The SnoValley Chamber of Commerce hosted a forum of candidates for Snoqualmie City Council on the evening of Wednesday, Oct. 9, at The Club at Snoqualmie Ridge. The discussion became intense in the second half.
A video of a livestream of the event is available on the Record’s Facebook page (https://bit.ly/33vPt4M).
All six candidates running for the three open council seats answered questions in turn — incumbent Sean Sundwall, William Donaldson, Fuzzy Fletcher, incumbent James Mayhew, Elaine Armstrong and incumbent Katherine Ross. They each sat next to their opponent.
The free event was moderated by Jonas Means, treasurer to the SnoValley Chamber board of directors. About 45 people attended.
Questions were predetermined. Topics that came up included affordable housing, traffic congestion, growth and infrastructure, costs and spending, diversity, tourism, preservation of town character and beauty, safety, the ongoing discussion of options for a community pool, and transparency.
It was the final question on transparency, first posed to Donaldson, that was the most tense.
“Does the city have a problem with transparency, and if yes, what do you plan to do about it?,” Means asked.
“Unfortunately I believe the answer to that question is yes — the city of Snoqualmie government does have a transparency issue,” Donaldson said.
He referenced the recent spike in public records requests received by the city, which take up a large amount of staff time, that was followed by the passing of several new rules, including capping the amount of time staff can spend on processing records requests, adding fees for acquiring some records and banning personal electronic devices when viewing physical records.
“We passed authoritarian style policies making the acquisition of public records significantly more difficult and expensive for anyone who would like to go to City Hall and just see what’s going on,” Donaldson said.
He also talked about the recent decision to no longer video and livestream the public comment period of city council meetings.
“This was made in response to some, I would say, very politically-motivated decision making that did not adequately consider the longterm effects that this would have on our community. I think it’s unfair,” Donaldson said. “I would start by undoing those two things.”
“Lastly, I think that there is a culture in this city of bullying people who are opposed to what the existing administration wants to do,” he said.
Then the question went on to Sundwall, who does not see a transparency problem and responded to Donaldson’s remarks on the public comment video ban.
“I find it ironic that my opponent, the reason that those things came into play, was because he was illegally campaigning at city council meetings. So I just find it ironic that he takes that stance,” Sundwall said.
He also said that the city’s public records policies are more liberal than North Bend and other cities. He also said that he was the one who “led the charge to put cameras in the council chambers.”
“That was me. It took seven of us to vote on it, but I led that charge,” he said. “I’m all about transparency. That’s why we have cameras in there. And we have one of the most liberal public records policies of any city I’m aware of.”
Donaldson, after the question looped back to him, rebutted Sundwall’s comment.
“He asserted that I was illegally campaigning during council meetings, and this is from what I can tell simply a deliberate misstatement of fact. To assert such is defamatory, it is slanderous, it affects my reputation, and it affects my political prospects,” Donaldson said. “But the reason it is a misstatement of fact is because the responsible government agency for enforcing campaign finance laws in Washington State is known as the Public Disclosure Commission and they have told this government and told our local media several times that no violation has taken place. I am not violating any campaign finance laws.”
He stated that he could not be found in violation of the law in question because he is not an elected official and therefore does not have the ability to spend public funds.
“The decision to censor our public comments from video records was a politically motivated one, it is not an effort to protect this community — what, from hearing its own voice? So, I’m sorry but that is a misstatement of fact. If Mr. Sundwall would like to stand behind that claim then I suggest he file a lawsuit against me. Otherwise please do not make deliberate misstatements of fact against my campaign,” Donaldson said.
He also talked about the difficulties that come with running as a challenger against an incumbent.
Ross mentioned ways the city council has been working on fostering community involvement, especially for those who are unable to attend regular evening council meetings. A public engagement committee regularly organizes town hall meetings and there are coffee with the council events and meet and greets.
“As a city we realize that public engagement is part of transparency,” she said. “We’re trying to reach out to residents that we normally don’t see. We’re trying different times, different ways, different places.”
She also said the council has one of the more generous public comment periods, and that it is still audio recorded and uploaded despite the video ban. Each resident can speak for three minutes on anything they like and also for two minutes before each agenda item, she said.
“We’re making progress, we still have work to do, but I think we’re trying to be as engaged with the public as possible,” she said.
Elaine Armstrong said she thought all the rules for records requests and public comments are, “convoluted.”
“I’m sure everybody at City Hall is lovely, and I’m sure everybody is working very hard to get things done,” she said. “But my question is, why do we have to have such convoluted rules?”
Armstrong also suggested creating a citizens advisory board.
Mayhew agreed with his fellow incumbents that there is no transparency issue and no censorship, and said some comments on stage were lies.
“We live in interesting times. You just heard a bunch of false statements. I don’t understand the people that are making false statements and trying to make you believe that up is down. Up is not down. So it’s quite simply this — no one is censored,” he said.
He, too, talked about the three-minute comment period and two-minute comment period, mentioning that the two-minute comments were still video recorded. He said those are good opportunities to give council feedback to consider while debating agenda items.
He said there had been a lot of abuse prior to the video ban, including people holding up false maps to the cameras. Since they’ve stopped the video recording, they haven’t had any public comments, but he’s unsure if there is any correlation.
“So I don’t know what that means but there is no censorship,” Mayhew said.
Fuzzy Fletcher, referring to the public comment video ban, said “I believe that that was done because some people were using them for political reasons and some other folks didn’t like that. So with political season coming to an end I’d like to see it reinstated to the way it was before.”
He also said he understands that the large amounts of public records requests were taking a great deal of staff time.
“But I also believe that the more transparent the city becomes the less public records requests it will have,” he said. “I want to take time to see what citizens think about ways we can improve transparency.”