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Q&A With Shoreline City Manager Julie Underwood: Part 2

City manger says Council is "very concerned about the City's continuing decline in revenues." Meanwhile, Doug and Beth O'Neill finally accept city's offer to settle their lawsuit over public records metadata that started back in

Q&A With Shoreline City Manager Julie Underwood: Part 2

Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part question and answer session with Shoreline city manager Julie Underwood.

1. How is the 2013 budget shaping up? How are you and city staff making priorities and deciding what to cut back on with input from the Council?

The Council is very concerned about the City’s continuing decline in revenues. We provide services; that’s what we do, and if there’s reduced revenues, eventually that will mean less services.  That being said, staff has been able to develop a balanced budget that maintains service levels. The Council has expressed clear direction to tow the line on expenses and to continue to be very conservative with revenue projections.

For example, when there is a job vacancy, that position is evaluated to determine if we need to fill it.  In fact, since 2008 there has been a decrease of 9.2 FTEs (6.2 percent).  In 2013, Shoreline will have 2.37 FTEs per 1,000 population.  To put it in perspective, the median FTEs per 1,000 population for comparable cities is 2.55, and the average is 2.85.

The City remains very financial stable.  For instance, the City has fully funded reserves that meet or exceed City policies.  The City’s “rainy day reserve” totals $5.2 million, and exceeds the 30 percent minimum established by the City Council.  The 2013 Proposed Budget also provides a General Fund ending fund balance of $6.1 million, which is 39 percent above the City Council’s minimum policy requirement of $4.4 million. Finally, the City continues to maintain its AA+ bond rating and Standard & Poor’s (S&P) highest financial management rating of “strong.”

2. Shoreline's population is stagnating, getting older and slightly more racially diverse according to the 2010 census. What challenges does that present in managing the city?

From 2000 to 2010, as other cities grew, as you noted, the City’s population stayed stagnate.  A stagnate or decrease in population is a concern especially since it impacts state shared revenue that the City receives for funding services. Likewise, a decrease in school-age children impacts the School District’s revenues as well.

Across the country we are seeing an aging population. In a recent issue of Governing magazine, I read that by 2029, the total population of Americans over 65 will grow from 41 million to 70 million, a 75 percent increase.

Shoreline is almost completely built-out and has been for many years. In fact, many of our neighborhoods were built when there was not a standard to include sidewalks.  And some of the old sidewalks that are in place were not built to accommodate walkers or wheelchairs.

In addition, approximately 72 percent of the housing market is made up of single family housing on individual lots. AARP surveys indicate that 84 percentof baby boomers plan on staying in their current homes as they age and for those who may want to move, they’ll want housing connected to urban centers. 

Surveys have also indicated that the main concern for getting older is transportation and losing independence. Having access to bus or rail lines will be very important for this growing segment of our population. In fact, we believe our focus on Aurora Square, Town Center, and light rail station areas will make us more “age friendly” in the future. 

As bi-racial myself (I’m half Vietnamese and half Caucasian), I’m pleased to see our community grow more diverse. Becoming more diverse means the City must find creative ways to outreach and seek input and must become more aware of how our services will need to evolve to meet the needs of our diverse population.

3. In the past, people moved north to Shoreline for more affordable homes and the good schools. Is that still the case?

Yes, I believe people still consider moving to Shoreline for those reasons. The City believes that by improving our housing options we can encourage not just families to move here, but also couples without children, singles and older couples looking to retire. Light rail will have a huge impact on Shoreline and will make it a more attractive place to live for many people.

4. Or do you see more people moving north to Snohomish County now for the same reasons, as well as because the housing and property taxes are generally less there?

It’s possible, but for many people Snohomish County presents longer commutes.  We’re starting to see people prefer to be closer to their jobs and Shoreline provides a great location for that. I can’t emphasize enough how big an impact light rail will make to Shoreline. Light rail will make Shoreline much more attractive, especially if it coincides with an increase in housing options. We continue to have an excellent school system and a relatively affordable housing market, and for these reasons, Shoreline remains a very desirable place to live.

5. O'Neill vs. Shoreline, the lawsuit over the release of metadata from an e-mail, has dragged on for about six years. The O'Neills had until Sept. 27 to respond to the city's offer to settle for $100,000 and payment of their attorney's fees. Did they respond?

The O’Neills accepted the City’s offer of judgment in the amount of $100,000 for penalties. Attorney’s fees still need to be determined by the Court. The City will work diligently to ensure that attorney’s fees that are awarded are reasonable and only pertain to those aspects of the case where the plaintiff was successful.

6. It appears they wanted up to $500,000 or more. How has this affected the city, especially since the Councilmembers involved are no longer on the Council?

O’Neill v. City of Shoreline is a complex case that has been in active litigation since 2006. The main issue in the case has revolved around whether the City provided sufficient email metadata in response to a public disclosure request. Email metadata are the bits of electronic information, created by computer programs, that tells how and where an email was sent. It includes the information we see, such as the “To:” and “From:” items, but also what we can’t see, such as the electronic path an email took to get to the recipient.

In a groundbreaking 5-4 split decision, the Supreme Court found that metadata is a public record subject to disclosure and that the metadata the City did provide “may” not have been sufficient to meet the public disclosure request.

The Supreme Court’s decision was one of the first of its kind in the nation and is now cited in almost all cases and treatises related to public disclosure requests and metadata. Prior to this decision, the State's direction, which the City followed at the time of the original request, was to print and retain hard copies of emails allowing deletion of the electronic copy.

No substantive information from the email or the metadata was withheld from the O’Neills. The entire, unedited email was provided within five business days of the request for the email. And although the City was unable to provide the original version of the metadata, the only difference between the copy in question and the two copies of metadata provided consists of computer generated technical information, such as which server the email went through to arrive at the designated recipient’s email box.

Washington State’s 1972 Public Records Act is very broad and needs to be updated to reflect the enormous changes in technology that were never even imagined in 1972 when the law was created. O’Neill v. City of Shoreline will end up costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. Unfortunately, there was no way the City could have protected itself since it was following State guidelines at the time for how to retain emails and the City at the time didn’t have a system set up to retain metadata, just like most other cities.

Since 2006, the City has changed its email retention practices. The City purchased software that allows for centralized storage of emails and centralized searches for emails. This is a significant change from the City’s practice in 2006, and the practice of any other city surveyed at that time. The central archiving automatically saves each email sent or received in the City email system making it impossible for any employee or official to delete an email.

The City of Shoreline is committed to being a transparent organization and is continually looking for ways to share more records online for easy access and to make most PRA requests unnecessary. City Council Goal #4 is: Enhance openness and opportunities for community engagement. The City understands that an informed community is an effective community. 

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