With the year-end Sammamish City Council meeting last night, the end of an era comes with it.
Nancy Whitten ends 12 years on the Council. With her departure comes the loss of the Council’s most aggressive, consistent advocate for the environment. Others on the Council can legitimately lay claim to environmental credentials, but it’s Whitten and her lawyerly approach to documents who so often spotted loopholes, reversals and inconsistencies in ordinances and, more recently, in the rewrite of the City’s Comprehensive Plan.
Who’s going to be the leading environmentalist on the Council now that she is gone?
The answer may surprise you. It’s Bob Keller.
First person called
Keller was the first person on the Council Whitten called after she read the Comp Plan rewrite handed
over from the Planning Commission. Whitten was appalled at what the Staff and Planning Commission did with the rewrite. With Keller, and Council Member Tom Odell, this unofficial coalition led the way to major revisions that resulted in an imperfect but acceptable document that passed on a 7-0 vote.
When Keller and I served on the Planning Advisory Board in the first days of the City when the PAB was writing the first Comp Plan, the Staff proposed environmental policies that were only one and three quarters pages long. It was wholly inadequate (and an appalling Staff proposal). Keller was the first PAB member I called, and he led a rogue group of us who rebelled against the Staff and PAB leadership to adopt a large chapter of policies.
Keller is the logical Council Member to whom the environmental baton gets passed. It’s a responsibility that will be challenging.
Blind eye, deaf ear
Despite the fact that six of the seven current Council members consider themselves environmentalists, they’ve been slow to envision looming problems (think of the tree ordinance and King County’s abuse of the environment in the development of the East Lake Sammamish Trail). Worse, the Council as an entity turned a blind eye to the history of the Staff ignoring City codes in approving development and a deaf ear to citizen complaints about this. This dereliction has existed through a succession of City Councils that included Odell, Kathy Huckabay and Don Gerend—all of whom are on tomorrow’s City Council that begins its next session Jan. 5.
Council Members-elect Christie Malchow and Tom Hornish vow to hold the Staff’s feet to the fire on following the City codes. As an incumbent and along with his fellow Council Members, Keller bears collective responsibility for this greenwashing, through a lack of awareness rather than intent. But the recent campaign and exposure of these issues were eye-opening to him and Odell. These four make up a majority. They will certainly be joined by Ramiro Valderrama, making up a fifth vote. Keller’s leadership role in the Comp Plan rewrite and in the PAB’s rogue committee can serve as an example to fix the Staff’s long-standing greenwashing problem.
Given the nature of the recent election campaigns in which Keller was lumped in with the ruling majority, the observations above may surprise many critics of the current Council. Keller’s own low-key persona contributed to the wide perception among voters that he’s a follower, not a leader. Keller admits he prefers to work behind the scenes rather than be out front at the Council meetings. This approach is in keeping with Keller’s character but doesn’t serve him well in the position of an elected City Councilman. The City’s leading citizen environmentalist, Wally Pereyra (the Kokanee salmon protector), complains that Keller “never says anything” at Council meetings and has been disillusioned with his perceived lack of leadership. Pereyra’s support of Hornish, Malchow and Valderrama in the Council election proved critical to the campaign strategy that ousted Keller’s ally, Tom Vance, and defeated another ally, Mark Cross.
With the environmental baton passing to Keller, whether intended or welcome by him or not, means he will have to become a public leader—not just behind the scenes—to fix the greenwashing and reset the Staff mindset that has gone so astray.
By Scott Hamilton