Friday, April 18, 2014

Thurston County Specialized Recreation is in Precarious Budget Situation


Above: On April 9, about 60 participants of Thurston County's Special Recreation program gathered to bowl at Westside Lanes in Olympia. Strikes and smiles were in abundance!
 
Commissioners to Hold Work Session on Issue May 1
By Janine Unsoeld
www.janineslittlehollywood.blogspot.com

A small group of dedicated people in Thurston County are addressing budget shortfalls and issues regarding the specialized recreation program for individuals with developmental or physical disabilities.
James Reddick, president of the PARC Foundation, a local, nonprofit parks, arts, recreation, and cultural organization, recently reached out to Little Hollywood to tell the story.

“I am concerned that the public does not know what is taking place with Thurston County specialized recreation services. What happens if this recreation service is eliminated for this population of citizens?” says Reddick.

Many of the individuals who use the county’s recreation services live with their parents or guardians. Some live on their own and sometimes support themselves with work income earned through agencies like Morningside. 

“I have contacted many individuals and organizations, but I have not received much response. I would like to find or start a group that would be influential in raising funds for special recreation, similar to the St. Peter’s Foundation that supports the hospital,” says Reddick.
Thurston County Specialized Recreation Budget History

Currently, the county contributes about $220,000 and the cities of Lacey, Olympia, and Tumwater contributes a combined $23,000 to the program, says Cliff Moore, Thurston County manager. Program users fees are also part of the budget.
 
Thurston County Recreation Services is a registered contractor with the state Department of Social and Health Services and is able to accept Department of Developmental Disability respite funds for payment of activities.

In a telephone interview yesterday, Moore placed the special recreation program into a larger context, and provided a history of Thurston County’s budget situation overall.

Since 2009, the county support for special recreation services has continued to be reduced.  Moore recounted how 2009 was the year Thurston County suffered a tremendous financial impact due to the economic downturn.

“The county lost 175 positions in 2008-09….Since 2008 until now, we’ve lost 252 positions. The biggest reasons are inflation, an increase in the cost of medical benefits, salary step increases, and fuel for county vehicles….Our largest single source of income is property taxes…and up until 2009, we had a healthy budget from the general fund.”

That year, the special recreation program was going to be cut from the budget. Moore was reminded by this reporter who was present, of an emotional 2009 county board of commissioners public hearing in which passionate testimony was voiced by caregivers and clients of the program.

Moore immediately responded, “In my entire 25 years of public service, that was the single most moving public meeting I’ve ever attended….”

The public testimony and passionate outpouring worked, and after the 2009 public meeting, the commissioners created a combined funding mechanism of the general fund and the Millage Fund that has sustained the program for the last five years.

The Millage Fund

The Millage Fund is established by state statute and requires the county to spend a certain amount of property taxes on social service programs, including special recreation.

Chris Colton, a member of the Thurston County Parks and Recreation citizen advisory group, provided specifics on the Millage Fund, illustrating the range of services required to take care of an individual with developmental or physical disabilities.

“The Millage Fund receives 2-1/2 cents per $1000 from property taxes…however, the Millage Fund's expenditure is greater than its income, and the program needs to cut about $20,000 in spending every year, starting in 2015.

“In 2014, 45% of the Millage Fund was spent supporting special recreation while the rest of the money went to high school transition (12%), parent and family support (9%), intensive case management (14%), senior services (10%), child care development and support (1%), personal counseling (3%), People First self-advocacy (3%), and assault prevention classes (3%).

“The municipalities agree that special recreation is important but….if each city upped its contribution, the $20,000 could be made up.  However, the cities are in a budget crunch and are not inclined to give up more money, at least not at the request of park staff. Also, that rationale is based on the commissioners continuing to require Millage Funds to fund special recreation. This issue needs to be addressed in our future meeting with the county commissioners.”
 
Efforts to Save Program Comes Up Empty-Handed

Moore says the county strongly appreciates the special recreation program and has worked hard to find a sustainable plan, a programmatic home, and funding for the program. Last year, the county launched an effort to save the program by convening a summit of 17 local organizations in June 2013, but there were no takers to provide the services.

The organizations involved include the Boys and Girls Club of Thurston County, the Hands On Children’s Museum, Morningside, Senior Services of South Sound, United Way of Thurston County, the Olympia, Lacey, and Tumwater parks and recreation programs, the PARC Foundation, the South Sound YMCA, and many more.

When the county’s Resource Stewardship department took an overall 10 percent budget reduction in 2014, the summer day camp program for special recreation was cut.

In March, the county moved the program from Resource Stewardship into the public health and social services department on Lilly Road. Moore says it has been good to connect the program with other staff.

“It heightens the awareness, value and importance of the special recreation program to more staff…before, it was always seen as something different. Still, our goal is to find a sustainable long term solution.”

Moore says the Millage Fund will be tapped out in just a couple of years.
 
Above: Special Recreation participants try different tactics to help their game at Westside Lanes.

Thurston County Special Recreation Activities

Thurston County Specialized Recreation is the only recreation services agency in the county that provides activities and events to individuals with developmental and developmental disabilities.
The current Spring program lists fun field trips to the Puyallup Fair, a trip on the Kitsap Mini Steam Train, trips to see the Tacoma Rainiers, the Point Defiance Zoo, the Olympic Air Show, and more. Locally, the group has a regular bowling club at Westside Lanes, takes walks at the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge, trips to movie theaters, and more.

In the afternoon of April 9, I caught up with a group of about 60 special recreation program participants at Westside Lanes to see some pretty amazing bowling and lots of smiles.
Virginia Cook, a caregiver for her 50 year old developmentally disabled son, sat nearby to watch him bowl. She said he has memory issues, anxiety attacks, and sometimes get confused. She has been with the program for many years.

“I don’t want them to cut the budget. I rely on this program…I need the respite. I don’t have other people I can rely on too often. I could call a professional caregiver, but my son doesn’t like strangers. Without the program, people like me wouldn’t really have any breaks.”
Cook said she sometimes goes to the mall or somewhere nearby while he’s bowling under the watchful supervision of recreation staff, but then she feels bad if she missed him being happy about getting a strike.

“When he gets a strike, I can go ‘yea!’” she smiles.
Josh Russell, a caregiver with Citizen Access Residential Resources (CARR), sat near his client, watching him bowl a rocking game.

“He’s been bowling here for about 10 years…he looks forward to it. He brings his scores home and puts them up on the refrigerator, and calls his family and tells them. He’s very proud of playing a sport – he’s good at it! He’s beat me a few times. He’s an interesting character….” said Russell.
Just then, Russell’s client got a strike! He immediately came over to me and with a big smile, said, “I like to bowl. I like people.” I gave him a fist bump.

The PARC Foundation Offers Possible Solutions
The PARC Foundation, begun by Reddick in 1998, is dedicated to preserving the vital green spaces of Thurston County’s natural surroundings, expanding and supporting works of art and artists in our community, and ensuring all children have free access to recreational opportunities.

“How can specialized recreation continue to serve individuals with developmental and physical disabilities? In addition, how can this program expand to meet the needs of individuals with developmental and physical disabilities? Specialized recreation has high operational costs due to staff and safety requirements. Most of the participants are on Social Security disability income, or need support through low wage employment, or by parents and guardians,” says Reddick.

PARC serves as a nonprofit financial manager for individuals and organizations that want to contribute to their community, but are not themselves interested in becoming a nonprofit or assume financial accounting efforts.
The organization leverages a number of separate funds to achieve major projects such as the creation of the popular Olympia Skate Court on Cooper Point Road in west Olympia. It currently serves as the fiscal agent for South Sound Hounds, and the Tenino Quarry Pool’s fundraising efforts, and other projects. In the past, it served as the fiscal agent for the South Sound Estuary Association.

For special recreation, the PARC Foundation used a $15,000 grant it received in 2012 from the Nisqually Tribe for a weeklong overnight camp held last year. 

“We applied for the same amount of funds this year, and received $5,000. We were also given $5,000 to put towards a Washington State Department of Transportation grant for a 30-35 passenger bus. We’re still trying to raise funds for the bus. Fundraising is difficult.”

County Commissioners to Hold Work Session on Special Recreation

The county commissioners will meet with the Thurston County Parks and Recreation citizen advisory group for a work session on Thursday, May 1, at the Thurston County Courthouse, 2000 Lakeridge Drive SW, Room 280, at 2:00 p.m.

The advisory group wants to reconnect with the commissioners, remind them of the group’s mission, and discuss the plight of the special recreation program. The group was recently instrumental in helping the county update its comprehensive plan for parks and recreation, but now members feel in limbo. The establishment of new goals, and changes in the configuration of the group may be in order.

The program’s move from Resource Stewardship to the county health department illustrates the disconnect between the commissioners and the advisory group. Douglas Bell, a member of the Thurston County Parks and Recreation citizen advisory committee says, “We found out about it in an email.”

The public is invited to observe the commissioner’s work session on special recreation, but public comment will not be allowed. Moore welcomes public comment on the subject at any regular county commissioner meeting on Tuesdays at 2:00 p.m. at the Thurston County Courthouse, Room 280.

Metropolitan Parks District Option?

Moore said that due to new legislation two years ago, a dedicated funding stream for parks was created as the Metropolitan Parks District. Moore says 25 jurisdictions in Washington State have adopted one.

“We haven’t. It takes a vote of the people and creates another tax, so that’s a challenge…but information about it has been provided to the commissioners about that opportunity….As far as I know, no one is leading an effort to create one here, but it could be beneficial for the community. Generally speaking, the overall size of parks and recreation staff increases because there’s a more sustainable revenue stream,” said Moore. In turn, this option could help the special recreation program.

Moore says a 2015 budget for the special recreation program has not yet been established.

For more information about Thurston County Special Recreation, go to the Thurston County website at www.co.thurston.wa.us or contact Cliff Moore, county manager, at (360) 786-5440 or moorecl@co.thurston.wa.us.

For more information about the PARC Foundation, go to www.parcfoundation.org or call (360) 352-0980.
 
Above: Leaning helps too....

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Making of Olympia's Newest Police Officer: Wally Noel

 
Above: City of Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts, left, welcomes Wally Noel, Olympia's newest police officer, after administering Noel's oath of office.


By Janine Unsoeld
www.janineslittlehollywood.blogspot.com

A brief, formal swearing in ceremony yesterday marked the beginning of a new chapter for Olympia's newest police officer Wally Noel and his family.
“We're seeing a whole new generation of police officers,” said Olympia city manager Steve Hall, after the ceremony.

“We have officers who have worked at Starbucks, in banks, served in the military…it’s really exciting in terms of the diversity in background….This is the future of our force.”
Noel, who will retire in a month as a Major from the Army, lives in Tumwater with his wife, Betheny, son Deven, 14, and daughter Kiran, 10. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Public Administration and a Master of Arts in Business and Organizational Security Management.

Noel spent 20 years in active service as a military police officer. He served in the Army prison system for 10 years, went through several deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, served in detention operations at Guantanamo Bay, and was assigned to Joint Base Lewis McChord two and a half years ago.
“We love the state of Washington, and Olympia. This is where I’d like to retire. My kids and wife absolutely love it here,” said Noel.

After witnessing the ceremony, Olympia police department administrative assistant Marianne Weiland noted the longevity of officer's careers and said that Olympia went through a big hiring of officers 20 to 25 years ago.
“Many of them are now retiring...it’s been exciting to see the changes,” she said.

Noel’s Family
After the ceremony, Noel’s family was all smiles. I asked Deven what he likes best about the Olympia area.

After some reflective thought, and sighing, he said, “Finally, we don’t have to run around.” Deven, who wore a tie and a white, long sleeved shirt, plays trumpet for the Tacoma Youth Junior Symphony, and will go to Black Hills High School next year.
“We’re finally in one spot,” Kiran agreed. She says her favorite hobby is going out to eat. Asked what her favorite local restaurants are, mom Betheny mentioned Vic’s Pizza, any place with sushi, especially spicy tuna, and Lacey’s new Jimmy John’s. Kiran heartily agreed.

As relative newcomers, Betheny described her impressions and passion for the South Sound community.
“After 20 years of traveling, this definitely is our home. We’ve been a lot of places, but this is the only place we feel people have open arms. We’ve lived in Germany, Italy, Hawaii, the Midwest, and the South, and people here are very open, even the homeless people. I walk by and they say, 'Good morning!' I’m very impressed.”

A fulltime wife and mother, Betheny is busy with her children’s activities and parent teacher organizations, volunteers in their classrooms, and is active in Tumwater school issues. She says she has high expectations for quality education.
“We’ve lived in Dupont, Pierce County, Lacey, and Tumwater and I’m really impressed, overall, with how the community here supports the whole child, offering support to military families, taking the time to talk to students, and caring about their emotional well-being.  This is also a community where the arts are supported – that’s important to me. When you’ve been a transient family for so long, we need outlets. Not all kids like football.

“I believe all kids, whether they come from foster homes, the military, or are bouncing around due to divorce, need the schools and the community to work together to disseminate information, to have sources for opportunities….”
She says when Deven starts at Black Hills next year, he will have attended eleven schools.

“When children move around and change schools, they lose credits,” she said. She is already looking forward to Deven's attendance at New Market Skill Center’s free summer classes, which are available for students entering 9th through 12th grade, and later, the Running Start program.
Running Start is a program designed for eligible juniors and seniors to enroll in college level courses at South Puget Sound Community College to receive both high school and college credit.

The Training of a City of Olympia Police Officer
On July 1st, Noel will head to a five month training in the police academy, then begin Olympia’s three to six month training, and begin an 18 month probation process, all before he can go solo on the streets of Olympia as a patrol officer.

Amy Stull, senior program specialist for the Olympia police department's community programs, says an officer candidate has to be hired by a law enforcement agency in order to attend the training academy.
“Completing the academy gives them state certification. If they don’t pass, they don’t retain their employment.”

The academy, coordinated by the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, is in Burien. All law enforcement officers attend that academy, except for the Washington State Patrol, which has their own version.
Stull wrote about the new officer training process for the Olympia Police Department newsletter in February, 2013:

In the 1990’s, standard training was done by field training officers. New officers would be assigned one field training officer after they completed the state Basic Law Enforcement Academy (BLEA). In recent years, the Olympia Police Department has transitioned to the police training officer model.
One of the goals was to better mesh with the Academy’s movement towards integrating more adult learning concepts. New recruits now go through training after the Academy and during their 18 months of probation. 

Under this new model, teaching is based on four substantive topics: police tactics, criminal procedure, report writing and emergency response. Within these categories are fifteen core competencies – use of force, local procedures (laws and policy), leadership, problem solving, community-specific problems, cultural diversity, legal authority, individual rights, ethics, observations skills, multi-tasking, police vehicle operation, conflict resolution, officer safety, communication skills and lifestyle stressors.
The training period is divided into four phases with a mid-term and final evaluation. Each phase takes two to four weeks. Phase one is focused on non-emergency operations, the second on emergency response, the third on criminal procedure and the fourth on patrol activity, which encompasses everything learned during the training. After the first two phases, a different police training officer evaluates the recruit’s progress. Yet another officer takes the recruit through the next phases and a fourth police training officer does the final evaluation.

The goal of the program is to put recruits in learning situations that allow them to use their level of knowledge and problem solve. Training officers look for opportunities to create problem-based learning exercises that involve multiple core competencies. This makes it possible to carefully evaluate each new employee’s chance for a successful career at the Olympia Police Department.
Current Olympia Police Department Officer Statistics

When asked for specific statistics on current officer demographics regarding gender, race, and language diversity, Olympia police department spokesperson, Laura Wohl, provided the following information:

“We now have eight female officers. As for languages, we have one certified Spanish interpreter. We also have several bilingual or semi-bilingual people who are not certified. Certification requires a test and then allows one to interpret in court. Because they are not certified, we don’t have a formal record of these officers, so I’ll give you the best that I can remember: of those who speak a second language, we now have two officers who speak sign language and we have two or three who speak Spanish.”
After some research by the human resources department, she said that in the last 25 years, the department has employed 12 African American officers and corrections officers, three Hispanic/Latino officers and corrections officers, and four Asian/Pacific Islander officers and corrections officers.

“We have had African American police officers at different times in the last 25 years. We did have a period recently when we had no African American police officers on the force – between November 2012 and April 16, 2014, when Wally was sworn in,” said Wohl.
Above: Noel's police badge.
For more information on the Olympia Police Department or law enforcement issues, events and activities, and past statistics, go to Little Hollywood, www.janineslittlehollywood.blogspot.com and type key words into the search button.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Winter Camping Weekend at Mt. Rainier


Above: Moonrise over the Tatoosh. Not too far up, winter camping offers rewarding views.
 
Getting Away From It All: Winter Camping on Mount Rainier
By Janine Unsoeld
www.janineslittlehollywood.blogspot.com

The gate between Longmire and Paradise at Mount Rainier National Park is now open 24 hours, but always check for park alerts, news and weather before you leave home.

No doubt, the National Park Inn at Longmire is an enticing and very romantic possibility for spending a night or two, and the historic Paradise Inn is scheduled to open for the 2014 season on Wednesday, May 21.

Winter camping this past weekend on the mountain, however, was spectacularly beautiful, and offered its own rewards to practice physical and mental endurance, and gear management.

I learned a lot: Hand warmers in my gloves were life-savers, as were the stash of nuts in my pocket when my go-to calorie supply of Snickers bars were frozen so bad I couldn't get a bite off, ever, and, for someone my size, carrying a 46 pound pack was a ridiculous load. 

Despite the grueling lessons learned, it was great to escape from the routine, and remind oneself that there’s more to life than work, meetings and day-to-day minutia.

Above: The weather at Mt. Rainier was clear and beautiful this past weekend. At 2:00 a.m., and throughout the night, the moon was bright orange, with stars and shooting stars on display.  

Above: Coming back from Panorama Point at sunrise.
 
Above: Janine learns the hard way, and carries a ridiculously heavy, but seemingly necessary load.
 
 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

First Day of Spring in Olympia


 
By Janine Unsoeld
Babies in strollers, puppies on walks, cherry blossoms in bloom, and children of all ages blowing bubbles on Percival Landing…hey, it’s the first day of Spring!

A 22 year tradition continued with bubble blowing on Percival Landing by “The Kiss” statue during the noon hour today. The event happens no matter what the weather – wind, rain, hail, sleet, snow, and yes, sun! This year, it was all sun, blue skies, and puffy white clouds, with just the right amount of wind to help blow the bubbles up into the air.

Above: Ten children from Debbie’s Daycare in Tumwater participated, and many others who heard about the event, or just happened to be walking by. Many said they will come back next year. The tradition will continue!
There are many critical life lessons to be learned during the tricky craft of bubble making and blowing. For the adults, the secret formula for the perfect bubble juice is very exact and concoction amounts must be measured carefully for the creation of awesome bubbles.
For the children, patience, too, is key: bubbles don’t always work out, depending on the wind and other factors, especially when other children take great joy in stomping and popping them before they get too far away.
Above: One boy received a private lesson on the art of bubble making from Gita Moulton, left, as he used a special wand that opened and closed. He showed great patience and his efforts paid off splendidly.
Above: Devon D., an artist who was making a rubbing of nearby tile art onto black construction paper, also came by to participate in the festivities.

A great time was had by all!
 
 

 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Olympia Planning Commissioners Meet Privately With Developer Before Zone Amendment Hearing


By Janine Unsoeld
A situation of a possible violation of the Open Public Meetings Act when two strategically planned, off the record meetings and conversations occurred, involving six members of the city Planning Commission, three Olympia city councilmembers, and an area developer, Jim Morris.
The Planning Commission is a quasi-judicial body that hears land use issues and reports and makes recommendations to the city council.
Morris is a party to a code text amendment zoning case having to do with a professional office/residential multifamily zoning district in the Kaiser-Harrison area on the Westside of Olympia.
Morris is in favor of the proposed zoning code amendment, and submitted comments on it prior to the deadline of March 10.
March 10 at 5:00 p.m. was the last day to comment on the case, File 14-0210, which is currently before the Commission. Several community members who knew this made the effort to comment, with many requesting that no action be taken on this case by the Planning Commission or the council until all the facts, meetings held, and conversations are known.
Some community members are calling for the resignation of Chair Max Brown, Vice Chair Kim Andresen, and possibly others. These letters have been posted online at the City of Olympia website with the agenda for the next Planning Commission meeting on March 17.
The Planning Commission heard the case on March 3, and is scheduled to deliberate and vote on a recommendation on the zoning text amendment case involving Morris’ property on March 17, a decision which is forwarded to the city council. 
Letter About Off-the-Record Meetings
Late last week, Little Hollywood received emails containing two attachments: a letter dated March 8 from Judy Bardin, Olympia Planning Commissioner, addressed to Leonard Bauer, City of Olympia deputy director of the department of community development and planning, and a letter dated March 9 from attorney Bob Shirley to the Olympia Planning Commission.
The letter by Judy Bardin details that she was invited by telephone by Planning Commission vice chair Kim Andresen to attend a private meeting with developer Jim Morris and others related to the development field.
Bardin chose not to attend because she felt it would be a conflict of interest given Morris' interest in the zoning code amendment and her position on the Planning Commission. In February, she found out that four other members of the Commission and city councilmember Nathaniel Jones attended the meeting held January 31 at the offices of Jim Morris.
On March 3, another meeting was held with Morris, real estate agents and others, with Planning Commissioner Carole Richmond, Mayor Stephen Buxbaum and Councilmember Cheryl Selby in attendance. The evening of March 3 was when the Planning Commission heard the zoning case in a public hearing.
Bardin said she decided to write the letter because she is concerned about the integrity of the Olympia Planning Commission and concerned for the public perception of the commission with respect to whether it is dedicated only to the public interest.
Bardin goes on to say that she does not think the commission should take any action on File 14-0210 and that the vote scheduled for March 17 should be tabled indefinitely.

The March 3 Planning Commission Meeting
In the online audiotape of the March 3 meeting of the Planning Commission at http://olympia.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=2&clip_id=1113, Planning Commission Chair Max Brown tries to quickly shut down Ms. Bardin's question about the meeting with Morris held earlier in the day. The conversation starts at 1:39:30, and lasts almost exactly five minutes.
There is great effort to get a minimal amount of information dragged out of city planner Amy Buckler, who chooses her words carefully, and Planning Commission Chair Brown about the meeting.
The following is an unofficial transcript as heard from the audiotape by Janine Unsoeld and is not to be used for legal purposes.
Bardin: I wondered if Commissioner Andresen could fill us in on the meeting at Morris’ office today.
Andresen: That was a private meeting, you mean, it didn’t really have anything to do with the business at hand though.
Brown: Yea, I think I’ll take that one off the record for - since it’s not part of the - our liaison assignments – I’ll leave that ‘til a later time.
Bardin: Could we hear who was at the meeting?
Brown: (asking Andresen) Are you OK with that, or -
Andresen: Could we ask staff if this is pertinent to the meeting?
Buckler: Well, I think what she’s asking is, ah, the Planning Commission leadership and the Planning Commission itself wanted to meet with some economic development or developers – to learn about development issues in general and I think you announced it at another meeting or told everybody or invited everybody  individually to come outside of a quorum, to sit with some developers, not to speak about any particular projects themselves but just issues in general as part of your efforts to learn more. And when it was discussed at the leadership team meeting it was - Leonard was at the last one of these events - it was announced at that particular event that this was not specific to any issue with the city, there’s not a quorum, it was a general discussion about development issues, just like when other groups meet to learn more about their specific issues, like the Carnegie Group, so –
Bardin: So, I’m just curious, umm, who was at – there was an earlier meeting?
Male Voice: Yes.
Bardin: So, there were two meetings that were basically the same, pretty much the same, today, and the earlier meeting, sort of the same agenda?
Buckler: The same agenda existed for both…I’m trying to figure out what information you would need….the whole planning commission has had the opportunity to be there.
Bardin: Right, but it would just be nice to get, like, a report. Was anything discussed that was relevant to planning and who was at the two meetings?
At this point Chair Brown jumps in, speaking quickly.
Brown: I can give a report - I just don’t want to take up more time since this wasn’t something that we were going to discuss as tonight’s meeting. I’ll give a quick overview…and we can talk about this off-line. The day that we went, I think, there were four commissioners: myself, Commissioner Andresen, Commissioner Parker, Commissioner Horn, city councilmember Mayor Pro-Tem Jones was there, and then a group of four or five, either developers or commercial real estate folks and they were just kind of saying, ‘Here’s some of the opportunities that the city has to or that we see – or that other jurisdictions are using to help incentivize growth and to get projects moving.’ There’s kind of a perception in the community – and Leonard was there as well – and I think, it was just, more than anything, it was a question and answer opportunity for us as officials and city staff to say, ‘What are other jurisdictions doing to help you that’s making it easier for you to do business here that we can be aware of and it was really just kind of some pretty candid conversations about past opportunities that have been missed or, umm, projects that have had opportunities but never been developed but we were very clear about saying any projects that anyone is intimately involved with or working on currently is not to be discussed and those issues were not discussed. It was really just an informative – and I think part of it, too, was to build those relationships of something that hasn’t been in the past to say, ‘What did we learn, what do we not know, you’re the experts, we’re not, what can we do, so I think I’d like to leave it there and kind of wrap it up real quick if you don’t mind and feel free to ask me questions of the meeting or those that have participated. There might be one more and if you have time to go I think it would be very beneficial to hear what people are doing and what people are trying to make happen….
Brown then abruptly adjourns the meeting after getting a first and a second to do so.
Brown, in explaining that at least one more meeting was planned, assures that, eventually, all planning commissioners and city councilmembers would have been extended the opportunity to privately attend one of these off the record meetings, again, without any official quorum, just prior to votes by both bodies about the code amendment case involving Morris.
Commissioner Richmond's Perspective
In a public email on March 9, Planning Commissioner Carole Richmond said that the meeting she attended on March 3, the same day as the Commission meeting, was not about the zoning change affecting Morris' property, which she says was never brought up.
Richmond says Andresen did not stay for the March 3 meeting, because she said she had a “professional relationship” with Jim Morris, indicating that she is an employee or consultant to Morris. Leonard Bauer, deputy director of the city’s Community, Planning and Development department, attended the first meeting.
“Issues discussed were: The homeless situation and how that affects the desirability of doing business or living downtown, lack of a unified vision for the future of Olympia, the costs of construction downtown, restrictions imposed by lenders (one of whom was also in the room), and "things taking too long." That was about it and it was just a free-flowing conversation. These are certainly issues over which the City Council and Planning Commission have some influence, but none of these issues have taken the form of proposals to be acted upon. I think these are issues that developers (and others) would like the Council and Commission to put on the radar,” said Richmond in the email.
Richmond goes on to say that she is glad that Bardin brought the issue to the attention of the whole Planning Commission because of the "appearance of fairness" issue.
"Morris scheduled these meetings so that less than a quorum of Planning Commissioners could attend (at staff/OPC request) and that looks bad. Given a choice, I would've preferred for one meeting with developers to be held during a regular Planning Commission meeting, as nothing was discussed that couldn't be said in public, but I didn't question this. I do know that many developers don’t particularly want to take part in public processes and I wanted to hear what they had to say,” said Richmond.
City Response to Public Comment
Leonard Bauer, city deputy director of Community Planning and Development, sent a letter via email on March 12 at 5:26 p.m., to all those who commented, including Little Hollywood, on the meetings with Morris.
The letter summarizes information about the two meetings, providing explanations that were never given at the commission meetings by staff, commissioners, nor mentioned by city councilmembers Jones, Buxbaum, or Selby during their council reports.
It is common practice for commissioners and city council members to report their attendance at community meetings that they attend, especially if more than one or two or three attended the same meeting.
Bauer attended the January 31 meeting. He states that at the beginning of each meeting, it was stated and agreed that there could be no discussion of any issues that could become the subject of review by either the Planning Commission or City Council, including no discussion of any specific permit or specific use.
Bauer says the topics of conversation included that the cost of construction in downtown Olympia is high, making redevelopment difficult; impact fees are high and the timing of the payment may be difficult to finance; lending practices for construction can make it difficult to redevelop; the usefulness of the multi-family housing tax credit program; increased homelessness has had negative impacts on potential development in downtown Olympia; and a perceived lack of a unified vision by the city for development in Olympia.
Great topics, worthy of public discussion, yet, Morris and others were able to privately control the conversation, and personally reach and possibly influence six out of nine Planning Commissioners and three out of seven city councilmembers.
One public, official opportunity was never offered to the commissioners, councilmembers or the public to learn more about these “economic development opportunities” or “barriers to development” from a developer’s perspective.
Many commenting on the situation feel that the fact that no one spoke up about the meetings until the issue was forced by Commissioner Bardin seems to be a deliberate attempt to circumvent the spirit of the Open Public Meetings Act. Such actions cast suspicion on how prevalent the practice is of purposefully arranged private meetings of members of the same body to prevent a quorum, which would trigger public notice and recording of the conversation.
“I am concerned about the integrity of the OPC, since it has recently come to light that they are having secret meetings with developers. While this might technically be legal, it sure is sleazy. How can I pursue this problem as a private citizen?” writes Nancy Sullivan to the city clerk in a March 9 email.
“…According to a member of the Planning Commission, the staff and members of the Commission recently met in private with a party with a material interest in the instant rezone request – an ethical and legal breach of practice. There was, evidently, an awareness of the fact that such meetings were improper….Will there be consequence in this instance? Will the consultant to the developer be asked to resign from her post? Will the tarnished rezone issue be withdrawn from consideration? Will this initiate a serious review of how the city conducts itself and does business? I look forward to learning the steps the city will take,” writes Bethany Weidner to Community Planning and Development staff in a March 9 email.
The City of Olympia website is www.olympiawa.gov.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Oyster House Restaurant Takes Shape


Above: Oyster House restaurant owners Leticia and Tom Barrett inspect the progress on the framing earlier this afternoon.
 
By Janine Unsoeld
Construction has begun on the rebuilding of the Oyster House restaurant in downtown Olympia. The framing for the walls was built in the back parking lot of the property on Sylvester Street near Percival Landing and put up yesterday morning with a crane in three hours. 
Today, Oyster House owners Tom and Leticia Barrett stopped by to check out the progress. They said they hope to open by mid July.
“It’s all still up in the air, and depends on the weather. God willing, everything will work out… there are a lot of people out of work,” said Leticia Barrett.
About 50 employees were put out of work when the restaurant burned down due to a suspected dryer fire in July 2013.
Leticia Barrett said they hope to rehire some of their previous employees, but many have moved on to other positions. Barrett said she is in conversation with the state Department of Labor, who will host a special hiring day for them about a month before opening.  
As the Barrett’s left the job site, Butch Livengood, a framer for Bailey Construction, who was busy doing his job, said, “We’ll get it done.”
Above: The Oyster House restaurant yesterday morning, shortly after the framing went up.
 
High Tides, Sea-Level Rise and Wiring Concerns
When asked about the electrical wiring along the Budd Inlet side of their property, which is often underwater depending on the tides, Leticia Barrett said they have all their permits and is confident everything is up to code with the city. 
Last September, Little Hollywood asked city staff about the integrity of the wiring around the Oyster House since the high tide of December 2012:
“….As you probably know, the New Jersey boardwalk businesses may have burned down a couple weeks ago because of waterlogged wiring after Sandy. This is being disputed, but Governor Christie is convinced. Is there a way to find out if electrical inspections were made of city/private property wiring after December's high tide?”
In a series of September to October 2013 emails from Little Hollywood to city staff, Paul Hanna, the city's fleet and facilities supervisor for the public works department, said that the city’s department does normal electrical preventative maintenance inspections on city buildings only. 
“We have not done any inspections specific to water intrusion, because our buildings were not affected by the high tide.  I’m not aware of any other inspection work that was done,” said Hanna.
David Hanna, associate director of the Olympia Parks, Arts and Recreation department, also said in an email that there was no inspection of the Percival Landing electrical system after the heavy rains.
In a conversation late this afternoon with Tom Hill, the city’s building official and code enforcement supervisor and permit and inspection manager, Hill said he'll have the city's electrical inspector take a look at the situation.
Above: As seen from Percival Landing looking toward the Oyster House and the state Capitol Building in the distance, this picture was taken February 28, 2014, at 4:40 p.m. when the high tide was about 14.4 feet near the Oyster House.
 
Above: A close up of the wiring. The wire is imprinted with “Above ground and Underground - Sunlight Resistant” Is the wiring sea water resistant? Picture taken February 28, 2014 at about a 14.4 foot tide.
 
Above: A lamp post and another electrical box up close. The paint on the lamp posts is in direct contact with Budd Inlet and looks corroded. Picture taken February 28, 2014 at a 14.4 foot tide.
 
Above: The Oyster House, seen here, with the wiring and its parking lot fully submerged by sea water on December 17, 2012 after the high tide.
 
Above: At another angle, the Oyster House's parking lot, lamp posts, and wiring to the restaurant is seen here fully submerged by sea water on December 17, 2012 after the high tide.
 
To read more about the Oyster House and see more December 2012 high tides pictures, go to www.janineslittlehollywood.blogspot.com and type keywords into the search button.
 
Sample articles include, “Witnesses to High Tide in Olympia” posted December 17, 2012 and “Olympia's Shoreline Master Plan and the Oyster House Restaurant: A Missed Opportunity for Budd Inlet Restoration?” posted September 20, 2013.