UPDATE | Residents outraged at bill that takes aim at Houghton Community Council, speeding through Legislature
By CARRIE RODRIGUEZ
Kirkland Reporter Editor
March 9, 2011 · Updated 5:05 PM
With just days to prepare for a last-minute push in Olympia, several Houghton residents scrambled to organize a petition last week against a measure that takes aim at the Houghton Community Council.
The bill moving through the Legislature would allow voters in the entire City of Kirkland to vote on whether or not to continue the existence of the Houghton Community Council (HCC).
But many residents are angry that the measure has barreled through the session without any public awareness or opportunity for public input.
Rick Whitney, HCC chair, said he just heard about House Bill 1812 last week when he got a phone call from Ken Seal, the longest-standing member of the East Bellevue Community Council. The bill would affect both the Houghton and East Bellevue community councils - the only two community councils in the state of Washington. Both are located in the 48th District.
“He asked me if I was aware of this bill and I was shocked – I had no idea,” said Whitney. “The most disturbing part of this whole thing is that our elected representatives obviously are trying to pass this bill without any notification to either the Houghton Community Council or the citizens of Houghton who they represent. They’re trying to sneak this by without us knowing about it and that’s not how government should work.”
HB 1812, which is sponsored by Reps. Steve Kirby (Tacoma), Ruth Kagi (Lake Forest Park) and Jim Moeller (Vancouver), was introduced on Feb. 3 and passed the House unanimously on Feb. 26. Kirkland legislators who voted in favor of the bill include Reps. Larry Springer, Roger Goodman, Deb Eddy and Ross Hunter.
One of the most confusing parts of the issue is who knew what and when.
The prime sponsor of the bill, Rep. Steve Kirby told the Senate Committee in Olympia on Tuesday that he did not consult with any community council members to get their views on the measure.
"No, I haven't ... just the city council and mainly with city officials, Kirkland in particular," Kirby said during the public hearing when asked by the panel if he spoke with community council members.
Following the hearing, Kirby told the Reporter he has spoken with Kirkland Council members regarding HB 1812. He said he spoke with "representatives of the city. I actually don't know all the players without a program. My involvement in this is just to facilitate all this and whatever happens, happens."
Kirkland Mayor Joan McBride said she has never spoken with Kirby. She said the Legislative Committee did, however, meet with bill sponsor Ruth Kagi during a 15-minute meeting in February to discuss mainly a $2 million capital request to fund the city's new public safety building.
"We did not even mention the community council," she said.
McBride added during the next council meeting she will make a statement: "I have no connection with this bill and I'm going to say on the record and on my word," she said, noting all council members will have the opportunity to speak on the matter and "try to get things cleared up."
The Reporter could not contact all seven council members about if they had spoken with Kirkby about the bill.
Three Houghton residents, including HCC vice chair of 22 years, Elsie Weber, and two East Bellevue Community Council members testified before the Senate Committee as well.
The bill would change provisions relating to so-called "municipal corporations." If passed, no new community councils could be created after Jan. 1 2012.
In addition, voters in the entire city could vote for the community council members and decide to approve or disapprove extending a community council’s existence every four years. At present, just the neighborhood governed by the community council gets the vote.
Houghton was the first community in the state to have its own neighborhood council, which was established in 1968 after a new state law allowed for the smaller of two merging cities to form its own community council. Houghton and Kirkland agreed to consolidate, with the caveat that a community council would be established to review the city’s land-use decisions that related to the Houghton area. This gave the HCC the authority to veto those decisions, if necessary.
Houghton’s boundaries include the central Houghton and Lakeview neighborhoods, and a section of Bridle Trails that together make up 6,300 residents.
During a House floor debate on the bill Feb. 28, Springer called community councils “a throwback to the 1960s.” He said community councils can force a city to have two land-use policies: one for the service area and one for the rest of the city.
In his own experience as a former mayor of Kirkland, Springer added that administration of this kind of dual system is expensive and difficult. If a city and a corporation become embroiled in a lawsuit, the city must pay the costs for both sides.
The HCC's total estimated expenses cost the city nearly $70,000 last year, according to a Finance Committee meeting report on Oct. 26, 2010. On average, the HCC's annual expenses are $43,000, said Eric Shields, planning director.
However, Whitney said the HCC has established a process in recent years to address disagreements with the city more efficiently.
“It has been really effective and it has resulted in no disapprovals for quite a long time,” said Whitney. “We’re trying hard to work well and minimize our cost to the city and minimize the disagreements, but yet make sure we are still protecting the character of our community, which was the whole basis for establishing the community council.”
And the HCC is “every bit as relevant now” as it was more than 40 years ago, he said.
“There are still significant development decisions affecting our community,” he said, noting the transit-oriented development project at the South Kirkland Park & Ride and the Yarrow Bay Business District development.
Whitney said he is not surprised that local leaders want to “do away with” the HCC, but he understands it.
“Honestly, I do understand why the city council members and other people in Kirkland outside of Houghton would not be a fan of Houghton Community Council – I understand it,” he said. “Anybody who has veto power over the city council is not going to be favored by the council or many residents.”
However, he said he would be “much more understanding and respectful” of legislators who back the bill “if they just would have been open about it and would have notified us so that at least there was an opportunity for us to present our position on this. But to try and sneak it through the way they did is really poor.”
Several Houghton residents, including Whitney, have drafted a petition against HB 1812 and are urging residents to testify in Olympia as the bill moves through the Senate.
Councilmember Bob Sternoff initially brought the issue to the Kirkland City Council’s attention during a legislative update at the council’s March 1 meeting. He said he was notified about the bill from a couple of his mother’s former Houghton neighbors.
“It appears that no one on the council knew about the bill,” said Sternoff in an e-mail to the Reporter.
McBride, who served on the HCC for six years and is currently on the Legislative Committee, said she is glad Sternoff brought the measure to the council's attention and "shined some light of day" on it.
She heard about the measure in January, however she thought it was "just a rumor" as similar measures have gone before the Legislature several times in the past and died.
"I really didn't give it much credence when I heard it was going through the Legislature," McBride said. "You hear rumors about a gazillion bills during the year, especially in a very busy time right now."
She said the issue also came up when the city's Legislative Committee met in February, though she says she left the meeting for medical reasons.
McBride added the city has a "very aggressive" legislative agenda and works hard on tracking many high-priority bills. The bill was not listed on the city's legislative agenda, so "I was very surprised that the bill was going before the Senate. It's not something that we even thought about pushing or defending against - it was not on our radar," she said. "We did not ask for the bill, we did not promote the bill and I heard it was a rumor and then it was dead and next thing you know it's passed the House."
The mayor also defended the city council against allegations that council members were involved in working with legislators to "sneak" the bill through.
"Now call us a lot of things, but we're not stupid," said McBride. "I'm not sure where the breakdown is, but Kirkland is not responsible for the Legislature."
The Reporter spoke with Council members Dave Asher and Doreen Marchione, who are also on the Legislative Committee. Asher, who does not support the measure, said since the city learned about the bill last week, the council has "made sure Houghton knows everything we know."
Asher said the city's lobbyists are trying to "catchup. We have a new team and it just got by them. The name of the bill was deceiving with the words 'municipal corporations.'"
Marchione declined to comment and said "as a council member, I think I should stay neutral on this."
Sternoff said the issue is not the bill itself, but of "openness and transparency. My opinion is that any state legislation that impacts a specific area of Kirkland demands public input before that legislation is presented. The council has told Kirkland citizens that we are open and transparent. From the public record this obviously didn't happen and it begs several questions, not the least of is why?”
Rep. Larry Springer, who is married to Kirkland's Deputy Mayor Penny Sweet, said that is a legitimate concern.
"I am concerned about people's perception that this was sort of hidden and slipped in," he told the Reporter. "When I was mayor of Kirkland, I made it clear to the HCC that I didn't think they should exist ... I've never been circumspect about my belief that this (the HCC) is just bad public policy and they shouldn't exist."
He said legislators had drafted language for the bill, but were not sure if it was anything they wanted to pursue at the time. This year, legislators put together a package of bills that aimed to reduce the regulatory burden on cities.
"We chatted about it and the notion was, this bill makes sense too, let's throw it in the mix," said Springer. "The problem is it got thrown in the mix really late - that's the issue. That's unfortunate and if I had it to do otherwise, I wouldn't do it that way."
Attempting to limit the number of bills he sponsored, Springer asked Kirby to sponsor SB 1812.
"It had nothing to do with me trying to hide anything," he said. "The fact of the matter is, it now has the full light of day shining on it because it has to go through the Senate process. So it's as transparent as any other bill."
Kirkland resident Toby Nixon, a former legislator and current president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, also decided to look into the issue after Sternoff brought up HB 1812 during the meeting. He said he has not taken a position on the substance of the bill itself, but on the lack of transparency and public debate on the measure.
Nixon said the issue brings up several questions, including: “Did none of them (legislators) realize the impact it would have on Houghton, and consult with Houghton community leaders before voting for it? How is it that a bill in the Legislature that has such a significant impact on so many people in Kirkland and Houghton has gotten this far with so little attention?”
But Elsie Weber, HCC vice chair, offered up an answer. She said she knows why elected officials didn't notify Houghton residents about the bill: "They knew damn well we'd fight."
Reporter Matt Phelps contributed to this report.
*Editor's Note: After printing this story, Rep. Larry Springer asked the Senate not to run this bill.