With the Aug. 3 primary election ballots on their way to voters, 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 2. (See our coverage of the Position 1 debate here.)
As previously reported, the debate format, 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 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.
All candidates drew numbers to determine the order in which they would respond, and took the stage in order based on this. First was candidate Lora Petso, followed in order by Janelle Cass, Will Chen and incumbent Luke Distelhorst.
“I’ve always advocated fair and public decision making,” she began. “I’ve served for many years and have never been involved in any shenanigans. During my years of council service, I’ve almost always come prepared, and I always put the citizens first.”
“Thanks to all who are here tonight,” she began. “Your attendance shows your interest in bringing good government back to city council.”
Cass criticized the current council calling out what she called “blatant disregard” for the concerns of the citizens of Edmonds and citing the recent proposals to up-zone neighborhoods from single- family to multi-family residences as a prime example, calling it “just the tip of the iceberg.”
“I am running for city council because I care, I want to preserve and protect the special community that we all love and care for, and I want to be the voice for everyone, especially those who often feel unheard,” he said. “As I ring doorbells and talk to thousands of people, these issues keep coming up: community safety, housing, fiscal accountability, and transparency. With your help and vote, I am ready to tackle these issues head on.”
“I’ve been fortunate to be able to collaborate with my fellow councilmembers in putting our residents first in responding to the pandemic, helping to keep our most vulnerable residents in their homes with lights on and food on the table,” he said. The Position 2 incumbent (Distelhorst was appointed to fill Mike Nelson’s seat in January 2020 after Nelson was elected mayor), he went on to say that he’s proud of the work the council has accomplished to prioritize business assistance, support affordable housing, tackle driving offense reform, and establish a new human services fund.
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?
“Most of these recommendations lacked public input,” she began. “They were gathered during COVID, and folks weren’t there to talk about them.”
Citing data that say 78% of Edmonds residents do not want to eliminate single-family zoning, she stressed that “we need to respect that.”
In response to the contention by some that accessory dwelling units would make more affordable housing available, she stated that “we’ve yet to see the math actually work out” for this.
“We’re 96% built out right now, and that leaves either eliminating single family housing or going up as the only options,” she concluded. “I’m not for either of these.”
“I was on the housing commission, and I voted against up-zoning the entire city,” he began. “However, we do have a responsibility to plan for the future of our city. With light rail coming and people on the move, we have to prepare. Our city is not isolated – we are interconnected with the whole region. I favor finding suitable locations for up-zoning and other housing options, but only in areas where these make sense.”
He began by citing his role as council liaison to the housing commission where he watched the commission study, research and develop their recommendations.
“An important question is that if you’re a senior on a fixed income and want to downsize, how far away do you want to move?” he asked. “Our current housing mix simply does not provide the diverse sizes, prices and options that many in our community need. As a councilmember I hear from seniors who can no longer afford the taxes on their home.”
He concluded by stressing that we need to take the necessary time for planning board consideration and public engagement on the housing recommendations as the path to planning for the future.
“I do not support all of the housing commission recommendations,” she began. “Expanding housing types does not fit with eliminating single-family housing. This does not match my vision.”
Articulating that zoning is a tool for land use planning and conditional use permits are tools for making exceptions to these in specific cases, she said she would favor “keeping both these in our toolkit” and taking a closer look at employing conditional use permits within the current zoning structure.
“Yes, we need to create more housing options,” she concluded. “We do not need to eliminate single family zoning to do this.”
Wippel then moved on to the next question:
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?
He began by sharing his personal experiences, relating that he experienced homelessness for two years as a child, and that today he witnesses it daily near his Lake Ballinger-area home.
“We need to look at both short-term solutions to find temporary housing, and long-term solutions that address the root causes of homelessness,” he said. “But we can’t solve this problem alone in Edmonds. It’s a regional issue that calls for regional efforts and cooperation.”
“The best way to prevent homelessness is to keep folks sheltered,” he began. “We’ve done that with assistance for families in need. We need to create options for permanently affordable housing, which means we can transition people from shelters to stable properties. This means long-term work on regional solutions where we pool resources with neighboring communities. We can’t do it alone.”
“The best and most cost-effective way to do this is to help people stay in their homes,” she began. “Many folks today are finding themselves a car repair bill or a utility bill away from not being able to stay in their home. We need to get money to them to get them past the crisis and allow them to do this.”
“I echo what the other candidates have said about the need to partner with and work with other jurisdictions and agencies. This is a regional issue,” she stressed. “We also need to get back to normal and get our economy moving again so folks have jobs. And we must focus on drug addiction and its role in the homelessness issue.”
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? Yes or no.
Chen – Yes
Distelhorst – No
Petso – Yes
Cass – Yes
The next question was:
If elected and you could change only one thing during your term – just one thing – what would that be?
“I would change the culture,” he said. “Currently we are too divided along partisan lines. We need to bring everyone to the table to discuss and prioritize in a way that benefits us all, and not base this on partisan divides.”
“We need to ensure equitable investments throughout our city,” he said. “We’ve seen lots of time and money spent in certain areas while others are neglected.”
“I would like to emphasize getting council back to basics,” she said. “Things like basic procedures, quality of life and financial oversight without all the partisan distractions that are consuming our council meetings of late.”
“I would favor an update and revision of the city codes,” she said. Citing the need for a more efficient permitting process as an example, she said that things are so convoluted today that Edmonds has a bad reputation and that “many contractors simply don’t want to bid on jobs in Edmonds.”
The next question:
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?
“I see this as a great opportunity for review of the Master Plan, and bringing people in from the entire community, the tribes, environmental organizations and all stakeholders,” he stated. “We should look beyond just preserving salmon habitat, but also the area around it to ensure that it doesn’t become polluted again and remains a healthy estuary for the future.”
“We need an open, transparent public process and discussion of potential uses,” she began.“Not all potential uses are right for that property – marsh restoration certainly is – but more options may emerge through a full and robust public process.”
Regarding funding, she recommended that the city define the Unocal property project – is it a stormwater project, a parks project, or something else – to enable better targeting of potential funding sources.
“This is an exciting project for Edmonds, but we must be sure we’re doing it with everyone’s input,” she stressed. “This will likely be a very expensive endeavor, and we need to ensure that clean up processes etc. are conducive to the streams and other environmental aspects. There needs to be lots of discussion among the public to ensure it’s done right.”
“This is exciting news for Edmonds,” he began. “We must engage every citizen in every corner of the city in the process [geographically and culturally]. There are 134 languages spoken in our school district, and we must reach out. We need to reach out and look for more funding, both public and private, state and federal. This is a dream project come true.”
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?
Petso – No
Cass – No
Chen – Yes, Democrat
Distelhorst – Yes, Democrat
And the next question was:
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?
“Yes, it is important that we as leaders participate in discussions of equity and inclusion,” she said. Citing her work with local businesses through the Edmonds Chamber of Commerce, she stressed the importance of developing useful toolkits to engage and provide for inclusion and adaptability.
Pointing to his work as a local CPA, he related his experiences in serving businesses and business owners. “Among my clients, half speak other languages,” he said. “We’re all Americans. We all need to be included.”
“Yes, we absolutely must bring equity, accessibility and inclusion to every decision we make,” he said. “It is especially important as we serve our most vulnerable citizens. On council I’ve been proud to support inclusion goals and businesses outside the bowl. But we need to always ensure that we are supporting anti-racist work in our city.”
This comment elicited the first rebuttal, which came from Janelle Cass, who asked Distelhorst that given what he had just said, why he accepted appointment to the council when this in effect took the position away from several candidates of color who were also applicants.
Distelhorst replied that he applied with 14 others, and was selected by council to fill the seat. “I don’t think I blocked anyone; I was appointed by a majority of the councilmembers,” he said.
“I am proud to have been one of the councilmembers involved with founding the (Edmonds) Diversity Commission,” Petso began. “I have always tried to be fair in committee appointments. With me, your opinion doesn’t count more if you’re wealthy, famous or important, or less if you aren’t these things or even if you’re fairly unusual. If it’s a good idea, I’ll take it no matter who it’s from; if it’s a bad idea I’ll just say no thanks.”
The next question:
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?
“Environmental protection should come first,” he responded. “We have a responsibility to plan for growth, but we must do it carefully and responsibly. We have only one Earth – we need to protect it by reviewing our master plan and related policies and make changes where these make sense.”
“Housing and the environment have this great intersectionality in our policies,” he began. “Our two greatest greenhouse gas emitting sectors are buildings and transportation. We have great opportunities to have people ditch their single-occupancy vehicle and get our buildings de-carbonized so we can make the transition from fracked gas to electricity produced by clean hydro. We have the opportunity to incentivize these and make sure that our housing and environmental policies are working together.”
“Definitely environmental protections need to be put first,” she stressed. “In some places it’s just flat unwise to increase density; for instance, it doesn’t make sense to pave areas that are prone to flooding.”
“The environment definitely wins over densification,” she began. “We have a very important environmental contribution to the Puget Sound, and eliminating green areas would be detrimental to this. In addition, the tree code and the densification plan seem to be in direct opposition. We need to get our master plan together and ensure that it’s solid with what citizens want, so that we know how to plan. It can’t be done haphazardly. Let’s get a plan.”
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.)
Distelhorst – 3
Petso – 3
Cass – 2.5
Chen – 3
And the next question was:
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?
“This was a terribly complicated proposal,” she began. Adding that while she does not agree with a $2,500 fine for cutting trees when you’re not supposed to, “it is clear that we need to retain trees. One idea would be to offer saplings to help folks get the right tree in the right place. Other cities are doing this. We need to look at other options as well.”
“I don’t like it,” she said. “Most people love their trees and all the advantages they bring, but I know of 10 trees that lost their lives as a direct result of this overreach by local government. It’s a huge burden on people. We need to focus on education, not bureaucracy. Let’s not add green tape on top of all the red tape we already have.”
“I do not agree that personal property – including trees – should be controlled by local government,” he began. “We need to approach this both short and long term. In the short term we need to provide assistance – it’s expensive to remove a tree. In the long term we need to plan where to plant so it doesn’t create a problem down the road.”
“I agree that this is an extremely complicated issue,” he said. “There was no tree code before, and we’ve seen lots cleared – lot line to lot line – because we didn’t have a tree code. In developing the tree code we’ve prioritized replacement, retention, and low-impact development. We need to provide flexibility so folks can build and retain trees.”
The next question:
Describe your thoughts on policing in Edmonds and our current police force. Are there any changes you would like to make?
“Number one – we need a police chief right now,” she stressed. “The Chief of Police hiring debacle has cost us more than $120,000, wasted more than 18 months, and we still have no permanent chief. Getting this done is critical to helping us stay a safe and welcoming community. I have nothing but admiration for how the police force is taking this demoralizing process in stride, and I commend them.”
“We desperately need a permanent chief, and the problem is the process,” he explained. “It needs to be consistent, transparent, requires homework and investigation, and allow us to hire the most qualified person to protect us. I appreciate the great work of our brave men and women on the police force, and I commend them.”
Referring to several recent meetings he’s had with Acting Chief of Police Michelle Bennett, where he learned how she is “tracking the metrics” to help focus local policing efforts, he stressed the need for a Crime Prevention position that would “create a framework for community outreach” and focus on preventing crime before it happens rather than policing it afterward.
“I am a long-time supporter of our police,” she began. “I do think that we need to look at updating our training, and make use of our social worker to create a more comfortable environment for people who want or need to talk with the police.”
And the next question:
As a city councilmember, describe how you will support our business community.
“With businesses now emerging from the pandemic, city government must step in and provide resources to help our city recover,” he stated. “We should look at federal funding available to us, and source these to the businesses directly.”
“Last year the CARES Act provided funds that the council directed to helping support our businesses and ensuring they got through the pandemic,” he said. “Now as we transition out, we are looking to use ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds to continue with this so we don’t have shuttered storefronts and go back to ‘Deadmonds.’ We need to create a framework to attract new businesses and support existing businesses.”
Stressing no new business taxes as basic to creating a supportive environment for business, she also noted the importance of infrastructure such as the Hazel Miller Plaza, and the current Highway 99 plans, which “should really help the businesses in that area.” She also cited the importance of engaging directly with businesses, and the negative effects the downtown street closures have had on these.
“As a small business owner, I would not want the government to close down the street in front of my business,” she began. “Government needs to listen to the businesses owners. They know what the till says. Let’s work with them, and let’s not interfere with them. Secondly, we need to be careful with zoning and not eliminate commercial space in favor of residential. This will help attract new businesses to Edmonds.”
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?
Distelhorst – No
Petso – No
Cass – No
Chen – No
At this poin,t Janelle Cass requested another rebuttal, which she again directed at Distelhorst.
“At the time the businesses made the request to limit the street closures to one day only,” she asked, “Councilmember Olson brought forth a discussion point to have council do something to look out for the businesses. Why did you not vote with her?”
Distelhorst responded that closures such as Walkable Main Street need to be built around “parameters, because it applies to more than just one event. So I asked her to come up with a framework including those parameters, and she didn’t.”
Cass then request to rebut again, asking how come Distelhorst did not help Olson come up with these parameters to help out the businesses.
Distelhorst responded that these parameters were “not around helping out businesses.” He also explained that any policies around street closures, construction, events and “all sorts of different policies,” are administrative functions, not policy functions, and do not need to come before council.
Cass again rebutted, asking Distelhorst, “So are you basing decisions around what other cities do in the region instead of what’s best for Edmonds?”
Distelhorst responded that “this is a great example of understanding the difference between public policy and administrative functions, and where those divisions lie.”
The next question:
Share a “moonshot” idea that would draw more businesses and customers to Edmonds.
“We need to establish more parking downtown,” she said. “One way to do this is satellite parking lots for supplemental downtown parking.”
“I love the idea of a moonshot – my husband is a rocket scientist, and my daughter is going into the Space Force,” she began with a laugh. “Edmonds is already a gem and a destination. I would echo what Ms. Petso said – we need more places for our visitors to park.”
“We need to look at three things as we come out of this pandemic. We need to increase parking and remove the temporary structures that have come up on the streets. We need to look at city codes and revise where needed to incentivize new businesses. And we need to remove unnecessary taxes on businesses.”
“Definitely Highway 99,” he began. “Right now, the environment is hostile for persons visiting businesses, safety, and accessibility. We now have a project that will cost $180 million – definitely my moonshot category – which will address these. We also need to create more business opportunities throughout the city.”
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.”
Her question went to Will Chen. “I would like to understand who you will represent on council, since 77% of your donations are coming from outside Edmonds. I am concerned with who is paying to get you elected. Please elaborate on whom you will serve if elected to city council.”
Chen responded saying, “If elected I will serve Edmonds 100%. I am proud to be an Edmonds resident – it is my true home. While I have raised money outside of Edmonds, I have raised more within Edmonds than most other candidates on this stage. People in and out of Edmonds know that I am a person of integrity, they can trust me, and that I will do a good job. If elected I will listen, reach out and connect with residents.”
His question went to Luke Distelhorst. “You voted to confirm a Chief of Police who was later disqualified. How can we trust you not to make decisions you will later regret?”
Distelhorst responded, noting that two candidates were considered, Pruitt and Lawless. “The council interviewed, and the mayor made the selection. I voted to confirm Pruitt. It was a public process, and all background checks were done faithfully.”
He added that going forward, the city needs to ensure a very public process for the final chief selection and that people have the necessary time to meet and hear from the candidates and that all background check companies hired to do that work complete their jobs.
Chen responded with a rebuttal, asking, “Why didn’t you do that when you were on the job?”
Distelhorst responded that councilmembers do not do background checks themselves, but that this is the purview of human resources professionals, and that state laws exist to govern this process, adding that not following these could open the city to “frivolous lawsuits.”
Cass then added a rebuttal, asking why Distelhorst voted to push up and condense the voting period, and why would he as a representative of us not consider all pertinent due diligence information as part of his decision.
“I saw what was happening in the community to both Pruitt and Acting Chief Lawless,” he said. “I saw them being damaged in the press, interviewed and questioned by others. It became clear to me that the selection had to be for someone who would lead the force and serve the community with integrity and represent all citizens.”
Cass then rebutted again. “My question wasn’t answered. The question was about moving up the vote to confirm and ignoring information that would provide more in-depth background.”
Distelhorst responded that the information was not ignored, but was “viewed and reviewed.”
It was now Distelhorst’s chance to ask a question.
“My question is for Ms. Cass,” he began. “Please tell us which of the 15 housing commission recommendations you support, and how you would provide more types of housing so that when your daughter returns from the Air Force Academy she can live here.”
“There were actually a few ideas I like,” she began. “I’m also not under the impression that my daughter as a new First Lieutenant would be able to afford to live in Edmonds. While I like some of the ideas about cluster housing, developers I’ve spoken with do not want to touch Edmonds with a 10-foot pole due to the restrictive codes and permitting process. We have to get back to the basics, set our codes and architectural standards, and determine which areas can tolerate density.”
Distelhorst then rebutted, asking, “Which areas do you feel can tolerate density?”
Cass responded that this could be part of the city’s current Highway 99 development. She added that right now, Edmonds is meeting its goals under the Growth Management Act, and that this gives us the needed time to take a breather and get everyone involved in the decision.
Petso then directed her question to Will Chen.
Referring to his recent interview with the Everett Herald, she asked if he supports Detached Accessory Dwelling Units (DADU’s) in Edmonds’ single-family neighborhood without conditional use permits.
Chen responded, “Yes, I do support that policy with appropriate strict restrictions on setbacks, lot size, height and parking. These DADUs can help address our aging in place issue. Rising property values mean higher taxes, and these folks will be priced out.”
Closing statements were next, with Chen going first:
“I understand the value of hard work,” he began. “I will bring a fresh voice to council. I am ready to engage and connect with the community. I am ready to tackle the housing issue, fiscal accountability and the other issues that are facing us all. I am a leader, and it would be an honor to have your vote on Aug. 3.”
“If you watch council you’ve probably seen me get emotional during council meetings; public service is a passion,” he began. “It truly is humbling to receive so much support from our community serving you on Council, and to have received endorsements from so many currently elected local leaders at the city, county, and state levels, as well as numerous labor organizations the Alliance for Gun Responsibility and other groups. There are so many issues and opportunities for us to work on at all levels of government, and across city lines, and I feel really lucky to have made these connections while serving Edmonds residents. Being a public servant in my day job, being on Council, and in my volunteer roles I bring a people-first, regional approach to working toward an equitable, healthier and more resilient future. Thank you.
“We need to get back to basics, and one of the first things council needs to do to accomplish this is get its own house in order,” she said. “I can use my experience to help do that. Public meetings need to have adequate notice, consent agendas and extended agendas should be published publicly. Moving up the police chief vote was a really irregular move, and I can use my experience to help address these matters. I am the only councilmember you can elect this year who will actually increase the experience level of the city council.”
“Tonight you’ve heard a lot of opinions about how to protect the Edmonds we all love,” she began. “You now need to decide who will represent the people of Edmonds and bring real solutions to our city. When you sit down to vote, ask yourself if you want a councilmember who will represent the people of Edmonds, bring real solutions, restore transparency and accountability, protect single family zoning and infrastructure, preserve our charm and support businesses and police, firefighters. If you answer yes, then support Janelle Cass.
Wippel then thanked the candidates for being present and participating and thanked the audience before closing the event. You can watch a recording of the debate here.
— Story and photos by Larry Vogel