In terms of long-term development, Chehalis “doesn’t have a plan.”
That’s according to long-time resident Steve Ryan, who lambasted city officials this week, arguing that their comprehensive plan is inadequate and that city business is being conducted behind closed doors.
While Mayor Dennis Dawes and City Manager Jill Anderson rebuked some of Ryan’s assessments, there was agreement that Chehalis needs to step up its planning and involve more of the public.
Ryan — who has years of experience on the county’s planning commission and is “very highly regarded,” according to Councilor Daryl Lund — described Chehalis as a “Wizard of Oz government where we don’t know where the decisions come from.”
For Lund, the concerns struck a chord.
“We’re in big trouble,” the councilor told The Chronicle, pointing to outdated maps of city-wide utilities and what he characterized as a lack of a comprehensive plan. “Why are we spending all this money if we don’t have a comprehensive plan?”
Lund also agreed with Ryan’s transparency concerns, saying that during the council’s twice-monthly meetings, items for approval are added to the agenda “and just shoved through.”
In a conversation with The Chronicle, Dawes and Anderson said that committee meetings are transparent and open to members of the public who express interest.
But, as Ryan noted during his public comment this week, meetings of groups like the Development Review Committee are not posted on the city’s main calendar.
“You have no schedule, no minutes, no agenda … you just directed staff to do something, and that’s not public participation. That’s not transparency in government. That’s going to get us in trouble right there,” Ryan said.
In terms of planning, Ryan painted a picture of a wave of people predicted to arrive in Chehalis in the next decade or two.
“You’re hundreds of acres short, hundreds of housing units short of all these people coming. And they’re coming in the next 18 years,” he told the council. “We can’t afford to lose this scoping period now as you have in front of you. This window is open for you to update your comprehensive plan.”
Dawes commended Ryan for coming forward, later saying the long-time resident had expertise in the matter.
“I know for my remaining time on the council, I’ll work hard to make sure that we do get up to date,” he said at the meeting.
Mid-meeting, the council informally offered Ryan a position on a proposed citizens committee dedicated to overseeing future planning.
But city officials didn’t agree with every concern Ryan raised. For example, he warned that Chehalis could get in legal trouble should it continue to make funding decisions without a clear comprehensive plan.
“If you’re not following your comprehensive plan, you’re opening yourself up for this huge opportunity for a lawsuit,” Ryan said.
He referenced Lewis County’s run-in with the courts in the mid-2000s, when the county was found out of compliance with Growth Management Act requirements. A moratorium was consequently placed on more than 100,000 acres of land. The county lifted its moratorium in 2010.
While the warning was convincing to Lund, Anderson said the city is in compliance with all state laws and that she’s “not concerned at all.”
She and Dawes also disagreed with Ryan’s claims that the city is mismanaging funds by mixing pots of money for different purposes.
In the meeting, Dawes said the state auditor regularly reviews the city’s budget.
“They’re not mixed,” he said of the funding sources. “If they were mixed, don’t worry, (the auditor) would find out.”
The way his concerns were presented, Anderson wrote to Ryan in a letter earlier this month, “implies that the City is doing something inappropriate and that is not the case.”
But they agreed that planning should be ramped up. According to Anderson, part of the issue is simply staffing levels.
“As much as I’d love to say we have enough staff, that we have long-term planning staff and we’ve got maintenance staff and we’ve got people working on … short-term planning, we just don’t have the resources to fund that type of operation,” Anderson said. “We’re a small city.”
Lund said despite serving on the council for 17 consecutive years, he’s unfamiliar with the city’s capital improvement or utilities plans.
“I guess each individual councilor should’ve been briefed on this stuff and figured it out, but so far we pay the staff to do it, you know? They should inform us on all of it,” he said.