Unlike the battle that J.K. Rowling’s famous trio of Harry Potter, Ron, and Hermione had to fight in order to win their way into the Chamber of Secrets, we Redwood City residents can simply waltz right into our Chamber: the Council Chambers in which our City Council meets every other Monday or so. That’s what the residents of Docktown Marina did last Monday (the 27th of April), and while some of them may have been expecting a battle, they found no such thing. Yet, like Rowling’s intrepid threesome, they emerged victorious, at least for now. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is the second in the seven-book series; at the end of that book Harry and his friends still have a long way to go before their story is over. Similarly, it will be quite a while, I suspect, before Docktown’s status is fully resolved. But those of us at the meeting at least learned that the residents of Docktown Marina have more support than they may have previously thought.
I attended the City Council meeting because of two agenda items that had caught my interest: item 9A, a report by the city council staff on the management of Docktown Marina; and item 10A, a report by our Public Works director on planned infrastructure projects. By now I’ve attended a number of City Council meetings so I know the drill, but it occurred to me that most of you probably haven’t. Thus, in addition to reporting on those two topics, I thought I should give you a flavor of what goes on in a City Council meeting. I’m hoping that this will encourage more of you to keep abreast of upcoming City Council meeting agendas and attend those meetings that strike you as interesting.
Unlike the Chamber of Secrets, our Council Chamber is not hidden (although it is a little hard to photograph behind the trees and bushes that adorn the building’s front entrance): you’ll find it inside Redwood City’s City Hall building at 1017 Middlefield Road, at the corner of Middlefield and Jefferson. Meetings generally occur every other Monday, begin at 7:00pm, and go as long as it takes to cover the various agenda items. That means that while some meetings can be as short as two hours, others, such as last Monday’s, run longer: we didn’t get out of that meeting until nearly 11:00pm. But don’t let the length of the meeting deter you: you can leave at any time. Many people do, in fact, often leaving after the topic in which they are interested has been dealt with.
As for what is to be covered by a given meeting, that’s no secret! The City Council meetings page on Redwood City’s website is the best place to find meeting agendas and supporting materials. Rather than periodically checking there, though, I’d recommend going to http://www.redwoodcity.org/follow.html and having the City Council agendas emailed to you in advance of the meetings. You can also find videos of past meetings on the meetings page. I’ve mentioned those videos in the past, but I’ll again note that they are great: you can skip right to the part of the meeting in which you are interested (click on the agenda item in the lower left pane), and you can pause and rewind to make sure you don’t miss a word. On the meetings page just look for the entries marked “(video)”, then click the “Video” link to stream the meeting or the “MP4” link to download it.
Push through the City Hall building’s main entry doors and you’ll find the Council Chambers ahead and to your right. As you enter the room, note the tables with the meeting agenda and speaker cards. If you intend to speak you’ll have to fill out and turn in a speaker card either before or during the early part of the meeting. The Mayor uses these cards to organize and control the flow of the meeting, so it is imperative that he have them early on. Note that all speakers are limited to a maximum of three minutes, so if you plan to speak keep your comments well-organized and brief.
Whether or not you plan to speak, take one of the many seats in the audience section of the Council Chambers. You’ll find that the large octagonal room is quite comfortable: it feels light and airy, with blond wood- and fabric-covered walls set off with darker wood accents. Pictures around the chamber show off views of the city and of various city projects. A curved wooden dais spans the far side of the room: as indicated by the name cards, this is where the seven City Council members (with the Mayor at the center) sit. At either end of the dais are seats for various supporting personnel, such as the City Manager and City Attorney. And at the far left is the lectern where folks wanting to speak will stand. This lectern has three colored lights (green, yellow, and red) on top that, as the Mayor is careful to explain, let the speaker know how they are doing on time.
Above and behind the Mayor is a large video screen: this screen is used during the meeting to present the agenda, Powerpoint presentations, videos, and voting results. The observant among you will also notice the video cameras permanently mounted throughout the room: these record the meetings for later viewing by the public.
City Council meetings always begin with the pledge of allegiance—and when was the last time you did that?—followed by an invocation by a local religious leader. Then, the council quickly runs through a number of routine matters and short items such as recognition of outstanding citizens or groups.
Early on there is a public comment period in which members of the public can opine on issues other than those being dealt with later in the meeting (comments specific to a particular topic are held until that topic is being dealt with, at which time the public is given a chance to weigh in). This week, for instance, one citizen talked about the recent creek cleanup and suggested a way that the city might better catch the trash that washes into Redwood Creek from our storm drains. Another highlighted a traffic issue which they felt warranted the council’s attention (city staff made a note of it), while yet another introduced all of us to the LEMO Foundation, a “nonprofit organization that helps at-risk youth unleash their potential in academics, athletics, and life skills.” This foundation was created in 2009 right here in Redwood City, and was likely unknown to many of us: I for one am intrigued and hope to take a walk over there (they’re on the east side of 101, opposite the Stanford Medical buildings) to check them out.
Following the Public Comment period is a section titled “Consent Calendar.” The Consent Calendar consists of a number of items that have already been considered individually by the council members and that are passed (or not) with a single vote. Thus, don’t be surprised when this rather substantial-looking section of the agenda zips by in the blink of an eye, with little or no comment.
After only twenty minutes or so the Council gets to the bigger items, the ones that most of the members of the audience are there to witness and/or comment on. There were three such items on last Monday’s meeting agenda, but the first of these—”2015-2020 Consolidated Plan/Annual Action Plan for the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and HOME Investment Partnership (HOME) Programs”—was postponed to the next meeting due to the amount of time that the next item—Docktown—was likely going to take. Given that CDBG and HOME are both programs that affect some of our low-income residents, I was a bit disappointed to hear of the postponement, but it was merely a postponement, so I’ll still be able to hear the report.
Docktown. The room was pretty full (but by no means overflowing; there were plenty of seats still available) with Docktown Marina residents and supporters. The fate of Docktown has been up in the air for at least two years now, when the City of Redwood City took over direct management of the marina from its previous operator, Fred Earnhardt, Jr. For this meeting, Dr. Robert Bell, our current City Manager, gave a brief history of Docktown Marina and then highlighted some of the significant challenges facing the 70 “liveaboards” currently berthed at the marina:
- Recent legal challenges have put a spotlight on the city’s legal exposure should a lawsuit go against the city. As time passes, the city’s exposure will likely only increase. City staff has apparently had at least one closed-session meeting with the Council to discuss the particulars of litigation related to Docktown, although no details of this meeting or its contents were made public at our meeting.
- The city controls the water on which the docks and liveaboards currently float (Redwood Creek), but the land adjacent to the creek (where the residents currently park, and where the Yacht Club is located) is privately owned. The city currently leases the land on a month-to-month basis, giving the residents a place to park and, more importantly, giving them a right-of-way to access their floating homes. If the land-side property owner chooses to discontinue leasing their land to the city, it will be a real challenge to provide the homeowners with access to their homes.
- Docktown has significant operation and maintenance costs (about $195,000 annually). Currently, the city operates the marina at a loss. The Mayor indicated in no uncertain terms that this cannot continue: he directed the city staff to find a way for Docktown to operate at a break-even level.
- The city maintains liability insurance on the property—insurance that may be at risk. At a minimum, the city expects a significant increase in the policy’s deductible.
- Although the city controls the creek, it does so under restrictions placed upon it by the State Lands Commission (SLC), which has sent three separate letters to the city indicating that a floating-home community is incompatible with the public trust: that permanent residences are not among the permissible uses for the waterway. So far, the SLC has given no indication that they will change their position. (Two of those letters from the SLC are attached to the item in the meeting agenda, if you are curious.)
At the end of the presentation, Dr. Bell asked the City Council for guidance on how they should proceed. His wording implied that the city staff was really asking for the City Council to begin the process of closing Docktown Marina and relocating its residents.
Next, between 25 and 30 speakers, nearly all of whom were residents of Docktown, took turns making their case for why Docktown should remain. While most of the speakers did not directly address the specific issues facing Docktown, more than one complimented the city on the improvements it has made since it took over direct management, and most made a good case for the strength of the Docktown community. Strong enough that when the City Council later discussed the issue, it became clear that the case for community had won the day, at least for now. Serious issues with Docktown still remain unresolved, but the Council gave Dr. Bell and his team a long list of action items that, once completed, should help alleviate or at least clarify those issues. And although the liability and legal problems were not addressed in this particular meeting, the following points were raised to counter other concerns:
- The land adjacent to the creek is currently zoned “Tidal Plain”; the owner cannot put any significant permanent structures on the property without a zoning change, which of course would come from the city. Thus, the city has some leverage if, for instance, the owner decides to put condos on the property.
- Operation and maintenance costs can be dealt with, one way or another. The city will explore taking on an outside firm to manage the marina, getting the city out of the management business. This may help with some of the cost issues, although presumably it wouldn’t help with the liability problems.
- Communications between Redwood City and the State Lands Commission have so far taken place on a staff-to-staff level: our city staff talking to the SLC’s staff, and SLC’s staff simply providing their understanding of how the SLC members would feel about Docktown. Our city manager is going to investigate putting one or two City Council members in direct contact with members of the SLC itself. The hope is that direct contact at the highest levels can clarify the SLC’s intentions, and that perhaps our City Council can change the SLC’s policy with regard to floating home communities on public waterways.
While nothing has truly been resolved with regards to Docktown, it is clear that there is some real support among the current City Council members for the Docktown community. And given the speed at which governmental entities operate, it seems likely that unless a legal issue forces the city’s hand, Docktown won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
By around 10:30 or so the meeting finally got to the final issue: the proposed budget for the city’s Capital Improvement Program (CIP). While many folks don’t get very excited about budgets (clearly; by this point the chamber was pretty empty), I found this one particularly interesting because it shows what infrastructure projects the city intends to undertake, and thus which parts of our infrastructure will be improved over the next year. Since that infrastructure includes our water and sewer system, our streets and parking, our parks and libraries, and our public safety systems, the proposed $29+ million in expenditures will have a direct effect on each and every one of us. The complete list of proposed expenditures (this list is just a proposal; the actual budget numbers will be presented to and voted on by the City Council in June) is attached to the meeting agenda (see item 10A), but I thought I should highlight a couple of them here:
- The largest single amount, $5.5 million, is for rehabilitation and replacement of sewer pipelines.
- Just under $4 million is to improve our water systems. About half of that amount is for an additional water tank and the associated pump station.
- $2.4 million goes to street repaving and sidewalk repairs. Relevant to this, it was noted that the city has reinstituted its “50/50” plan whereby a homeowner wanting to repair the sidewalk in front of their house need only pay for 50% of the cost; the city will pay the remaining 50%.
- The pay parking machines in the Jefferson and Marshall Street garages are going to be replaced, ideally with machines that are more reliable and easier to use.
- $2.3 million will go towards replacing the artificial turf at Red Morton Park. Additional monies will be used to renovate that park’s playground.
- Affordable housing will benefit to the tune of $700,000.
- $100,000 will be spent on public art in the form of additional murals throughout the city.
The Public Works Director, who presented the budget, was pleased to note that it is fully funded through existing sources—primarily through the Utility User’s Tax fund. Other cities have to resort to occasional bond measures to get streets repaved or pipelines replaced.
That concluded last Monday’s meeting: the few of us who made it to the end staggered into the dark of night and headed for our respective homes. While I admittedly could have waited another day or two and watched a video of the meeting from the comfort of my home, I feel that there is value in attending meetings like this in person whenever possible. If for no other reason, it shows the City Council that its citizens care about what they do, and are watching. At least one Council member did notice, in fact: during a break Vice-Mayor Rosanne Foust came over and introduced herself, saying that she had noted my presence at multiple meetings. By attending meetings in person, you can build up relationships that may prove valuable in the future. At least that is what I keep telling myself…
Harry, Ron, and Hermione had a tough time in the Chamber of Secrets. I’m pleased to say that you’ll have no such trouble should you elect to attend a meeting in our own City Council Chambers. Watch the agendas, and join me at a meeting sometime. And tell your friends. After all, City Council meetings are no secret!
Perfect timing: the city just announced the agenda for the meeting next Monday, May 4, at 7:00pm. It includes this gem:
This Monday evening the City Council of Redwood City will hold a discussion on how to make El Camino Real a street that works for everyone. Transportation expert Jeff Tumlin from Nelson Nygaard will discuss new approaches to accommodating cars while making our streets great places to safely stroll, bike, and shop! Learn about innovative, healthy street design options along El Camino Real.
That’s my kind of topic! I’ll be there. How about you?