Last week in Snoqualmie, democracy looked like a room full of about 100 people, all ages, listening politely while a panel of city candidates spoke about the future of their city, on a sunny summer evening while outside, people golfed and played in the nearby pool.
“You could hear a pin drop!” marveled Carolyn Simpson, the Board President of the Snoqualmie Valley Chamber of Commerce, which hosted the July 11 forum, as she addressed the audience at the conclusion of the evening, thanking them for their respectful participation.
You could also hear, in several candidates’ comments, the currents of dissatisfaction that have made this Snoqualmie primary election one for the history books. An unprecedented five candidates, including incumbent Matt Larson, are running for Snoqualmie Mayor this year, and three are standing for City Council Position 2. Further, in this year’s general election, every city council seat has at least two candidates running.
Growth was cited as the main motivator for several candidates, along with a call for more citizen input.
“I’m running to facilitate citizens’ voices being heard and then acting upon what I hear,” said Fuzzy Fletcher, a mayoral candidate and former city mayor. “And also to slow down growth and look at some of the traffic that’s overwhelming us.”
Lesley Sheppard, a challenger for Position 2 on the city council said “I am running to represent the many voices of residents whose vision of Snoqualmie differs, either in large or small part, from that of the city’s current agenda and future plans.”
Sheppard is associated with Snoqualmie First, a coalition of candidates sharing a website and a philosophy that “our growth needs to be managed differently than it’s being managed now, and …. we all see a number of opportunities for improvement,” she said. In response to a question about voting as a pack, she said each member was an individual and “I don’t ever see us voting in lockstep and being a bunch of nodding heads.”
Ross, the council incumbent at Position 2, also asked about voting in a pack, said “I don’t vote with the group, I vote based on the importance of the issue.”
Ross and Sheppard alternated answering questions at the start of the forum. A third candidate, A.J. Tong, did not attend.
In addition to questions about themselves and Snoqualmie First, the two women were asked about an anticipated budget deficit when Snoqualmie’s buildout is complete, their potential support of a bond measure to expand the Snoqualmie Valley YMCA (both said yes), whether Snoqualmie has a homeless and drug addiction problem and how it should be addressed, the city’s role in addressing the affordable housing crunch, growth, the Mill Site project, and the possible annexation of the Snoqualmie Hills West neighborhood for development of a 55-and-older housing community, and their thoughts on amending city code to allow citizen initiatives and referendums.
Ross noted that the city does have a balanced budget now, but could see a $1 million revenue shortfall a year after buildout. Economic development, such as that expected to come from the Mill Site project and the planned hotel on Snoqualmie Ridge, she said, “would be key to closing that gap. We have two million visitors who come to Snoqualmie every year and by… capturing the tourism dollars, we can close that gap.” Overnight guests spend about four times more than day guests, she said.
New business development would also help with the gap she added. “The Hilton hotel for instance, once it’s built, will put in almost $300,000 in B&O tax, sales and property tax. The Safeway alone is going to bring in about $450,000 annually.”
Sheppard said she viewed an imbalanced budget “as a failure of government …the city should always start with a balanced budget…. There are some things we could trim in the budget.” She noted that real estate taxes are high and should be directed to city coffers “to save for a rainy day,” and said she wanted to build up the business community, because “if they succeed, we do.”
Regarding homelessness and drug addiction, Sheppard said, “I think one of the best ways to avoid additional homelessness and drug abuse is to keep your kids, most importantly your teenagers, active.” She wanted to see expanded activities offerings, including activities for teenagers, such as a swimming pool.
Ross noted that the city allocates 1 percent of its general fund to human services organizations, to help address mental health, drug addiction and homeless issues, as well as Encompass’ early learning programs. With increased economic development, the city could allocate more funding to social services, she said, and business growth could address these issues by creating more local jobs, for instance.
She said it was important the city helped to provide housing for people who worked here and wanted to live here, and that the Mill Site would be a start in that direction. “Having affordable housing would allow our teachers, our bankers, people involved in local industries, to live where they work…. Right now there’s over 2,800 employees who commute to Snoqualmie every day for their jobs, so it’s important for us to be able to provide, or approve, affordable work housing.”
Affordable housing is “absolutely vital,” says Sheppard, and “the role of the city is to make sure it’s done right.”
Does Snoqualmie need to grow?
On growth, Sheppard said “I am not anti-growth. I firmly believe that most of the residents of Snoqualmie aren’t anti-growth, but … when growth is too quick, you miss opportunities.” She called for more advisory votes of the citizens on various projects.
Ross noted that Seattle was the fastest growing large city in the U.S. and so, “you can see the growth coming out to the Eastside, and Snoqualmie, so I think that growth is inevitable, we just have to manage growth.” Several aspects of the Mill Site project, including increased sales tax revenues and more housing would help with that management.
Ross could not legally comment on the city’s received annexation request, since it is a quasi-judicial matter now before the council. However, she did say “I am committed to listening to our citizenry,” and was open to the possibility of calling for an advisory vote of the people.
Ross also spoke knowledgeably on the question of Initiative and Referendum, a means of empowering citizens to bring city issues to a public vote. I&R, she said is used in California but is “very limited” in Washington State. “You cannot use them them, for instance, for land use, for zoning regulations, or anything appropriating money… or levying taxes, so I’m not quite sure what it really could be used for.” She noted that citizen input is important and there are already a variety of ways for residents to provide their comments.
Sheppard said she was a huge proponent of I&R, as were her colleagues in Snoqualmie First, and she wanted the citizens of Snoqualmie to have that power, because “I view initiative and referendum, having that power, as our last best hope for citizens when the government has failed us. If we are not allowed to use initiative and referendum for land use,” she continued, she wanted to submit any project larger than a specific size, to a vote of the people.
Regarding the Mill Site, Sheppard expressed strong concerns about possible contamination of the site, and said the city should never have annexed the property. And on the annexation, she repeated her call for a vote by the citizens.
Many of the same questions were addressed to the candidates for mayor, with a few significant additions, including a question about pledging to maintain a civil and respectful tone throughout their campaigns. All committed to make that pledge and Steve Pennington added that “We should run a very fact-based campaign.” Ed Mortensen noted that “The goal is to listen to people,” and Fletcher added that the pledge should continue after the election because “This is about politics and it shouldn’t be personal.”
The big topics for the five mayoral candidates — Larson, Fletcher, Mortensen, Pennington and Brad Toft — were also growth related, but also about their overall visions for the city in the future.
Mortensen’s vision for the city of Snoqualmie in 20 years included more activities, more parks and improved connections between Snoqualmie Ridge and historic downtown.
Larson cited his existing vision for “making Snoqualmie an extraordinary place to live and a premier destination.” He then talked about getting the city into a “proactive state of maintenance,” and eventually, city infrastructure that embraced smart growth, diversity and connectivity.
Fletcher said “I think my vision would have Snoqualmie looking pretty much like it looks now.” The city will grow, of course, he said, and add housing for residents while supporting business and attracting tourism. “I don’t necessarily mean building bigger, it’s building better.”
Toft offered reassurance to people he’s heard say that Snoqualmie is becoming like Issaquah: “I do not believe that that is true… this city was never designed or intended to be a regional center like Issaquah,” he said. The zoning doesn’t support it. His vision called for limitation, too. “Development happens that improves the lives of the people that live here, not the people who want to come here.”
Pennington said he wants his children to look back on their childhoods fondly, saying “Wow, I lived in a beautiful place, I got to do amazing things.” He also talked about wanting them to be able to afford to come back in 20 years, to start their own lives and families.
On the question of growth, none of the candidates specifically said growth should be stopped, but most had qualifications.
“I believe If you’re a property owner, the property is yours do with what you want. Within the letter of the law, they need maximum flexibility,” said Fletcher. “I think it’s important for property owners to have the ability to build on their property.” He also said the city needed to work with businesses to grow and improve residents’ access to them, “and not necessarily using their cars.”
Toft emphasized his earlier statement that growth in the city should benefit its current residents.
Pennington said “what we need to do is start from a place at a happy level for budget and community happiness, and then look at each piece of growth as an opportunity to improve the baseline for the community…. There’s no magic bullet, but it has to be extremely transparent — that’s my entire slogan — because we need to avoid people feeling like anything has snuck up on them.”
Mortensen mentioned the city’s 2030 vision plan and recommended everyone read it. He also wanted “to let people get acclimated (to growth)… If you get too much growth too fast, there’s a lot of frustration with traffic and so forth.”
Larson noted that there was an important distinction to make about growth, residential vs. commercial. The city was under contract for the full buildout of Snoqualmie Ridge, but he added, “the good news is the 191 units of affordable housing (proposed for next to the Snoqualmie Valley Hospital) is the last of the residential coming in. Our goal working with the council is not to focus on residential development… but to focus primarily on economic development to round out our revenue sources.”
Mill site pros and cons
Moderator Clayton Fong then asked each candidate about his hopes for and concerns about the proposed development of the mill site, and how the public should be involved.
Toft said Snoqualmie Falls is already a strong draw for tourists to the city and the mill site would help the city capitalize on those tourism dollars, but he was concerned about potential traffic from the site. Regarding public involvement, he said, “at every council meeting the public has the opportunity comment at the beginning of the meeting and at the end of the meeting… that opportunity exists today and at every single council meeting, and people should come to those.
Pennington saw the site as “an excellent opportunity to do a much-needed infusion of small to medium economic growth,” and would give local people something fun to do, but he did not support the amphitheater. He was also concerned about the possible contamination remaining at the site even after Weyerhaeuser’s remediation after the mill was closed. “The potential problems of digging in that soil are somewhere between concerning and nightmarish, so we need to be extremely careful about that… I think there are good plans to mitigate that, but we have to be very, very diligent about them.”
Mortensen was also concerned with the contamination, and with protecting the area’s water supply. However, he felt there were ways the site could be developed with a good return on developers’ investments and a win for the city. He noted that there are already many components of public input built into the permitting process for the site, too.
Larson remained enthusiastic about the project, calling it “a great opportunity for us,” with many recreational opportunities for residents along with the tourism draw. He also reminded residents that any contamination in the soil would have been there with or without the city’s annexation of the property in 2012. He was confident the city would be safe from contaminants because “we would not allow the developer to disturb the ground where PCPs and other toxins had been spilled.” Also, he noted, other sites with greater historic contamination have been restored to public use today, including one of the Seattle Seahawks’ practice facilities.
“My opinion on the mill site is we don’t need it, now,” said Fletcher. “It’s too environmentally contaminated… and it can sit there until someone figures out how to deal with the contaminants.” If the contamination was cleared up, he said he’d support “looking at tourist opportunities” but not uses such as heavy industry with its accompanying truck traffic, because “the Valley has enough traffic.” Regarding public involvement in the process, he said “everybody has to be involved, everybody, that includes the sovereign government in this community.”
Candidates agreed that there is a huge demand for affordable housing to keep the community vibrant, but few had ideas for resolving the problem. Fletcher and Pennington both talked about finding solutions through zoning changes, to allow “accessory dwelling units” or mother-in-law units in home-owners back yards. Toft, similarly, called for another look at the city’s comprehensive plan, in regard to the proposed 191 units of affordable housing planned on the hill.
Managing a budget deficit
Snoqualmie has projected a potential $1 million revenue shortfall one year after the Ridge is built out, Fong told the candidates. He then asked them how they would handle such a deficit if it is realized.
Mortensen pointed to a the growing number of the city’s “upper management staff” and their annual pay increase as initial opportunities to reduce the budget.
Pennington was frank in saying “There’s going to be a lot of hard decisions to make as we go forward.” The transition out of growth would call for hard decisions on the tax base and city staff.
Toft compared the situation to his business. He said if his CEO told him to cut 5 percent from his budget, he could do it, but it wouldn’t be comfortable. “The city can do it, too…. if there were a deficit, there are ways to prioritize that budget, but we don’t have that process in place to set priorities right now, so that is the place to start.”
Fletcher saw a few ways of managing a deficit, none of which were pleasant, he said, “but I think the one thing that needs to be done is to prioritize what the citizens would like to have done,” such as through the city’s strategic plan. Citizens should be involved in deciding where cuts are made, to ensure the city meets their needs first.
Larson noted that the city is pursuing economic development now to put off, if not prevent the anticipated budget shortfall and announced that the council is currently developing “a priority-based budgeting process, where we break down every program in the budget and break it into four quartiles where it’s rated by priority.”
Initiative and Referendum
On the question of supporting a change to Snoqualmie’s code to allow citizen initiatives and referendums, Larson said “we need to tread extremely carefully on that sort of thing.” He allowed that North Bend and Sammamish citizens had the power, but had never used it, in his memory, but there was a group in Snoqualmie proposing to potentially use that option quite a bit. He compared the process to initiatives launched by Tim Eyman; voters voted to lower car tab rates one year, then wondered where all the funding for roads went to the following year. “This idea of direct democracy doesn’t work very well,” he said.
He also cautioned against deferring infrastructure decisions by a decade or more.
Mortensen said the city has an excellent communications department and could do proactive citizen outreach before issues come to the council. That would allow the council to have a sense of its constituents desires before casting a vote.
Pennington referred to the limitations of initiative and referendum, as described by Ross in the early part of the forum, but added, “I think we need to do everything possible to make sure the voices of the people are heard… so we can implement a nice halfway point to ensure there’s a correlation between the wishes of the people and what gets presented to city council.”
Toft said in his campaigning, he hasn’t heard from a single citizen who wanted initiative and referendum abilities. Further, he pointed out that every seat on the council is contested in the general election this year. “This is democracy, and this is how you hold leaders accountable for their decisions, so I think what we have going on in this election accomplishes much of what the people who are proponents of initiative and referendum are after.”
Fletcher was not at all opposed to a code change to allow citizen initiative and referendum. “I believe if the administration, council and the mayor listen to the citizens, what they want, the direction they want to go, they’ll never need to use I&R…. it’s not a bad tool to have in the toolbox should people some day in the future, stop listening.”
Community center bond
Fong’s question about the candidates’ support for a bond to expand the Snoqualmie Valley YMCA got a full spectrum of answers. Fletcher suggested a park improvement district to allow those who wanted the expansion and could afford the taxes to tax themselves, leaving out those who couldn’t afford it. Larson said the city would need to be “creative” in how it funded an expansion, in light of the many levies and bonds voters are already paying — the increases next year from Best Starts for Kids, the state legislature’s recent budget solution and other measures, are expected to be equal to the city’s current property tax assessment.
Mortensen was “definitely against it,” because of the tax burden and the availability of alternative sports venues. Pennington was doubtful it would get broad community support, but said “it’s never a bad idea to ask the voters.” Toft suggested that the city could find the funding for the expansion without going to voters, if it were a priority for the city.
Most challengers, for both mayor and council seats, gave a thumbs up to a question on supporting term limits for city offices, and both incumbents gave term limit the thumbs down.
Larson, in explanation said this year was unusual in the number of candidates in the running, and that cities rarely had people lined up at the doors to serve the public.
Mortensen said “The ultimate term limits are the voters,” and Fletcher got a laugh when he voiced his emphatic support of term limits “all the way up to D.C.”