New City Council Part II
Councilmembers try to figure out how to work together, and are pleased with the results.
by Matthew Green
In the last issue, Part 1 of this article (available at www.olympiapowerandlight.com) discussed the new Olympia City Council’s priorities and roles.
A Core Group?
There are no formal caucuses or alliances on the Olympia City Council, as there are in the legislature. Still, in every incarnation of the council, there is usually a core group of three or four members that dominates the tone and the agenda. At the beginning of 2012, many people assumed the core group would include Stephen Buxbaum, Nathanial Jones, and Steve Langer. They had supported each other in their election campaigns, talked about many of the same campaign issues, and even held their election night victory party together. Among the other councilmembers, Jeannine Roe seemed the closest politically to those three, Jim Cooper was friendly but maintained a clear separation from them during the campaign (including a separate election party), and Karen Rogers lost to Buxbaum in the Mayor’s race.
(An aside about Cooper: His election night party included one council candidate each from Olympia, Lacey, and Tumwater, and the theme of interjurisdictional cooperation was made explicit. What those candidates had in common was they were all closely associated with the local Democratic Party. All the Olympia councilmembers were endorsed by the Democrats, but Cooper is a past chair of the county Democrats, and party leaders were heavily represented among his supporters.)
So far, however, the reality of that core group is unclear. Buxbaum, Jones, and Langer did initially vote together to appoint Karen Messmer to the vacant council seat, but then Jones changed his vote to join the other three councilmembers in appointing Julie Hankins. Jones won the selection as representative to Intercity Transit with support from Buxbaum and Langer, plus Hankins, but other votes in the council’s first few meetings of the year have been mixed.
Perhaps there is enough general agreement on this council that a core group is less relevant, or that coalitions will form only issue by issue, to dissolve just as quickly as that issue is resolved. Or perhaps the councilmembers are just too new to have figured out how and with whom each one can build coalitions. This will bear watching.
Winners of the New Council Sweepstakes
Changes on the city council could be described in terms of who gained or lost as the makeup of the council changed. With the complete disappearance of the old council, the entities that lost their strongest advocates and sympathizers at city hall included the West Olympia Business Association, the Olympia Downtown Association, and the development industry.
With the new council, there appears to be a new set of winners:
Neighborhoods and neighborhood associations: Neighborhood issues were not listed as one of the council’s top four priorities, but they were mentioned repeatedly as examples of how to implement those priorities. For example, city manager Steve Hall summarized the council’s discussion of their “Plan for the Future” priority by saying, “It is so important that we can get through the Comprehensive Plan and Shoreline Master Plan, so we can get to the implementing regulations and the neighborhood-level plans.” (Apparent conflicts between the goals of the city’s Comprehensive Plan and the details of the regulations implementing that plan have become a bone of contention in some neighborhood complaints about proposed developments, including the 7-11 store in west Olympia.) Also, under the priority of “Inspire Strong Relationships,” councilmembers noted their desire to send council liaisons to neighborhood associations. In contrast, two years ago, the council (mostly the old councilmembers) rejected a suggestion by Buxbaum to send a council liaison to the Council of Neighborhood Associations, an umbrella group of active neighborhoods in Olympia.
This interest in neighborhoods should come as no surprise. Several councilmembers emphasized neighborhood issues in their campaign, including proposing that the city and neighborhood residents jointly write neighborhood-level land use plans. Hankins, the newly appointed councilmember, was the president of her neighborhood association as well as president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations. In general, neighborhood association leaders supported the campaigns of the new councilmembers.
Everyone downtown other than the Olympia Downtown Association: The council’s highest priority is to “Invest in Downtown.” Another priority is to “Inspire Strong Relationships.” These priorities came together when the council pondered how to get more people involved in the discussion of downtown issues. It was clear that, while the Olympia Downtown Association (ODA) will still be a player, it will not be the dominant player like it was for the old council. The new council expressed a desire to hear from downtown residents, downtown business owners who are not ODA members, the PBIA board (which includes a mixture of business owners active in ODA and business owners critical of ODA), the city’s citizen advisory boards, social service advocates, and more.
(A correction: An article in the December 14 issue said that the new council includes no ODA members. Actually, Steve Langer is an ODA member through his psychiatry practice. However, Langer was never in a leadership role with the ODA nor politically aligned with it in the manner of several members of the old council. [Thanks to Bob Jacobs.])
Smart growth advocates: The council’s renewed emphasis on land use planning makes it especially noteworthy that they have a different view from the old council of what makes for good development. In their election campaigns, the new councilmembers appealed to – and generally won support from – environmental advocates, transit and pedestrian advocates, and advocates of less development and more public spaces along the waterfront. This council has not yet expressed a precise land use vision for Olympia, but it is very likely to rate the social value to the community of any new development over the economic value to developers. It seems extraordinarily unlikely that the new council would put as much emphasis as past councils on issues such as streamlining permitting processes for developers, or would advocate for a controversial project proposed by a developer in a manner comparable to the isthmus.
The Tone of the Council
In a word, this version of the Olympia City Council is new. The councilmembers know it, and they embrace it.
Three of them are beginning their first term in public office. The “senior” member has been on the council only slightly more than two years. (For comparison, former Mayor Doug Mah retired after 10 years on the council, and the mayor before him, Mark Foutch, was there for 12 years.) The council has virtually zero institutional memory (at least among councilmembers; most senior staff have been around for years – as have, for that matter, many of the activists on issues that come before the council).
A common theme at this retreat was the need for the council to educate itself, whether through additional council sessions to study selected issues or additional public conversations or more in-depth council involvement in key topics. For example, when Buxbaum and Rogers both sought the appointment as chair of the city’s finance committee, they competed with each other to stress just how much they would engage the entire council early and often in budget discussions (as opposed to the typical process wherein city staff prepare a draft budget, and the finance committee do most of the review, before presenting a near-final version to the full council). “We are here to learn together as much as to make decisions together,” said Buxbaum.
It used to be that, when new councilmembers joined, the old councilmembers would tell them the rules. Figuratively and literally. Somewhere there is a city council handbook that set the ground rules and protocols down in black and white. At retreats past, the handbook would be reviewed and perhaps updated slightly.
That handbook is no longer consulted. Instead, this council is, in Buxbaum’s words, in “the process of inventing ourselves.” They are setting their own rules. Even if the rules address the same basic points as that old handbook – be nice to each other, don’t spring surprises on each other at council meetings – the important part seems to be that they are doing it themselves.
In that process, councilmembers emphasized the importance of good interpersonal relationships. They acknowledged they will have disagreements and conflicts, but said the key is how they deal with those conflicts. In Buxbaum’s words, “It’s okay for us to disagree. … If we hold all these other behaviors close – respect, communications, transparency, stick with [the council's established] process – we’ll do fine even when we’re divided.”
A telling moment during this conversation occurred when Cooper expressed a desire for a “unified front” to the public among councilmembers, including “backing up each other on [a council decision], even if we’re in the minority.” The other councilmembers quickly pushed back against this idea.
Though no councilmember mentioned it explicitly, their concern seemed to arise from occasions on past councils when the idea of council unity seemed go too far. For example, during the conference center debate in 2002 and 2003, councilmembers who supported building the center accused councilmembers who opposed it (including this author) of “undermining” the council by maintaining their opposition after it was clear that a majority supported the center and, in particular, by appearing in public alongside citizens who opposed it. Minority councilmembers were expected to be “team players,” to use a phrase favored by former Mayor Doug Mah. Mah opened the council retreats of 2010 and 2011 by describing the council as a “team,” even though it was clear by then that they were actually sharply divided into two teams. At the 2012 retreat, no one called the council a “team,” even though it is much more like one now. The idea of a “team” of councilmembers presenting a “unified front” to the public is also associated in some minds with the old council becoming defensive against public criticism to the isthmus proposal – that is, defending the council’s position by treating the public as an opposing team. As Langer said, “’Unified front’ implies something about us and them.”
This council replaced the concept of the council as a “team” or a “unified front” with the concept of a “high-performing” council that respects each other and respects the process by which the council reached a decision, even if they disagree about the decision itself. (At the end of this conversation, Cooper said that he agreed with the other councilmembers and did not mean to suggest any kind of enforced unity.)
As far as the decisions they need to make, this council is ambitious, but they seem resigned to accepting that the results of their ambition will not be glamorous. They plan no big buildings, no expensive initiatives, and no groundbreaking ideas. Instead, they hope for more subtle changes that may lead to big differences in the long term: a budget that is sustainable and that overcomes some basic structural problems so that future initiatives can be attempted; land use plans with a clearer vision of what we want Olympia to look like, and regulations that are more likely to realize that vision; better relationships with many part of the community, so that future councils can accomplish more.
The council is cautious, not in the sense of timid, but of deliberate and controlled. They see lots of work ahead, and don’t want to raise expectations too high. “We need to recognize how much time things are going to take,” said Rogers. They also recognize that they have limited resources. At least at first, budget decisions will mostly be about how to lessen the pain, not to create new municipal pleasures. (That said, they clearly appear aimed at a future ballot measure to raise revenue for city services, but must first figure out how much and what type of revenue to raise and what exactly it will pay for.)
The single biggest different between this council retreat and the prior two was that, in reflecting on the event, councilmembers expressed optimism about their working relationships.
“This was very pleasant,” said Roe. “… The last two years were a different group, and there were different levels of trust among us. … I can tell already that we have a very different way of communicating with each other than in the last two years.”
“We actually did really well in coming together as a group,” said Hankins.
Cooper added, “It exceeded my expectations.”
And Buxbaum concluded, “I think we invented our council together, and we did well.”
Disclosure: Matthew Green was elected to the Olympia City Council in 2001, served through 2005, and lost an election in 2007. He has worked on the campaigns of many city councilmembers, including Stephen Buxbaum and Karen Rogers in 2009, and Buxbaum and Nathaniel Jones in 2011.