The changing faces at Sammamish City Hall

  • Mon May 15th, 2017 9:40am
  • News

By Joe Livarchik

If one were to add up the combined years of City Council service between Sammamish Mayor Don Gerend, Deputy Mayor Bob Keller and City Councilmembers Kathy Huckabay and Tom Odell, the number they would come to is 44.

That would be 18 years of service on the dais for Gerend, or every year since Sammamish incorporated in 1999; 14 years for Huckabay; eight years for Odell and one four-year term for Keller. Both Gerend and Huckabay were founding members of the city’s inaugural council.

That number of 44 years may not do justice to the full contribution to the city from each of those council members — all of whom will step down from the council at the end of the current 2017 term — as it doesn’t include hours devoted to pre-incorporation efforts, nor service through outside community groups or committees. Yet all four have served as longtime familiar faces around the community whose contributions have come in various ways.

It ‘changes your life’

Although he only boasts one four-year term with the City Council, Bob Keller, 63, has been no stranger to Sammamish city government in its young history.

Keller, a 22-year resident of Sammamish, ran against Gerend for one of the first seven council seats following the city’s incorporation. Though Keller adds he was one of over 40 local residents to throw their hat into the ring.

Prior to his tenure on the council, Keller served three years on the Planning Advisory Committee, drawing up the city’s first Comprehensive Plan, and another four years on the city’s first Planning Commission.

“The reason I got involved, frankly, was traffic and trees,” Keller said. “It was the same situation. In fact, I think you could make the case that traffic was worse 17 years ago than it is right now; 228th was a two-lane road. It was a half-hour commute from QFC to Safeway on my way home from work.”

He said it was his advocacy work for the Sammamish Community Center that inspired him to run for City Council in 2013. Keller was able to see his efforts with the community center’s Yes! campaign come to fruition with the grand opening of the Sammamish Community YMCA and Aquatic Center last year.

Among the accomplishments he’s most proud of, Keller mentioned his work with the Planning Advisory Committee, and then later with the City Council, on writing and rewriting the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

He once told fellow Councilmember Tom Hornish, shortly before Hornish was elected, that serving on the council “changes your life.”

“I couldn’t drive by a wetland anymore without seeing it differently,” Keller said. “It’s a wildlife habitat, there’s stormwater involved, it’s a critical area [where] you can build or not build. I would never have thought that way, before getting involved with the city, of what that wetland really represented. It changed my life. It really has.”

‘You may be on the menu’

Originally, Tom Odell, a 28-year resident of Sammamish, said he never intended to run for City Council. But after going to a few meetings, he became interested and concerned about a few issues in the community.

“The East Lake Sammamish Parkway project was being designed and I thought it was an awfully lot of money for incremental traffic flow,” Odell, 72, said. “That’s what got me interested.”

So, after two unsuccessful attempts to become a member of the Planning Commission, Odell ran for council in 2009. During his two terms, he would serve as both the city’s mayor and deputy mayor.

Odell said his crowning achievement as a council member was probably his involvement working with the city toward building the Sammamish Community YMCA and Aquatic Center, which was a central issue in the community at the time of his first campaign. He also had an active role behind the scenes in bringing Central Washington University to the plateau, in the property previously occupied by Mars Hill Church. Other notable accomplishments he mentioned were working to strengthen the city’s Tree Retention Ordinance and enhancing the city’s Critical Areas Ordinance and Shoreline Master Plan Ordinance.

Coming from the corporate world, where he worked for Boeing, Odell said one challenge he faced as a council member was getting used to the pace and process of working in city government.

“The government world is more transparent than the corporate world because of public disclosure issues. It involves more public process,” he said. “If we ran Boeing the way the city runs things, it’d be a lot slower process. But it’s a necessary process because you have to go through the checks and balances that you’re not negatively impacting somebody.”

Odell called serving on the council “an honor and a responsibility” and said serving on the council required a time commitment that may be easier for some than others. He encouraged incoming council members to attend outside meetings and become involved with regional organizations like the Sound Cities Association and the Regional Transit Committee.

“These are places where decisions that are made directly or indirectly have a major influence on what Sammamish is like in future,” Odell said. “Otherwise, the old expression applies: If you’re not at the table, you may be on menu.”

‘We needed to create a city’

Though Kathy Huckabay was one of Sammamish’s founding City Council members, her civic involvement dates back some 30 years, much further before the city’s incorporation in 1999.

Huckabay, 73, originally moved to the Eastside in 1983, first renting in Issaquah before finding her Sammamish home with her husband, which they lived in for 31 years and sold this year. She recalled going to early King County Comprehensive Plan meetings for the area and taking issue with the county’s plans for local development.

“We got a copy of the county’s Comprehensive Plan. In their plan, they said that they were going to develop and permit all of this housing, and the infrastructure would be done by the cities that arose afterward,” she recalled. “That didn’t strike us very well.”

With Southeast Eighth Street serving as the dividing line, Huckabay said it was the county’s intent for the north part of the city to incorporate with Redmond and the southern part to annex into Issaquah. Except those annexation efforts failed.

“We began to recognize that we needed to focus together,” she said. “We talked to Redmond [about annexing] and Redmond was not interested at all. We needed to create a city.”

It took a couple of incorporation efforts, the first failing in the mid-90s, before the city of Sammamish finally incorporated. Huckabay then served on Sammamish’s first City Council, the only woman and the only Democrat of the founding seven members. She served once as mayor before stepping away from city government in 2009. Huckabay returned to the council in 2013.

A financial planner by trade who still remains active, Huckabay said her professional background was a resource that she was proud to bring to the council table.

“I think the achievement that I’m most proud of is that we have set this city on solid financial footing,” she said. “We have created this very solid basis for our finances.”

‘Not another name I’ll have to spell’

Prior to the city’s establishment, Don Gerend wasn’t a member of any of the organizing groups behind the incorporation effort. He was just a guy working in commercial real estate who wanted his city to have a name that was easier to spell.

“Dealing with bankers back east, I always had to spell the name of the city. It was just frustrating,” Gerend, 76, recalled. “I read in the paper they were considering incorporating the new city of Sammamish, and I told my wife, ‘Not another Native American name that I’ll have to spell. I’m going to that meeting.’”

So Gerend determined criteria for what a city name should be and came up with what he believed would make for a good, memorable name for the city: Heaven. He brought his suggested name to the organizing meeting, though it was quickly withdrawn.

“It didn’t do well,” he chuckled. “Not even with my wife.”

The unsuccessful attempt at naming the city didn’t hinder Gerend from running for City Council, nor running for re-election every year. Gerend, a 38-year resident of Sammamish, has served as Sammamish mayor four times — five if you include a one-week interim stint prior to Huckabay taking over as mayor.

Along with Huckabay, Gerend is one of the city’s pioneers, having served as a founding council member. He has presided as the city’s population has grown from 28,000 residents to over 60,000, the latest spike coming with the incorporation of Klahanie in 2016. He mentioned that with the growth, the city has had its share of infrastructure improvement with roads, parks, sidewalks and open space.

“We’ve seen Sammamish convert from rural King County to an urban environment and Town Center is kind of the pinnacle of that growth,” he said.

As a fixture in local government, Gerend helped develop regional partnerships and has served on various committees and boards, including with the Association of Washington Cities and the Puget Sound Regional Council. One of his biggest contributions to the council may have been his steady and easygoing demeanor. He said going into his current mayoral term, a point of focus was to engage more with residents during public comment at council meetings. Another objective was to create unity on the council dais.

“I think the charge this last time was to bring the council together because it would seem like we had a split council and I was the only one that was kind of in the middle. So I was the de facto choice,” Gerend said. “I’ve tried hard to bring the council together and look at the issues and not look back at election statements and things that went on in campaigns. I think for the most part, we’ve done that.”

“This last tenure as mayor was the right time for Don,” Keller said. “It may have been that way all the other times, but this one was very appropriate.”

Gerend said his decision to step away from the council wasn’t too difficult, as he believes Sammamish is in a strong position as a city. He said he hopes to remain active in the community and he encouraged the candidates running for council seats to take advantage of their leadership opportunities when the time comes.

“I would say put in as much as you can to the job because it’s very rewarding and the community appreciates it,” Gerend said. “It’s hard to stop. There’s always another committee that you could be on.”