Olympia City Council Committees: General Government and Land Use

As promised we’re going to shift some attention away from the machinations of the Olympia Planning Commission OPC and broaden our vision to include other aspects of the City government. I’d like to focus on the General Government and Land Use Committees of the City Council. The former carry the greatest influence on the aspects of long term planning that most concern me and as readers of this post, should probably concern you most.

General Government

The General Government Committee (GGC) was created by the Olympia Municipal Code (OMC) 2.06.010 which vests it general descriptions of topics for consideration. Those topics are:  “Public safety, operational policy, economic development, housing, general government issues, boards and commissions”

In OMC 2.06.050, and 2.06.060, we find these additional responsibilities for the GGC:

“The general government committee shall also recommend to the council the name(s) of person(s) to be appointed to the various advisory boards and commissions of the city as positions thereon become vacant. Before making the recommendation, the general government committee shall seek advice from other councilmembers, advertise for opening(s) in the press and media, notify interested citizen groups and interview interested applicants.”

“The general government committee shall also recommend to the council the name(s) of councilmember(s) or other person(s) to be appointed to the various boards and committees created by interlocal agreement. Councilmembers shall be recommended for appointment to the intergovernmental committees based upon their membership in corresponding council committees.”

Land Use Committee

In the same OMC provision that gives the GCC topics, we find the following under Land Use Committee: “Planning, transportation, environment, utilities, parks, community development, neighborhoods”

Council Committees Generally

Committee assignments last for two years.

The next line of the OMC gives us some additional, and to us lawyers, unsatisfactory vesting of authority: “The committees created in this chapter shall perform such tasks in line with the subjects described in Section 2.06.010, [topics that I listed above] or as may be referred to them by the council.” (Emphasis added.)

There are a couple of reasons I’m bringing this up now: 1.) The City Council is considering an update of the Committee/Advisory Committee ordinance; and 2.) Most of the juicy decisions that affect our city—even if the repercussions of these decisions are not immediately apparent—come through these committees. For example, the GGC recommended two fewer OPC Commissioners and even when one councilmember wanted to reopen discussion on the topic, there was a general demurer under the assertion: “These are the General Government Committee’s recommendations.” The Council quickly and unanimously affirmed those recommendations.

Finally, before I rush into the items on the respective committee agendas, I need to elucidate my cryptic criticism above. I added emphases because there is what I would call a fatal ambiguity in the authority vested in these committees. The OMC contains a fairly arbitrary division of labor to these committees. For example, what is the difference between community development and economic development? Why wouldn’t the land use committee handle housing especially when it also covers neighborhoods? Furthermore, the committee vested with general government would not get into work like neighborhood planning and government which is an extremely hot button issue around here. A final example, public safety is an issue that cannot be removed from land use if either of those are to be effectively pursued. It gets worse: This “in line” language is as squishy and ambiguous as it gets for me. I hate it and you should too.

When this ordinance was created, at some point someone saw these scopes of authority as logical. Perhaps staff wrote it with the idea that it was best to keep things a little open and flexible. Olympia may have been a different place and the Council was certainly composed an entirely different group of people. This division may have been created with particular people in mind to serve on the particular committees. Now, however, it appears arbitrary and capricious. I think there are major problems in these ambiguities that will inhibit if not prevent the city (council and staff) from accomplishing its objectives.

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