Valley Transit Success Analyzed

IMG_1686Norm Osterman, one of the founders of Walla Walla Watchdogs, has posted a case study about the amazingly successful 2010 campaign to increase the sales tax in support of bus service in the Walla Walla Valley.

It’s a story with important lessons about what it takes to gather support and solve community problems — in spite of steep odds and pessimistic voices.

Local officials respond personally — most of the time

By Mary Lou Yocum

Watchdog Contributor

We are lucky to live in a small community and therefore have a unique opportunity to interact with our local elected officials personally.

Because of this unique small community situation, I think it is important for our elected officials to respond directly when constituent have questions and problems.   I have been lucky to request and receive personal communications from many of our elected officials and for the most part want to give our elected officials a positive grade.

Here is a list of recent interactions, both good and bad, that shows the responsiveness of City and County officials:

  • Mayor Barrow and Council members Plucker, Jenkins, Cummins and Clark — They all spent time discussing the pros and cons of the Citizens United issue.
  •  Mayor Barrow, Council members Plucker, Cummins and Clark — They all answered emails promptly when I had questions or requests.
  • Council members Laib and Cavazo — Both failed to respond to multiple email requests for a meeting.
  • County Commissioner Johnson — He met with me to discuss my questions regarding the newly established Metropolitan Planning Agency.
  • Sheriff Turner — He came to a weekend meeting to discuss the pros and cons of current and proposed gun laws.
  • State Senator Hewitt — He responded promptly to a request for a meeting even though the meeting will have to take place after the legislative session.
  • State Reps Walsh and Nealey – To date (at least 3 weeks) neither Representative has responded to a request for a meeting.

Watchdog editor to address Community Council, teach Quest class

On Wednesday, I will speak during a panel discussion on alternative media to the Community Council task force studying citizen-government communication in the Walla Walla Valley region.

After my talk, I will post copies the slides I used, and give a general summary of the reaction.  (Community Council discussions are open to the public, but not recorded or shared until the council’s long-term deliberations are complete.)

On February 13, I will start teaching a five-session class on “Digital Journalism” in the Quest program at WWCC. Registration is still open for eligible students, and I’m looking forward to testing our premise that volunteer citizen journalism is a viable option for the information needs of communities like Walla Walla.

Commissioners name consolidation opponent to Rural Library board

On Monday, the three Walla Walla County Commissioners appointed Thomas Garcia of Touchet to a five-year term on the board of trustees for the County’s Rural Library District.

Thomas Garcia is the “Thomas” who wrote in a comment on the Watchdog blog that he supports building a $3 million Central County Library because the Walla Walla Public Library did not offer a lot of value to the county’s rural residents.

“This $3.6 millions dollars isn’t “Tax payer money” it’s “Rural Tax Payer Money” and the city has no claim on it, just as the WPL can no longer count on that $200,000 payment per year by the RLD to subsidize their budget, they cannot count on our $3.6 million dollars to refurbish and breath life into their library system.”

Last year, the commissioners asked the RLD board to slow down and consider alternatives to building a $3 million central library and borrowing another $2 million to expand and update existing libraries in Touchet, Burbank, and Prescott.  If that’s still the commissioner’s goal, I suspect they’ve appointed the wrong person.


Better library answers needed

The Library Users Coalition has asked the Walla Walla County Commissioners to replace all five members of the Rural Library District’s Board of Trustees.

I’m not an attorney and I can’t speak to the legality of the RLD’s decision to walk away from any effort to cooperate with the Walla Walla Public Library.

I was, however, one of two members of the public attending the  meeting in a corner of the Burbank Library when the question was presented to the RLD board of trustees.

The entire “discussion” did not last 30 seconds. One member asked why there wouldn’t be any discussion of the underlying issues, and Sandra Bradley, the board chair, said discussion wasn’t necessary, the board just needed to “accept” the decision by the Library Working Group. With that, it was “Agenda Item One, all those in favor, say Aye . . . next item.”

I like Aletha Bonebrake, the acting RLD director,  and I think she genuinely wants what’s best for her constituents, if not for the overall community. But this is painful to watch.

In the first place, the Library Working Group did not issue a “report” or any “findings.” At the group’s final private meeting in early June, the group simply drafted a two-page news release that did little more than announce the group’s failure.

If you’re curious to know what either the City or the RLD actually proposed during the private meetings, or what either side offered in response to those proposals, you’re invited to browse through an uncataloged data dump of incomplete meeting notes and dueling spreadsheets.

The Walla Walla library public deserves a better explanation. I hope the County Commissioners will hold a public hearing where that explanation can be explored in depth.

Esther Dyson endorses WW Watchdogs!

Well, not really, but pretty close.

Esther Dyson was one of 17 CEO, investors, or professors that Business Week recently asked to give a 10-word answer to a “Big Question.” Since she is described elsewhere as “one of the world’s leading entrepreneurs focusing on emerging digital technologies,” she was asked “What is the next big thing VCs should invest in?”

Her 10-word answer surprised and electrified me: “Quantified community. Applying citizen-led big-data analysis and oversight to cities.”

This describes exactly and concisely one of the founding hopes for Walla Walla Watchdogs — my dream is to apply citizen-led journalism, and especially data analytics and interactive data visualization, to the nuts and bolts of local government … to questions like these:

  • Where can the City of Walla Walla find the money to maintain the public library budget without funding from the county’s Rural Library District?
  • Is there any way to squeeze funding for the Aviary if it remains at the bottom of the Parks Department’s priority list?

A quick web search led me to the longer article Dyson wrote last month to spell out her ideas and the evidence to support them. There, I found even more encouragement and suggestions for positive action.

The money quote:

“One institution capable of leading the way is local newspapers, many of which are searching for a new business model and a new source of unique content. They have the connections, the resources, and the respect to play a key role.

Indeed, I believe that local newspapers will often find that the Quantified Community offers them the business model that they need at a time when many advertisers are bypassing them for social marketing and running their own Web sites. Despite the pending demise of print journalism, local papers still generally reach more local citizens than any other single institution. They need a way to remain relevant; this could be it.”

Shall we see if anyone else agrees?

Watchdogs seek volunteers

We’ve posted a call on our home page for volunteers interested in participating in our ongoing experiment in community journalism.  Take a look and let us know if you’d like to contribute some of your time, energy, or experience.

City budget process needs visibility

The City of Walla Walla started preparing a budget for 2013 and 2014 back in the spring when the Council’s Finance Committee began “reviewing priorities” in May.  A two-page “budget assumptions” document was discussed at City Council work session on June 26.

If past history is any guide, no detailed information about the City’s revenue forecasts and spending priorities will be available for serious public discussion until sometime in October.  A memo on the City’s budget process says that “a public hearing is held in November to obtain input from the general public and in December, the biennial budget is adopted by Council.”

That’s not really good enough.

With low-cost, Internet-enabled publishing tools widely available, there’s no reason why preliminary estimates and planning documents shouldn’t be freely available on the City’s website much earlier in the process.

Yes, City staff and managers need some time to work on their estimates and proposals. But once the preliminary estimates are available to City Council members, the data – and the decisions – should be shared with the public as widely as modern technology allows.

Critic needs to step forward

A person who identified themselves only as “Library User” offered a lengthy comment to our dialog on the Mid-Columbia Libraries. The comment begins with this:

Mr. Cox: I happen to own property and pay taxes on both Franklin and Walla Walla counties you propose the libraries systems to merge. All things being equal, the lure of a lower tax should be enough to make me support you. But I don’t, and the reason why is in your own posting: you are evasive with respect to your position and responsibility, as well as from where/whom you draw support. You are everything but transparent.

If “Library User” would like to identify themselves, I’d be happy to include all of their thoughts on this subject. We have approved a couple of anonymous comments in the past, but we shouldn’t have. Going forward, people who wish to comment will need to own their own words, or provide a strong explanation why they need to protect their identity.

Some library leaders open to some sharing

Library leaders in both Walla Walla and the Tri-Cities are open to expansion or cooperation, but apparently only in one direction — east.

The director of the Mid-Columbia Libraries has asked the MCL board of directors to consider the possibility of extending service to Walla Walla Valley, just in case.

The board of directors of the WALNET library consortium are also looking east, to the possibility of sharing resources with libraries in Columbia County.

The Tri-City Herald reported Friday that Mid-Columbia board and staff discussed Walla Walla’s fragmenting libraries at a meeting Tuesday in Kennewick.

The Herald also reported that neither Beth Hudson, director the Walla Walla Public Library, or Aletha Bonebrake, interim director of the county’s Rural Library District, were particularly interested in the idea of merging with the much bigger MCL.

But Kyle Cox, executive director of the MCL, said Walla Walla library patrons have asked him about the possibilities of combining one or both of the two feuding library districts into the multi-county MCL, which has a budget for books and materials four times bigger than either Walla Walla library.

I am one of the Walla Walla people who spoke to Cox.  I strongly convinced that spreading the cost of library services over the broadest possible tax basis would better serve all Walla Walla residents. In addition, I strongly believe that efforts to maintain the WWPL as an underfunded, independent municipal library is more about protecting turf than providing residents with top-quality library service.

One of the under-appreciated tragedies of the current stalemate is the WWPL’s decision 18 months ago to withdraw from the WALNET consortium that supported a shared catalog and integrated library system for Walla Walla’s two public libraries and the Walla Walla Community College Library.

The city’s decision to withdraw from WALNET saved the WWPL about $7,000, according to Hudson, but at the cost of eliminating access by city residents to either RLD or WWCC resources.

Stacy Prest, WWCC Director of Library Services, is now the board chair for WALNET. “We are discussing the possibility that the public library in Dayton, and possibly Waitsburg, might join the consortium and I’ve heard that Columbia County might want to join us. Sharing our catalogs and sharing the cost of an integrated library system would save money and expand services for all of us.”

If WALNET does expand to other libraries or other counties, the access to materials and services available to RLD patrons would grow. And the the loss of services available to WWPL patrons, triggered by the decision to walk away from the consortium, would be even greater.

 By Bart Preecs