As November fades to December and the last City Council meetings in Sammamish of the year, Members are going to be considering whether to grant citizens the right to Initiative.
The City Council has to allow this right—it didn’t come as part of incorporation.
The request for the right to Initiative comes from long-simmering frustration with the City and a perception that neither the Council nor the employees listen to Citizens.
As with most things, the reality is more a shade of gray than black and white. But there is certainly enough evidence over the course of the City’s 13 year history to understand the pent-up frustration.
As I’ve written many times, the City Council has, at times, shown remarkable callousness toward the Citizens who have elected them. Former Council Member Michele Petitti once dismissed homeowners along East Lake Sammamish Parkways as having a “mob mentality.” The uproar prompted her to apologize in a piece she wrote in the Sammamish Review. Unfortunately, she was largely tone-deaf in the article and it only made matters worse.
Council Member Don Gerend is another who has trouble relating to the community. At a recent Citizens for Sammamish meeting, which became a two-hour long venting about what attendees viewed as unresponsiveness on the part of the City and other complaints, Gerend was in attendance. His initial reaction was to essentially dismiss the group as a bunch of complainers; he totally missed the thrust and mood of those there, or worse didn’t miss it but chose to ignore it.
Citizens have scores of complaints about the City’s responsiveness. I certainly have my own stories as well.
But I also have plenty of examples where the City has been responsive, where officials have listened and changes have been made. This is not to say the responses are always what the citizens want to hear. Sometimes the answer is “no,” and citizens feel then they haven’t been heard.
There is a certain amount of unrealistic expectations. Citizens who come before the City get told “no,” and say “no,” all the time. Their bosses say no. They’re spouses and kids say no. They say no to their kids. Even God says “no,” if you believe He answers all prayers.
When I moved to Washington State in 1996, I thought Initiatives probably were a good thing. But Tim Eyman has made a career out of Initiatives, most of which haven’t withstood either voter approval or court review. As we also saw with the liquor privatization Initiative, a few corporations effectively “bought” the issue.
I’m not so sure that Initiatives are good public policy any more.
But the City Councils of Sammamish have nobody to blame but themselves for reaching this stage. They may have many examples they can point to where they “listened,” but in the end the Councils and the Administration/Staff have consistently stiff-armed Citizens in one area: Town Hall meetings.
Despite many suggestions to hold them, including one formal recommendation from the 2007-2009 Planning Commission, the Councils, the Staff and City Manager have consistently opposed holding Town Hall meetings that are open forums where citizens can engage in dialog on any topic. Rather, they are content to restrict citizens to 3-5 minute monologues at the beginning of City Council meetings.
The fear, of course, or at least the one the City falls back on, is that the Town Hall meetings will become unruly. This certainly is a possibility. But it doesn’t have to be.
I find it odd and frustrating that the President of the United States and candidates for president have Town Hall meetings but our City Council, Staff and Manager are too chicken to engage in them. Citizens are frustrated at being confined to 3-5 minute monologs. They want answers. They want dialog.
If citizens voices can’t be heard, then they resort to drastic measures. And the Initiative is the result. I don’t like government by Initiative. But I understand why Sammamish citizens want it.