The Community Priorities survey is in and we’re guessing the results aren’t looking too good for downtown redevelopment advocates. Great news for the community at large, right? Not unless the results of the survey are actually provided to the City Council that commissioned the time-sensitive survey in the first place. Unfortunately, it appears that even the most direct and public attempts by Council to gather crucial data to inform their decision-making can be delayed, manipulated or thwarted by the Administration. The failure to disclose the results of the survey is just the latest in the ongoing pattern of withholding timely, critical information from Council.
It’s All in the Timing
Throughout 2007, several Councilmembers including Bill Knobloch, Debbie Vancil and Nezam Tooloee questioned whether the capital spending projects (aka the massive redevelopment of downtown Winslow) proposed by the administration reflected the community’s true priorities. In November, citizens echoed this concern in a petition calling for City spending to match community priorities.
As the 2008 City Council convened, the issues of community priorities and fiscal responsibility were understood to be the twin elephants in the room that the newly assembled Council would address before crafting the 2009 Capital Facilities Plan (CFP) and subsequent budget. Councilors sought to commission an independent and reliable survey of Island households to ascertain the community’s priorities. The intent was to complete the survey process prior to the start of the CFP and budget planning processes slated to begin this month. An outside firm was hired to conduct the survey and results were expected to be available prior to the first CFP workshop.
On April 9th, the Council participated in the first of four CFP workshops and, during the regularly scheduled meeting that followed, wrestled with the hugely controversial issue of whether to continue funding the Winslow Way Streetscape project. Not a mention was made of the survey, it’s results or its progress.
City Hall insiders report that the data collected through a random phone call survey was delivered to the City prior to the April 9th City Council meeting, but it was decided to delay the release of the survey findings to the full Council and the Public so as to not influence the outcome of a second nonscientific on-line survey to be conducted by City staff during the last two weeks of April. The current plan is to release the data at a special April 30th City Council workshop, after the second CFP workshop and more than halfway through the CFP planning process.
According to an article on the Municipal Research and Services Center (MRSC) website, a random sample telephone survey of at least 200 households (400 were interviewed on Bainbridge Island) is “the most democratic process there is, and the most reliable, for learning about the opinions of an entire community”. This was certainly what the Council had in mind when it commissioned the survey, and the results from this professionally administered survey are in. So what is this second on-line survey and why is it holding up the urgently needed results from the first one? According to the same MRSC article, a “self-selected survey” such as an on-line survey, is appropriate when a city has a “political need to create a survey process” and can be “an excellent public relations tool”, but, as the article warns, “extreme caution must be exercised in drawing any conclusion about what the public, in general, thinks based upon the results from a survey when the respondents are volunteers”.
In other words, the completed random phone survey is the official survey, the results of which should have been immediately published to Council and the community, and the on-line survey is a touchy-feely emotional outlet for those of us who may feel left out if we did not receive a phone call. But the Administration is arguing that it is more important to protect the integrity of the second, self-referred survey than to provide the Council with the critical data it needs to prioritize capital spending. Would anyone believe for a moment that had the Streetscape project (or “downtown planning” as Winslow Tomorrow is now described) ranked high on the list of community priorities, the data would not have been produced at the April 9th Council meeting to augment the case for proceeding with the Winslow Way Streetscape project?
It’s All in the Translation
The 2008 Community Priorities survey is not the only attempt by this City Council to gather accurate and timely information to inform the Capital Facilities Plan that has been manipulated by the Administration. The manner in which the Value Engineering analysis of the Winslow Way Streetscape project was presented to Council also raised questions about the integrity of the process by which Council is informed and advised.
Thanks in large part to Councilperson Kim Brackett, Council directed staff in February to hire an independent outside firm specializing in value engineering to evaluate consultant Heery International’s 30% design plans for the Winslow Way Streetscape project. Those who had been watching the Streetscape project closely, with concerns regarding the financial viability of the project and the accuracy of the cost and construction schedule, applauded this move and awaited the report with anticipation.
But the Value Engineering Report took a rather circuitous path on its way to Council last month. The report was delivered to City staff almost three weeks prior to the March 26th Council workshop scheduled to discuss the findings of the study. Although it was the Council that had directed the report to be prepared and it was the Administration that had established a tight decision-making time line for Council to fund Streetscape, Councilors did not receive copies of the report at the March 10th Public Works Committee meeting where committee members were given a Staff prepared analysis of the report. Nor did Councilmembers receive a copy of the report at the Finance Committee meeting on March 18th. While it appears that a few persistent councilors managed to get advance copies, staff did not in fact release this dense document, which included oversized exhibits, to the full Council until two days prior to the March 26th Council Workshop, and then only electronically. A hard copy was not included in the Council’s agenda packet, nor was any portion of the report made available to the public electronically on the COBI website.
To this day, the report, which was arguably initiated as an independent evaluation of the work of both Heery and City staff, has only been provided to the general public through the filter of a City staff prepared outline integrating the Value Engineering Report’s recommendations with those of staff. Lost has been not only the many pages of raw data, but the informative narratives through which the consultants attempted to evaluate the design as well as the costs of the project. Some in the community might have been interested to hear that the authors of the report felt that the proposed design would replace an “already rich” streetscape with a “cohesive dense streetscape” and suggested that existing features be rebuilt or salvaged “even if at a premium cost”. In other words, we already have a Main Street that has character, and much of it is worth saving during the impending underground utility upgrade.
It’s All in the Fine Print
As we recently reported, the Administration has also been less than forthcoming about the status of City finances over the last few months, and apparently over the last few years. While one has to appreciate the Finance Department’s newly found candor, it has been like pulling teeth for Councilmembers to extract the data not only in open public meetings but in off the record attempts to get to the whole truth.
While we have been given enough data to realize that the City is broke, the onus remains on the Public and Council to read between the lines and fill in the blanks in order to construct the whole picture – something that not everyone may be willing or able to do. Miss one meeting, and you miss an integral part of the puzzle. It has also not been made clear that our current financial crisis is not a newly discovered reflection of the recent economic downturn, but that City finances have been heading south for sometime. Certainly our Finance Director is not claiming to have failed to notice when expenses began to exceed revenues two years ago.
Apparently it’s all in how you ask the question. Finance Director Konkel opened his April 2nd comments stating that he had checked bank balances earlier that day and was pleased to announce that the City had over $6 million in cash. Given the context in which that assertion was made, presumably the purpose was to discredit those sounding the alarm in the community, in particular those who had reported that the City had a zero cash balance in December 2007. It was only after being asked specifically about how much of that cash was unencumbered, that Mr. Konkel stated that all of that cash was encumbered and that the Council should assume that “there is no excess money anywhere.”
We've understood for some time that open communication is not the Administration's strong suit. But for Councilmembers to have to hunt down Council initiated reports, accept spin in place of fact or guess the magic words to open the gates to full disclosure is beyond the pale. The information that is being delayed, manipulated or withheld is essential to our representatives to make informed and responsible decisions regarding the spending of our money and the future of our Island. Councilmembers and the Public they represent must insist that the Administration deliver full, accurate and timely information and not a penny more should be allocated nor major policy approved until that time. On that note, we eagerly await the prompt publication of the complete and unabridged results of the community priorities survey.
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