My Edmonds News had a chance to sit down with newly-elected Mayor Dave Earling Friday morning and talk about his first 30 days in office and his plans for 2012. Earling, who defeated appointed Mayor Mike Cooper in the Nov. 8 election, has had a busy schedule since he was sworn in Nov. 29. He estimates he has attended between 60 and 70 meetings in December as he works to set his priorities for 2012, which he said will follow some of his campaign themes “because I think they are important to the community now.”
“One is really trying to work hard on restoring what I think the public and the staff were beginning to lose — confidence. It was a true issue as I doorbelled across the city and it would come up especially in the closing weeks – comments on local elected officials and whether it was real or not, a feeling of dysfunctionality going on.”
He said he intends to work closely with the Edmonds City Council “to develop a feeling of trust between all of the eight elected officials in town. I’m hopeful that separate political agendas can be put on the back burner to really look forward to what will benefit the City of Edmonds and not turn issues into political agendas.”
Earling, himself a former Edmonds City Councilmember and Council president, said he has started meeting individually with councilmembers “to understand what their interests are and emphasize again that we have to have an open communications style, and not have hidden agendas, because that’s the way that I’m going to approach it.”
He acknowledged the difficulties that existed between former Mayor Gary Haakenson and the council before Haakenson left to become Deputy Snohomish County Executive in 2010. “The communication was awful for a while – it was kind of like a private war,” Earling said.
He also expressed hope that the annual City Council/Mayor retreat, coming up in early 2012, “will be beneficial to everybody and we can walk away from it feeling like we are here to do the common good for folks in town.”
The city’s budget woes (due to declining tax revenues, Edmonds is slated to be in the red in 2013) are at the top of Earling’s mind these days. He said he’ll start working with staff in early 2012 on the best ways to involve citizens in “a truly public discussion” about city finances.
“We have some real challenges coming and we need to take those challenges head on because there are going to have to be some hard decisions if all of the projections are correct,” Earling said. “We’ve got to find creative ways to generate revenue and we also have to look at if we have to cut, and how the cuts are made. “
He predicted that the city is likely to use a “budget by priorities” approach – a “bottom-up” budgeting strategy that relies heavily on citizen involvement and one that the City of Redmond has been using successfully for several years.
“Hopefully we can put together a large number of people who can participate in that discussion,” Earling said. The city’s strategies for revenue generation “are not necessarily going to do us much good for 2013,” he added, because they rely on economic development, which takes time. “We are trying to figure out ways we can bring new business in and help build the business of the businesses that are here to generate more revenue for them and obviously for the city,” he said.
He was quick to praise the hard-working city staff, and noted that Community Services/Economic Development Director Stephen Clifton has been “very aggressively” focusing on longer-term revenue generation. “We’re trying at several different levels to attract business and still stay within the concept of what a lot of the citizens believe the city should look like” Earling said. “They don’t want to lose the downtown charm. “
Among the questions the Mayor and his staff are thinking about: How do you develop Dayton Street and Main Street so that they become a walkable area? How do you tap into the “great potential” along the Edmonds waterfront and create a new neighborhood around the Sounder commuter rail station that will attract young professionals who work in Seattle to live in Edmonds.
Earliing also mentioned the potential redevelopment of the Harbor Square business complex, and noted that the Port of Edmonds will be seeking a comprehensive plan amendment for that in the near future, Earling said.
The key, Earling said, is “we’ve got to quit talking about some of this stuff and actually take some action. He noted that the city’s efforts to develop a strategic plan will ramp up early in 2011, which will increase citizen involvement and also assist in generating ideas for short- and long-term revenue generation .
An early start and extensive citizen involvement – as well as transparent sharing of budget numbers and alternatives – are key factors in generating public understanding and support for addressing the city’s revenue needs, Earling added.
Earling said he recognizes that there are citizens who believe that the city still isn’t lean enough or is acting as a good steward of public money. To address that perception, he’s asked city staff to prepare a comparison of Edmonds to other cities, in terms of the ratio of city employees to the population. “The preliminary information I’m seeing is that Edmonds is down at the bottom of the list,” he said.
“There are a lot of folks who think people (employees) are overpaid too,” Earling noted. “Generally speaking the people who work for the city enjoy it,” he said. “When people work here longer, their pay increases.”
“People don’t understand that there’s already been this racheting down over a period of time,”including combining, not filling or eliminating staff positions, Earling said. “Sure, we can always cut, but looking at the numbers and comparing them to other cities’ sizes and staff numbers, we’re really thin.”
Since the City Council decided recently to eliminate the Human Resources Director position, “we’re basically down to a one-and-a-half-person HR department,” he said. “Let’s play out a scenario: If I have a manager instead of a director , you had to have a least one person to take care of the every-day stuff. But then you have to bring in an outside (contract) person probably to do (labor) negotiations. I’ve asked Shawn (Hunstock) to put down in black and white what the real cost difference is, and I think it’s going to be damn slim.”
Here are some quick takes from Earling on other issues facing the city:
The outcome of an outside investigation ordered in October by former Mayor Mike Cooper to probe allegations by his executive assistant, Kim Cole, that she was harassed in the workplace: “In the next week , we’ll try to get some clarity,” Earling said, refusing to elaborate further or say whether an actual report would be released.
The future of the Human Resources Director position that was cut by the City Council: “We’re going to figure out how to reorganize the HR department,” Earling said. “I’ve been talking with staff about some options we have. It’s clear to me that the council is in no mood to have a director again so we’ll just have to figure out the hand we’re dealt.” Earling said he’s hoping to make a recommendation to the council in January on next steps.
The outcry over a proposal by Walgreens to build a store on the site of the current Robin Hood Lanes bowling alley: “I see two tracks for this issue,” Earling said. “Property rights. I own a little building over here on Fifth Avenue. If I want to put a second story on it and fall within the zoning regulations of the city, I can do it. The other — and the one that we have any influence on — is whether or not it fits into the context of our code.” That said, Earling added he understands that it’s an emotional issue and noted he has meetings scheduled later this week with those opposing the plan.
The ongoing controversy about the roundabout planned for the five-way Five Corners intersection. “I feel pretty certain there will be an effort to revisit it Tuesday night (at the Council meeting),” he said. The fact that the city has already accepted grant money to fund the planning phase of the project — and would have to return it if the council decides not to proceed – is an issue for Earling based on his experience on other boards that have turned down or lost grants. “Sometimes when you apply for subsequent grants, there’s an attitude of ‘well, we gave this grant to them and they didn’t take or they started it and shut it down or they didn’t perform, ‘ I saw that happen in real life and so that’s a concern of mine that we have this potential grant and if we walked away from it, conceptually it’s a real problem.
The topic of grants goes back to another priority of Earling’s – to create higher regional visibility for the City of Edmonds, which has not had a prominent role regionally in many years, he said. “We’re the third largest town in Snohomish County and we need to re-assert ourself as a player,” he said. He cited Bothell as an example of a city that has been very active at the regional level, noting that “part of the reason they’ve been a player is they are in good position to apply for and receive some of the grants. And if you’re viewed as a regional player, word gets around.”
The city’s participation in a Regional Fire Authority. Earling said he doesn’t know yet if it makes sense for Edmonds to join other municipalities in forming a Regional Fire Authority “It has to make economic sense,” he said. “It comes down to numbers and maintaining the great level of service we need to have because we have a proportionally older population that demands more service.”
The future of the city’s fiber optic program. Finding customers for the city’s existing fiber optic network is a priority, Earling said. “The port’s really interested and there are some other major players in town” that the city has had discussions with, including Rick Steves and the Edmonds Center for the Arts. “Hopefully we’ll have some public news on that before too long,” Earling said.