As Sister City delegation wraps up weeklong Hekinan visit, city addresses trip publicity, attendee selection

Edmonds Sister City delegates gather for a group photo on their trip to Hekinan.

Edmonds has been participating in a Sister City relationship with the Japanese city of Hekinan for the past 35 years. Part of this includes exchanging regular visits by delegations of students and adults to and from each city. Adults have gone every five years in the spring, while students traveled annually — prior to the COVID-19 pandemic — in the summer. Right now an Edmonds adult delegation is finishing up a weeklong trip there.

But some in Edmonds are saying that the city’s announcement of the trip took them by surprise, mainly because there was no publicity ahead of time, and had they known, they would have applied to be members of the delegation.

Former Edmonds Planning Board Chair Roger Pence is one of those. According to Pence, he and his wife Alison were interested in going as part of the adult exchange this year, and so he made “multiple inquiries” about the process for the past year. “But I could find no information anywhere about this year’s trip. I couldn’t pry it out of anyone,” he said. He left messages for staff for the Edmonds Sister City Commission, which oversees the relationship between Hekinan and Edmonds, but got no response.

The Sister City Commission states on its website that the goal of the Edmonds-Hekinan relationship is to promote international communication and understanding through exchanges of people, ideas and culture. Delegation exchanges, the commission notes, serve to further deepen the relationship between Edmonds and Hekinan.

The current delegation – now in Hekinan – includes Edmonds Mayor Mike Nelson and Edmonds Planning and Development Department Director Susan McLaughlin, as well as members of their respective families.

While the number of people going on the trip over the years has varied — this year there are 14 people — the process for publicizing how people can apply to be part of the delegation in past years has been a public one. Former Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling twice led a delegation to Hekinan — once in 2013 and again in 2018. Both times, press releases were issued in the fall prior to the spring trip, describing how people could apply to attend. These announcements also noted that everyone was expected to pay their own way — and that included the mayor and his wife.

According to Edmonds Community Services and Economic Development Director Todd Tatum there is no formal procedure for how the Hekinan delegates are selected and how the trip is publicized. “This has been up to (Sister City) Commission leadership and the mayor at the time,” Tatum said. “Mayor Earling preferred to make a wide public announcement, other mayors have chosen to work more closely with the commission to select delegates.

“Public calls for delegates in local publications have not always been the norm,” Tatum added. “Mayor Earling’s preference was to select attendees – in part – using a call for delegates. Mayors before him chose a process more similar to the current one.”

Three former Edmonds mayors — Earling, Gary Haakenson (2000-2010) and Barb Fahey (1996-1999) — agreed that the Sister City Commission itself played a major role in both publicizing and planning these trips. However, they all say they remembered the city making public announcements about the Hekinan exchange and how people could take part. Fahey recalls that in addition to news releases, there were announcements at city council meetings and before service clubs, and also articles published in the city’s print newsletter.

Tatum said the trip was announced during Sister City Commission meetings, but Pence pointed out there have been no meeting minutes or notes or videos posted to the city’s website outlining commission actions so that citizens could learn more.

(L-R): Edmonds Mayor Mike Nelson with his wife Erica Shelley Nelson and their sons.

According to Tatum, this year’s delegates “were selected from current and past commissioners, staff and members of the public engaged in multicultural work.” A city news release described those attending as Sister City Commissioners, teachers, members of the Multicultural Association of Edmonds, and staff members. The city declined to release the names of everyone attending for safety and privacy reasons.

This year’s adult delegation trip also includes children. Tatum pointed out that “Japan opened post-COVID later than many countries. We’ve missed sending a delegation over the course of COVID and chose to send adults and youths this year. The added complexity of a shorter planning horizon and the challenges of family travel helped to determine the method of planning and selection,” he explained.

Unlike past mayors who paid their own way, the city is covering the costs for both Mayor Nelson and Director McLaughlin. “The knowledge exchange between city staff is an important part of the Sister City program,” Tatum said. As in past years, the remainder of the attendees were self-funded. “Staff who chose to bring their families paid for their expenses out of their pocket,” he added.

Official Sister City events conclude on Friday, April 7, and delegates have their own itineraries as to when they will return to Edmonds. You can view some of photos of their experiences on the city’s Facebook page.

— By Teresa Wippel

  1. Paul Anderson, who had been on this commission for several years, gave a pretty solid explanation on the change in process this time around in a previous story about this trip. I’m surprised to see that his comment wasn’t referenced in this story. We’re any of the commission members contacted for this story, who would have the most direct knowledge on this? I’ve yet to read anything about those members, who are also Edmonds residents, express any objection to the change in process.

    1. I object to the city paying for the mayor and director I think they should be forced to repay the cost.

      1. Not sure how that relates to my comment, but I’ll go with it. I believe, but could be wrong, that this is not a first time thing. Would you propose the repayment be retroactive to previous mayors who went if the city paid for it?

        1. I didn’t intend my comment at you but the article did indicate that past mayors had paid their own way so if that is the case it would just be this one and director. Funny story a city in New Jersey just formed a sister city relationship with a nonexistent city in India I don’t know if the city spent any money on the arrangement but they were sure bamboozled.

        2. No, not at this point. But I would suggest in the future only the Mayor and he or she alone go free on any expensive trips. Family of the Mayor (they pay not the taxpayers) An employee of the city and her family NO. They pay as well. It’s a done deal it should have been advertised and the public deserves to know how their taxes are being spent. I do think the Sister Cities is a good thing and I love the exchange students going back and forth. I expect this won’t happen again in the future. Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me. I’ve always liked that saying.
          I saw nothing mentioned anywhere about this either Alicia. Not a word, anywhere. I was a bit surprised it wasn’t mentioned at a council meeting. I thought you did well here in your statements. Good question and honest about not knowing yourself and you know much about lots of issues in Edmonds, I think but I am not sure. Ha. But I will go with it!

  2. MEN is simply presenting the facts for readers to digest regarding how this trip was handled. Thank you for this story.

    1. I agree with Mr. Murdock. We have honest and sometimes painful discussions here on MEN. I find MEN to be totally fair and it allows everyone to have their own opinion regardless of their political affiliation, status in the community, ALL of it. This is Freedom of the Press for Freedom for the People. I respect this. I Thank you too and I assure you that MEN is much appreciated. I doubt without MEN we would have known anything much about this at all, and or many other things going on in our area and state.

  3. This article seems to be a circular review of those chosen in which it was found that the way they were chosen and paid was perfectly within reason. This article spent so long trying to tear down what seems like a wonderful cultural exchange you didn’t even write about the exchange itself. What a waste of an article and piece of biased journalism meant to divide our amazing city.

    1. Thank you, Terra.

      I was a member of the Edmonds Sister City Commission for 9 years and was always impressed with the positive interaction of people in the two cities. In 2008, a friend and I were in the adult delegation to Hekinan, when the City of Hekinan celebrated its 60th Anniversary. It will always be a lifelong memory of enjoying the adventures planned for us and of continuing to develop lasting relationships with many of the Hekinan people involved with both Sister City associations.

      As Terra mentioned, it is a wonderful cultural exchange. Hopefully, another article will appear in MEN soon as our delegation returns to Edmonds and describes the enjoyable activities and the people they were with in Hekinan.

      When I was in the Edmonds delegation, Gary Haakenson was Mayor. The formation of a delegation was widely advertised. We had several local citizens and city employees in our group.

  4. Hope the Nelsons and McLaughlins enjoyed their spring break trips with their families. Not a good look considering the upcoming election, but I suppose they took a survey or poll that indicated this was a good idea. Seems a bit selfish to me.

  5. Hey, all you old White guys of privilege (I can say this because I am one), please tell me again how this is such a great system of city government we have going and that our Mayors aren’t all pretty much little control freak dictators during their various tenures. The fact that some previous Mayors chose to do this particular city function the right way, doesn’t answer the question; if any one individual should have this much power to influence all things city.

    I keep hearing how over worked and over burdened with tasks our city Directors and Staffs are, but when it comes to an all expenses paid trip to Japan on the public dime; no problem. Teresa, thanks for the “biased journalism” and please keep it up. We need you now more than ever.

  6. There needs to be an honest public investigation and accounting to the whole population of Edmonds on this. Exactly who went on this excursion, supposedly representing all of us in town, should be a matter of public record. People who couldn’t afford to go or who aren’t friends of the Mayor (any Mayor, ever) have a right to know who got to go and why.

    It might be a good idea in Mayor Nelson’s case to compare the names of who got to go with the names of who his donors are when the PDC reports start coming out in MEN. If this were a totally private program things would be different. When you start allowing our elected officials to co-mingle private and public funding without consulting the Council (the people in other words) in what is essentially a cultural/business development exchange program, reports of the value of it, or not, need to be demanded. McLoughlin needs to be asked to go before the Council to report exactly what benefit this whole thing was to the city and why the taxpayers needed to pay her and the Mayor’s way.

  7. I wonder what the opinions of the other two mayoral candidates are towards dubious city paid international junkets for a mayor or their directors?

  8. The amount of distraction and controversy that has surrounded so much of this administration in the last few years has been exhausting as a resident and taxpayer, and critical issues in the city have been overlooked due to that. Not to mention the amount of money that has been wasted in that time as well. It is getting easy to not be proud of anything happening in Edmonds any longer. Looking forward hopefully to some change come 2024. Yes, I am interested in hearing what the other candidates have to say about stewarding valuable public resources.

  9. Great point Brian. I would think the two announced mayoral candidates would be really interested in how this expenditure of public funds was somehow beneficial to the city and how the expenditure will be accounted. Lots of questions here: Did the employee get vacation compensation as well as her expenses paid? Did the Mayor get vacation pay? Are these funds considered federally taxable compensation? Exactly how much public money was spent on this? Did the city pay the way for the Mayor’s wife and children too? Why do we spend public funds on something as vaguely valuable as a sister city program at the same time we are trying to scrounge up funding to buy supposedly much needed park property in SW Edmonds? The questions write themselves; but I bet the answers don’t.

  10. The mayor needs to be a member of a delegation that will be meeting with our sister city’s mayor. Therefore his expenses should be covered by the city. What past mayors did is only relevant as it may encourage the current mayor to voluntarily cover his expenses.

    It is the mayor’s responsibility to determine if the expenses of any staff member should be covered by the city.

    Obviously no family member expenses should be covered by the city.

  11. Could someone please explain to me what great value the city of Edmonds receives by being a sister city to a s city in Japan that most of us will never see, want to see, or have any need to celebrate some sort of sister hood with? Where is it written that “The mayor needs to be a member of a delegation that will be meeting with our sister city’s mayor” and therefore be compensated beyond salary? That sounds like an opinion, rather than a fact to me.

    Edmonds has absolutely no “need” to be a sister city anywhere. This is a special interest want; not a need. Sister city goes back to some past too influential mayor and friends thinking this was another great idea to hype Edmonds for development and tourism. The result is; it is now being suggested that a city mayor and his staff needs to be compensated for world travels. We are Edmonds; not Los Angeles.

    1. I am not defending Edmonds being a sister city; I also do not see the value in it. I actually questioned it nearly 20 years ago. But since we are a sister city I’m stating what should happen.

      1. Ron I don’t question the relationship it is a feel good thing, that actually has some merit. I question the expense by the taxpayers who are facing uncertain economic times with higher interest rates and higher inflation, more uncertain employment opportunities not to mention the enormous debt government has occurred already in recent years. Government should be looking to save every penny instead of providing paid trips to sister cities. I look at it as a ethical issue. The mayor makes more than 5 times what many seniors have to live on but yet they are paying for the mayor’s trip oh and director.. I personally couldn’t vote for somebody that felt they were entitled to this expense. Obviously our mayor feels a great deal of privilege.

  12. I wish someone would step up and tell me exactly what the greqt merit in this program is to the average citizen living here. I see where some people well off enough or expense accounted enough get to go on a great world travel adventure. I see there is a student exchange program that gives really smart and financially advantaged (for the most part) kids an opportunity for world travel. This whole program is run by a commission, the mayor’s staff and the mayor. I’m not saying the sister city program is a bad thing at all , but I am suggesting that it tends to favor people who already have a lot going for them and isn’t much value to the average guy or gal citizen trying to pay for groceries, gas, and property taxes. This should be a totally private sector initiative, when you look honestly at who gets the benefits.

    1. Clinton the problem with government today is it try’s to justify its expenditures as beneficial to the whole population but in reality they only benefit the few I know I know they preach of their efforts but the results of that effort never solve anything but instead create greater spending and bigger government. Sounds like a ponzi scheme to me. And our mayor is a perfect example of what is going wrong.

    2. Hello Clint,
      As always, I need to clarify the importance of a sister-city relationships and most Cities have these type of commissions to support these interactions.
      Some of us may never be able to understand the political cultural of our counterparts in the world. I was able to locally participate with the delegations under the Earling administration with wonderful cultural displays be it at the ECA, or Cascade Art Museum. So it’s always been fun – whether brewing beer at Gallaghers or going to a Chamber sponsored Halloween Party. And I learned a lot about their legislative branch.

      I told Earling in 2018, I intended to go “next time” and was disappointed the legislative branch had not asked; and yes, I would have paid my own way.

      So Clint, funding of the trip is a separate matter, but I believe these relationships are invaluable because of technology and environmental challenges.

  13. Diane, as a candidate and very possibly our next Mayor (which would definitely not be a bad thing to happen in my view) is it your opinion that as an official of our city that the Mayor’s costs should be paid by the taxpayers over and above normal compensation? Is this really a program that is that beneficial to all in town?

    From what you and others have said here; it looks to me like for any chance to really take part in this program you need to be relatively well off, and/or really well connected and, in the case of some kids that get to go in the exchange program, pretty smart with parents that can afford to pay your way. I just don’t see how we can justify spending any public funds at all on this. It looks like a case where special people get to do special things in the name of some Edmonds City benefit that really can’t be demonstrated in any unquestionable way.

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