Tuesday’s City Council agenda was dominated by a long list of Councilmember discussion items, but the real meat of the meeting came in a heated debate around the proper use of discussion items.
Councilmember discussion items, also known as 13 items, are proposals submitted by Councilmembers for consideration at the end of meeting.
They often take the form of requests for staff to research a particular issue and return with a report and agenda item for a future meeting. They can also be used as a manner for Council to expediently approve a simple action, such as allocating funding for student travel, without the need for a formal staff report.
There has been a proliferation of 13 items in recent meetings and some members feel that several items have veered away from their intended use. Problems brought forward include discussing topics that are already in the process of being agendized, making consequential decisions without a staff report and the late hour at which these items are heard.
In response to these problems, Councilmembers added a rule to meeting procedures requiring all 13 items be discussed with the City Manager prior to being submitted. This discussion does not limit Councilmembers’ ability to submit items, but gives an opportunity for them to learn what City efforts may be underway to tackle the subject at hand and see whether the subject can be addressed as part of the regular agenda items.
Council also voted to direct staff to research changing meeting procedures to allow public comment on key items, including 13 items, to occur earlier in the meeting.
Prior to voting unanimously on these directions, Council spent an hour tensely discussing their viewpoints on 13 items.
“I think we need to establish procedures for 13 items so that 13 items actually are dealing with policy matters, and not with administrative matters,” said Mayor Sue Himmelrich. “I think that we should have a different approach to 13 items where they are really meaningful and not simply things that we should have done through staff.”
Himmelrich said that some 13 items replicate agenda items that are planned for future meetings or that staff are already working on. She said that when Councilmembers submit such topics as 13 items, it wastes meeting time and gives the impression that staff aren’t doing their jobs.
She illustrated her point with discussion item 13H, which waived certain parking tickets for street sweeping, and item 13D, which called for a discussion on safety concerns Downtown.
“I think there are communication issues here on the parking ticket issue, because before the 13 item was put on (the agenda) we had reached a resolution that basically is what the 13 item is,” said Himmelrich.
Himmelrich said the Downtown safety 13 item was unnecessary as a discussion including stakeholders and a staff presentation and is agendized for a Sept. 28 meeting.
“We’re going to be discussing it with staff input and with all the players here and not as a 13 item that is just, in my view, a criticism of staff without any positive impact at all,” said Himmelrich.
Although Councilmember Brock was not directly named, he took offense at Himmelrich’s comments and defended his use of discussion items. Brock submitted five 13 items in Tuesday’s meeting including the parking ticket and Downtown items.
“I understand it’s slap Phil Brock night,” said Brock. “If you want to try and shut me up you can, but I’ll bring more up then. No, I’m not going to shut up.”
Brock said he supports his use of discussion items and believes them to be an important tool to ensure residents’ concerns are being discussed by Council.
“I defend my use of 13 items, because in every single case, residents had already asked repeatedly,” said Brock. “My approach has been in every instance to always talk to the staff first about items, about issues to see if we can get some action. If I don’t see that there’s going to be any action any other way, then, I don’t know if there’s any choice.”
Councilmember Gleam Davis brought up a separate concern with 13 items, saying that they sometimes lead to action on significant policy issues that are better suited for a regular agenda item spot.
“I’m very concerned we’re making decisions without input, without staff reports, and then we’re playing catch up because the community comes back and says, ‘why did you do that, how did you do that, I don’t understand’,” said Davis.
Davis pointed to a prior 13 item vote that authorized the temporary placement of a screen over City Hall’s mural as one such item. She said that talking with the City Manager to see if topics like this can be placed on the regular agenda is a better approach.
The final concern raised over 13 items is the late hour at which they are often discussed, since they come at the conclusion of council meetings.
“What we’re devolving into is actually making policy decisions with no staff report, with no public input, with very little council discussion because it’s one in the morning and we all want to put our heads down and go to sleep,” said Davis.
Several other Councilmembers voiced concerns that the late night timing of 13 items precluded some community members from participating in public comment.
Illustrative of that phenomenon, Council began a two hour discussion of that meeting’s 13 items after 10 p.m. and took action on several topics.
A forgiveness program for street sweeping citations issued between Aug. 30 and Sept. 3 was approved. Staff were directed to work to increase outreach efforts to help members of the public purchase TAP cards for Big Blue Bus. Staff were also directed to draft a potential proposal to limit amplified sound levels and times in parks and explore traffic calming measures on Neilson and Barnard Way.
More detailed articles on these topics will be published in forthcoming issues of the Daily Press.