The Issaquah mayoral and City Council candidates came together on the evening of Sept. 27 at the City Council chambers for a friendly debate ahead of next month’s election. Donna Blankinship, a member of the Seattle Times Editorial Board, moderated the forum.
Deputy Council President Mary Lou Pauly is running against Councilmember Paul Winterstein for the position of Issaquah mayor. Mayor Fred Butler, who was elected in 2013, will be stepping down after this year.
The mayoral candidates were asked what changes they would like to see made in the Olde Town Subarea Plan before the citywide moratorium on certain development is lifted, which is scheduled to happen at the end of the year.
Winterstein said that of all the areas of Issaquah, Olde Town’s “character may be under the most threat by redevelopment.” He said that “the most important change” currently in consideration is the “re-definition of what’s allowable” when people tear down old houses and rebuild new ones.
“It has to fit, it has to look good, it has to fit good and it has to work for the citizens already there,” he stated.
Pauly said that, like the constituents she has talked to, her greatest concern is the plan’s current allowance of building height at 4 to 6 stories. She noted that with most of Front Street’s buildings at around 2 or 2-and-a-half stories, the mountains can still be seen, but worried that this may not be the case if higher structures are built.
“I am opposed to the building height we have now, I would like to join the community consensus that the building height on Sunset and Front Street is too high,” she said. “It should be dropped to 3 stories maximum.”
She also expressed her concern over the density ramifications of “subdividing lots into multiple houses.”
In his rebuttal, Winterstein expressed that Olde Town is “the model of the spirit and nature of the city of Issaquah.”
“Preserving it into the future as far as we can see is very, very critical,” he said. “That’s why the participation from all the residents in this process is so critical.”
When it comes to regional traffic, Pauly said that Front Street is a congestion nightmare for locals because it is has become a thoroughfare for regional commuters. She noted 30,000 vehicles per day drive down Front, 80 percent of which are using it to “leave I-90 to points south of [State Route] 18.”
Pauly would like to see “a coalition of southeast King County cities to address this issue.”
“It should not be SR-Front Street,” she stated. “There are state routes and county roads to get people home.”
In contrast, Winterstein stated that his first priority as mayor would be to unclog Issaquah-Hobart Road, which becomes Front Street South.
“Unplugging and working with the county to unplug the Hobart Road so we can help families get home when they expect to is job No. 1,” he said.
Winterstein said that the regional traffic summit convened by Mayor Butler last year was largely due to his suggestion that city, county and state partners come together to discuss regional traffic issues.
“It was very important that the county understood the role of the Issaquah-Hobart Road, that the state understood the role of State Route 18,” he said.
In her rebuttal, Pauly said that this was one area “in which [Winterstein] and I are not in agreement,” as she believes unplugging Issaquah-Hobart Road and thus encouraging more cars to use it would only make Front Street traffic worse.
“Commuter traffic needs to be on highways,” she said. “We do not need to create one through a new valley in a rural area that was never intended to have one.”
Pauly and Winterstein each had the opportunity to ask one another a question.
Winterstein asked Pauly how what her standard is for transparency in city government. He said that “there was an occasion earlier this month with no information in a packet you proposed [on] hiring a new person.”
Pauly pointed out that in this particular case, the details of the new position had been discussed at the previous meeting “in public and on camera.”
“My standard for transparency is that, when we’re considering something, the answers to every single council member’s questions should happen before we take a vote,” she stated.
Pauly asked Winterstein which vote or decision he is most proud of during his six years on council, and which vote or decision he most regrets.
Winterstein answered that he was most proud of his time as council president in 2015, when he worked “as a team” with Council President Stacy Goodman, who was then deputy council president.
“Now, the effectiveness of the council and the deputy president also bring that new effectiveness to the City Council,” he said. “That is the choice I am most proud of.”
He was not able to answer which decision he regretted before his time ran out.
Management consultant Chris Reh is running against Brian Weinstein to fill Pos. 1, which Pauly is vacating as she runs for mayor. Pos. 2 incumbent Mariah Bettise, who was appointed to the position last year, is running to fulfill the last two years of the term. Media consultant Richard Swanson is challenging her for the seat.
The candidates were asked whether they believe the city has done a good enough job in mitigating the effects on infrastructure brought by the large increase in development and growth.
Bettise said that it is very important to study the city’s concurrency, meaning that infrastructure, public services and schools are able to grow along with population.
“I think that concurrency … is something that we really need to take a closer look at,” Bettise said. “We need to examine that, we need to look at the codes and the zoning around a lot of the things that we’re working with, and make sure … that the developers are paying for what is going to come as a result of that development.”
Reh answered firmly that the city and the Issaquah School District have not adequately mitigated the effects of growth.
“Our roads have not kept pace with our growth, you can see that our schools have not kept pace with our growth and I contend that our public safety has not kept pace with our growth,” Reh said.
He would like the city to “give a really hard look at the impacts” and tell developers to “pay [their] fair share.” He also suggested a regional impact fee, as newcomers will use county roads in addition to as city ones.
Weinstein said that any growth should bring a public benefit, such as new schools and roads. If a development does not bring these benefits, he said, the city needs to know when to stop.
“We have to be able to say we can wait,” Weinstein said. “We have already built out this town enough, if we’re going to build it out again, it has to bring us a benefit.”
According to Weinstein, the city “need[s] to have an ability to charge market rate for development fees that come in.”
Swanson stated that the city has not done an adequate job of managing growth and said that he personally is worried because the city has a “a culture of complacency.”
“We’ve been sort of plodding along, very much the same we always have been for many, many years, and it’s all gonna change, it’s gonna change rapidly,” he said. “I’m not sure we’re ready to manage all that growth that’s coming — and it’s coming.
The candidates also described what changes they would like to see in the city’s code.
Weinstein stated that the Comprehensive Plan contains the goals for the city code.
“What I would like to see us do is actually follow our Comprehensive Plan,” Weinstein said, adding that he wants to see development variances “at an absolute minimum.”
“We have to look at our Comprehensive Plan as something we are willing to accept for Issaquah, not simply tolerate,” he said.
Swanson agreed that the plan “is a good one,” but believes the problem lies in the execution of those targets and in the city’s communication with the public.
“The execution around all of this has been lacking. I don’t think we are holding developers accountable … We need to do a better job of managing all of that, hold people accountable for promises we’ve made,” he said. He added, “There’s got to be a way for us to reach out to you so we have better back-and-forth communication.”
Reh said the city needs to improve in three areas: it needs to assess appropriate impact fees with growth, minimize the number of development variances given out and stop giving developers “exceptions from our underlying zoning.”
“We have the right things in place, the right zoning,” Reh said. “I think moving forward, we have to make sure that we are building the Issaquah we want to build. I think our code supports that, we just have to execute on that code.”
Bettise defended her decision to vote for the moratorium last year, saying that density needs to be focused in the Central Issaquah area and that new growth needs to match the Central Issaquah Plan.
“We needed to take a pause … we needed to make sure that growth, when and if it comes … needs to be focused in the right location, that it needs to match the vision that we have of that small-town charm,” she said.
Council President Stacy Goodman and Councilmember Tola Marts are running unopposed for Pos. 5 and Pos. 7, respectively.
“What I love most is the opportunity to make some sort of a difference,” Goodman said. She listed as some of her proudest accomplishments her efforts in helping with the revitalization of Lake Sammamish State Park and her proposal of the moratorium.
“Once this moratorium is behind us, I am ready to take on the transportation challenge,” she said, adding, “I really look forward to serving another term so I can be proactive about getting things done.”
Marts said that his most important issues are “workforce housing and living-wage jobs.”
“I think it’s really important that the people who live here be able to work here, and the people who work here be able to live here,” he said, using as an example a couple who work as a teacher and a police officer.
“It’s important that we have places for them to live, it’s important that we have jobs that people can live on here … and one of the ways you can reduce traffic, is if people can stay in this community in the morning, if we don’t have to ship people in and ship people out,” he said.
Attorney Justin Walsh, who is running unopposed for Pos. 3, was not present for the forum. Pos. 3 is being vacated by Councilmember Eileen Barber.
The full forum can be viewed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=DA5CWTdTTCQ.