New Lacey council gets down to business

LACEY - A new era of city politics began Friday as the City Council, with its three newly elected members, convened for the first time.

The city moved up its annual retreat with the City Council and department directors four months in recognition of the unprecedented turnover on the elected body with the election and swearing in of council members Ron Lawson, Cynthia Pratt and Andy Ryder.

The scheduling shift was indicative of the sea change that has occurred in the politics of Thurston County’s three major cities. Olympia’s three new council members, with assistance from incumbent Joe Hyer, moved to undo the preceding council’s controversial rezoning of the downtown isthmus during that council’s first meeting Tuesday, an issue that has divided the capital city. Tumwater has a new mayor and city administrator for the first time in more than a decade.

Much of Friday was taken up by Lacey city officials with team-building exercises and discussions on the basics of leading city government, including how to bring about issues or ideas to the council and which issues to bring to the city manager and department directors.

The afternoon session included discussions about priorities for the year and topics of discussion for the first several work sessions of the year.

It also included a conversation about the process of appointing the mayor and deputy mayor, the first major decision the new council will make during its first meeting on Thursday.

The atmosphere was cordial but neither as familiar nor as marked with ease as in past retreats, when the newly elected council members’ predecessors held their seats. In addition, Finance Director Troy Woo and Parks and Recreation Director Lori Flemm are recent additions to City Hall.

The change was noticeable to everyone and commented on occasionally.

“It’s pretty difficult to follow tradition when almost half your council is newly elected,” Ryder noted at one point.

Although newcomers – none of them had held prior elected office – the three new council members weren’t hesitant to put their own stamp on the elected body early on.

They will have separate e-mail accounts for city business, while the incumbents will continue to have their council-related e-mail arrive at a single electronic mailbox.

They also expressed a desire to break up the most powerful of the council’s five committees, the Finance, Economic Development and Land Use Committee, into two bodies, one focused on land-use and the other on the remaining two issues.

“Land use has a much broader footprint and should be handled separately,” Lawson said.

During their campaigns, the new council members were critical of the direction of development and land use charted by prior councils.

The mayor, when appointed, will make selections to all the committees with the council’s consent.

City Manager Greg Cuoio said land use was added to the committee two or three years ago as a courtesy to the city planning commission so it didn’t spend all the time reviewing an issue and making a recommendation to find out the council wasn’t interested in a change in the first place.

The council agreed to discuss the idea more at a future work session.

Priorities for the council this year include adopting various updates to the city’s comprehensive plan, or master land-use blueprint, completing a water rate study, approving key documents related to the first phase of development for the proposed Lacey Gateway Town Center mixed-use development in Hawks Prairie, and annexing the city into Lacey Fire District No. 3. The annexation is subject to a proposed special election April 27.

The retreat bogged down with Ryder’s insistence that Lacey Fire Chief Jim Broman, who is not a city employee, be invited to council meetings to answer questions about the proposed annexation raised by residents prior to the election. He said providing information is “desperately needed at this time.” The city will put out the request to Broman, but the incumbent council members raised concerns his attendance may take focus away from the city’s business at hand during the meeting and said alternatives could meet Ryder’s intent.

Other work session topics in the near future include rolling out a new Web site, conducting an inventory of vacant commercial space in the city, and revisiting the adopted College Street corridor plan.

The city adopted a plan to reconstruct the city’s main north-south thoroughfare to ease congestion and reduce collisions.

Lawson said he wanted the council to reconsider the plan because many residents on side streets he talked to are not happy about it. Lawson lives on one such side street.

The incumbents were open to revisiting the history and background of the plan, but they appeared hesitant about digging back into a plan that took several years to complete.

“Right off the top of my head, I’m thinking I don’t want to go back there,” said Councilwoman Mary Dean, in the middle of her third four-year term.

At the retreat’s conclusion, council members and department directors said it was a good introduction. City Attorney Ken Ahlf said all participants demonstrated they were working in the community’s best interests.

“We may not agree on all issues, but that’s what we have at heart and that’s what is most important,” he said.

Christian Hill: 360-754-5427