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Reporter Q&A | Former Bellevue City Councilmember Grant Degginger
This year, City Councilmember Grant Degginger decided not to run for reelection after 12 years on the council, and another seven with the city's Planning Commission. The Reporter sat down the departing councilmember to get his take on the recent elections, the politics surrounding light-rail and issues important to Bellevue's future.
REPORTER: What made you decide to not seek reelection?
DEGGINGER: It boiled down to having a long conversation with my wife about it, in part because it's a busy life, having a full-time law practice and a family. After 12 years on the council, and seven more years on the planning commission, over 20 years of service, I felt it was time to take a little sabbatical with someone who had given a lot to the city, namely my wife. You never know if you might come back or do something different.
REPORTER: Why did you get involved with Planning Commission, and later City Council?
DEGGINGER: I had been involved in public policy issues as a younger person. I worked for four years in Washington D.C. on a congressional staff. I had always had an interest in it. But then I went to law school and started a family, so I had taken some time away from it. When I was participating in a legal seminar in 1991, one of the panelists was Terry Lukens, who at the time was the mayor of Bellevue. He wondered if I might be interested in serving on a board or commission when he found I lived in Bellevue. I applied and was appointed to the Planning Commission in November of 1991. I loved it. It was interesting work. Land use and development issues are issues I run into in my practice, so I had some familiarity with them, and it was a great way to tie that up with public policy issues. When I was wrapping up my time on the Planning Commission, I gave some thought to running for the council. I ran because I thought there were some opportunities to provide the expertise I developed. We developed the first Comprehensive Plan for the city following the adoption of the Growth Management Act. The other area I was particularly interested in was how we could improve the permitting process. And also how we could address the transportation challenges and some of the long-term regional challenges the city needed to be a part of.
REPORTER: How has the city changed during your service?
DEGGINGER: What has been exciting for me is to develop the vision for the city as a planning commissioner and then implementing it as a councilmember. A lot of that has been implemented during my 12 years on council. Making downtown the center of business on the Eastside; working to enhance our reputation as a city in a park; getting the park levy passed so we could fulfill a lot of dreams with respect to improving our park system, not only expanding it in volume; improving the permitting process. We formed a construction committee that was able to sit down with stakeholders and say how can we improve the inspection and permitting process. We've spent a lot of time on water supply. With the Cascade Water Alliance, we went from a situation where Bellevue and the Eastside were facing a very uncertain situation after 2012 for the water supply, now to the point where we have our water supply figured out for the next 50 years. Learning how we can work together on Eastside cities has been great. We worked very hard to get a plan together on 520, and after 13 years we finally got it implemented, and that was a huge achievement. That was really driven by the Eastside.
REPORTER: Have the stakes gotten higher on council?
DEGGINGER: One of the things that's happened while I've been on the council, Bellevue has had a great run of success with economic development. It's been viewed as a city that represents best practices, and one where we have a very enviably quality of life, standard of living, high achievement, low crime, and what that has done is it's elevated Bellevue to a higher position in the region, and people now begin to take much more seriously now what happens in Bellevue, so the stakes are higher. That's good in some ways, and bad as well. It's good because it recognizes that Bellevue is an important part of the region's economy and the region's future. It's bad in the sense that some of the less honorable practices that I've seen in campaigning have unfortunately made their way to Bellevue.
REPORTER: How did this election compare to past ones?
DEGGINGER: Personally, it was a little relaxing, but it was very disappointing to see some of the bad behavior by these outside groups, and the personalization of the politics, not just during the campaign cycle but over the last two years generally. What was reassuring at the end of the day was that the citizens were able to see through a lot of the smoke and made good decisions. They reaffirmed their support for the direction of the city to implement light-rail. We voted for it, let's implement it. How else can you describe Mr. Eyman's initiative failing by 59 percent in Bellevue? People want this project delivered. People were very passionate about how it was laid out or where it might go. The manner in which people said if you don't agree with us you must be evil, you must be overly influenced by one group another, it was wrong. We spent an awful lot of money and time in ways that were not always productive. But at the end of the day, we have a direction and I hope council continues to implement it.
REPORTER: In hindsight, how do you feel about light-rail debate
DEGGINGER: Bellevue's long-term future is limited only by its ability to address transportation. We're the middle of the Eastside, but we're also the confluence of all the major roads, so to the extent we don't resolve our mobility problems, we will hamstring our ability to have economic growth. The decision the region made to have a light-rail system was an important one, but it meant that we also had to be on the light-rail system. We cannot be the center of the Eastside, and a focal point of economic activity, without being properly connected to the backbone system the region is building. So the notion that we were going to continue debating whether light-rail was the best mode, that decision had been made some time ago. The real issue was how did we want to deploy it through the city. We set a lot of that stage over time. We developed the Light-Rail Best Practices Committee, it was my idea. It was something I came up with when I was mayor to see if there were ways that we can implement this in a way that's responsible for the city. It was too bad we weren't able to come to a consensus earlier, and that outside forces spent a lot of time and effort to re-argue the general use of light-rail within the context of arguing several different alignments. So we get a little bit off our task. But at the end of the day, we identified what our priorities were. One of our priorities was making sure we had a tunnel in downtown so we can maintain good speed of light-rail and effective mobility on the surface streets. How we would go about paying for it took some time. That conversation should have started a year early than it did. So that conversation was very concentrated, very intense, but I think the result is a reasonably good one. The city still has a lot of work to do to implement it but the frame work is now in place.
REPORTER: Was there a divide in the council?
DEGGINGER: The council had kind of lost its way for awhile by having surrogates in the community manipulate councilmembers to a degree, or councilmembers using surrogates in the community to manipulate the discussion, and that was unfortunate. Hopefully the council has learned that it's important to communicate clearly and honestly with each other. In my 12 years on the council, if anything, your credibility and your candor with your colleagues is very important. The way you have credibility with your colleagues is you deal with them honestly and straightforwardly. That doesn't mean you have to agree with them on everything, but it is important to be able to disagree without being disagreeable. The councilmembers need to set that standard and make sure that everyone in the community realizes that they are expected to treat each other with courtesy and respect. That should happen not only amongst the councilmembers as they debate things, but amongst the councilmembers and the community, and the councilmembers should expect a polite dialog at the dais and the community should expect that from the councilmembers, and they should not allow that to break down.
REPORTER: Was light-rail, and the surrounding political environment, the toughest issue you dealt with on council?
DEGGINGER: Certainly it was one of the more emotional issues, but it wasn't the only one. We had to deal the question of Tent City and how to address those camps, and we did so in a very principled way. I think that's the key, we set some principles of what our expectations were. Churches had a right to invite a Tent City group to come, but the city had an expectation that anybody who invites Tent City to come needs to be responsible for their guests and set up basic sanitation and communication with the police department so anybody in the neighborhood that's adjoining feels comfortable there too. The standards we set as a city have become the operating standards used by every city when Tent City comes in and visits. When you operate from a principled basis, you can accomplish those objectives in a harmonious way. I think unfortunately, there were so many outside influences from light-rail for awhile that we stepped away from looking at our goals and principles. Hopefully they are getting back to that.
REPORTER: What did you learn from your time as an elected representative?
DEGGINGER: It's a real honor to serve as an elected official. It was a tremendous honor to serve the people of Bellevue because they have very high expectations for their city and the people who serve them. Treat everybody with courtesy and respect, and expect the same in return. Do what you can to make the city better. That sounds very simple, but there are many different ways. We as leaders need to treat the staff with courtesy and respect and expect great performance from them. When we do that, we usually get great performance from the staff. We need to engage the community by having broad outreach and participation, and finding people who will help us by participating in our boards and commissions, and doing it in a way that we don't have a litmus test for their service, but we just want to engage them based on their desire to serve. What also has made Bellevue so successful is the depth of shared vision that the community has. The community is filled with people who are trying to live the American Dream. They want to work hard, they want to see their children have a better life than they have. They want to live in a community that reflects their values in terms of recreation and things to do: arts, culture, retail, restaurants, all those things. The challenge for the City Council is how do we keep the city moving forward in a positive direction, recognizing the challenges of our economy and the constraints that imposes? There is an awful lot of creativity in the city. That was what I found so reassuring and inspiring is that we have just so many amazing people who live here, and you can't help but be excited for the future of the city for that reason.
REPORTER: What do you see being the biggest issue over the next 5 years?
DEGGINGER: The slow speed of the recovery has been challenging not only for the city, but for a lot of businesses in the city. Somehow and some way we need to maintain the quality level of services the city has been known for because that is one of the things that brings economic development to us is that we have a safe city, we have a well-run city, with amenities that people want to have. Even though we're in a challenging time, we need to continue making capital investments, so that we can have better mobility in the city, whether that's partly through the light-rail program, and also through other transportation investments that need to take place.
REPORTER: Do you plan to run again?
DEGGINGER: I don't know. The way I would say it is when you are blessed with the public service gene, it sort of is part of your DNA.