I admit it. I wasn’t paying much attention during the whole 3rd Runway battle. The Des Moines Marina was my home base for sailing adventures up and down the Sound, but during the infrequent times I was on land, the thing I noticed most were all the gravel trucks slowing traffic on 509. Of course, my buddies and I all joked about the project–in ways that I now realize were not only cruel but also very short-sighted. We’d meet at Anthony’s and hear about some recent ‘victory’ in the lawsuit and chuckle at how the gravel trucks kept right on moving. We knew that the fix was in.
It’s now fifteen years later. But when I heard that Dave Kaplan was going to work for the Port Of Seattle, I still wasn’t shocked. Because the fix is still in.
If there is one thing I could convince you of it is that it is the politics of the airport communities which matters most in this fight. In fact, the politics of these cities should matter far more to this movement than who is running the FAA or the Port Of Seattle or any other institution. Ironically, most of us pay far more attention to the politics of far away: Federal and State and almost none to our local governments. That is why we don’t realize how important local leaders are in controlling our relationship to the airport. We believe all that shuck and jive from local leaders about how ‘powerless’ they are. But cities like Des Moines suffer from a certain kind of low-rent aristocracy. And like so many aristocracies (even the low-rent kind) there is incest.
At least since I bought a house here in 2005, the City Council has largely been self-selecting. As people move off the Council, their successors are groomed by current members. Mr. Kaplan was part of that system as are our current Mayor Pina. Part of what enables this process is the fact that Des Moines has absolutely terrible voter turnout and even worse voter registration efforts by the two parties’ District Offices.
And then there are that very small group of people–typically small-business people who enjoy politics. It’s their hobby–which is great. Public service is a wonderful thing. But taken together, these factors tend to create that aristocracy and a continuity of policies. In the case of Des Moines that has meant a very strong ongoing partnership between the city and the Port Of Seattle. You can see this partnership in action the moment you enter the city on 216th Avenue and pass by the Des Moines Creek Business Park (DMCBP). And for years to come you will also be seeing it in redevelopments of the Marina and the downtown–the city is getting hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Port to help in the re-design of those spaces.
Now between the Great Recession and changes to State tax laws (thanks Tim Eyman), the City had been in a world of fiscal hurt. These partnerships have been key to the city’s turn-around strategy: the Business Park development (2006), the hotel (2013)and the Marina (2017-). I think it’s fair to say that, given the sorry state of the City’s finances if the Port had not provided this support, the City likely would have gone into receivership in 2015.
If you look at the history of the Council since Mr. Kaplan became mayor, the City has actively courted the Port and nary a discouraging word has been heard.
Now think about this: Say that your city had spent millions of dollars fighting the Port, considering the 3rd Runway to be an existential threat. Wouldn’t you find it a bit odd that your City all of a sudden made a one hundred and eighty degree turn and started partnering with them? Would you not find it odd to learn that the city had basically stopped talking at all about the negative impacts of the airport–even though the number of flights were rapidly increasing?
Well that’s exactly what happened to Des Moines. After the defeat of the lawsuit, the government of Des Moines completely flipped. The argument, which I have heard from several former Council Members (including Mr. Kaplan) was, “The lawsuit was stupid. We never had a chance. We should have taken a deal like SeaTac.” In other words: the fix was in.
So no more concerns about negative impacts from the airport. And no trying to implement any of the recommendations of the 1997 EIS. The current regime–again, with members that have largely inherited their positions from their predecessors, has continued this path of partnering with the Port, only making modest protests against the unbridled growth of the airport.
“Now wait a minute!,” I hear you say. “The City has created an Ad Hoc Aviation Committee. The City has partnered with Quiet Skies Puget Sound. The City and QSPS were instrumental in getting the StART forum going in less time than any similar forum in the nation. The City is spending money on consultants. The City is spending money to help fund a State Environmental Impact Study. Mayor Pina has written many letters chastising the airport for its failures to help site a second airport. The City is on the case!”
Uh huh. The City is following all the necessary steps so that it appears to be fighting against the negative impacts of the airport. It’s following a minimum standard of care. However Mayor Pina was on the Council during the last expansion. He knows full well that this minimal level of engagement has no chance at being successful. (But please do not get me wrong, I’m not saying our Mayor wants our efforts to fail. It’s simply that he values the economic development waaaaay more than he is concerned about any impacts from the airport.)
So the above steps are all window dressing. The truth is that the City has no interest in doing anything that might jeopardize their financial relationships with the Port. Don’t believe it? Just ask any Council Member or the City Manager why they continue to take hundreds of thousands of dollars in development grants from the Port every year. You’ll likely get a polite scoff. Which is a bit odd now that the city is doing so much better, financially. But they see nothing fishy in taking these grants while also tasking their City Manager with protesting against the negative impacts of the airport. They do not ‘get’ the optics.
Because let’s face it: to really change anything at the Port, you’d have to be willing to piss them off, right? You’d have to not care what they think. And you’d have to find it unseemly to take their money when you don’t have to.
Have you seen or heard anything from anyone on the City Council which takes the Port to task? At best there might be the odd harsh word for Airport Director Lance Lyttle. But what does that mean? Nothing.
Mr. Kaplan’s New Career
The first City Council meeting after his leaving the Council, Dave Kaplan was contracted by the City to provide advice on transportation issues–primarily the 509 Extension. That could be construed as a conflict of interest. I immediately filed a grievance with the State Auditor’s office. It’s now been eight months and I have yet to receive any update from the Auditor in charge–even though her office is in Kent. Why is the State not doing their job? So perhaps the fix is in there as well. Whether or not there is anything fishy going on, I am struck by the fact that neither the City Manager or anyone on the Council sees the bad optics. They seem genuinely confused that anyone would object to the former Mayor leaving office and then getting a $20k contract a week later.
And now Mr. Kaplan will be working for the Port on issues pertaining to Des Moines. And I am sure that neither the City Council or the City Manager find anything untoward about that either. How can I be so sure? Couldn’t it simply be that he was hired because the Port values his extensive knowledge about the City’s inner-workings?
The answer is simple: there is no way in hell that the Port would have hired Mr. Kaplan if there were any concerns that he was no longer getting on well with the City Council. It would be beyond stupid to hire a lobbyist who is hated by the people he is meant to lobby. The Port is not only getting someone with the best possible ‘insider’ game of Des Moines, but also someone who has long-standing good personal relationships with several of the current Council.
“OK”, I hear you say. “It’s a drag that Mr. Kaplan is now working for the airport. But what does that have to do with our fight? I’m angry, sure. But what does it really have to do with our goals?”
I would suggest that you should most definitely care because the hiring of Dave Kaplan makes three things abundantly clear:
1. The Port has no interest in adjusting their expansion plans by talking. We are now squarely in the conflict stage of this melodrama. Whoever made that hiring decision is either tone-deaf to Des Moines or simply does not care.
2. The City has no interest in engaging in any sincere effort to oppose the Port. They are more than happy to up the ante on this whole ‘partnering’ thing. It clearly shows that all their efforts to fight the airport are just ‘window dressing’
3. And worst of all, if you are one of the hard working people partnering with the City (for a very different reason), it says that you have been played like a Stradivarius. The City has used your precious time and talent to show the rest of the world how (cough) ‘committed’ they really are on this issue.
I know this last item is a tough pill to swallow. And I am fully aware that it may be taken as ‘nasty’ and ‘divisive’. That is not my intention at all. Unfortunately, the truth is the truth. And I would rather tell you the truth and have you upset with me than see you continue working your guts out for cynical people whose goals will never match yours. Be angry with me, but don’t ignore this. Please.
To my mind, this event requires an unambiguous statement by residents and activists, both to the Port and even more so to the City Of Des Moines.
If I were on the Ad Hoc Aviation or StART Committees I would resign–and then immediately move that we re-create the group outside the purview of the City. You’ve done great work, but you no longer need them to continue. Yes, having a guy with statutory authority on board can be pretty handy, but I’ve seen what you all can do without the City’s help. Besides, having the City Manager on board is self-limiting. You can never really speak truth to power because he works for people who aren’t as committed as you are. You’ve tried effecting change from within the system. But the system is broken. The fix is in. And unfortunately, there is no other way to get through to Pina, Matthias, et al., that this is no joke.
And Quiet Skies Puget Sound should make a public statement that, as an organization they will no longer cooperate in any way with the City Of Des Moines so long as Mr. Kaplan is employed by the Port. Again, I think it is critical to make the City Of Des Moines understand that we are all sick to death of their trying to have their cake and eat it too.
All of us have to demand that the City finally change course and really start fighting the airport.
Why is it so danged important that residents protest the City? What does that have to do with Mr. Kaplan being hired by the Port? This is also simple:
Because we as residents also cannot have our cake and eat it too. No one in power takes our fight seriously when they see that our city government does not. Neither government nor media can tell the good guys from the bad guys.
Read that again. Really let it sink in. One big reason we can’t get strong support from anyone on the outside is because when they visit our town they literally don’t know what to think.
We’re Having Company?
When anyone in power visits Des Moines (and this includes the media–there’s more than one kind of power), they may hear talk about ‘residents unhappy with noise’. But when they see what a great working relationship the City has with the Port; how much of the City’s turnaround has depended on the Port, what are they supposed to think? (Who tells them about our great relationship with the Port? Why our City Council of course!)
We may complain about the airport until we’re blue in the face, but if a visitor sees the ‘prosperity’ caused by the airport (again, that’s our Mayor and City Council talking), they immediately discount our concerns. We may tell them that life is awful, but during their visit they see a fabulous new Business Park and hear a rousing pep talk from our City Manager and Mayor. Then they leave unconvinced. After all, we voted for our Mayor and City Council. They represent us. Right? That’s what visitors see.
Of course, the Mayor and City Manager also get to proudly display their bona fides by telling a reporter or an official how closely they are working Quiet Skies and how ‘instrumental’ they (the City) has been in getting a StART committee rolling!
And now the maraschino cherry on top? The visitor sees that the former Mayor is now on the Port’s payroll–with the apparent best wishes from his colleagues on the City Council. Wow. Our visitor can only walk away deeply confused.
Oh by the way… this is not merely hypothetical. It actually happens. Don’t believe it? Just ask our Mayor about all the city tours he’s given in 2018. Does he talk about environmental impacts? Of course not. He talks about how Des Moines is ‘moving forward’. Job #1 is attracting positive press for the city; not telling the rest of the region about noise and pollution.
In order to win, we must put a stop to the incest. All the incest. We have to make it obvious to everyone that there are clearly recognizable good guys and bad guys. And ne’er the twain shall meet. We (the residents) are the good guys. And all those people who crow about all the great things the Port has done for the city? Those who try to avoid talking about all the impacts that are damaging our city and our people? Yeah, they’re on the other side.