Wednesday, August 12, 2015

HALA Committee: should any advisory committees act in private?

There is a letter to the Seattle Times from the co-chairs of the Mayor's HALA Committee (on housing which put out a report recently with 65 recommendations). The Committee has not been happy with Seattle Times' columnist, Danny Westneat, who put out some advance news on their recommendations. The Mayor blamed the media for overblowing one recommendation that would change single family neighborhood zoning.

Then, the Committee got really mad when Westneat exposed that all their meetings were held in private.  Westneat stated that the Mayor had the legal right to do this but for a committee making such major changes, it seems an odd thing to do.  Many, like state Rep Gerry Pollet said this in Westneat's column of July 31, 2015, "Had Murray set this up in a public fashion, it never would have imploded on him like this." "you would have had people watching and commenting throughout."  He noted that he thought "... people wouldn't have been totally blindsided by it."

This brought to mind when I served on the Seattle School Board's Closure and Consolidation Committee in 2006 to determine what schools to close because of the high costs of too many underenrolled, low-performing schools.

(Just to note, I have extremely mixed feelings about serving on that particular committee.  I thought pretty highly of most of my fellow members and we worked very hard under difficult conditions.  But the district, as usual, did NOT give us full and complete information and, as we all know, you are only as good as the data you get.)

HALA said this in their letter in the Times:

The decision to close the HALA meetings was not Mayor Ed Murray’s decision, but rather our decision, as co-chairs of the HALA Committee. We felt strongly about the need to create a safe place for frank, honest discussions about tough issues. We stand by our decision.

So the Mayor formed a committee that made its own decisions on meeting and who could go to those meetings?  Our committee, Closure and Consolidation, never even asked or considered having closed meetings.  We knew that would never work.  The Board didn't offer that as a possibility. I do understand HALA wanting to find consensus among its members but again, it's a public committee, not some co-op board.

Then they said this:

The HALA Committee is not foolish enough to think we were making law, or even policy. Rather, we delivered 65 recommendations to the mayor, the Seattle City Council and the citizens of Seattle.

Wait, so they say they aren't making decisions or policy and yet HALA also said they needed a "safe place" which would imply some deep seriousness to their work (and possible blowback if people could listen in to their discussions).   

Maybe they were really more worried that communities might not like the directions they were taking and didn't want to have to listen to those communities.

C&C had no such luxury.  We had public meetings of our work and, additional public meetings to talk to various communities.  They were tough meetings (I had a couple of people follow me to my car at one of them).  But we did that because it was the RIGHT thing to do.

(I will also state that our last two meetings - our deliberations - were closed.  We had to ask the Board and Legal counsel for permission and were granted it.  We did this because we were having two 8- hour day sessions and worried about people coming and going and stating information out of context if they had not stayed the whole time.  We, too, wanted to have frank conversations just like HALA.  But we had just two of them, and not the whole process.) 

HALA's co-chairs then finished this way:

The City Council’s Select Committee on Housing Affordability has started to meet, which will provide many opportunities for public input. We are excited to watch the conversations move forward.

One, it's going to be a much longer process than it needs to be if the discussion is just starting now.  

Two, given these are people who didn't want anyone to listen to their deliberative process, I'm believing that "excited to watch" statement on their part to be suspect.  

Watching Mayor Murray move forward in a such a quickly on decisions on a number of issues and now knowing that he isn't as interested in the public being involved in those decisions, I truly worry about what he has planned for Seattle Public Schools.  We have seen how the Department of Education and Early Learning are pushing hard for the City's Preschool Program.  We also saw how the Families and Education Levy staff had no problem pushing hard on the issue of principal placement and F&E grant.s

I have a separate thread on HALA and what they said about public schools in Seattle coming soon.  It's very disquieting.


Eric B said...

I don't know much about HALA other than what I read in the papers. I was on an advisory committee, and I can see both sides. There was certainly data that we got that was not (yet) available to the public. There was also a feeling that the committee was stacked to make decisions in a certain way and I don't think that closed meeting did anything to allay those fears. I think that a reasonable compromise around both is to hold every second or third meeting in public, and in particular any meeting where decisions/recommendations are made.

David Sucher said...

I have mixed feelings:
We want transparency.
But had HALA been totally open, we would likely get pablum.

I don't know if the public disclosure law still applies but there used to be a protected group of documents -- "Formulative Writing" -- which allowed government staff to write stupid things without public sanction or getting their elected official bosses.

By the same token -- and I think HALA was quite good -- some other committee might think along very conventional lines and avoid any new ideas in solving a problem.

I don't it's easy call but err to allowing staff and associated committees to have a "zone of privacy".

David Sucher said...

And I wish you had an edit function. Duh. Lots of stupid mistakes.

Melissa Westbrook said...

I think that "zone of privacy" should be for deliberations if it's a committee appointed by an elected official for public business.

Anonymous said...

The HALA suggestions do nothing to increase affordable housing!

Mayor Maurry's preschool plan have little to do with closing the achievement gap!

Both of them have a tremendous effect on K-12 in Seattle and bring with them much to despise.

HALA: Gypsy addresses that any 3 families can have near a school, no need to live there. (Good luck with that enrollment!) Increased density without the buildings to put the kids. I'm not a NIMBY but those alone will alter the city forever. Ed's disingenuous 6% (really 100%) should come back to haunt him. The 6% are the ones really in a bad space.

Preschool: Utilizing k12 resources for programs other than k12 including junkets for staff and board members with city employees. Which is only the tip of the iceberg. MOUs that aren't complete but staff is already paying attention to the city more than SPED, AL, ELL and Gen Ed.


Watching said...

I agree with Gerry Pollet's sentiment.

Speaking of prek-- In an effort to meet performance targets, the city wants to hold back 25% reimbursement. I realize the district claims there is grant $$ to cover costs. Yet, those dollars were used to set-up prek classes and I'd like to see a financial breakdown of those numbers. Should the district fail to meet performance targets, and dollars are withheld....are we looking at a gift of public funds?