Letters to the editor
February 5, 2009
City government should be more accountable to public
I applaud City Council members Steve Buri, Lisa Jensen and Carol Simpson for voting against Newcastle’s 2009 budget: It includes projects we cannot afford, and neglects basic infrastructure. Given the likelihood of continued falling income for the city, our government should listen to the public in setting priorities and avoiding new taxes.But city government is broken. Some issues don’t get the public discussion they deserve; some are decided by public process, but the results are ignored.
For example: Our council voted unanimously to build the Hazelwood Trail in 2005, timed to connect the new Hazelwood Elementary School to parks and neighborhoods. In 2004-2005, the council voted unanimously for a park sign standard, after a lengthy public process culminating in a public open house and recommendation from the Parks Commission. The council allocated funds for the trail, and for park signs, but neither project was done.
For some council members, this is accepted procedure. The city manager is free to choose which projects are done, to spend more or less than the amount allocated, and even to launch projects without council approval. He may consult with individual council members, but this is out of public view, with no public record: It violates the spirit if not the letter of the open meetings law.
Given Newcastle’s extremely difficult financial situation, the council should adopt policies that ensure accountability and public oversight. Council approval should be required before the city manager negotiates any contract exceeding a certain amount ($25,000 has been used in other cities). Projects should be tracked, and the council notified of schedule or budget changes. A year-end status report should be issued. Million-dollar projects should require a public vote.
Two projects in particular should require public hearings and a vote: a new City Hall, and citywide branding: redoing Newcastle signs (street, park, trail) in chartreuse. Both are luxuries we can’t afford, especially in a recession, with still-unresolved parkway debt. Before spending more money on these projects, the council should insist on cost estimates, public discussion and evidence of broad public support.
Kudos to The Golf Club for hosting candidate forum
I knew it would be a great event the moment I walked into the room. As the Newcastle chamber chairman, the details are important to me and this setting was perfect.
On Jan. 17, the Newcastle Chamber of Commerce and Municipal League co-sponsored the King County Elections Director Candidate Forum held at The Golf Club at Newcastle. The setting could not have been more perfect. A table for the six candidates to share with a beautiful sunrise as the backdrop, lecterns for our moderators, water and coffee stations and a generous muffin spread were all complimentary. Are you kidding me?
It indeed was all complimentary and for that I am grateful. What would have cost several hundred dollars, The Golf Club generously provided. Thank you to David Hein, Nancy Carlstrom and the great staff. If not for all of you we would not have been able to present such a great service to the 50 people in attendance.
Communications director, year-end mailings questioned
Sometimes, it takes me a while to connect the dots. Several months ago, the city hired a communications director at $70,000 a year plus benefits. Why did we need that in a community as small as Newcastle? Oh well, his newcastle411 Web blog is a pleasant diversion.
Then, the city came up short about $800,000 in revenue, so some citizens suggested maybe we could struggle along without a municipal mouthpiece. Couldn’t his salary be better spent fixing the streets or putting in sidewalks? No. At the Town Hall meeting at Newcastle Elementary School, Mayor Ben Varon stoutly declared the position of communications director “is not going away!” Why such passion for a nonessential employee? Oh well, his honor often takes a dictatorial tone in meetings.
Next, the city found a way to economize by minimizing the City Beat feature in Newcastle News and changing from color to black and white. Tough luck for the publisher but, oh well, we do have to prioritize in lean times.
But wait — if we’re trying to save a buck, what’s this in my mailbox? It’s the 2008 Year End Report. Here’s a six-page puff piece with color pictures and rah-rah recaps of old news. We got through 14 fat years without this. Why now?
I wondered if the real purpose for the mailing was the full-page message from and handsome photo of the mayor. Was this the opening salvo of a re-election campaign? The “informational” mailing to constituents is a traditional way incumbents use government funds and staff to publicize themselves. Though not as blatant as Reagan Dunn’s recent mailing, this slick piece looked more like self-promotion than civic duty.
But my real “a-ha” moment came when I found, buried in a middle paragraph of the mayor’s letter, that our taxes are going up. Newcastle’s current revenues won’t support extravagances like redoing our logo and signage, building a new City Hall or hiring a communications director. Only the need for a professional to sell the idea of raising taxes during a recession could justify that last expense. Are you sold yet? I’m not.