Sunday, January 10, 2016

Work, Laughs, and Tears: 2016 Olympia City Council Retreat in Review


Above, left to right: Olympia city councilmembers Jeannine Roe, Nathaniel Jones, Jessica Bateman and Jim Cooper work in small groups at their council retreat this past weekend.

By Janine Gates

Seven Olympia councilmembers have chosen to take on the challenge of establishing policies for just over 51,000 residents of Washington State’s capital city.

With a 2016 annual operating budget of about $129 million, and a 2016 – 2021 Capital Facilities Plan that features about $133 million in projects, Olympia councilmembers juggle a hefty workload. 

Their collective responsibilities include attendance at weekly council meetings, bi-weekly study sessions, and service on 16 intergovernmental committees, 10 city advisory committees, three council committees, and other committees and meetings as needed. The city calls it a part-time job that takes 15-20 hours a week, but in reality, it takes much, much more to do it right.

A retreat is an opportunity to get to know each other better, but there is a delicate balance: if councilmembers develop a “groupthink” mentality, don't question staff or consultant assumptions, understand the issues, or work well together for the common good, the results can be stressful and unproductive for them and the public.

Worse, such a dynamic can lead to the creation of policies, ordinances and actions that can be downright harmful to residents, the environment, or local economic success.

So, with two new councilmembers, Jessica Bateman, who was elected, and Clark Gilman, who was appointed last Monday, and Councilmember Cheryl Selby in her new role as mayor, the council spent time solidifying their responsibilities at their annual retreat this weekend in a Port of Olympia meeting room near the Olympia Farmer's Market. 

No blood or sweat, but there were plenty of laughs and yes, there were tears.  

In terms of longevity on the council, Councilmember Jeannine Roe, first elected in 2009, has participated in 15 retreats, including mid-year retreats, while Councilmember Jim Cooper, as the second runner up, has participated in a total of nine retreats. Both strongly agree that there was cohesiveness in the group that has never before been seen during their tenure.

Longtime city manager Steve Hall agreed, saying that in the 45-50 council retreats he has attended, he has never seen a more collaborative, open attitude among councilmembers.

The group explored their core values, discussed 2016 council goals, divided up council committee and intergovernmental assignments, and dreamed big. It was serious work that involved some new ways of thinking.

Above: City of Olympia staff members Rich Hoey, director of public works, Mark Barber, city attorney, and Susan Grisham, executive secretary to the council, work on their Three Big Wishes for the City of Olympia.

Looking Forward to 2016

Councilmembers discussed several city challenges in 2015: the officer involved shooting of two African American men, finding new ways to engage the community and better ways to use city advisory board member’s time, city staffing changes, and issues around homelessness.

For accomplishments, councilmembers mentioned the hiring of an economic development director, passage of the Metropolitan Parks District initiative, movement on strategies for downtown revitalization, the election of new mayor, budget completion and work toward sustainability, creation of the Ad Hoc Committee on Police and Community Relations, and the transformation of the old Sears/state office building on the corner of Franklin Street and Legion Way into businesses and housing.

Besides ongoing projects, councilmembers will adopt the 2016 Parks, Arts, and Recreation Plan and implement the Metropolitan Parks District initiative while tackling a whole host of community priorities that fall under the categories of downtown, the economy, the environment, neighborhoods, and community, safety and health.

Leonard Bauer, city deputy director for community planning and development, provided a brief report on those priorities and programs and how they directly relate to the Comprehensive Plan, its action plans, and major planning projects in progress.

Using new user friendly informational graphics and data on the city's website, Bauer showed councilmembers how Olympia residents will soon be able to better track their area of interest, such as urban forestry, police body cameras, sea-level rise, public restrooms, parking and downtown strategies, West Bay habitat efforts, neighborhood pathway projects, and more.

To better communicate with the community, the council also discussed the creation of a city annual report that the city would insert into utility bills.

Creating a ‘Gracious Space’

For its retreat, the Olympia city council used the facilitation services of The Center for Ethical Leadership, a Seattle based nonprofit organization. The Center provides philosophies and tools for helping communities and specific groups such as cities, businesses, schools and individuals work through difficult issues.

With the help of materials from the Center, trained facilitator Diane Altman-Dautoff helped councilmembers move forward to create what the Center calls a “gracious space,” for working together. This concept was embodied in the phrase, “A spiritand setting where we invite the stranger and learn in public.” 

Wrapping their heads around this new way of thinking, councilmembers discussed the phrase, and how it feels for them, for example, during council meetings at public comment time, to hear emotional pleas and requests, and not being able to respond or have a conversation with the speaker. They also discussed what it must feel like to be the speaker making those requests, or expressing those concerns.

That unsatisfactory dynamic set up the groundwork for discussing how the city can set up meetings to be more welcoming.

Asked by the facilitator to name a meeting they have attended where they felt welcomed, councilmembers mentioned the Ad Hoc Committee on Police and Community Relations forum at Risen Faith Fellowship, at their homeowner’s association meetings, at board meetings of Garden Raised Bounty (GRuB), and at a recent wedding.

One noted common thread was the presence of food, which led to the free-thinking suggestion of the possibility of coffee and cookies at council meetings and having councilmembers greet the public as they come into the council chambers.

Still focusing on the phrase, “A spirit and setting where we invite the stranger and learn in public,” councilmembers, staff, and others present held moving, small group discussions about implicit bias after watching a brief, powerful Tedx talk by Verna Myers, filmed in November 2014. 

Questions such as, “What happened when you first experienced a difference between you and others, related to your racial or ethnic background?” brought up a wide range of experiences, thoughts, and emotions of being discriminated against, based on a whole host of reasons.

Finally, during a ‘Three Wishes’ dream-big exercise, councilmembers, staff and others present were invited to individually write down three things they would wish for, for the success and well-being of the city.

Those thoughts were then shared with another person, merging the six wishes into three. Then, with another pair of participants, the six wishes were merged into three. After all the wishes of 19 individuals were reported and posted, the group chose two, relatively quickly, about which they felt most strongly:

One: “Everyone has a home that is safe and affordable,” and two, “A thriving downtown economy with no empty buildings, ample parking, sea level rise solved, dirty soils cleaned, seismic risk gone, and transportation solved.”

Sometimes, great ideas emerge out of “crazy” dreams.

For more information about The Center for Ethical Leadership, go to www.ethicalleadership.org

To see the November 2014 Tedx talk about implicit bias by Verna Myers, go to: https://www.ted.com/talks/verna_myers_how_to_overcome_our_biases

For more information about the City of Olympia, go to www.olympiawa.gov


 Above: Renee Sunde, City of Olympia economic development director, and Olympia councilmember Clark Gilman collaborate at this past weekend's council retreat.


Editor's Note: An original version of this article stated that Councilmember Jeannine Roe was first elected in 2006. She was first elected in 2009.