Okay not really.
But watching Council meetings this fall and reading the Kitsap Sun’s “Blogging live” report on last night’s Council meeting–at which next year’s budget and Capital Facilities Plan were scheduled to be approved and were not–it’s pretty clear the City has a communication problem that’s even more fundamental than City Hall watchers have previously pointed out.
There’s been quite a brouhaha about City Hall’s five-day workshop on “leadership, collaboration, and communication” as Mayor Darlene Kordonowy called it in a recent letter to the Sun. People are suspicious of the motives and timing of the workshop, the group therapy aroma of its techniques, and the $24,900 cost to the taxpayers for this latest effort to improve relationships at City Hall. Time will tell whether the workshop produces results.
But the Council and administration have more fundamental communication problems than their inability to create a team culture. They lack basic business communication skills.
How can a Council member who sits on the finance committee be “stunned” in November–after work on next year’s budget had been underway for months–when he learns that nearly the entire Capital Facilities budget depends on the issuance of bonds?
How can the Council show up at the last scheduled meeting of the year and still be unclear about the total debt the City must incur to pay for the latest version of the CFP? At this late date, why do they still have basic questions about how much has been spent on Winslow Tomorrow and what has been paid for?
Nezam Tooloee has long experience with budgets in the private sector and here’s what he said last night about the CFP (as reported by the Sun): “I can’t vote on numbers I don’t understand and I don’t understand these numbers.”
Councilman Bill Knobloch, who has the most seniority on the Council, wondered why the feasibility study on a downtown parking garage has continued and is being added to the City’s debt. The Sun quotes City Finance Director Elray Konkel as responding, “The council authorized $4 million for many aspects of Winslow Tomorrow, including the parking garage feasibility.”
Bizarrely, the open space bond for acquisition of the Williams and Meigs properties included money for the parking garage feasibility study and the “Winslow Streetscape.” The bond, according the Sun’s report, went to market yesterday morning, before the Council approved it last night. (Hello, City Hall? Is your bond lawyer there?)
The Council was also baffled about why the CFP, which they had revised so it didn’t exceed $4 million, was re-submitted to them last night in the amount of $7 million. The discrepancy–apparently–was that the dollar amount the Council started whittling from was $3 million light.
But the usually direct Konkel failed to explain the numbers in a comprehensible way, instead offering an excuse: “We did the entire budget in one day.” City Administrator Mary Jo Briggs went on to complain, “It took the staff 3.5 months to do the mayor’s proposed budget. And it took council one day to dismantle.”
How can she be surprised that the Council dismantled the CFP, when Konkel spent the fall sounding the alarm on what he called a “very highly leveraged” plan?
For months, Council members have begged for nailed down cost numbers on City projects. Councilor Kjell Stoknes, a former appraiser with a degree in Economics, has quizzed City staff on aspects of financial documents, only to receive such muddled responses he admitted he couldn’t understand the answers. At one recent Council meeting, Councilor Debbie Vancil asked how much the City had incurred to date in consulting fees for Winslow Tomorrow. Konkel could not provide her with an total, saying the costs had been recorded in separate categories so he didn’t have all the figures in one place. And it goes on.
What we have here is a failure to communicate. And it’s not the heart-to-heart communication they’re working on now. It’s Business 101: Be clear. Be concise. Don’t lapse into lingo and technical explanations. Answer the question. Pay attention.
City watcher Robert Dashiell suggested in a comment to one of this blog’s posts that Tooloee’s “I’m stunned” remark was political theatre. Maybe so.
Maybe our Council members are such manipulative operators that they know full well what’s going on and play dumb to score political points for some agenda of their own. If so, their strategy is lost on the public, many of whom have excoriated the Council for being rude and obstructionist.
It seems more likely that the problems are at both ends of City Hall, based in political maneuvering along with a heavy dose of learning on the job. With both the adminstration and the Council, there’s plenty of blame to go around.
Winslow Tomorrow, for example, has been presented for approval in a series of packages. Apparently, Council members aren’t always aware of the fine print. And their approval of a project doesn’t necessarily mean approval of going into debt for it.
Adding to the confusion, many City matters involve engineering, finance or law. Even in the private sector, people in those fields are notoriously hard to understand, not because they’re too smart for the average person, but because they speak in insiders’ lingo. They’re often so inarticulate when they speak to the Council that people have to guess at what they mean. Their written work is just as hard to decipher.
Time and again the Council complains about being rushed into decisions without enough information. Or they gripe that the adminstration brings proposals that are directly contrary to an instruction given by the Council.
At the same time, the adminstration expresses its dismay that the the Council continually changes its mind and makes extra work for staff.
These communication misses arise as much from lack of clear speaking and writing as from political machinations or failure to listen to opposing points of view.
So here’s a suggestion for a City New Year’s resolution. Start at the beginning of the communication hierarchy. Give everyone a training in basic business writing and speaking. And you can invite the public, because all of us could use a lesson in communication basics.