Tension, tears preceded Chinese Reconciliation Park funding vote

Tacoma City Council's decision Tuesday to spend an additional $250,000 to cover cost overruns related to the Tacoma Chinese Garden...

Tacoma City Council’s decision Tuesday to spend an additional $250,000 to cover cost overruns related to the Tacoma Chinese Garden and Reconciliation Park and the construction of a Chinese Pavilion, or “Ting,” was made with a fair amount of deliberation and drama.

It was the second time in three months the project’s original contract had been amended — nearly doubling it from approximately $650,000 to approximately $1.2 million. Council was expected to vote on the issue Feb. 8. But after a few councilmembers had questions — Is this the last request for more money? How are we paying for this? — the decision was delayed one week while staff worked to find answers (see “City could spend additional $250K for Chinese Reconciliation Park” TDI, Feb. 7, 2011 — http://www.tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1920721&more=0 and “Decision delayed on additional funds for Chinese Reconciliation Park” TDI, Feb. 11, 2011 — http://www.tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1924143&more=0 ).

A tense, emotional, 20-minute exchange between councilmembers on Tuesday afternoon, during city council’s committee of the whole meeting (and just hours before the City Council meeting) provides some insight as to how councilmembers came to unanimously approve the additional funding.

“You know, this is a really important project,” said Deputy Mayor Lauren Walker, who was both teary and angry during the meeting. “I felt ashamed to be sitting amongst you last week.”

But Councilmembers Jake Fey, Marty Campbell, and Ryan Mello defended their decisions to delay a vote. “I feel like I’ve got to respond because I think we have a duty as a city council, and the duty that we have is to oversee the operation of the city,” said Fey. “For me, it was about transparency and knowing where the money was going to come from. I just happened to look and see that there wasn’t a description of where the money was coming from. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask where the money is going to come from and I think some of us were surprised where the money was coming from.”

Here are some of the comments from councilmember during that meeting. To hear the complete audio from the meeting, visit http://www.cityoftacoma.org/Page.aspx?hid=4034 and click on “February 15, 2011 Committee of the Whole Meeting.”

I. DEPUTY MAYOR LAUREN WALKER

I’ve been thinking about this all week. I may not be able to say it without crying. You know, this is a really important project [crying]. I felt ashamed to be sitting amongst you last week. This is about the Chinese Reconciliation Park. There are things that in all of our lives — with family, with friends — that we find the money. This felt like smoke and mirrors last week of a battle between the council and the city manager or the staff. People didn’t know where the money was coming from. When we think about our families and how to make things work — I’ve been furious about this all week! — we make them work. This project, this Ting, is about family, too. It’s about our family with the Chinese.

I thought last week about the people in China, in Fuzhou, for the people that came over here to work on that project, listening to the discussion of us quibbling about money, about this important project, and I felt ashamed to be a leader of the city when we are trying to figure out where the money is coming from.

So I applaud the staff for finding the money and knowing that we still have important projects, like the slip ramps. I mean, finding money for pot holes doesn’t have the emotional value, but finding money for this does for me.

So what I would like to see tonight, I would like to see — we’ve got all this information in front of us, the staff have been scurrying around finding money, pleasing the council so that we know where the money is coming from. The reason why the people in this city are bringing attention to it is because there has been so much press on it. Of course they are going to say, ‘Get rid of this project. We don’t support it. Show us where the money is coming from.’ I feel like we need to stop the discussion right now. We need to support this project. We need to vote it unanimously with no more discussion tonight and have a moment of silence afterwards for the good work that we’re doing for this project.

II. COUNCILMEMBER JAKE FEY

I feel like I’ve got to respond because I think we have a duty as a city council, and the duty that we have is to oversee the operation of the city.
I don’t think that there was any intent by any of the people that spoke on this issue about whether we were going to find the money for the Ting or whether we were going to complete the project. I think it was about — for me — it was about transparency and knowing where the money was going to come from. I just happened to look and see that there wasn’t a description of where the money was coming from. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask where the money is going to come from and I think some of us were surprised where the money was coming from. Everyone I’ve talked to is supportive of finding the money for the Ting. We have a contingency fund that this is actually very appropriate to take the money from. It’s an unexpected, unanticipated, unavoidable circumstance. I’m very supportive.

I appreciate the emotion about it. You know, my parents were immigrants, too. One of my relatives was interned in this country. I have a lot of emotion about immigrants and how they are to be treated. So I appreciate what you’ve said. But I don’t believe there was any intent by the people who asked the questions about whether they were going to find the money for it. We have a legitimate right to ask questions and I think this was an example where staff was less than transparent with us about where it was coming from. That’s unavoidable. But I don’t believe that there’s any ill will and I haven’t heard any feedback. My name is in the newspaper. Other councilmembers names are in the newspaper. I didn’t get any feedback from people saying, ‘How dare you not fund this.’ I don’t think people took it that way.

III. COUNCILMEMBER RYAN MELLO

I, too, very much appreciate your perspective, deputy mayor. I think because I was quoted in the local paper about it and I did ask questions, I want to be clear about what my intent is.

After the staff presentation, I was caught off guard, so I wanted to make sure I was hearing properly and what I was most concerned about is — it’s great to hear the city manager say there’s $150,000 in the line item. That’s new, good information. I think there are lots of folks who are heavily invested in the slip ramp issues, from the LeMay Museum to the Port [of Tacoma] to folks in the Dome District who — based on what I can tell, from e-mails I’ve been getting — invested in the kind of economic development that kind of transportation access would bring. For the money to be removed without explanation, they deserve an explanation if they’ve been spending volunteer time advocating for it.

I’m obviously very supportive of the Ting. Theresa Pan Hosley [president of the Chinese Reconciliation Project Foundation] is a personal friend of mine. I’ve become very attached to the project because we were in American Leadership Forum together. To me it’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and. But I need to be able to explain to the public how we’re paying for it. I’ll bend over backwards to help find money, just like I know you will and I know the mayor will. I’m beyond supportive of it for personal reasons. But I think we need — there’s other people who have been very dedicated — in this case, it happens to be a slip ramp where we’re re-directing the money. If we can tell folks, ‘Look, there’s still $200,000 to do the study,’ that might appease them so that they know the city is still committed. Had I had that answer before, that’s how I would have responded to those folks who need our $200,000 to do a study to move the project along.

IV. COUNCILMEMBER MARTY CAMPBELL

I made the motion last week to defer to this week. Right before we went to council, I sat down and had a briefing on the two-percent meeting I was going to the next day. I was presented a proposal that I was to go and ask the Puyallup Tribe for $200,000 for the slip ramp. That night, we were taking $250,000 out of the fund that I was going to go ask the Puyallup Nation for — $200,000 to put into that fund. How disrespectful. I wouldn’t have even been able to stand up there and say, ‘I need $200,000 from you because we just took it out.’ So I asked for a week delay to see if the request from the Puyallup Nation was going to go through because I wanted to be able to look at them and, if they came to the table and said, ‘Yes, we have our $200,000,’ then I wanted to come back to the city manager and say, ‘Do we need it out of slip ramps? Can we take it out of our contingency plan? Can we take it out of somewhere else?’

Never at once was it ever about not funding the Ting or not showing the respect to that. You absolutely have my vote for that. That was not why it was delayed. It was because we were going to go in front of the Puyallup Nation while at the same time asking for money with one hand and pulling out of the pocket and going the other direction. I thought that would be extremely disingenuous of us.

V. COUNCILMEMBER SPIRO MANTHOU

[To Deputy Mayor Lauren Walker] You go, girl. Right on. It was good what you said. I’ve been involved with the project for 10 years now — or seven years. To me it was too important of a project. I guess maybe I have more trust in staff than some of my colleagues. But it was too important a project to question where the funding was coming form. It was a project we directed the city manager to get done. He’s doing that. It’s a project that’s extremely important to all of us in this city and this country.

I think it was a disgrace that we questioned it, just like Lauren said. I voted not to pull it off last week because it was too important a project to question and put out in the papers like we’re squabbling over something that should have been no question. It should have just been voted on and moved forward and get this thing done. It’s taken too long as it is now.

VI. COUNCILMEMBER DAVID BOE

I had a lot of questions about this precisely from a straight construction standpoint. I had a great opportunity to attend, I’m not sure if it’s the ‘leaving ceremony,’ where we thanked the folks from Fuzhou who came, and got a huge education about what this project was thought to be and what it turned out to be and that was last fall.

But then we get hit with another cost increase. Again, the information that we had, I’m sorry, while I’m fully supportive of the project, I need the backup information to say, ‘Wait a minute. We already had one amendment that was supposed to address all of these cost changes I heard about at the ceremony. What are these other ones?’ We have a great letter and backup now on this that it’s kind of like — aah.

For a lot of us, we weren’t on the council in 2009 when the original project was — that original project was a lot different than the ultimate project that we’ve come with. Not that it’s a different Ting. It’s just, ‘How are we going to get there?’ My feeling for me and for the council last Tuesday was not a question of whether this was a worthy cause. It was more like, ‘Oh, this is a worthy project. We just have to make sure we all understand how all this is going to go.’ Regardless of what the project is — while the city manager and the staff do an amazing job — I don’t have the faith, maybe, all the time to just accept it on faith. I need to understand it. The backup [information] we got this week has been exceptional. It wasn’t a question at all about whether this was a worthy project. It was just making sure we were all on the same page as far as how it was going to be funded. In my case, it was just having an understanding of what the full scope of the project was.

VII. CITY MANAGER ERIC ANDERSON

The sum that we’re taking from the [Real Estate Excise Tax] line set aside for the slip ramps is $150,000 in that line. The slip ramps are going to require very substantial federal funding to be built. I don’t know the exact number. Something like $8 million. It’s a lot of money. To our knowledge, we are not anywhere close to that. We have a deep commitment to those slip ramps. We are committed to those. That’s why the money was originally put in the budget. We worked with the tribe on that and will continue to work with the tribe on that as it goes forward. But we think it’s extraordinarily unlikely that we will see that $8 million within the next two years.

Consequently, that’s why I felt comfortable taking the funds from that source and putting it to this use. If I’m wrong and the funding becomes available more rapidly than we anticipate, then we will have to make an adjustment either at the mid-biennium or at the next biennium budget. But it is our intention to have funds in there for the next biennium if our best projections are that we see the money coming forward from the Feds at that point in time. We’ll coordinate this with the tribe. This is at least in part in response to a project that they have with S. S. A. Marine and it’s an important one for them. It has other implications for us that we need to analyze as well.

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