Eastside mayors talk affordable housing, opioid epidemic and other challenges

Some might think traffic would be the focal point in a discussion about challenges facing Eastside communities — but a room full of more than 200 Eastside residents and leaders chose not to focus on this problem.

Affordable housing, the opioid epidemic, the role of social media in local governance, inclusivity and accommodating growth were just a handful of the challenges these members of society brainstormed at Leadership Eastside’s annual mayor’s panel discussion Sept. 8. at Cascadia College in Bothell.

The working lunch — which featured Eastside mayors from Kirkland, Issaquah, Duvall, Sammamish, Snoqualmie, Renton, Bothell, Bellevue, Woodinville, Mercer Island and Kent, as well as King County Councilmembers Kathy Lambert and Claudia Balducci — was part of a kick-off process for Leadership Eastside’s two-year development program, which is now a university-certified class.

“LE people love what we do,” moderator and Leadership Eastside president James Whitfield said. “We are here to be community leadership for the greater good.”

Every year, Leadership Eastside brings together its development class to meet and discuss with the area mayors. New this year was adding the County Council members to the panel. Whitfield said the event was a “highlight” of the course.

The theme of the event was “of the community, by the community, for the community,” Whitfield said.

Eastside mayors first joined in a group discussion at various tables, speaking specifically about the challenges they face in their communities, how these compare to the regional and national level and how people help can solve these issues.

Afterward, the mayors reconvened as a panel on stage to share what they had discussed.

Redmond Mayor John Marchione had to leave the event due to an emergency, but Redmond City Councilmember Angela Birney subbed in for him during the round table discussions. Birney did not join the mayors on stage.

“Every community faces troubles,” Cascadia College president Eric Murray said at the beginning of the lunch. It takes adaptive leadership and collaboration to solve those problems, he said.

Affordable housing

“Affordable housing I think is probably the biggest issue facing the whole region,” Kirkland City Councilmember Penny Sweet said during the round table discussions.

Many mayors thought the top issue would be traffic, but found that attendees were more focused on affordable housing.

“I thought we’d all talk about transportation and traffic, but mental illness and affordable housing were the two primary themes our tables talked about,” Issaquah Mayor Fred Butler said. “And how frustrating it was and how difficult it was to really come up with solutions that will make a difference dealing with those problems.”

Butler was impressed with the depth and the knowledge people had about the issues and their desire to do something about it.

“I had the same thought coming in, that it would be about transportation, but it was about affordable housing,” Mercer Island Mayor Bruce Bassett said.

He said he knows how unaffordable it is in communities like his, but the “ah ha” moment was when the city manager of Snoqualmie said it’s unaffordable in his city, too.

“The realization was, where do you go when even Snoqualmie you can’t afford to live in,” Bassett said.

He said this forces people even further out, adding to commute times and adding to the transportation issues throughout the region.

“We all want to keep our communities the way they are, but we also want to be very welcoming communities,” Duvall Mayor Will Ibershof said. “Eight thousand people moved into the region last year … but it’s causing a lot of angst with regards of where people can live. I was shocked to find out that 60 people commute from Kelso, Washington to [Bellevue College].”

A welcoming community

At the Kirkland round table discussion, Sweet talked about the Crossing Kirkland city-wide block party that was set to take place the next day. The event was developed out of a For the Love of Kirkland workshop.

She said never before has the city rallied around such a positive cause: being a welcoming, loving city.

“It’s great that you’re talking about being inclusive but it’s hard to be inclusive when the cost of housing is so high,” said Michelle Plesko, Kirkland resident and Leadership Eastside class member.

Kirkland Mayor Amy Walen agreed with Plesko, who spoke about inclusivity by means of accommodating growth.

“If we really want to be welcoming and inclusive, that means accommodating growth,” Walen said. “We can’t stay frozen in time. We have to welcome our fair share of growth.”

Sammamish Mayor Bob Keller, too, thought transportation would be the first issue on the list to discuss, but it was diversity and bringing the community together.

“Sammamish is a growing community,” he said. “Twenty-five percent of our population is not born in the area.”

Social media

When Whitfield asked the panel about issues that didn’t come up during their discussion, Snoqualmie Mayor Matt Larson pointed to the “historically contentious” City Council election occurring this year.

“One of the things that I’ve observed that’s really struck me that’s come up in conversations, many of which are happening on Facebook, is the social media technologies are sort of being disruptive to our notions of citizenship or civic engagement,” he said.

He said citizens expect local governments will provide all the information about everything they do so then the citizens can tell local officials how to do their jobs.

“It’s almost this form of direct democracy that’s expected that somehow the entire public should now be engaging in all the details of all the decisions that we make, and if we’re not doing that we’re somehow failing or frustrating that process,” Larson said. “To me, it’s ripe for a conversation about what exactly is representative versus direct democracy and what is the appropriate roles of citizens — not consumers, but citizens — in relation to their local, county and state governments.”

The solution

Get involved — that was the overall message on solving issues throughout the region.

“What’s interesting was the recognition at my table that the board-based societal problems, like drug abuse or opioid abuse, we can’t expect our political institutions to solve the problem, that the solution needs to be more board-based,” Woodinville Mayor Bernie Talmas said. “We need to have more public-private partnerships or some methods who have more people, like those of you in the room, involved in trying to solve the problems that our institutions really can’t do by themselves.”

Balducci said that people can make a difference by just showing up.

“Just show up, show up or call,” she said. “Emails are great … but so few people actually pick up the phone and call any of us or show up in any of our offices personally, that it makes an incredible impression when you do, and it makes even more of an impression when you bring a few of your friends with you.”

A call to action

The hour-and-a-half long event ended with each of the Eastside mayors giving the Leadership Eastside development class members a challenge or call to action, ranging from crusading for just causes to running for office.

Some might think traffic would be the focal point in a discussion about challenges facing Eastside communities — but a room full of more than 200 Eastside residents and leaders chose not to focus on this problem. Affordable housing, the opioid epidemic, the role of social media in local governance, inclusivity and accommodating growth were […]

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