Election season is off to an early start for the candidates running for Position 6 on the Mercer Island City Council and Position 4 on the Mercer Island School Board. Since three citizens signed up for each race, they will have a primary on Aug. 1 to narrow the field before the Nov. 7 general election. Ballots were mailed July 12.
The City Council candidates are Mark Coen, Elaine Kavalok and incumbent Benson Wong. Their signs already line Island streets, and they’re speaking at a Mercer Island Rotary meeting on July 18.
Wong, an attorney and 33-year Island resident, has been on the council since 2014. He has previously served as president of the Mercer Island Community Fund, a board member of the Mercer Island Schools Foundation and the superintendent’s Diversity Advisory Committee.
Wong said he decided to run again because he “truly loves living on the Island,” and he wants to help the council move in a more proactive direction, especially with city finances.
“We need to stabilize our finances and try to deal with projected deficits in advance,” he said. “How the council does that depends on what the community wants.”
His first term was busy, with the library renovation, E. coli contamination, impact fees, code rewrites, transportation issues and the hiring of a new city manager, but he said it gave him the experience and the regional connections that he said will help him to continue to make a difference.
“The key is to focus on things that concern the Island, but we live in a greater region,” he said.
He said that his priorities, if re-elected, would be identifying how to use funds from the $10.1 million settlement with Sound Transit, monitoring the new development codes in Town Center and Mercer Island neighborhoods, reengaging the community on sustainability efforts and working with the Chamber and local businesses to continue to develop vibrancy downtown.
“I’m proud that we helped redirect the development of the Island,” he said. “The next four years will be important in terms of seeing if development is occurring in line with what people hoped and planned for.”
Wong said that “vibrancy” could include the Mercer Island Center for the Arts. He said he is committed to making sure Youth Theatre Northwest stays on the Island, while not giving MICA any special treatment.
Wong said that he wants voters to know that he is a person of integrity who values public safety, sustainability and being a welcoming community.
Kavalok, a consultant and 11-year resident, has never run for elected office before, but has served on the board of Make a Wish Washington and Alaska, and believes her business skills and experience will be an asset in city government.
Kavalok decided to run during the Town Center process. She said that the council members seemed to “just go through the motions of listening to the citizens, but had already made up their minds.” She said there was “an explosion of citizen activism” from people who wanted more transparency from their representatives.
She said that the main issues currently facing the city, including negotiating with Sound Transit and rewriting the residential code, may be wrapped up by the time new council members are sworn in. The looming issue is the projected budget deficit.
“We would need to cut spending … or figure out additional revenue, or some combination of the two,” she said. “What is the best avenue to pursue? What do people across the board have an appetite for?”
Kavalok said she would also be involved with identifying opportunities for whatever goes next into Town Center, and trying to get inroads with the federal government to regain access to the Island Crest Way ramp.
“As a council member, I would be focused on Mercer Island,” she said. “You have to think regionally, but still represent the wishes of the people who live here.”
Kavalok said that she would not come into office with a pet project, but would take a more holistic approach to issues, looking at facts and data and the impact on the Island and the region. She said that MICA, “in whatever form it ends up being, should not be a budget line item for the city.”
Kavalok said she wants voters to know that she is a “person of action,” “but I do it softly, and rationally.” She is only accepting campaign donations from Mercer Island citizens.
Coen, a social worker and 17-year Island resident, has served on the Youth and Family Services board and has been involved with Mercer Island schools, Rotary runs and forest stewardship programs.
He lives on First Hill, and decided to get involved with the residential code process to figure out how to maintain the Island’s neighborhood character.
“I’ve felt in the last five years that we have been under attack, with all of the development,” he said.
He said the biggest issues that the city will face over the next four years are balancing the budget, finding community solutions to the Island’s transportation problems, reforming city code enforcement, increasing communication and regaining the trust of the citizens.
“The special interest projects and the lack of transparency have led to a fundamental mistrust and frustration from citizens,” he said.
Coen’s father was a three-term mayor of Huntington Beach, but he has always thought of himself as “more of a community and social activist, a behind the scenes worker.” But he decided to run because of his frustration with the current council and political climate.
“I feel like we’ve been out of balance,” he said. “When push comes to shove, Mercer Island seemed to be the variable … It’s a common theme that we end up getting overrun.”
He said that as a council member, he would also work to overcome some of the polarization on certain issues, whether it’s pro- or anti-MICA, pro- or anti-development or residents versus region. He said that MICA should have been put to a vote.
“I don’t think it’s productive, nor does it necessarily reflect what citizens are feeling,” he said. “Engaged citizens make the Island great, and we don’t want to lose that.”
Coen said he wants voters to know that he would focus on safety (which includes emergency services and mental health counselors), efficiency and transparency. He is also not taking any off-Island donations.