The Sammamish City Council’s 2016 Retreat wrapped up Saturday. Here are thoughts and analysis:
- Retreat location: This was the first time in about 10 years Sammamish held its Retreat on this side of the Cascade Mountains. Given how often Snoqualmie Pass closed this season (including twice on Saturday alone), holding it in Tacoma was good from this perspective alone. Council members and the Administration liked the remote location because it discouraged public participation and afforded total candor–sometimes to the point of open warfare (as occurred last year, despite presence by Sammamish Comment and others). In Tacoma, The Comment and others were present all three days, with the public attendance of almost a dozen on Saturday. The sky didn’t fall in. The atmosphere was far more civil this year as well (see below).
- Public participation: The new leadership of Mayor Don Gerend and Deputy Mayor Ramiro Valderrama scheduled public comment Friday and Saturday morning, without time limits. The public went longer than the usual three minutes at regular Council meetings, but did not abuse the opportunities. Gerend also allowed dialog with the Council, as opposed to monologues from the public. At last year’s Retreat, no public comment was scheduled, although former Mayor Tom Vance did allow one comment upon request to address a specific discussion issue. The new approach was well received by the public, and the sky didn’t fall on this, either.
- Public Comment: There remains a split over how to set a policy for public comment going forward.
Gerend’s approach with the first Council meeting Jan. 5 was vastly different from his immediate predecessor, Vance, and mayors and Councils before the 2013-2015 Council. All previously allowed three minutes and no dialog (with rare exceptions). Gerend provided Q&A time after each member of the public at the first two Council meetings this year. During the Retreat, Member Tom Odell expressed concerns about allowing lengthy comment, noting that one occasion Public Comment continued for two hours or more. Members Bob Keller and Tom Hornish pushed back, saying it was their job to listen to the public regardless of those occasions when it went long. Valderrama said these are rare occasions. No definitive conclusions were reached. It appears that this will be more of an “as-needed” approach than a hard and fast rule. Odell, whose second term expires in two years, continues to establish a reputation for not wanting to hear from citizens. He will have to face this if he decides to seek a third term.
- 42nd St. barricade: This issue just won’t go away, either at the regular Council meetings or at the Retreat. A successive series of Councils have no one to blame but themselves. The barricade went up in 2003 with the expectation it would come down after SR 202 was widened to its present design. But afterwards, City Councils have not authorized its removal and have gone out of their way to “kick the can down the road.” No definitive action was decided at the Retreat, though it seems to be leaning toward resurrecting the “process” and then applying it to 42nd St.
- Lyman Howard emerges. Howard has worked for the City for years, as Finance Director and Deputy City Manager. Last year he was recommended by his boss, City Manager Ben Yazici, to succeed him upon Yazici’s retirement next month. A contract was agreed and in the meantime, Howard remained in Yazici’s shadow. Many, including Yazici’s biggest critics but also some on the Council, wonder if Howard will be Yazici Light or build his own path. For his part, Howard has followed protocol and honored the fact he’s still No. 2 until Yazici leaves (Feb. 9 is Yazici’s last City Council meeting). But the barricade issue may be an indicator of things to come. Several Council Members opined there are bad safety issues to consider in removing the barricade, which would require mitigations (potentially in the millions by one Council Member estimate). When a citizen used this to cite potential City legal liabilities if it didn’t remove the barricade and take action to fix the safety issues, Howard forcefully declared that those who expressed safety concerns aren’t traffic engineers. Clearly Howard was mindful of anything said by Council Members that could be construed as admitting to a safety/liability issue. In doing so, he publicly–and in front of–contradicted his bosses and, taken to the logical conclusion, said they don’t know what they are talking about. Pretty gutsy for the mild-mannered Howard.
- Public outreach: Communications Manager Tim Larsen outlined two pages of ideas about potential new outreach between the City and the Community. Then he went on to say why most haven’t and wouldn’t work. Don’t expect much new or innovative.
January is only half over, and two weeks don’t make a trend, but the new leadership and the reconstituted City Council, with two new members, are off to positive changes. Interaction during public comment is new and welcome. Relocating the Retreat from Roslyn to Tacoma, while not close but without snow challenges, is a positive. Public participation at the Retreat is new.
The atmosphere at this year’s Retreat was almost collegial, compared with the open rancor displayed at last year’s Retreat. This, too, is a testimony to the new leadership.
But make no mistake, there remains intrigue behind the scenes, with two distinct factions remaining. Gerend, as mayor, is in the middle and will have his hands full to maintain peace and move the City ahead.
Neither The Sammamish Review nor The Sammamish Reporter attended any of the three days of the Retreat.
By Scott Hamilton
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