Council holds public hearing on Hwy 99-area interim ordinance, OKs plan for city attorney review

Attorney Dean Williams speaks during the council’s Tuesday night public hearing.

During a three-hour meeting Tuesday that covered a range of topics, the Edmonds City Council made two noteworthy decisions: Approving a work plan and survey for evaluating Edmonds’ current city attorney services and agreeing that the council’s Jan. 27 daylong retreat will be in-person only, with no remote viewing available.

The council also heard from stakeholders impacted by an emergency interim ordinance — approved Dec. 10 — that creates a design review process through the city’s Architectural Design Board for certain projects zoned general commercial as part of the Highway 99 subarea plan.

And it approved, as part of its consent agenda, the city’s 2022-24 collective bargaining agreement with Teamsters Local 763, which had been a topic of concern among some union members earlier this month.

The city attorney work plan and survey was prepared by the council’s City Attorney Assessment Subcommittee, which includes Councilmembers Jenna Nand, Susan Paine and Dave Teitzel. The subcommittee has been tasked with collecting key information that will help the council analyze the city’s options for obtaining long-term city attorney services.

The council Dec. 6 approved a one-year contract with Lighthouse Law Group, which has provided city attorney services for Edmonds since 2011. Lighthouse’s latest contract was set to expire at the end of December and a separate council work group comprised of Teitzel, Paine and Will Chen researched options for a one-year extension through 2023. With that one-year contract in place, the council now will examine whether to renew a longer-term Lighthouse contract or seek out other options, including other law firms and the possibility of hiring an in-house attorney.

Councilmember Dave Teitzel

During Tuesday’s meeting, Teitzel presented an overview of the work plan, including a timeline for completing various tasks. It calls for a city attorney satisfaction survey to be issued to internal city attorney clients Feb. 1. Responses would be due by Feb. 16 and the aggregated responses presented to council by Feb. 28. From Feb. 7-28, the subcommittee would contact judges who have handled litigation involving Lighthouse to solicit input on the firm’s quality of work. In February and March, the group would tackle two tasks: researching and presenting costs estimates and pro/con findings to the council regarding contracting vs. in-house city attorney services, and collecting key information from similar-sized cities about their city attorney arrangements

A council decision regarding which direction to go — contracted vs. in-house city attorney services — would be made by April 4. Next steps would depend on which direction the council chose. The in-house attorney option would mean issuing a job bulletin for applicants, while continuing the contracting arrangment would mean issuing a request for proposals for city attorney firms. The goal is to wrap up the process by June.

Tetizel also asked for a separate council vote on another proposal included in the work plan. That was to hire an outside law firm, at an estimated cost of at least $50,000, to conduct “an external audit of any communication involving Lighthouse Law Group, the city administration and councilmembers leading up to the 2022 council budget process” that could have violated any city rules, code or statutes.

Councilmember Diane Buckshnis said she brought the issue forward because the 2022 budget process had eroded public trust. At the time, some councilmembers and citizens argued those November 2021 deliberations were rushed by then-Council President Susan Paine to ensure they included the participation of appointed Councilmember Luke Distelhorst, rather than waiting for the seating of elected Councilmember Will Chen. An effort was made in December 2021 to sanction Paine for her role in the process, but it failed on a 3-4 vote.

Citing a desire not to use taxpayer money for such an audit, Chen made a motion to remove the proposal from the work plan, and it passed unanimously.

After approving the work plan itself, the council then had a discussion about the draft survey. After making one change — to remove the city’s board and commission chairs from the survey because they have little contact with the city attorney — the council also unanimously approved it.

In other business Tuesday night, the council heard both positive and negative comments from those testifying during a public hearing on the emergency interim ordinance. The measure — approved during a special Dec. 10 meeting — was aimed at addressing concerns voiced by residents of Edmonds’ Gateway neighborhood, just west of Highway 99, regarding the planned 261-unit Terrace Place apartment building there.

Architectural rendering of Terrace Place project at 236th Street Southwest and 84th Avenue West in Edmonds’ Gateway neighborhood.

In addition to requiring a design review process through the city’s Architectural Design Board (ADB) for certain projects zoned general commercial (CG) as part of the Highway 99 subarea plan, the emergency ordinance also requires that the portion of buildings above 25 feet tall step back no less than 10 feet from the required setback adjacent to — or directly across the street from — a single-family residential zone. Buildings more than 55 feet in height would be required to step back no less than 20 feet. The project developer could ask the ADB to waive the stepbacks if the applicant believed they weren’t necessary.

Gateway neighborhood resident Judi Gladstone thanked the council for approving the emergency ordinance, calling it “a good solution to address the lack of transition between the CG zone and the single-family residential area that was identified in the Highway 99 subarea plan in 2017.” Requiring an ADB review of building designs over 35 feet high “allows for the right expertise to guide design elements that soften the transition between the zones and provides public process and accountability,” Gladstone added.

Dean Williams, an attorney with land use law firm Johns Monroe Mitsunaga Koloušková, offered a different perspective. Representing the developer of Terrace Place, Williams said the emergency ordinance approved by the council has placed undue burden on his client, requiring extra layers of administrative review “for what should be a relatively simple process.”

“This is a five-over-one apartment building, not an Escala-type high rise in the center of downtown,” Williams said, referring to a 31-story condominium building in Seattle. “This is a working-class building, in a working-class corridor.”

The emergency ordinance, Williams added, also is inconsistent with both Washington State’s Growth Management Act and the city’s own Comprehensive Plan.

The council is required to hold a public hearing with 60 days of approving an interim ordinance. The next step is for the council to adopt findings of fact that either justify continuing it or repealing it. After that, staff will work with the Edmonds Planning Board to fine-tune a permanent ordinance that can be brought back to the council for consideration.

Councilmember Jenna Nand thanked those who offered their opinions during the process and encouraged all those interested to continue expressing their opinions as the interim ordinance is considered by the planning board.

Council President Neil Tibbott

The council also had on its agenda discussion of a proposed ordinance from Councilmember Neil Tibbott that would revise the way board and commission member vacancies in the city are filled.

The issue was triggered, Tibbott said, after reviewing the process by which the mayor and administration selected and nominated candidates for the Edmonds Planning Board. (See related story here.) However, in presenting the issue Tuesday night, Tibbott said that in looking at the planning board selection process, “we realized that we’ve never before spelled out the steps for filling these vacancies. We’ve relied on historical practices and just the way we did things.”

“This is not an attempt by this council to control the administration,” Tibbott added. “And it is not an attempt for us as a council to cover up our own lack of consistency in applying our process for selecting commission members. It is very simply addressing a gap in the process between forming boards and commissions and filling out vacancies when they happen.”

Tibbott also stressed that “there were no rules that were broken in bringing forth recommendations for the planning board.”

However, as councilmembers began working their way through the various elements of the proposal, questions were raised about who would administer the new process. And when Nand moved to amend the motion to better publicize board and commission openings by purchasing paid advertising in local publications — further amended by Chen to focus on those published in Korean, Chinese and Spanish — it sparked a discussion about who would pay for such advertising.

Mayor Mike Nelson then weighed in, stating that Tibbott’s proposal has “big, big implications but none of our city directors have been contacted about this. It’s pretty surprising.”

That led Councilmember Teitzel to declare that the council “was now getting bogged down into detail and it’s as if we are grinding sausage from the dais.” He moved to table the issue for one week and direct Tibbott to meet with Nelson and city staff, and come back with more details for further consideration. That motion was approved unanimously.

Finally, the council discussed planning for its day-long 2023 retreat, set for Friday, Jan. 27 in the Brackett Room of Edmonds City Hall. Citing the informal nature of the retreat, Tibbott proposed making it a “non-virtual event” although it will be open to anyone who wants to attend in person. Paine disagreed, arguing such a move would limit citizen participation. Tibbott’s proposal passed 6-1, with Paine voting no.

During council comments, Councilmember Vivian Olson addressed a request made last month by Administrative Services Director Dave Turley for a public apology following the council’s 5-1 vote during a December budget meeting. The vote — on a motion made by Olson — directed staff to post the draft 2023 budget, with council-approved amendments reflected, by Dec. 12, so that residents could get a sense of where the budget stands.

During the next council meeting after that vote, Turley took councilmembers to task, stating their request was “not appropriate,” and adding that “directing the work of staff is the responsibility of the mayor; it is not your job.”

Olson said Tuesday that making that motion last month “was a crossed line, as it’s never appropriate for council to direct staff and our motion should have been directed to the mayor, that his administration post the spreadsheet on the website. In the future I will do it that way, and I apologize to the mayor and Director Turley for the misstep,” Olson said.

— By Teresa Wippel

  1. I didn’t realize there were local Edmonds publications printed in Korean, Chinese and Spanish, as opposed to regional or national ones? All boards require Edmond’s residency. I guess it’s theoretically possible to find a qualified resident architect for the Architecture board that has limited or no English skills, or a qualified candidate for the tree board by advertising in Yakima. Sounds like a poorly thought-out way to reach a more diverse local Edmonds population.

    1. Yes that was perfectly put I thought. Vivian is a very thoughtful person. I truly do believe she does care about all of Edmonds. I like her style and grace.

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