Coffee with Harry: City council candidates Strom Peterson and Alvin Rutledge
The first Coffee with Harry of the 2013 election season was held Thursday with guests Strom Peterson and Alvin Rutledge. The two candidates met with a small group of concerned citizens to answer questions about themselves and the city.
The first question came from a couple who had just moved to Edmonds in the last year. They wondered why all seven council positions were “at-large” rather than being set up by districts.
Peterson suggested that Edmonds, being a relatively small, compact city, wasn’t large enough for districts to be a useful option. Rutledge has been a proponent of districts for several years and thinks it is coming. He also mentioned that there is talk of combining the governments of several local cities by year 2025, and that districts might be more defined at that point.
As a follow-up, a citizen asked how to determine who to contact with an issue comes up. Peterson said that you can pick any councilmember you choose or you can email the Council’s executive assistant (email@example.com) a copy of your concerns to be distributed to all councilmembers.
Peterson was then asked about the sewage system capital improvements and budget. A citizen read that the plans included contingencies of 30 to 40 percent on upcoming projects. He felt this sort of contingency was out of line and just invited contractors to pad their bids.
Peterson suggested that these estimates are based on “further out” projects, and with fluctuating construction costs it is hard to pin down estimates. He further pointed out that these type of projects often encounter hidden needs that aren’t apparent until you dig up the ground. He did suggest that the city staff is very professional and good at responding to these sorts of questions and that the citizen might contact Public Works Director Phil Williams for a more precise answer to the question.
There were also questions about new sewer rates and whether the rates should be based upon the actual cost of maintaining the system. The questioner noted that the presentations about rate increases compare Edmonds rates to those of other localities, but wondered if that comparison is relevant or should we just concentrate on the actual costs?
Rutledge expressed concern about the higher rates and how they affect limited-income and senior citizens. He felt the discounted rates should be available to people who can’t afford rate increases. But he didn’t think that Edmonds had a system to quantify how much those discounts would add up to and therefore how much overall rates need to be increased to cover the discounts. He stated that Lynnwood had a system that can do these computations at any time.
Peterson said that the comparisons are presented due to questions from both citizens and other Council members about how our rates compare. He said that the city does incorporate discounts that are provided to the financially less able and those costs are spread over the remaining ratepayers. One of the good things about these rates, Peterson added, is that they are strictly based upon the services provided. The city has not increased these rates in a number of years and it is time to catch up with escalating costs.
The candidates were then asked their position on keeping minutes for executive sessions.
Rutledge said that he is 100 percent in favor of keeping minutes. He also said that when executive sessions are called, insufficient information is given to the public as to what would be discussed and what the topic was after the meeting. He added that minutes were important as they made it much more difficult for someone to later claim that “I didn’t say that” when it is recorded in the minutes. Some people didn’t want those things recorded so they can’t be held accountable, he said.
Peterson said that Edmonds is the only city that keeps notes of what is discussed. The city’s attorney has suggested this is not a good practice and Peterson himself feels that keeping minutes and/or notes limits the amount of open discussion that takes place. “It is just an opportunity for frank and open discussion,” he said. “No decisions can be made in executive session, all those need to be done in open session. A lot feel that taking minutes would stifle open discussion, and I agree with that.”
When challenged on the transparency of this issue, Peterson said “there is public oversight as the eight elected officials in the sessions are elected by the public and in our form of representative government, they are responsible to the citizens.”
The candidates were then asked about the upcoming budget and the fact that the Mayor has set aside $600,000 for the city council to allocate to projects of their own choosing. The question: “It seems like a lot of money to be unallocated; what are your thoughts and what would you do with the money?”
Rutledge felt that the budget presentation is misleading. He cited the sale of the fire department, stations and land and stated that the city has more money coming in than portrayed, noting it has increased its reserves from $1 million to over $10 million over the past several years. He said that of the $600,000 mentioned above, half should be allocated to having someone to promote tourism and bring in events. It should also be used to promote bringing more businesses to the city.
Peterson disagreed with Rutledge on the sale of the fire department. He stated that the equipment was sold but the city retains ownership of the buildings and land. As for the $600,000, Peterson reminded those at the gathering that this money should be spent on “one-time” expenses and not items that would repeat year after year. With the city cutting the budget over the past several years, one of the first things to go is training, he noted, adding that he would support training opportunities, particularly in the building department, saving some money for grant matching to leverage the dollars. He also said he felt that the city should spend some money to increase the city’s technology and achieve some more modern efficiencies.
The candidates were asked about the City’s Risk Management Reserve fund, which has a targeted balance of over $600,000. The fund has been depleted to almost nothing. If there is a budget surplus at the end of 2013, should this fund be replenished, before money is spent on any new programs? Both answered that yes, this should be one of the first uses of any surplus. to replenish this fund in its entirety.
Both candidates agreed with a question regarding updating the city’s code. They both said that this should be a priority for 2014.
What should local businesses expect from the city and the council to help them be more successful, was the next question.
Rutledge suggested that local businesses can’t rely strictly on customers from within Edmonds. He stated that the council should promote programs that draw people from outside into the city. Bringing in events and promoting the city is something that can help bring new customers to local businesses.
Peterson, himself a small business owner in Edmonds, agreed that tourism is one way to help bring new customers for local businesses. He also cited that streamlining the processes and forms that businesses need to fill out is a way to make life easier for business owners. Also, sometimes the best thing government can do is just get out of the way and let businesses function more efficiently, added
We want to thank the two candidates. Only in Edmonds can you get the candidates for office to meet together, in a casual setting, with ordinary citizens and share ideas and answer questions.
Also thanks to Brooke and Randy Baker for hosting these coffees at Chanterelle restaurant. They provide both the meeting space and free coffee for anyone who wants to attend. It is a great public service for their community. And special recognition to Diana, who was our server for the coffee. She attended to all of our needs and make sure that we were properly fed and nourished throughout the session.
An additional coffee, also held on Thursday, featured council incumbent Kristiana Johnson and her challenger Randy Hayden. A recap of that coffee will appear Monday.
The final coffee will be held this coming Thursday, Oct. 17 at 10 a.m., with incumbent Adrienne Fraley-Monillas and challenger Ron Wambolt. The location will again be at Chanterelle, 316 Main.
Remember that you can also watch video interviews with Peterson and Rutledge here.
– By Harry Gatjens