What Kind of Government Do You Want?
I had the opportunity to interview Mayor Mike Courts of DuPont about his re-election bid and some of the issues surrounding the campaign. Here is that interview.
Dave Maestas: Mayor Courts, thank you for spending some time with me. It seems your campaign is tied to a question by your opponent about the nature of DuPont’s government. One of his pledges is to establish “citizen committees” to oversee every department and activity in the City. How do you respond to this proposal?
Mayor Mike Courts: Dave, first I appreciate the opportunity to meet with you and respond to your questions. I think your question gets to the core of this campaign, how is DuPont’s Government going to operate from 2020 forward. You are correct, my opponent is proposing “Citizen Committees” to oversee all aspects of the City’s Government. I do not support that proposal, here is why. We have a form of government called a Council Mayor form of government, established by the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) and codified by the DuPont Municipal Code (DMC). It divides authority between a Legislative Branch formed by 7 elected Council Members and an Executive Branch, led by an elected Mayor. Council establishes policy and the Mayor is responsible to oversee carrying that policy out. The Mayor and Staff, together, hire Department Heads to lead each department. They are chosen by interviews of Council, outside experts and citizens, the City Administrator and the Mayor. The Mayor appoints key staff hires and the Council confirms them. This is a sharing of responsibility and authority. Un-elected citizen volunteers are asked to apply for positions on the Planning Commission, Civil Service Commission, Parks Agency and Tree Board. Applicants are asked to submit resumes, they are interviewed by the members of the applicable Commission, Board or Agency, the affiliated Department Head, City Administrator and the Mayor. The Mayor nominates an individual and submits that name to the Council for confirmation. These groups serve as an extension of our Staff, they work for the Mayor and Council and allow interested residents to participate and have impact on City Policy and operations. These are invaluable groups that we could not effectively function without. At every step of our government, there are established checks and balances with shared responsibility and authority. The idea of “Citizen Committees” providing oversight to Departments is counter to our system. It has no legal standing, does not provide for checks and balances and runs the risk of simply being a group of friends or associates given authority without the commensurate responsibility or accountability. I think our current form of government works very well, has accountability built into it and does not allow for a small group of people to usurp authority without consent of the electorate.
Dave Maestas: Mayor Courts, let me follow-up with a related question. Your opponent has said he plans to “tear down the warehouses and get rid of the trucks”. How do you respond to that?
Mayor Courts: I think your question gets to a broader issue, respect of property rights and legal processes. If my opponent and his supporters advocate tearing down private property, what happens when they decide they don’t like your property? Now in truth, warehouses are not my first choice for commercial activities on the property North of Center Drive, but they are an allowable use in DuPont’s land use code. 1/3rdof DuPont has been zoned for commercial or industrial use since the original planned community was proposed in 1985. This division of uses has been confirmed with every Comprehensive Plan update since. Ironically the allowance of warehouses North of Center Drive is relatively new. In 2002 the City Council approved a recommendation by the City Planner, Mr. Dennis Clark, one of my opponents’ primary donors and campaign staff, to add warehousing as an allowable use. This committed the City to honor that change. My administration did add Multi-use as an additional use to encourage both retail and affordable housing on the second story as an alternative use for the property at the corner of Center Drive and DuPont-Steilacoom Road. Unfortunately, the market did not support that, and the owner is developing a warehouse that is nearly complete. We will leave the alternate use on that property keeping mind that markets change, and future re-development could include multi-use as a follow-on application. I must assume the comment “tear down the warehouses” is hyperbole and not a serious proposal. If a new administration seriously embarked on a policy of tearing down existing warehouses, or even fundamentally altering the established zoning plan without owner consent, the City would find itself in a series of never-ending lawsuits, tying up resources and staff for years to come. As for the trucks, there is history and good news. When the prohibition on trucks on Center Drive between Palisades and McNeil was approved, Edmond Village and Bell Hill did not exist. What the prohibition did was create haves and have nots in our community. The residents of Edmonds Village, Bell Hill and the Historic Village have borne the brunt of truck traffic to protect Palisades Village. I think this is profoundly unfair, but it is our law. What we have done to mitigate the impact on Edmond Village is after over 3 years of negotiations with Amazon on a variety of issues, we successfully got them to build a new entrance/exit onto Wharf Road. This has dramatically reduced the impact of commercial traffic on Edmond Village. Additionally, I worked for 3 years to secure State funding for an expansion of DuPont-Steilacoom Road from I-5 to Wharf Road, including sidewalks/bike lanes on the DuPont side. This will take the commercial traffic away from the Historic Village and reduce both commercial and passenger congestion on DuPont-Steilacoom Road. Long-term we are planning for a commercial route using Powerline Road and Wharf Road to further pull commercial traffic away from residential areas.
There is another issue with property rights that needs to be addressed. My opponents’ supporters filed an appeal to our recently approved Critical Area Ordinances (CAOs). These laws protect our sensitive areas, including; wetlands, steep slopes, etc. The appeal was aimed at our inclusion of a 100-foot wetland buffer. This was consistent with our previous CAOs and we did not see any need to change that as our wetlands are already surrounded with primarily residential property. My opponent and his supporters advocate a 300-foot buffer. The Department of Ecology recommends a 300-foot buffer for NEW developments, not existing ones. They withdrew their appeal with plans to make the change without external direction once my opponent is elected. That change would require Council action, but more importantly it would place over a hundred homes in Bell Hill, Edmond Village, Historic Village and Yehle Village in the buffer. This means those homes would be permanently encumbered. Any work on the property, a deck, fence, irrigation system, would first require an owner funded wetland survey, beginning at about $3000 before a permit application could be submitted. The property value would be negatively impacted, permanently. This is not something I can support.
There are ways to amend our zoning and regulations. We have a deliberate process that was used effectively to update the Comprehensive Plan, Zoning Code and Development Regulations for the Old Fort Lake area. The process takes nearly two years but allows us to shape future development. I have already directed the Planning Commission to take-up a holistic review of the land in the future Sequalitchew Village area to get these elements updated in a more suitable manner long-before development proposals come forward.
I am committed to; respect for our laws and the processes in place to amend them, property rights and avoidance of actions that are likely to place public funds at risk. I also eschew any action directly supporting a special interest group that disregards our laws or the property rights of individuals or businesses.
Dave Maestas: Mayor Courts, your opponent has made suggestions about a lack of ethics in your administration, specifically addressing the permitting for the development of the new Self-Storage facility and Ace Hardware, particularly former the City Administrator becoming the owner/operator of the Ace Hardware. How do you respond to those allegations?
Mayor Courts: In 2016, a local developer approached me at City Hall about his interest in purchasing the vacant lot at the corner of Center Drive and McNeil for commercial development. I was very excited about this and asked him what he wanted to develop. He informed me that he was in the business of indoor self-storage and his analysis showed that DuPont was under served with this. I was not thrilled about self-storage in our downtown core and let him know that. He asked if I had seen any of his previous projects and I admitted I had not. I looked at numerous projects he had developed and was very impressed. I had to admit I had never seen self-storage facilities that looked like his. I also informed him that the property was zoned multi-use and there had to be retail on the first floor. He asked what we wanted, and I let him know we were very interested in a grocery store. He met with me after a few weeks and let me know there was not a grocer in the region that would touch DuPont. There are numerous reasons I can expound on but that is for another time. He asked me what else we were interested in. I told him a hardware store would be a good fit for our community. Again, he came back in a few weeks and let me know that Ace was very interested, but our lease rates were too high for them. He offered that he knew he had to have retail and he felt Ace would be a good fit with his business and that he would work with Ace to support a lease rate that they could afford, meaning he would lease his property below DuPont levels to support development of an Ace Hardware. He also told me that he had concerns about our current zoning. Although we are confident his business was allowable under our existing code (commercial and retail both allowable uses), it was not specified. There are examples in our City of current land uses that are contrary to our own zoning that have the potential to cause serious challenges for the City and property owners. He felt he needed clarification of our code before he could proceed. This was sent to the Planning Commission and eventually City Council to ensure our zoning for this property was clear enough to avoid future questions. We are going to have to go back to some other properties in the City and add allowable uses to their existing zoning to avoid risk to the City or ownership. Some other things that he has done are simply amazing. The statues “Annie’s Outing” on the sidewalk along Center Drive were built on his property. He had every right to require the City to move them, instead, he granted the City a permanent easement and curved his building around them to make it more attractive. He has also added a large flagpole and lighting behind the sculptures and paid for a historic mural, designed by our Historic Society, covering the entire history of DuPont to be placed along the sidewalk next to the sculptures.
Regarding the accusations of impropriety with the former City Administrator’s role, early in this process, the then City Administrator approached me to let me know he had an interest in retiring and becoming the owner operator of the new Ace Hardware. Although I hated the idea of losing him as our City Administrator, I fully supported his goal. He and I agreed that the Council and staff needed to be informed and he would have to be sequestered from any future involvement in any part of the permitting process. This was documented and is in the City’s records. During the 2018 State Audit a resident made a formal complaint about the former City Administrator’s role in the City and Ace Hardware. This was investigated by the Auditor and a report was issued that exonerates the City and the former City Administrator. That report is a matter of public record and the results have been provided to all Council members. Besides simply opening a business, they worked with Ace to create a facility (the first retail facility in the Nation to do this) specifically designed to accommodate up to 50% of its employees as disabled veterans. Our former Administrator has worked with State and local Veteran organizations to recruit and hire several veterans on his staff. I am humbled and honored that he did this, and it is in our City.
Besides the continuing allegations against the City, the developer has received threats from the public about his business, including an email from a resident who offered “I hope your children die in a fire in your building”. I am embarrassed that we have people in our City who would make this type of comment.
Dave Maestas: Mayor Courts, your opponent and his supporters have made accusations that you personally target citizens you disagree for attack from the City. Would you comment on that?
Mayor Courts: Dave, wow that is pretty damning. I would be better prepared to address those accusations if I had specifics, although I find these ironic. Early in this campaign I received endorsements from several senior elected officials, from both parties, including Rep Denny Heck, State Senator Steve O’Ban, County Executive Bruce Dammeier, County Council Chairman Doug Richardson and Steilacoom Mayor Ron Lucas. These are all elected leaders who I have worked extensively with and respect them, regardless of party affiliation. My opponent’s supporters have gone to several of their offices and attempted to intimidate and threaten them with political retribution. I am shocked and disappointed by this behavior. My opponent has an endorsement from one of our State Representatives, Christine Kilduff. I respect her, work with her frequently and continue to do so regardless of her endorsement. I would never consider taking any action to try and threaten or intimidate her or anyone else who supported my opponent. After a recent Meet and Greet one of my supporters hosted for me and several other candidates for City Council and School Board, one of my opponents supporters posted their pictures on Social Media and said that we need to question the integrity of these candidates and people since they support Mayor Courts. That is not the political environment I want to operate in and would prefer to focus our efforts on the issues.
Another issue is also very disturbing. The DuPont Police Department recently hired a new police officer recruit; a former Army NCO who served honorably, is a combat veteran of Afghanistan, a husband and father. Prior to his employment with DPD he was released from another area law enforcement agency after just a few weeks of employment. This agency decided to end his employment because, after being tasked to help his fellow police recruits to get into physical condition for the academy, he emailed a printed workout routine from his time in the Army. This military workout program, which he didn't write, had some questionable and vulgar language in it. He was extremely regretful that he failed to fully read the contents of the workout prior to sending it, but because he did, he was released prior to attending police academy. Almost a year past when he applied for DPD, and he subsequently ranked #1 on our Civil Service hiring list. DPD conducted a thorough, independent background investigation, polygraph and psychological screening, in full accordance with state law. Based on the totality of his life’s service, his exemplary off-duty conduct, positive references received from supervisors at the agency which released him, and his efforts to correct his actions since his release, DPD was satisfied he was an excellent candidate.
Some of my opponents’ supporters were informed that he was released from another agency, and which agency specifically he was released from. They acquired his personnel report from his former, very brief employment. This was done through what was described as a public records request. This personnel report was posted on social media without full context. Regardless of how it was obtained, the report contains his address and phone number. Public release of law enforcement addresses and phone numbers is prohibited. We have people supporting my opponent who are prepared to place law enforcement officers and their families at potential risk for political gain.
Dave Maestas: Mayor Courts, we have covered a lot of material in this interview, there may be more opportunities to do this, but do you want to add any final comments?
Mayor Courts: Dave, I appreciate you giving me this opportunity to address some of these issues. I respect that good, honest people can have different visions on how our City should move forward. That is perfectly natural and healthy. I am running on almost 8 years of service to DuPont as both a City Councilmember and Mayor. Like the past 6 mayors in DuPont, I started on City Council. I believe experience counts and municipal government, particularly as the Chief Executive, is not the place to begin your learning experience. DuPont is becoming an increasingly complex City. I am proud to have been part of the professionalization of our government so that it is legally grounded and serves everyone, not just friends of elected officials. We respect everyone who is a stakeholder in our City; homeowners, renters, business owners, employees and visitors. We have a good relationship with our neighbors, and I have worked hard to advocate for DuPont at the County, Region and State. I look forward to doing it for 4 more years.