Study Session: Collaborating With the consultants

I’m not sure if visitors to tonight’s Des Moines City Council Study Session realized that they were attending something of a performance. I’m not sure most of the City Council did either.

But the meetings (and the meeting before the meeting with the DM Airport Committee) were carefully stage-managed by City Manager Michael Matthias to be as content-free as possible. If Council Members felt like they were being talked at rather than being given advice on how they might govern?  Well guys, you’re in touch with yer feelings. 😀

The message from the City Manager was clear: we are entering into a long-term relationship with the new consultants and we are on the right track. Because we’re now finally going to get some ‘hard data’ and ‘real science’ to make the right decisions. No questioning the plan.

Well the thing I wanted to say to all the dignitaries from other communities was this: We don’t need any more steeenking studying. We’ve studied until we’re all blue in the face. And we likely don’t need a long-term relationship with any consultants. Because right now, we have more studies and ‘airport committees’ and reports than we know what to do with. The thing to keep in mind is this: most verything you needed to know about what to actually do was already known twenty years ago. Not much has changed.

You get paid to explain?

I dunno about you, but I used to work in a very technical job where I could easily spend hours educating people about how complicated the job was in order to look impressive. Unfortunately, I only got paid to actually fix things—never to gas on about how complicated things are. Obviously, I picked the wrong industry.

Because all the consultants and advisors in the airport business actually get paid to ‘educate’ and ‘advocate’… even if it’s material that any local who had been paying attention should already know. And they get to bill by the hour! What they can’t do? Offer any good solutions.

How consultancies operate

Now, why can’t they offer good solutions? A part of it is that laws like ANCA have the deck stacked against us. But another reason, that appears to be rude to talk about, is that the whole airline industry is, like lots of tight vertical markets, pretty incestuous. It’s mostly the same people going from an airport job to a government job then over to a consulting job. So ‘out of the box’ thinking is hard to come by at least partly because everyone is trained together, work together and tend to think the same way. The solutions offered tend to be what they’ve already seen. In fact,  consultants will often market themselves as much on their ‘industry connections’ as their knowledge (I play golf with a real shot caller at the FAA.) Which is either comforting or annoying depending on yer POV, I guess.

The Port knows us

More specifically, as the lawyer on the consulting team kept saying, “You’ve seen one airport, you’ve seen one airport.” OK. But with all the generalized expertise they brought to the meeting, the one gaping hole in their knowledge-base? They don’t know the Port Of Seattle. And to my mind that is a serious flaw.

But the Port definitely knows us. Former mayor Dave Kaplan was there in his new capacity as Port gatherer. And the ironic thing is that City Manager Matthias said at one point, “The Port always wins because the Port knows things we don’t know.” Close but no cigar, Michael. See they have Dave in the room. The Port is everywhere it needs to be, gathering intelligence and lobbying for their interests. And they have continuity. They have the same team working on the SAMP now that worked on the Third Runway. (Literally the same people.)

So what is our response? Hire people from far away who will never understand their adversary (in fact they’d hate that I used that word. Rather, they hope to ‘collaborate’ with the Port Of Seattle.) And that is why we lose. Because they know us… and we don’t know them.

We need a Port expert

Two years ago I started begging the Des Moines City Council to hire one guy to do what these consultants are going to be paid a hell of a lot more to do. And have that guy not only lobby, but also become a Port Of Seattle expert. They laughed of course (I mean that literally, there were actual sniggers from the dais.) And not just the Des Moines City Council, but from fellow candidates and members of Quiet Skies.

My response is this: at the end of the day, trying to prevail against the Port when you don’t understand their inner workings is a fool’s errand. No amount of generalized airport knowledge is likely to be of much help  because (and I’m answering a question here that I was shocked to learn that no one seemed to know) the Port Of Seattle is unique in its system of governance among all major U.S. airport operators. And the fact that their team’s lawyer did not know this and some jerk-off resident like me does kinda freaks me out.

The best question: from a Port Employee

Ironically, the best question of the night was from Council Member (and Port employee) Bangs who asked, “So now what do we do? Which is exactly the right question.

We have wasted two years now re-educating ourselves on stuff that people who fought the Third Runway knew twenty years ago. We pat ourselves on the back about all the ‘learning’ we’re doing; all the studies; all the money we’re ‘wisely investing’; all the outrage. But so what? What do we do? Not just for the short term, but for the long run?

How about this…

Let’s start small. SeatacNoise.Info has offered a clear, simple, solution to provide relief for local residents with Port Package Problems. It’s a win strategically as well as practically because it would give people hope that, occasionally, we can win against the Port. Because in my view, the one thing this area desperately needs is a win; an unambiguous victory to demonstrate to residents and the Port Of Seattle that we are not powerless when we negotiate.

However the City Of Des Moines has made it clear that they have no intention of helping residents with bad Port Packages or even re-instating the sound portion of their building code. (And to be fair, none of the other cities seem to inclined to help their residents either when it comes to bad Port Packages.) So when the cities talk about spending hundreds of thousands on consultants in order to ‘find solutions’ I have to wonder: What solutions are they hoping to find? If they’re so in favor of helping residents in the future why not help the ones right here in the present with real damaged homes and real mold problems?

Why the Cities are not on board

The answer is simple: Because it’s easier to spend money ‘studying’ problems year in and year out than actually doing something that might get the Port upset. Or stir up those pesky residents. Or (God forbid) upset some developer who wants to build more homes without proper sound insulation and thus reduce the City’s tax base. Get it? All the incentives go in the wrong direction. But regardless of the ‘why’, their refusal to help people, even with the tools currently at hand, tells you everything you need to know about the City’s real priorities.

Back to our show

So the whole evening was performative. Even down to not allowing time for public comment at either the Aviation Committee meeting or the Study Session. (You thought that was an accident?) Because City Manager Matthias knew that the crowd would not be sympathetic to the consultants’ message. He has learned from previous ‘public’ meetings (Marina Re-Development, Senior Services, etc.) that when he allows the natives to speak in front of the consultants on controversial issues? Embarrassing moments ensue. And he was not going to make that mistake again.

Collaborate This!

What the consultants propose is a ‘collaborative’ approach. Does that sound familiar to anyone? Of course it does. We’ve already been trying that for years. In the immortal words of Dr. Phil, “How’s that been working for ya?” The problem with such approaches is that they  only work when there is trust and at least some parity of power–or at least some basic respect. How can you work across the table with someone with whom you have no trust? Who has so much more power than you do? The Port lies to me all the time. I don’t mean that rhetorically, I mean that literally. I get bad information from them on a monthly basis. I got one from Commissioner Felleman at the last Highline Forum. They’re not evil, they just don’t even need to be careful because there’s no penalty for not telling the truth. If you live here you should already know this.

And I’ll go further. At meetings like tonight, I have no idea who to trust even among the supposed good guys. Nobody is ever willing to call bullshit on their city councils–even though they are clearly not happy with dog and pony shows like tonight’s Study Session. Maybe some for a higher purpose (to continue on regional committees?) and some simply because, no matter how much we’ve been abused,  still feel like it’s all we can do given how over-matched we are.

But I gotta tell ya. At this point? It just makes me want to barf. We have ‘politicked’ ourselves into a box which only allows ourselves to be further manipulated either by a city government or a Port Of Seattle. I honestly have no idea who are the good guys and who are the bad guys because everyone  seems just fine continuing to enable this insane ‘Seattle process’ where the worst thing one can do is to actually protest. (Which is why people with Port Package problems checked out years ago. I wouldn’t trust any of these ‘nice’ people either. Look where ‘being nice’ gets you.)

The real irony is that a lot of these ‘nice’ people don’t seem to recall that they actually get results from their cities when they occasionally get out the pitchforks and scream about things like inappropriately sited drug treatment centers. Sometimes real protest really works! That’s why the people running the show work so hard to get everyone to ‘collaborate’–not because it’s effective, but because they don’t want to be yelled at! In other words, sometimes, officials choose the more pleasant form of response (let’s collaborate) over the more effective form of response (let’s fight) because they want to avoid aggravation. They’re only human.

Who are the good guys?

What people in this region don’t seem to understand is that all junk we are doing is the same do-si-do we’ve done during previous expansions. It didn’t work then and it won’t work now. We’re simply wasting time while the Port keeps right on building. Community activists have prioritised ‘collaboration’ and being ‘polite’ over actually getting something accomplished perhaps because they haven’t read enough history to know that ‘collaboration’ doesn’t work with the Port Of Seattle. Again, because the Port has no rational incentive to give in on anything. They have no reason to collaborate in a meaningful way. Anything they might do, they would consider to be a ‘gift’. They may get highly offended by that last sentence, but that’s the simple truth.

We’ve all been so desperate that we don’t even realize that even ‘wins’ like a ‘second airport’ are only wins because the Port Of Seattle (and our cities) allowed it to happen. They threw us a bone because something twenty years away is absolutely no skin off anyone’s nose in power.

Everyone is so frustrated you can feel the tension in the room. And yet? It often seems to me that people are willing to do almost anything to fix the airport problem—well, except to call bullshit on their own leaders who are simply unwilling to go to the mat (and who call anyone who complains, “unhelpful”.)

You know how you can tell the good guys from the bad guys?

No… that was a real question. Because after nights like tonight? I no longer have any idea who is who. And that, dear reader, is what you should be worried about.

Sorry if I sound bitter. Er. Bitter-er?. than usual.  Occasionally it’s difficult for me to understand how so many apparently well-meaning people can sit in a room for two hours and just go with the flow–even after all the bad experiences.  There’s something kinda sickening about watching so many people head for the cliff so purposefully.

2 Replies to “Study Session: Collaborating With the consultants”

  1. Having just read the Waterland Blog’s post on this, I’m even more outraged. I understand that they are not in a position to provide critical reporting, but what they don’t seem to realize is just how much that kind of reporting actually enables the City Council and makes residents think that they’re doing a bang up job. It’s bad enough that we can’t get proper coverage in the wider world, but so close to home?

  2. One thing that caught my attention was when the lady consultant said we may have to take a “give and take approach”. Well they (airport) have taken all we can give, there’s nothing left to give. The city would be foolish to hire these consultants.

    And Kaplan should never of been allowed to that meeting. He ran this city into the ground on his watch. Kaplan only does what’s best for him, the city was just a stepping stone…

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