Transparency (or the lack of it), the evolving Sammamish City Newsletter and taxpayer dollars

The August Sammamish City Newsletter contained a front page article about the state of the City’s finances and the Six Year Transportation Improvement Program (TIP).

This was followed on the next page by the Mayor’s Message, in this case from Tom Vance, who is in his second year as mayor.

The articles are clearly responses to public questions about the TIP funding and proposed City expenditures in the hundreds of millions of dollars over the next six years for a variety of projects, notably from Council Member Ramiro Valderrama. He’s repeatedly questioned the financial viability of the road projects and how these will be funded.

This column also questioned the TIP and its ending fund balance as adopted, showing a near-depletion by 2020.

The article is a clear response to Valderrama and to The Sammamish Comment. The Mayor’s Message is a clear puff piece, transparently touting policies and promotions as Vance heads into a reelection campaign that will get underway after Labor Day.

The City Newsletter has transformed from a means to inform citizens to a propaganda piece to refute questions raised by members of the City Council and the Public and, in the case of the Mayor, to defend his own practices from criticism.

Do you get the point! Do you get the point! Do you get the point!

The TIP article and Mayor’s Message are replete with superlatives, adverbs and exclamation points in an attempt to convey accomplishments that apparently assumes readers can’t figure out on their own. It’s like Jay Leno telling the same joke three times in a row during his monologue on The Tonight Show to make sure you know the joke is funny. (A lot of times, even the repetition failed to convince about the intended humor.)

Deputy City Manager Lyman Howard, in a clear reference to our previous post on the TIP, is quoted, “Sometimes people get the wrong impression when they look at a city’s six year Transportation Improvement Plan because it show a small ending fund balance. …[T]he TIP is largely a planning document that allows cities to apply for grants and let other agencies look at a community’s wish list. A number of those projects listed won’t be built in that time frame.”

Let me respond my first saying I have very high regard for Lyman Howard. As the City’s finance director for years, he crafted a budget that took Sammamish through the Great Recession without going into the red and without cutting services.

Having said that, I know full well what the TIP is and I didn’t have a “wrong impression.” I sat on the Planning Advisory Board, which wrote the City’s first Comprehensive Plan, and the Planning Commission, both of which dealt with TIP project identification and costs. I know what the TIP is and how it “works.”

I also take a conservative approach to City spending.

To bond or not to bond, that is the question

When the Council approved the TIP, there was a little discussion about grants and a lot of discussion about no bonding was assumed, the latter a major concern of Valderrama, who has been asking all year for detail about wish-list projects in transportation and other areas of the City, the long-term financial projections and how these would be paid for.

The City Administration, Mayor Vance and Deputy Mayor Kathy Huckabay have ignored his requests. Nor has Valderrama received support from Council Member Tom Odell, a fiscal conservative, or Member Bob Keller, who round out the ruling majority on the Council (aka the Gang of Four).

Valderrama pointed out on many occasions that the City previously indicated it would require bonding to undertake the $23m road project for the Issaquah-Fall City Road. Last week it was announced Sammamish will receive $5m in state money toward the project.

“That is what I and the [Council’s] Legislative Group lobbied for, saying we were going to bond the road and needed help,” Valderrama told Sammamish Comment.

Valderrama has tried for a year to get long-range analysis and detail about spending, total costs estimates and revenue projects. He believes the City is positioning itself to be in a position to issue debt. Valderrama says there have been several statements in the newspapers from City officials alluding to the need to issue bonds for roads. Despite many requests for a public, Council discussion, none has taken place.

“The leadership won’t put it on the agenda,” Valderrama has complained. The leadership is Vance, Huckabay and City Manager Ben Yacizi.

There is a distinct lack of transparency from City Hall to its citizens and even to its own Council Members. Howard’s remarks in the newsletter adds to the fog.

Although he said for the first time (that I have seen watching Council meetings, though I could have missed it) that the City hopes to get $20m in grants over the six years, the fact remains this is a “hope,” not a “fact,” and the money isn’t in the bank.

Howard went on to say that not all projects on the TIP will get built in the six years. It’s true that some projects might even come off future lists entirely. Valderrama said this was the case in creating this year’s TIP. “Money was moved from other projects” to create this list, he said.

Incomplete and misleading TIP

Unfortunately, the list creates expectations of those constituencies seeking road improvements. Beyond that, the TIP is simply incomplete and misleading.

Earlier this year the Public Works Department indicated widening Sahalee Way from NE 25th to the northern City Limits cost $16.6m. The TIP lops $1m off this figure and Valderrama says former Deputy City Manager Laura Philpot conceded later, in a private conversation, that the cost would likely triple. What is the “good” number? We don’t know.

In addition, the City is openly talking about further improvements of Sahalee Road to SR202, a cost not in the TIP but over which Valderrama and Odell had obvious tension the night the TIP was approved.

Reliance on State funding and grants, as suggested by City officials for the TIP, is hardly a sure thing. To automatically assume there grants will be forthcoming, in amounts as yet unknown, is, as noted, a “hope.” And hope doesn’t always materialize.

At the April 7 City Council meeting, during a project update from the City’s Public Works Department, Philpot (who has since taken a position with Maple Valley) noted that loan funding from the State Public Works Trust Fund was unlikely to become available due to State budget constraints. The TIP has a multi-million dollar line item for the Trust Fund.

City Manager Yacizi concurred. “We’re not very hopeful we’ll get that money,” Yacizi said, noting a City project had been on the list but removed.

Deputy Mayor Huckabay added, “There will be less money to go around.”

At the same meeting, Council Member Odell said that if the past was an example, the Council would add to the road projects list. (This, of course, means more money, probably in the millions if the projects are significant.)

Yacizi said that neither King County nor the State would step up and pay for Sahalee Way improvements north of the City Limits to SR 202 because these improvements wouldn’t benefit either jurisdiction. And, “they don’t have the funds. We need to get cost estimates and we would need inter-local agreements to at least allow us to do the work.” (Emphasis added.) This is millions more–and it’s not in the TIP.

Vance more recently said Sammamish can’t spend money outside the City. Which is the truth?

Also missing from the TIP are the road improvements from Klahanie to Trossachs/Alderra for Duthie Hill Road, a project that goes hand-in-hand to the Issaquah-Fall City Road improvements. This is a multi-million dollar expense.

The TIP isn’t as much about what is there as it is about what isn’t. And Valderrama’s efforts to get more information has been met with stonewalling.

The City’s proposed spending goes well beyond the TIP that was the subject of the Newsletter’s defensive article. Roads aren’t the only big budget item. Park development runs into the millions of dollars. The full costs for Klahanie aren’t in the budget.

Here’s a post from April about spending issues in Sammamish. The projects just keep adding up. At some point, bonding will be inevitable (or a tax hike). Either may make proper policy if circumstances warrant, but for now Vance, Huckabay and Yacizi refuse to authorize a full analysis and Council discussion.

As for Vance’s current Mayor’s Message, this–and previous ones–sound more and more like electioneering and playing defense. Details are below.

Evolving Purpose of the Newsletter

A newsletter, whether it is for company employees or for a public agency, is obviously intended to convey information to its audience (in our case, Sammamish citizens) about what’s going on. In our case, its about the City with our tax dollars; about parks programs; safety issues; building infrastructure and so on.

But the City Newsletter has evolved this year into a vehicle to defend Mayor Vance’s actions and against criticism of his leadership and of City policies and actions.

Vance and the barricades

When the City Council room was filled with citizens concerned about the “42nd Street barricade,” Vance repeatedly asked the audience to refrain from applauding or making verbal comments when public comment was going on. The crowd for the most part honored the requests but when more than 100 are in a room on a controversial and emotional issue, it’s also not unusual for applause or verbal bursts of approval or disapproval to emerge.

Vance’s handling of the situation drew several critical letters to the editor.

The next Newsletter contained a Mayor’s message defending his actions. Vance was actually advised by a majority of the Council to not address this in his Mayor’s Message.

Vance and the City Manager appointment

When City Manager Ben Yacizi announced nearly a year in advance that he would retire in February 2016, the City Council went through a short process for a replacement. Following an Executive Session, permitted under State law for personnel decisions, the Council appointed Deputy City Manager Lyman Howard as Yacizi’s successor, subject to contract negotiations.

The trouble is that upon emerging from Executive Session, Vance announced that the Deputy Mayor had a motion, which was made to appoint Howard and seconded, followed by Vance announcing there was no discussion (he didn’t even ask–he simply announced there wasn’t) and called the vote.

This maneuver drew criticism in the local press (and this column) for the lack of discussion and stated reasons for the action, as required by law.

A few meetings later, the contract was completed, and at this time Council discussion occurred.

The next Newsletter had a Mayor’s Message defending the process.

Vance and the Budget

Vance correctly writes that the City is debt-free and hasn’t raised taxes in seven years. But he doesn’t mention, except in the broadest terms, the tens of millions of dollars being spent in a very short period of time and the projects being discussed for future near-term spending.

A former City Council Member, and a fiscal conservative, has tried repeatedly to penetrate the “wall” of the ruling majority of the City Council and the Administration over the rate of approved spending and the prospective spending being discussed, with no success.

Vance’s current Mayor’s Message paints a fiscal picture that concludes there are no concerns whatsoever. The meandering letter goes through a variety of topics before getting to the true purpose: another defense of the TIP. In a sliver of candor, Vance admits that “it’s not clear what grants might be available,” which is precisely the point of the questions and concerns over the TIP–and the repeated requests by Valderrama for a meeting to discuss the fiscal issues in detail, and which the Leadership (Vance, Huckabay and Yacizi) refuse to put on the agenda.

City vs Northeast Sammamish Water and Sewer District

During the “water wars” between the Sammamish Plateau Water & Sewer District and Issaquah, the Northeast Sammamish Water & Sewer District became alarmed at a request by the City to do a joint study about the possibility of the City assuming the Northeast district. Water commissioners resisted, let its customers know what was going on and budgeted $600,000 to fend off any takeover by the City.

A petition of 700 customers was created opposing the prospect of a take-over and emails flooded the City.

The City used its Newsletter to attack the Northeast for “misinformation,” alarmism and budgeting the money.

Klahanie Electioneering

During the year-plus long Klahanie annexation discussion that evolved into an election whether to annex to Sammamish, the Newsletter went beyond an informative set of articles and essentially became an electioneering effort. (At the same time, the City largely suppressed information in the Newsletter about the concurrent Initiative and Referendum Advisory Vote.)

Taxpayer dollars

The Newsletter, of course, is written by Staff, printed with tax dollars and mailed with tax dollars. A newsletter serves a useful purpose, but it shouldn’t transcend into a propaganda piece to respond to citizen concerns, promote political agendas and serve as an electioneering mailer for annexations and reelection campaigns.

 

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4 Responses to Transparency (or the lack of it), the evolving Sammamish City Newsletter and taxpayer dollars

  1. otto_the_taxpayer says:

    Thanks for pointing out the obvious propaganda machine that this tax-funded rag has become. I am barely able to read it these days, but given their performance on election days, the good citizens of Sammamish are apparently oblivious to the obvious as long as sources of real information (like this blog, thanks!) are unavailable or relatively obscure.

    Speaking of oblivious, it appears that the stench of the Council’s malfeasance and corruption has become strong enough to permeate the sand in which the journalistic head of the Sammamish Review is normally firmly planted. There’s a leading article today about how a city contractor has been defending Buchan and some of the other city pillagers in various hearings. The article even includes those three words that are so mysterious to the Council when they occur in a particular sequence, namely “conflict of interest.” To those paying attention, it’s just business as usual, but maybe it’s trending sufficiently south to start to get the rest of the electorate’s attention.

    • cityhamilton says:

      Hi Otto,

      I don’t mind your being blunt but please tone down a bit the adjectives, adverbs and name-calling.

      Hamilton

  2. Pingback: City may discuss Transportation TIP funding–after the election | Sammamish Comment

  3. Pingback: Sammamish’s Six Year Transportation Plan’s disappearing costs | Sammamish Comment

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