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Langley council undecided on reforming committees

LANGLEY — A discussion on how council members could become better at their jobs ended in frustration last week after residents complained their concerns were still falling on deaf ears, and Langley officials said they were upset with the ongoing negativity surrounding city hall.

The council has been talking about reforming the way it works since last summer, when controversy swirled around pay raises the council had approved for Mayor Paul Samuelson. The council created a committee to look at council policies and procedures and then, in October, council members focused on what type of committees the council should use in the future.

At last week’s council meeting, consensus on potential changes was hard to find.

Though the Langley Municipal Code gives council members the option of creating their own legislative committees to handle finance, public safety and other issues, City Treasurer Debbie Mahler said the city hasn’t had such a setup in more than 15 years.

Though some seemed receptive to the use of “standing committees” — groups made up of two or more council members who would meet on a regular basis — the idea got a cool reception from others on the council.

Councilman Hal Seligson, however, said a standing committee set up to handle finance and administration issues might be warranted.

“I see the fiduciary responsibility of the council as being perhaps its highest level of responsibility,” Seligson said.

“So if there were to be standing committees, which I do like the idea of — they’re traditional in government at all levels in this country — that would be one of those that I would think would have reason to exist on an ongoing basis,” he said.

Such a committee could also include community members, he said, but added that it wouldn’t try to redo the work of the mayor’s finance committee.

“This is not so much a budget formulation group, but rather a group to review existing regulation as it pertains to finance and personnel issues,” Seligson said.

Another difference would be access: Seligson said council committees would be open to the public; meetings of Samuelson’s finance committee are not.

Councilman Bob Waterman noted that council members already serve as members or liaisons to citizen-based committees and other advisory groups, and said he favored the current arrangement of the council creating ad-hoc committees when needed.

“I just worry a little bit that having standing committees — it’s another meeting that may or may not be worth the time over a year’s time,” Waterman said.

Councilman Rene Neff agreed, and said she didn’t have the energy to be involved in another committee.

“I also really worry about redundancy,” Neff said.

“I don’t want us to start being siloed, where the council’s got this one committee going, and then the administration has another committee going and there’s no cross-pollination. I think that’s a real dangerous place to go,” she added.

“I frankly would prefer them to be ad hoc, rather than standing. Because I just feel like we have so much on our plate. What we’ve had to deal with this year and what we will continue to have to deal with this year, is a mess,” she said. “And to add another layer on that just feels overwhelming.”

Speaking from the perspective of the chamber of commerce and local merchants, Neff added that she was worried about the effectiveness of scattered groups working on similar topics.

“We all kind of have to put our little arms around each other and figure out how we can all work together and not be different factions,” she said.

Though council members have also pondered the possibilities of creating research committees — informal groups that would include citizens doing research on the council’s behalf — that idea drew early critics in Langley when first suggested more than four months ago. Such criticism continued last week.

“I’m very concerned about additional committees within this community,” said Craig Carty, himself a volunteer on the Langley Planning Advisory Board.

Carty said that more than 50 citizens already serve on city committees, and the pool of volunteers is shrinking. The council needs to turn its attention to more urgent matters, he said.

“We as a group need to look at what we are doing and why it’s not going well,” he said.

“In my opinion, a big problem this city currently faces is that there is a lack of trust from the constituents to the electeds. We don’t trust you,” Carty said.

Staff advice was being ignored, he added, and citizens want to see progress.

“The citizens of Langley want to see some forward motion. They’re getting real tired of running into a brick wall,” he said.

“I think you’re 50 million miles away from needing any more committees, no matter what they’re called,” added Kathleen Waters.

Leanne Finlay, a real estate agent, said people were reluctant about buying commercial property in town because of perceptions about city hall.

“I think we have enough committees, and we want to be careful about the paralysis of over-analysis, because it is freezing Langley,” Finlay said.

Councilwoman Fran Abel, however, said there wasn’t enough time in the day for her to properly prepare for the work that needs to be done. A cadre of citizen researchers could help.

“I hear what you all say, and I’m also sitting in this chair knowing I cannot get all of the work done I want to get done,” Abel said. “I don’t have time to spend 20 hours at my computer all day researching what I think I need to know to do this job.”

“Believe me, we want to move forward as much as you do,” Abel said.

She said the council needed help.

“This is not fun. This is not fun,” she said. “This is not fun at any level.

“We’re all tangled up in a million emotions and in a million stalls and a million things like [Langley] Passage, and zoning, that are tying us down in a million ways. And frankly, we need help,” Abel said.

But citizens at the meeting said they hoped the council would instead work to resolve issues that the community feels should be front and center — primarily, the still-in-limbo Langley Passage housing project and the emergent Main Street effort to revitalize downtown.

“We would love to resolve that,” Neff said of Langley Passage.

“It’s very frustrating on this end, knowing that we want to move forward on all sorts of levels and we feel handcuffed. Foot-cuffed. It’s like you can’t move,” she said.

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