West Richland candidates pull from experience

Loretto J. Hulse, Tri-City HeraldOctober 25, 2013 

Both men running for mayor of West Richland in the Nov. 5 general election have experience serving on the city council -- Brent Gerry for the past four years and Merle Johnson from 2006-11.

The men also agree on many of the issues facing the city, such as cleaning up Van Giesen Street, attracting more businesses and watching the budget.

Both say they're running on their merits and what they can bring to the job, as opposed to particular issues.

"This is not a one- or two-issue race," Johnson said. "I'm not pitting myself against anybody. Anyone voting for me, is doing just that, voting for me, not an issue."

Despite that, there are two hot development issues simmering in West Richland -- opposition to rezoning the corner at Austin Drive/Van Giesen and the possibility of development on the opposite corner, adjacent to Flat Top Park.

Johnson declined to give an opinion to the Herald on either issue. His campaign is not based on Flat Top Park, he said. And about the rezoning, "the citizens of Austin Drive, they carry that ball, not me."

The city council -- including Gerry -- voted unanmously to rezone the Austin Drive/Van Giesen property.

That corner is one of the busiest intersections in the city, Gerry said.

"In all cities, those intersections are zoned commercial to make opportunities for development, which are all driven by car count. And in West Richland, that's where you find it," Gerry said.

Rumors of possible development of the opposite corner -- the Park and Ride and Ben Franklin Transit Center -- sprang from a consultant's conceptual drawing of what different areas of the city could look like, Gerry said.

Nothing is planned at this time and there's no money in the budget to redevelop the corner, he said. The parking lot was paid for with grant money and would have to be relocated if anything else is built there.

In recent city surveys -- both by phone and mail -- 67 percent of West Richland citizens said revitalizing the main drag, Van Giesen Street, is a priority. They also want more places to shop.

"Both these will take money, whether it's the property owners investing or grants or both," Gerry said.

"However, a lack of sales tax revenue is straining the city budget," Gerry said. "West Richland residents are often forced to go to neighboring cities to find the things they need, giving that sales tax revenue to other city governments to spend."

Gerry and Johnson said the city can't force property owners to do anything if they're not willing to invest the necessary funds.

But there is one thing the city can do, and has -- enforce the city codes for weed control, derelict cars and other nuisances that affect public safety, Gerry said.

"It's taken our Yakima River gateway 50 years to get to this condition and it will take time to make it better," Gerry said. "But we need to continue to move forward on it."

Johnson would like to see an improved relationship between the city council and staff, the citizens of West Richland, businesses and Fire District 4.

He also favors a smaller government presence in residents' lives.

"The business of the city is to ensure the people have running water, sewer, healthy food and security, a good police force," Johnson said.

He pledged to see the council spends the city's money wisely.

"I'm not up on all the ins and outs of where everything is being spent, but I would keep an eye on the pennies," Johnson said.

Gerry also endorses those values. He's worked hard in his single term as a councilman to keep West Richland's unique rural atmosphere intact, he said.

Gerry plans to continue to move the city toward financial stability, he said. That includes working with the Port of Kennewick on a new wine effluent wastewater treatment plant to attract additional wineries and related businesses.

The council and city staff have worked hard to bring the city's policies and procedures in line with this century in the four years Gerry has served, he said.

"Our owners manual for the city was like something for a 1946 Hudson -- totally out of whack -- we've needed a modern operating manual," Gerry said. "I've been in on the ground floor for that and would like to keep the city moving in the direction we're going, forward."

Both candidates are longtime West Richland residents.

Johnson works full-time as an inspector for Benton County's Noxious Weed Control Board. He said his job would not interfere with his mayoral duties.

Donna Noski, the present mayor, works full-time.

"I don't see it as a full-time position," Johnson said.

Gerry owns the Richland AutoCare Center, located about a mile from city hall.

"I have a talented staff and could establish a satellite (mayor's) office at my business. With cellphones, email and computers I'd be available for city business during the workday," Gerry said.

The position of mayor is a four-year term and pays $6,000 a year.

-- For more election stories, go to tricityherald.com/election.

-- Loretto J. Hulse: 582-1513; lhulse@tricityherald.com

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