With the Aug. 3 primary election less than three weeks away, candidates for Edmonds City Council positions 1 and 2 faced off against each other for the first time Wednesday evening at a debate organized by My Edmonds News. Positions 1 and 2 both have three or more candidates on the primary ballot (Position 1: Alicia Crank, Kristiana Johnson and Brian Hartman; Position 2: Janelle Cass, Will Chen, Luke Distelhorst and Lora Petso). The top two vote-getters will advance to the Nov. 2 general election.
This story will focus on the candidates vying for Position 1. Candidate Brian Hartman did not respond to invitations to participate, leaving Wednesday’s debate as a two-person standoff between incumbent Johnson and challenger Crank. All three names will, however, appear on the Aug. 3 primary ballot.
Look for our coverage of the Position 2 debate in a separate story to run shortly.
The format of the debate, which drew an estimated 250 attendees to the Edmonds Center for the Arts, called for each candidate to give a one-minute opening statement. They then took turns answering a series of questions developed by debate moderator and My Edmonds News Publisher Teresa Wippel, based on suggestions from readers and from the following Edmonds civic organizations: the Alliance of Citizens for Edmonds (ACE), the Edmonds Chamber of Commerce, the Edmonds Civic Roundtable (ECR) and the Edmonds Neighborhood Action Coalition (ENAC). Each candidate then gave a one-minute closing statement. The debate also included several “lightning round” questions requiring a simple yes or no response.
In her opening statement, Alicia Crank quickly reviewed her background and experience including serving on the boards of Project Girl and the Hazel Miller Foundation, as vice chair of the Edmonds Planning Board and as chair of the Snohomish County (Paine Field) Airport Commission. She stressed that this experience has given her a “deep appreciation for listening to the feedback and concerns of others, and understanding how to put solutions into action.”
“As your councilmember, I will work diligently to ensure that we, those of us who live and/or work in Edmonds, have our voices represented,” she stated. “From our children to our senior citizens, renters to homeowners, we can all work together to improve our public safety, housing affordability, transparency, economic development and sustainability opportunities.”
Kristiana Johnson spoke of her experience serving since 2012 on council, and before that on several boards and commissions.
“I love Edmonds,” she said. “I will always put Edmonds first. I will protect neighborhoods – the building blocks of Edmonds – our historic and charming downtown and our environment. I will also work to ensure good government, ensure decisions are open and transparent, and that you know what is going on and when to have your voices heard.”
Wippel then posed the first question:
The city council created a Citizens Housing Commission specifically to come up with ideas for expanding “the range of housing (including rental and owned) available in Edmonds… irrespective of age, gender, race, religious affiliation, physical disability or sexual orientation.” The commission has issued 15 recommendations for council consideration, and they have divided the community. Some say that — in particular — recommendations favoring detached accessory dwelling units, smaller housing and placement of duplexes and townhomes on a single-family lot, will change the character of Edmonds by leading to the elimination of single-family zoning. Others say such options will provide more housing opportunities for lower-income individuals and families, seniors and the disabled. Do the housing commission recommendations reflect your long-term vision for Edmonds?
Johnson responded first.
“Council is now in the process of evaluating these recommendations,” she began, noting that council has already acted on one by entering a housing agreement with the Snohomish County Housing authority, and that it is preparing to move forward on two more that will address design standards and racially motivated covenants.
Crank pointed out that “recommendations are just that,” stressing that the focus needs to be the people, specifically ensuring that those who are here and want to stay here are able to.
“It’s not about helping folks who are trying to move into the city,” she stressed. “Rather it is about helping those who are already here stay here. This has to be the basis for conversations on any of these recommendations.”
Wippel then moved on to question 2.
Homelessness was a crisis in our region before COVID-19 hit but now, with many facing the loss of jobs and homes, we are seeing more unhoused individuals in our city. What ideas do you have for eliminating housing instability and homelessness in Edmonds?
“No one municipality can take care of this. It has to be a group effort,” responded Crank. She pointed out that people are not unhoused just due to drugs or alcohol, and that often it’s other things like affordability and abuse issues.
She pointed out the potential role of accessory dwelling units in addressing this problem, but cautioned that this cannot be done with a blanket approach, but rather on a case-by-case basis.
Johnson pointed to the city’s hiring of a new human services manager and the money that has been allocated to allow people to stay in their homes, adding that these funds will soon be supplemented with those from the federal American Rescue Plan.
“Two aspects of homelessness are particularly troubling to me,” she added. “First are the kids, many of whom often find themselves couch surfing, and those who have drug or alcohol problems and prefer to be in a situation where they can do that freely. Both groups need assistance, and we have allocated money for a social worker to help with this.”
The next question was the first “lightning round:”
Parking continues to be a concern for residents, businesses and visitors. Would you consider a structure to ease the downtown parking situation?
Johnson responded “No.”
Crank responded “Yes, where appropriate.”
Next was question 3:
If elected and you could change only one thing during your term – just one thing – what would that be?
Crank responded that she would prioritize Edmonds residents to be at the top of the list for preference in the application process for MFTE (multi-family tax exempt) housing as a way to help ensure that they may continue to live here.
“This is not to say that folks from outside Edmonds could not apply,” she clarified, “but just that current residents would get priority.”
Johnson said she would implement clear council rules and procedures, and ensure that they are followed.
“This would help ensure that the public knows when and how they can weigh in on issues, and would eliminate the current confusion” she added. “It’s the one thing I’d like to change.”
This elicited scattered applause from attendees.
Question 4 was next:
The State Legislature will offer the 22-acre Unocal Property near the Edmonds Marsh to the City of Edmonds for purchase when the environmental cleanup is complete. Given the size of the property and a range of potential uses that could benefit all residents, what would you do to engage the public in a discussion of ideas for use and funding sources to purchase the property?
“This sounds like the perfect thing for a town meeting,” responded Johnson. “We need to include existing organizations like Save Our Marsh, the fish hatchery and the associated gardens. We’ve all been bucking this issue for a decade, and we need to all get together and share our ideas.”
Crank said she also favors a public meeting approach, and that it would be best to have “several” and hold them in a hybrid format.
“If we’ve learned one thing from COVID it’s that public participation increases when folks have that kind of access,” she stressed. “This will help ensure we engage all elements of the community rather than just those with a special interest.”
Next was lightning round 2:
You are running for a nonpartisan position. Did you seek and/or receive an endorsement from a political party (YES or NO) and if so, which party?
Crank: Yes, Democrat
Next was question 5:
Do you believe it’s important for city councilmembers to serve as role models for the community on issues of diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility? If so, how would you demonstrate this in your work on city government issues?
“We are all role models – community leaders,” responded Johnson. “I think we need to make recommendations to improve things in our city administration – police, public works, planning – to make sure we have diversity, equity and inclusion. We also need to address our contracting procedures and policies.”
“We are all role models whether we like it or not,” said Crank. “And we can be either a positive one or a negative one. Diversity is not about race and gender, it’s how you think about things. I have tried to demonstrate this in my community life by bringing every voice to the table and ensuring a robust and diverse conversation about anything from housing to race relations to economic development.”
Regarding city staff diversity, Crank pointed out that overall, city staff are actually more diverse than our “predominantly white” community as a whole. “But a closer look at city staffing reveals that more work needs to be done at the managerial level,” she added.
If you could change only one thing about how the city council currently functions, what would that be?
“We need to be a better model for civil discourse,” responded Crank. “Especially now that we’re online and you can see everyone’s face it really resonates when you see [body language like] eyes rolling or people nodding their heads. It’s not that hard to practice civil discourse, and we really need to make the decision to do it, even if sometimes you have to bite your tongue.”
This elicited scattered applause from the audience.
Johnson said she would increase the efficiency of council meetings. “Let’s start on time and end on time,” she began. “Let’s make sure we have a three-touch rule where items first go to committee, then to council for discussion, and finally to council for a decision. That process has been ignored over past year and a half, but we need to bring it back so that you the citizens know what’s going on and when to participate.”
This also drew applause from the audience.
Proposals for increasing housing density in Edmonds may conflict with current environmental protections already in place, including the city’s Critical Areas Ordinance, the sustainability element of Edmonds’ Comprehensive Plan and the current Climate Action Plan. In your opinion, which should carry more weight: environmental protections or increased housing density?
“I don’t think you can look at one of these without the other,” responded Johnson. “All area plans should include elements like transportation, land use, and public safety so we look at it all together. We divided the city into seven districts for the housing commission. We could do this kind of study on two of these districts per year and be complete in four years. I plan to propose this during the upcoming budget process.”
“I don’t believe in density for density’s sake,” responded Crank. “It needs to make sense in the places we’re trying to build it. One thing that’s important to me is environmental justice, making sure that open spaces and parks are included in all areas of the city, not just select ones. We need to be aware of the broader picture and long-term effects, and not fail because we didn’t think three steps out.”
Lightning round 3 was next:
The city council pulled the plug on the Edmonds Waterfront Connector project following citizen outcry, but we still haven’t addressed the issue of ensuring safe passage across downtown railroad tracks during an emergency. On a scale of 1-5 – #1 being not at all important and #5 being extremely important – rate how you would prioritize this issue as a councilmember. (Reminder: All I’m looking for is a number.)
The city council approved a new set of regulations aimed at retaining existing trees when private property is developed in Edmonds. Do you support this approach to protecting Edmonds’ tree canopy? Why or why not?
“Yes, I voted for this,” said Johnson. “We need to do a better job of protecting trees, and I approved this approach for public property. Private property is tough though, so we made a middle ground recognizing that it’s important to save the oldest trees, but it’s also important to let folks develop their land.”
She added that a “new map” is being developed to assist in this that will enable comparison of past and present levels of tree canopy coverage.
“Public, yes. Private, not so much,” responded Crank. “Goes back to property owners’ rights. Almost every Planning Board meeting over the past years has included audience comments on this issue. Property owners’ rights need to be a big part of this decision.”
Describe your thoughts on policing in Edmonds and our current police force. Are there any changes you would like to make?
“No agency is perfect,” began Crank. “I’ve been fortunate to have good relations with former (Police) Chief Compaan and Acting Chief Lawless…and it’s become clear that a healthy partnership including interpersonal relationships between police and community is crucial. The question is whether we’re willing as community members to work together with police leadership and the officers.”
“We haven’t had a Chief of Police for the past 17 months,” Johnson began, “and we’ve spent $120,000 searching for one. The mayor and council have made mistakes, and we have yet to have a panel of candidates to evaluate. The rules say that the mayor nominates and the council confirms. If we could just follow those simple rules we’d be much better off.”
As a city councilmember, describe how you will support our business community.
“First, I personally shop locally and make it a point to support our business community,” Johnson said. “We all make decisions about whether to spend our money inside or outside the city, and I choose inside. We currently have new funding from the American Rescue Plan, and we will donate significant money to support our local businesses, especially those who have not received prior support.”
“I will do what I always do,” began Crank. “I show up. I spend my money locally, I share on social media where I am, and this has encouraged others to go there too. I talk to shop owners, be proactive, listen to them.”
Next was lightning round 4:
Yes or No: Do you support the mayor’s decision to operate Walkable Main Street on both Saturdays and Sundays, instead of limiting it to Sundays only as a number of downtown merchants had requested?
Johnson: Absolutely not.
Share a “moonshot” idea that would draw more businesses and customers to Edmonds.
“Why not hold concerts directed to young people,” said Johnson. “Most of our concerts are directed at older folks. I’d like to see something more hip that would draw a younger crowd.”
“I like the idea of moveable feasts,” offered Crank. “One day each week food trucks would go to a different area of the city where folks could come, eat, bring lawn chairs, socialize and get to know an area of town they may not have seen before that’s not just downtown. It would be a way of driving business with food — and hey, everyone loves to eat!”
For the final question, each candidate was given the opportunity to ask a single question of the other. “You only get one question,” cautioned Wippel, “so choose wisely.”
First was Johnson to Crank:
“This is the third time you’ve made a bid for council in the past six years, and you also submitted your name for appointment [to Nelson’s vacated position],” she began. “I don’t recall you submitting comments or calling me directly on any council business over this time. Why is that?”
“I may not have reached out to you directly,” responded Crank. “But I had interpersonal conversations with other councilmembers past and present. I’ve also been an active participant in attending meetings – many online – and I’ve been opinionated and transparent on numerous issues.”
“I have never heard any of that,” Johnson rebutted. “I’ve not heard you give public comments, and none of your comments have gone to all councilmembers.
“I agree with that, but that’s not the only way to participate,” responded Crank.
Crank then asked Johnson: “Given the challenges of getting out and doing things in the community during the COVID shutdown, it is still important to connect with the community. In this regard, what have you done during this period to connect with your constituents?”
“It hasn’t been easy to get out and about during COVID,” Johnson acknowledged. “I’ve stayed close to home per the Governor’s recommendations. I have kept in touch via email and phone, and had conversations on many key issues including the police chief selection, housing and tree codes. That’s how I connected with my constituents.”
Closing statements were next, with Alicia Crank going first.
She began by citing the challenges and opportunities we’ve experience as a result of coming through the pandemic. Benefits include developing “a new appreciation for transparency and communication” and becoming more invested in our neighborhoods, our schools, our local businesses and with each other.
“Many of you have seen my efforts to model bringing various voices and opinions to the table on topics that matter to us. You’ve seen me model civil discourse, community and business engagement, as well as active listening in both virtual and physical settings,” she continued. “I am committed to continue this work with our community members, fellow city council members and other elected officials across the board to ensure the best decisions for our city. I hope that I will have your support and your vote next month. Together, we can continue to build our community to be the safe, diverse and comfortable environment we know it can be.”
Johnson began by reiterating how many in the community have been “very unhappy” with the council over the past year and a half.
“I’ve been unhappy too,” she acknowledged. “I’ve tried to bring common sense and good judgment, but have always been in the minority of three who couldn’t’ get the job done right. In the last election my opponent was supported by Councilmembers Fraley-Monillas, Paine, Laura Johnson, and Nelson [note that Paine and L. Johnson successfully ran for council in that election, which also saw Nelson elected as mayor), and again by these same councilmembers when she applied to fill the council seat vacated by Mayor Nelson. If you did not like their politics, you will probably not like my opponent’s politics.”
Wippel then thanked the candidates for being present and participating before taking a short break to bring on the candidates for Council Position 2.
My Edmonds News will provide similar coverage of the Position 2 debate shortly. You can watch a recording of the debate here.
— Story and photos by Larry Vogel