Edmonds’ newest councilmember, Tom Mesaros, tackles tough issues during ‘Coffee With Harry’
A capacity crowd came to Chanterelle May 1 to meet new Edmonds City Councilmember Tom Mesaros, and to ask questions about himself and his views on issues.
Mesaros has been on the job for seven weeks, and said he is starting to feel comfortable in his new position.
Questioners cut to the chase with the first question being Mesaros’ position on the Sunset Avenue walkway project. Mesaros said he and his wife personally walk on Sunset Avenue on a semi-regular basis. In his observation, many of the people tend to walk in the streets when in the area. This is because the sidewalk on the East side of the street is narrow and uneven and on the West side of the street is more of a dirt path.
There are number of issues that need to be addressed, but one thing that Mesaros said he was confident about was that “we can do better” than the current situation.
One of the problems had to do with emergency vehicle access on Sunset Avenue. It was stated during the presentation that the Fire Department requires 18 1/2 feet to navigate the roadway. Fire trucks are only 9 feet wide so one of the citizens asked where this requirement came from. The road essentially goes nowhere, so is it a question of code, or preference and is open to negotiation? Mesaros said he didn’t know and think the status of this should be investigated.
One of the problems is that some of the property is not owned by the city, something would need to be negotiated with the railroad in order to resolve this issue. When Mesaros asked Phil Williams. Edmonds Public Works Director, about negotiating with the railroad, Williams responded that the railroad didn’t really want to sit down with the city until an actual plan for Sunset Avenue is complete.
Someone asked what could be done to hurry the city in putting up safety signs on the area where a woman was killed in January on a city-built trail connecting walkers between Walnut Street and Alder Street. The person said they had been working with city staff since the day after the accident about putting signage up. It is now more than three months later and they got conflicting reports on what is going on. What can Mesaros do to help?
The councilmember said that he would be happy to look into the issue but needed specifics as to who was spoken to and when. He stated that it isn’t his job to supervise the employees — that falls to the mayor — but he did feel it was his responsibility to find out what was going on for the citizen. If he discovers things to be amiss he will bring it to the attention of the mayor, who could then deal with whatever the sticking point was and get the situation resolved. When a citizen provided the details requested, Mesaros agreed to check out the issue and inform both the citizen and My Edmonds News regarding the outcome.
Mesaros was asked what he thought he could do to improve the relationships between councilmembers and between the council and other members of government. He referred to his initial interview for the council position, when he stated that he thought one of his talents would be to bring some unity to the council. While you don’t want the council to be unified by having only one perception of issues, the council should be unified to the extent that they can disagree, but in a civil manner, Mesaros said. He added that the council was not as divided as perception seems to be, with the exception of a few hot button issues.
“The council has decided to hire an organizational consultant, Jim Reed, who comes very highly recommended,” Mesaros said. One two-hour session has been held, with two more planned. ” I think this will be highly successful in increasing the ability of council members to interact in a positive manner.” he said.
One of the problems, Mesaros said, is that the council “is forbidden to meet in a private setting just to get to know each other. That would improve our personal appreciation for others’ viewpoints but state law prohibits that if city businesses discussed. Even if city business isn’t discussed, there is no way for the public to know that.” As an example, the night Mesaros was first appointed to the council, the body broke into committee meetings shortly after. The new councilmembers thought it would be useful to attend the Finance Committee meeting “just to get a feel of what was going on. However, when I got to the meeting there were already three Councilmembers in it and so I couldn’t come in so not to violate the restrictions of the Public Meetings Act.”
Added Mesaros: “One of the things is that we don’t know each other very well. I have met with each of the other councilmembers now on a one-to-one basis and have found that they are all well-intentioned about doing the best for the city.”
He stated that council needs to move forward on items that have already been approved. For example, after the recent council meeting when a vote was taken to approve services for building the roundabout, someone said to Mesaros “Oh, you voted for the roundabout.” His response was that the roundabout was voted for and approved several years ago. What he voted for was to award the contract to complete the project.
While not announcing his candidacy, Mesaros — who was appointed to serve out the term of former Councilmember Frank Yamamoto, who resigned — did say he was going to run for re-election in 18 months. Noting that he had stated during his interview process that he wanted to help the Council function better together, he should be evaluated on that and re-elected or not based upon his performance.
Other issues raised include:
- Why the sidewalk on the east side of Sunset Avenue can’t be updated, and beyond that, what about other sidewalks within the rest of the city, which seem to be in disrepair or encroached upon by vegetation? It was pointed out that there was a limited budget for street improvements, including sidewalk repair, which means the money must be focused on the most important needs. This is an issue that was brought up more than one time.
- On the subject of conflicts between the council and the mayor, a questioner thought that conflict was inevitable with a “strong mayor” form of government and that if you don’t like conflict you probably shouldn’t be in politics. The questioner also said that conflict is healthy, a good thing. Mesaros said that we should be happy that the council is discussing the right things and moving forward. He also agreed that conflict is healthy but “we can still be nice about it. We shouldn’t call each other names in the process.”
- One of the top priorities for the city is to do something with the waterfront, Mesaros said. He knows there is some conflict over what the Port of Edmonds wanted to do but also feels that there has to be some sort of solution to making the waterfront better.
- Making Highway 99 ” a more desirable business-oriented area” should be a priority, he said. “The real area of economic boom for the city is Highway 99. Shoreline has done a good job of improving Highway 99 and it appears Lynnwood is doing the same. There has been a study group working on this issue but they seem to have been stalled in their efforts. If I can do something to help unstall efforts that’s what I would like to do.”
- Funding of government is another issue that captures the councilmember’s interest. He cited examples of other cities where the public has created and contributed to “parks foundations.” Citizens who care a lot about parks can contribute funding to help maintain and improve the parks and relieve the stress on government finances. He suggested that this might be something that Edmonds can do. He has asked the Fairfax County Parks Foundation, in Virginia, to send him copies of how they do it so that Edmonds wouldn’t need to create something similar from scratch.
- He said that he read the strategic plan before applying for the council position but can by no means quote it chapter and verse. He felt that the focus needs to be narrowed in order to get anything accomplished. The other issue is that in addition to the Strategic Plan, the city also has a Comprehensive Plan “Why are there two plans he asked should they be combined into one?” he wondered.
- One of the areas of inefficiency for the City Council is its lack of staff, he said. The council has one part-time assistant to serve the needs of seven councilmembers. This means that a lot of research needs to be done individually by councilmembers, who then have to bother the mayor’s staff with their questions. Perhaps the council could hire one researcher, who could work for all councilmembers to ensure their questions answered, he suggested. Someone had told Mesaros, “Good luck with that, as you’re adding costs.” Mesaros countered, “No you’re adding quality; it would help councilmembers do their jobs better ”
- Mesaros was asked to comment on the fact that some councilmembers feel that the council should approve city grant proposals, and what was his position? “I think the council’s role is to make sure that the project is approved that the grant is being requested for, so that you don’t go get a grant for $2 million for a project that the city council will later vote down,” he said, adding that he believes this issue was resolved at the council retreat the Saturday following his appointment.
- A citizen suggested that Edmonds shouldn’t being promoted as a retail destination, since there is nothing you can get in Edmonds that you couldn’t get cheaper somewhere else. Instead, emphasis should be placed on promoting Edmonds as a visual and arts location, since it is never going to be a bustling business area. Mesaros said that he commutes to downtown Seattle on the Sounder train, and he agrees that Edmonds is one of the most scenic areas around. However, a city still needs to raise the funds to function. Without a retail base, property taxes would need to be elevated to unsustainable levels, he said.
- The subject was changed to public safety revolving around coal and oil trains. Mesaros said that while he didn’t have a solution to the problem, he was glad that Seattle and other cities along the railroad tracks are getting involved, since you won’t solve the problem in Edmonds alone. You can’t just ban the trains but you can make sure precautions are taken to minimize the impact, he said. He also praised what Edmonds is already done, specifically mentioning Councilmember Strom Peterson, in the area of environmental preservation.
We want to thank Councilmember Mesaros for spending his time with a group of Edmonds citizens. There are very few places where politicians are willing to meet with any members of the community to discuss issues openly over a cup of coffee. We are very fortunate in Edmonds.
We also need to thank Chanterelle for hosting the latest Coffee with Harry, with a nice meeting area and complementary coffee for the guests. A special note of thanks goes to our server, Diana, and owners Brooke and Randy Baker for taking such good care of us.
Watch for future “Coffee with Harry” meetings and join us in getting to know your City of Edmonds.
– By Harry Gatjens