MLT Election Watch 2013: City Council Position 5

To help prepare Mountlake Terrace voters for the Nov. 5 General Election, will post the responses to questions asked of the six candidates running for City Council Positions 3, 4 and 5. Here are the comments, in their entirety, of Bryan Wahl and Leonard French, candidates for Mountlake Terrace City Council Position 5. (A reminder that you can also watch video interviews of these candidates here.)

Bryan Wahl
Bryan Wahl

Bryan Wahl
Small business owner, WAHL Strategies
Mountlake Terrace residents for 16 years Why are you running for election to Mountlake Terrace City Council Position 5?

Wahl: I am running to keep Mountlake Terrace moving forward. While serving on the Planning Commission the past 14 years, I listened and developed plans that reflect the vision our citizens have for Mountlake Terrace. Last year, I was appointed to the City Council, where we are implementing those plans and taking steps to realize our dreams. I have a strong understanding of public policy and experience researching and analyzing issues. My knowledge of the issues and ability to balance needs amongst varying interests helps develop a consensus on the challenging issues facing our city. What accomplishments from your current term on the city council are you most proud of, and what would you like to accomplish, if re-elected, during your next term?

Wahl: We must maintain our efforts to attract business and economic development and continue to carefully set our tax and fiscal policy to deliver services necessary for community safety, provide quality recreational programs and maintain our roads and parks. As your city councilmember, my priorities continue to include:
– FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY: Ensuring responsible and sustainable budgets that direct resources efficiently and effectively to achieve the city’s vision.
– ECONOMIC VITALITY: Creating jobs and economic development opportunities by fostering a healthy business environment and adopting strategies that attract new business to our city.
– QUALITY CITY SERVICES: Delivering services necessary for community safety, provide quality recreational programs and maintain our roads and parks. What traits should city council members be looking for when considering a new city manager?

Wahl: The next city manager for Mountlake Terrace will need strong leadership skills, demonstrated experience attracting jobs and encouraging economic development by fostering a healthy business environment, and understand how to implement sound fiscal policies through a sustainable, performance-based budget that prioritizes programs with a focus on achieving community goals, delivering quality services, and living within our means, while maintaining strong reserves. Our next city manager should have the ability to communicate well with the city council, our citizens and staff, implement the city’s vision and goals, and be able to inspire others to achieve greatness. What is the best solution for fulfilling the need for a Mountlake Terrace City Hall?

Wahl: Our long-term solution is to build a new civic center on city owned vacant property in our city’s Town Center, where our old city hall was located. Should the City of Mountlake Terrace continue renting office space for Interim City Hall? If so, then for how long?

Wahl: As a short-term solution, the city will need to continue renting office space for the Interim City Hall. The lease term will need to be long enough for the city to identify a permanent solution, while also considering the best lease rates available (three to five years, depending upon negotiations). Are you in favor of putting another municipal bond measure for the purpose of building a new city hall / civic campus before city voters? How big a bond would be necessary to complete the civic campus project?

Wahl: While a majority of voters have supported previous bond measures on two separate occasions to fund our civic center, the yes votes did not meet the 60 percent threshold needed to pass. Based on my conversations with citizens, coupled with feedback from community surveys and focus groups of residents, the public supports building a civic center. The voters did not vote against constructing and owning a new city hall. They voted against the measures because they believed the cost was too high. The City Council must follow a very deliberate process, reaching out to both supporters and opponents of the bond measures, to find common ground, develop a scaled back version of the project and move the City closer to achieving this key community objective. Are you pleased with the rate of economic development occurring in Mountlake Terrace at this time? If so, does that indicate there is no longer a need for the city to push for additional incentives or spend marketing money to attract more development? And if not, is that then a failure of policies established by the city to attract development?

Wahl: Mountlake Terrace is viewed as a leader of economic development and infrastructure improvements. Our city has effectively laid the proper groundwork by adopting plans, strategies and policies for economic development, including the Economic Vitality Strategy, the Town Center Plan, and the Comprehensive Plan. We’ve adopted several incentives to encourage economic development in our city that I was able to lead as both a longtime member of the Planning Commission and city councilmember. In addition, the city continues to make effective investments to spur economic growth by identifying funding for infrastructure (roads, water and other utilities) needed for redevelopment and revitalization in our city. Further, we are making a concentrated effort to network and market our city to builders, developers and the business community. Our efforts are paying off. The results speak for themselves; these policies are revitalizing the city’s downtown and spurring economic growth citywide. Despite the fragile economy, Mountlake Terrace has seen exceptional economic growth and hundreds of new jobs in the city. Our efforts to bring economic vitality must continue until we have fully achieved our vision for a revitalized Town Center and prosperous business climate throughout the city.

Leonard French candidateLeonard French
Real Estate Analyst
Mountlake Terrace residents for 40 years Why are you running for election to Mountlake Terrace City Council Position 5?

French: The council needs someone who represents the sentiments of the community. What would be your biggest priority if elected to the city council?

French: Following my neighbor’s wishes rather than trying to impose the expertise of others concerning how our community should operate. I would emphasize openness about our finances and our planning process so that the basis for major decisions is reflective of the larger community and easy to understand. Do you feel there is enough healthy debate among the current members of the Mountlake Terrace City Council?

French: Votes on virtually every important subject are 7-0. There is really never any debate, let alone dissent among the current councilmembers. This is really no surprise since all of them except the mayor was originally appointed or anointed to their seat. They were chosen based on their agreement with the direction already taken by the sitting council. Our departed city manager told council in August that “revenue collections are not expected to increase or recover anytime in the near future.” (8/19) In September (9/16), council unanimously agreed to float a bond to pay back the money borrowed to finance five years of rent, which is due at the end of the year. Despite the clear caution about revenue expectations, you won’t find a word of debate about that bond or the potential impact on our General Fund because it wasn’t debated or even discussed. It was part of the consent calendar at their September 16th meeting among procedural matters not requiring discussion. They don’t want to discuss something that will cost a depleted General Fund that much money because there is an election inconveniently scheduled for November. They also conveniently re-scheduled the official decision on a 3-year lease extension in their current space. They will get to all of this in December, which is I guess when they might discuss where the money is going to come from as well. What is the best solution for fulfilling the need for a Mountlake Terrace City Hall?

French: The best solution is the one which we can afford. Were it a choice between renting for $500,000 per year for 30 years or paying $1,500,000 per year (+ operating expenses) for 30 years for a bond, I would choose rent because it is much less expensive. But renting for $500,000 isn’t really affordable either. That calculus might change were a reasonable ballot number offered. What won’t change is that, for the next seven years, we will be paying back the loan taken out for rent over the past five. (Yes. the rent money was borrowed.) Since that cost will be close to $300,000 per year (principal and interest), paying an additional $500,000 annually for rent over the next three years makes our current situation doubly difficult. I would consider using space we already own at the Ballinger Clubhouse and our public work’s building, supplemented if necessary with either small rented spaces locally or rented modulars. This strategy would provide a lower cost solution until council can fashion an affordable bond measure or other long term path out of the financial corner they have painted us into. I know there has been much discussion concerning using the Clubhouse for an expanded Senior Center. I see the current choice as either using that space as part of an affordable stop gap to avoid even more years of expensive city hall rent or using it to house the Senior Center. Affordable administrative space is a greater need than a larger senior center. How much taxpayer money would you be willing to spend to build a new City Hall/Civic Center for Mountlake Terrace?

French: First, what we need is not a civic center, but a city hall. That’s all we have now and it is all we had before the old one was demolished.
Without straight answers about the budget for this project, it is difficult to deconstruct and then reconstruct the projects they have been proposing in order to isolate why they cost 2-4 times more per square foot than comparable projects in either the public or private sector. What is known is that the stand-alone city hall was estimated to cost $4.4 million in 2003, then $6 million in 2006 and closer to $8 million in early 2008. The discrepancy between $25 million and all of those figures must first be understood before anyone can give an informed answer about how much taxpayer money is necessary to build a city hall. I don’t believe taxpayers will burden themselves with any 30-year bond until they feel the city is leveling with them. Are you pleased with the rate of economic development occurring in Mountlake Terrace at this time? Should the City of Mountlake Terrace spend more or less money on incentives and marketing to attract new businesses and development to the city?

French: Economic development means different things, not always requiring significant public policy interventions beyond zoning changes. At least at our city hall, the presumption goes further. Serious money continues to be spent on “downtown revitalization”, the theory that incentivizing new buildings is an investment with returns worthy of the effort. It is a debatable theory which our council has never debated. That debate might begin by explaining all of our economic growth before incentives and marketing. Virtually all of the retail, office and industrial development here, not to mention all but a handful of residential units, pre-date 2006. We were and are desirable to such businesses based on our pre-existing attributes. Those include all that makes us attractive to the people who keep buying homes here; that’s the people who live here and vote. Economic Development has become code for “more population density”, which may be fashionable at city hall, but isn’t around town. Density will not just impact the old downtown. “Downtown” now stretches along 56th to the county line and along 236th to I-5 even though many of the affected homeowners are barely aware of what’s in their future. The diminished parking requirements and the increased traffic which accompany the new density allowances will impact all of the single-family neighborhoods bordering this expanded downtown. Do you believe City of Mountlake Terrace officials have been purposefully manipulating financial figures to mislead its residents? How would you make city government information more open and available to city residents?

French: I have sent numerous examples of questionable numbers associated with the Civic Center propositions and the reporting of our financial health to MLTnews. Where to start? Our General Fund ran large deficits every year from 2006-2012, depleting most of our cash cushion in the process. As I mentioned in the answer above, John Caulfield made it very clear as he departed that the revenue picture for the next few years portends more of the same. That reality did not comport with the campaign for a new Civic Center and so it wasn’t accurately reported. The picture painted by the city was of an operation in the black even as the pages of their financial reports told a totally different story. Had the city been forthcoming about our financial situation as the economic downturn exploded on to our General Fund, it is doubtful any expensive proposition would have had even a slim chance among voters. Do I think the city knew this? Yes! The comparison between owning and renting presented in nearly every City Happening newsletter for a year was blatantly inaccurate. It did not include operating costs in the ownership column. Normalized so that the columns represent an apples-to-apples comparison, renting would have been much, much cheaper. Do I think the city understands that every building, whether owned or rented, has a cost profile including the same varieties of costs? Yes! After the first ballot measure loss, but before either $25 million proposition was placed on the ballot, survey results commissioned by the council were reported to them. Those results from February, 2012 (see 3/29/12 meeting minutes) show that 2 out of 3 voters, 67%, did not believe that the Civic Center was a “project the city should implement.” The same survey found that 60% favored “prioritizing a decision on the Civic Center.” The summary of those results presented in support of putting the first $25 million proposal on the August, 2012 ballot concluded 60% “support to build a new Civic Center.” Do I think council and staff understood the distinction between prioritizing a decision about a project and actually building the same project? I do, but maybe you should ask them to confirm! You ask about making government information more open. The first step toward being open with the public is for council to be honest with themselves.

— By Doug Petrowski

  1. Just saying wow. I would encourage all that have read this article to log on to the MLT City website and or call City Hall to find out which candidate has a better understanding of what is happening in Mountlake Terrace.

    1. I think one can learn a lot just by reading the above, Councilman Richards. Councilman Wahl was asked what Council accomplishments he was most proud of and responded with something completely different – he didn’t mention one accomplishment, just listed some boilerplate bullet points that one might read in a Wahl Strategies promotional brochure, and similar to what one actually does read

      if one peruses his website. Councilman Wahl was asked about where City Hall should be built and he told us where a civic center should be built instead – they aren’t the same thing. Councilman Wahl was asked about his support for a bond measure and what he thought a project would cost. He answered neither of those questions, telling us instead that we didn’t vote against the project because we didn’t want a City Hall but because we thought the cost was too high. Does he think another bond issue should be put before the voters but at a significantly lower cost, then? Does he have any idea what it might cost to build a City Hall but not include a civic center (which, BTW, is the main reason for excess cost – a city hall without the frivolity of a civic center would have passed easily) in the project? We don’t know. He doesn’t tell us because he didn’t answer the question.

      In contrast, Mr. French’s answers address the questions directly, and are filled with numerical data to support his opinions. He states clearly that we need a City Hall, distinguishes it from the add-on civic center concept, and puts out some numbers regarding cost estimates for doing just what the City needs, and without all the goodies that the City Council thought they could ram through a third time and voted 7-0 to try to do.

      Counclman Richards, which do you prefer? Platitudes without substance? Or specific points of issue such as those put forth by Mr. French? City Councilmembers should be able to address direct questions, particularly when they are able to answer them in writing rather than off the cuff. An example: Why, Councilman Richards, do you think it was appropriate for the City to make cost comparisons between owning and leasing without including the costs for maintenance, repairs, etc., on an owned building? Those costs sure are included in a standard lease. You know that as well as anyone, sir; you lease restaurant space, and those substantial additional costs are known as NNN. Would you think it honest to provide a prospective lender a pro forma statement of projected costs for your restaurant including only base rent expense and not the NNN costs? If you don’t think it honest to do that in business, why did you think it was appropriate to do it as a representative of the citizens of the City, with respect to true ownership costs? Were you even aware you were doing it? Opponents of the measure were quite specific in pointing it out. Perhaps you just weren’t listening.

      I think a careful reading of the candidates’ respective answers to the questions they were asked in this post is highly informative. Thank you for raising the point, Councilman Richards.

  2. Councilman Richards are you recommending that the citizens of Mountlake Terrace call those same people that distorted the #’s in the last election regarding owning vs. renting for information regarding the upcoming candidates election?

  3. Forward always sound good, doesn’t it? Nobody wants to go back. But if it means more traffic, less parking, more delays on your way to work, high-rise buildings, I’m not sure everyone agrees with moving MLT forward. Len’s comments make sense and he has my vote.

  4. In the last 6 months I have gotten to know Len French as a candidate with a “mind like a steel-trap”, passionate about holding the city council accountable for their financial and planning decisions, with the analytical skills to see through the confusing rhetoric often times fed to us over whatever news medium we choose to follow. In our occasional coffee meetings–Len French, Stephen Barnes, and myself–I know that Len will give me a straight answer to any question I ask, and back it up with metrics…I may not always agree with him, or he with me—but I know the debate will be honest and forthright….I support Len for City Council..

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