Election 2021: Brier mayoral candidates discuss their positions in virtual forum

Dale Kaemingk
Hisham “Sham” Othman

Candidates running for mayor of Brier recently participated in the League of Women Voters of Snohomish County’s virtual forum in advance of the Nov. 2, 2021 general election.

Current Mayor Dale Kaemingk seeks to retain the position he has held since the Brier City Council appointed him last year to fill the remainder of longtime Mayor Bob Colinas’ term. Kaemingk’s opponent is Hisham “Sham” Othman, a first-time candidate for city office.

Kaemingk is a retired structural engineer who has lived in Brier since 1997. Before being appointed mayor in July 2020, he had served on the council since 2003. During his time as a councilmember, he served in several different liaison positions and also was mayor pro tem.

Othman has lived in Brier for 11 years and works as a director of international finance with Seattle Colleges

A four-year term, Brier’s mayor is a part-time position that pays a monthly salary of $1,000.

Opening and closing questions were shared with the candidates in advance of the forum. Other questions were not shared ahead of time, however each candidate was made aware of the issue areas that the forum was likely to cover. Beforehand, community members were able to submit recommendations of local issues and questions they’d like to be addressed.

Each candidate was given 60 seconds to respond to questions and 90 seconds were allotted for their answers to the forum’s final question. The candidates were given the first response to questions on a rotating basis.

Participants were first asked what qualifications and experience make them a strong candidate for the mayoral position.

“I see myself as an outsider with fresh ideas and fresh approaches,” Othman said. Many of the current city council and administrative positions in Brier have been filled by the same people for approximately the last 15 years, he said, “and I think it’s time for a change.” In addition, his professional experience working at a state agency has made him familiar with rules and public records requests.

As a result, “I believe I can bring in some technology ways to be more efficient and streamline things,” Othman said. “I have that fiscal background as well as four years’ experience as an auditor of pension plans, health plans and unions. So I have a variety of what I’ve seen and I think I’d be a good fit for City Hall.”

Kaemingk said, “Politics goes a ways back in my family — my dad was the mayor and on the city council in the city I grew up in.” His professional experience includes 20 years of serving as a managing partner at an engineering firm, “so I have a lot of experience managing people,” he added. Kaemingk noted that in his many years on the Brier City Council, he’d served “in all the different liaisons – the budget, public works, community development and planning,” and “also served on union negotiations” with the two unions representing city employees.

Since being appointed to the position last year, “I’ve learned a lot as the mayor of Brier about budgeting and day-to-day operations,” Kaemingk said.

The candidates were then asked about the biggest issues facing Brier and what strengths the city can call on to resolve them.

“I think one of the biggest challenges is our police department and getting that back,” Kaemingk said. “I’m fully in support of having our own Brier Police. We’ve lost some police officers and we had the unexpected resignation of our police chief so I’m working hard to bring officers back and we’ve also hired a nationwide search firm to search for a new police chief.” Those efforts have recently yielded some applicants for the position, he added, “so that’s really good news.”

“Budgeting-wise, we’re in pretty good financial shape as a city, but we do have limited resources that we can — as far as increasing taxes — we’re limited by state mandates,” he said. “So knowing what’s important to the citizens of Brier, having been involved for 16 years I think I have a good indication of understanding of what Brier citizens want done with their resources that we steward.”

Othman said he “completely” agreed “the police department is one of the biggest challenges facing the City of Brier.” He noted the city’s comprehensive plan calls for the minimum level of service to be one officer per 1,000 residents, and said with a population of approximately 6,500 residents “that would put us between six and seven officers – we’re currently only at two. So we have far exceeded that minimum level of service and (I) believe that we need to look at bringing on new officers as well as retaining” the ones the city has, he said.

“I believe looking at how to maybe increase their pay through my approach of streamlining things, budget cost savings would be a way to accomplish that,” he added. “Further we have development in the City of Brier, but maintaining that minimum lot size as well as outside the city and then there’s traffic concerns. I believe just the increased number of people passing through is one of the biggest challenges as well.”

The candidates were given a chance to expand on their thoughts about the city’s police department, its staff size and funding.

“Currently the two officers we have is not enough,” Othman said. It doesn’t meet the expectations laid out in the comprehensive plan and “it’s a tight operation if one officer needs to go on vacation or take sick leave, we’re then down half the officer staff,” he added.

Bringing in staff from the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office (SCSO) to cover shortages “is not the same thing,” Othman noted. “I can personally tell you that our officers know our residents, they know what goes on and how things should appear….I think we need to increase our population of officers to that six or seven and we can’t look at filling in from the SCSO as an alternative.”

“We’ve had staffing issues in the City of Brier police for as long as I’ve been on the council,” Kaemingk said. “Because we are a small city we tend to sometimes draw younger officers and then they tend to sometimes move on. We are using a temporary contract with Snohomish County,which I negotiated because the former police chief left us unexpectedly.”

He added, “We do have adequate service, we do have two Brier officers but we’re supplementing them while we’re searching for new applicants. I’m pleased to say that we have recently had four applicants and that’s a huge improvement over what we’ve had over the previous years. I’ve been looking for new applicants and I’ve also been participating in the search for the new police chief.”

Kaemingk said that policing is a challenge and he felt that changes recently made by the state legislature will make it more difficult. He also noted that neighboring cities are having similar issues hiring and retaining police officers.

When asked whether they thought 236th Street Southwest, which borders Brier and Mountlake Terrace, should be opened, both candidates said no.

Kaemingk said, “We talked about it as a (city) council years ago and got input from a lot of the community and by and large that street closure — even though some citizens would like it to be open — it’s been our understanding…that most citizens would like it to remain as it is.”

“That does force traffic onto other streets,” and “traffic is an issue as Brier has become kind of a thoroughfare as the county gets developed out,” he added. Some of the streets that are main transits through the city are determined by Snohomish County, he noted, meaning the City of Brier itself can’t make certain changes. “I think it should probably remain closed as it has been for a number of years,” Kaemingk said.

Othman said he agreed that “236th should not be opened. We’re currently at an interesting point with things, because of the pandemic a lot of folks are working from home and finding that they can do their job just fine from home therefore removing that need for commuting.”

“In addition, Mountlake Terrace, the park and ride, has light rail coming in about three years and that may change the way folks commute to work, instead of driving it might be public transit all the way,” he added. “I’ve spoken with a few residents who’ve expressed not opening it as well and completely agree with that. I think it will create just another bottleneck potentially” and “we should look at alternative ways to address the volume of vehicles.”

The candidates were queried on what options they would support to keep housing options affordable in the city.

Othman noted that the City of Brier currently has a minimum lot size requirement of 12,500 square feet so that it can’t be overdeveloped. “In respect to keeping it affordable, I’m not sure what as a city government can be done aside from maybe subsidies or working with certain builders to create like low-cost housing,” he said. “But again it’s single-family homes with that minimum lot size, so you’re a bit restricted unless the city council decides to change the municipal code.”

Kaemingk said housing affordability is an issue throughout the Pacific Northwest and “Brier was developed, it was created to have large lots and nobody wants to change that.” He added that people enjoy having more space, bigger yards and sometimes bigger homes. “The leadership and the citizens really have not wanted to have multi-unit family (housing),” Kaemingk said. He noted there is a way for residents to create an additional dwelling unit on their property, “so that’s one thing that can make it somewhat affordable.”

“We have high requirements with respect to development,” he said, including the quality of new houses built and surface water management measures, which are important to maintaining the quality of local streams. “And so unfortunately that does add to the cost, but we pretty much like Brier the way that it is.”

The candidates were asked about their strategies for working productively with colleagues and members of the public whose ideas and/or life experiences are different from their own.

Kaemingk said, “It’s been a pleasure to be a part of the (city) council for 16 years and because I’ve had that experience I’ve got to meet a lot of people,” and “feel like I know kind of the heartbeat of the city because of my exposure – the years that I’ve had to hear the citizens talk.”

He also touted interactions with neighboring cities’ officials, including regularly scheduled meetings held with other mayors in the region that he said have helped to identify and prioritize common issues when seeking county, state and federal resources.

Othman said in his experiences, “I always try to find common ground.” When ideas have come up professionally in the past that may make other people uncomfortable ,“I would reassure them personally,” adding he would work to find “common ground of what we can agree upon. I think in the end there’s always a way to make it work,” he said.

Both candidates were asked what they felt the most pressing environmental issues the city currently faces are and their proposals to address those.

Othman noted that protecting local habitat for wildlife, including trees and streams, is important in urban growth areas and particularly to mitigate the effects of large properties in Brier being subdivided. “Keeping Brier the way it is,” with an abundance tall trees and wildlife present is crucial, he said. “I’d like to keep it as it is but allow for some more development — kind of just finding that balance of everything.”

Kaemingk said Brier is relatively young compared to other cities in the area, “but our infrastructure is aging in certain parts of the city so I have (had) a focus on making sure our stormwater system and our sewer system are getting the inspections and repairs they need.” He added, “those repairs are not inexpensive and as a civil engineer I know how these things work and I know where to focus those priorities.”

Surface water management and the state’s requirements for runoff are getting more stringent, he noted, so it’s important to make sure “that we have the equipment to not only clean our streets, but to deal with the hazardous waste created when we pick up materials” from them. He added that ensuring the city’s streams and ponds are well-kept is crucial. Kaemingk said he’s also worked to make sure that city staff is not falling behind on regular inspections of ponds and vaults and is making repairs to those as needed.

The candidates were quizzed about what the City of Brier’s plan should be to deal with existing or potential racial inequities.

Kaemingk said the city “doesn’t have a whole lot of racial divide, it’s mostly pretty consistent, although we are getting some new residents that are coming in and as I’ve walked the city I’ve met a lot of them. They seemed welcomed to be there and as I speak to them I want to make sure that they feel welcomed, that they’re getting to know the opportunities that they have to participate in city functions.”

He noted feeling it’s about neighbors getting to know one another and “that’s why I think it’s important that we reestablish some of the community events that we’ve had to push back because of the pandemic.” Kaemingk added that he’s been strongly encouraging city staff and volunteers to get those events “back on board so people of different nationalities and races and different origins get to meet each other in our wonderful city.”

Othman said that as a person of color whose parents were both immigrants to the U.S. from Palestine, “I’ve always been one in my upbringing throughout life to always look for and support the minorities to make sure they get an equal and fair share and equal voice as well.”

He added that he welcomes whoever wants to live in Brier regardless of their background. “I myself am an example of that and love our city, our residents and really appreciate the support I’ve gotten from all groups,” he said. “I think it’s just a great place, a melting pot and encourage future growth of diversity in our city.”

Finally, each candidate was asked if they had additional issues or information they would like to bring to the community’s attention.

Othman said during the pandemic, “The City of Brier had the opportunity to obtain COVID-funding from the government, but they elected not to do so and let that money go. That money could have been used for certain things such as sewer upgrades, as Dale had mentioned those are rather costly, or even overhauling the bathroom at Brier Park.” He noted that both of those would have been eligible as approved uses for those funds.

“A vote for me would make City Hall more transparent and accessible,” he added. “I would make meeting minutes and supporting documents online available to all residents so you don’t have to attend the meeting to be there and know what was discussed.”

Othman also called for further investments in technology, saying that at his job with a state agency he’d saved Washington more than $1 million over a span of 10 years because of a process he previously implemented that is still used. “I would bring that same type of approach to City Hall to save the residents money, use the funds elsewhere, potentially including paying for Brier police officer funding,” he said.

In addition, Othman pointed out that some of his ideas he’d previously brought up with city staff were already being implemented such as the development of a frequently asked questions page on the city’s website. As a result, “changes are coming and I’m happy that the residents are going to get the benefit of that,” he concluded.

Kaemingk said, “There are different moneys available to the city from different agencies. I would disagree that those moneys can’t be used for all of the different things that potentially we would like them – unfortunately they do come with strings.”

The mayor also said that”one of the advantages that I have being a retired person: I’m in City Hall during the day and I’ve had a chance to interact with the staff,” adding that “as mayor it’s very important to have those personal interactions with them during that time. Kaemingk also noted that he’s participated in several meetings with different agencies and other mayors that typically take place in the daytime.

Kaemingk said he believes his longtime experience as an engineer and manager of a firm have been helpful. “The proven leadership that I’ve shown on the city council and all the department interacting on all levels,” has also been a byproduct of that experience, he said. That has “come through many times helping our staff make good decisions about what should happen with our resources and the development that’s going on.”

Public safety is one of the main functions of city government, he added. “And budgeting carefully — we have limited resources, so we have to make sure that our money is used well, and I’ve worked hard to make sure that happens,” Kaemingk concluded.

The League of Women Voters of Snohomish County is a nonpartisan organization. Its candidate forums are virtual and pre-recorded. Audio recordings of the forums are available here and video recordings can be viewed here.

To learn more about the candidates:

Mayor Dale Kaemingk’s website can be viewed here.

Hisham “Sham” Othman’s website can be viewed here.

— By Nathan Blackwell

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