When the Richland City Council convenes in January, it will have at least one new face. If anti-incumbent sentiment fueled by a $20 car tab fee prevails, there could be more.
Four of the council’s seven seats are up for grabs on Nov. 7. Three incumbents face well-informed challengers. The fourth race features two newcomers vying for the seat being vacated by David Rose.
Richland employs an unusual election system that gives voters an opportunity to elect a new majority every other year. In a year of voter dissatisfaction, a new majority is a distinct possibility.
Collectively, the eight candidates bring widely disparate backgrounds and temperaments to the race, but the election itself turns on a series of unpopular positions embraced by the current council — Creation of a transportation benefit district and $20 car tab fee to fund the Duportail Bridge, extending Rachel Road across the Amon Basin Natural Preserve, council openness and development at Columbia Point South.
In interviews and campaign appearances, incumbents face challenges to their decisions and complaints that they didn’t consider public sentiment. The challengers regularly cite the council’s recent history for inspiring them to run.
Position 4 Ryan Lukson and Ginger Wireman
Lukson and Wireman are newcomers running for the seat being vacated by Rose.
Lukson is a civil deputy in the Benton County Prosecutor’s Office and advises the county sheriff and jail on legal matters. Wireman is an environmental educator for the Washington Department of Ecology and adjunct faculty at Washington State University Tri-Cities.
Both are longtime residents who attended area high schools and returned after earning advanced degrees.
Lukson worked as a corporate lawyer before entering the public sector. He casts himself as a consensus builder accustomed to working within government. He supports economic development and improved cooperating between the cities and counties, which are sometimes strained.
He was moved to run in part over dissatisfaction over how rural economic development funds awarded through the state’s “09” sales tax rebate are spent in the region and because he felt the city council ignored his concerns.
Wireman is an environmental advocate with a background on the Tapteal Greenway board and working on The Reach center campaign, among others.
She said she has the time and energy to advocate for the environment. Among her concerns are the Rachel Road extension and Columbia Point South.
She believes the city council is too quick to “rubber stamp” development without fully vetting habitat issues.
The two share similar views on a range of issues, including the Duportail Bridge plan and the $20 car tab fee. Notably, they agree the council’s current meeting format is alienating voters and needs updating.
“A lot of people are upset about the overall tone,” said Lukson.
They chiefly disagree about Columbia Point South, the 89 city-owned acres south of Interstate 182, near the confluence of the Yakima and Columbia rivers. The city council is prepared to finalize a restrictive new zoning for the area that would allow development under strict conditions.
Wireman prefers focusing development energy back to the core and leaving Columbia Point South as a natural area. Lukson favors light development in consultation with tribes that consider the area sacred.
Position 1 Bob Thompson and Rhoda Williams
Thompson is a 23-year incumbent who was selected by his peers last year to serve as the city’s mostly honorary mayor. Regardless of the outcome of the general election, the new council will choose a new mayor in January.
He is a criminal defense attorney with his own practice in Pasco. Williams is a political newcomer who owns Miss Rhoda’s Wine Garden at The Parkway.
Williams said she is running to give back to a community that has been welcoming and supportive. She pledged to bring both a female perspective to the council, as well as that of a business owner.
She wants the city to weigh in on the minimum wage debate. She also encourages Richland residents to accept the the Duportail Bridge and the $20 car tab fee.
As a council member, Thompson prioritizes practical development and rule-making.
He walks the line between acknowledging the outsized role Hanford plays in Richland and the need for a diversified economy. He brings a lawyer’s attention to rules of procedure.
When citizens asked the council to declare Richland an “inclusive community,” Thompson expressed skepticism, and indicated he was troubled by potential free speech implications.
He regularly resists attempts to push through new laws. For instance, when the city’s code enforcement board, unprompted, asked the council to ban personal fireworks, he said it makes no sense to adopt a law the city isn’t prepared to enforce.
As mayor, Thompson serves as the city’s public face and is known for his startlingly frank comments in public forums. At the council’s most recent session, he reacted to insults lobbed at another council member during the public comment section.
“Sometimes I’m troubled with the comments that come from the audience,” he said as he closed the council’s Oct. 3 meeting.
Position 3 Sandra Kent versus Lloyd Becker
Incumbent Sandra Kent moved to Richland 20 years ago and works as an attorney for a Hanford contractor. She got involved with city politics after participating in Leadership Tri-Cities, a development program for rising civic leaders.
Becker served two tours in Vietnam and moved to Richland in 1996 while working as a trucker.
The two have little in common. Kent is one of the council’s quietest members while Becker titled himself the “most boisterous” of the candidates and freely shares controversial messages on Twitter and on his blog, the latter being inactive for the past year.
In recent months, he has posted several Tweets at President Trump asking to be brought to the capital “to take care of the problems.”
The candidates stand in stark disagreement on the Duportail Bridge and the $20 car tab fee.
Kent said the bridge is necessary but if she had it to do over, there would have been more outreach.
She wanted to install a passive tolling system so that bridge users would pay for it. That proved cost prohibitive.
“I do believe that the final decision was the best one for the community,” she said.
Becker said the fee is a key reason for his run. He asserts there are other untapped sources to cover the roughly $2 million shortfall in the Duportail budget.
The city initially billed the shortfall at $4 million but has closed the gap through grants and other sources.
Becker says the fee hurts the poor and will force the elderly to choose between cars and medication. He believes the city should use the increased economic activity to fund the bridge or spend a purported surplus in the city’s economic development fund. City officials have said that’s not how city budgets work.
Both candidates say Columbia Point South should remain undeveloped. Kent cast a losing “no” vote on the first reading of the restrictive new rezone for the property. Becker said he enjoys fishing there and wants it left alone.
Kent said she’s open to changing the council’s meeting format to improve communications with the public.
“It is very apparent that our public comment structure isn’t working,” she said.
Becker faulted the “pre-meetings” that precede the council’s regular public sessions. The pre-meeting is held in a small conference room and is where council members have their most open conversations. Though open, pre-meetings look like private gatherings to ordinary citizens, he said.
“It ain’t a pre-meeting. It’s a meeting,” he said.
Position 7 Dori Luzzo Gilmour versus Michael Alvarez
Luzzo Gilmour was elected in 2015 to a two-year term after winning with the lowest number of votes. She hopes for a stronger showing in this election, which would result in a four-year term.
She is a lifelong Richland resident who has worked in the winery industry and for her church, Christ The King.
Michael Alvarez is a former Marine who owns a mortgage company with his wife. He serves on the parks and recreation commission.
Luzzo Gilmour casts herself as a voice for people of modest means while Alvarez is running as a numbers man who would bring fiscal expertise to the post.
The candidates generally agree that the Duportail Bridge is necessary and that the car tab fee makes sense, but with some key distinctions.
Before voting to support the controversial fee, Luzzo Gilmour said she attempted to get by driving her “kid hauler” vehicle on $20 of gas a week. She says the city was forthcoming about the debate and that the bridge is necessary.
“It’s not really a surprise bridge,” she told the Herald Editorial Board.
Alvarez wants to put the Duportail Bridge plan and pavement program to a vote of the people. He wants to pursue additional funding to reduce or eliminate the need for a car tab fee.
Alvarez criticized Luzzo Gilmour over her initial claim that low-income residents could apply for a refund of the $20 car tab fee. That was not accurate and Luzzo Gilmour has apologized for the statement, saying she believed the Helping Hands fund could have handled the requests. It can’t.
Both share a belief the city should be more visible in the community. Luzzo Gilmour is one of the council’s most visible members, seldom missing meetings and routinely attending outside events and representing the council in various ways. She calls herself and advocate for open government.
Alvarez said the city could be more open and responsive. He would focus on a more user-friendly website if elected.
There are subtle differences on their views regarding Columbia Point South.
Luzzo Gilmour wants no development, citing environmental and tribal issues at the site. “Why are we even discussing this?” she wondered. She voted against a restrictive new zoning for the property in the first of two readings but was in the minority with Kent.
Alvarez wants to poll citizens for the views. He sees potential for development, but in consultation with the tribes that consider many areas on the point sacred. If development isn’t an option, he wants to improve the existing walkways and rehabilitate the open area.
“If we’re not going to do anything, let’s do one better and make it better.”
Luzzo Gilmour has been criticized after she and her husband were nearly three years arrears on their property taxes for their Richland home.
The couple made a catch up payment this summer. Luzzo Gilmour previously explained that the family had a difficult time and had to make hard choices. Comments to the story on the Herald’s Facebook page were mostly sympathetic.
The elected seven-member Richland City Council is the city’s highest legislative authority and hires and fires the city manager. The 2018 salary for council members is $1,143 per month.
The city’s 2017 budget of nearly $259 million pays for a variety of activities, including capital projects, public safety, parks, recreation, economic development and utility services. The city — population 54,200 — has 464 employees.
This story has been updated to clarify Michael Alvarez’s position on the Duportail Bridge, pavement maintenance program and $20 car tab fee.