By Scott Hamilton, Editor
Editor’s Note: This column was drafted the week before last. The plan was to publish once the final traffic concurrency and building moratorium votes were taken, anticipated in November. But this weekend, Council Member Pam Stuart launched a highly personal, accusatory attack on Mayor Christie Malchow on Facebook. Stuart brought into the attack indirect reference to Malchow’s children, a political verboten that goes to the presidency of the United states. Thus, I made the decision to publish this column today.
The Sammamish city council badly needs an intervention. Residents have serious cause for concern with the dysfunctional, bitterly split ruling body.
Initially, the council split into two factions: The “new V-3” (Ramiro Valderrama, Jason Ritchie and Pam Stuart, odd bedfellows if there ever were any) and the “M-4” (Christie Malchow, Tom Hornish, Chris Ross and Karen Moran).
Ritchie coined the terms. (The old V-3 were Valderrama, Malchow and Hornish. The latter two split with Valderrama over his 180 degree flip-flops on environmental and development issues and his persistent distortion of facts and outright falsehoods he makes to advance his positions.)
For a while, even this split broke down. It became 2-2-3. Malchow and Hornish remained staunch allies. Moran and Ross became unpredictable votes, flip-flopping on the same issue between the M-2 and the V-3. The V-3 by-and-large remain a solid voting bloc.
More recently, the 4-3 split reemerged. The infighting is worse than ever. It’s not clear that it won’t get worse.
Factions in their corners
Members of each faction complain that the other factions don’t talk to each other. Distrust is rampant. Disdain is rampant.
The city suffers for it and therefore the citizens suffer.
Responsibility falls on everyone. Nobody escapes on this.
The mayor and deputy mayor are selected by their fellow council members and not the public. They are titular leaders, not leaders as defined by elections.
Irrespective of this and of whatever diverging policy positions, it is incumbent upon the mayor and deputy mayor to build bridges and reach, if possible, consensus on controversial issues.
There is simply no other way to put this: Mayor Christie Malchow, former Deputy Mayor Tom Hornish and current Deputy Mayor Karen Moran have failed in these roles. At various times, each has declared they can’t talk to Stuart or Valderrama.
But this is not entirely their fault. As the saying goes, it takes two to tango. And in this case, the dance partners are unwilling to do the two-step.
Valderrama in his first term was the outcast and often alone or in the minority on key issues. But he was the squeaky wheel that even as a pariah by the ruling majority often prevailed in his role as citizen ombudsman. In his first term, he revealed in being the contrarian. And he was productive.
In his second term, from 2016, Valderrama has done a 180 flip-flop from citizen ombudsman to cheerleader for development and most specifically, STCA, which wants to develop in the Town Center.
Instead of being a productive contrarian, he lost the support of his long-time allies (Malchow, Hornish, Ross and Moran) due to his flip-flops and egregious and frequent misrepresentations, distortions and outright falsehoods to advance what are now his pro-development positions. (Sammamish Comment has cataloged Valderrama’s transgressions several times.)
The divide between Valderrama and his former allies is wide and appears to be that it cannot be bridged. For this, Valderrama is largely responsible. The M-4 deeply distrust him.
Having alienated his allies, he teamed with Stuart and Ritchie, odd bedfellows. These are two solid Democrats and Valderrama is a solid Republican.
Stuart’s opinions vs facts
Stuart’s first 10 months demonstrated that she won’t let facts get in the way of her opinions.
Despite ample evidence that the traffic concurrency model was broken, and it is still not fixed, Stuart refused to see the big picture because her pro-development positions.
During her election, the Master Builders Assn. endorsed her and donated money to her campaign. This money represented 65% of the money she raised. In the MBA candidate questionnaire, she supported upzoning in Sammamish.
She also has personal animosity toward the citizen who exposed the sham: Miki Mullor, now deputy editor of The Comment. She refuses to meet with him one-on-one and she refused to engage at a meeting at which he would be present at which concurrency was the sole topic. The meeting was canceled as a result.
To be sure, Mullor’s demeanor can be grating (as can mine). He also missed the target on some detail, but overall, he was spot on and exposed how Sammamish’s traffic concurrency model was manipulated to ensure all development applications passed.
When Stuart ran for council in 2017, she stated at a candidates’ forum that council members should rely on staff and, essentially, let them lead the way. Given what was going on over concurrency at the time, this was an eyebrow-raising position. Sammamish Comment reported her statement and afterward, she tried to walk it back.
But her 10 months in office provide ample evidence that she falls into the camp, whatever the staff says, goes—until it doesn’t produce the preconceived answer she wants.
A recent discussion over concurrency is case-in-point. The concurrency model still needs some fixing, but Stuart voted to lift the building moratorium regardless.
I was going to end this commentary on Stuart here, until her unprovoked attack on Facebook on Malchow occurred.
It is extraordinary in Sammamish for one council member to publicly attack another, although this norm began to break down in the 2015 election when Valderrama won a second term. The public feuding between him and the then-ruling majority was out in the open for all to see.
Even considering this, Stuart’s Facebook attack on Malchow was stunning in its ferocity, its accusations and its personal nature. But Stuart went even farther. She brought Malchow’s young children into the attack. This simply isn’t done in politics. Even in the era of Trump, except by very few irresponsible people, a politician’s children are considered are considered off limits.
Stuart not only stepped over the line. She rubbed it out.
Ritchie was elected with Stuart, Moran and Ross. He ran for US Congress against incumbent Dave Reichert, a losing proposition from the start as a Democrat running against a Republican in what was then a solidly red district.
In 2016, he ran for State Representative in the 5th LD, which includes the greater Klahanie area where he lives. He came very close to defeating incumbent Republican Jay Rodne, who soiled himself with incendiary, racist remarks against Muslims (who make up part of the 5th LD constituency).
After running for national and state office, one would expect Ritchie to be well-versed in the issues. But as he shifted to prepare a run for Sammamish City Council, it was clear he had no understanding of the Growth Management Act or of political realities about changing it. He first told The Comment the way to control growth in the city was to go to the State Capitol and simply change the GMA.
It was a naïve position for anyone to take, let alone a two-time candidate for higher office.
During the city council election, Ritchie fell back not on well-researched positions but on feel-good platitudes that completely avoided the issues and questions during the one candidate forum for the position he sought. His opponent ran rings around him on the issues, but Ritchie’s name recognition from the two previous races and his solid base in Klahanie assured his election.
During his 10 months in office, Ritchie’s laziness on the issues has been more than apparent. He doesn’t do his homework. On concurrency, staff scheduled one-on-one meetings with council to go through highly complicated data. Ritchie merely dropped by, collected the data and left without discussing it with staff.
He has proved to be incurious. He asks questions to which some homework would provide answers. He is very good at framing issues, but good sound bites don’t make up for laziness in learning the data. On his Facebook posts and, mostly but not always, at Council meetings he comes across as affable. Behind the scenes, he has a nasty streak and shoots from the lip on issues over which he knows not of what he speaks.
Ritchie has proved to be a lightweight.
Unpredictable Moran and Ross
Fellow council members complain they can’t count on either Moran or Ross, who developed a record of taking both sides of the same issues at different times—and then sometimes returning to their first positions.
At the Oct. 16 council meeting, when debating whether to lift the building moratorium on the Town Center, Moran wanted to table the motion for two weeks—but she did not make a motion to do so. Instead, she abstained on the vote in which she knew a 3-3 split was coming. A tie vote normally fails the motion. But under Sammamish rules, an abstention is recorded with the motion. In this case, this meant the motion would have passed. Only then did Moran vote No. It was a clumsy attempt to avoid taking a position.
Moran was involved in creating the city, ran for council twice before she was elected on her third run, served on the Planning Advisory Board and Planning Commission and on the Sammamish Plateau Water District. She was the most qualified candidate other than former state senator Phil Dyer (who ran for the first council in 1999) to run for council.
Yet she has been wishy-washy and timid She’s been intimidated by the strong-willed Stuart who is excellent at puncturing Moran’s balloon. As deputy mayor, she’s failed to lead and she’s failed to bridge divides.
With more than 20 years of public service and political activity, she should be leading. She’s not.
Ross is a newcomer to politics and his uncertainty and insecurities were evident for all to see in his first six months in office. His footing has become surer in the next four months, but his vote remains unpredictable.
An intervention is needed
I was involved in the incorporation of Sammamish, development of the first Comp Plan, the Town Center Plan and every election from 1998 through 2017. I’ve seen bitter, bitter, political factions, infighting and dirty politicking. The first city council election in 1999 was filled with anonymous fliers, innuendo and campaign forgeries.
But I’ve never seen anything as bad as the last 10 months.
This city council needs an intervention.
Every year, the council and staff have a retreat in January to set the agenda for the year. The 2019 retreat needs to start off with an intervention to get this council back on track.
I’ve been a big critic of council retreats being sited at a remote locations, which were clearly intended to discourage public participation. The 2020 retreat is an exception.
These people need to be locked in a room with nothing but pots of coffee and no restroom breaks until they break the back of the dysfunction that permeates the council and by extension the city administration.
Sammamish government has been better than this. It can be again.