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Town Center Zoning Changes, City Financials for Q2 2012, Public Records Act and More at Mercer Island City Council Live Blog

Get the latest updates from the Mercer Island City Council Meeting.

11:40 pm

Council is adjourned.

11:37 pm

In response to a request from City Concilmember Debbie Bertlin, Conrad says PSE would present preliminary designs and costs on rebuilding the electrical cable cabinets at SE 27th Street and 77th Ave. SE that were at the center of a major power outage in June — but wasn't interested in taking a leadership role in their replacement.

"They were willing to talk about making them sturdier and more attractive," he said. "I'm not trying to sugar coat this, but they weren't interested in doing much of anything."

11:33 pm

In other business, City Manager Conrad said a number of councilmembers have asked him in looking at revising rules on requirements for developing a building for a 5th floor in exchange for a plaza.

11:30 pm

Councilmember Grady moves to suspend the rules and to approve AB 4765, 2nd Quarter 2012 Financial Status Report & Budget Adjustments. Cero is opposed to suspending the rules but the adjustments are approved unanimously.

11:27 pm

Cero points to salaries, benefits and contractual services as a source of concern, with an increase in nearly 8 percent. Corder explains that calendar and staffing anomalies in 2011 should account for most of the difference.

11:22 pm

Deputy Mayor Dan Grausz balks at the though of 10 "donation bins" to increase collections throughout the Island. MITS Director Cindy Goodwin has placed a new request in the city's budget for $15,500 for this.

"I'm having a hard time visualizing this," he said.

11:10 pm

Councilmember Cero asks a number of questions about the ambulance fee, water usage, city revenue mix, city staffing issues in the city maintenance department, fuel costs and grants, among other queries.

11:06 pm

Corder lays out the major projects that were paid for so far this year: improvements, the , pedestrian signals, ravine trail and minor improvements.

10:59 pm

Corder gives the council the good news: The city won't need to tap the "rainy day" fund.

Bad news? REET (real estate exise tax) is down 5.7 percent relative to last year — even though property sales are up (5.8 percent). The average sales price declined to $866,000, down from $887,000 in 2011, while 201 homes were sold in the first six months of 2012, compared to 190 by June 2011.

As a conseqence, a revised REET forecast is down to $1.78 million, whcih will likely affect capital construction projects.

"It will ultimately affect the timing of projects," said City Manager Conrad.

10:45 pm

City Finance Director Chip Corder is presenting the city's financials for 2nd quarter for 2012.  The takeaway?

"Things are pretty good. Not great, but pretty good," Corder said.

10:32 pm

A consensus of the council will allow tailors, health care services and veterinary services to be a minimum of 40 to 80 percent of the frontage of the building, in addition to allowing lower minimums (40 percent) of retail, restaurant and personal uses, and higher maximum uses for all other categories (up to 60 percent), including mortuary services, professional scientific and technical services, repair services, amusement services, educational services and financial and insurance services.

Conrad suggested the amendments won't return for a second reading to the council for some time as the city will work on creating a public parking requirement.

10:26 pm

Councilmember Brahm advocates for keeping regulations on uses simple, such as Kirkland, Vancouver or Olympia — cities whose codes that Planning Commission examined.

10:15 pm

Mayor Bassett has proposed that some uses that are currently restricted to 40 percent maximum be allowed a 60 percent maximum, for at least healthcare services. Deputy Mayor Grausz supports adding tailors to the mix. Senn wants to add Veterinary Services to the mix.

10:10 pm

The six uses that the 60/40 rule amendments would allow, up to 100 percent, in the future: Healthcare Services, Professional scientific and technical services, Repair services, Tailors, Amusement services and Educational Services.

10:07 pm

Cero chides the council for trying to shape the Town Center retail mix.

"Look at what we're trying to do. We're doing what government does worst: Manage successful businesses."

10:03 pm

The discussion moves on to amendments to the so-called 60/40 rule. Why the 60/40 rule exists in the first place, according to Councilmember Bertlin, was some of the undesirable retail mix that occupied The Building.

9:55 pm

Based on a motion by City Councilwoman Jane Mayer Brahm, the city council unanimously votes for striking the No Net Loss rule as it currently exists.

9:46 pm

Planning Commission Vice-Chair Jon Friedman responds to the consensus of the City Council by comparing the public parking issue to a bowl of spaghetti. Friedman said a majority of the commission felt that leaving the parking issue behind would give the city the ability to move forward immediately on new, more relaxed zoning rules.

"It is very complicated to try and untagle all of the strands," he said.

City Manager Conrad goes fishing for starting point on a hypothetical parking allowance. Two hours seems to be the prefered allowance.

9:43 pm

A consensus of the council (via thmbs-up, thumbs-down) agrees that the city needs to return to the property owners with a public parking requirement included the amendments. Brahm and Cero are not in favor.

9:42 pm

Grausz: "This is the only lever that we will ever have to deal with existing development there."

9:39 pm

Cero and Brahm weigh in against tying parking and zoning changes together. Grausz clarifies how changes in regulation work for new versus existing properties. The property owners, if Grausz gets his way, will need to allow public parking if they want the loosening of zoning restrictions.

9:28 pm

Mayor Bassett asks for help to understand why parking is overloaded at Tabit Square, a one-story shopping center on the south side of SE 27th Street, and the Walgreens lot that has a lot of empty spots.

City Manager Conrad suggests that it's because Tabit Square is "underparked" — not enough parking for the retail uses there. "It drives people to park in lots nearby," Conrad said. "So they don't want to participate in a "global solution."

Deputy Mayor Grausz said Walgreens could opt-out of any changes as their property is already slated for redevelopment.

"We all know what the future of (the Walgreens) property is," he said. "Tabit Square is frankly one of the better retail locations."

9:24 pm

Deputy Mayor Grausz tries to bring the discussion back to his view of the original intent of the proposed zoning changes: To improve the Town Center.

"What we are trying to do is create a Town Center that we envisioned," he said. "That it would be a pedestrian-frindly Town Center."

Grausz adds: ""I'm sad that the property owners haven't seen that we're all in this together."

9:19 pm

City Principal Planner George Steirer reviews the issues of parking and why the Planning Commission felt there was "no clear nexus".

Katie Knight responds to City Councilman Cero explaining that the zoning amendments could be used as a quid-pro-quo, creating regulations guiding use of parking lots.

9:08 pm

During a break, Dollar Development co-president Doris Cassan said part of the problem with allowing more parking downtown was complicated by park and ride users and commuters that carpooling by meeting and parking their vehicles in the Town Center.

"These folks park all day long," she said. "If it were simply shoppers from the downtown, it would be fine."

She also took issue that the developers were working against each other.

"I think you might have noticed the developers want each other to do well," she said. "If the building is full that's next to mine, you're going to get a benefit from that as well."

9:00 pm

An interesting exchange between Councilmembers Cero and Senn and Bertlin.

Here's Cero: "See, this parking thing, in practice, everybody ignores those things. There's never been a complaint to me of not being able to park where they want to park ... I'll bet number of tickets is non-existent. It's not enforced. The public understands it's pretty wishy-washy down there."

Here's Bertlin: "I do not think that voluntarily breaking the law in this community is the answer."

And here's Senn: "Mike, I feel like you're encouraging law-breakers," she said. "We want people to come and enjoy your shopping experience in the Town Center — not just in this building or that buidling."

8:53 pm

There's clearly some low-level animus going on here with Deputy Mayor Dan Grausz and property owners (including those sitting in the audience). Grausz references his experience of sitting on an ad-hoc committee for reveloping the Town Center and reminded the council that propery owners pledged they wouldn't place parking restriction signs in their property — then placed parking restriction signs when the redevelopment was finished.

"There's been nothing that i've seen that suggests that the developers and the property owners want to consider this." he said.

8:48 pm

Bertlin, the council's liason to the planning commission, says that she doesn't think the parking issue can be decoupled from relaxing zoning requirements.

City Manager Conrad weighs in: "Perhaps we can create a parking district. We have the authority to do this," he said. "I'm not sure we've exhausted all of these options short of passing a law."

8:46 pm

Mayor Bassett thanks the planning commissioners for their work and acknowledges the divisions on the city council.

"I want to thank Steve and Jon for all the work we've done... Before we rip it apart," he said.

8:41 pm

Deputy Mayor Grausz tries to frame the discussion by continuing to advocate for parking and linking a requirement to getting rid of the "no-net-loss" rule.

Councilman Mike Grady calls for a bit of "give and take."

"We need to give the public more flexibility on where they can park and when they can park," he said.

8:33 pm

Steirer reviews the No Net Loss rule. In essence, the Planning Commission is recommending the city relax protection of retail as a business use in the Town Center business district.

8:30 pm

Marshall: "What do you think of making things more advantageous for all retailers ... You'll do what you did at Bellevue Square or on the South-end. But most felt that it a problem of mix of uses."

"It's contary in the interest of the business-owners by restricing who can park there."

8:29 pm

Planning vice-chair Friedman: "(The commission) didn't see a connection with doing something with the parking."

8:24 pm

City councilwoman Tana Senn asks about rents and vacancy rates.

Comissioner Marshall replies that rents are still fairly high and remain high. He said that he couldn't figure out who would actually come and fill the vacant space.

"We really couldn't figure this out," he said. "According to the laws of supply and demand, you would think that rents would go down."

8:20 pm

Deputy Mayor Grausz asks, "What were the proposals for parking that the Planning Commission looked at?"

Steirer: "Specific language that required (property owners) in order to get the expanded use you had to have a certain amount of hours that would allow parking for the public."

Friedman: "There was a consideration for a 2-hour max for allowing the public to use the parking."

8:18 pm

"Were the business owners keeping the rents too high, like Cellar 46, which was pushed out by rent? These were tough questions to ask."

8:17 pm

Planning Commissioner Steve Marshall weighs in.

"Once you turn that over and go to 60 percent, which could be 100 percent — like banks and lawfirms — they're frankly going to be there a long time. Making that decision, we wanted to take a lot of care in making this decision where we have a lot of vacancies that are frnakly related to downturn in the economy."

8:10 pm

Jon Friedman, vice-chair of the city's planning commission, said a majority of the commissioners reached a majority consensus because they determined that "vacant storefronts are not in the interest" of local residents.

Financial and insurance services are left in the 40 percent category, but medical and science professionals will now be included in the 60 percent.

8:04 pm

Steirer said the Planning Commission is considering the elimination of the "no net loss" rule to the square footage of existing ground floor retail and restaurant space for redevelopment sites during the immediately preceeding three years, and the so-called 40/60 rule: There must be 60 percent of tenants that are "retail, restaurant or personal services" and no more than 40 percent of "hotel/motel; public facilities; services; or office. By definitions, ‘services’ includes healthcare, financial, repair, and others." 

Steirer also said that a new parking requirement was determined not to apply to the amdendments and would not be recommended.

7:59 pm

There's a few other local business leaders in the audience here: head Terri Moremon and President James Cassan are in the audience.

City Principal Planner George Steirer lays out the Planning Commission amendments to, in effect, weaken the city's regulations on what sorts of businesses may locate in the Town Center business district.

7:55 pm

Ira Appelman also weighs in, and very opposed, to the zoning amendments issue:

"If they have a problem with empty storefronts, they should reduce their rents," he said. "When they don't make a profit they come to the city for a bailout."

7:52 pm

Dr. Kyle Garten, a dermatologist, speaks on the issue. Garten says he and his wife and children are residents of the South-end and he hopes to open a practice with his wife in the 7800 Plaza building. Medical uses are not currently permitted in the Town Center. He wants to move his practice from near the University of Washington.

"Having a vibrant Town Center is in the best interest of Mercer Island."

7:49 pm

Next up is AB 4762, Town Center Code Amendments - No Net Loss of Ground Floor Retail Use (1st Reading) and AB 4761, Town Center Code Amendments - "60/40 Rule" for Ground Floor Uses (1st Reading). The mayor opens the public hearing and invites the public to come forward. Rich Hill, land use council of the 7800 Plaza building in Town Center.

"The benefit of the amndments is it will fill the empty storefronts that plague the Town Center and will imporve pedestrian vibrancy," he said.

7:47 pm

Council approves spending $4,500 on the new project, 6-1 — Cero opposed.

7:46 pm

Mayor Bassett says it's hard to compare this spending to that of dedicating funds to a fire station.

"Any piece of art work in that line of reason could be considered expendible. We've decided that art matters," he said.

7:43 pm

Councilwoman Jane Meyer Brahm criticizes Cero for insinuating that the money could be used for another purpose and that the money is dedicated to the arts and has been since 1985.

"We should spend the money the way we say we should spend it. Otherwise, where is the trust in government?" Meyer Brahm said.

7:40 pm

City councilman Mike Cero introduces a new novel test for new city expenditures, and compares the spending to the : "Does this project contribute to the functioning of society?"

Cero says no.

7:35 pm

The Mercer Island Arts Council is seeking to add a project to the 2012 budget as authorized under the one percent arts fund, AB 4764, Arts Council Public Art Installation Recommendation from 1% for Public Art Fund.

The project is: "The Arts Council proposes installing of a group of three topiaries on the hill across the street from Freshy’s Seafood Market and Island Corporate Center. This is City-owned property adjacent to the I-90 trail at the corner of 76th Ave SE and SE 24th Street," according to the Arts Council. The cost is $4,500, plus an annual maintenance cost of $750 per pruning. The pruning would be needed once, perhaps twice a year.

7:29 pm

Paul West, city Parks and Natural Resources Director, says that a diversification of tree species in some of the open spaces and were necessary because they are root-rot resistant. West says that's less than 10 percent of all new tree plantings.

"Over half of the trees that we're planting is Western red cedar ... This is pretty much standard practice according to other cities in our area ... It's significant areas of the park that we're talking about."

7:24 pm

Newman reviews the Open Space Conservancy Trust's work, which includes Notable achievements were the completion of the Kiosk area landscaping, publication of the new edition of Pioneer Park: A Natural History, and several hundred hours of donated volunteer time. Newman also said that root rot is serious problem in local open space areas.

7:22 pm

Former Mayor Elliot Newman addresses the council on AB 4749, Open Space Conservancy Trust 2011 Annual Report.

7:19 pm

Next up is AB 4766, Interlocal Agreement with MISD for Counseling Services. It's approved unanimously.

7:14 pm

Cero asks about outside legal council and consultant fees. City Attorney Katie Knight responds that, in her absence while on family leave, she requested outside legal council to review and City Manager Rich Conrad responds that the consultant reviewed the city's maintenance fleet. Cero also asks about a $14,000 consultant fee for City Hall repairs.

"We're talking about a lot of money and it's adding up," Cero said.

7:13 pm

Revised minutes of Aug. 6 are unanimously accepted. Councilmemeber Mike Cero asks for payables and AB 4766, Interlocal Agreement with MISD for Counseling Services, to be removed for discussion.

7:10 pm

Julie Parsons addresses the council about Pioneer Park. She's like to see the discontinuance of planing shore pine and white pine — non-native species. She's also advocating that path widths be reduced and the timing of path maintenance be changed, that so many trees be removed and thanks for restricting "orienteeting".

7:05 pm

City council begins their regular meeting. There is a change of order in the agenda. The city's financial report will come at the end of the Regular Business segment. Mayor Bruce Bassett clarifies that the city's zoning changes for Town Center will also have a public hearing element.

Ira Appelman begins the Public Comments with advocating for the firing of City Manager Rich Conrad, reviewing a long list of alleged incompetence — including several references to the Lindell Lawsuit that cost the city approximately $200,000 from the General Fund and over $1 million from their insurers.

"The city manager continually tells us that we face tight city budgets ... it's now time to remove the city's most expensive employee and fire City Manager Rich Conrad."

6:54 pm

Kaser concludes that the city is in the information business and that the project is important for city efficiency. "Records are being created whether we improve this system or not."

Councilman Mike Grady adds the final comments of the study session: "It's like defered maintenance. You do it now and pay a little or later and pay a lot."

6:51 pm

Mayor Bruce Bassett asks about all of the processes that Kaser's department has improved, out of 600 record types involved in the operations of the City’s thirteen departments. Kaser says it's only 5 percent of that so far.

6:48 pm

Mike Cero again focuses on legal compliance of the city and the Public Records Act.

"For a paper process that has been in legal compliance for years and years, we don't have to switch completely to electronic and get rid of paper for everything ... this is going to cost a lot of money."

6:45 pm

Deputy Mayor Dan Grausz says he wants to repsond to the needs of the citizenry but he says he's also concerned about the so-called Priorities of Government policies that give other city departments short-shrift. Grausz reminds City Manager Conrad that the council asked for some reductions or adjustments:

"What I hear you saying is you're going to come to us with a significant budget increase in this area," Grauz said.

6:39 pm

City Clerk Ali Spietz: "The number of records requests has been gradually going up. But the complexity has also been increasing."

Spietz also makes a reference to a dispute in The Lakes neighborhood where seven residents of that subdivision requested the same set of documents in an "ongoing dispute." (Ed. Note: Got a news tip on the dispute in The Lakes? Please email )

6:34 pm

Another interesting exchange:

Mayor Bruce Bassett: "Does getting this person onboard hurt or help?"

Kaser: "Yes, it would absolutely help."

(Some light banter and laughter) Kaser smiles as another councilmember jokes the question is a "softball".

"Without this we will die," Kaser says, half-joking.

6:32 pm

The four primary goals of the Record Management Program are:

  1. To comply with Chapter 40.14 RCW – Preservation and Destruction of Public Records.
  2. To provide appropriate, user friendly and convenient access to City records in order to facilitate
    compliance with Chapter 42.56 RCW – Public Records Act.
  3. To create and support efficient City business processes.
  4. To reduce City use of printers, printing products, and paper as part of the City’s sustainability

6:26 pm

Kaser and City Manager Conrad are advocating for hiring a "Business analyst/records expert" at a cost of $133,000 per biennium through costs from the city's Capital Investment Program (CIP).

6:21 pm

Next Kaser and City Clerk Ali Spietz, who is sitting next to him, are reviewing the steps they want to take to comply with the law that guides the city in preservation and destruction of public records. An interesting exchange just now between City Councilman Mike Cero and City Clerk Ali Spietz:

Mike Cero: "Document management has been with us for decades and decades. Why is it that as I sit here it seems that document management is a new thing?"

Spietz: "We do our best to comply with RCW 40.14 (preservation and destruction of public records)."

6:17 pm

City Information Services Manager Mike Kaser is presenting the city's work on implementing an electronic data/public records system that was begun in 2008. Kaser is reviewing the city's Records Management Program. Just now he was describing how time consuming the efforts are to eliminate paper records that the city is legally entitled to destroy:

"It took us an 18-month-long approvals process to get permission to move ahead with that."

6:10 pm

City Council meeting has begun at . City Council began early this evening at 6 p.m. for a study session on computerized document management and how the city is meeting its responsibility as an effective organization in managing municipal data and complying with the state's Public Record Act.

Jerry Gropp Architect AIA September 05, 2012 at 07:16 PM
. Kendall- as Editor of Mercer Island Patch you've done a great and even-handed job of reporting what goes on here in front of- and especially- behind the scenes. Jerry-
Ira B. Appelman September 05, 2012 at 07:39 PM
I think the claim that higher rents are a benefit to the south end community is somewhat bizarre and short-sighted. As a resident since 1963, I spent lots of money over the years at Lakeside, and I think your characterization of the price differences is exaggerated. If you thought you could get a better deal, you could always shop at the north end drug stores. For decades, we had a bank at the south end, but B of A closed its south end branch, whose profits didn’t justify the expense. The bank was replaced by the QFC Liquor Store, which exchange I don’t count as a benefit. Lakeside Drugs was present at the creation, operated for 40 years, and Vito had a second generation of pharmacists and his children seemed eager to operate for another 40 years. Let’s not forget that it was replaced by Longs, which disappeared in a few years. I like Rite Aid and am a minor, minor stockholder, but Rite Aid Corporation (NYSE: RAD) has flirted with bankruptcy because it expanded just before the economic downturn and it didn’t have a Mercer Island City Council to bail it out. Rite Aid got better, in part, by closing underperforming stores. The small stores like our south end stores tend to be less profitable than larger stores, and we are at the mercy of a large corporation who, at any time, could bail like Longs.
Ira B. Appelman September 05, 2012 at 08:02 PM
Thanks, Jerry. I've never wanted anyone to believe something, just because I said it. I've worked for over 15 years to get Islanders to look beyond the propaganda put out by the City of Mercer Island and its propaganda office, the Mercer Island Distorter. I have circulated actual documents, mainly received from the City under the WA Public Records Act, that are inconsistent with the City's propaganda campaign, with the goal of getting Islanders to read actual documents and think for themselves. Based on my research, I broke the story that the City Manager in 2002 had solicited sex from the City Clerk and the City Council had covered it up. In 2009, I circulated documents to Islanders proving and warning of misbehavior at City Hall. That misbehavior eventually cost $1 million in settlement costs to former Deputy City Manager Londi Lindell, $1 million in attorney fees, and $200,000 assessed by a federal judge for the City's violations of the WA Public Records Act. The Seattle Times story later that year was based on my research. Though the City Manager has admitted to the solicitation under oath, to this day, the Distorter has NOT reported the story.
Jerry Gropp Architect AIA September 05, 2012 at 11:37 PM
. Ira and I have both lived here with our families since 1963. The difference being that he was born here- which makes him even more passionate about retaining the unique MI character of a "right-sized" city out in the middle of a lake surrounded by a million people. Developers crave places like this unfortunately, would rather not have any planning and/or planners in their way. It's good that Patch provides space for online discussion of these important issues. JG-
Jerry Gropp Architect AIA September 19, 2012 at 09:03 PM
. Whatever happened to the MI Design Commission? Many years ago I was Chair of this. We were able to steer the architectural quality of developement. This is certainly badly needed now more than ever. Jerry-

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