Editor’s Note: With the general election five weeks away and ballots soon to be in the hands of voters, the Courier-Herald is publishing a three-part debate between Black Diamond Mayor Carol Benson and her opponent Judy Baxley. Part 1 of the debate asks the candidates questions concerning the city, and what they would do as mayor to address any issues. Part 2 will be a chance for candidates to rebut their opponent’s statements, and Part 3 will wrap-up with final statements.
BENSON: As a local resident for over 38 years, I will work hard to protect the quality of our Black Diamond community. My vision is a slow growing development that takes into consideration our roads, transportation, schools and protection of the environment. I will preserve our small town atmosphere. I frequently volunteer at the Black Diamond Community Center and am an active member of the Lake Sawyer Community Center.
BAXLEY: I am running for mayor to bring new leadership to Black Diamond. We need quality services from our city government and genuine progress. Our town is not a divisive, negative place… but our City Hall has become just that. As mayor, I will chair the City Council meetings respectfully and ensure proper meeting procedure is followed according to the council’s determination. I will respect the residents’ tax dollars and votes by ensuring their elected Council Committee meetings are properly noticed by staff, and held at your Council Chambers. I won’t lock the council or you out as has happened over the last year with the incumbent. Fiscal management is extremely important, and my administration will hold the line on taxes and fees. We will welcome all ideas to make our financial management better. State law says that only the City Council has the authority to change and set the city’s budget and that the entire budget requires council approval. State law also gives the City Council approval authority over all contracts. I will honor these basic laws, and we will all save money and have better service for it.
As mayor, I will be fair but firm to make sure that the developers live up to their obligations too. The goal will be a gradual growth that works with the businesses and residents that live and work here now. I will work with the developers’ projects and the City Council members to make our city a vital and welcoming city to all.
One of the biggest issues Black Diamond is currently facing are the Oakpointe housing developments. What is the executive branch’s role with the developer and its projects, and what do you think the city is able to do presently to ensure both it and its residents benefit from the developments?
BAXLEY: The city has a duty to ensure that the interests of its residents are protected. Over the years I have learned that a majority of residents want to protect our rural town. They are worried that the size of the development will swamp our roads with traffic, making them unsafe and horribly congested. They are worried that the development will damage our environment. They are worried that public services including schools, fire, and police will be reduced. They are worried that higher taxes and sprawl will hurt their quality of life and reduce their property values.
The mayor is responsible for ensuring that all permit requirements are met and that the developer follows best management practices. High quality independent review of development depends on the mayor insisting on it. Professional judgment that scrutinizes every decision regarding traffic, finances, environmental protection, mine hazard work and more depends on leadership from a mayor that insists that the people’s rights and protections come first.
The mayor is responsible for the implementation of the Oakpointe development that was approved seven years ago as the “YarrowBay” development. Many citizens protested that approval and subsequently voted out the mayor and council members who approved it. The current mayor now supports the Oakpointe development and has granted the developer many concessions. She brought back the law firm that was recommended by the developer and was responsible for the original approval. She granted between $10-$30 million in developer fee concessions, a decision that will increase property taxes. The current mayor’s administration has no staff that are qualified to review the developer’s submittals and this was likely a factor in recent violations of the city’s construction standards.
There are many decisions that will need to be made next year and over the years that follow. Should the development agreement be extended past 2026? Should a new taxing district be created to pay for the developer’s infrastructure? How should the new traffic concurrency study be conducted once the first 14 percent of the housing is constructed? Which staff and consultants are best qualified to review future subdivision and building permit decisions? How should changes and variances be decided? Should the project be revised?
It is critical that these decisions be led by a mayor who has a demonstrated commitment to the public interest. I respectfully believe that the current mayor has failed that test.
As your mayor, I will do everything in my power to lawfully control and manage the YarrowBay/Oakpointe development. My initial steps will be to: work with the council to create and fund a professional and independent planning and development director who will be responsible for the thorough review and management of the Yarrow Bay/Oakpointe development; Cooperate with the council to retain a new law firm that is qualified in land use law; and assure the YarrowBay/Oakpointe group that my administration will abide by all of the city’s legal prior commitments. Our new relationship will be founded on mutual respect. We will trust but verify.
BENSON: As the mayor and acting city administrator, I will oversee the staff to ensure they follow their regulatory responsibilities including enforcing city codes, state law and that the Master Development Review Team sees that all the conditions of approval have been met with the approval of the city attorney.
We must make sure we have adequate and educated staff to implement the development agreements and insure we preserve our institutional knowledge of these agreements.
As the city grows, it spreads the fixed costs of providing services across more units, thus lowering unit costs and enabling taxes to stay low. Growth will also bring more crime and calls for service. I will ensure that both police and fire have the manpower and resources to maintain our levels of service.
The past two years have seemed to put a financial strain on the city, with multiple lawyers, lawsuits, public disclosure requests and other related costs draining city resources. As mayor, what financial strategies can you suggest to bolster the city’s coffers over the next two years?
BENSON: Under my administration I have stabilized the finances and have increased the fund balance over the past two years.
We have had a clean audit performed by the State Auditor’s Office with no adverse findings. We expect to issue 100 residential building permits in the next year.
We also have included in the 2018 budget the construction and sale of 54 housing units: five in the arboretum, 14 in Lawson Hills Estates and 35 in the Villages. Currently we have in permitting three commercial buildings along state Route 169 and three commercial units in the Villages.
This construction activity will increase sales tax, REET (Real Estate Excise Tax), future property taxes, fire impact fees and traffic mitigation fees as well as bringing much needed economic development to our city. The water and sewer connection fees will increase city utility funds to help with improvements to our existing local infrastructure.
BAXLEY: First, I will follow the law and return Black Diamond to normal practices followed by over 100 other mayor-council cities in Washington.
The City Council has contract authority and this includes contracts for legal services. The incumbent mayor has been astounding in her disregard for this basic fact. Instead of using the contract legal services the council voted for at a much lower hourly rate, she pays a high-priced law firm who serves only the mayor. The mayor’s law firm has created much of the city’s current legal trouble and keeps escalating our need for legal services and legal bills. The mayor has no authority to spend our tax dollars to pay this firm because they have no council-approved contract. The mayor has a duty to uphold contracts approved by the City Council, and using the properly contracted firm would be a great step toward reducing costs.
I won’t seek unusual and questionable legal opinions to suit my needs. The incumbent’s practice of doing this has created unnecessary conflict and litigation. The incumbent mayor has refused to properly chair council meetings according to commonly accepted “parliamentary procedure.” As your mayor, I will do my duty under the law to properly run council meetings in accordance with the rules of the council. Even if I disagree with the vote I will uphold it. This will allow council meetings to be conducted efficiently and in turn save staff and attorney expenses.
The cost of public disclosure requests has skyrocketed under this mayor. The simple away to reduce costs is to make more information available online, upfront. The people have been asking for years to get more development related information online. I have personally had the experience of being told development information is online, only to find out that important information was not online, and that only after waiting months for a public disclosure request. Posting information online allows public scrutiny of projects and leads to better projects. Timely disclosure of deals made between developers and the mayor and staff will save time and money, and improve the quality of development reviews.
As mayor, I will open government up to the people. My staff will issue public notices for every council and committee meeting. People are shocked when they learn that the incumbent has ordered the clerk to not issue notices for many council meetings. I will end this illegal practice, and save future legal expense. As mayor, I will not spend any money that hasn’t been budgeted by the council. In the last two years, the incumbent mayor spent over $4 million more than the budget without prior council approval. According to state law, the budget amendment must come prior to the spending, not after the fact. This gives the council and the mayor the chance to carefully scrutinize spending through a budget amendment, and will result in savings and more careful money management by council and staff.
Aside from the developments, various lawsuits, council rules and governmental relations, what are some other large issues you believe the city is facing? As mayor, how would you address these issues?
BAXLEY: The people are concerned about getting good value from government for their tax dollars. We don’t need to spend more; we need to manage our resources effectively.
The incumbent mayor’s refusal to hire a professional city administrator, instead keeping this power to herself, has resulted in ineffective management and expensive legal fees to do work that a competent administrator could do for less.
The incumbent is using expensive outside consultants to do work that in-house staff should be doing. The council authorized funds in the 2016 budget to solve these problems, but the incumbent vetoed that budget.
As your new mayor, I will work with the council to thoroughly reform the city’s budget. We will establish performance requirements and reduce taxes and fees. I will respect the council’s role under state law, and stop the current practices of over-spending the budget and paying invoices without council approval.
Police and fire protection are two of my top priorities. I don’t think it’s a good use of money to pay multiple officers to attend city council meetings. We have had issues with property crime and I will task our police leadership with how to deal with those more effectively. The public and I are disappointed that the incumbent has politicized these two vital public services. I will establish a culture at City Hall that respects all residents and council members equally.
We must maintain our roads, fixing potholes and doing other timely maintenance. In the last round of pothole fixes done by the city, the street where the most money was spent was the side street where the incumbent mayor lives. At the same time, Roberts Drive was torn up and a constant source of frustration for local drivers.
Many neighborhoods have maintenance and improvement issues and we should distribute road resources fairly. Necessary road projects are being delayed or designed improperly in order to facilitate projects for big developers. Our transportation planning needs to have a better balance between solving existing traffic problems and accommodating growth.
The incumbent mayor has damaged our city’s relationships with other local governments and state agencies. She unilaterally cancelled agreements with the cities of Covington and Maple Valley without the authority of the council, and without even notifying them. Her administration misled King County regarding water supply issues. Grants from the state have been put into jeopardy because she has refused to work collaboratively with the council. The state auditor feels the need to more closely scrutinize management. The regional reputation of the city has plummeted under the incumbent mayor’s watch.
As your mayor, I will respect the council as an equal branch of government as required by state law. I will not exceed my authority. Petty squabbles will no longer define our regional reputation. This will begin a beneficial cycle of trust. City staff will be empowered and encouraged to create an atmosphere of public service and respect for everyone. We will deliver new leadership to the city of Black Diamond.
BENSON: We need to complete our city’s Comprehensive Plan which will bring us into compliance with state law and eligibility with most grant programs.
We also need to update our Parks and Trails Plan making us eligible for state parks grants. Our municipal codes need major upgrades, which will require additional manpower and the involvement of our city attorney.
We need another fire station on the east side of the city and need to set aside funds and plan for a future bond issue so that all citizens will have equal and reasonable fire and emergency services. The North Commercial Stormwater Pond needs to be completed to divert the runoff from the current commercial businesses along SR 169 and improve the water quality that affects our streams, creeks and lakes.