It has been two weeks since I last wrote, so I will try to cover more issues in fewer words than usual.
The hinge of the past two weeks was a two-day strategic planning workshop on Friday and Saturday bringing together Councilors, Executive City leadership and other City staff. The timing was intentional and beneficial. Council has recently reconvened after their summer break to face a sobering list of issues that range from short term urgency to longer term visions. We benefitted from the time together to build our understanding of priorities, staff capacity, and budget constraints.
Council had been prepared for this planning workshop with earlier presentations on the City’s financial status, a review of our staff workforce with respect to capacity as well as employee well-being and satisfaction; and a discussion of the results of the community survey. These reports confirm what we know: people are feeling the stress of the times. Staff are taking on more work without additional pay or benefits; the City remains understaffed while the needs in the community are growing. The community survey reflected this tension as well. While the majority of respondents feel safe and comfortable in their neighborhoods, their perception of the overall condition of the City is worsening. A majority of respondents think that Council is going in the wrong direction despite Council’s on-going focus on the issues that respondents identify as priorities: homelessness, housing, public safety, and climate.
Council moved forward on three major health and safety issues in the past two weeks.
- We held a public hearing last week and voted on a city-wide ban of all fireworks in the face of a very aggressive public forum on Monday night. This decision has been years in the making and is based on good data, experience and insight from our own Fire Department and other cities. The opponents expressed the deep distrust reflected in the survey – a view that we are paying attention to the wrong things. This is a critical matter of public safety and I am proud of council for their action.
- Also on Monday, Council held its first work session to discuss the creation of a public health overlay zone. This concept emerged partly in response to the repeated contamination caused by the JH Baxter factory in Bethel. Highway 99 and River Road generally form the “V” of the City’s industrial zone. As in many cities, those industrial areas are adjacent to poorer residential neighborhoods. The Council has zoning authority to decrease the impacts of new industrial development and has approved some of those protections in the Clear Lake Overlay Zone on land near the airport that is designated for future industrial development. This is one of several discussions related to pollution and the City’s authority and tools to protect health. Councilors are seeking more clarity about the kind and percentage of industrial uses, the disproportionate impact on communities of color, and the on-going framework the city might use to prevent new or worsening health impacts in the future.
- And third, staff returned to Council on Wednesday for a more in-depth discussion of the requirements for cities to comply with the Climate Friendly and Equitable Communities rules. Specifically, the city must begin a process for revising the land use code, parking requirements and electric vehicle charging infrastructure to meet the June 2023 deadline. This state mandate is a very heavy lift for the city that requires a re-prioritization of staff workloads and for which the deadline severely limits the opportunity for community engagement. Staff, Councilor Syrett and I unsuccessfully urged the state rulemaking committee to allow for longer timelines and funding to support this work. Despite their fundamental objections to the broad strokes of this rule, Council approved a motion directing staff to begin this work. Although some cities are pursuing litigation, the uncertainty of that process compounds the deadline crunch, which would further strain the capacity of City staff. It is frustrating to face such a broad state mandate when, in fact, most of council supports the intent and purpose of this rule to build transit-oriented, walkable, urban neighborhoods to respond to the dual challenges of population growth and climate change.
By next week, I expect our City Council to be missing one member, Claire Syrett, because of the recall vote. That adds pressure to the rest of council, deprives Ward 7 of representation until a replacement is appointed, and requires some shifting of work and agenda priorities in order to complete an appointment process. Once the recall is certified, Council will have public discussions about the path forward.
Recently I have been citing the famous Gandhi quote “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” It can feel these days as if the change people are modelling is anger, frustration, and finger pointing. At the start of our City’s strategic planning process last weekend, we were introduced to some scientific research about perception and reality. The example was offered of a tribe in Africa that not only doesn’t have a word for the color blue, they can’t actually see the color blue. As we struggle to listen and understand each other, let’s remember that while I may see blue where you see green, that doesn’t make me an enemy. It means that I see it in a different light.