Former council candidate appointed to Planning Commission amid controversy

Aaron Laing, fresh off the closest Bellevue City Council race in recent history, has been appointed to the city's Planning Commission.

Aaron Laing, fresh off the closest Bellevue City Council race in recent history, has been appointed to the city’s Planning Commission.

The 5-2 decision proved to be a frustrating one for several councilmembers. Claudia Balducci, John Chelminiak and John Stokes all questioned the process by which Laing was selected for the position last week, leading to a short delay. Those members said Laing was a great candidate, but they still had issues with the way he was chosen Monday night.

“I think this process has been badly flawed,” Balducci said. “I think the fact that the application process closed early excluded some really interesting candidates.”

Newly elected Deputy Mayor Jennifer Robertson was assigned to look into the process. She said the application advertisement opened on Nov. 23, with a deadline of Jan. 6. It was subsequently closed Saturday Dec. 17. This was acceptable, however, as the typical advertisement period lasts three to four weeks, she said. Only three people applied for the position, and the council liaison to the board, Kevin Wallace, chose to interview them by phone. He said he interviewed each of the three candidates. Additionally, there is no prescribed city code that governs how councilmembers must vet their appointments to boards and commissions.

Still, unrest remained. Chelminiak appeared the most frustrated, going as far as to say that the board had become politicized and filled with candidates tied to local Republican parties. Mayor Conrad Lee, and former Mayor Don Davidson were both upset with the introduction of partisan politics into the discussion. Wallace hoped the last few years of squabbling over light-rail was a thing of the past.

“I really hoped 2012 would be a new year for the council,” he said. “We’ve got all the light-rail stuff behind us, and I’m hoping we’d be turning over a new leaf. The seven of us have have an opportunity to do some great things in this community if we can simply put the partisan stuff aside.”

Laing lost to Stokes, who voted in favor of appointing Laing, by less than 100 votes. The race had to be recounted by hand. It was a heavily-funded race. Stokes received donations from prominent developers Wright Runstead. Laing received funds from Wallace, who was in charge of the appointment, and Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman.

The Planning Commission’s chief task at the moment lies in ratifying the Shoreline Master Program, which governs future development of the city’s shoreline areas. The program has been a massive undertaking for more than five years.

Several current planning commissioners came to speak for or against the appointment of Laing. Three of the most senior members wanted to see Doug Mathews, a former commissioner, reappointed because of the time and difficulty it takes to get a new commissioner up to speed in such a complex process. Other commissioners spoke to Laing’s experience, the fact that he represents people on shoreline issues all the time. He would be able to hit the ground running, they said.