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  1. Decision 2013: Hot City Races, Touching Your Life Every Day

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    by Paul Pickett


    By the time you read this you have likely gotten your ballots in the mail, or will in a day or two. And even though the high profile races like President and Governor aren’t on the ballot, there are races that may affect you more closely.

    Elected seats are in play in Lacey, Olympia, and Tumwater that will set the policy direction of those cities for years to come. And if you live in one of those cities, the decisions of the City Council can touch your life every day. So read on, dear reader, and see what the candidates in key races offer.


    Olympia City Council, Position 5:

    Julie Hankins v Mike Volz

    Julie Hankins is an incumbent who is running for the office for the first time. She was appointed to the seat vacated by Stephen Buxbaum when he was elected Mayor. She came to the position with credentials of almost 20 years of working with neighborhood associations. She is being challenged by Mike Volz, the owner of a downtown auto restoration business.

    Hankins is a believer in neighborhoods. Talking to her, she clearly analyzes City issues based on her experience organizing both her neighborhood and the citywide Coalition of Neighborhood Associations. More than that, she is enthusiastic and passionate about neighborhoods.

    “Everyone is a neighbor,” she says. “Every neighborhood is unique, but shares basic needs.” She’s enjoyed her last two years on the Council and feels she has an aptitude for the work. “I like to bring people together, explain what we do, and empower people,” she explains. “I want citizens to connect their needs to City services.”

    Volz did not reply to my request for an interview. From my search of the web I found that he was recruited by Karen Rogers, who decided not to run earlier this year. Rogers, if you recall, was defeated in races for County Commissioner and Olympia Mayor, and although the self-described Democrat was criticized for her connections to the conservative group S.T.O.P. Thurston.

    Volz’s main focus is opposition to the “low barrier shelter”. This proposal would create a homeless shelter open to a broader spectrum of people. (The impetus for this comes from a combination of volunteer burnout for informal low barrier shelter, and the fact that many existing shelters have barriers to participation. These barriers can include financial requirements, religious affiliation, and prohibition of single men. A proposal for a low barrier shelter in the Eastside neighborhood encountered strong opposition and has now been withdrawn.)

    Hankins addresses the low barrier shelter controversy by calling for education of the public and a more inclusive discussion. “People say the downtown problem is ‘homeless’,” she says, “but that’s too big to find solutions. We need to correctly name the issues, such as mental health or alcohol and drugs. We need a sustainable solution that gets the community behind it.”

    Hankin points to her experience as her main difference with her opponent. “I’ve been working with neighborhoods and working with City departments. I like to step back and see how the pieces fit, and try to avoid unintended consequences. We need to focus on getting people’s needs met.”

    And what are those needs? “We need a financially stable budget,” she responds. “We need neighborhood plans and downtown plan. We need people to get information on what’s going on.”

    Following the money: Hankins and Volz have each raised over $10,000 for their races. Hankins main contributors have been unions, while Volz has gotten large contributions from people with business and finance connections.

    Hankin’s final words: “Stay involved and vote! Have your voice heard – we all hold a piece to the solution and we need to bring them together. Let’s not be afraid to try things and see how they work.”


    Olympia City Council Position 4:

    Cheryl Selby v Darren Mills

    Cheryl Selby and Darren Mills are both downtown business owners running for a City Council seat with no incumbent in the race. Both speak to their long-time involvement in city issues and involvement with downtown organizations. Both have the support of Democrats. But after talking with them and reviewing their positions, there are some distinct differences.

    Regarding the low barrier shelter, Selby says, “I don’t support a shelter downtown, in a neighborhood, or near a school. There are other places it could go.” She talks about creating a one-stop center for services that might be in a satellite location, such as Martin Way.

    Mills wants the low barrier shelter to be downtown. “I support the concept but not the eastside location,” he says. “There needs to be an education process. But the need is downtown so the shelter needs to be there too.”

    Selby talked a lot to me about downtown safety. “We have drug issues, more crime, vagrancy, discarded needles. The needle exchange program reported 900,000 needles exchanged downtown.” Selby wants to find revenues to support an increased police presence as soon as possible.

    Mills also recognizes the issue of downtown safety and cleanliness. “It’s perception,” he notes. “People feel unsafe seeing the people on the street. But homeless people are very diverse. Some are travelers and don’t know the local rules. Some come from abusive homes or have addictions.” He notes that the increased downtown foot patrol has helped, but wants to see a multi-faceted approach to addressing the diverse needs of people on the street downtown.

    Regarding economic development, Mills would like to see more focus on locally owned businesses. “Downtown has a lot of businesses and is a gathering place,” he explains. “Corporate stores are big employers and we can’t write that off. But let’s look at high density housing close to the downtown, and better transit service on the Westside.”

    Selby sees safety as the main barrier to downtown development. But she also notes, “I’d like to pursue partnerships with the EDC and Thurston Chamber to promote business more. Maybe the local colleges could establish a downtown presence with a bookstore or student gallery. We can leverage arts and culture to create an attractive destination. We need smart development with an eye on the future.”

    What differences do the two candidates see with each other? Selby points to her experience as a business owner, city employee, and working in nonprofit organizations. Mills points to their difference on issues such as the low barrier shelter and retail on the Isthmus. “I’m trying to focus on issues,” says Mills, “while my opponent is not taking positions.”

    Following the money: This race has the highest spending in City races. So far, Mills has raised about $17,000 and Selby $25,000. Mills has raised most of his money from unions and local businesses. Selby has also tapped unions and local business, but also has the support or realtors, developers, and women’s political groups.

    After speaking with both candidates, I find their similarities interesting (both local business owners), but their personal styles are quite different. Selby was very energetic, but sometimes she let her energy run away with her. Mills was quieter but very thoughtful. In comparing the content of the conversations, it seemed to me that Selby had some good ideas but overall was more vague in her proposals, while Mills seemed to have a deep and nuanced understanding of the City’s issues.


    Also in Olympia, Jim Cooper is running for re-election in Position 7, against frequent candidate Prophet Atlantis, who isn’t publicly campaigning.


    Tumwater City Council, Position 6:

    Debbie Sullivan v Kyle Taylor Lucas

    In Tumwater, the hot race is between Debbie Sullivan and Kyle Taylor Lucas. Lucas was appointed to the position earlier this year and is now running to stay in the job. Debbie Sullivan is a long-time member of the city Planning Commission. Both cite their experience in government and nonprofit groups and both are supported by the county Democrats. Beyond that, the similarities end.

    Sullivan is strongly focused on economic development. She talked about how half the daytime population of Tumwater work in the city and leave at 5 o’clock, and she’d like to encourage them to spend more money in the city. “We need more housing options like ‘cottage zoning,’” she says, “and we need more shopping and jobs.”

    She expressed concern about the big-box store moratorium. “It didn’t stop Wal-Mart, but it stopped some other proposals. Instead of knee-jerk reactions we need a vision of what we want. We should look at leading edge ideas like solar manufacturing.” But Sullivan doesn’t want government to pick winners and losers. “We should do the things that made our country strong.”

    Lucas is a big picture thinker. In our conversation she talked about sustainability, social justice, a green economy and many other issues. Regarding economic development she notes “I support a clean, green economy with livable wage jobs. Big warehouses shouldn’t be next to residential areas, especially considering recent studies of diesel fumes and increased asthma rates. There are other places for warehouses.”

    Sullivan points to her ten years of experience with the Planning Commission as her strongest credentials. “I can bring a balance of understanding to the Council.” Lucas talks about her upbringing and her understanding of the needs of the disadvantaged. “I had dire poverty in my background. Being a person of color – Indian – gives me a unique perspective. It’s given me empathy, compassion, and a set of values.”

    I asked about some specific issues in Tumwater. Regarding the plastic bag ban, Sullivan says, “I would support it if other communities do. But if only one city does this, it puts them at a disadvantage.”

    Lucas strongly supports the ban. “There’s no question. It was good we were out in front – it’s the right thing to do. Solid waste costs get passed to utility payers, and there’s no recycling [of plastic grocery bags] anymore. It pollutes Puget Sound and kills wildlife.”

    Lucas comments on the Deschutes River corridor: “I strongly support estuary restoration. I have a lifelong commitment to being an environmental steward. We need to preserve natural features and pursue development that’s complementary. We can build a town center that restores a sense of historic character.”

    Sullivan dismisses estuary restoration: “We have no effect on the lake. It’s outside the City.” (Actually, part of Capitol Lake’s south basin falls within city limits.) But she sees benefits in other projects. “The Old Brewhouse redevelopment is a good example,” she notes. “The proposed fish hatchery at Pioneer Park could be an educational center and a tourist attraction.”

    What are the differences each candidate sees? Sullivan points to her experience on the Planning Commission and with community services. Lucas points to her commitment to low income housing and addressing other problems related to poverty. “We need to build personal and community resiliency,” Lucas explains. “I’m a good problem-solver. I can help us to find common ground on intractable issues.”

    Following the money: Lucas has raised around $7,100 compared to $3,500 for Sullivan. Both have support from unions, but Sullivan also has the backing of realtor and developer groups, while Lucas gets support from Tribes and environmental groups.

    Some last words: “I’m a dyed-in-the-wool policy wonk,” says Lucas. “I’m excited about the two planning processes addressing Brewery revitalization and the Capital Boulevard corridor.”

    Says Sullivan, “I want to bring a holistic vision to the city, and meet goals of being vibrant and self-sustaining.”


    Also in Tumwater, Ed Hildreth is running for re-election in Position 5 against Priscilla Blais. Neither is actively campaigning.


    And then there’s Lacey…

    There are three races for Lacey City Council, and each has an interesting story.

    Mayor Virgil Clarkson is being challenged by Walker Morton. This is the first time Clarkson has been challenged in 14 years. Morton has raised $9,000, mostly from unions. But his presence in the election so far does not appear to be strong. The PDC says that Clarkson has raised over $6,000, but no records have been posted on the donors. Clarkson may prevail using the momentum of his incumbency, but a surprise is always possible.

    Incumbent Ron Lawson is facing a strong challenge from Michael Steadman. Lawson, although a self-declared Democrat, has been the object of criticism for voting with the more conservative members of the Council. Some observers believe that Lawson has lost his support from the left while not earning support from the right. His fundraising (currently at about $4,600) has been focused on small donors rather than the usual interest groups. Meanwhile Steadman, also supported by the Democrats, appears to have a broad campaign support from both unions and the realtor/developer community, to the tune of about $9,000 total. It will be interesting to see if Lawson’s maverick approach will stand up to Steadman’s concerted challenge.

    Incumbent Cynthia Pratt is being challenged by Raymond Payne, who was defeated in the primary two years ago by Jeff Gadman. The differences between these two candidates are stark. Pratt has had a long career in natural resource agencies and is active in the Democratic Party. She’s raised over $10,000 from unions, environmental groups, and women’s political groups. Payne is firmly in the Republican camp and has raised about $4,200 from realtor and developer groups. Pratt seems on solid ground for reelection, but Lacey is a funny place politically, so Payne can’t be counted out. ◙

    General election ballots will be mailed on October 16, and must be postmarked or dropped in a ballot box by November 6. For more election information, visit 

  2. Elections: County Auditor and Port Commission


    This fall is an off-year election, and although lacking the attention-grabbing national and statewide offices, it still offers some hot local elections. Two county-wide races are of particular interest. One is the County Auditor. When you hold your ballot in your hand in October, you will be staring at one of the Thurston County Auditor’s major duties – managing elections. The other is Port of Olympia Commissioner. Look at a map of Olympia and Tumwater, and the Marine Terminal and Olympia Airport areas jump out at you – economic engines in the center of our cities that play a key role in our community.


    Thurston County Auditor


    The County Auditor race is the latest chapter in a political tale. A year ago our previous Auditor Kim Wyman won a closely fought election for Secretary of State. Thanks to that victory I got to see Wyman throw out the first baseball at the Mariners State Employee night. And thanks to that victory the Auditor position became vacant.


    Following the law for such vacancies, the County Republicans sent three candidates to the County Commissioners, who chose Gary Alexander from the list. Gary has worked in the Auditor office for 12 years, and he has also served as in the State House of Representatives for over 15 years – in the 20th District for most of that time and elected to the 2nd District last November after redistricting.


    Because he was appointed, Alexander now has to run for a one-year term to hold the position.  He is being challenged by Mary Hall, who has worked for the Pierce County Auditor for 17 years and is currently Elections Supervisor. Although it’s only for one year, the winner will have a big advantage in the election for the full four-year term next year.


    When asked why they are running, both candidates pointed to their qualifications. Alexander touts his experience as a manager in the Auditor office working under Kim Wyman and Sam Reed. Hall says she is “passionate about voting” and refers to her experience bringing in new technology for voting in Pierce County.


    Since it’s possible, dear reader, that you are not familiar with the Auditor, I asked the candidates why OP&L readers should care about this election. Both Alexander and Hall cite the areas the Auditor oversees: elections, licensing, and financial oversight. Alexander highlights the financial functions of the Auditor – they provide internal review of the County’s budget and spending – and the need for good customer service for licensing services. Hall considers the Auditor to be one of the most important positions in county government, given the many areas they are responsible for. “We passed Marriage Equality in Washington” says Hall. “We need an Auditor without bias. Everyone should be treated with respect.”


    In terms of qualifications, Alexander is clearly a financial wonk, while Hall is a voting wonk. Both have experience working in Auditor offices.  I asked them about their vision for what they will accomplish in 5 years (assuming they get elected this year and next). Alexander wants to bring in new technology to speed up vote counting, improve customer service for licensing, and continue providing financial services with accuracy and integrity.


    Hall would like to bring more partnership in people contact to the job. She talked about working with the education community to reach out to Middle and High School students. She is interested in technology improvements but cites her strong background in technology at Pierce County as her reason to be careful with technology. “I can do RFPs and build a team to design technology” says Hall. “But technology changes so quickly, sometimes it’s better to wait for the next generation in a few years. We might be able to lease technology to save money. But the Auditor needs to be in control of the ballot design and how the data is managed. Vendors can make mistakes.”


    Interestingly the two candidates seem to offer a yin-yang of qualifications. Alexander is a financial specialist who has learned about elections on the job. Hall is an elections specialist who has learned about financial services from her business experience and from her job. How you decide to weigh their qualifications may depend on what importance you personally place on the financial duties versus the elections duties of the Auditor.


    With both candidates claiming strong qualifications, the dynamics of this race seem to pivot around a second area. There is a political element present because of Alexander’s long career as a legislator.


    I asked Alexander how he was going to handle being both Auditor and a legislator. “When appointed I decided to continue as a legislator through the session” he told me. “It was always my intention to resign my legislative seat, and win or lose I will step aside.” Alexander is clearly trying to ride on the coattails of his republican predecessors Sam Reed and Kim Wyman. He mentioned them several times in our discussion, and his website prominently features of picture of the three of them (with former Lieutenant Governor Ralph Munro thrown in for good measure).


    Hall is critical of Alexander’s political background. “He’s been a partisan member of the legislature” she says. She points to Alexander’s association with ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is a conservative organization that promotes legislation in state government for issues such as Voter ID, “Stand Your Ground”, “Right to Work”, and education privatization. The Center for Media and Democracy ( identifies Alexander as a member of the ALEC Tax and Fiscal Policy Task Force. “My opponent voted against every civil rights bill in the legislature” says Hall.


    I asked both candidates how they felt about bringing in more voters. Hall states “there are lots of people who should be brought in. Minorities may not feel safe. We should look at Election Day registration and pre-registration for 17-year olds.” Alexander responds: “the integrity of registration is very important. We need to make sure eligible and ineligible voters are identified, and ensure that everyone who is eligible can vote.”


    Final words? “The Auditor is not just about elections” says Alexander. My experience is significantly broader. And my legislative experience is good background.” Hall states: “We need a professional administrator, not a politician” says Hall. “I’m a good manager, and the Auditor needs to be a team player. That’s why I’m best for the job.”


    Port of Olympia Commissioner


    Jeff Davis was elected as Port Commissioner 4 years ago and would like a second term. He is a Longshoreman and a member and past lobbyist for the Longshoreman’s union ILWU. He works on the docks, but says he works mostly at Longview and doesn’t work in Olympia. He is being challenged by Sue Gunn. She has graduate degrees in Geology, and has worked for many years in federal government and environmental groups and is recently retired.


    Davis wants to run because he has a vision of a more diverse economy for Thurston County. “The Port has four main business areas: the Marine Terminal, the marina, the airport, and the New Market industrial park near the airport. But the Port needs to be diverse in a different way, more than these four areas.” He wants the Port to work with the community to build partnerships, and play a more active role in creating development opportunities. “No one else is doing this” he says.


    Gunn told me she wants to be a “public servant” and people asked her to run. She sees the Port Commissioner job as a good match to her career experience and skills. “The Port has been exclusively used” she says, “and they need to be a better community member. They need to work with local government and have more transparency.” She notes that the Port’s strategic plan is old, and she would like to revisit it. “There are great ideas in other Ports” she notes, “like supporting organic farming and light rail.”


    Why should you, dear readers, care about the Port? Gunn points out that the Port is a “sleeping giant. They have a powerful mission of economic development. They can tax and borrow money. They can be a more viable member of the community.” Davis says “there’s a perception that the Port is just about ships and docks. The potential of the Port is underutilized. It creates jobs and creates a tax base.”


    Looking out 4 years, Davis says if reelected he’d like to see progress with his “fifth element” idea. “We need collaborative partnerships, and see what the community wants” he says. “Let’s use other models for non-transportation projects and provide space for value-added enterprises.” If Gunn were elected, in 4 years she’d like to “get the Port in the black. I want to reduce the Port’s reliance on tax money, especially for basic operations.” She wants the Port to open a dialog with the community.


    I asked both candidates where they saw the Port headed in 20 to 30 years. Should it still be a deep-water port? Gunn notes that the Marine Terminal is just one part of the Port. “Let’s look at whether the Marine Terminal is operating in the black. Then ask: what does the community want? Do they want deep water shipping or smaller vessels? Do they want sustainable products? Should there be dredging? There hasn’t been any conversation about what to do with the Marine Terminal.” Davis thinks there should be focus on other areas than the Marine Terminal. “A while back the focus was on capturing cargoes. But there are so many variables that could knock down the Marine Terminal. The focus should be on how the Port supports jobs and the tax base.”


    I noted that other Ports have adopted sustainability policies. Should the Port of Olympia look into this? “This would make taxes go up” says Davis. “I ask if there’s immediate harm to the community. But there are limits on how the Marine Terminal works.” He notes that cargos like proppants for fracking and military cargo may be controversial, but questions if the Port’s deciding not to serve those cargos will make a difference. “Financial obligations may conflict with moral issues. Someone will always be unhappy.” Gunn feels that more can be done in this area. “Cargos should be environmentally sustainable” she says. “The Port needs a strong policy and a broad policy.”


    So who is the stronger candidate? Gunn says she is interested in the community, in serving and being a better neighbor. “My opponent represents the status quo. He has a smaller spectrum of vision. I have a broader background, and outlook that can look at development community-wide. I have a strong life science and environmental background.” Davis points to his strong business background. “I have 15 years in transportation – both marine and highway. I am entrenched in the local community to see how we can create jobs. I’ve had time in the saddle to see how to do that.”


    Both candidates talk about community engagement and express visions for diversifying the Port. As the incumbent, Davis already has a record to examine. Some city elected officials in the community have expressed frustration with working with the Port. In particular, the Farmers Market seems to be the flash point. Olympia supports the Market as a jewel in the community, but its land and parking is leased from the Port. The growth in Marine Terminal operations is putting pressure on the Port that competes with support for the Farmers Market. This issue has created a challenge for Davis.


    The one obvious difference between Gunn and Davis is their background and perspective. Gunn has strong environmental background and support. Davis is a union leader and enjoys strong support from many labor groups. Both want jobs, but differ in their approach to how to invest in them and what kind of jobs to create.  These differences might give the voter a clue about where each candidate would like to take the Port in the future.



  3. Olympia’s Shoreline Management Plan takes shape: Your ideas wanted!

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    smp graphicA Walk on the Waterfront

    We’ll begin with an all-day walk along Olympia’s waterfront. We’ll park at Priest Point Park and take a stroll on the beach. Then we’ll walk down East Bay Drive, watching herons in the mudflat. As we walk over the culvert that discharges Indian Creek, we turn north and head up to East Bay Marina. Continuing along the road, we pass the land reclaimed from the Cascade Pole toxic site, then listen to KGY blaring from loudspeakers at their broadcast studio. How about lunch at Anthony’s, and a glass of wine looking over the water?

    Now we’re blocked by the Port’s Marine Terminal, so we have to backtrack. But we swing around through town and end up at the Farmer’s Market. We cut over to the Port Plaza, then head down the Boardwalk along Percival Landing and past the Oyster House and the Olympia Yacht Club. An ice cream for dessert to eat on the deck at Bayview Thriftway would be nice.

    We still have some energy, so we walk around West Bay, with a stop in West Bay Park. No foot trail here, so we have to follow the road. But by the time we reach West Bay Marina, we can relax at Tugboat Annie’s for dinner on the deck.

    We’ve now walked around the “Big W”. What’s the point of this thought-exercise stroll? The future of the area we walked through depends on Olympia’s Shoreline Master Plan update.

    The State’s Shoreline Management Act requires cities and counties to develop special plans for marine waterfront, lakes over 20 acres, and larger streams. For Olympia this means Percival Creek; the Deschutes River and Capitol Lake; Ken, Chambers, Ward, and Grass Lakes; and its Budd Inlet shoreline. The SMP is supposed to be updated every 7 or 8 years, but this is Olympia’s first update since 1996. And a lot has changed since then.

    “The Olympia waterfront has changed radically in the last thirty years,” explains Mayor Stephen Buxbaum.  “It was all industrial, but now we have many waterfront parks. And the change process is not complete.”

    Legacy is part of the waterfront. Kevin Stormans, owner of Bayview Thriftway, points out: “this property has been in my family for four generations. My grandfather purchased it in 1956.” In their comments to the City, the Olympia Yacht Club note that they started in 1894 and have operated in “the same general area” for over a century.

    Other legacies are not ones to be proud about. The Cascade Pole wood treatment operation left a toxic brew of contaminants that took the Port decades and tens of millions of dollars to correct. Other signs of abandoned industrial use scatter the West Bay shoreline. Yet with change comes opportunity.


    SMP for Dummies

    Into this mix comes the SMP update. The new SMP is a huge and complex document, and completely replaces the previous one. Olympia Community Planning and Development Director Keith Staley calls it a “road map”. Mayor Buxbaum calls it a “framework”.  “The SMP is an imperfect tool to do precise planning” he explains. “It can’t settle all the community development issues to revitalize downtown. It’s the large framework that other things fit in, and it needs to be complimentary to the Comprehensive Plan.”

    Staley explains that the SMP has two main volumes: a planning section and a regulatory section. The planning section has 19 pages of 35 different goals and policies. The regulatory section has 67 pages with 86 ordinances. A third piece is the Restoration Plan, which is in “Appendix A”.

    Some key terms help to understand how the SMP affects the waterfront. Department of Ecology Shoreline Planner Chrissy Bailey explains: “the big umbrella is ‘water-oriented’ activities. Under this umbrella are three categories. ‘Water-dependent’ uses can only occur near water. These include marinas, a boat launch, or maybe even a wastewater outfall. ‘Water-related’ uses don’t have to be on the water, but being near the water is more convenient. This could include seafood processors or boat repair. The third category, ‘water-enjoyment’, is for uses open to the public that are enhanced by the water, such as waterfront trails, docks, or restaurants.”

    Another distinction is between mitigation and restoration. “Mitigation is based on no net loss of ecological functions” says Bailey. “It’s required for any new development or redevelopment. Restoration improves environmental functions, but it’s not required. The SMP can be designed to incentivize restoration. There’s a very clear line between the two.”

    The SMP makes distinctions between new development and existing development. New development is subject to all the rules. Existing development can be “non-conforming”. In other words, the conditions of development are grandfathered in, even though new development would not be able to do what they are already doing. This gets very complicated when you start contemplating scenarios of remodeling, additions, redevelopment, and especially how the rules apply after a fire or other damage.

    You’ve been patient to make it this far! Two particular set of criteria set the community battle lines: building heights and setbacks. The SMP includes extensive tables in its proposed regulations. It breaks out a variety of zoning areas, and makes distinctions between different water-oriented or other uses.  It lists both a standard building height for that use and an increased height in exchange for environmental enhancements. Similarly, it describes how close to the shore a certain use can be, again allowing a development to move closer in exchange for an environmental improvement project.

    Olympia’s SMP is dense and multi-faceted. I wouldn’t begin to pretend I understand its complexities. And there certainly isn’t room in this article to get into details. What matters are the principles involved, the limits and the loopholes, and where the balance tips when the City puts the three goals of the SMA on the scales: environmental protection, public access, and economic development.


    Balance and Battle Lines

    The Olympia Planning Commission came out with a draft last year, and City staff developed another draft that was released in January. The City Council is now considering a new draft that was released earlier in May. A public comment period is planned for June (see sidebar about opportunities to comment). And throughout the process there have been hundreds of comments and lively controversy.

    What is Olympia trying to do that has folks so riled up? Keith Staley points to the building heights and setbacks. “The controversy over the Isthmus a few years ago is an example” he says. Unless you just arrived in town within the last few years, you will remember how a proposal to build a development on the Isthmus – the stretch of land between Capitol Lake and West Bay and between Water Street and the bridges – resulted in a community upheaval. In short, the City Council at the time voted to raise building heights to the new development. Then the voters spoke and voted out the Council members who supported the development.  In a high profile case of economic development versus the community viewscape, the community expressed a clear preference.

    Mayor Buxbaum acknowledges the challenges. “The Council is not made up of Planners” he observes. “There’s a learning process and we’re working on getting on the same page.” He continues: “Olympia has an extremely diverse waterfront.  And there’s a convergence of interests and issues. The Council is struggling to find the right mix.”

    Buxbaum notes that some areas are more natural, while other areas are commercial and a critical part of downtown retail. “We need to make a fun, active waterfront in some places, park-like in others, and find development that complements the shoreline” he says. “We hear from the public that they want a lot of variety. At the same time business owners are concerned about losing flexibility to keep their business viable.”

    Kevin Stormans talks about his concerns for his waterfront business, Bayview Thriftway. “The City can restrict what we do, put us into nonconformity” he says. “We’re already zoned, and that’s ok. But new SMP rules could cause a loss of value and limit our ability to remodel. We might lose the ability to use the property as collateral for a loan. If the City is taking value, taking our assets, that’s a concern.”

    Stormans talks about the history of his business on the site. “We used to own land to the middle of the Bay. We gave up that property to support the Boardwalk. Our deck is connected to Percival Landing.” I ask him about setbacks at his property. “We’re about 25 feet from the water” he explains. “If the setback goes to 30 feet, a corner of our building is over the line. If we can’t build closer, that’s no problem. But will we be non-conforming for 2 feet of our building? If we have a fire, can we rebuild?”

    Bob Jacobs is a former Mayor of Olympia. He’s active in the community group “Friends of the Waterfront”. “We started when the City was trying to sell the grassy area by the Olympia Center for development” he explains”. “We stopped that, and it’s a park there now. Then the City wanted to sell one of the Olympia Center parking lots. Then the Isthmus issue came along.”

    Now Friends of the Waterfront are commenting on the SMP. I ask Jacobs why this matters. “The SMP determines the shape of the shoreline for a long time – generations” he replies. “We need to get it right for everybody.” He thinks the SMP is doing ok with Priest Point Park, East Bay and Capitol Lake. “The areas that are contentious” he says “are the areas from the Port to the Isthmus, and West Bay from the Park to the Marina. The property owners have attorneys who can send letters to protect their interests. We are fighting private interests all the way.”

    What does Jacobs want for the community? “We need to prepare for the future” he replies. “We want better public access along the ‘Big W’. We need to leave space for sea level rise. And we need environmental restoration.” He sees setbacks as the center of the issue. “How much space is needed to do these things?” he asks. “We have the Big W in the regional trails plan. We need space to respond to sea level rise. Adequate regulations to keep buildings back from the water help create the optimal balance.”


    Trade-offs for the environment

    Mayor Buxbaum calls the SMP update “a major step to make the waterfront work well and be part of South Sound.” He believes there are broad areas of agreement in the City Council. “We want to ensure public access to a waterfront trail system” he says. “And we want to further the character and quality of the shoreline.”

    The City wants to encourage environmental enhancements through a combination of tools. Property developers can get increased building height or reduced setbacks in exchange for environmental projects such as vegetation conservation or restoration, or bulkhead removal and shoreline softening.  There is also the possibility of off-site mitigation. “We can require 2:1 offsite enhancements” notes Buxbaum. “This groups benefits in one large project instead of lots of little projects, concentrating benefits for the highest environmental return”.

    There is still debate and confusion about this idea. City Councilman Nathaniel Jones has expressed concern: “in the latest draft staff added more zero setbacks allowances for restaurants and other uses that are not water-dependent. I’m not sure that’s what the Council wants.” Kevin Stormans comments that “some people’s vision is to erase everything from the water, make it all public access.” Buxbaum observes that “people jump to conclusions when they hear about setbacks. Views range from ‘all setbacks are good’ to ‘all setbacks are bad’.”

    There are also diverse views about sea level rise. Buxbaum notes that there are many businesses built over the water, and some areas are already inundated during King Tides. “How will they pull back?” he asks. “We need to partner with property owners to plan for seawalls and revitalize the waterfront.” Stormans is skeptical of the concern over sea level rise. “This will not happen quickly. Property owners should take care of their own, and each property is different. This needs to be more thought out.” Chrissy Bailey notes that sea level rise is not required by state guidelines, but that the City needs to consider “the most recent available technical information”. “But it can be a part of setback discussions” she observes. “The 30 feet might be needed for a berm or wall.” But she believes the tools are not really there yet to address this issue through the SMP process.

    Does the SMP address the Capitol Lake – Deschutes Estuary controversy? Keith Staley observes that Capitol Lake is regulated shoreline, but that the SMP can apply under any future scenario, or be amended if needed. Mayor Buxbaum says “the City gets to decide basic land use patterns, but our role is limited for State and Port lands.”


    Finding the Community’s Vision 

    Over the next few months, the Olympia City Council will hear from local residents and make a decision. The SMP will go to Ecology for approval, but for the most part this is the home stretch.

    I asked Chrissy Bailey how Olympia’s process compared to other jurisdictions. “For some jurisdictions it’s business as usual” she says. “Lacey had mostly lakes so it wasn’t very controversial. Thurston County is difficult because of its variety of uses and conditions. Olympia is updating for the first time in over 15 years and they are trying to grapple with issues and find balance.”

    Why should citizens care about something as arcane as the SMP update? Bailey talks about public access to the shoreline. “How does it feel down by the water?” she asks. “Is there human scale development? If you are on a trail, are you standing next to a wall, or is there some space for people? People want a vibrant shoreline with things to do, but with access, and consistent with their values about Puget Sound.”

    Kevin Stormans notes that her are a lot of ways to approach the SMP. “There’s room for a combination” he says. “Retail, residential, restaurants, a yacht club, and open space. And not all industrial either. Diversity is good.”

    Bob Jacobs calls for a long view. “And not just 20 to 30 years” he says. “Where will there be a quality walking experience on the waterfront? We need restoration targets to allow for berms and trails. And we need to decide where to abandon and where to defend as the sea level rises.”

    Mayor Buxbaum sees the waterfront as a convergence zone. “We need to build agreement on commerce and environmental challenges at the place where the Deschutes watershed meets the Sound.” For citizens he has a message: “This is the opportunity to establish the basic framework for how Olympia’s waterfront will look. If the Boardwalk is important, you should care. If it’s important to have waterfront access while shopping, or just to make sure Olympia gets it right with the mix of uses that will keep the City vibrant – you should care.”

    Pondering the debate over the SMP brought back memories. Walking to Percival Landing to look at tugboats after a nice dinner downtown. Watching a glorious sunset over Budd Inlet and the Olympics while sipping wine at Anthony’s. Watching hundreds of canoes from Tribes all over the Salish Sea converge on the Port peninsula to be welcomed to old Cheetwoot. And that moment that happens so often as I drive up East Bay drive, watching the marina and the bay and the wildlife and the sunset over the snow-capped Olympics, and think “damn it’s good to live here!”

    In the end the SMP isn’t really about 80-some pages of policy and regulations. It’s about our relationship to that area where the land meets the water, and how to make it better for the future. ◙

  4. St. Peter’s Hospital workers on strike

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    Last Monday I left work and drove to St. Peter Hospital. As I parked my car I wondered where the rally was. No problem – I followed the sounds of guitar music and cheering filtering through the damp cedars. As I stepped onto Ensign Road I found a festive crowd of over a hundred men, women, and children standing in the parking and bike lanes waving signs and cheering the musician who was just finishing. Dressed in white ponchos and SEIU purple the crowd was in high spirits and oblivious of the slowly drenching drizzle. Behind the stage a purple sign declared “United for Affordable Care”.

    These were St. Peter workers and members of SEIU Local 1199. Normally they would be serving meals, moving patients, preparing instruments, or cleaning the hospital. On that rainy Monday they had walked off the job on strike. Their complaint hadn’t changed from when I talked to them in January (see OPL Issue…). In the middle of difficult negotiations, and working without a contract, Providence St. Peter had imposed a new set of health insurance plans. Workers were seeing the paychecks shrink and medical costs climb. They had had enough, and in early March gave notice to St. Peter that they would strike.

    Mingling with the crowd, I met Tumwater Councilwoman Nicole Hill. I asked her why she was there. “This is the county’s second largest employer. If people can’t spend money in the community it affects us all.” She explained she’d been following the negotiations for many months. “I didn’t expect things to go this way. I support the strike because Providence got it wrong.”

    As Hill left me to address the crowd, I met a St. Peter worker named Abbey Bruce – a vibrant red-haired young woman with an earnest smile. “I’m a C.N.A.” she said. “I do vital signs, and help patients walk and use the bathroom.  My husband has cystic fibrosis and with the new health plan my husband’s treatment costs went up $400 a month. I did the wellness tests, but the bonus is not enough to make up for the losses.” She keeps smiling but there are tears in her eyes. “I don’t like feeling like I’m letting him down. He works and I took a second job.” She expresses appreciation for the support from local leaders. “Everyone seems to understand that a hospital should provide good health care to its employees.”

    In the crowd I run into Steve Segall, a state employee at DSHS. “The Local 443 Executive Board voted to support the strike” he explains. “We want health care workers to be healthy. There are bills in the State Senate to do to state workers what St. Peter is doing to their employees. We need to stand with these employees and fellow union members.”

    After more chanting and singing in the drizzle, the rally ended, strikers headed to a tent for some pizza, and I headed home.

    I contacted St. Peter for comments, and their spokeswoman Deborah Shawver directed me to their website. I had a follow-up question: are you declining to negotiate over the health care benefit package? Shawver responded: “We have discussed benefits in many sessions and we have encouraged SEIU to propose other constructive options.   They have not proposed any.”

    But at the rally Local 1199 President Diane Sosne had told me of how they worked cooperatively with Group Health to design a health care benefit program. She told me “They wanted to work with the union and redesign the program. We focused on prevention and chronic disease management. We call it ‘value-based health care’. In four years costs have gone up only 4%. We offered the same concept to St. Peter, but they said ‘no go’.”

    The striking workers have been holding daily rallies. Reportedly at least ten legislators have participated. I checked in with 22nd District Representative Sam Hunt: “I had a meeting with St. Peter lobbyists last fall, but have heard nothing since.  I wrote an op ed that appeared in The Olympian last week.  I have met with SEIU several times, and their lobbyists give us daily updates.  I was at the hospital at the beginning of the strike and walked the picket line with them.  I stopped by this morning and cheered them on.”

    The strike is scheduled to last the rest of this week, and by the time you read this it will be over, at least for now. Local 1199 says St. Peter has made no attempt to contact them. Workers are frustrated that their employer, who they see as “a company making more than $200 million in profit and paying its CEO $3.1 million”, is taking additional health care costs from their modest salaries. Elected leaders are calling for Providence to do better for their employees and for our community. And for now, Providence remains silent.

  5. St. Peter’s Hospital responds to our 1/23 article…


    From Deborah Shawver, Director, Public Relations, Providence St. Peter Hospital

    I am writing in response to your recent article about Providence St. Peter Hospital [in the January 23 issue]. We’re disappointed that the article didn’t include our side of the story – and omits some vital information, including:

    1. Our current contract offer to SEIU and our employees includes a wage increase and benefit package with three distinct health plan options, vision and dental, plus a retirement plan. This contract offer is very competitive with other regional health care providers and includes salary increases at a time when many state workers have been living with wage freezes for several years.

    2. We’ve met with SEIU 16 times since June. We’ve responded to dozens of requests for information and have bargained openly and in good faith. It’s unfortunate that SEIU chooses to use rhetoric and provide misleading information to the media and others, rather than meeting with us to settle this matter for the benefit of our employees and the community that counts on Providence St. Peter Hospital for care.

    3. The rising cost of health care benefits is a local, regional and national issue. While some hospital employees may pay slightly more for health care benefits, others may pay less. And, employees who complete the wellness incentives are eligible for contributions to their health accounts of up to $1400 (for a family) to pay for out-of-pocket health care costs anytime, including before they meet their deductible.

    4. As a mission-based organization that has cared for our community for more than 125 years, we sincerely hope to settle the contract as quickly as possible. We believe our offer is competitive and balances the needs of our patients and community with our obligation to treat our employees with respect and fairness.


    OP&L reporter responds


    From Paul Pickett, OP&L reporter

    I was disappointed that no one at Providence St. Peter Hospital could answer my questions when I contacted them. Instead I was offered an extended presentation at a later date – after the deadline for the paper.

    I have no doubt that St. Peter has made an offer they think is fair. I also have no doubt they’ve been meeting extensively, since they’ve apparently been in negotiations over a new contract for over 6 months. But I doubt they are providing a straight answer about their health care benefits. It’s possible that someone could work the system to come out ahead. But clearly the majority of employees will be paying more for health care.

    But that’s not the main point. St. Peter imposed these health care plans on their employees and have refused to negotiate with the union who represents them. For that reason, just a few days before OP&L published my article, SEIU filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint the National Labor Relations Board.

    St. Peter claims they are balancing the needs of patients and the community with the need to treat workers fairly, suggesting fair pay and benefits will hurt the community and patients. But as the article notes, many of our elected leaders are concerned that Providence’s position is harmful to the community. And many of those leaders are also concerned about the quality of patient care when St. Peter appears to be relentlessly cutting corners.