Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Something rotten in Bellevue


    As a Bellevue resident who has attended City Council meetings since 1976 when the aldermen still gathered around an oil furnace in old City Hall, I have never witnessed a council that has so systematically fostered a culture of public disregard.
    The fast-tracking of the 227-acre Eccles annexation is the latest example. After a packed audience expressed significant concerns about open space, potential traffic and impacts on existing business, a P&Z commissioner said that it appeared that the community supported the proposal. It is difficult to understand how one could listen to that many unsupportive comments and conclude that the community was in favor of the annexation in its current form.
    The commission then failed to engage in any serious discussion of these concerns and how they might relate to the Bellevue comprehensive plan although repeatedly urged to do so by Commissioner Chase Gouley. The major intent of the Local Planning Act under which the city is obliged to operate is to engage our community in issues that affect them. Instead, the chair’s comment was that there was no need for further review because staff had already outlined the commission’s response prior to the meeting.
    City department heads then quickly rubber-stamped the proposal by suggesting there would be zero impact on city services.
    This fiasco followed on the heels of the council’s refusal to meet with Hailey regarding the proposed annexation and strip development linking the two cities. After council members spurned conversation with Hailey, I can only imagine the warm fuzzies that Bellevue will receive from Hailey in future negotiations on the airport, 911 dispatch, marshal’s contract and other areas in which we partner. Getting even with Hailey for past transgressions isn’t a good enough reason to stop talking to our neighbors.

While city councils have no legal obligation to listen to the public except at designated public hearings, they do have a choice.

    In 2012, the council voted to amend the city charter with a hastily conceived plan to extend the terms of the incumbents in the face of a nearly unanimous opposition at the public hearing. Only intervention by the Legislature thwarted this proposal due to the deluge of letters and calls from Bellevue citizens.
    Bellevue voters then turned down a bond proposal to buy a new fire engine only to have the council take an end run around the citizens with a lease purchase.
    Not content with simply ignoring public opinion, the council has also whittled away at opportunities for public participation.
    It recently downsized to only one monthly meeting and has closed the office during the noon hour, the only time most working people have to do business. The line item, “Comment for Items Not on the Agenda,” was back-sided to the end of meetings, which means members of the public must sit through the entire agenda before their concerns are heard.
    And if they come, they are often treated poorly. I have seen someone humiliated at a meeting. I have seen others curtly shut down when they asked to comment. While city councils have no legal obligation to listen to the public except at designated public hearings, they do have a choice. In this case, agendas were short, the room was nearly empty and the only reason not to take comments was that the council could go home early.
    Local governing bodies complain about the lack of public participation. When someone actually shows up wanting to participate, that body should respect and welcome them.
    In the past, there have been city councils I did not agree with, but I rarely felt unwelcome. Meetings were lively and sometimes acrimonious, but I thought that’s how democracy worked. Instead, today we are offered another fait accompli, one that could lead to box stores that drive down wages and drive out family businesses while filling the pockets of developers and leaving the south valley looking like Blue Lakes Boulevard, with the public disregarded once again.   

    Florence K. Blanchard has been a Bellevue resident for 38 years.

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