Keeping in touch: Notes from the Mayor

Mayor Lucy VinisThis blog aims to nurture our conversation and understanding of the issues before us. Every week, I will provide a weekly update on the activities in the city government, my activities as mayor, and brief reflections on progress, opportunities and challenges. You are invited to respond with reactions, insights and questions. We do this work together.

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Oct 27

October 27, 2023

Posted on October 27, 2023 at 1:37 PM by Sara McKinney

This week I travelled to Madison, WI for a meeting of the EPA Local Government Advisory Committee, of which I am vice chair.  This meant that I was absent for Monday night’s meetings.

I want to begin by thanking Council President Randy Groves for his deft management of the hateful language used by two members of the public who zoomed into Monday night’s public comment period.  The war in Israel and Gaza is being used as an opportunity for Anti-Semitic and racist speech in our community and across the nation.  We stand firmly opposed to hateful rhetoric and violence aimed at physically and emotionally harming people because of their religious, ethnic, racial, sexual or gender identity.  While it is challenging to provide time during Council meetings for public comment in the face of Monday night’s meeting, we will continue to seek ways to create a safe and respectful space for civil discourse on the issues before us.

Monday’s work session included two topics: the first was a discussion of a revised planning strategy for neighborhoods; and the second was another conversation about the biking and pedestrian improvements funded by the recently renewed road bond.

Neighborhood planning: Until now, the city has pursued updates and revisions to neighborhood planning primarily through the land use and zoning process.  Neighborhoods are queued up and wait their turn for years – and sometimes decades – to initiate these in-depth discussions.  In recent years, the state has issued a number of planning and zoning mandates that require city-wide amendments. These include accessory dwelling units, middle housing code amendments and modifications to parking to comply with Climate Friendly and Equitable Community requirements. This alters the landscape for neighborhood-specific planning.

Staff presented their modified process for more quickly and efficiently addressing the needs of neighborhoods in a more action-oriented approach to neighborhood planning.  In the immediate term, this will help the next two neighborhoods that are awaiting planning to move forward without further delay: University and Bethel.  In the new process, staff will begin with engagement to clarify neighborhood priorities, align the work within existing planning policies including the Transportation System and Comprehensive Plans, and the newly adopted Strategic Plan.  This integrated approach is built on engagement conducted through the City’s Office of Equity and Community Engagement – rather than being embedded in land use policy.  Staff and Council are optimistic about this more agile and responsive approach that will enable neighborhoods to more readily see change on the ground for issues that are important.

The second item on Monday was a return to the project list for biking and pedestrian improvements. Staff reviewed their process for developing the list based on community feedback,  safety, travel demand, and equity priorities.  The road bond that passed last year included $15 million to improve the city’s infrastructure to make it more accessible and safer and increase the connectivity of the network across the city.  The improvements also include investments in lighting and tree canopy that increase safety and visibility, as well as cooling hotter parts of the city.  Council approved the list.

On Wednesday, Council returned to approve amendments to the Low-Income Rental Housing Property Tax Exemption.   This item was scheduled for Monday’s meeting but was postponed because the meeting adjourned abruptly in response to the hateful testimony at the forum.  The LIRHPTE is a key tool in creating and sustaining affordable housing.   A new state law expands the program to allow for limited liability cooperatives.  Our local example of such a cooperative is Peace Village, under construction by Square One Villages, in which 70 households will collectively own the housing and commit to resell at a price that maintains affordability.

And finally on Wednesday, Council was briefed on STAR voting, Score Then Automatic Runoff.  Proponents of STAR voting have collected enough signatures to place this on the ballot in May.  Council has the option to do nothing, letting it proceed to the ballot; to vote to oppose or support the measure, or to submit an alternative measure.   Council chose to do nothing at this meeting  but  will hold a follow-up work session for a deeper discussion.  

If approved by the voters, STAR voting will change how mayor and councilors are elected beginning in the 2026 election. Instead of the current process in which the May primary determines the winner, with more than 50% of the vote, or the two top candidates who will go to the runoff in November, under STAR voting all candidates for mayor and council would appear only on the November ballot.  Voters would score them on a range of 0-5, worst to best.  The two highest scored candidates would automatically be scored against each other based on their total.  The idea is that as a voter, if your first choice candidate doesn’t win, your second choice might win – because the winning tally will count all the votes, not just those that received a score of 5.