Blaine City Council was set to vote on defining the role of the city’s parks and cemetery board during its last meeting but conversation was sidetracked by discussions on the parks maintenance budget and a yelling councilmember who ignored fellow councilmembers’ pleas to calm down.
City council was requested to vote on revising language in Blaine’s municipal code, which serves as the city’s governing document, during the May 9 council meeting. Most of the proposed revisions were uncontroversial changes to clarify procedures and remove outdated references such as the Blaine fire department. However, proposed revisions to the park and cemetery board’s role caused heated debate during the meeting. Councilmember Mike Hill, who has voiced his dissatisfaction with city maintenance, had an outburst on the city’s governance and upkeep.
After public comment and concern among councilmembers, council unanimously voted 6-0, with councilmember Rhyan Lopez absent, to table voting on ordinance 22-2982 revising the municipal code.
City staff recommended changes to the park and cemetery board that would lessen the board’s involvement in maintaining and managing city parks and, alternatively, put more focus on facility development. The board’s budget involvement would also be reduced. The board would no longer help budget operations funds, which the city manager’s memo on the municipal code revisions said was because city staff was better suited to make operational budget recommendations. The board would continue to propose a six-year park capital improvement plan each year.
The revision would add one city councilmember to the parks board, which council could decide to be either a voting or non-voting board member. The number of required board meetings would be sliced from 10 to four.
Proposed revisions also clarify only city council can acquire park property.
Parks and cemetery board chairman Bob Kirby, parks and cemetery board vice chair Jim Hermsen and Blaine-Birch Bay Park and Recreation District 2 commissioner Sheli Moore spoke against the proposed changes during public comment. Concerns mostly focused on reducing required meetings, vague code wording and lessening the board’s involvement in maintenance.
At its last meeting, the parks board unanimously voted to ask council to increase the cemetery budget for maintenance and signage. But Hermsen said he was concerned the proposed changes would preclude the board from making such requests in the future.
“Can you imagine having a parks board that has little to no involvement in the maintenance of the parks or cemetery? It makes absolutely no sense,” Hermsen said. “Quite frankly, I was stunned to read the proposed language, the revisions you are to consider tonight.”
Hermsen asked council to table voting on the parks board section in the municipal code to allow time for the board and city staff to discuss the changes and improve wording.
Discussion of revising the board’s role ushered in conversations on the city’s park maintenance as a whole. City council voted to dramatically cut the city’s operating budget, which included cutting landscaping contracts, to offset lost revenue from the pandemic and U.S./Canada border closure. Although parts of the budget have returned, maintenance levels are not where they were pre-pandemic and that has caused concern among some residents.
“My staff can only spend money that it is allocated to,” city manager Michael Jones said.
Jones said the parks board shifting emphasis from maintenance to development was to focus less on the tight operations budget and focus more on development that is funded through the capital budget. Development examples could include determining where a new neighborhood park would be located or what it could include, Jones said.
“The code currently has them tasked with maintenance oversight,” Jones said of the parks board. “We’re proposing it should not say that because maintenance oversight is directly related to how much money the city council gives us.”
Councilmember Richard May told Jones he’d like to still see budget recommendations from the board.
“The parks board should certainly be saying, ‘There ought to be more mowing.’ That’s not oversight, that’s advisory,” May said. “If they’re saying, ‘You should increase the mowing budget by $2,000,’ you and [finance director] Mr. Heverling should work that out.”
Several councilmembers voiced they would like the board to have 10 required meetings that could be canceled as needed. Some councilmembers also showed concern on the councilmember having a voting role on the board.
Councilmember Eric Davidson said ongoing maintenance is a separate issue and could be brought up during midyear budget revisions this summer.
“We cut that budget a lot. I was one of the big proponents of cutting, not only that budget, but all of that Covid budget a lot,” Davidson said. “But now the border is open and we’re getting more money and maybe we can bring that back.”
The argument started when councilmember Mike Hill questioned who would be responsible for parks maintenance if the board’s involvement was reduced. Jones responded that the city’s public works department would be in charge, with oversight from the city manager, public works director and the maintenance manager.
“That’s not really good because the rest of the town, you can take a peek at that too,” Hill said, continuing for several minutes as he gradually began to yell. “We’ve had a problem with maintenance in this town. You know, you’re not the guy. I’ve dealt with you so long on this, Mike. You’re not the guy we should be talking about on this because you won’t do nothing. It’s frustrating … We’re going to build all of this shit but we have no maintenance to take care of it. I’m tired of it.”
Since starting his three-year position in January, Hill has been outspoken during city council meetings about his dissatisfaction of the city’s governance, lack of appreciation for his free lawn mowing services to the city and criticism of Jones. Hill is a life-long Blaine resident who has developed several properties along Peace Portal Drive including Hill’s Chevron and has spent the past seven years voluntarily cutting Blaine grass.
Mayor Mary Lou Steward attempted to calm Hill’s yelling.
“Leave me alone for a minute,” he said. Steward again tried to stop Hill.
“No! No! I’ve been here long enough to listen to this crap,” Hill said. Steward slammed the gavel but Hill continued. “Forget it. Jones, you better get on this because I’m telling you got a live wire down here. That’s it, I don’t need to hear anything else. Fine.”
Steward told Hill he said his piece, to which he responded that he hadn’t. Steward asked for any other comments regarding the proposal to change the parks board role. Hill continued.
“You see me slaving down there and you don’t even wave,” Hill said to Jones. “Attitude’s gotta change.”
Steward, typically soft-spoken, yelled, “Mike!” He yelled back, “What!” She began speaking, before Hill cut her off.
“I’ll say it again because no one hears it. It’s bullshit,” he said, with his voice booming throughout the chamber.
Steward repeated herself to Hill, telling him that he’d said his piece. Again, he responded that he hadn’t. Steward asked for comment from councilmembers who had served on the parks board regarding the action item.
After three minutes of contention, councilmembers continued discussions about the parks board. During the discussion, Hill encouraged councilmembers to increase the parks budget to help with cleaning the town through mowing, putting lids on garbage cans and hiring outside maintenance crews.
Later in the meeting, Jones returned to Hill’s discussion when giving his city manager’s report. Jones informed councilmembers the city was down three maintenance workers in the public works department who mow lawns and pull weeds and are currently hiring seasonal workers. Jones had previously told councilmembers that evening the city had enough employees to maintain budgeted parks maintenance.
“We, too, share your frustration about the volume of work being done. But when we’re short multiple people, it increases the level of difficulty and the level of challenge,” Jones said. “And based on some comments earlier, Mr. Hill, I want to tell you I have never told you that you cannot call me on the weekend.”
Hill recounted his memory of Jones asking councilmembers not to call him on the weekend. Jones said he asked councilmembers not to call him on the weekend or evenings, unless it was an emergency, because he works long hours.
“You yell at me, sir. I don’t really like to wave to people when I drive by who yell at me,” Jones said. “If you’re upset that I don’t wave when I drive by, maybe you ought not to yell at me.”
Hill asked Jones to follow him around on the weekend, and then criticized the city manager for sewer and water management. Davidson defended Jones by saying, “That’s bullshit, Mike. He’s been city manager for three years, four years …”
Hill interrupted Davidson, who tried to continue speaking as they both raised their voices and inaudibly talked over each other. “I’m not done,” Hill said right before Steward slammed her gavel multiple times.
“Excuse me, excuse me,” Steward said. Hill said he wasn’t finished speaking.
Steward continued, “You can do this outside of the meeting. This is not the place for this. We’re here to do the city’s business, not to air personal grievances.”
Hill disagreed, and Steward again told Hill to talk outside of the meeting. Hill continued as Steward repeated the discussion wasn’t for city council.
“I’ve been talking for so long but no one hears you. You can talk and talk and talk and nobody hears you,” Hill said. “What do you do with deaf ears? Why don’t you get over here and join me?”
Steward raised her voice and asked Hill to stop and repeated the conversation wasn’t appropriate for a city council meeting.
“Would you stop, Mike?” Steward pleaded. “Would you please stop? This is not what the city council meeting is for.”
“Yeah, OK. That’s why it is the way it is,” he said.
Steward continued the meeting.
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