Auburn’s new council member accepts the challenge

Cheryl Rakes is finding her feet on Auburn City Council, plans to run for the seat.

At her Auburn Downtown Cooperative office on Main Street, director Cheryl Rakes keeps a photo of her late father, Edward Sluys, beaming in the company of his old mates at the Auburn Fire Department.

Seeing it, she sometimes wonders what her father would think if he could walk today the streets of the city he knew, served and loved for so many years, and whose children he delighted when he played Santa.

“I think he would be proud,” said Rakes, who was appointed to the Auburn City Council to fill the unexpired term of now State Rep. Chris Stearns on Jan. 24. “Dad was all about caring about Auburn.”

Rakes, a 1973 Auburn High School graduate, who moved from Bellingham to Auburn with her family when she was 5 years old in 1960, remembers the city when it was home to 17,000 people — and the likes of Gene Kasper and JCPenney kept the downtown humming.

It can hum again, Rakes insists, and move into the future without losing the sense of what made Auburn special in the old days.

“We have a population of over 90,000 now. We should have a booming main street,” said Rakes, imagining the downtown center tied into a rebuilt theater here, the soon-to-open Auburn Arts and Cultural Center there, more streetscapes and colorful murals.

“We have to tie our main street into the future arts center,” Rakes said.

Seeing the good stuff come to fruition motivates Rakes in her new role on the council, which she is enjoying even as she learns the ropes.

“It’s been good,” Rakes said, “trying to get to know the other council members and their personalities and all of the learning that goes with it.”

That includes learning on a wide swath of subjects with which she had no previous experience, such as the contents of Auburn’s city code and the Revised Code of Washington.

And as with every endeavor, there have been the inevitable surprises, especially the time commitment.

“There’s a lot of work you put in behind the scenes. It’s not just a matter of going to a council meeting. You get the material every Thursday to go over it and read it all and make sure you understand it before the meetings,” Rakes said.

“What I do, because I’m new and there are subjects I may not know, is respond to emails from constituents and tell them I’m sending it along to the mayor so she can get it to the right department so the constituent can get the correct answer,” Rakes said. “By doing that, I learn what the correct answer is. Being new, you don’t know everything, and I don’t want to quote stuff that isn’t right.”

Rakes digs being on the council so well she expects to run for office for the first time in her life when the time remaining on Stearns’ unexpired term ticks down.

“I don’t feel that the short time I will have been in office by then will be enough to get things done that I want to get done, or I might learn that I want to get done as a council member,” Rakes said.

Rakes three principal concerns are all tied together: public safety, the homelessness crisis and mental health; and revitalizing the downtown area.

“We have to make our streets safe. People have to feel safe to want to come out and engage in the community. People tell me, ‘We want to be able to go downtown, we want to be able to participate in events downtown, and feel safe about that.’ I do get a hold of the police chief when the ADA has an event downtown and they provide extra patrols and so far, so good. The businesses feel things have gotten a lot better than they were a year ago during the pandemic.”

Rakes said she is keenly aware of the critical shortage of mental health beds in King County and its effect on homelessness.

“A drug addict isn’t just going to say, ‘Oh, yeah, I want help.’ Auburn has a lot of services in place to help people, but we need the mental health help. There are not enough mental health beds today. There are things in the works. Something will be done, but safety and the homeless are tied together. Our homeless outreach coordinator, Kent Hay, is doing a great job. His message to the homeless is, ‘we’ve got the resources for you if you need them, but if you don’t, this may not be the city for you.’”

Making Main Street a draw again presents more than a few steep challenges.

“We’ve been set back by the two fires downtown and by construction,” Rakes said. “Now that some of the construction is getting done, we need to make downtown more inviting, which in turn will attract more businesses to want to come downtown.”