By Polly Keary, Editor
As summer tips into fall, the only thing still getting warmer is the political climate. Election season is here, and with it a series of town halls and candidate forums, eruptions of campaign signs all over the county and shiny oversized postcards in the mail.
One of the most closely-watched of the Sky Valley races this fall is that of the position of mayor of Monroe.
Running are two experienced city councilmen: Ed Davis, 58, who has been on the council for the last two years, and Geoffrey Thomas, who held a seat for five years, beginning in 2004.
Ed Davis in his professional life works for the Department of Homeland Security, in the Transportation Security Administration, where he serves as a surface security inspector. The job entails traveling to inspect various railroads and other non-flight transit providers and counseling them on how to achieve optimal security standards. Although his job requires him to travel extensively, because of his seniority at the post, he is able to accommodate his city council schedule, he said.
Thomas is a senior legislative analyst with the Snohomish County Council's office. He has a background in development, working as a project manager for a land developer and as an environmental planner. He was also a planning commissioner for the city of Olympia from 1997 to 1999. He holds a bachelor of science, environmental policy, analysis and planning.
In the following article, both share their views on a few selected questions posed by readers of the Monroe Monitor. The interviews have been edited for length. In Monroe Monitor candidate forums, candidates' answers are presented in the order they were received; we reached Thomas first, so in this story, his answers appear first.
What is the role of city government in Monroe?
Thomas: The primary role of city government is to make certain that our resources are managed responsibly; that we are insuring a safe community and preserving the infrastructure and services to the benefit of the business and citizens. That means investing in neighborhoods, parks and schools, public safety and roadways.
To me it means, within the budget that we have, working with our public works department, our police and our planning department to help maintain and improve the quality of our city. To make sure the toilets flush, potholes get filled, that we aren't duplicating efforts with other districts, but working with other officials to keep costs down.
To me the role of our city is to manage the infrastructure and ensure a safe community, and improve the quality of life by preserving our public resources. We do that both with regulation and with making routine improvement to our system.
Davis: I think people would be shocked at how much the city government is involved in day-to-day life. We take for granted that things just sort of happen, but every Tuesday night we are up there making decisions that involve all of us, on pretty much a regular basis. Everything from your water and garbage, and your general services, your roads, street lights, traffic lights, traffic cameras, those are all things that impact us on a daily basis, and those are the things we are looking at and talking about. Things like zoning, it's been eye-opening to see just how much it does affect each of us. It's been quite a learning experience. I've always been interested in everything and I always read up on the candidates and their positions and what they were doing, but until you are in it you don't realize how much really goes on.
Within the framework of the role of the city government, what do you see as the role of the mayor?-á
Thomas: The role of the mayor is to safely execute the ordinances of the city and support the constitution of the state. It's different than a legislative role like the council. They approve budgets, policies and contracts above a certain threshold. The mayor's job is to implement what they adopt. Part of the mayor's duty is to make certain that there is responsible management at City Hall, and to implement the policy budget and contracts. Part of that is to make certain that staff is putting together the material the council needs to make sure the police budgets and contracts have been properly put together.
A major part of the mayor's role is to act as a policy advocate. While the mayor isn't a voting member of council, the mayor can act as an advocate for the budget the mayor puts forward. That means meeting with council and members of the public, understanding what kind of concerns people have, directing staff to putting budgets and policies together, and getting direction from council on budget criteria they'd like to see. As mayor, my role would be making sure council is aware of my concerns, and advocating the positions I feel are important, directing staff to put together the budget, policies and contracts, and bringing those forward to the council. You have the ability to bring forward ordinances; it's not doing everything council says; it's taking the initiative to put together proposals and be active and educate on why you feel a policy or budget is in the best interest of the city.
Davis: The role of mayor is a part-time position. You have a city administrator that technically does the same thing in a full-time capacity, but you have the legal component, that the mayor is the legal entity to sign the documents and make the decisions that require legal authority. The mayor also is a cheerleader, and very involved in the city; he participates in a lot of things, judging things and showing up for things and being out and about in the community. He's also kind of a PR person. It's a multifaceted position. He also runs the council meetings and in case of a tie he's got a vote but other than that he doesn't vote. It's a broad category of things the mayor does. All of those I guess are directed at driving or moving the city in a certain direction. My goal is to do that, to facilitate prosperity in the city and move in that direction.
What is Monroe doing well? Where could Monroe improve?
Thomas: Monroe has done some good things. I'd say we can do better in some areas. We can do better working with applicants for development here in town. We could do a better job of communicating with the public.
In the last three-and-half years, what I've witnessed is some development proposals made around town where things fell apart not just because of issues of substance, but because procedures weren't followed, and the procedures are there for a reason. They are things that come from state law, not things we can change in Monroe. I think it's important to encourage economic development, that's very important to me. But we need to be certain we aren't taking shortcuts inconsistent with state laws or our laws. Whether it's east Monroe, with staff doing a SEPA review when I feel it should have been done by a private party, or up on Roosevelt, with laws requiring access (for an additional development) and an exception was used. There was another development off of Chain Lake just north of Rainier View where similar concerns were brought up. These are things that can hurt the community and the private applicant that would like to do something. It's one thing to find yourself in a position where you can't get an application through because something is wrong with the proposal, and another when it's procedural issues that delay a proposal.
I also want to make certain we reinvest in our downtown. I want to work more closely with downtown business, to see what we can do to freshen up the downtown and provide infrastructure improvements where necessary to support redevelopment, especially with Walmart coming. There are people that I've met out doorbelling with a thirst for businesses that cater to more residents than to Highway 2, things like coffee shops they can go to and do things with friends. The downtown is a logical place to encourage that.
The other things I'm really concerned about include the 10 year vision update. I am concerned that we make certain that we planning for a vibrant community that will encourage redevelopment and revitalization of downtown and encourage quality development in town. I want to make certain we are working together as a community, and holding one another accountable to meet those goals.
Davis: There are a couple things Monroe has been doing very well, and some of it has been controversial, but overall the more people understand some of the decisions we've made and that we are doing, the more I think they would agree. Selling the properties over in the Kelsey area is one. The city has been servicing $11.5 million in debt for almost 10 years. That's staggering. That money could go to services. Not everyone is happy about who bought the properties, but Walmart is just one property. Providence is opening in a couple weeks, and that's a success story that's going to be good for Monroe for decades. And even Lowe's back a few years, what they are doing is helping us pay off that debt. We need to get completely out of debt. We needed to not be in land development in the first place; that's for private enterprise. We need tax revenue from that property, not to pay to service debt on that property.
We also balanced the budget. We are in the black, and we set up reserves and funded those reserves, so that when things come up unexpectedly, we don't say, 'Gosh, we could do something about that if only we had some money,' we can say, 'Why don't we do it? Do we have the funds? Yes, we do. That's what the reserve is for, let's go ahead and do that.'
Highway 522 is going to be expanded. When you stop and think about the effect it's going to have on the city, it could be enormous. That's opening up that corridor between Woodinville and Monroe, and businesses are looking at that. Homebuyers are looking at Monroe. We need to be ready for that and we need to plan for that. I think that can be a great thing for us. That's one of the things I'm excited about is how we deal with that. That could be really good for the city.
What is your vision for Monroe?
Thomas: I see Monroe continuing to become a hub in the east county. We are at the intersection of U.S. 2 and SR 203 and SR 522, and we have a lot of people who have moved here because housing is more affordable. As there are improvements on 522 and U.S. 2, we can attract business and light industrial manufacturing to town. What I see happening is us figuring out where in town we can try to encourage light manufacturing and where in town we can improve opportunities for residential development, both housing on housing lots and smaller lots and larger lots. I would like to see some more high-density development around the downtown, and in the areas that haven't been developed as much, I'd like to see continued medium-density development.
I'd like to work with council to make certain that development is occurring in such a way that it brings jobs, is compatible with existing neighborhoods, and enhances our community.
For example, we can't just have high-density condos or apartment 5-10 feet from property with single family homes on lots. We need to have standards that provide for buffers, so you don't have a three-story complex looking into the backyard of a smaller residential development.
It's important to make improvement to our roads, our sewer and water lines and our schools, so the people who are here today don't end up paying for improvements to accommodate development when it comes to town, to make sure our residents and businesses don't suffer in terms of quality of life or in the pocketbook if we don't charge enough for impact fees. If you don't collect enough for utility fees or mitigation fees for new developments, then the people who pay are the people who live here.
Davis: The revitalization of the downtown, I am a big supporter of that. In my work I travel a lot and one of the things I love doing in another city is driving down Main Street and looking at the history that's there and what they've done. Have they done a good job of restoring and preserving and utilizing that stuff? I envision Monroe's downtown a lot like what Snohomish has done, where it's vibrant, where every weekend is an event type of a thing, even when there's not an actual event. One of my favorite towns is Walla Walla, with the old buildings and the way they have fixed it up and almost made it a neat event just to go there.
I think Monroe has the same attributes, the history, the nice designs, and I would like to see the downtown be more vibrant and more of a destination, however we can do that. That vision has been out there for a while, but unfortunately we've had this economic downturn for so long. I think we are pushing out of that, though, and as Monroe starts to develop again, I'd like to see more attention go to the downtown for revitalization.
What are ways the city can support the downtown?
Thomas: I've met with a couple of the downtown businesses and some of the things they want to see are fairly simple, such as pressure washing the sidewalks, bringing back the flower pots and asking if businesses could adopt a flower pot, repainting some of the buildings. I think it would be really valuable to talk to the Chamber of Commerce, DREAM and the Downtown Association to see what the city's role would be to support improvement and how we could leverage grants and other opportunities to bring about a revival of the downtown. Also, to the extent feasible, when we do improvement, we can see if we can make other utility improvements to help out with redevelopment. It's about being connected to the downtown and seeing that they feel their needs being met and they are an important part of the community vision. It's also about making sure people know the downtown is there and what opportunities there are.
Parking is an issue we have talked about for 15 years. A lot of it comes back to the capital improvement program, to finding out where it is we can come up with funding strategies that are appropriate for the government to do. A couple that people have said is, it would be nice if there were signs up on Highway 2 pointing out what kind of businesses are downtown, or even just making sure the weeds aren't growing out of the sidewalks. Some things are not really hard things to do. It's just somebody going out and taking out the weeds, and encouraging the businesses to sweep the sidewalks and ways the Public Works Department might be able to pressure wash sidewalks. Also, the Downtown Plan encourages higher density development of the downtown to the southeast, and that sort of thing can bring more people into our downtown area, which can support the downtown later into the night. I want to see that reinvestment in the downtown, to see it come back as the town center it started out as.
Davis: I know that the Chamber of Commerce has been working on that. Last year I was out with my family sprucing up Main Street and getting it ready for the tree lighting event, and that kind of thing is a hands-on thing we can go do. The tree lighting was a big success, and they have ideas for improving that and making it a little larger and more eventful. I think they are doing a good job and have a lot of good ideas. I'd like to see them come into fruition.
The state has some programs I know we are involved in and I'd like to see more activity in those areas, and to see what the city can do. You've got to have businesses down there that are attractive. In the last couple months we've almost exploded with new businesses downtown. It may take a few months for people to see that happen, but I think that's a great indication that people are interested in the downtown. If the word gets out that those businesses are out there, I think it will slowly build and grow, however we can get that word out that will have a big impact. That's exciting to see. Several months ago it was depressing, but you can't twist peoples' arms and say, 'Start a store.'
What can we do as a city? Whatever we can do to help them out and get stores in there, we should do. If we make the town look clean and attractive, and we are looking at ways to improve traffic and rebuild roads, that's a whole impetus. We need to look at how to make it more accessible and more attractive. Parking is something we will have to look at. We may have to find a place to build a parking lot. Those are things that are on the table that need to be looked at; any way we can enhance people coming to town and shopping around and spending money.
With continued residential and commercial development, as well as the potential for increased rail traffic in coming years, how do you think Monroe should address transportation issues?-á
Thomas: My concern about the trains, is as train traffic increases, it's going to increase the amount of delay going north and south. That's problematic. I want to make certain that we are working with legislators to make sure that if train traffic is going to increase that there's some sort of offset to minimize the wait. It's a major concern. I've spoken with the congressional delegation already a little about that.
In terms of higher density development, we need more housing opportunities, but we need to address how that's connected with density and traffic. I would want to make certain as part of our 10 year update, that we are being really realistic and honest about what the impacts are going to be and we are putting real projects into the plan to make sure developers are mitigating for those impacts, and when new development comes, that they are paying their fair share for the improvement for the increased traffic. So for me, a lot of this goes back to our transportation plan. The capital improvements and the philosophy that we talked about, that as we embrace new development, we aren't shifting the burden to our residents and our taxpayers. Somebody pays for the impacts and it's important that everybody understands that. I want to make sure new development bears the cost of the infrastructure. That's one thing I will argue and advocate for on behalf of our community before the council.
Davis: We're looking at trying to develop a new east-west corridor. We have been looking at that for a while. We have some ideas; it's just trying to work things out. We are looking at that and trying to accommodate that. Tjerne Way is going to be pushed out eventually, all the way through, and that gives us more east-west mobility, and that's what we need to focus on. We have Highway 2, but that's a state highway and everyone is using it. It's a problem, but we have to live with what the state gives us on that. We have ideas on overpasses, and how to get north and southbound traffic over the highway. They aren't things were going to see next year.
My understanding is that BNSF is already pushing maximum capacity over Stevens Pass, so I don't know that oil and coal trains are going to be as disrupting as people might envision. One or two more trains is only one or two more trains. We have one overpass, 522 goes over. If there's a mile-long train or two stuck in Monroe, that's the only way you can get across, but you can get across. But when we look at emergency services; that becomes problematic. Trying to get ways to mitigate those issues, that may be long term, and some things may not be possible, but we are at least looking at them and trying to come up with answers and solutions.
How will you maintain communication with citizens?
Thomas: People can send questions to my personal email, or through Facebook, and we need to have some sort of a policy on social electronic media so people can communicate with me that way.
At the same time, there are a lot of people who want to communicate in person and I want to maintain the effort I started going door-to-door to 1,400 homes and businesses, to be available to meet with members of the public in person, whether Saturday morning coffee or after they get off work, so there's that opportunity to talk in person.
I want to make sure people feel free to talk at the podium at City Council; a lot of people when they come, they haven't done a lot of public speaking and I want them to feel they can come in and talk. Also we can keep communicating in a positive way in the utility bills, sharing information that can be helpful.
I'm connected in the community in a number of other ways, through my HOA, through youth lacrosse, and that's the type of person that I am. I want to be there for ribbon cuttings, to attend a planning commission meeting or parks board meeting, the chamber meeting. Those things are important avenues to have access to elected officials and the mayor. Going forward, if I'm elected, I'll be trying to nurture all those.
Davis: We have so many communication methods. I've got a telephone. If you look on the city website, I have a city email and a home phone posted there, and other than that, I love being out here in the city. I know lots of people, I shop in the city--I just got a haircut downtown--I go downtown and walk around. I intend to spend as much time as I can walking around and talking to people, popping in to a coffee shop or even having some meetings. If there's a topic of interest, we could have a town hall. I plan to be as accessible as I can. I'm here and I am around.