Mayoral and council hopefuls explain their positions at debate

In the spotlight: Auburn mayoral candidate Nancy Backus replies to a question while her opponent, John PartrIdge, waits his turn during last week’s debate at the Auburn Avenue Theater.  - Shawn Skager/Auburn Reporter
In the spotlight: Auburn mayoral candidate Nancy Backus replies to a question while her opponent, John PartrIdge, waits his turn during last week’s debate at the Auburn Avenue Theater.
— image credit: Shawn Skager/Auburn Reporter

Two mayoral candidates and six City Council hopefuls took the stage in a public debate last week, tackling everything from finding funding for road maintenance and construction to the acceptability of marijuana-related businesses in Auburn, to the wisdom or folly of the direction in which the City is now headed.

The debate – a two-hour question-and-answer session sponsored by the Auburn Reporter and the Auburn Area Chamber of Commerce at the Auburn Avenue Theater on Oct. 9 – shed some light on the candidates' views.

The general election is Nov. 5.

In an unusual debate format, candidates were provided with questions ahead of time and given 30 seconds to answer them.

John Partridge, a City Councilmember who is challenging Deputy Mayor Nancy Backus for mayor, worked his campaign's underlying theme into many of his responses, presenting himself as the political outsider with fresh ideas and painting his opponent as an insider tied to the apron strings of the current regime in City Hall.

Time and again, Partridge returned to his important role in bringing to Auburn the Auburn Valley Humane Shelter and its animal control officer.

"My priorities are clear: safety for our families and community; funding roads and walkways; and making sure solutions to your interests are heard and addressed. Leadership needs to listen and be responsive to those they serve," Partridge said.

Backus said her 10 years on the City Council would be an asset, not a liability, to the people of Auburn. She said those years have shown her how things work at City Hall. She also cited her financial expertise as a Boeing supervisor, the numerous rewards for her leadership style she has won over the years, and her 33 years of service with the Miss Auburn Scholarship Program.

And she offered another reason to support her.

"My collaborative leadership style as a woman: it's time. It's really time that you have the first female mayor in Auburn. And I am that leader," Backus said.

A sampling of where the mayoral candidates stand on some issues of the day:

Partridge said that when enterprise funds, which are supposed to be self supporting, run into trouble as has happened to the Auburn Golf Course, "Help should not be extended on a permanent basis ... Our City representatives need to have an open discussion with the public to develop plans and goals to represent the best interests of this community. We cannot make emotional or irresponsible decisions with public monies."

Legally, Backus answered the enterprise fund question, the City has no choice — it must cover those liabilities and obligations.

"Those liabilities aren't for the Golf Course, those liabilities are for the City of Auburn. What would we benefit by defaulting on our obligation? It's the debt of the clubhouse that has caused the shortfall," Backus said, adding that the clubhouse was built when the national and local economies were more robust, and that the golf course suffered through several seasons with above-average rainfall. She said she believes the improving economy will help the golf course pay its own way.

Asked how she would work with Sound Transit to ensure that the agency fulfills its promise to complete a second parking garage at the Transit Station, Backus said Sound Transit Director Joni Earl had assured her that the agency is aware that it owes that second garage to the City of Auburn and that the project is on ST's list of priorities. Funding is tight, however, Backus said, so the City of Auburn, under her leadership, would continue to work with ST to find ways to pay for the garage. Backus guaranteed that she would continue her working relationship with Earl while she works to find short-term solutions to the parking crunch.

Partridge said the City needs to continue to use its regional and state relationships to negotiate the completion of the second parking garage. As with all negotiations, he said, the City needs to find out what Sound Transit wants and continue to work toward a solution.

Asked whether she would continue the mayor's current push to make Auburn an Amtrak Stop, Backus answered that it would not be a top priority in her administration. Her top priority, instead, would be to find money to fix the City's deteriorating roads and streets. She added that she would quickly act to raise the recently lowered speed limits on West and East Valley highways.

In the spirit of making the city a destination and not just a pass-through, Partridge answered, he would stay open to the opportunity of making Auburn an Amtrak stop again. But to make that happen, he added, the City would need fresh leadership and ideas, which he could supply.

"My goal is for Amtrak to pursue us, and not the other way around," Partridge said.

The two also explained their differing positions on the City's recent decision to contract for misdemeanant court services with King County instead of the City's Municipal Court — Partridge said no to the change, Backus said yes.

"I voted against this decision for public safety reasons," Partridge said. "The decision projected a savings in our jail costs by reducing the inmate population. King County Court philosophy releases a population known for drugs, alcohol and mental health issues onto our streets and into our parks with little to no supervision. For comparable Municipal Court services, we would have paid $200,000 a year less. In addition, the city paid settlements, and Auburn residents lost their jobs. The bottom line is, you get what you pay for."

"There's a lot of good reasons behind that," Backus said of her decision to go with King County. "It wasn't an easy decision to make ... Going with King County Courts has been far more cost effective and efficient. We have more services available to our citizens. We have a lower, average, daily population in our jail, 55 to 60 people at $115 a day. That doesn't mean that we have more criminals roaming the streets, it means that King County Courts and the judges are sentencing to fit the crimes. This is a misdemeanant court; it isn't where you have felons," Backus said.

In answers provided to other questions, Backus said she supports the one-year moratorium City Council members recently imposed on marijuana-related businesses, keyed to giving the City time to study the consequences of having them here and to wait until the state and federal governments work out their differences respecting the legality of the drug.

Partridge said he would fix the City's deteriorating streets by first looking to the general fund.

"I have identified that we could immediately release to our Public Works Department to get our $4 million a year, road preservation project going without raising taxes and without hurting critical balances in our funds. Second, we need to continue to look to federal and state grant funding, thus make these priorities the centerpiece of our budget. I believe it's not that we don't have enough money, it's where we've chosen to spend it," Partridge said.

City Council races

Claude Da Corsi (inset photo), who faces Jodi Riker-Yap in the contest for City Council Position 2, introduced himself as the director of capital construction for the King County Housing Authority, in which capacity he oversees an annual budget of $25 million. A New York native, he said, he has lived in Auburn with his family for nine years. He said he would bring to the position 40 years of business experience in the public and private sectors. He has a business management degree from Northwest University and a master's degree in public administration from Seattle University.

Asked what he would do to address loitering in the downtown, DaCorsi said, "The objective is to provide good outreach programs and services to get people off the streets. The same is true for our teens. We need places for them to go that are safe, economical, and we also need those facilities for our adult people, too. ... It will take the combined efforts of our city officials, business people, our police and our not-for profit service providers."

Riker-Yap — away attending her son's wedding — sent a transcript of her answers.

Frank Lonergan, a locksmith who is challenging Yolanda Trout for a council seat, said he preferred to speak from his heart, and eschewed prepared notes.

"I am not a politician, I'm just a concerned citizen, and that's why I'm running for Position 4," Lonergan said.

Lonergan said the City is not doing enough to address its gang problem, and that it could do much more to improve relations with the kids of the community. One step would be to provide open access to get them off the streets.

Trout, the product of a large family — one of 18 brothers and sisters — said her background taught her to negotiate very quickly. She recalled how, having lost her brother in a highway accident, she successfully lobbied the state to widen that highway from two to four lanes and to have anti-drinking and driving signs installed there. She has lived in Auburn for six years.

Trout said Auburn doesn't have a gang problem, only "kids who are wannabe gang members."

Michelle Binetti, hoping to unseat 5-term incumbent Rich Wagner, described herself as a 48-year resident of Auburn who has raised three sons in the community.

"I am running to give people the choice of whether they want Auburn to continue going in the same direction, or whether they want Auburn to keep going in a better direction," Binetti said.

She went on to criticize some of the City's recent spending decisions, including the construction of the SCORE Jail.

She described her position on the role of the City with respect to business.

"The business world is a competitive, dynamic environment, where enterprises are constantly growing and shrinking to meet the demands of the market. Government should be leery of becoming involved in that process," she said, adding, however, that it may get involved "to the extent that the government can help business without spending taxpayers' money or waiving necessary rules or regulations."

Wagner introduced himself as a retired research engineer and business development manager with the Weyerhaeuser Company, with time to devout to the City's business. He has an engineering degree from Washington State University and studied business and finance at Seattle University. He moved to Auburn with his family 35 years ago and raised four children here. He is the council's representative on the Arts Commission, and a member of the Valley Regional Fire Authority. He is chair of the City's Public Works Committee.

"We need to retain as many businesses as we can," Wagner said. "I think we need to be sensitive to businesses wanting to communicate with us. I think we need good police protection."

Wagner supports incentives to support small businesses. Binetti said she is not in favor of "using taxpayer dollars to support private enterprise."

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