It took only two meetings for the Black Diamond City Council to revise its rules and procedures, giving metaphorical whiplash to staff and city residents as they wrestled with the council’s new structure.
But city business looks to have slowed to a crawl or even stopped as council members and the mayor continue to lock political horns over the rule changes, as the March 17 council meeting showed.
With three items on the council’s consent agenda and three resolutions up for discussion that night, the whole council could only agree to approve the payroll from the consent agenda.
The claims checks for March 17 and the draft minutes for the Jan. 21 council meeting were pulled off the consent agenda and sent to committee by Councilman Brian Weber over the objections of council members Janie Edelman and Tamie Deady.
And the three resolutions on the night’s agenda were voted to go to standing committees by council members Erika Morgan, Pat Pepper and Weber, to the strong disapproval of Edelman, Deady and Mayor Carol Benson.
The only other item approved by the full council that night was a resolution that was put onto the agenda while council was in session.
Proponents of the new rules, which were approved by Morgan, Pepper and Weber Jan. 21, say the changes make the council process more transparent to the public and encourage more Black Diamond residents to participate in the lawmaking process.
But opponents of the new rules – Edelman, Deady and Benson – say the council process is now too confusing for residents to adequately participate in government and ties council members and city staff up in too much red tape, slowing the political process.
Creating the council agenda
The revised rules and regulations have changed up the way agenda items like resolutions and ordinances are sent through council committees and put onto the council agenda.
Before the rules changed, department heads would ask the mayor to have agenda items put onto a standing committee agenda. Agenda items were discussed by the standing committee, comprised of two council members, and city staff. These meetings were often held during the weekday. The standing committee would approve the agenda item by giving it a “do pass” or “no recommendation” recommendation. The agenda item would then be approved by City Attorney Carol Morris and the city clerk would place it on the council agenda.
During the following meeting, agenda items would be introduced by the mayor or council and a staff department head would explain the item. Council members could ask staff questions, discuss items and eventually vote to table the items, approve them, or send them back to committee. Members of the public can only ask their questions about agenda items during two public comment periods of the meeting, one before resolutions are discussed and one after, meaning if a member of the public wants to give an opinion on a resolution, they would have to read up on it before the council meeting.
The rule changes utilize many of the same components of the old agenda-setting structure, but in a different order.
Department heads still go to mayor to get their items on the agenda, but the items get put on the full council agenda. The city attorney no longer approves agenda items, but the agenda must be approved by Mayor Pro Tem Morgan and Council President Pepper.
During the council meeting, items are introduced by council members and the mayor pro tempore assigns it straight to a standing council committee. Staff no longer explain the item to council members during council meetings and council members do not discuss or take action on the item until it comes out of committee.
Committee meetings, consisting of a maximum of three council members, are now held in the evening during the work week so agenda items can be discussed between themselves and the public. When the standing committee gives a “do pass” or “no recommendation” recommendation, an item is put back onto the full council agenda for discussion and final action.
The changes, namely the time change to standing committee meetings and sending agenda items from full council to committee, are meant to give the public additional opportunities for giving their input on resolutions and ordinances.
“We have the committee meetings in the evening when more of the public is able to attend,” Weber said. “A lot of people who are interested (in government) work during the day, so they can’t make a lot of the committee meetings during the day.”
But Edelman said the new system instead frustrates the public.
“Our citizens are getting upset because everything takes so long,” she explained. “The council is not doing its job. They are not passing legislation. That’s our job.”
Since the new rules were adopted, the council has taken action on three of six resolutions. The resolutions passed by the council confirmed the mayor’s appointments to the city’s Planning Commission. The three that remain in committee are resolutions that award a construction contract to a firm, accept a Department of Ecology grant and establish a City Wellness Program for staff.
One reason the council is taking so long to get these resolutions back onto the agenda for final action, Edelman said, is because committee meetings are no longer attended by department heads.
Benson has two reasons to not send her staff to committee meetings.
First, she believes the council’s new rules and regulations go against state law.
“I’m not going to subject my staff to going to illegal meetings and getting caught in the cross hairs of the lawsuit that is out there,” Benson explained.
A complaint about the new council rules was filed by Bob Edelman, Councilwoman Janie Edleman’s husband, Feb. 19, asking the King County Superior Court to declare the new rules violate the Open Public Meetings Act. Bob Edelman is representing himself in this complaint.
Benson also said it’s unreasonable to ask staff, who already work all day, to attend the new standing committee meetings set in the evening.
“My staff is extremely busy,” Benson said. “We’re doing comprehensive plan amendments. We have our stormwater upgrade this year. We have a plan that’s going to final plat. Staff does not have time to go to meetings in the evening and sacrifice their day job.”
But Weber pointed out that staff coming to evening meetings didn’t use to be a problem.
“There are times they come to evening meetings. We have joint meetings (with the Planning Commission), work studies. In the past, they have come to evening meetings,” he explained.
Without staff at the committee meetings, Weber said it is difficult for him and other council members to get the information they need to recommend agenda items back to full council.
“Right now, since staff isn’t able to attend, I myself email questions to the staff,” Weber said. “Of course, we have to cc the mayor and, generally, anything I get back from the staff, except for the city clerk, is answered by the mayor.”
This process is obstructive and time-consuming, Weber continued. Gathering questions from committee members and the public, emailing staff these questions and then presenting the answers back in committee can effectively double the time agenda items are spent in committee.
“There has been some slowing of the resolutions from start to finish. I have no control over how the mayor directs her staff, so we have to work with what we are given,” Weber said. “If that adds an extra layer of delay, that’s unfortunate. But that’s the reality we are dealing with right now.”
Edelman, Deady and Benson question why all agenda items need to be sent to committee and why they cannot ask questions about the items during council, when staff is already present and prepared.
An example they had was Resolution 16-1080, which would have authorized an agreement with ReturnMeds and establish “a convenient, safe, secure and environmentally sound medicine return program” for out-of-date or unwanted medication for Black Diamond residents.
The resolution was sent to committee March 17 without an explanation of the resolution by Police Chief Jamey Kiblinger, and Benson was confused why council members couldn’t ask staff the questions they had during council.
“They can ask questions at the council meeting. We could have approved all (the agenda items). Why would the ReturnMeds program have to go to committee?” Benson asked rhetorically in a phone interview March 18. “It’s something good for citizens and convenient for citizens… it’s something to help the community out.”
In response, Weber cited the council’s new rules.
“Per the council rules, the process is to have first reading and send those items to committee to allow the public to give input on those,” Weber said. “If it’s something that time sensitive, that can be negated.”
Although staff have not been able to attend committee meetings, volunteers have been helping out at these meetings by talking, taking notes and bringing reports to council members.
Teamsters Local Union 117 has filed a grievance against the city March 14, claiming that these volunteer staff members are taking work away from city staff and demands the council cease and desist using volunteer staff.
Canceled work sessions
Until recently, the whole City Council met four times a month – twice for meetings where action was taken, and twice for work sessions, where the public, council members and staff could come together and discuss upcoming agenda items in a less formal setting than regular council meetings.
However, the city has had no work sessions since January, and the work sessions for April, May, June and July were cancelled by Weber, Pepper and Morgan March 3.
“The whole idea of having a work session is to get the council of the whole together to be able to openly, publicly and transparently discuss things and find out exactly what people think,” Edelman said during a phone interview March 18.
Benson also has expressed her disagreement with the decision to cancel the work sessions.
“My understanding is that they don’t want to sit down with everybody together in one meeting,” she said. “They think they can solve all of their issues without work studies.”
Weber said the work sessions were cancelled for two reasons; because public comment was written into the agenda for committee meetings, but not work sessions, and to cut down on redundant meetings.
“The work that’s done in work study is now done in committee meetings. In a work study, the rules may be suspended to allow people to have input, but at the committee meetings, that’s what they’re designed to do. By having the discussion in committee meetings, there’s not that potential for cutting out public comment,” Weber explained. “The canceling of the work studies was because the things that would be handled in a work session are to be handled in committee. If a work study was warranted or needed, it can be scheduled.”
Edelman pointed out that while work sessions did not have a public comment period built into the agenda, it was a common occurrence for council members to allow the public to ask questions and make comments.