County executive candidates focus on Eastside issues
October 13, 2009
By Warren Kagarise
King County executive race
King County executive candidates Dow Constantine and Susan Hutchison are engaged in a down-to-the-wire push to appeal to Eastside voters. But political experts said the effort by the candidates, both Seattleites, could be difficult.
Voters will decide between Constantine, chairman of the King County Council and a former state lawmaker, and Hutchison, director of the nonprofit Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences and a former KIRO news anchor. The next leader will oversee about 300,000 people who live in unincorporated King County, where the executive functions almost as a mayor. About 1.8 million people live in the county.
Voters knocked the Eastside candidates — state lawmakers Fred Jarrett and Ross Hunter — out of the race in August. Jarrett and Hutchison took Issaquah precincts. Constantine won most of Seattle.
Despite the candidates’ efforts to generate regional appeal, Issaquah voters “still have a sense of being a long, long way from downtown Seattle and the courthouse,” Seattle political consultant Cathy Allen said.
Constantine and Hutchison have high hurdles to overcome. Allen said voters wonder if Constantine represents the ineffective status quo and whether Hutchison is competent to lead.
Talk turns to rural land use, transit and the future role of county government when the Eastside is discussed.
Klahanie Park and 38 other parks are set to close Jan. 1 under a plan unveiled in August by King County Executive Kurt Triplett.
Constantine and Hutchison said Klahanie Park could be kept open if a deal could be struck with a nonprofit organization or residents to maintain the property.
“Each park is going to have a different solution,” Constantine said. “My point to the executive was, you shouldn’t just shutter these parks having not given enough time for those very complicated deals to be negotiated.”
Hutchison also said the soon-to-close parks would be a high priority in her administration.
“My promise is that we’ll get those parks open by May,” Hutchison said. “We’ll work through the winter months to put together those partnerships, whether they be with nearby cities or companies or organizations or with management groups.”
Issaquah has grown by 6,210 residents since April 2000 through annexations of county land. Providence Point and South Cove voters approved annexations, but the effort to bring Klahanie into city limits was rejected.
Constantine said he would work with state legislators and officials in Issaquah and Sammamish to determine where Klahanie would best fit as the county encourages cities to annex unincorporated urban land.
“We will have to scale our services and change the character of them to meet that particularly rural governing need,” Constantine said. “At the same time, we have an opportunity as the only truly regional government here to work with the 39 cities, work with the special-purpose districts, work with the tribes to figure out how, in a new era, with limited resources, we can deliver services to people.”
Hutchison stressed the importance of annexations as a way to slow the growth of county government and shift some responsibilities to cities.
“This is not new. This annexing of these various properties throughout the county has been going on for years,” Hutchison said. “That area that is the county jurisdiction to govern has been growing smaller. However, county government has grown at more than twice the rate of inflation, and that’s what we’ve got to get a handle on. We cannot continue to grow government at twice the rate of inflation and expect it to be sustainable.”
Promises to change tone
Calls for cooperation between county officials and municipal leaders are a hallmark of both executive campaigns. Constantine and Hutchison also acknowledged the frayed relationship between county government and pockets of rural residents.
Opponents dubbed Constantine “Chairman Dow” during the ugly 2008 debate about the Critical Areas Ordinance, a measure to limit land clearing and establish buffers around wetlands.
“I took what was a very rough package, unfinished package of ordinances that the executive sent to us in 2004, and I’ve shouldered the responsibility of leading the council around the county and hearing from some very angry and frustrated residents about the contents of that package, and also the way they’ve been treated over the years by the county’s building department,” he said.
Constantine said he would reform the Department of Development and Environmental Services, so building permits are processed cheaply and quickly.
“I represent rural landowners on Vashon and Maury islands, thousands and thousands of them,” Constantine said. “I’ve been with them for my time in the House and the Senate and on the County Council dealing directly with their issues about developing their land. I know these things personally.”
Hutchison said the attitude of county government in relation to municipal officials and residents needs to change.
“As a county, we have to start working more closely and more cooperatively with the state, but we also have to work more closely and more cooperatively with the cities,” she said. “Everywhere I go in King County, all I hear about is how the county is arrogant, disdainful, disrespectful of the cities, elected officials and county citizens.”
Calls to overhaul transit
The candidates said more mass transit options are critical to serve fast-growing Eastside cities, such as Issaquah.
Hutchison suggested installing GPS units on Metro buses in order for riders to track buses and better plan trips. She said she would create a panel of bus drivers to determine better fare enforcement.
Hutchison said the transit agency should improve how it collects fares, and consider demonstration routes — or add service along a route for six months to gauge how successful it could be. If a route proved a success, she said, service could be increased. If not, Metro could retool.
“Our Metro system is one of the most expensive in the country,” Hutchison said. “Because of that, it costs more to move a passenger on our system. We need to — with the use of the auditing teams and the traffic engineers and good business principles — we need to cut back on the cost of running Metro.”
Constantine said the transit model should be updated to reflect where growth has occurred.
“This is the moment when we begin to retool our regional institutions to view King County as it is and not as it was,” Constantine said. “As it was, it was one city surrounded by bedroom communities. As it is, it is a couple dozen or more urban centers — of which Issaquah is clearly a big one — that need to be served by infrastructure, including particularly high-capacity transit infrastructure.”
Both candidates support tolling the state Route 520 bridge to raise money to build a replacement structure. But the challengers differed on whether to toll the Interstate 90 bridges.
“I think that if you toll 520, you have to look at the impacts on I-90,” Constantine said. “If the impacts slow down traffic for the folks who currently use it, to congest [Interstate] 405 as people try to avoid the tolled bridge and get to the untolled bridge, you have to consider tolling on I-90 to avoid that effect.”
Hutchison said officials could be tempted to divert money raised by tolling for bridge construction toward other projects.
“I tie tolling to construction projects,” Hutchison said. “In other words, there is always this danger when government has access to fees or taxes of treating that as the goose laying the golden egg. I believe that when we move to rebuild the 520, it would be appropriate to toll the 520.”
Both candidates have high-profile backers with Issaquah ties. County Councilwoman Kathy Lambert, who represents Issaquah, backs Hutchison for the executive post. Issaquah Mayor Ava Frisinger endorsed Constantine last month. She had supported County Councilman Larry Phillips in the primary.
Lambert said Hutchison represents a break with the leadership of the past.
“Should you hire a guide to lead you that gets lost all the time? Or are you better off with somebody new who has a GPS unit?” Lambert said. “Susan is the one with the GPS.”
Frisinger said the candidates should understand how important suburban matters are to the county at large. She cited increased need for mass transit and environmental protection as key issues for Issaquah voters. She also noted how city voters have clout.
“For the greater part, previous county executives have taken Issaquah’s concerns into account,” Frisinger said.
The mayor mentioned how Constantine and Hutchison praise trounced rival Jarrett, a state senator and former Mercer Island mayor. Both candidates indicated Jarrett would serve a role in the next county administration. Jarrett endorsed Constantine after the primary.
Jarrett would be a good addition to county government, Frisinger said.
“In addition, he would bring a really strong sense of what the cities outside Seattle are concerned about,” she said.
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.