“Bias, extremism” and the city staff

The Sammamish Reporter had an article August 13 entitled “Accusations of bias, extremism made against city,” in which the staff, “in a remarkably personal attack,” was accused of environmental extremism and bias in enforcing the Critical Areas Ordinance.

While I don’t agree with the characterizations, the underlying issue of over-zealous interpretation of the ordinance is only the tip of the iceberg. But not for reasons of the critics cited in the article.

The staff is sincere and tries to do a good job. But it is short-staffed, overworked and sometimes ill-advised by others in efforts to do its job.

During 5 1/2 years on the Planning Commission, 3 years on the Planning Advisory Board and more than two years of additional activism, the number of times the staff has headed down the wrong path due to misunderstanding of the facts, the law or direction, or through its own objectives that are diametrically opposed to citizen input of the City Council’s own appointment committees and commissions is, well, discouraging, to put it in the nicest terms.

The July 27 City Council meeting was where the CAO was slammed. The Council meeting was webcast here; the CAO public comments begin at 54 minutes into the council meeting.

I could cite example after example, but to stick to the issue at hand–the CAO–I had voted for the changes at the Planning Commission processed staff data, and these recommendations were sent on to the City Council. But it wasn’t too long after the ordinance took effect that it was clear there was something either fundamentally wrong with the ordinance (too strict) or the staff was being too strict in interpreting the ordinance.

There was an instance in which the applicant wanted to add 150 sf of a new addition to their home. The staff required the homeowner to jump through a ridiculous number of hoops and mitigations in order to accomplish this. Common sense failed to prevail, but because the applicant was a sitting City Council member, the applicant didn’t challenge the staff interpretation for the obvious reason that bias for the Council member could be levied by others.

After hearing about this, I successfully inserted into the Stormwater Management Plan an exemption for small additions so new SMP restrictions would not be applicable. I was unable to insert into the SMP a “grandfather” clause to allow rebuilding damaged or destroyed homes on the same footprint without having to comply with the new SMP proposals. I will come back to this below, for there is a direct tie-in to the issue at hand.

When the SMP plans came before the Commission, the first draft was just awful, replete with misinterpretations and conflicts. Citizen input also pointed out problems. The Commission rejected the first draft. The second draft was better, but citizens continued to point out shortcomings. The Commission accepted some of the citizen comments and demanded changes. The Commission did not accept some other citizen comments.

The Commission was under great pressure from the staff to pass on its recommendations to meet deadlines. As the countdown on the Commission’s calendar proceeded, I objected to the SMP as “a poster child for another ordinance that restricts residents about what they can do with their property.” I specifically cited the CAO as the forerunner to the proposed SMP restrictions that would only make matters worse. I urged the Commission to adopt Low Impact Development standards as part of the SMP to provide a “relief valve” for homeowners.

Staff and the commission opposed inclusion of LID. The Commission as a whole refused to allow a thorough discussion of this even though the SMP was on the Commission’s calendar for one more week. Accordingly, the Commission adopted its recommendations on a 6-1 vote, with mine being the dissenting vote.

The rest, as they say, is history. The SMP became a cause celebre in the 2009 election and spurred for formation of the Citizens of Sammamish and Sammamish Homeowners Assoc. The SMP basically was rewritten under direction by the City Council.

The SMP was the worst example of sloppy staff and consultant work that I saw in the entire 5 1/2 years I was on the Planning Commission. It was the classic case of GI-GO.

In his comments July 27 to the City Council, John Simpson cited as one reason he speculated for his objections to staff work on the CAO is that the city “lacks adequate staff” or adequate staff training.

On this point, I couldn’t concur more. As far back as 2007 I was telling the City Council that it was being penny-wise and pound foolish by keeping staff levels low. (Note: this was long before the global recession began that creates the current economic crunch on the City budget.) I repeated this belief in 2008 and was broadly joined by the entire Planning Commission in expressing to the Council that the staff was too thin and didn’t have adequate resources to get the job done right the first time.

In a controversy that came up in the summer of 2009, I again said this and it hit the headlines of the newspapers this time.

The staff shortcomings go beyond these issues, however. There were several occasions in which the Planning Commission had legal questions about the recommendations put forward by the staff to the Commission on which we were being asked to make recommendations to the City Council. We asked for legal opinions from the City Attorney. In each and every case, we were denied this advice.

We also received incorrect legal interpretation from the staff on occasion. On the SMP, we were told by consultants to the staff that state law required compliance with the new SMP laws if a structure was 75% destroyed. Accordingly, the Commission included this in the recommendations to the City Council. It turns out that this legal interpretation was incorrect and the Council corrected the ordinance.

On the controversial issue of electronic signs requested by Skyline and Eastlake high schools, the Commission was concerned that allowing these signs for the schools and not for others was illegal. We wanted a legal opinion and we told this could (or would) only be provided by the City Attorney to the City Council. In part because of our concerns, the Commission took a conservative approach and recommended the request be put over to a complete rewrite of the sign ordinance after the first of the year.

(I will note that the City Council still has yet to authorize a review and rewrite of the entire sign ordinance, something that remains sorely needed.)

Bottom line:

  • The quality of the Staff work has generally been getting worse. I ascribe this to overwork, under-staff and lack of resources;
  • The Commission has failed to get legal advice it wanted to guide its decisions and recommendations;
  • The Staff is dedicated and well-intentioned; and
  • The Staff often undermined Commission recommendations to the City Council, causing confusion and uncertainty.

The ultimate responsibility for short-staffing rests with every City Council since Sammamish was formed in 1999. These Council have put more priority on favorable comparisons with employee head-count per 1,000 resident vs. neighboring cities than getting quality work. The City Manager has to follow the policies of the Council (at least in theory), and a recent city newsletter once again shows this favorable comparison.

The problem today, of course, is that the the global recession has had a major, negative impact on our City budget and hiring adequate, qualified staff is not an option.

As the Commission was beginning its review of Staff data for the SMP, I spoke with Fred Jarrett, former Mercer Island elected official, then a State Representative and then a candidate for King County Executive. Fred told me that buffers contained in the CAOs and SMPs were an outdated concept and he had, while on the Mercer Island City Council, come up with different ideas. I passed this on to our Staff and recommended they talk with Fred–to no avail.

Our Staff, Administration and the City Council are all too often rooted in “Not Invented Here.” It takes heaven-and-earth to get them to seriously consider new ideas and concepts.

And all to often, ordinances have to be reworked and rewritten two and three times to “get it right” at two and three times the necessary costs.

2 thoughts on ““Bias, extremism” and the city staff

  1. The reasons we feel the city staff is biased and not just understaffed is comments through the entire permitting process like “there’s no undeveloped property left in Sammamish without a critical area” and “you’re not taking any trees down!” and when asked whether there was any consideration with reasonable use, the comment was “you can picnic on your property and that’s considered reasonable use” (of course none of those comments were in writing) You are right in that all of these statements are misinformed and ignorant in the law, but the citizen’s meeting with staff don’t know that until its too late. In addition, staff has attended at least one “deep green” conference in the last few months that lead me to believe they do have an agenda and its not just sincerely trying to follow the law.

  2. A little history is needed.

    The special overlay areas (and I live in one of them, the same one as the Osgoods) and the fundamental critical areas delineations were created by King County when what is now Sammamish was unincorporated. When the city was formed in 1999, the first city council basically just “changed the name” and adopted, largely in the entirety, all the ordinances from King County as the Sammamish City ordinances (to which some of us, including me, protested, what was the point of incorporating if all we did was to continue the very ordinances we objected to in the first place?).

    Fundamentally, staff is correct: there is no, or virtually no, undeveloped property without a critical area. But again, this is a County legacy.

    Having said that, state laws have further tightened regulations to which all jurisdictions must comply with. But there are creative ways to do so for which the staff, administration and city council(s) have suffered from the NIH syndrome far too often.

    Trees: the tree retention ordinance requires retention of 25% of the trees, not 100%.

    There is a lot of case law on what constitutes “reasonable use.” I’m not sure “picnicking” applies.

    When Osgoods came before the Commission about their overlay issue, I proposed that the overlay areas be added to the prospect for transfer development rights. Staff and Council immediately opposed this because they jumped to the conclusion that this meant the city would be required to buy these TDRs. Despite explaining that, No, this isn’t what I had in mind but rather these areas would be eligible for voluntary TDR sales/purchases (that is, if a developer wanted to buy a TDR from Osgood or whomever), it should be permitted, staff and Council (and one council member in particular)can’t get this idea through their heads and remain opposed. NIH. NIH. NIH. This could provide some relief for the homeowners in the overlay or CAO to monetize their properties. (Note: my land is zoned R-1 and I have 1.25 acres, so I would not benefit from this concept.)

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