Richland City Council Cancels Its Regular Meeting and has an Urgent Special Meeting 19 Hours Later….public comment falls by the wayside

Duportail Bridge

May 20, 2020, Richland City Council cancelled their regular 6:00 p.m. Tuesday Council meeting and instead announced a Special Meeting for the next day, Wednesday at 1:00 p.m. for an “urgent” matter.  The agenda that was submitted at 1:15 on Tuesday, with no clear mechanism for citizen comment, included a contract for $4,321,784.65 awarded to Apollo, Inc. of Kennewick to complete the Duportail Bridge. This was the purpose for the meeting according to Mayor Ryan Lukson on Tuesday. But the agenda also included a motion to  join the City of Kennewick in buying a quarter of an acre of railroad right-of-way in the City of Kennewick for $300,000 and a council discussion of Covid-19.  The contract and the railroad purchase were passed on the consent agenda in the time it took to read the motions.  For the next hour, longer than many regular meetings last, the Council discussed how to change the state Covid-19 shutdown status for Richland.

The $300,000 quarter acre purchase is for an extension of Columbia Center Blvd to Tapteal Drive.  However, there are at least two other privately held properties in the line of the planned roadway extension.  If the property at 8236 W. Gage is paid $300,000 per ¼ of an acre, then that .81 acres is worth $1,200,000.  The property behind it at 8301 W.Yellowstone is 1.41 acres and would therefore be worth $1,800,000.   Had I been able to make a comment, I would have mused (you’re not allowed to ask a question) about what the projected cost would be to the City of Richland for this roadway which is in Kennewick city limits?

The council meeting agenda had a link to a form that residents were to fill out in order to be allowed to comment but when you went to the link, it said “Form has expired”.  The agenda gave phone numbers that connected to Zoom but resident observers were blocked from being heard or seen.  City Manager Cindy Reents said after the meeting that there was a 9:00 a.m. deadline for signing up for commenting but no mention was made of that on the agenda nor on the agenda page.  See the agenda and the “Form has expired page” below.  As someone who follows the Richland City Council more closely than most, I can only imagine how opaque this system would be for everybody else. 

All of this took less than 10 minutes since Council had no 2-minute citizen comments. The Council then followed with an hour-long discussion about changing Richland’s status under state guidelines for opening businesses.

Mayor Lukson believes our Covid-19 infection rate is higher than other areas of Washington because the Tyson Plant and the nursing homes are “anomalies”.  He suggested that the City join with the other area jurisdictions to write the governor to ask that the area be considered for Level 2 opening.   Councilmember Bob Thompson went on a self-described “rant” in which he referred to some of the state shutdown enforcement as “fascist tactics”.  Councilmember Terry Christensen noted that many Richland residents are government workers and have received pay throughout the shutdown while businesspeople cannot make money to support their families.    Councilmember Sandra Kent wanted communication with the governor to include a request for more testing.  Councilmember Michael Alvarez said that everyone has choices and no one is forced to go back to work. Councilmember Phil Lemley also commented on testing. Councilmember Brad Anderson was absent.

The Council voted to join with other jurisdictions to ask the governor to move the area to Phase 2 opening based on the two “anomalies”, the Tysons plant and the nursing homes.  

Meet the 5 Longest Serving Members of Richland’s Boards and Commissions

Updated April 29, 2020 to reflect a new response from David Larkin of the Utility Advisory Committee

Recently, the Richland City Council temporarily tabled a proposal to eliminate the 12-year term limit for Boards and Commissions in Richland. Of the 70 current members of the Boards and Commissions, a request to the city showed that five have served more than 12 years.

I reached out to all five public servants with phone calls, emails, letters and personal messages to see if they would share some thoughts with the public.  Three of them, Gus Sako, Daniel Porter and David Larkin responded; the other two did not.

Gus Sako, a 14-year member of the Economic Development who owns the Octopus Garden and Luna Fish in the Uptown Shopping Center, is one of the two who did.  In an email, he described why he serves: 

The glamour, the glory, the free parking space, the cookies.  What?  We don’t get any of those?  Okay, apparently, I am just very slow and gullible.

On the other hand – Serving on advisory committees has been a great way to help effect positive change and growth in the City.  City staff has been universally dedicated, positive and a pleasure to work with.  I also very much enjoy meeting and working with other committee members who come from diverse fields and bring sharp intelligence and insight to the table.  Oh, and once every couple of years – there are cookies.

But Sako is not the longest serving member of the Boards and Commissions. That honor goes to Marianne Boring who will have served 20 years when she completes her current term on the Board of Adjustment. During the same period, she has been on the Planning Board for 14 years with 4 more to go on her most recent appointment. Her husband Michael Boring is a plans examiner in the City of Richland Development Office.

Both of those boards had some of their authority stripped in 2014 when the City hired a Hearing Examiner who decides on cases that these two had previously considered. Consequently, the Board of Adjustment has only met about 10 times since 2014 mostly regarding variances for garages, carports and sheds being placed in required setbacks. In each case, the board approved staff recommendations. 

The Planning Commission advises on planning and development and makes recommendations about grant applications. It meets twice a month. In the last few years, it has made recommendations about zoning on parcels like Columbia Point South. Both the Planning Board and the Board of Adjustment have had members who were short of 12 years but were not re-appointed.

The Utility Advisory Committee has two long-serving members David Larkin and Daniel Porter. Larkin will have 15 years when his current term ends in September.  Porter will have 14 in 2022. The committee meets every other month starting each January.

All of the members of this committee have experience in the electric power industry and the majority are retirees.   As to why he serves, Daniel Porter wrote:

I spent my career in the electric power industry, gaining a lot of knowledge and experience pertinent to the mission of the UAC in advising the City Council on some pretty involved technical and financial issues, knowledge and experience that Council members may not otherwise have access to.  So serving on the UAC is an ideal way to give back to the community I live in.  Plus as a retiree it keeps me sharp.

I am most proud of being able to apply my technical and financial knowledge and experience to provide good input and guidance to the staff and advice to the Council in order to keep utility rates low and fair to each customer, and help avoid reliability issues.  Richland’s rates continue to be some of the best in the region.

David Larkin also wanted to offer his experience:

When I retired from my career as an engineering manager at Columbia Generating Station I had built up decades of experience with working with BPA on long range planning for electrical generation and was in charge of recommending and spending some $60-million a year for nuclear fuel. I had served on committees with the national Electric Power Research Institute and as chairman of a national users’ group of spent fuel storage canisters. So I felt that I had useful expertise and wanted an outlet to continue to provide some advice in the utility area. I also had the time as I was retired.

Maria Gutierrez chairs the Parks and Recreation Commission. She will have served 14 years when her term is up in 2021. The committee meets once a month. According to the city website, the purpose of the commission is to advise the City Council about facilities, beautification, preservation and recreation. According to other members of the committee, the amount of time required varies from month to month. The commission is responsible for recommending grants for recreation groups and that activity is more time consuming for members than others. In the last 5 years, among other actions, the commission created Richland Walks, a very successful program that is run by volunteers.

As for the term limits, the members believe that it is a double-edged sword.  According to Gus Sako:

Term limits is an interesting beast.  They can prevent the accumulation of power and force organizations to bring in new blood.  They can also keep someone like me from staying on so long that we become the old guy who says things like, “We already tried that back in ’84.”, “I remember when that area was the sewage plant.” and “Didn’t we used to have cookies at these meetings?  Where are the cookies?”

On the other hand; term limits are a factor in losing some institutional memory.  There might actually be an occasion  wherein knowing that something didn’t work when it was tried in ’84 might be relevant.  And the longer one is working at anything the deeper a body of knowledge they bring to the table.

So, apparently I am ambivalent on the subject of term limits.

Dan Porter adds an additional point about volunteers:

Another factor is that it has been a real challenge some times to get qualified folks to apply.  So when you get a knowledgeable and willing member that the Council is happy with, why not keep them instead of losing them to term limits?

David Larkin commented on the advantages and disadvantages of term limits:

The advantage of term limits is the continual refreshing of an organization with people with new ideas and different perspectives. The disadvantage is the loss of experience and knowledge of city issues gained over a substantial period of time. I was not aware of the Council consideration of removing term limits.

Mayor Ryan Lukson has said that the Council plans to bring up the term limit elimination proposal again when citizens can attend the city council meeting.

Richland City Council to Eliminate Term Limits for City Board Members

Richland City Council will vote at its April 7 meeting to effectively eliminate term limits for city board members. Board members can currently serve for up to 12 years but the change will allow the council to extend their terms indefinitely.

According to Mayor Ryan Lukson in an email, “The intent was not to set an arbitrary term limit if there was someone that council felt was a valuable member of the board and wanted to continue serving. The extension would have to be approved by council of course.”

It is hard to imagine the Council telling someone who wants to serve longer than 12 years “We’re sorry but you’re not a valuable member of the board.” Therefore, board members will likely be able to serve as long as they want, reducing the chances that other residents can have the opportunity. Extensions, like other board appointments, will appear under the agenda heading “Consent Calendar”, where the topic is listed on April 7. That section includes a list of items which are not discussed, receive only one vote, and almost always pass unanimously.

In addition to providing a forum for citizens to participate in local government, Boards are usually thought of as a training ground for future council members. Limiting the number of people who can serve on the boards will reduce that pool of people.

After the extensions are approved, board members will be on equal footing with the council members who usually serve until they die or resign. Since the City of Richland was incorporated in 1958, 69 people have served on the City Council. Only 10 of those failed to be re-elected.

I Can’t Believe it Has Come to This….the Trials and Tribulations of a Mask Maker

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I could not believe that Covid-19 has reduced the United States of America to homemade medical masks. But when my friend the hospice doctor started making them, I knew the need was real. 

So out came husband Bob’s first gift to me after we married, the Made in the USA 1970 Singer that weighs about a 1,000 pounds. Even with a meager three zigzag stitches, it was the Mercedes of its day. For 50 years I have used it to make everything from pillows for the living room to old-lady-style, elastic-in-the-waist pants. With that machine and those skills under my belt (or elastic), I set about to make masks. 

Grabbing yards of cotton that had been left over from other projects, I began cutting and sewing the pieces from a pattern described on a local Facebook page,  “Tri-Cities Face Mask Makers.” Making the fabric ties was slow and the whole process took all day, but finally I had a mask that looked okay.  SUCCESS!!

The next day I was determined to do this job faster, so I looked for an easier pattern.  A friend sent a text with the video of a woman making a mask that she said took 15 to 20 minutes to make, maybe 20 minutes for a beginner. Yippee, just what I was looking for. I cut out the fabric rectangle pieces and two elastic 7-inch elastic strips from the meager leftovers in my sewing stash. Quickly I sewed those together. Hey, I’ve got this. I can whip them out now. Healthcare workers, help is on the way!

Then it was time to put the pleats in the mask. They looked so easy on the video. Rip, rip, sew, sew, rip, rip @#$%, $#@% (expletives deleted).  Finally, a finished product that looked like s— and it took all day!!!

So on Day 3 of mask making it was back to fabric ties. So at least I’ve settled on a pattern that I can accomplish. I’m not even going to look at the beautiful masks on the Facebook page or compare the dozens of masks per day to my one.  No, I’m just going to keep plugging along.  After all, nobody knows Rosie’s rivet count.

Richland City Council Member Robert Thompson’s DUI Case Kicked Down the Road for a Fourth Time

Note:  This hearing and all previous hearings were held at the Benton County District Court with a judge and prosecutors from Yakima. A hearing was scheduled for 8:30 a.m., May 19, 2020, at the Benton County District Court.  However, on May 18, 2020 the Benton County District Court announced that future hearings would be held in the Yakima District Court. To date, no hearings have been scheduled in Yakima.

Robert Thompson’s DUI Case will tentatively go to court on July 6, 2020 at a location to be announced later. The Case is being handled by Yakima prosecutor Joseph Brusic and Yakima Judge Brian Sanderson because Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller recused his court from the case. In July it will be over a year since Washington State Trooper James Stairet stopped Thompson for speeding in Kennewick and ultimately charged him with a DUI.

Today both Thompson and Stairet testified as the court reviewed the film from Stairet’s patrol car taken June 29, 2019, the night of the stop. At one point the defense attorney Kevin L. Holt demanded that this observer erase a cellphone picture taken of a portion of the patrol car video. Judge Sanderson responded that the hearing was public and the patrol car recording was a public document.

Thompson’s attorney had filed a motion in January to declare the arrest illegal and the breathalyzer results and the case thrown out. However, at today’s hearing the defense and the state agreed to a time of arrest and to breathalyzer results being admissible. According to the prosecutor, Thompson’s requested blood test showed higher numbers than the breathalyzer results.

Other arguments from the defense included a motion to recuse the Yakima prosecutors for “retaliatory prosecution” due to past cases that Thompson as a defense attorney had tried in Yakima. The judge dismissed that motion pointing out that Yakima had nothing to do with bringing charges.

The defense plans to have a toxicologist testify about retrograde extrapolation –how the body processes alcohol. This and other issues will be discussed at a Status Conference tentatively scheduled for Thursday April 14 at a location to be announced.

Benton County Steaming Ahead with Ballot Processing, as of Today 32,756 Returned

Here I am at the Benton County Election Office in Prosser. This machine photographs ballot envelopes and kicks out unsigned ballots.

Employees of the Benton County Election Office in Prosser have geared up again and are processing ballots for the 2020 presidential primary election. As of Sunday March 8, Benton County voters had returned 32,756 ballots.

Amanda Hatfield, Manager of the Benton Council Election Office, recently walked me through each step between the time that the first ballots are received and the time that the election is certified.

  1. Upon arrival primary ballots are separated by hand into Democratic Party and Republican Party based on the box checked on the envelope. As of Sunday, 753 ballots did not have a checked box that declared a party. Those voters will receive a letter and will have a chance to correct the omission so their votes can count.
  2. Ballots are then run through a machine ( pictured above) that takes a picture of the front of the envelopes and kicks out ballots that are not signed. Voters who fail to sign their ballots receive a letter and have an opportunity to correct the problem.
  3. Pictures of the signature side of the ballot envelopes go into a computer program.
  4. An election department employee goes through the ballot envelope pictures four at a time on a computer to make sure that signatures match those on file. Voters with signature match issues receive a letter and a chance to prove the signature is theirs..
  5. An election department employee takes approved ballots and removes the cover envelope with the signature and party declaration. On election day, March 10, votes are removed from the inside sleeve and votes received through Saturday are counted.
  6. On Wednesday votes that arrived by mail or were placed in ballot boxes after Saturday are processed and counted.
  7. Votes that are postmarked by the deadline 8:00 p.m. Tuesday continue to be counted. Votes with corrected signatures or party designations are counted.
  8. A trickle of votes continue to be corrected and counted until certification.
  9. The Board of Elections meets on March 19, 2020 at 9:00 a.m. to address any outstanding issues and certifies the election the next day, March 20.

May 24, 2016, 34,991, votes were cast in Benton County in the presidential primary, 34.37% of registered voters. However, the Democrats had already chosen delegates in caucuses that were held on March 26. Based on early returns for the 2020 primary, officials at the election office predict that participation this year may reach 50%.

Richland’s New Mayor Ryan Lukson Brings Change to City Council

Richland Mayor Ryan Lukson

Tuesday night Richland City Council will vote to change their meeting time from 7:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. and eliminate the pre-meeting format. See email from Lukson below.

When Richland City Council Candidate Ryan Lukson interviewed with the Tri-City Herald editorial board prior to the 2017 election, he admitted that he had a problem with the way the pre-meetings were held:

“Lukson also takes issue with the council’s pre-meeting before the regular city council session. He questions why — since it is open to the public — it can’t be held in the large council meeting room. Instead, council members meet in a cramped chamber that limits the number of people who can attend.

It’s a question we have as well. With Lukson’s experience in county government, perhaps he could persuade his fellow city council members to be more transparent and more obliging in their dealings with citizens.”

Although the pre-meetings were moved to the new council chamber in the new city hall, they were not televised or taped and many people still thought the meetings weren’t opened to the public. Issues discussed in pre-meetings included the budget, the lodging tax, the marijuana petition, and locations and plans for proposed new parks among other topics.

Richland Mayor Ryan Lukson.