Kirkland recommends retiring Houghton Community Council in the name of equity

Councilmembers say the HCC gives unfair representation to Houghton residents through veto power.

For over 50 years, the Kirkland-merged city of Houghton has had the benefit of its own representative body, after the state Legislature created a community council for the community in the late 1960s. The Houghton Community Council does not have the same legislative powers as city councils such as Kirkland’s, but they do have the ability to veto land use decisions made by the Kirkland City Council.

Now, Kirkland city leaders are pushing to discontinue the Houghton Community Council (HCC) based on the simple reason that it gives residents in the Houghton neighborhood an unfair representational advantage over others in Kirkland.

Deputy Mayor of Kirkland Jay Arnold said the decision to recommend sunsetting the HCC is related to a broader community discussion about equity, spurred by an Oct. 19 audit report.

Arnold said the HCC itself creates a “structural inequity” that affects the entire community. According to him, the HCC has used both their veto power and the threat of their veto power in the past to avoid zoning changes and infrastructure decisions that the Kirkland City Council collectively decided on.

“Houghton residents have power and influence that other residents don’t,” Arnold said.

Through this, Arnold said Houghton is meeting different standards and following different rules than the rest of Kirkland. According to Arnold, Houghton has different zoning rules, housing capacity and education resources — and does not have to meet the same climate goals as the rest of the city.

“It’s time for us to fully become One City,” Kirkland City Councilmember Toby Nixon wrote on his Facebook page about the issue. “A city in which every citizen — at least, every registered voter — has an equal opportunity to influence policy-making. It should NOT be baked into our laws that one neighborhood has a permanent advantage of influence over and above all other neighborhoods.”

The decision to sunset or to continue the Houghton Community Council will ultimately be up to the same political body that created it: The Washington State Legislature.

Nixon seemed sure that legislation on this issue was bound to be discussed in Olympia during the next legislative session. He urged his peers to support a recommendation to state lawmakers to sunset the HCC.

During a Dec. 14 Kirkland City Council meeting where the issue was discussed, Councilmember Neal Black said examining the political and societal systems and assessing whether they create fair outcomes is exactly in the purview and responsibility of a city council. He supported a recommendation to sunset HCC.

“It is hard to talk about changing a policy or getting rid of an accommodation that has existed for many years,” said Black, the former HCC member. “It’s hard to do that when you are one of the Houghton neighbors that benefits, it’s hard to do that while being a former member of the Houghton Community Council.”

During the Dec. 14 meeting, the council unanimously approved a motion to add support for sunsetting the Houghton Community Council to their recommendation of legislative priorities to the state Legislature.

“In my mind there is no way to reconcile the existence of the HCC for 5,000 of our community of almost 93,000 as either fair or equitable,” said Kirkland Mayor Penny Sweet. “It is in the hands of the Legislature, which created it 53 years ago and which has the power to sunset it.”

Houghton perspective

Houghton community members and members of the HCC feel like their perspective and input has been cut entirely out of the process.

HCC Chair Rick Whitney said the lack of transparency and communication has been the “biggest failure” in the process of the Kirkland City Council’s decision. Whitney and HCC Vice Chair John Kappler said they were first made aware of this push to recommend the sunsetting of the HCC from State Rep. Amy Walen — with no notice from the Kirkland City Council.

“We had no idea that it had risen to that level,” said Whitney.

They believe the Kirkland City Council had their side on the issue pre-determined, and were not open to discussion, “expeditiously,” moving the decision forward.

A joint meeting was held between the two governing bodies with at least the appearance that they would discuss the issue. Whitney said he felt the meeting was just a chance for council members to make pre-rehearsed statements instead of holding an actual discussion. He said it felt like the Kirkland City Council had determined the format of the meeting beforehand and held it just to “represent” that they had included HCC in the decision, despite the fact that HCC members felt their perspective was excluded.

Kappler said he believes that local representation is “fundamental” to politics in American communities, and he said that the HCC “rarely” exercises its veto power and saves it only for situations in which it would be “egregious” not to — like zoning decisions that would have unintended impacts like traffic congestion.

He also maintained that every aspect and process of the HCC is constitutional. He worries that for the state Legislature to make a decision such as sunsetting the community councils like HCC, it would set a precedent that would allow state powers to usurp the power of local governance.

During the Dec. 14 Kirkland City Council meeting in which the council decided to recommend the sunsetting of the HCC, Kirkland City Councilmember Jon Pascal recognized the appearance of haste in the council’s decision-making process, saying “it felt fast to me too. It’s an unusual process and I don’t really think it reflects the way we should be making really important decisions.”

He also asked his fellow Kirkland council members to think about how they could improve both communication and transparency as well as establishing a two-way dialogue regarding future issues and decisions the council may make, admitting: “I think there is some room for improvement there.”