The Olympia City Council focused on a handful of hot topics such as police issues and parks funding during its midyear retreat Saturday at the LOTT Clean Water Alliance board room.
Other highlights from the retreat included a review of 2015 accomplishments as well as priorities for the second half of the year.
One ongoing priority in 2015 is to further explore “community policing issues,” especially in the aftermath of the last month’s officer-involved shooting.
Mayor Stephen Buxbaum and Mayor Pro Tem Nathaniel Jones are organizing a citizen task force to get more public feedback about police policies and more. Such a task force could provide direction on issues such as body cameras and dashboard cameras, for example.
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Buxbaum said Police Chief Ronnie Roberts has been working on a community policing strategy and engaging the public since arriving five years ago. He noted the department is struggling to meet the public’s expectations of policing, especially under constrained resources.
“We are responding to a very loud request from some parts of the public that we need to do more,” Buxbaum said. “Our challenge is, are we going to allocate more resources to this?”
One of the city’s biggest priorities in the coming months is a proposed Metropolitan Parks District that would raise taxes in the name of parks. If approved by voters, the district would charge 54 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value and generate about $3 million a year.
The district, if approved, would raise much-needed revenue that would go toward park maintenance and park acquisition. The city’s Finance Committee is trying to fine-tune the proposal to get it on the ballot in either November or next spring.
Councilman Jim Cooper noted that the failed promise of a voted utility tax is driving today’s conversation about the proposed parks district. The voted utility tax was a 3 percent increase approved by voters in 2004 to help buy about 500 acres of new park land, but in the following decade, the city only bought 63 acres of park land.
At Saturday’s retreat, Cooper said that if the city doesn’t get new money for parks, “I’m a no vote” on any new city property purchases. In fact, one of the priorities for the new money created by the proposed parks district is to buy more park land while also restoring the voted utility tax.
Several council members — including Buxbaum, Jones and Julie Hankins — reiterated that the public needs a clear understanding of what they’re getting with their tax money. The discussion got somewhat heated when it came to the community’s expectations for parks in conjunction with the influence and interests of a small group of hardcore citizen park advocates.
“I don’t want to do something that’s going to fail at the polls,” Buxbaum said.
Council member Cheryl Selby said the council is savvy enough to know whether the proposal will pass or fail at the polls, and should be patient if a solid proposal isn’t ready in time for the November election.
“Pushing it out to April is definitely on the table,” Selby said.
Another potential change on the horizon involves the city council’s meeting format. In 2015, the council revised the format for its weekly Tuesday business meetings. The council has replaced two of those meetings a month with study sessions coupled with a shortened regular business meeting.
The goal was to allow deeper discussion of city issues and create more efficiency when conducting city business. Council members agreed Saturday that the study session format has done just that, but noted there are some shortcomings.
For starters, study sessions that are held outside council chambers are not televised, and oftentimes, there is only enough time to explore one major item at the sessions. Some council members noted concerns about providing an adequate opportunity for public participation and access to information at the study sessions.
One suggestion floated at Saturday’s retreat was to return to the original meeting format, and instead hold quarterly study sessions that last longer than the current sessions. Another suggestion was to hold study sessions and executive sessions at 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays before the regular weekly business meetings.
Meeting length was also discussed. Councilwoman Jeannine Roe suggested a “cap” on regular business meetings to ensure they conclude by 10 p.m. Another idea is to replace council members’ oral reports with written reports that are posted online, or to limit council reports to three minutes during the meeting.
Other council priorities for the second half of 2015 will include trying to create a more sustainable budget; finding revenue for parks funding; implementing the downtown strategy; finishing demolition projects on the isthmus; making improvements at the Artesian Commons downtown park; creating an action plan for the comprehensive plan; establishing a 2016 parks plan; making progress with the Community Renewal Area; finishing neighborhood sub-area planning; completing a West Bay environmental restoration assessment; installing downtown alley lighting and sidewalk repairs; and working with the Nisqually Tribe on the future of the McAllister Springs property, which is the former source of the city’s drinking water.