- This is six pages when printed.
The Sammamish City Council returns Sept. 5 from its August recess with traffic and concurrency the No. 1 priority and the No. 1 item on the agenda.
City Manager Lyman Howard will present a proposal to establish a “roadmap” going forward to take a top-to-bottom look at how the City implements traffic concurrency policies and testing that are required before development can be approved.
Controversial study prompts review
The review is the outgrowth of a controversial study by a Sammamish citizen, Miki Mullor, who concluded the City Staff had manipulated data to approve development. After a de facto moratorium brought on by the 2008 Global Recession, an improving economy and capital liquidity enabled a major spurt of growth that saw wholesale tree removal and increased traffic congestion over a few years beginning about 2014.
Mullor’s study contained incendiary charges that prompted Howard to label it “inaccurate” and “deeply offensive” at the June 6 Council meeting, the day after Mullor emailed the study to the City. Howard suggested later at the same meeting that Staff would answer questions raised by the study and from the Council.
In a July 7 email to Issaquah/Sammamish Reporter writer Megan Campbell, Sammamish Communications Manager Tim Larson said the City’s response was “a waste of time and money.” Larson also called Mullor’s study, and Sammamish Comment’s reporting of the study, “misinformation,” “falsehood” and “fake news.”
Campbell was preparing to write a focus story on Sammamish Comment, and the email followed her interview with Larson.
Larson’s remarks were revealed in documents obtained by Sammamish Comment. They ignited a new, behind-the-scenes controversy that has yet to fully play out.
Deputy Mayor Christie Malchow, who is also chairman of the Council’s Communications Committee, objected to Larson’s email, which was obtained by Mullor under a Public Records Request for all of Larson’s recent emails and which he circulated to the Council and Howard with a complaint about references Larson made about him. The document was supplied to The Comment by multiple sources.
More than a score of Larson’s emails are being reviewed by the City Attorney and text messages between Larson and Campbell are also being sought.
Malchow and other Council Members disputed Larson’s conclusion that the issue is “a waste of time and money.” Howard later responded with a somewhat different take on Larson’s intent and meaning.
As chair of the Communications Committee, Malchow is pursuing how the City handled communications with the public on this controversial issue. Larson’s approach has become a central, if secondary, focus to the concurrency and traffic issues.
Sammamish Comment spoke with a majority of the Council, who aren’t happy either with Larson or Howard on how communications for the controversy were handled.
Which voice is talking?
Malchow was angered when she learned of Larson’s comments to The Issaquah/Sammamish Reporter.
“Whose voice is speaking for the City?” she said in an interview with The Comment. “I’m out here trying to be responsive to the citizens who are complaining about traffic, and Larson is saying, this is a ‘waste of time and money.’
“Is he speaking for Howard? Is he speaking for the City? Is he going rogue? Tim Larson does not speak for me,” the deputy mayor declared.
Howard responded to Mullor in an email copied to all Council Members that appeared to answer this question.
“As the Communications Manager, he frequently will talk with reporters about what is going on around city hall, items of interest, potential story ideas, etc. He generally will speak from his perspective on the issues and normally doesn’t run his comments through a vetting process.
“I saw the written comments for the first time via your email,” he wrote Mullor.
Malchow found the response ambiguous, leaving open the question whether Howard had been verbally briefed by Larson or had met with him in advance of sending the email to the newspaper. She told The Comment that Howard later clarified this in a phone call with her. Howard told Malchow that Larson engaged Campbell of the Issaquah/Sammamish Reporter on his own and that the first Howard knew of it comments is when Mullor emailed a copy of them, Malchow said.
Other Council Members said they are unhappy with Larson’s email to Campbell, its tone and personalized attack.
Howard, in an interview with The Comment Aug. 15, said he spoke with Larson about the statement.
“I chatted with him about that,” Howard told The Comment. “His feeling is it was not a ‘waste of time and money'” to examine the larger issue, but was referring to an “all hands on deck” response to “false accusations” that the City was “perpetrating a fraud” to approve “illegal development.” This, Howard said, was Larson’s meaning of a “waste of time and money.”
This was not Campbell’s understanding, however. In an interview with this writer for the story later spiked by her editor, Campbell said that Larson is the spokesman for the City and presumably has the “full weight” of the City behind him; and, she said, based on her own conversation with Larson, “the whole concurrency issue—it’s costing the City time and money.”
Howard said Campbell misconstrued Larson’s meaning.
“From my perspective and his perspective, changing the focus of the work plan is not a waste of time,” Howard said. He added that the staff is “working beyond our capacity. We are stretching resources. It’s never a waste of time to assist the council in revisiting policy.”
Revisiting original work
Howard told The Comment that records from the early work, from 2003-2006, to create concurrency policies were not well kept. He also said that today’s concurrency modeling, which is based on that work, “may not be what we need going forward.”
Sammamish now needs to figure out what is needed. Concurrency models or some elements in other jurisdictions may be better, which could be adapted to Sammamish.
“All models are not perfect and maybe we can come up with what’s best of the models,” he said.
Although Howard and Mullor continued to exchange testy emails, documents show, the City Manager admits that Mullor “got everybody’s attention. He’s got the Council’s attention. I acknowledge he wants what’s best for the City. We have some common ground on that.”
Poor government response
Malchow and the other Council Members The Comment spoke with criticize Larson and Howard for the tone of their responses, though acknowledge that Howard is defending his staff against personal attacks by Mullor. In Larson’s case, the substance of his communication to Campbell came under criticism as well, some of it withering.
While Mullor continued to inflame the situation with his remarks in the recent documents obtained by The Comment, Howard’s response was testy. Council Members want both sides to tone down the rhetoric and called for a face-to-face meeting rather than continued email tit-for-tat communication.
Howard’s Aug. 7 email to Mullor, while reflecting his lingering anger in places, appears to open the door to a sit-down meeting, though in the same paragraph he then refers to the “public realm” for further conversation.
Asked by The Comment if he would meet with Mullor, Howard said he hasn’t decided, but he’s “giving it good consideration.” Mullor was out of the country and could not be reached.
A larger issue
There may well be a larger issue than traffic, concurrency and Larson’s bungled effort with the Issaquah/Sammamish Reporter, however: a pattern by staff of ignoring City Code and deviating from City/Council policy.
During 2015, Sammamish Comment reported that Staff admitted during an appeal of the Highcroft development (the large one on 228th Ave. SE at SE 20th) that they didn’t always follow code. The Hearing Examiner was surprised at this admission and wrote it into his decision on the appeal.
Before she was elected to the Council in 2015, Malchow appealed a project called Chestnut Estates West, which she and her co-appellants won. In this appeal, it was revealed that Staff had ignored code with respect to preserving open space.
And in the July 10 City Council meeting at which Staff and consultants presented to the Council “Concurrency 101,” it emerged that policy on AM/PM Peak Hour and days of the week traffic analysis was overridden by Staff actions without consent of, or even notice to, the Council.
All of this occurred before Howard became City Manager in March 2016; Ben Yazici was City Manager, retiring in February 2016. Howard was Yazici’s Deputy City Manager.
Howard could not explain the pattern of Staff’s deviations.
“That’s a good question,” he told The Comment. “There was no intent by the Staff to deviate” on traffic concurrency. “Honestly, all I can say is there is no intent to deviate from Council policy. If we become aware of that, it will be addressed immediately. Bottom line, if we are not doing it, we will make changes.”
Communications remains an issue
The concerns of the majority of the Council over Larson’s actions remain.
Larson’s effort with the Issaquah/Sammamish Reporter was one “to set the record straight,” Howard wrote the Council in an email.
Larson provided Campbell a litany of complaints for a focus story on The Comment. Campbell, who has since transferred to a sister paper covering Kirkland, Bothell and Kenmore, did not report the City Council meetings of July 10, at which the Staff/consultant presentations in fact validated the underpinnings of Mullor’s study, nor July 18, at which the Council declaration and action around the “No. 1 priority in Sammamish” occurred.
“The diversion of time and money to respond to irresponsible comments was a widely shared sentiment insider City Hall as we dropped everything to respond to falsehoods that were spreading fast on social media,” Howard wrote in his Aug. 4 email to Malchow. “After I defended the integrity of the staff in my statement of June 6, we hoped the storm would abate, but no luck. Words like ‘criminal’ continued to grace a local Facebook page. That’s when [Larson] made his effort to ‘set the record straight.’ The story was never written.”
The story was never written because Larson’s “attempt,” as Howard put it, was a highly personalized attack on this writer and social media rather than an advancement of facts to “set the record straight.” The editor of the Issaquah/Sammamish Reporter spiked the story, saying it would be a “disservice” to the readers. A future story, seeking empirical data about concurrency, is planned after a replacement for the transferred Campbell is hired, the editor wrote The Comment.
Larson also drafted a critical piece for the August Sammamish City Newsletter, two Council members told The Comment. Four Council members objected to the draft, and it was withdrawn, the two said.
Dismissing Social Media
Documents also reveal Larson’s disdain of social media and opinions expressed on it as little more than from malcontents.
Larson “consistently made the case to the City Council and senior staff that social media feedback does not provide an accurate view of the community’s perspective,” he wrote in an internal document. “Noting that contented residents are unlikely to jump on the ‘Save Sammamish’ Facebook page, [Larson] suggested that everyone should pay more attention to the results of NRC’s random, statistically valid community survey.”
Malchow, a strong advocate of the City using social media, acknowledged to The Comment that social media shouldn’t be relied upon alone to gauge citizen feelings toward the City. But she said it does represent a segment of the citizens that should not be ignored.
Larson still wasn’t through, documents show.
“When a resident made an inflammatory and highly inaccurate presentation regarding the city’s concurrency processes, and a local blogger amplified the misinformation and fed it into the social media stream,” Larson wrote in an internal City document that was authenticated later by Howard. Larson, writing about himself in the third person, “recommended an assertive response by the City Manager. A statement from the City Manager at the next Council meeting proved to be very effective.” The blogger referenced is this writer and The Sammamish Comment. The “resident” is Mullor.
Howard’s remarks at the next Council meeting, June 6, the day after Mullor’s study was sent to the Council and The Comment publicized it, criticized Mullor’s study as “inaccurate and deeply offensive.”
Howard went on to conduct an interview with the Issaquah/Sammamish Reporter that sought to discredit Mullor’s report, using similar language.
The Comment spoke with a majority of the Council on and off the record. Some of the reaction to Larson’s communications and statements:
“This has not been a waste of time and I do not feel the majority of the Council Members feel that way,” said Member Hornish. “I hope in the future we can make sure that communications regarding the city better reflect the Council’s sentiments.”
“It’s not a waste of time or money,” said Member Tom Odell. Regardless of Mullor’s tone and errors in his study, Odell said “it’s caused the Council to take a step back and take a hard look at the process.”
“I believe that citizens should always be listened to and this traffic review by the City was in direct response to citizen calls,” Member Ramiro Valderrama told The Comment. “The traffic analysis was beneficial for explaining how traffic is looked at in our City and reinforced both transparency and accountability of City staff.
“I look forward to our upcoming traffic discussion,” Valderrama said.
Trying for a year to get answers
Malchow, the deputy mayor and chair of the communications committee, emphasized that her views aren’t meant to criticize the staff who work on transportation, but she’s critical of the communications by the City.
“I want to be sure the residents of Sammamish understand, and when they read our Communications Manager’s quotes, that they are not reflective of how I feel as a Council Member,” she told The Comment.
“I don’t believe this was a ‘waste of time and money.’ Per our City Manager, [Larson’s] quote was specific to the response from staff to the initial [Mullor] power point (which accused them of manipulation), but the confusion may lay in the timing his comments.
“At the time the quotes were provided to [the Issaquah/Sammamish Reporter], the City Manager had suggested…to have a 7/10/17 debrief on concurrency and the GMA because of Mr. Mullor’s presentation, in all likelihood to set the record straight. So the message of “let’s dig deeper into the issue” and “it’s a waste of time and money” are not congruent and my concern is when the comments are read, they give the wrong impression to our residents of what “the City” feels and believes on our traffic issues.”
Malchow also echoed Odell’s remarks.
“While the tenor of communication back-and-forth between Mr. Mullor and the City Manager have been uncomfortable, the fact remains that Mr. Mullor’s presentations opened the door for the Council to have a deep dive into our concurrency system that I tried to pry open in my first year on the Council. I didn’t get very far, even with Council Member Hornish asking similar questions,” Malchow said.
“This power point by Mr. Mullor allowed us to finally get to the place I had been begging to go. I do understand the City Manager’s need to protect and defend staff, and I, too, would feel defensive if accused of unsavory practices. But now we have the opportunity before us to look at our concurrency system and to find out if it’s what we want to keep, or do we alter it.”
Taking a deep dive
Council Member Odell, at the July 18 Council meeting, said he would take the August recess to do a deep dive into traffic issues. He hasn’t revealed the results of his work to date but expressed concern over the issues uncovered at the July 10 meeting. He supported the “No. 1 priority” action of the July 18 meeting.
City staff, whose positions aren’t tied to elections, shouldn’t have a political agenda, yet their pro-development stance seems to be even more pronounced than that of the elected council members – which in and of itself is remarkable. What could motivate the strong bias of these civil servants, especially when it involves sustained and systematic deviation from Council policy?
Maybe – just maybe – the appearance of words like “criminal” in social media sentiment aren’t so surprising, after all. The classic knee-jerk, kill-the-messenger response from staff is typical of somebody who’s got something to hide. [Edited]
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