‘It’s all about the people’: Erin Murray reflects on first year of city council service

Erin Murray, far right, poses with members of the Mountlake Terrace Garden Club. (Photo courtesy Erin Murray)

Whether she’s working in the garden or governing on the Mountlake City Council, Erin Murray enjoys planting both seeds and ideas, and watching them blossom.

In additino to serving on the council, Murray — a Mountlake Terrace resident since 2008 — stays busy raising her two young children, gardening and working as a human resources manager for the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. Her city involvement started with work as a volunteer for the campaign to push for a new City Hall building. Her efforts since have included helping the Mountlake Terrace Garden Club at beautification events and subsequently serving on the Neighborhood Parks Improvement Subcommittee.

Running as a first-time candidate for an open city council seat last year, she was elected in November 2019 and was sworn into office on Jan. 2, 2020 for a four-year term.

After her first year on the council, during which the COVID-19 pandemic upended normal governance work, Murray participated in an interview about her experiences as a new councilmember. Her answers here have been edited for length and clarity.

Erin Murray

What are some of the city council efforts that you are most proud of?

“My main driver for running was that I think civic engagement is critical. I think government makes better decisions when they have more voices at the table. On the plus side of that, I think one of the really neat things we’ve seen around civic engagement is that we have seen different folks step forward. So, for me that has really been one of the most exciting parts of this last year (during the pandemic) because we have had to think differently about how we offer opportunities to engage that has allowed folks who haven’t traditionally been able to access in-person meetings in particular, has allowed them to participate more freely and more often, which has been really neat in a virtual setting. I will fully recognize that a virtual setting creates different barriers for others and so…as we move forward and we do get back to a place… where we are able to meet in-person, how we balance the benefit of utilizing technology to allow those who aren’t able to attend in-person to do so, while still giving the opportunity for those who showing up in-person is an easier way to access participation to do that as well?

One of the highlights for me this year was bringing to council the (idea of) sending out of masks to residents. That was something that I had read another community had done and in talking to residents, I think that was still in a point in time after COVID was still kind of in its very early days where there was a lot of folks who didn’t know where to get a mask and they were sold out everywhere and it was creating a lot of additional stress — especially for folks who are not as tuned in to technology. So that was a huge undertaking. I was really appreciative that my fellow councilmembers were all on board with moving forward with that and it took a Herculean effort from staff to get those all out, both through the mail as well as through a number of in-person giveaway events. We got such positive feedback; I think it was a really important step in trying to ensure that we were keeping residents as safe as possible in those early months as well as ensuring for the businesses that were open that their staff were able to be as safe and healthy as possible and keep themselves open.

What’s been the most enjoyable part of your first year?

The interviews that we have done for the commissioner roles that we have selected this year. We created a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Commission, which I’m incredibly proud of, and so getting to meet with residents who raised their hand and were willing to share their time and talents with our community, it is so inspiring. I have had the opportunity to connect with a lot of people in our community, and I know that we have amazing people here and ultimately, it’s, one of the many reasons, why I love living here. Every time I got to talk to them, I’m like, ‘We have such incredible people here in Mountlake Terrace!’ Getting to hear people’s backgrounds, stories, interests in serving our community and their passion around it and providing new on-ramps to civic participation was definitely one of the highlights.

(Murray said she also enjoyed going through a similar process recently to fill two open positions on the Arts Advisory Commission.)

For me it’s all about the people, and I will say that continues to be the highlight. I think that’s been one of the hardest things this year is that there have been limits to the ability to connect with our residents. So, when I have had those opportunities even when they were all virtual in nature, getting to at least be on a video and interact directly with our residents was really amazing and inspiring.

What skills do you leverage or apply from you job in human resources to your role as a councilmember?

One of the things that HR is often tasked with in organizations is thinking about the big picture. So, I think one of the things that I bring into my role on the city council is really trying to ensure that any decision that we are making…that I recognize not only the direct impacts, but the indirect impacts. I mean, when I’m at work it’s how is that decision going to impact our employees and when I’m on the city council, it’s how is that decision going to impact our residents? For me, having people at the forefront, is that translates through strongly. The ability to have tough conversations is something that HR professionals are typically well-versed in. You come into a group where we are seven individuals, all with different perspectives, and we have a community full of residents who have their perspective as well. Being able to listen all of the perspectives and then look for opportunities to find solutions that ultimately are in the overall best interests of the organization or the community in the case of city council. And then be candid and clear in why and how that decision was made are all things that I think translate very readily from my day job.

What has been the most difficult part of your experience?

It’s probably the obvious answer, but I do think that COVID-19 has dramatically impacted not only the work that we do as a council, but just how we do it. I will say that coming on as a new councilmember in that moment it has presented challenges that I didn’t anticipate…the inability to develop camaraderie and relationships and those sorts of things both with members of the council, city staff and residents. So it’s been much harder to meet new people and to develop those relationships — that was obviously a fairly big surprise to me.

Additionally, one of the things that surprises me is how rarely we hear from community members around issues that we are talking about as a council and voting on. And I will say that because of that the power and impact of residents’ voices really is incredible. The weight of someone taking the time to reach out directly to the council and share their thoughts is significant and meaningful, and so I would definitely encourage residents to do that. One of times that we do hear from folks tends to be around when we’re looking at land use and they are often for quasi-judicial proceedings.

(Murray then explained that such instances don’t involve members of the council making value judgments on a proposed project or the area of its location, but rather looking at the current laws and zoning regulations to ensure that the proposal is consistent with the legal requirements necessary to proceed. Murray admitted to feeling she didn’t fully understand that distinction before her time on the council.)

What has surprised you most as a councilmember?

The limited amount of time we hear from community members and the power that those communications have. Also, we have council meetings and public-facing events that people see, the part that maybe wasn’t surprising but definitely has been more than I anticipated was the amount of preparation it takes to walk into those meetings prepared. There’s a lot of reading and prep work that goes into ultimately being ready to walk into those meetings and be informed and ready to have a conversation and/or make a decision around the proposals and the work that we have on our agenda.

Now that you have a year of experience, if you could go back and tell yourself something prior to being elected, what would it be?

What I would say to her and anyone else who is interested in participating, playing a larger role in our city is just to do it. I mean, I had a lot of doubts and wasn’t sure about raising my hand candidly and being like, ‘OK, I can do this.’ And I think there is a lot of value in our city hearing from folks that have different perspectives. I think I would encourage myself to do it again. I don’t know that there’s any way I could have anticipated nor planned around the realities of COVID and how that has impacted both our work at a city council level as well as my professional work, my home life and kids’ lives. I think it is important work and to have people who care about the work and our community. I would probably just provide words of encouragement and say that as challenging as it has been at times, it is something that I absolutely feel like I have been able to add value to our council and provide value for our residents. And so all of the challenges of the year have been absolutely worthwhile.

What are you looking forward to during the next year at the city level?

One of my goals here this first year — the Washington Association of Cities has a certificate of municipal leadership, so I am looking forward to wrapping up my required credits for that next week. So, (I’m) excited for that. As I have went about learning how to be a good city councilmember for our community, that has been really helpful to go through that training and ensure that I have good fundamentals and understanding of the work that the city does and my responsibilities as a councilmember. I’m excited to get that checked off and then they have an advanced certificate of municipal leadership that I’ll start working on after that.

I was appointed as our liaison this coming year for the Alliance for Housing Affordability. I think that is something that is top of mind for lots of our residents as costs continue to rise, we have people who have lived in our community a really long time who are being forced out of our community. So I think as light rail comes, we have lots of exciting things going on and figuring out how we ensure that there are a variety of housing options at different price points to allow for folks to live in our community; both who have been here and are coming here.

How do we maintain civic engagement? That’s top of mind for me this year — is how do we maintain the increases we’ve made there and build on that as we move out of the pandemic? I think the other thing that’s top of mind and that we’ve had some good conversations around recently as a council is economic development, and how do we bring more businesses to Mountlake Terrace as well as more job opportunities that pay people wages that ultimately allow them to live close to where they work.

And obviously getting through COVID, I mean that’s probably the biggest, I probably should have started there. But getting to the other side of things, helping ensure that our residents are able to connect with their vaccination needs and getting to a place where we can return to some normalcy, both from a recreation perspective as well as a business perspective. Those are all things I’m really excited for and hopeful that we’ll get back to a place where we’re doing in-person events and we can have some of the things that we look forward to as a community and that bring us together.

Do you have any final thoughts?

I’m grateful for the opportunity. I appreciate the trust that the citizens of Mountlake Terrace placed in me. I’m looking forward to this second year and hopefully getting to a place of normalcy where I actually get to spend more time with our residents.

— By Nathan Blackwell

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Real first and last names — as well as city of residence — are required for all commenters.
This is so we can verify your identity before approving your comment.

By commenting here you agree to abide by our Code of Conduct. Please read our code at the bottom of this page before commenting.