MAYORAL and City Council elections here, usually a one-candidate slide to the finish, are much livelier this year. Incumbents are facing tough and well-spoken challengers who showed real strength in last month's primary.
The people who run Marysville used to run for election unopposed. But this year is different. This year there have been multiple candidates and a primary election characterized by the sound of incumbents just squeaking by.
As the Nov. 2 general election approaches, City Councilman Mike Leighan says, "We're in deep doo-doo."
Leighan, a two-term councilman and sign-business owner whose previous campaigns were opponent-free, is in the same boat as Mayor Dave Weiser and Councilwoman Donna Wright: All are facing unexpectedly tough challengers who've put them on the defensive by talking about polluted creeks, overcrowded schools, allegedly insufficient developer-mitigation fees and what they say is city officials' promotion of growth above all else.
"The anti-growth group, I call them," Wright said. "It seems every time you ask them a question, it's either save the salmon or increase the mitigation fees."
But the message of Suzanne Smith, A. Michael Kundu and Gary Way - all endorsed by Washington Conservation Voters, a nonpartisan environmental group - appears to be resonating in a city whose population has more than doubled to 20,000 in the past decade.
The growth, which began in earnest after a building moratorium was lifted in the early 1990s, has helped turn this former farming community into a suburb where, critics say, roads are jammed, parks are scarce, major retailers to help ease the tax burden are few and schools are bursting.
"We have such polarization," said Frances Coverson, a candidate for one of the less hotly contested City Council seats. "When I go out doorbelling, traffic and growth issues are what everyone seems to be talking about. I think the City Council got out of touch."
Smith, a 36-year-old landscape designer and Wright's first challenger in eight years, got more primary votes than Wright, 59. In the mayoral primary, Weiser finished less than 1 percentage point ahead of Way, who beat longtime Councilwoman Donna Pedersen by an even slimmer margin for second place. Pedersen, whose seat was not up for re-election, remains on the City Council.
Mitigation fees, wetlands
Way, a 58-year-old property manager who years ago served on the city's Planning Commission, said doorbelling had shown him that this year, the less people know about you, the better.
"I hear comments like, `If I recognize their name, I'm voting against them,' " Way said. "I say, `Can I have my pamphlet back?' "
A premier campaign issue for Way, as well as Smith and Kundu, is developer-mitigation fees to help pay for schools, parks and roads. The City Council, which had charged about $900 a house, this year raised the fee to $2,000 a house. That's the same as what Snohomish County charges in unincorporated areas, but half the $4,070 that the Marysville School District had pushed for. Way, Smith and Kundu support the higher amount.
Kundu, Smith and Way have also criticized city officials for what they say is their failure to protect wetlands, create parks, ensure buffers and clean up city creeks, which have high levels of fecal coliform - thought to originate from livestock waste and leaky septic systems.
Leighan and Wright point out that the creeks run through several jurisdictions and that a cleanup would require participation by Snohomish County and other jurisdictions.
Smith disagrees: "I say, let's be leaders. Let's address it and put pressure on the county. And homeowners can do their small part. We could be educating them."
Mayor's duties, pay also at issue
Way has criticized Weiser on the same issue, saying the city hasn't applied for grants available to protect streams or ease traffic. And he has an extra issue: the mayor's duties and salary. Weiser's salary was doubled to $50,000 midway through his second term as mayor, when the council agreed he should become a full-time mayor. Marysville also has a full-time administrator, paid $80,000 a year.
Way says the voters, not the City Council, should decide whether they want a full-time mayor. He says Weiser's duties remain unclear. Way is also calling for a new city position: an ombudsman to hear citizen complaints.
Weiser says Way doesn't know what he's talking about. The mitigation fee was a City Council decision, not his, the mayor says.
"Mr. Way, he tends to throw out statements that are not fully researched," Weiser said. "We haven't gone after any grants? We've received over $10 million in road grants the last two years and $1 million in park grants in the last four or five years."
Weiser, 50, said he has succeeded in improving relations with surrounding governments and streamlining city government. "We have about 20 percent less employees than we did eight years ago," he said.
Dave Aldrich, a local gadfly, disclosed in August that Leighan, 45, who owns a sign-and-banner business, and Weiser, who owns part of a wood-products company, apparently had violated a state conflict-of-interest law by doing business with the city. Leighan's business had supplied signs and painted police cars, among other things, and had been doing so publicly for years.
The violation was unintentional, both men said, the result of a confusing law that was revised for clarity in July.
State Auditor Brian Sonntag agreed. "The legal advice coming from the state Attorney General's Office and their city attorney was confusing," Sonntag said. "The law itself was ambiguous." Sonntag said Leighan and Weiser since have willingly and swiftly complied; both have returned checks they'd received since July.
But Kundu is now criticizing Leighan for paying back the money, saying that by admitting they erred, the two officials opened the city to lawsuits from business owners who might have competed for the same work.
Kundu, 34, who works in public relations at Naval Station Everett and has been a spokesman for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, is highly critical of Leighan and other city officials.
"They're running the city in an old-boy network," Kundu said. "People are aware of that. The people I'm speaking with, they're newly moved to Marysville, and they don't believe it's a proper way."
`People who just moved here'
In turn, Leighan - whose campaign slogan is "It's our hometown" - has criticized Kundu as a newcomer. Kundu was born in India, reared in Canada, and has lived in Marysville for two years.
"Criticism, from people who just moved here, as my opponent . . . sort of bothers me," Leighan said. "I can see how far we've come. We've invested tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure. Somebody here only a short time doesn't remember that. We've invested in a pipeline, in a sewer-treatment plant. That's not exciting. . . . That's not acknowledged by my opponent."
Wright, who owns a real-estate agency and defines herself as a centrist, said she's been knocking on voters' doors daily since the primary, which had a citywide turnout of less than 29 percent of registered voters.
She said the people she'd met, who hadn't voted in the primary, seemed satisfied with their city. "I told them, `Please vote if you like it how it is.' "
Two City Council seats open
Two other City Council seats are open, without incumbents. Jim Brennick, 57, a part-time real-estate agent and former engineer at the Snohomish County Public Utility District who spent 14 years on the Marysville School Board, is running against Jeff Seibert, a 38-year-old electrician who got interested in local politics after a dispute with the city over placement of a road in a housing development near his home.
The friendliest race is between Boeing engineer and first-time candidate John Soriano, 38, and Coverson, 47, a former planning commissioner, current Marysville School Board member finishing a four-year term, and master gardener who'd like to broaden the tax base and protect waterways.
Though Coverson has far broader civic experience, Soriano ventured that the two aren't really at odds on the issues. "Gosh," he said, "I'm not too sure what the difference between us would be."
Nancy Montgomery's phone-message number is 425-745-7803. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org