational cuts has yet to be felt.

“I’m not confident that the council, and I know my staff and elsewhere in the city, really understand the consequences of our budget cuts,” Haney said. “I believe that discussion needs to occur on the council before we start on these new great programs.”

Council member Chris Snow said one danger of putting priorities to a community vote is that those everyday operations, like police patrols and road maintenance, could easily be overlooked.

“These things don’t rise high enough above the horizon for most people to say ‘that’s a priority’ until they disappear,” he said.

While talking through the impending work, as much time was spent discussing how to rebuild community trust and make city government more efficient by improving communication and retooling the committee system to better vet issues before bringing them to council.

New council members Kim Brackett and Hilary Franz floated ideas for systematic change.

Brackett said she liked the model used by Sound Transit when she served on its board, of sending issues to committees to be screened by the public and vetted legally and financially before being taken up by the board.

The process sometimes took six weeks, she said, but it gave the board all the information needed to make a clean decision.

“We had no surprises at our meetings in front of the public,” she said.

Franz suggested the council begin each year with a clear set of policies drawn from a survey of community priorities, so the city would have measurable success at the end of the year.

Council member Kjell Stoknes said he would still like to consider restructuring the government away from a council-mayor system.

In the meantime, Knobloch said the current system could be improved by the council, giving city staff clearer direction, and the staff responding with full and relevant information.

Making the committee process more more transparent would help build trust and debunk the idea of the city holding “secret meetings,” Knobloch said.

“The community will be able to relax because they’ll be able to see how we’re doing our work,” he said.

Mayor Darlene Kordonowy, who scribbled notes but remained pointedly quiet throughout the discussions, said she was pleased with the tone of the retreat.

“I think that what I heard and what was expressed and exhibited today is that ‘yes,’ we can get along,” she said.

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