Thursday, April 12, 2012

On Renton Library, Going Local & Economic Development

Hi Colleagues,

Update | On 4/23/12, the Renton City Council approved the resolution confirming the ballot title, description, and voter question for the August 7th library ballot (Proposition #1). The city attorney(s) now draft the full text. Then two groups will draft statements in favor of one library location or the other.  I desire to contribute to the statement drafting.

In this post I revisit the City's claims to economic development via relocating the library, speak about the budget and contractual claims about putting the library relocation to vote, and proffer my recommendations and implications:

Of Budgets & Business

What does KCLS gain from relocation, and the City lose?

This question needs to be clarified. The City will ground lease the properties to KCLS at no charge (2011 agreement, pg. 10, item 9-a-i), and alleges that there will be no property title transfer. However, via the 2009 agreement with KCLS (pg. 2),

5. Replacement Main and Highlands Library Facilities. The City and KCLS agree to develop and construct replacement facilities for both the Main and Highlands Libraries on other properties within the City to be acquired and donated by the City. The City and KCLS will jointly conduct the selection process for such properties in a manner consistent with KCLS's Site Selection Policy. KCLS has experience in managing numerous public library construction projects and will work with a representative from the City staff to develop the program plan and manage the construction of the new Main and Highlands Libraries. The project schedule will be jointly determined by the City and KCLS. The City will be responsible for and pay all of the costs of development and construction of the new Main and Highlands Libraries. The City will transfer title to each replacement library facility to KCLS at a time and in a manner that will facilitate construction management by KCLS, but not later than the completion thereof. [emphasis mine]

It seems that the contract puts the City at a disadvantage. It's a double whammie larger cost: money to build and resident trust. It's a triple whammie if the City must transfer title. Clarification of this issue will be paramount. 

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't see how the City gains. The City's prior determination to, in adopting KCLS' language, "stay the course," (in Appendix) with relocation might make sense if the city leased the relocated grounds to KCLS. Is potential land acquisition the motivation behind the push to replace libraries? It's a question worth investigating, and might make all arguments in favor of relocating the library moot.

Speaking of economic development, once or before the public weighs in on "relocation" language via public vote, then the City can pitch its plan. I empathize with the City in its hard work and appreciate its efforts to remake itself. While I might like the idea of an environmental Salmon center, I also like overlapping learning with play. It's important to put first things first. Sometimes misunderstandings arise, but since voters rely on the pamphlet for votes, and not interlocal agreements, then it makes sense to clarify "relocation" via vote first (see Breach of Contract? below).

Why did Renton annex to KCLS?

I can speak to my interactions. Mayor Law, via email to me dated 3/1/10, gave reasons to annex, which involved a fear of losing the library and not being able to pay for services (i.e., mainly salary) in an economic recession:

"The city council, knowing that we would be forced to cut a quarter of a million dollars in library staff and materials this year, opted to allow our citizens to consider taxing themselves for much higher level of services provided by KCLS," Mayor Law wrote.

Yet tightening a budget by annexing a library to save money makes little sense considering the new contracts with KCLS require the city to be responsible for paying for infrastructure, and that without KCLS as the tenant paying lease. Thus, the city did not save money; they only changed from one financial obligation to another, but gave up their local control in the latter.

Even if the City needed to reduce services, it would have been temporary. Economy occurs as a trend; thus, in a rebounded economy, the city, as do businesses, can re-invest (e.g., hire more library staff). I'm still curious where the city rerouted those tax funds formerly used to pay for our own library system.

Notice in the 2006 Budget Appendix that Renton Public Library direction made less than half annually than KCLS Director. Apples to oranges considering regional vs. local responsibility, but library salaries did not comprise that much of the annual budget.

In all, it seems a clever move for KCLS assuming that they seem to be the contractual party with the higher advantage. I maintain that, while we need to pay for our public commons somehow, it's fundamentally flawed to profit off of a public space. While a seeming short-term fix to offload services to KCLS, the agreements effectively put Renton into a higher degree of obligation and financial and political risk.

Moreover, fear of loss as fiscal motivation seems disadvantagous, and so risk error to business.

Breach of Contract?

In other words, the documented timeline does not necessarily support a breach of KCLS contract. This progression does not unfold as voters who failed to understand the terms of their annexation vote, but as a matter of chronological process of when decisions were signed and communicated. 

If KCLS wants to sue over the expenses it invested, those costs amount to chump change compared to the City's liability. Besides, KCLS' own contract requires mediation prior to lawsuit.

While I'm not a lawyer, the 2011 agreement provides an out (pg. 10, item 9), as all contracts do. Even so, a breach of contract lawsuit with KCLS will cost less to the city than an expensive and drawn out lawsuit with its people, and a loss of public trust. Assuming the director follows through with his threat to sue the city (and other threats to close our libraries), which may not happen if the court of public opinion and regional controversies with KCLS elsewhere provide an indication.

Key to the question of how do we put the relocation matter to vote:  Note that the Explanatory Statement of City of Renton Proposition 1 in the King County 2009 February Voter Pamphlet Ed. 07 (pg. 4) reads "replacement" facilities, but makes no mention of relocation. While the 2009 ILA between KCLS and Renton state replacement and relocation facilities, relocation was excluded from the Voter's Pamphlet.

As voters use the Voter's Pamphlet to read and decide upon votes, here's where some people may feel misled or confused. Democratically speaking, a vote to the people should not be used to validate, in theory or practice, a judicial event such as a signed contract as that oversteps Check and Balances. Thus, the city can put the matter to public vote with the word "relocation."

All to say the City has options, and can move forward with confidence in putting the library location to vote. Perhaps we need to challenge the appointed authority of KCLS to acquire property funded by locales. Remember other cities have wrestled with KCLS in one fashion or another. We can be Ahead of the Curve, or lead by example, by challenging what may be an unjust monetary practice. If that's the case, then let's take KCLS to task.

While I understand the business need to draw contracts before agreements, it seems to me that the City of Renton and KCLS face an opportunity to restore trust and follow democratic process first to put the relocation to public vote.

Recommendations & Implications

The City needs to embed its pitched purpose, economic development for downtown Renton, into its investments. Meaning: Go Local with the staff and businesses whom you contract and hire to develop downtown. Invest tax-funded dollars into developing our local core via local means. The ends do not justify the means; they influence them. Match your method with your stated intent.

So far all I see and hear is the City making plans with appointed districts and paying money to businesses outside of Renton to develop Renton, including the library debacle. While I'm all for appreciating diversity and being hospitable, I expect a City to in the least design its economic plan based on its own stated imperatives. 

Hire PR firms, architects, and other businesses to develop our downtown. Why hire out? While I understand that systems impact our local context, or that it helps politically to foster relationships with regional, state, and federal entities, in this case I expect the City to prioritize by putting its local constituents first.

Invite your local businesses to contribute in the nature of their development, and why not invite constituents to contribute beyond communication and PR methods, surveys or focus groups or fancy presentations. According to the 2009 Creative Industries report, 124 arts-related businesses in Renton employ 417 people. Why not embed economic development strategy for downtown by employing some of those creative industries to develop your master plans and communications? Why hire out to marketing firms elsewhere? I suppose it's a bad habit to offload local responsibility to external agencies, and I think that a shame.

One of the first obstacles in economic development is confronting a poverty mindset, or that we lack resources, which leads to offloading responsibility and dependency. In contrast, prospering requires reframing our perspective to locate the resources available to us. I do not see the perspective reflected in the hiring decisions and expenditures that the city has made thus far on its master plans and the library relocation.

I commend the Council for voting unanimously to put a library location vote to ballot. If you want people to trust your decision-making, then the first place to start is by putting the matter to a binding public vote, and not an advisory one. Remember that you are bound by the budget provided you largely by levies and tax dollars funded primarily by a recessed housing market. Those funds you use now, those payments to architects, PR firms, contractors, and otherwise will in short order constitute campaign funds, which to my knowledge, must be disclosed to the public.

I repeat my request for full disclosure of all agreements and with whom in regards to the relocation of the Library from Cedar River and its rebuilding at the former Big 5 site on 3rd. Be mindful that your monetary budget exceeds those of your citizens and residents, but ironically they provided this budget for you. Prove yourselves accountable. You did not prove your account upon being voted into office. That vote gave you the opportunity to prove your credibility throughout your term. In this way you, perhaps unknowingly, campaign with every decision you make.

Prosperity does not come by offloading icons or locally-controlled budgets to governing bodies elsewhere. Prosperity comes with maximizing existing resources sustainably and in collaboration with the people whom you serve. Choose wisely whom you serve.

Offloading locally-controlled budgets and employing contractors, agencies, firms, and other business outside of Renton slaps the face of your stated intent to develop the downtown core via relocating the library, and gives the unfortunate impression that you don't want to invest financially in your downtown core, or worse, that you distrust the intelligence and abilities of your constituents. Consider the message you send if you leave the rest to volunteers, business owners, and an appointed district elsewhere.

Impressions matter in persuasion.

As a communication research-practitioner, I know the value of inquiry methods, but I also know that intent influences design, which can detract from any semblence of credibility. The plethora of surveys, public input sessions, steering committes, and shiny plans and presentations disappoint me. That's marketing the sale of the cart before the horse, or reversing the appropriate order of things, and gives public relations a bad rap as an info spinning conundrum.

The rub as I see it in this library story is the lack of collaboration with your constituents. Economic development plans must be designed with embedded core values that reflect the locale you intend to develop. Otherwise your efforts appear colonialistic at worst, and incongruent at best. That is not to say that agencies outside of Renton can't or shouldn't contribute to our local.

Again I understand the need to foster relationships to influence and support a system. Yet I find it ironic that the City has invested little expenditure in hiring businesses to persuade and design its downtown and master plans compared  to its claims to develop economy downtown via relocating the library, though elsewhere I explain my perspective on the shortcomings of using a public commons such as a library to bring in foot traffic as a method to, and to develop, downtown.

Systems perspective and congruence aside, why not match economic development for the downtown core with the existing Arts & Culture Master Plan plus the Go Local movement? What I've heard so far? If people want to contribute to arts and events downtown, then they must do it on their own. We'll try to fill the streets with bodies by relocating the library, but I suspect that, given the City's marketing methods to date, they know well that increasing foot traffic does not necessarily guarantee the conversion of a sale. I write more on marketing to develop downtown.

We abuse democratic process if we make public decisions behind closed doors, and then perusade our public to buy into those private decisions via a public relations campaign. Sure the last election, according to the CAO, cost $90K. That's chump change compared to what the City has already spent on relocating and rebuilding the library, as of and per 4/2/12 Council meeting, $1M, and, per the Big 5 Expenditure, with a total project budget of $20M.

Government and business interests overlap. It's a fallacy to assume that government takes no part in influencing the economic design of its locale. Even laissez faire economy depends on a governing entity to call it so. Claims to help business owners, but without the method that actually does so, reduces credibility.

Government creates the monetary system under which business operates. Employing business interest in an economic recession caused in part by a lack of government oversight, save those on the take, to persuade business owners hurting in a recessed economy.

First, I urge the Council and City attorney to give their best effort to put a binding vote to ballot. Then campaign once the vote is put to ballot. Demonstrate goodwill towards and goodfaith in your constituents by asking your contract signatories and assigns to wait for payments until King County certifies a public vote for the library's location.

Then, invest in whatever decision to voters give you, whether a decision to make a state of the art library at the existing Cedar River location adjacent to Liberty Park, or to make a state of the art library a few blocks over near the Transit Center. Trust them. You need to trust the people you serve. We're intelligent and capable. We may lack $20M to finance our PR, but we make up for that in spirit. But please, spare us the insult of saying you will put the relocation to vote, but won't stop any contracts or PR for that move in the meantime. That sends a duplicitous message.

Credibility involves initiating trust, demonstrating results, showing compassion, among other leadership behaviors, consistently over time (Kouzes & Posner, 2003). If people distrust your brand, then they are less likely to buy [in]. 

Prove to local business owners that you mean what you say, or that your economic development expenditures match your stated reason for relocating the library downtown, to develop downtown.

Prove to them that you intend to develop downtown. If you're not willing to hire local even for your efforts thus far, then how can we believe your claims? Actions and money speak.

I ask the Council, CAO, and economic developer to revisit your economic strategy for downtown to include grassroots campaigns for going local and to resonate with the communication imperative in the business plan, and, when we move forward with whatever the voters decide, you invest in the library's fate by going local.


Overall, this experience, with my volunteer and consulting, highlighted a community need. I desire to study organizational development, vocational design, dialogic leadership, and narrative to provide communication consulting services to help organizations to develop.

In keeping with my holistic paradigm, and as for my city of Renton (raised on the West Hill!), I desire to help with the wording and leadership outreach as conciliatory and collaborative efforts moving forward.

More Info

Learn more about the Renton library story as covered by Text and Pixels. Watch the council meeting and access the agenda. Access available and relevant documents. Follow my Public Commons' board on Pinterest. Watch my video footage of why people rallied.

We just keep rollin'


Kouzes, J.M., & Posner, B.Z. (2003).  Credibility:  How leaders gain and lose it, why people demand it. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Thanks to and Google Images for free watermarked stock graphics. Photos (cc) Dena Rosko.