LANGLEY PRIMARY ELECTION: POSITION 3 | Three square off for coveted seat on council
August 8, 2011 · Updated 12:55 PM
LANGLEY — The Primary Election scrum for Position 3 on the Langley City Council has one candidate who says things look fine in the Village by the Sea, and two candidates who say the scene at city hall isn’t so spectacular.
Robin Adams, Jim Sundberg and Kathleen Waters are vying to replace Councilwoman Fran Abel, who decided not to run to retain her spot on the council. It’s the first primary run-off in recent memory for Langley, a town that usually sees candidates running unopposed on the ballot.
Political turmoil in the South End’s only incorporated city, however, has led to a crowded ballot; there’s also a three-way contest for Position 4 on the council.
In each race, the top two candidates after the Aug. 16 primary will advance to the General Election in November.
Because Abel was appointed, her replacement will join the council after the November election is validated. And among the three contenders in the race, the closest insider at city hall is Sundberg, who has served for three years as chairman of the city’s Planning Advisory Board.
Sundberg, a Langley resident since 2002, said he wants to help Langley move into the future while retaining the things that have made it special.
“I like what I see that’s happening in Langley today,” he said. “I think a balanced perspective shows that we have business growth, we have residential growth and we have importantly cultural and artistic growth going on in the city.
“I want to help the Village by the Sea prosper and I want to preserve its uniqueness, its aesthetic uniqueness and its quality of life,” he said.
Sundberg has set out a short list of projects he’d like to see happen if voters elect him to office. He wants to help the city get a few plug-in stations for electric cars, and add recycling containers around town next to existing trash containers. He also hopes to encourage community health by increasing the network of walking paths and biking lanes.
Sundberg, 66, has working experience in community development. He was also at the helm of the Planning Advisory Board when it took up the controversial Langley Passage project, and the city’s review of the subdivision has been criticized by both supporters and opponents of the new neighborhood.
“If there could have been some way to have shortened that process, I think everyone would have benefited,” Sundberg said.
Sundberg has gotten his own fair share of criticism, for not keeping tighter reins as chairman on his fellow PAB members and having them focus on legally defensible reasons for rejecting Langley Passage, rather than relying on neighborhood opposition and claims that were not supported by evidence in the record, such as the allegation that too many homes were on the market in Langley, so the city should not approve the construction of more.
“With the benefit of hindsight, as chair, I probably should have challenged those,” Sundberg said.
In retrospect, Sundberg said, he should have asked fellow PAB members to better support their arguments against the development or change them. “But not change them in my direction. But that’s a pretty fine point.”
Sundberg’s view is different than his opponents when it comes to the idea of creating a council committee devoted to financial matters. He favors the ad-hoc committee system the council currently employs.
Some have said a finance committee is needed to increase transparency in government, but Sundberg rates city hall as excellent in its openness.
“I would give it an A — a very solid A,” he said.
“There’s always room for improvement and I think the city has shown some good improvements over the last three years, but it’s not because they were doing anything in the dark.”
Waters, who is seeking a council seat after being turned down as an appointee in December, disagrees.
“Asking for government transparency may appear to be a cliché, but I really feel that for the image of the city and the participation of all the people who live here, if we could improve government transparency that would be a real good step in the right direction.”
Waters is critical of the council’s reluctance to form a committee on financial matters that would meet on more than an ad-hoc basis. It was an idea trumpeted by Councilman Hal Seligson, but a proposal that failed to gain traction with the rest of the council.
“At this point, where we have such dire economical conditions all over the country, it just seemed like a no-brainer that they would want to have a standing group looking over the finances of Langley,” Waters said.
Though some on the council have said the mayor’s finance committee is adequate enough for the Village by the Sea, Waters insists that’s not the case. She noted that while the mayor’s committee does have two councilors as members, the committee itself meets in secret. No official minutes of those meetings are kept, and the meetings are not open to the public.
“We have an ongoing economic challenge. It just seems like common sense to me that we, as taxpayers, should be able to sit and observe a meeting where they are talking about our money,” she said.
Waters said a council finance committee “would give us enormous transparency, and it would take a critical look at molding our financial picture, both revenues and expenses, in a very public way.”
Waters gives the city low marks on transparency — the lowest grade offered by any candidate in the race.
“I would give city hall a D,” Waters said, adding that the mayor’s refusal to allow citizens to watch his finance committee at work was the primary reason for the failing grade.
Waters’ view of the city also parts company with those of her opponents when it comes to the public perception of the city, which some believe has a no-growth attitude.
“The idea that we have growth in Langley is an illusion,” she said. “I look around and see a lot of commercial vacancies, I see commercial property for sale.”
Though that image of Langley coursed through conversations as the city enacted moratorium after moratorium in years past, the no-growth charge gained new life during the extended battle against Langley Passage.
Waters recalled the criticism of city planning staff that bubbled up during the city’s review of the 20-home subdivision in Edgecliff.
“The first thing we can do to get away from that no-growth image is to allow growth. To allow growth we need to let the planners do their job and trust the planners know how to vet applicants and know our Langley code and know our Langley zoning,” she said.
Waters praised the efforts of the city to hire a hearing examiner to decide the fate of new subdivisions and other contentious land-use issues, and said the new hire would help bring a balance back to Langley.
Waters, 74, is a council watchdog who has drawn fire for her outspoken views — Councilwoman Rene Neff once characterized her as a “bully” after Waters criticized another council member’s views on land-use planning — and acknowledged that some may think she has been overly harsh to city officials.
But that comes with the turf, she said.
“Elected officials have to be open to both compliments and criticism. That’s how our government works,” Waters said.
“I don’t feel that I’ve ever acted in an uncivil manner. I’ve always remained very polite and good,” she said. “Unlike one of my opponents, I have never lost my temper and made accusations of impropriety of anyone on the council at a public meeting. I’ve never come close to that.”
Waters said she would not give up her straight talk if elected and vowed to ask the tough questions that beg asking.
“I will not shift from being a watchdog. I hope to be the eyes and ears of the citizens. They have to have somebody who hears their voices and sees things through their lens.”
“What I want to see on the council are real discussions,” she said. “If they veer into an argument, that’s healthy democracy.”
Adams is also a familiar face at city hall, and one not shy about sharing his views.
Adams, 64, is best known in Langley as the voice of the Langley Critical Area Alliance, the group of Edgecliff residents and others who fought the Langley Passage housing project. But the candidate has been trying to show voters he’s much more than the combative character that some have made him out to be.
“If I read the blogosphere I’m an angry white male,” he said.
Adams said he isn’t angry, just passionate. Adding to a vigorous debate, even if one ends up on the losing end, is a worthwhile endeavor.
“That’s my personality,” he said. “I’m not going to be a yes man. And if the city wants a yes man, then I’m not the candidate to vote for.”
“If I think the mayor is wrong, I’ll tell him he is wrong.”
Adams said he could see himself voting with the majority, and other times, being a voice with a minority view. And that’s OK, he said.
“I will move on; I won’t let it eat away at me,” he said.
Adams said he had a simple motivation for seeking elected office.
“I care passionately about Langley,” Adams said. “I don’t think things are going in the right direction.”
“In the end, you can sit around and complain ... or you can put yourself up for election. And I think the latter is considerably more constructive to do.”
On the city’s reputation as anti-development, Adam said he was uncertain that view existed.
“I don’t know whether Langley has a no-growth reputation because I have never surveyed upon that. But if you ask me do I think Langley deserves a no-growth reputation, I would say to you, no, I don’t,” he said.
Adams cited “a substantial increase” in development in Langley that has happened in the past five years, projects that include the Highlands, the largest subdivision in the city’s history. He recalled being interested in buying a home in the Highlands early on, but was told he would have to go on a waiting list.
“I just don’t think it’s true that Langley is a no-growth place. We’ve approved lots of development.”
Like Waters, Adams said he supports the formation of a council finance committee. Other committees that meet regularly should be explored, he said.
“The same thing might be said for the managing of the water and sewer utility. A huge amount of city capital is tied up on that.”
But he doesn’t think a finance committee is needed due to a lack of transparency.
“I don’t think the city is secretive. There are obviously certain things that cannot be publicly discussed,” Adams said, such as the work performance of employees.
As far as a letter grade, he would give “an A of some sort.”
“I’m a very tough grader,” Adams added.
Adams is focusing on three main issues in his campaign: aligning Langley’s zoning and development rules with its comprehensive plan; reforming the village’s public utilities to put them on solid financial footing; and diversifying the city’s economy.
“I think this election should be fought on the issues,” he said.
“The things I’ve tried to highlight are the whole land-use and development area, where I think we must resolve the difference between the [comprehensive] plan and the code.”
Adams said the city should do more to reach out to businesses that could locate in Langley — and not necessarily ones that depend on tourism.
“I think events of the last few years have illustrated that’s quite a vulnerable industry,” he said.