At the end of last Monday’s Bellevue City Council meeting, Mayor Lynne Robinson announced the cancellation of the following week’s regularly-scheduled meeting. This was intended to give councilmembers a much-needed break after their annual retreat, a three-day affair originally scheduled for March 31st through April 2nd at the Cedarbrook Lodge in SeaTac. However, this event was also cancelled late Wednesday afternoon, leaving key policy and planning work undone.
Bellevue City Council’s annual retreat is a tradition dating back to at least 2014, when the body first combined its core priorities and values into a single document: the Council’s Vision. Beginning with, “Bellevue welcomes the world. Our diversity is our strength. We embrace the future while respecting our past,” the Council’s Vision continues with big-picture, aspirational goals that Councilmembers hope that Bellevue will live up to as it grows. Core to the Vision are seven strategic target areas, which help organize policy priorities across the different themes of:
- Economic Development
- Transportation and Mobility
- High Quality Built and Natural Environment
- Bellevue: Great Places Where You Want to Be
- Regional Leadership and Influence
- Achieving Human Potential
- High Performance Government
While much can certainly be said on whether Bellevue is poised to attain the aspirations set in their plan, the topics and policy focuses laid forth in the Council’s Vision document are important, because they define what work staff will prioritize during the year.
In a previous Council update article, I explained the eight-hour rule and how individual councilmembers must approach the wider body with requests to direct staff to do more than eight hours of work on a particular topic. However, policies areas listed in the Council’s Vision and Priorities document are not subject to the eight-hour rule. This makes the process of defining Council’s policy priorities — a key fixture of the body’s annual retreat — carry the utmost importance for determining what City government expects to accomplish in a given year.
Most actions that staff undertakes and Council reviews can be directly traced to priorities laid out in the Council Vision. For example, the adoption of an (albeit meager) affordable housing strategy at the end of 2017 was the result of the 2016-2017 Council Vision document which called for one. The Vision and Priorities even has an impact on smaller scale actions: in last week’s vote to begin tweaking arts grant guidelines, staff cited how the direction “would advance strategies in… the Council 2021-2023 Vision & Priorities.” Although aspirational, the vision sets in motion the policies and decisions that have real impacts on residents.
With the retreat’s cancellation, it’s become unclear when these important values discussions will occur. Bellevue Chief Communications Officer Brad Harwood shared that the retreat was cancelled because “due to unforeseen circumstances, not all councilmembers were going to be able to attend,” but that he believed the retreat would be rescheduled for a later date. The original agenda for the three-day retreat was made available in the days prior to the event, but has since been removed from the City’s website. In addition to traditional conversations around priorities for the year, Council were slated to discuss the East Main LUCA process. Work on the rezone laid the necessary groundwork for Wig Properties’ recently-announced redevelopment of the site, which will feature 1350 housing units, 1.9 million square feet of office space, and 27,000 square feet of retail across six towers.
At several recent Council meetings, members have mentioned how the retreat would present opportunities to discuss priorities in more detail. For instance, Councilmember Jeremy Barksdale’s initiative to introduce an apprenticeship utilization program was slated to see more discussion at the retreat. Likewise, Mayor Robinson observed at last week’s Council meeting how the retreat would enable larger discussions on how the body receives input and manages outreach with the community — a philosophical discussion perhaps, but still incredibly crucial to how Council functions as a body and how it reaches decisions that have an impact on 150,000 Bellevue residents.
For its importance in defining city priorities, the Council retreat has historically lacked oversight when compared with other Council meetings. Whereas normal meetings result in detailed minutes that can be reviewed to see individual Councilmember’s comments and contributions towards a particular topic, last year’s retreat only resulted in an aggregated report that did not include details on individual discussions. Additionally, Council held an additional Special Session two months after their 2021 retreat to finalize language around the year’s Priorities and Vision. Not only were neither of these events recorded for later viewing, but the latter session’s minutes were just five sentences long for a meeting that lasted nearly three hours.
For such important discussions with far-reaching implications, further public scrutiny is warranted. If and when the retreat does occur, we’ll be sure to provide coverage that contextualizes what the discussions will mean for the residents of Bellevue as the Council continues their work this year.
Chris is a UW Environmental Sciences graduate who moved to Bellevue in 2015. When he's not busy being an urbanist fox on the internet, he's working on the Eastside to support efforts reducing greenhouse gas emissions and going to city council meetings to denounce the hegemony of automobile infrastructure. Follow him on Twitter at @Deutski1.