Northwest News

Police and minimum wage highlight first public forum for Olympia candidates

Candidates for Olympia mayor and city council gathered for a brief forum Wednesday at Garfield Elementary School to discuss issues ranging from police accountability to downtown development.

The event was sponsored by the Southwest Olympia and Northwest Olympia neighborhood associations. More than 100 people attended the public forum, which was divided into two one-hour sessions between the city candidates and Port of Olympia commissioner candidates.

There was no back-and-forth between the candidates and the audience, nor were any questions directed to specific candidates. Rather, candidates chose which questions to answer from a list generated by the neighborhoods and contributed by the audience. Questions targeted topics such as development in west Olympia, policies related to the use of deadly force by police, the role of the city manager and staff in determining city policies, and issues related to safety and development in downtown Olympia.

The format was meant to highlight the city’s most pressing issues while giving the public a chance to learn from the questions and see the candidates in person, said SWONA President Bethany Weidner.

Of the three Olympia mayoral candidates, only Marco Rossi participated in Wednesday’s forum. Councilwoman Cheryl Selby was in Washington, D.C., for a conference about planning and housing, said Aslan Meade, who plugged Selby’s website and candidacy in her place. The third mayoral candidate, Prophet Atlantis, did not show.

Rossi said one top priority is to end poverty in Olympia. He supports a $15 minimum wage for the city as well as adequate sick leave and a “tenants’ bill of rights.” He advocated for a civilian review board and cultural training that could increase accountability and transparency in the Olympia Police Department.

“People feel like their city government isn’t open to them, and that’s something I want to change,” Rossi said.

Rossi said the city needs a different policing model for strengthening the public’s relationship with the department — and ultimately increases the public’s respect for law enforcement. On that note, Rossi said the key to making staff and police more accountable is to pass good ordinances and laws: “We can’t do that unless we have our ear to what the citizens want and are responsive to them.”

Moreover, Rossi also supports policies that encourage urban density, walkability, more green space and reduced greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, especially ahead of the expected influx of 20,000 new residents in the next 20 years.

Running for Olympia City Council position 2 are Judy Bardin, Jessica Bateman and Raymond Guerra.

Bardin said her top priority is to foster an open and responsive government with council members who think independently and draft innovative policies. She said the public, not city staff, should have “the last word” on new policies and proposals.

Bardin said she supports a gradually implemented $15 minimum wage in Olympia, and said she would like to see Lacey and Tumwater get on board with the concept in a show of solidarity for the region. She called for more walkable neighborhoods and tree-lined streets. She also supports a civilian review board for the Police Department.

In addition to calling for a fully-funded voter utility tax to maintain parks, Bardin addressed the future of the isthmus between Budd Inlet and Capitol Lake. The flood-prone isthmus is also a transportation corridor that links downtown to the westside — two critical factors that must be considered with any proposed development, she said.

“We need to have a robust public process to do visioning on the isthmus and decide if we want to develop it or not develop it,” Bardin said.

Bateman said she is interested in maintaining the city’s network of public parks. This includes encouraging more activities for the embattled Artesian Commons as well as services for the vulnerable street population that primarily uses the downtown Olympia park. Bateman also said she supports a more bike-friendly and walkable downtown.

As for the response to last month’s police shooting, Bateman said she feels like the city’s leadership has been transparent from the start, but acknowledged that the police department needs proper accountability and perhaps more training to ensure that.

While addressing concerns about the influence staff has on the council, Bateman assured the audience that the city council has the ability to accept or reject recommendations as well as come up with new proposals. More importantly, she said, is for the city to include the public in these proposals as much as possible.

“I do think we need more avenues for citizen participation,” Bateman said. “We want to have increasing opportunities for public engagement.”

Guerra said he entered the race to focus on poverty issues such as establishing a $15 minimum wage and paid sick leave — both of which could bolster businesses and the local economy as people spend that extra money.

“People need to be able to take care of themselves,” Guerra said.

Guerra also said the city needs to “build up and not out” while creating a more walkable and sustainable downtown and westside. Guerra supports urban density — and less sprawl — with more tall buildings and more people living and working downtown. He pondered one idea of encouraging a thriving business district on Harrison Avenue as an example of another destination in the city.

The recent police shooting, Guerra said, has called attention to a need for more police accountability in Olympia.

“I’m not here to vilify the police, but it’s not OK that other police institutions are investigating a possible crime in our own department,” he said. “We need an independent third-party investigative committee.”

Running for Olympia City Council position 3 are incumbent Nathaniel Jones and Rafael Ruiz.

Jones, who was first elected in 2011, said the city is entering a rebuilding phase following the recession, when downtown Olympia experienced an “exodus” of businesses and state offices. Jones said he wants to help position the city for the next four to 10 years of growth amid the current social and energy issues.

“I’d like to be part of that rebuilding in this community,” Jones said.

Two initiatives that Jones said he embraces are community renewal policies that promote private-public investment for a “rebirth” of downtown, and the funding for parks maintenance. Jones also said last month’s police shooting and subsequent protests highlight a larger challenge for Olympia and an opportunity to become part of the national dialogue surrounding policing issues.

“We are putting too much on our Police Department. We are asking law enforcement to solve many social problems,” Jones said.

Ruiz said his goal is to “reduce harm and bring more safety to Olympia.” He will support any laws that raise the minimum wage and improve safety for tenants and workers. Safety improvements could also come from ensuring adequate shelter and housing for struggling residents, he said.

Ruiz said he has been looking at how other cities operate, and suggested that positions such as the city manager should be elected by the people the position serves. He wants to promote more direct democracy among all residents and help make Olympia into an example that other cities can follow.

“I really highly value collective decision-making and cooperative work,” Ruiz said. “I’m ready to work. I’m ready to open up the city to inclusivity so that we are able to really get out of the city what everybody needs and make sure everyone is thriving.”

FYI: Primary election

The races with more than two candidates will require an Aug. 4 primary election to narrow the field, with the top two vote-getters advancing to the Nov. 3 general election.