Gerry in lead for West Richland mayor

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldNovember 5, 2013 

Councilman Brent Gerry was leading Tuesday night in the contest for West Richland mayor. He received 1,046 votes, or 52 percent of those counted.

He received 1,046 votes, or 52 percent of those counted. Former Councilman Merle Johnson received 980 votes, or 48 percent.

That was with 24,344 ballots counted across Benton County and an estimated 15,000 left. It's not known how many of those are from West Richland.

Gerry said he expected his lead to hold, based on the history of West Richland elections, but "stranger things have happened" than a reversal, he said.

"If it holds it's not a victory for me, it's a victory for the citizens of West Richland," he said.

As mayor, he would move forward with economic growth, while maintaining a rural lifestyle.

Johnson, who served on the council from 2006-11, could not be reached Tuesday night.

If Gerry is elected he said he would be available for city business during the workday via cellphone and email at his business. He owns the Richland AutoCare Center, about a mile from city hall.

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

Current Mayor Donna Noski works full-time at the job that pays $6,000 a year, but Johnson said he did not see being mayor as a full-time job.

Two hot development issues are simmering in West Richland -- opposition to rezoning the corner at Austin Drive/Van Giesen and the possibility of development on the opposite corner, next 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 unanimously to rezone the Austin Drive/Van Giesen property.

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

"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.

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 before the vote.

"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."

w Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com

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