By Harry Gatjens
Chanterelle Restaurant hosted a Coffee with Harry featuring Lora Petso and Darlene Stern, candidates for Edmonds City Council Position 7, on Thursday evening. It was our first evening session and we were treated to a standing-room-only crowd.
The first question was asked if they would support using money from the general fund levy, Proposition 1, to pay for funding long-term obligations that have been neglected by previous councils in efforts to balance the budget. Rather than make dramatic cuts in day-to-day services, for the past several years the council has reduced funding for future projects, essentially leaving the balancing issues to future councils. Jim Tarte, the city’s interim finance director, explained at the recent council meeting that the unfunded long-term needs in the current levy total $788,000. So the candidates were asked whether, should the $1 million general fund levy pass, they would commit to funding these items before any new projects or expenditures.
Lora Petso took this question and answered it simply, yes, she would support this idea. To quote her entire answer, she said “Yes.” Nothing unequivocal about that answer. Stern answered that she also would support the idea, but couldn’t guarantee that something might come up that would change her actions. She didn’t know of anything that might cause her to change but just wanted to be careful before making a commitment.
Then the candidates were asked what their preference would be for the money if the citizens of Edmonds were to pass a new bond with a long-term vision as its core. Stern said that affordable housing would be her priority. Petso mentioned several items, including fixing roads, parking projects and acquiring Civic playfield. Stern countered that she didn’t support the purchase of any news parks. Her feeling is that citizens believe we need to quit acquiring and get the money to maintain what we already have.
Haines Wharf Park was the next topic to come up and the candidates were asked, if the equitable adjustment claim for over $900,000 filed by company who did the work — Precision Earthworks — is found to be valid, where would the money come from to pay that claim? Stern said that because she isn’t a current councilmember, she wasn’t aware of exactly where the money would come from. She did think the City’s policy of taking the lowest bid for projects like this should be reconsidered. She would rather take a medium bid and avoid so many change orders. A couple of guests pointed out that state law requires taking the lowest bid, but that could be overridden for specific reasons. Stern thought that needed to be examined. Petso said that there are reserves that could cover the claim but you don’t want to use up your reserves on things like cost overruns. She added that much more attention needs to be paid to these projects in the future.
Both candidates were asked, “Why do you want to be on the Council?” Stern said she wanted to “make a positive contribution to my community.” She said she felt she had time to devote to the City’s issues, she had no special interests and wanted to do what was in the best interests of the City’s residents. Petso said she just has a passion for serving the City, noting she has been involved for over 15 years and cares about keeping city government on the right track.
When Petso was asked how she could keep up that passion after having been defeated in her most recent election and then not getting appointed in the recent past, Petso said that the passion doesn’t go away just because someone didn’t like you. It is ingrained in her to try and do the best for the city whether or not some citizens agree with her views.
Someone next asked what ideas the candidates had for improving the cohesiveness of the council meetings. Petso stated that she is already working on this as council vice president, and noted that she, the council president and the mayor work to make sure the council meetings run smoothly by proper prior preparation. Also, Petso said she felt that she already had a good relationship with the other councilmembers.
Stern said there was a need to recognize the skills that each council member has and proactively bring out the best of each member. By working together, giving each the ability to shine, you can reduce the amount of conflict, she said.
A citizen wanted to know how each candidate would react if they saw an executive session drifting out of areas that should be discussed in such sessions. Stern said there is a need to stand on principle. If she saw something going into an inappropriate area she would step up and confront the participants to change direction. Petso says that when she observes something like this happening, she gets up to leave and that the rest of the council seems to get the message.
Petso was asked about the competency of the new City Attorney and what options are available. Petso said that the contract allows for cancellation with 60 days notice. She thought that someone might bring the performance up for review, but she wasn’t sure whether that was a council decision or if the Mayor was responsible for bringing up the evaluation.
Petso was then asked about her lawsuits against the City several years ago. She said that a developer was going to do a project that did not follow city codes. In order to sue the developer, she was required to name the city as a party. Te city did ultimately drop out of the suit, she said.
Stern was asked how to get more financial information out to the citizens so that they can have a better understanding of the city’s needs. She said you need to have a multifaceted approach to get information to the votes as not all voters find out what is going on in the same way. She suggested using the City’s website, presentations to civic groups, release to local news organizations and such.
A question came up about the council as micromanagers or just overseers of city functions. Stern said that overseeing was the primary responsibility but that direction needed to be given if you see things go wrong. Petso mentioned viewing the city from the perspective of soaring over it and watching what goes on. If, from that perspective, you see an issue, you dive down and get involved. It is a balancing act between the two, she said.
There was general agreement of everyone in the room that while social networking speeds news to the electorate, it is not appropriate for councilmembers to use Twitter and Facebook updates to communicate with constitutents. Both candidates agreed.
As usual, we got great service from the staff at Chanterelle. As this was an evening session, I was able to order dinner and found it wonderful. Lauren took great care of us. I appreciate Chanterelle hosting these meetings for the good of the citizens. On a side not, I dropped a $100 bill as I was paying my bill. I wasn’t aware of this, but the next morning I had an email asking if I had dropped any bills on the floor as they had found one. It just shows the great integrity of the staff.
Further thanks to both Ms. Stern and Ms. Petso for taking the time to meet with the citizens. And of course, thanks to the citizens who devoted their Thursday evening to learning about local candidates.
Edmonds resident “Citizen Harry” Gatjens provides regular reports to My Edmonds News on the workings of the Edmonds city government.