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Full text of City Council Q&A
A Q&A interview was conducted with City Council candidates Dan Grausz and Ira Appelman, both running for Position 2, on Oct. 3. An edited version of the interview was published in the Oct. 14 Reporter. Below is the full text with minor editing.
Q: What are two "must-do" projects that need to be completed in the next three to five years?
My priority would be having outstanding transportation: HOV access, preventing I-90 tolls, dedicated spaces for our parking and not narrowing Island Crest Way. The other thing that I'm interested in is neighborhood protection. I think our neighborhoods are under attack. There are many examples of that and so I would like to prevent a lot of those things from happening by bringing Islanders more into the game. For example when they [the city] tried to put the fire station in Mercerdale Park or when they tried to put the housing development in upper Luther Burbank Park. When the public did get involved, they didn't want that. They wanted the fire station built where it was and the park where it was.
Q:Do you feel that these issues are the same issues that Island Citizens are concerned about?
IA: Yes. Island citizens are extremely concerned about transportation and that's one of the top things. The reason the city did not narrow Island Crest Way is because they got a huge blow-back in e-mails, which I recieved on record request. And also, no tolling on I-90 is incredibly important. As far as the neighborhood issues. The problem arrises when it hits your neighborhood. When it hits somebody else's neighborhood, then it's not your problem. When Tent City came in, without even discussing it with the neighbors, then everybody was up in arms. When density housing was going to go on the water department property [on first hill] everybody was up in arms. So I think we need to get the public in faster. Now the Council is saying they made a mistake and should have put the public in earlier, but it's something they should of known because it's happened many, many times before.
There are a few critical issues that involve the Town Center and [Island Parks]. Town Center has multiple components to it, one of which currently is transportation.
The Council has gone on record of being opposed to I-90 tolling. The only caveat that some of us have identified on the Counil is if they do toll 520 and there is a much greater diversion of traffic onto I-90 than the consultants are now projecting and I-90 comes to a grinding halt, then we have to reassess the situation because the one thing Islanders want even less than tolling is a parking lot on I-90.
I think its all well and good to say 'I'm against tolling,' full stop. It's a great sound bite and you can try to pander to voters in that way, but my responsibility as an elected official is not to just pander to voters. It's to come up with things and insure that Islanders have mobility. That they're able to get out and off this Island. Right now, based on what the consultants are saying, we can all agree that there shouldn't be tolling.
In terms of Town Center. We have an opportunity in conjunction with light rail, which was supported by a majority of Islanders, to ensure that we have a Town Center which provides parking and a community meeting area, which really becomes a dynamic meeting center. The City Counil knows that we need a signature project in the Town Center which will become a public meeting place and provide parking for people to use light rail. I think that in the next four years, our ability to make that happen will be an important gauge of the success of this council.
The second thing I mentioned is parks. We have some unfinished work. The majority of voters approved both the parks levy and parks bond issue. It wasn't enough. We didn't have 60 percent on the bonds issue, but the majority approved it. We need to go back to the voters and put together a package which will be approved. It's clear that a majority of Islanders want to make sure that we protect our shorelines, restore our wetlands and rebuild our trails and we take care of our playgrounds. That's what that bond issue would have done. It's unfortunate it went down. The timing was off -- in the middle of the worst recession in 80 years -- but we have unfinished business and I intend to do what I can to get it approved.
Q: What projects are underway at the city that could be scaled back or discontinued?
Dan: That's an interesting question. I haven't thought of that because this Council generally doesn't work along time on something and then abandon it... Given our limited time, generally we always move forward with things we feel need to be accomplished. It's more usually an issue that we know we have to solve a problem, and we may zig or zag to get there but eventually we'll come up with a consensus. Sitting here today I can't tell you there's something we've worked on in the past six months which I think is going to go by the wayside. Clearly there's the situation of Island Crest Way and Merrimount. The Council needs to get to some resolution on that. It's been going on for a long time. There are a lot of very strong opinions on the subject and no utopian solutions to what we've got here. It's very straight forward. We've got a road situation where, however it was designed 30 years ago, people were not thinking far enough ahead. It's something that proceeds my involvement in the Council. It proceeds Ira's involvement with the Council. We've got to come up with a solution.
Ira: I think putting bikes onto Island Crest Way; they can delay that for a long time. There's a plan to put bikes between 68th Ave. S.E. and 53rd -- and I think they need to scale that back. We need to re-think what's going on on East Mercer Way and West Mercer Way and try to figure out how bikes and cars can use that facility before we now dump a whole lot of bikes onto Island Crest Way, which doesn't have many bikes now. The other thing is the huge development in the Town Center. That should really be scaled back. The Town Center Plan has collapsed. The original plan was to take parking lots and put them into parking garages. And now, with the angled parking between Noah's and QFC, the whole thing has completely collapsed... The other thing is when you see seniors and others running across mid-block connections. I can name five or six locations of where that happens: Aljoya to the former Safeway building; also, Tabit Square to the restaurants across the way; QFC to Noah's bagels... So I think we need to take a breath on [Town Center development] and bring in some new consultants -- not the old consultants -- and try to figure out the significant problems that are there now.
Q: With potential changes ahead on I-90, how can the Council preserve access for Islanders yet be a positive partner in the regional need for reduced congestion?
I'm happy to be a contributor but I'm running for Mercer Island, I'm not running for the region. We've got King County people in the region. Bellevue and Seattle are very strong advocates of Bellevue and Seattle. They don't care about the region. Seattle has a very strong push to put tolls on I-90. I think we need to push back. We never would have had access to the center lanes if we had not had a strong council at the time. I'm happy to do regional cooperation but it doesn't seem reasonable that you've got a bridge that's already paid for and you have to now pay for 520 by tolling us on our bridge... It's very important for us to unite regionally with Issaquah and North Bend who don't want tolls on I-90. I'm happy to be a regional player, but our Park-and-Ride is overcroweded by regional people. The bikes are coming here from all over the place. You can't drive on the weekends along East and West Mercer Way. We need to be regionally cooperative but we need to have somebody speaking out for us. We need to park our cars at the Park-and-Ride. We need to be able to use our roads.
What you're seeing is a great example of the politics of fear and that's all that Ira really likes to play to. Lets try to pit the bicylists against the motorists. Lets pretend there are hordes of Islanders that want to take over our parks and take over our roads and park and ride. It's a mentality which Judy Clibborn and Fred Jarrett and others have warned this Island against time and again. People like Aubrey Davis, who anyone will acknowledge is really the godfather of what we have with I-90 now, all recognize that the way Mercer Island has always banned its interests is working together with others in the region. Aubrey, Judy [Clibborn] and Fred [Jarrett], who support me, understand that what it takes is not someone to sit there with a fortress Island mentality, but it takes someone willing to say 'Mercer Island has its interests and we need to work with other governments to pursue those interets but also be part of the region.' I know that Islanders, as evidenced by the fact that a majority of Islanders voted for light rail, understand the same thing that the Council understands: Things are only going to get worse on I-90. More and more housing is being developed as you go east on I-90. SR 520 is getting jammed up, forcing more traffic onto I-90. We have got to find a solution to enable Islanders to have mobility off and on the Island and eventually, if we didn't put in light rail, at some point there wouldn't be that mobility. Islanders have voted for light rail. That decision's already made. What we need to make sure is when light rail is eventually put in, Islanders will use it. We need to get designated parking. We have an agreement done to the Memorandum of Understanding that will ultimately insure that we get that parking. Ira doesn't believe that, but I am convinced that it will. That ammendment, which we fought for, ensures that we will maintain mobility. At the same time, we've also protected Islanders in terms of the new HOV lanes that are going in the outside roadlanes.
There's this notion that somehow this council doesn't adequately protect Islanders. I think this Council, going back long before I was on it, has time and again stepped up and made sure that Islanders are protected. There's absolutely no quesiton in my mind that the current council is equally dedicated to making sure that we provide parking, mobility and access. We will accomplish that.
Q: Working with the school district has been declared a city priority. As two separate bodies that conduct business in very different ways yet serve the same community, conflict has arisen in the past. Even now, there are issues, such as PEAK, that create problems. What specific ways can the city assist the school district with land use and other overlapping interests?
DG: We have worked for the past eight years now on the notion of shared facilities with the school district. We've worked together on the [Islander] Stadium project, on the PEAK project, which has allowed us to have shared facilities not only between the City and school district but also the Boys & Girls Club. We're just finishing up an agreement on the South Mercer Playfields, which again is a shared facility. The school district owns those fields and the City will now provide money to improve them and maintain them. The city is providing money to maintain the athletic fields behind Island Park and Lakeridge. We're talking with the school district about possibly doing some sort of shared office space because the school district administration building is very old and has to be replaced in the next 10 years. If we can come up with a joint facility with the city, it's going to have great savings for Islanders. That kind of dialogue -- I completely support and have been an integral part of. I've been on the ad-hoc committee. I enjoy the endorsement of every member of the School Board and almost every former member of the School Board. I'm very proud of what we've been able to do with schools. The youth counselors - we got funding for this when the program was in jeopardy. The same is true for Youth Theatre Northwest -- we supported them. We work for all age groups on this Island. It is particularly essential that we make sure the school system is supported. When people are asked, 'Why did you move to Mercer Island?' You've got public safety and you've got schools. That's their answer. There's no question that the key to maintaining public safety and property values is ensuring that our school system remains strong.
IA: I think there should be cooperation. My issue is more what happens in the neighborhoods with this cooperation. My focus is not on the big-shouts who are making the deals... My problem is when [city and school district projects] roll over into the neighborhoods and when the [city doesn't] tell neighborhoods ahead of time what is going on. PEAK is a good example. Actually, the neighborhoods spent a huge amount of money opposing PEAK and there was no agreement where the neighbors were happy, as was written up in the newspaper and as the Council said. The neighbors just ran out of money, so they had no options left. What they got was laughable. What they didn't want was three basketball courts right next door, which is going to be a huge traffic issue for them, and that's what they got. It had nothing to do with the Boys & Girls Club, it had to do with rolling over neighborhoods, which happens not only with agreements between the school district and the City, it happened with Tent City and density housing. These are all cases where neighborhoods get invaded and, unfortunately, Islanders do not care as much when it's somebody else's neighborhood that gets invaded. When it's their neighborhood, then they ask 'What's been going on?' The issue going on now is the moving of the [school district] bus barn [from behind Islander Stadium] to the City Hall area. I used to run at the track, and when they start up those buses, especailly in the fall and winter... it creates this huge cloud of noxious air that you have to breathe. The [city] needs to warn the people in the Mercerwood area that this could be a problem for them. But this has all been going on behind the scenes. Then they make an agreement, and then you're a nay-sayer if you don't go along. So, my problem is not cooperation but that the city and school district involve citizens -- the neighborhoods that are going to be affected -- at the earliest possible point. And they don't do that at all.
Q: Ira, you often criticize the Council and point out its failings. If elected, you will become a part of the Council. If you continue to disagree with their decision-making, how do you plan to avoid conflict and find common ground?
IA: That's the thing that Dan's been running in his campaigns. But the question I have for him, is if Dan is so much of a leader and so cooperative, why hasn't he been elected as a leader by the community he has served? I have been. While I was on the Open Space Conservatory Trust, I was elected sectretary in the second and third year and then I was elected vice chair. I don't have any problem cooperating with anyone. The idea that a legslative body should be unanimous all the time is just something that they're making up at the City Council. It never happens throughout the world. So, just because you are advocating positions; my focus in not on the council. I'm worried about getting the public to agree on some proposal. The public is never unanimous, but I spend all my time working with the public. What I've found, as in Mercerdale Park, when the public decides that something is the way it should be, the council comes running along. They were 7-0 with putting the [Mercer Island] Fire Station into [Mercerdale Park], after working with the public, which was unanimously against it. Once the public was for it, the council went along. We conducted two senior debates. Dan said we had to have a moderator. Well, we didn't have to have a moderator. I didn't have a problem cooperating with Dan in doing those debates. The timer said that she was so impressed that even though we disagreed very much, we could do this sort of debate without a moderator. My point is that, in the past, I have cooperated with other people. I think Dan is doing the back-room dealing and he's offending people. That's why he's not been elected to anything on the Planning Commission. He's the only person I know who hasn't been elected after two terms on the Council to some leadership position. I was elected immediately to a leadership position and I think I've cooperated very well with people...
I've been working with people without political power for positive things. I haven't just been saying no.
Q: Dan, you've been on the City Council for several years now and have expressed pride at how the seven members have learned to work together. In what ways can the Council be improved?
DG: I think that there's no question that we learn from every experience we undertake. We've acknowledged that the way the Tent City situation was handled was not our finest hour. It needed to be done differently and I think we've learned from that. We won't make that mistake again. I was very much involved with the PEAK project in terms of trying to come up with a settlement with neighbors. And while Ira will want to characterize that as a bad settlement, it was something the neighbors supported. The neighbors got more out of that settlement than they ever would have gotten out of the conditional use process they were going through. I worked many hours on that with the Boys & Girls Club and school district. That's the type of way I opperate. We have an amazing Council in many ways. People now look at [U.S.] Congress and they look at the state Legislature and see people getting on TV and chastizing fellow Congressmen and legislators and they see the [King] County Counil butting heads with each other. You don't see that on Mercer Island because we understand that to get something done, you have to act like responsible men and women. You have to be able to communicate. You always have to talk with each other, not at each other. That's been a hallmark of this Council and something that I've been very proud of because I've pushed for it ever since I've been on the Council in the last 10 years. What Ira's characterized as not being a leader on the Council, to be perfectly candid, I do not have time to be mayor. I do not have time to be deputy mayor. What I do on the Council I do because I can do it at the meetings at the Council. I'm on multiple committees. I'm leason to the design commission. I'm chair of the parks committee, I'm on the ad-hoc school ad-hoc committee. I've previously been liaison to the Planning Commission. I've been on the Youth and Family Services Board. I'm on the Open Space Conservatory Trust Board. I have no problem being appointed positions that offer responsibility. I've no desire to be secretary of the Open Space Conservatory Trust Board. That's not a leadership position. The way I work on the Council is to work with my fellow Councilmembers to try to find common ground. That's not a simple process. Everyone on the Council has very unique life experiences. There are lots of good things they bring to the table. And they all have big egos. You don't get elected unless you have a big ego. Working with these people and working with their ideas and expereinces -- coming up with something that we can agree on. In this day of age, when you see the political process the way it is, I think that most people give a sigh of relief when they look at Mercer Island and see that we're able to work with each other and actually get something accomplished rather than sit there and fight and bicker. Ira can say he's going to be mister positive now, but he's got a long reputation that has the word "no" next to everything. Time and again and again.
Q: Budgetary constraints and Islanders' tax dollars play a huge role in Council decisions. Do you feel prepared to make prudent financial decisions, taking Island taxpayers into consideration?
Very much so. Mercer Island is unique among governments during this recession. It's not sitting there with a budget deficit. It hasn't had to tap its rainy day fund. It hasn't had to cut services. We've actually been able to still provide additional funds to Youth Theatre Northwest and for the school district counselor's program and that's because we are very well fiscally managed. I give a lot of credit for that to the staff. We have great people working for our city in terms of their financial abilities. I don't want to say its all the City Council that's made this happen, but we also have a very strong City Council in terms of fiscal management. As you know, I'm senior vice president of Holland America Line. I manage over $.5 billion worth of budgets. El Jahnke is very heavily involved in business management. He's president of a very significant investment company. Mike Cero has a great background in Packard and in the military. Mike Grady is responsible for managing budgets with the federal government and Bruce Bassett used to own his own business. Steve Litzow owned his own business. These are all people who have real-life experience dealing with budgets, dealing with managing, dealing with making sure that you don't overextend yourself. What you're seeing in this recession is the result of that. With our effort and with the staff's effort, we've been able to keep Mercer Island unique among governments in almost the entire country. We have one of the strongest bond ratings in the entire country. We didn't overextend ourselves and we're in great financial shape. There's no question in my mind that we will continue going down that road.
IA: Rich communities tend to be in reasonable financial states. We are a rich community. We don't have big-city problems. If you look at [King] County and Seattle, you can see why they have big-city problems and we don't. In terms of our bond rating, the bond rating is strong because Islanders have been very tough on the Council in making them prove it before they go for bonds. As I've mentioned many times, in 1998 the Council put forward a $19.5 million bond issue. We didn't go for it. In fact, I was part of a leadership group that stopped that. Not because we didn't want a new community center or remodled community center but because we already had the money. The Islanders needed 60 percent and they got 33 percent so Islanders voted and said they didn't know what they were doing and they were able to build the community center anyway without that bond. Therefore, $19.5 million that we would have had.. isn't on the city's badge. Similariy in this last election, Dan tried to put $30 million in debt onto the city, but we stopped that. Again, I joined the public to help stop that and he got $15 million in debt rather than $30 million. What's happened is that Islanders have made clear to the Council that they have to be responsible and they can't just pile debt onto the city. In terms of the budget itself, it has to be balanced so unlike the federal goverment which can run a deficit, we cannot. So the budget will always be balanced. The question is how much debt will there be. The reason we don't have a lot of debt is because I and others have joined together to talk with Islanders -- not the council -- and the Islanders have said 'No.' The reason for our fiscal strength, beyond being a rich community, is that the council, which wanted to put more debt on its citizens was prevented from doing that.
Q) What is the most important thing that each of you, as individuals, can contribute to the City Council?
IA: I'm drawn to people who don't have political power. As a result, I've spent my time working in neighborhoods, getting different solutions for people who feel left out of the Council. Dan says, 'Come down to the council and tell us what you want.' Regular people who go to the Council are completely ignored... At mercerdale park I joined with people. At Clise Park I joined with neighbors who didn't want cell towers in their park. All over the Island... So I've worked with people to get positive solutions. They might not be positive from Dan's point of view, because he didn't like what I did. But it's been positive from neighbors' point of view. I was elected Citizen of the Year  for working with others to prevent more Seatac aircraft noise from coming onto the Island. So I've got a long, long history of working with people... I've worked with neighbors to get done what they want and sometimes we've had to tell the Council 'No' and when we tell the Council 'No,' they don't like it. They want density housing in the neighbohoods, they want Tent City. His claim that the [City Council] learned something; they didn't learn anything. [Grausz] was on the planning commission. He knows the procedure. He knew they weren't following the proceedure. It was completely unfair, now the neighbors had to sue. As a result, they didn't learn anything. They just were caught and we'll see what the Supreme Court says (LINK TO ARTICLE). I've been getting positive solutions and working with actual people who don't have power.
DG: I think people who know me know that I'm honest with them. I don't make up things like $15 million in debt. The city didn't approve $15 million in debt. The voters didn't approve $15 million in debt. They approved an annual levy. I don't make up 7-0 votes. That's not the way I deal with people. People have learned over the years that when I come to them I'll be honest with them, I'll be open with them. I will admit my shortcomings and my mistakes and that I'll work with them to find a way to solve problems. That's why people who are involved with the PEAK project, who know that we had some very hard negotiations to make, they're supporting me in this election. That's why people in the Tent City project, even though they weren't happy with the way the Council did it. I've gone back with them. I've met with them and I've gone there time and again for more meetings and tried to make sure that we do make ammends when we mess up a process. That's why I've got support from them as well. People on the Council; I've been unanimously endorsed by my former council members. Ira will characterize that that an old boys club, but the fact is that the Mike Ceros and Mike Gradys of the world -- oposite sides of the political spectrum -- they understand what I bring to the mix and that is the ability to talk and work with people. I told this story at Aljoya house; The day after I got elected I called up El Jahnke and Sven Goldmanis, two people who are much more politically conservative than I was, and I said to them; we need to work together and we have worked together. We don't agree on a lot of things all the time but we do find lots of things to agree on because that's the quality I bring; honesty and openess and the willingness to work with people. When I stand up, people don't sit there and know that I'm going to harangue them or yell at them. That's not the way I conduct myself. That's what I have brought for the last 10 years and would hope to do for the next four.