By David Anderson, Tillicum
Now that Tillicum’s Camp Murray Gate debacle has been voted overwhelmingly the top West Pierce news story (in The News Tribune) for 2011, it’s time to reflect on what this means.
First, it means that Tillicum can get out the vote. Sewers, 2nd runner up, got 4 votes, while the Washington Military Department’s (WMD) plan to move its main entry gate deeper into the Tillicum neighborhood received 25 votes. Tillicum cares about what happens in its community.
Second, that the unhappiness persists now going on two years that Tillicum has fought first the WMD and then its own city such that this remains a story, let alone top news story, is reflective that relationships have sizably soured between a significant segment of the city – Tillicum, on the one hand, and city staff along with city council on the other.
Tillicum will have its day in court on February 3rd in this new year, the community having appealed the city’s issuance of a permit that would grant access to neighborhood streets that the WMD seeks to complete its project. Meanwhile on Camp Murray’s side of the fence, trees have been razed; dirt shoved around; ribboned stakes driven into the heart of the soil and all smoothed over to await what the Guard believes will most assuredly be a verdict in the military’s – and city’s – favor, overruling the people sandwiched between.
After three rallies; five cumulative hours at the microphone before the city council; hundreds of pages of protest and coverage by the media both print and televised, Tillicum’s angst and anger over this issue most recently directed at City Hall is epitomized in a December, 2011 article entitled “ In Government We Don’t Trust”. Available to all citizens on this planet at the Municipal Research Services Center (MRSC), this particular paper reflects a theme similar to voluminous material articulating a sizeable challenge in 2012 with regards trust: “How can public leaders get it back?”
The MRSC website is replete with substantive research written to enlighten leaders on their responsibilities to the public they were elected to represent. “Connected Communities: Local Governments As A Partner in Citizen Engagement and Community Building” (125pp); “Beyond Civility – From Public Engagement to Problem Solving: An Action Guide for City Leaders” and “Six Factors That Restore Public Trust in Government” are but a few titles, each of which has any number of pages of additional resources.
There’s even a tool kit – “Planning for Stronger Local Democracy: A Field Guide for Local Officials.” The Rockefeller Brothers Foundation declares this treasure trove of information is “designed to assist officials in strengthening local democracy by cultivating transparency and inclusivity with citizens.” The purpose of the sponsoring agency – the National League of Cities (NLC) – is “to encourage and enable city officials in dialogue and inquiry around various forms of civic engagement, consensus-building, collaboration and participatory practices in governing; to engage citizens more effectively.”
Certainly one thing is true. With all the multiplied minions applying their minds to the topic of how governments can get along with those who pay their salary and whom they were elected and hired to serve, it rankles to the core that councils consider their retreats a perk, defending their training budget, when for the cost of another cup of coffee and the click of a button all these resources are available in the comfort of their own home.
“Building trust in government” even received brief mention (albeit in the last paragraph) of Lakewood City Manager Andrew Neiditz’s column in the fall “Lakewood Connections”. Neiditz wrote, “A major challenge in today’s world is building trust in government.” In that, Neiditz is correct. In fact, academics Xiao Wang and Montgomery Van Wart wrote in a paper a few years ago, “The decline of trust in government is frequently considered one of the most important political problems of our time.” But identifying the problem and seeking its solution by fostering “professional working relationships with local government colleagues” – Neiditz’s conclusion, is to have misapplied all the current writing and research on how trust is restored.
Replace “colleagues” with citizens and the emphasis is returned to the right syllable. But because “democracy is messy”, abandoning the people with but a token three minutes in front of the council before the pre-warned-about buzzer goes off – those 90 seconds often perceived as the allowed upper limit of citizen involvement – it’s just easier for government to retreat into the inner hallways of City Hall, or hobnob with fellow professionals.
Even the Tacoma News Tribune editorial staff was thumbs down in its review of the city’s inexplicable inability to communicate effectively with its citizens on Murray-gate: “ One concern with the original plan was that the Tillicum community had little input. Input also seems to have been scarce this time around – beyond keeping the Tillicum Action Committee posted on developments.”
Is keeping us posted (suspect) on developments praise-worthy? Posing for a photo-op beneath yellow construction hats while leaning on a gold shovel and snipping a red ribbon for the grand opening of the new gate – can we expect this celebration of city council and staff should they, with the military, prevail in court over the people of the Tillicum community?
If all this is so, then what does ‘community matters’ mean? Is a community just a place to get through? In moving its gate, Camp Murray wants to create its own “pedestrian-friendly campus” and so would run 900 additional employee cars per day – twice – down what otherwise is a relatively quiet Tillicum neighborhood street. Lakewood’s traffic analysis experts say the pavement can handle that and more. To assuage the unappreciative and angry people who live next to that pavement, the city has demanded that the military install five speed bumps. But the less-than-one-mile-long strip is already posted 25 mph so what message does that send to military employees – that they can’t read?
“How much traffic should streets carry?” is an example of a civic dispute reduced to arguments over numbers in which case “the point has usually been lost,” observes Knute Berger of Seattle’s “official backing of happiness.” Communities are more than formulas, opines Berger. They are a way of life.
“Is a city’s job to maximize profits?” Berger asks. “To create jobs? In Seattle, we’ve long talked about ‘quality of life’ and ‘livability’ as things to be enhanced or protected. It’s hard to define what those are, but they point the debate in the right direction, toward the outcome. This year, the City Council (referring to Seattle) issued a proclamation in favor of happiness. Sounds like the kind of pointless stuff city councils often do.” But in the words of Seattle City Council President Richard Conlin, a better city, a happier city, means “engaging our community in conversations about what we really want from life.”
Such conversation – not just an impartation of information but rather even a smattering of similar communication as Seattle’s initiative – would be a helpful gesture by our own city council especially as our year begins with both new city council members paying winter visits to the Tillicum Woodbrook Neighborhood Association – Paul Bocchi, January 5th, and Marie Barth, February 2nd .Hopefully two new faces will translate into a fresh approach to bridge the geographical and philosophical barrier that currently describes the frosty – if not frigid – relationship between Tillicum and Lakewood.