Update, July 25, 2017: The reporter for the Issaquah/Sammamish Reporter has been transferred to sister papers in the Bothell-Kenmore area.
A Special Report
This is seven pages when printed.
By Scott Hamilton
It’s a success story of how a single citizen forced debate on an issue that even determined City Council members could not.
Here is the back-story of how traffic and concurrency became “the No. 1 priority in Sammamish.” A sequential history is necessary before we get to the punch line.
Congestion is not new
Traffic congestion is nothing new in Sammamish. It was one of the many driving reasons we voted in 1998 to incorporate. King County was approving growth on what was then known as “the Plateau,” but not improving roads to go with it. The County even designated the Plateau as a “receiving area” for Transfer Development Rights from the North Bend area.
(TDRs allow property owners in one area to sell, or transfer, their development rights to someone else in another area. This preserves a rural character in the sending area and up-zones in the receiving area.)
The new City of Sammamish, left with huge infrastructure shortfalls from the County—principally roads, but also parks, sports fields and other amenities—was instantly overwhelmed. It still is. Between 1999’s incorporation and 2015, Sammamish spent $250m in these infrastructure needs, and it still isn’t enough.
Sammamish completed improvements to 228th Ave. (from Issaquah-Pine Lake Road to NE 8th) that King County started.
The City also improved 244th north of NE 8th St., punched it through South of NE 8th and connected the Windsor Green neighborhood further south to SE 24th, giving another north-south option to a city where only 228th and East Lake Sammamish Parkway exists.
Roundabouts were installed on Inglewood Hill and in two locations on NE 8th. The intersection at Inglewood Hill and ESLP was redesigned for safety reasons.
Various other improvements were made, but major road projects that added lanes were largely ignored.
The City has what’s called a Six-Year Transportation Improvement Plan, which included major road widening projects such as Issaquah-Pine Lake Road, Sahalee Way and others, but these expensive projects weren’t pursued, except for Sahalee Way.
Failure to pursue Issaquah-Pine Lake became a significant focus this year.
Sahalee Way was a $16m project that included a continuous left turn lane, traffic lights, a sidewalk on one side and bike lanes. It was billed as a congestion-relief project until last year when traffic consultant Victor Salemann acknowledged the plans won’t relieve congestion, because Sahalee empties onto SR202 at a “choke point.” No matter what improvements were done to Sahalee, traffic would back up into Sammamish because of the choke point outside the City over which the City has no control.
Accordingly, the Sahalee improvements were only about safety, Salemann said.
The surprise shift hit the City Council with a thud. Member Christie Malchow was most vociferous in saying the citizens had been deceived about the purpose and result of the improvements.
Given the shift in purpose and intent, following years of deceiving messaging, the Council put Sahalee on hold, which is where the project stands today.
Issaquah in 2013 attempted to annex the greater Klahanie area. One element of the annexation study was improvement of the adjacent Issaquah-Fall City Road, long a bottle-neck under King County rule. Issaquah cited the King County cost of $32m in its annexation study.
The annexation failed in February 2014 by 32 votes.
After the Issaquah annexation failed, Sammamish began its own campaign. Among the many promises was quick action on improving Issaquah-Fall City Road. Sammamish lowered the $32m price tag to $23m and claimed revenue from existing Klahanie property and commercial taxes would pay for this.
Sammamish Comment was openly skeptical of the re-pricing, of the funding claims and that Klahanie would become a “black hole” at the expense of legacy Sammamish. The skepticism was waved away by then-City Manager Ben Yazici and then-Mayor Tom Vance.
The annexation election to Sammamish was in April 2015. It passed overwhelmingly.
In the intervening time, no major road projects in legacy Sammamish were undertaken. This year, the cost of IFC Road improvements jumped to more than $50m and it is at the top of the to-do list.
Issaquah-Pine Lake Road improvements are to get underway shortly, but not because of anything Sammamish has done. The development of the controversial Conner-Jarvis property will do about 60% of the project’s work as part of development requirements.
IPL Road has been on the City’s TIP since 2006—nine years ago—without any funding plan.
Convergence of developments
After the Great Recession of 2008, capital dried up, more people were out of work since the Great Depression and development in Sammamish stopped.
As the economy improved, development resumed in recent years. Large swaths of land on Inglewood Hill, 228th, the Town Center and certain areas in the interior all went under construction. As homes were occupied, traffic increased on the major arterials.
Development outside Sammamish filled the choke points, backing up traffic inside Sammamish as drivers tried to exit the City through these choke points.
Frustration at the clear-cutting of trees, big houses on small lots, ugly designs (in the view of some) and above all, more traffic converged to boil over.
During his first term in office, Council Member Ramiro Valderrama tried to get answers on various aspects of the City’s implementation of transportation policies, Levels of Service and concurrency. His efforts were largely ignored.
His often-abrasive style didn’t win him support he needed to push the issue but more to the point was that he didn’t hesitate to challenge the status quo, and the City’s leadership team comprised of Mayor Vance, Deputy Mayor Kathy Huckabay and City Manager Yazici simply chose to ignore him.
Vance was defeated for reelection in November 2015. He was replaced by Tom Hornish as Council Member. Malchow won a decisive victory over a Vance ally, Mark Cross. Huckabay was assumed to be the new mayor if Vance and Cross won. With their defeat, Don Gerend was named mayor and Bob Keller Deputy Mayor.
Valderrama, Hornish and Malchow became one voting bloc. Huckaby, Member Tom Odell and Keller became another voting bloc (though Odell occasionally bolted). Gerend was the swing vote.
Malchow, new to the Council and the issues facing it, became an early skeptic of the City’s transportation plans. She began to dive into the details, which are anything but easy, and asking questions.
But she had difficulty getting answers. In the year-and-a-half since taking office, Malchow often expressed frustration at the failure to get answers from staff, or conflicting answers.
This came to a head because of one citizen, previously unknown to the public at large, who simply got tired of sitting in traffic.
Enter Miki Mullor
Miki Mullor was an unlikely person to emerge as a disrupter.
He hasn’t lived in Sammamish for long. He hasn’t been active in civic affairs. Mullor is not a transportation engineer and has no training in traffic management.
But he is a digger, perseverant and, as an inventor and entrepreneur, knows how to analyze data.
He filed many Public Records Requests with Sammamish and began digging.
Enter Scott Hamilton
Writing for Sammamish Comment and keeping an ear out for potential candidates for City Council the in 2017 election, I heard that Mullor may become a candidate. I called him and asked. At this point, he said he would not be a candidate. I also had been told he was looking into concurrency issues.
I mentioned to him that before Sammamish was incorporated, I appealed three projects King County approved, with concurrency the focus of these appeals. Over two years, I learned all about concurrency, Levels of Service and so on. I won these appeals. (The decision on the first two, which were combined into one, may be found here. Rereading the decision 19 years later, it’s remarkable how many of the issues then remain relevant to Sammamish today.)
I also was on the City’s Planning Advisory Board that wrote the first Comprehensive Plan. This included a Transportation Element that encompassed Levels of Service (LOS) and Concurrency, among other things. I later served on the Planning Commission that updated these in regular, annual updates, and where we recommended to the City Council the largest road impact fees in the State of Washington. The Council approved these fees. I left the Planning Commission at the end of my term December 31, 2009.
Because of this conversation, Mullor asked to meet to review his study before he sent it to the City Council and Administration. He also met with two or three Council members in advance.
I reviewed his work, made several comments and suggestions, pointed to things I knew to be in error, pointed to other things I thought might be and made some other general observations. I believe the Council members did the same.
I also knew a good story for Sammamish Comment when I saw one. Understandably, Mullor didn’t want anything published before he sent the document off to the City.
Sammamish’s Communications Manager, Tim Larson, would later characterize this as “collusion.”
Mullor emailed the study with a cover message June 5. I published my first report the same day. This story may be found here. This post tuned out to be the most-read in the history of Sammamish Comment.
Mullor presented that evening to a Citizens for Sammamish meeting.
As one who had been so intimately involved in LOS and Concurrency issues, I found Mullor’s study to be credible, if flawed here and there. The things he uncovered that the City did after I disengaged watered down the intent of the PAB and Planning Commission.
Given the self-branding commitment of some Council members to slow growth, and the image the Yazici Administration tried to project of controlling growth through “Smart Growth,” I considered the actions vs branding to be a fraud on the citizens of Sammamish. I said so here. But I was neither surprised or shocked. Since 2008, the City Councils and Administration had been moving in the direction of finding ways to facilitate growth, not slow it. See this report.
Mullor’s study hit the City like a bombshell. The Administration immediately went into a four-corner defense.
Campaign to discredit
City Manager Lyman Howard, at the Council meeting the next day after receiving the study, minced no words.
He denounced the study as “inaccurate” and “deeply offensive.” He accused Mullor of political motives. Howard cherry-picked a couple of Mullor’s slides, which indeed had some errors, out of a 91-page document in an attempt to discredit the entire document.
The normally unflappable Howard was visibly angry. Mullor’s conclusions that Staff deliberately manipulated numbers to approve growth were serious and incendiary. (My view was the data was manipulated because they, and the traffic consultant, did what was wanted by City Manager Yazici and City Councils to carry out policy.)
I appreciated Howard’s defense of his staff. My own break with the City Council in power in 2008-2010 and with Yazici came because they threw the Planning Commission under the bus because they didn’t like our recommendations. That’s one thing; but our integrity and work ethic was attacked and neither the Council (except for Nancy Whitten) nor Yazici defended us. The Council wanted loyalty up from the Commission but gave us no loyalty down.
So, I got Howard’s defense and understood it.
That said, the assertion of political motives by Mullor was a cheap shot. Howard cherry-picked slides in error in an attempt to discredit the entire study. His churlish repetition of the “inaccurate” study before introducing consultant Salemann July 10 to walk through Council through Concurrency and related issues was unnecessary and another attempt to discredit the study.
In fact, the Salemann/staff briefing uncovered serious problems that only verified Mullor’s underlying thesis. The Council, on July 18—one week after the Salemann/staff briefing—in what can only be considered a rebuke of Howard, the Staff and Salemann—voted 6-1 to make the issues the No. 1 priority and No. 1 on the Council agenda for the indefinite future.
Failure in government
Howard, for whom I have great respect, simply failed in this instance. As City Manager, the CEO of the City, this failure represents a failure of government. Rather than taking this study and asking if there was any veracity to it, the response was classic government CYA. His efforts to discredit Mullor were a typical government response.
The effort to discredit the study didn’t stop with Howard, however. It turns out City Communications Manager Larson was on his own mission.
Failure by The Issaquah/Sammamish Reporter
The only remaining local newspaper, the Issaquah/Sammamish Reporter, has published just one story on what is “the No. 1 issue in Sammamish.” The story was Howard’s rebuttal to the Mullor study.
There was no story about the Salemann/staff presentation and the Council’s questions to it. There has been, so far, no story from last week’s Council meeting that handed the Administration a rebuke by placing this topic No. 1 on the agenda for the foreseeable future.
But the paper’s reporter did email me July 6:
“I’m working on a story regarding your blog site and I have some questions for you,” the reporter wrote. “The city has made some remarks to me about your blog and I want to get your response.”
We set a time for July 10 for the telephone interview. Once connected, I immediately told the reporter I was taping the call.
During this interview, the reporter revealed that Larson called Sammamish Comment “fake news,” asserted that Mullor and I “colluded” and said the entire controversy was, essentially, a waste of time.
I responded that “I don’t give a damn what Larson says.” In 2009, the Planning Commission on a 7-0 vote recommended to the City Council that an outside public relations firm be hired to communicate to the citizens because the Administration couldn’t do so effectively. Since Larson was then, as he is now, Communications Manager, this was a thinly veiled vote of no confidence in Larson.
There were several other recommendations (including televising Planning Commission meetings, something that didn’t happen for another year), related and unrelated to public communication.
I was the driver behind and co-author of this memo and I’ve been an open critic of Larson ever since. Larson reciprocates, so his views don’t concern me.
The reporter tried to trap me into saying Mullor’s study was “100% accurate.” She asked if I was a “crusader” doing the Sammamish Comment. (I told her I do The Comment because neither the Sammamish Review nor her paper did their jobs to cover controversial and complicated issues such as these.)
The point is that the Administration’s effort to discredit Mullor, and lumping in Sammamish Comment, continued.
Salemann’s presentation was that night; I went to the meeting (from Bainbridge Island, where I now live). The reporter did not, though she said she would be watching the live stream.
But no story appeared about the Salemann/staff presentation. And no story appeared, so far, from Tuesday’s Council action.
The reporter hasn’t covered two of the three major stories on concurrency. Instead, she was pursuing a story based on an attempt to discredit Mullor and Sammamish Comment.
Success in Government
If Howard’s response was a failure in government to the public (and before that, to Malchow’s efforts), then the Council’s response is a success in government.
At the July 18 meeting, Malchow, strongly backed by Hornish, Valderrama and Odell spoke about the flaws Mullor’s study uncovered, if not directly then in the deep dive Salemann presentation. Because of the Mullor study, Malchow went out to Issaquah-Pine Lake Road with a tape to measure the shoulder widths, discovering a flaw in the City’s own work.
Malchow, who proved to be a bulldog on key issues and unafraid to do her own deep dives into issues, was clear and ambiguous in her concerns about how staff ignored policies, revelations that came from Mullor’s study.
Hornish made the motion to make this the No. 1 agenda item for the indefinite future.
Valderrama backed Malchow and Hornish.
Odell said he is going to take the August recess to do his own deep dive into the issues.
Council Member Don Gerend voted for the motion, though he pointed out some practical concerns outside Sammamish’s control when it comes to congestion. Member Kathy Huckabay express procedural concerns (mainly, about what the specific topics would be) but was recorded as voting for the motion.
Mayor Bob Keller voted against it. He didn’t object to the topic being on every agenda, but did oppose it being the first thing on the agenda.
The video of the Council meeting is here. The discussion starts at 1:09 hours in.
Making a difference
Despite errors in his study, Mullor, the attendant publicity and citizen reaction forced the City to respond. It’s unfortunate that Howard responded as he did. Despite the intent of the Salemann/staff presentation to put the Mullor study to rest, in fact the presentation confirmed the underlying thesis: the data was manipulated and policies ignore to achieve a desired result.
I don’t believe there was nefarious intent by staff and consultants. I believe they were carrying out policy direction of Yazici and prior City Councils.
Howard’s response—coupled with Larson’s—are typical government action to citizens who threaten the status quo.
This City Council’s response is a victory for the citizens.
The Issaquah/Sammamish Reporter’s ignoring “the No. 1 issue of Sammamish” and playing into the Administration’s discrediting efforts is a failure of the Fourth Estate.
Whether this is a decision of the publisher, editor or a choice of the reporter is a good question. Since other key issues went unreported during the period in which the reporter was off doing other things, the responsibility appears to go above her.