The Mercer Island City Council and senior staff meet at the Community and Event Center on Feb. 4 for the group’s annual planning session. Katie Metzger/staff photo

Mercer Island City Council identifies I-90, residential code and financial sustainability as top priorities

At its Jan. 4 planning session, the Mercer Island City Council discussed its goals for this year, concluding that several ongoing issues need to be solved before the city can take on new enterprises.

Councilmember Dave Wisenteiner noted that the city is already undertaking “massive projects,” such as negotiating with Sound Transit and other agencies on Interstate 90 access and loss of mobility mitigation, shoring up the city’s finances and updating the residential development code.

In the agenda for the meeting, City Manager Julie Underwood noted that the first two topics Wisenteiner mentioned are “obvious goals” for the city. She said that improving communication, outreach and community engagement is another priority.

Ross Freeman, the city’s communication manager, presented to the council later in the day about the different tools, including social media, press interviews and the city’s MI-TV channel, e-newsletter and website, that he uses to engage with the public. The council’s communication subcommittee agreed to discuss different strategies, including polling, Facebook videos or virtual town halls, at a later date.

The council also decided that this year, its members will transfer some of the responsibilities they have taken on back to staff. The group discussed the need to “realign” toward a manager-council (versus mayor-council) form of government, now that it has hired Underwood as its new permanent leader. The city had two interim city managers in 2016, which Underwood said left a “power vacuum.”

Other council members mentioned parks maintenance and public safety as top priorities. Underwood said both of those were part of the city’s daily operations. About 80 percent of staff resources are already spoken for, Underwood said, and it’s the council’s job to prioritize the remaining 20 percent.

“[These goals] tell us what you think staff should be spending time on,” she said. “Time is a limited resource.”

To address the levy lid lift, Underwood said she would like to use some of her own time to form a “diverse community stakeholder group of 25‐30 Island residents” and discuss the city’s operating and capital funding needs with them. She also suggested moving that discussion back to the second half of 2017.

“Trying to engage the public on a third major issue [in addition to I-90 and the residential code work] would likely overwhelm Mercer Island residents, the council and staff,” according to the meeting agenda.

Longtime Councilmember Dan Grausz said that the council should put something exciting on its plate this year, like a capital projects levy or a Town Center development proposal, though some other members disagreed.

“Let’s finish what we started, and be excellent at what we’ve already committed to,” Wisenteiner said.

Mayor Bruce Bassett said that the council needs to “eat our vegetables” before thinking about other projects, citing the ongoing Interstate 90 negotiations as a top priority.

Councilmember Wendy Weiker agreed that the council should “hunker down” and “get back to basics,” though Councilmember Jeff Sanderson said he would like to see the council put “a little sugar on our bread.”

Deputy Mayor Debbie Bertlin said that opportunities for exciting projects could come out of the I-90 negotiations, such as improving bike routes across the north end of the Island. City officials have previously stated that they expect some mitigation funds from Sound Transit to help improve the intersections and parking situation around I-90.

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The City Council identified several goals for 2017, including “realigning” staff and council relations and mitigating I-90 loss of mobility. Katie Metzger/staff photo

From left, Mayor Bruce Bassett, Councilmember Dave Wisenteiner, Councilmember Jeff Sanderson, City Manager Julie Underwood and Councilmember Benson Wong discuss the Mercer Island’s priorities at the Feb. 4 planning session. Katie Metzger/staff photo

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