By Walter Neary, Lakewood
I write to educate your readers about one of the most bizarre situations involving Lakewood that I’ve witnessed in my years here throughout cityhood. It’s also complicated, so I hope you don’t mind if I begin with an analogy.
Suppose you work at a place, and give someone money with instructions they should help your company. What they then actually do is investigate you without telling you, fail to learn your duties, and present you with a list of things you’ve done wrong and what you should be doing. It would be very reasonable for you to look at the report and ask, among other questions:
- Why didn’t you tell me you were doing this?
- Why didn’t you ask me what I do?
- Why didn’t you do research on the field I work in?
- Why didn’t you ask me for my opinion about how I can do my job better?
And you would probably have more questions and some phrases to offer.
So what happened when a small Lakewood City Council subcommittee and some city staff did all that?
- A bizarre allegation out of left field that an official city advisory committee, the Landmarks and Heritage Advisory Board, which has met regularly since 2000, has never legally existed.
- A detailed revised ordinance that reflects either a lack of understanding of historic preservation or the desire to undermine 13 years of work to protect some of the most historic buildings in Pierce County. Or both.
I am a member of the Landmarks and Heritage Advisory Board, and the other members and I have been frantically trying to understand, since we learned of all this Saturday, what the heck is going on. Here’s what we know: Apparently in January, at a retreat, the city council decided the city’s advisory boards, composed of volunteer citizens, have some problems. Now a lot of City Councils – and certainly the first couple of Lakewood City Councils – would have immediately called in the citizens to speak with them to collaborate on a solution. A lot of advisory board members would agree that there could be better processes and procedures for deciding what to do with their committees and in working with the City Council.
I was the first chair of the Landmarks board, back in 2000. After that, I served on the City Council for two terms later on. I would certainly agree that relations and processes between the advisory boards, the city staff and the council could be improved.
So while this activity began with a noble goal, the execution left out a crucial ingredient: the people. The council carved a small subcommittee of two, presumably to avoid having to announce the meetings in public, and they began studying, with staff, the various advisory groups. And thus comes up the number of the Landmarks and Heritage Advisory Board.
This group, in private sessions, has definitively announced that what the original City Council did … what the original city attorney did … what the deputy city attorney who staffed the Landmarks board did … what the city manager did … what the citizen advisory board members did … well, everything any of us did in 2000 to create the board was wrong. You can go to the City of Lakewood Website to see the Study Session Packet and read the staff report, which starts on page 31 of the scanned documents.
What they are basically saying is that since 2000, Lakewood City Council members have been regularly appointing people to a board without admitting the board actually existed.
Now if you are reading that while watching TV and distracted, you might think, wow, this group is sure smart. It’s smarter than everyone was way back in the Dark Ages of 2000. And you know, they could be right. There could be some undisclosed intricacy of law that undoes 13 years of effort. But in the spirit that began Lakewood in 1995, I’d love to hear the declaration presented as “This is what we think. What do you think?” as opposed to “You think this cuz I say so.” Being chosen as a city attorney or elected to the City Council does not guarantee infallibility or genius.
Now this should all be surreal and funny, like a bad Twilight Zone episode or lighthearted romp with Franz Kafka, because the committee insists, no harm was done by 13 years of continuous error. And let me be clear, in all seriousness, that’s a blessing they feel this way. The committee to its credit now recommends the city just go ahead and retroactively ratify everything the landmarks board did. So you think, “no harm, right?” But now the staff report allows someone with a historically protected property to now legally challenge the city to say their property was never designated. And that’s a bad thing.
This leads to the second half of this story. Besides saying the Landmarks Board has never existed, the subcommittee and staff decided we are wrong about a lot of stuff about historic preservation. This letter is already long, so let me try to summarize. If you read the PDF, you will see a revised ordinance that goes from protecting property to giving it no protection at all. Anyone who tears down a historic building that went through a very complicated process will have no penalties. So let’s pick one example. That means an owner of the Boatman House, one of the oldest buildings in Pierce County, across from Clover Park High School, could be torn down and turned into a McDonalds. Or maybe the site of a house linked to someone who lost loved ones during their journey on the Oregon Trail could become a parking lot.
Now, we on the Landmarks Board\ worked with landowners who thought they were protecting these sites in perpetuity do not like the idea of someone tearing down a historic building when the owner we were working with wanted in protected in perpetuity. So this is the second thing we are reeling from with a few days’ notice. We were assured by the full council on Monday night that they will wait to make any such changes until they can have a joint discussion with the Landmarks Board. Based on my knowledge of these seven people, who when they interact with citizens I have seen behave with courtesy and wisdom, they will listen to different points of view. Whatever comes out of that will reflect at least shared knowledge, if not full agreement.
So what’s it mean that on the study session agenda of the Lakewood City Council on Monday was nothing less than removal of all projections of current historically protected buildings in Lakewood including one of the oldest houses in Pierce County? Curiously, though certainly happily, no one was rushing to defend that concept Monday night. In their remarks both formally and informally, it doesn’t seem everyone involved knew the implications of what was in the recommendations. There is evidence that at least some of the parties just saw what someone wrote and dutifully bobbed their heads.
As you can imagine, the Landmarks Board was horrified at being cut out of this process to date. I think if you talk to any of the members, and you are welcome to, they will tell you they feel ambushed, if not betrayed to have a couple days’ notice of what I described at the start of this letter.
This is where I remind you we are not the only advisory committee. It was interesting to observe the faces of the members of two other city advisory boards who just happened to be in the audience on Monday night. They were members of the transportation committee and the lodging tax advisory board. Members confirmed to me after the meeting that they had no idea their committees were being investigated by the city council.
There is something missing in this whole process: the citizens who authorized and pay for this government. So what happens to all the other citizen committees? Don’t ask me. I’m still trying to figure out how all those years when I was on the City Council, I voted to appoint people to a board that apparently I didn’t think existed.
So the people reading this letter will fall into two camps: people who were around for the start of city-hood, and remember how the advisory groups started, and those who don’t. Advisory boards made cityhood possible in the mid-90s because dozens of unpaid volunteers did enormous research and made more suggestions than any seven Council members could have done alone. One of the things that makes Lakewood unique is the way it has historically involved citizens. Historically.
If you believe that citizen involvement is important, you might want to educate any members of the City Council that you know. Some of them were not around for the start of city-hood, and many of them may need telling or reminding that, to borrow the title of a song “We built this city on rock and citizens.”
I know some of them get it. Some of them have to be disgusted. I hope a couple are horrified. All of them will say they are on the side of the citizen. But the actions of the mysterious subcommittee are not reassuring. I will humbly submit more information to The Suburban Times as it becomes available. My correspondence with the City Council on this matter has a lot of references that will probably be very unfamiliar to anyone who hasn’t lived historic preservation in Lakewood – but if this letter hasn’t driven you away from the discussion, it’s all posted at www.electing2blog.com Let me know what you think and what questions you have.
I would invite the city council members and city attorney’s office to be open and transparent about their thinking by starting their own blog about redesigning Lakewood’s advisory committees.
What I really think we learn from this situation is the same thing we learn from history: we should be humble and cautious every time we announce we alone contemplate and guard the truth.
And yet, I know for sure there’s something that can be learned from all this.
This is what I told the council Monday night: As soon as you start thinking you know more than the citizens, it’s a good sign you probably don’t.
Walter lives in Lakewood, was the original chair of the Lakewood Landmarks and Heritage Advisory Board, and was elected to the City Council in 2003 and 2007.