City at a Crossroads Part III: How the 2001 election shaped Covington
By TJ MARTINELL
Covington Reporter Reporter
October 26, 2012 · Updated 10:08 AM
Going to a Covington City Council meeting in 2001 was like witnessing the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
With a strongly divided council, the Kentwood Performing Arts Center would be packed with hundreds of residents concerned about various proposals for commercial zoning directly adjacent to neighborhoods. There council members would engage in personal attacks and shouting matches that made regional headlines.
The combination of bitter infighting, a perceived lack of resident input, as well as little long-term vision for how to manage the recent spurt of growth, led Wayne Snoey, Mark Lanza, and Tim Goddard to run for City Council in the November 2001 election. After being elected, the new council pushed for the creation of a long term vision for the city via the comprehensive plan, as well as the creation of an economic development commission.
This new makeup on the council helped restore civic participation in Covington’s young municipal government and manage business growth in a more controlled fashion.
Although media at the time portrayed the elections as a battle between rural and suburb, the feud had less to do with political differences and more to do with contrasting personalities and varying approaches to managing an infant city amid of massive growth.
The city of Covington, originally called Jenkins Prairie, was settled around 1900 by Northern Pacific Railway when the company built tracks to link it with Auburn and Kanaskat. None of the original Northern Pacific buildings still stand. During the next several decades, Covington’s population grew mainly as an extension out of Kent, though much of it remained rural. The state’s Growth Management Act in 1990 would change all this by requiring counties to establish urban and rural designated areas.
When King County drew up its Urban Growth Boundary in 1993, it placed the Covington area within the urban boundary, ensuring that it would absorb a portion of the growth in the county.
Shortly after the city incorporated in 1997, the Covington Water District lifted its five-year moratorium on water rights, which former mayor Pat Sullivan said led to massive development growth. Developers, who had been waiting for the opportunity to build, poured into the area, which caused the population to skyrocket. But as this occurred, residents found they had little say over the process. Some of the development standards were sorely lacking, according to Mayor Margaret Harto, who has lived in the Covington area for more than 40 years.
“Unfortunately most of those developments ended up with no sidewalks,” Harto said. “Open storm drain, storm water went off into the ditch between your yard and the road. Where it ended up who knows? It was that kind of growth that caused us to want to incorporate because we didn’t have a say.”
Covington would elect its first council in April 1997 in order to have basic city services when it officially incorporated Aug 31. 1977, the same day as the city of Maple Valley.
At first, the City Council banned commercial development until it could hire the necessary staff to handle the growth.
However, within three years, the infant city would find itself caught in a civil war.
Among the most controversial council decisions pertained to commercial and business zoning, particularly near neighborhoods.
Snoey said he first became interested in the council after a proposal was made for neighborhood commercial zoning near his Foxwood neighborhood, located northeast of Kentwood High at 180th Avenue Southeast and Southeast 256th Street.
At the time, Council member Alice Matz argued for allowing zoning for large box stores in order to increase the tax base, while the council minority favored centering development in the downtown area and zoning for smaller businesses.
As the president of the Foxwood Homeowners Association (HOA), Snoey started to attend the meetings to see how the zoning would affect his neighborhood.
It was then Snoey said he realized how dire the situation was.
“They did not have a clue on how things should operate or how things should be done,” Snoey said. “Seeing actual operation of the council majority I got very concerned and ultimately that’s what motivated me to run for office. Frankly, the council majority did not seem to have the experience to understand what they were doing.”
Ultimately, the council approved the neighborhood commercial zoning.
Sullivan stated there were also other problems residents had, such as a composting facility that had a very strong odor coming from it.
“It would just make you sick,” Sullivan said. “The council at that time, the four (in majority) didn’t want to do anything about it.”
The council had also had fights previously with the city’s Planning Commission in a battle over Covington’s comprehensive plan, which was designed to help guide the city over 20 years in term of development.
One particular battle was over the council’s decision to lift a moratorium on new commercial development in 2000.
At the time, members of the council majority argued the city needed more tax revenue due to the passage of Initiative 695, which placed a flat $30 fee on the vehicle excise tax.
Harto stated having the Planning Commission in front of the council was like sitting in a “Chinese junior high school cafeteria.”
“Every staff member’s heads were down until they were asked to speak,” she said. “The lack of respect and dignity among the council members and staff and for minority of council members was huge.”
At the same time, there was also a noticeable disconnect between the council and the residents, many of whom felt their views were ignored. According to a Seattle Times article dated July 13, 2000, during a meeting a council member shouted at residents present, “You’re here as listeners only!”
As a result residents and council members tried to shout over each other. Councilman Mark Lanza said he first started to attend meetings after a friend said he had to see it to believe it.
“It was entertaining, but not in a good way,” Lanza said. “We were the laughing stock of south King County.”
He said the impression residents got was that zoning changes were being made irrespective of how residents of neighborhoods felt, even when 400 people would show up at public hearings.
RUMBLE IN THE COVINGTON JUNGLE
Unfortunately, when they weren’t busy shouting at citizens, according to the Seattle Times, the council members were shouting at each other, one even calling another a “Nazi.”
The council was split, 4-3, on most decisions. The council majority at the time was made up of Julie Holbrook, Jesse Ackerson, Herb Wilson and Matz. The council minority was made up of Sullivan, Rebecca Clark and Geoff Simpson, who went on to serve in the state Legislature.
“It was bad,” Snoey said. “There was fighting, gavel grabbing. There were all kinds of weird things happening.”
One of the council member’s wives even led a recall effort against a member of the council majority. A King County Superior Court judge, however, ruled the recall was not needed.
Another low point, Lanza said, was when City Manager Pat Nevins was secretly asked by the council majority to step down. He announced he would resign, only to later rescind it when he learned the council would not give him severance pay. He eventually left and was replaced by Andy Dempsey, who first served as the city’s public works director.
Snoey finally decided to seek a position on the council when he realized he had only three options: put up with it, move, or run for office.
“I carefully avoided politics in general, but I got motivated that year because of the process,” Snoey said. “I care about my community … I saw it was breaking the community apart in many different ways.”
Lanza said he threw his hat in the ring, so to speak, after Sullivan and Simpson suggested he run.
ELECTION AND BEYOND
During the general election, Snoey ran against newcomer Robert Cochran when Matz announced she wouldn’t seek reelection, leaving a possibility of breaking up the council majority. Lanza ran against Herb Wilson and Robert Millard, while Goddard, who had also entered the race, ran against Holbrook. Wilson would later lose during the primary election against Lanza and Millard.
In a South County Journal article June, 7, 2001, written by Dean Radford who is now editor of the Renton Reporter, Goddard and Snoey also criticized the lack of etiquette expressed at City Council meetings and disconnect between the council and residents.
“The biggest issue is putting the people’s voice back into what the city should be doing,” Snoey told the Journal.
In retrospect, Snoey and Lanza said the mutual decision to run by the three of them was uncoordinated, but had similar reasons.
“We had never met each other before we filed for office,” Snoey said. “People thought we were plotting together to do this and we hadn’t even met before.”
The campaign at one point reflected the civility, or lack thereof, that existed on the City Council when Snoey was accused of working for a religious cult. Retiring City Council member Matz, whose position he ran for, sent a letter to the South County Journal about Community Chapel, the church Snoey worked for from 1973 to 1987. Even his opponent, Cochran, called the accusation “too stinky for me.”
Lanza and Millard also had agreed to run a clean campaign, and when Lanza was accused of being anti-business and pro-taxes, Millard came over to his house with a bottle of cider.
When the election votes came in, all three won their respective races by large margins, though the turnout rate for Covington residents was 20 percent. The results left only Jesse Ackerson, Sr. from the council majority.
Change didn’t occur the instant they took office in January, according to Sullivan, who said the council’s reputation in both the region and the community took years to repair. As a part of the effort to help improve relations between the council and the business community, Sullivan pushed for the creation of the Economic Development Council, which he later chaired.
“We showed them we had a council now that is ... willing to compromise,” Lanza said. “There may not have been that before.”
Harto said they also created better standards for residential development. Sidewalks were required for streets, as well as cover for storm drains, something which older developments did not have, she said.
The council would eventually revise the city’s comprehensive plan, which would include their concept for the downtown area. Today, the city has a bustling downtown core and a stable budget. The city also has a downtown plan in place passed in 2005 and updated in 2009 providing a guideline for how and where development will occur.
Although regional media outlets portrayed the scuffle as a feud over Covington’s identity — rural versus suburbia — the truth was that decision had already been made when the Urban Growth Boundary was established in 1993.
According to Lanza and Harto, the anti-growth faction was a smaller, but very vocal part of the opposition to the poor zoning decisions by the council majority.
“People would say, ‘What’s happened to our sleepy town?’ Which would have happened no matter who was on the council at the time,” Lanza said.
Harto stated that while the city still tries to maintain a small town sense of community, there is a difference between that and actively preventing growth entirely.
Instead, the election seemed to decide in what manner Covington would grow, with long term planning in mind or in a more sporadic, in-the-moment fashion, Harto said. She stated that the council majority’s assertion in 2000 the city needed new sales tax revenue was correct. Rather, the problem lay in what was seen as a lack of planning, which might have resulted in a more disorganized zoning.
“The city really suffered a complete lack of real professional leadership experience,” Snoey said. “The problem in my opinion was there was no long term plan. It was based on who spent the most time with them (council members) trying to convince them of their individual needs as opposed to the big picture for the community, and frankly the atmosphere was corrosive and divisive. And it was getting worse.”
Even if the council had continued down the path it was on, there were certain outcomes regardless. One of them was growth.
“The city was ripe for commercial growth,” Lanza said. “We would have had sales tax growth, but not as successful.”
At the same time, Harto questioned whether the corrosive environment on the council would have scared away potential businesses.
“It would have continued to be chaos because there was this difference, huge difference of opinion of how the city should be operated,” she said.
One clear variation, however, would have been the atmosphere among the city staff and council, which Harto described as “night and day.”
In that sense, the campaign demonstrated that in several races either candidate could have more or less ended the strife on the council.
While before it was difficult to get people to volunteer for committees, Harto said they had twice as many people apply for the budget priorities advisory council than positions.
“We have a broad spectrum of opinions but the common thing we do is we treat each other with respect and dignity so when we’re done we can go to Applebee’s and have a beer,” the mayor said.
It’s also fair to say the city wouldn’t have the same large retail businesses in the downtown area they have today.
According to a South County Journal article dated Oct. 23, 2001, “There’s no guarantee that even one big box store, which could generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales tax revenue, will locate in Covington.”
Today there is Costco, Kohl’s, Fred Meyer, Home Depot, Safeway, as well as medium box businesses such as Walgreens, Big Five, Big Lots! as well as restaurants such as The Rock Wood Fired Pizza, Red Robin, Mizu, and Trapper’s Sushi.
Had the council not changed in that election and the internal strife continued, the observation made in the Journal might not have had the same irony it does today.
Contact Covington Reporter Reporter TJ Martinell at email@example.com or 425-432-1209 ext. 5052.