From pot shop owner to caseworker: Kennewick candidates run the gamut

Kennewick City Council races this fall feature a variety of candidates including a CFO, a caseworker, a cannabis entrepreneur, a mini-storage owner, a retired marketing executive and a young teacher.
Kennewick City Council races this fall feature a variety of candidates including a CFO, a caseworker, a cannabis entrepreneur, a mini-storage owner, a retired marketing executive and a young teacher. Tri-City Herald

One thing is for sure. The Kennewick City Council will have at least one new face and one seasoned veteran when it meets in January.

Of the four posts up for election on Nov. 7, one features an unopposed incumbent and another features two newcomers vying to replace a departing councilman. The remaining races feature incumbents facing passionate challengers.

The seven candidates bring a dizzying array of experiences and interests. There is a candidate for every political taste.

The race for the at-large post held by Bob Parks features Bill McKay, a business owner and entrepreneur and Christy Watts, a retired Ben Franklin Transit marketing executive.

Incumbent Greg Jones is being challenged by a well-funded cannabis entrepreneur, Steve Lee, while Mayor Pro Tem Don Britain is being challenged by an enthusiastic newcomer with an interest in at-risk youth. Incumbent John Trumbo is unopposed.

Kennewick is governed by a seven-member hybrid council. Three members are elected from wards, or districts. Four are elected at large from anywhere in the city.

All voters cast ballots in all races, regardless of which ward they live in. Ballots should be arriving this week.

Ward 1 Don Britain vs. Lindy Verhei

Britain is a graduate of Kamiakin High School and Columbia Basin College and is a two-term incumbent. He cites the selection of Steve Young as mayor, development at Southridge and the hiring of City Manager Marie Mosley as the council’s top accomplishments.

Those decisions, he told the Herald, have paid “big dividends.” His focus is growth and economic development.

Verhei, a Southridge High School and WSU Tri-Cities graduate, works in counseling, as well as education. Her focus is at-risk youth.

Don Britain
Don Britain

Both support The Link, a.k.a. Proposition 17-4. The Kennewick Public Facilities District is asking voters to approve a 0.2 percent sales tax to fund a $45 million expansion and makeover of Three Rivers Convention Center.

The project includes 110,000-foot expansion, 2,300-seat theater, access improvement for people with disabilities and a new ice rink.

Britain said the expansion is needed to keep wooing conventions, asserting Kennewick has lost eight this year to larger rivals. He rejected complaints the investment would yield only low-paying service jobs.

His DSHS clients would leap at those posts.

“Once the ball starts rolling, good things happen,” he said.

Lindy Verhei 3
Lindy Verhei

Verhei, who was briefly a Mid-Columbia Master Singer, agrees. The Link will bring events that cater to all tastes. And she thinks it’s an appropriate size despite critics who say it’s too small.

Verhei said the city council is the proper venue for her youth focus. School budgets are too tight and it’s the larger community’s responsibility to support youth.

Britain disagreed. The city isn’t responsible for supplementing school district issues, he said.

Both candidates would like to see Kennewick broadcast council meetings, as Richland and Pasco already do. Britain said he was put off by the potential $1.5 million cost.

Britain wants Congress to return the Columbia River shoreline to local control, saying the community should have a say in how it’s managed. Verhei was not familiar with the mechanics of the effort being pushed by former U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, but said she opposes major development of the waterfront.

Verhei is recommended by the Benton County Democrats. Britain is endorsed by the Benton County Republican Party

Kennewick Ward 2 Greg Jones vs. Steve Lee

Incumbent Jones, is CFO of the Hanford nuclear site, overseeing the $2.5 billion federal budget for the Department of Energy Office of River Protection and the Richland Operations Office. He was appointed to the council when Sharon Brown became a state senator.

He is completing his first four-year term. His focus is economic development and sound financial management.

Lee is a Kennewick native who co-owns Green2Go cannabis shops with his wife in Finley and near Ritzville and a food truck and campground.

Green2Go is one of three legal cannabis retailers in Benton County. The business grosses more than $1 million a month, employs 45 and paid $4.5 million in taxes to Washington in 2016.

He is focused on creating a community that attracts young professionals.

Greg Jones
Greg Jones

The candidates are in sync on The Link. Lee said it supports his vision of a community with diverse venues to serve different audiences. “The community isn’t built for one person,” he said.

Jones said the aging Three Rivers complex needs more convention space to keep attracting visitors who fill hotels, restaurants and retail shops.

Lee is spending $85,000 on his campaign, all but about $1,000 of that from Green2Go proceeds. He said he’s not interested in pressing the city council to lift its ban on cannabis retail sales, saying it would be a waste of political capital to put a store somewhere it’s not wanted.

He said his campaign budget, one of the largest for a city council race in the state, is helping overcome the advantages Jones enjoys as incumbent.

He had no criticisms of Jones. Lee said he wanted to serve in public office and lives in the same ward as Jones.

Steve Lee
Steve Lee

Jones is one of the Kennewick council’s quietest members. He casts himself as a behind-the-scenes operator who avoids the appearance of self-promotion.

Both candidates offer nuanced takes on efforts to re-convey the Columbia River shoreline to local control. Kennewick spends more than $1 million a year to maintain Columbia Park but has little control over the federally-owned land.

Lee said The Reach center in Richland demonstrates demand for community facilities near the river, though he described it as underused. Responsible growth, meaning no condos, could improve the city’s riverfront.

Jones, mindful of the burden on the city’s budget, said the riverfront is a lost economic opportunity. He wants Congress to return the land but cautions that any change must go through rigorous public scrutiny.

Lee is recommended by Benton Democrats. Benton Republicans did not endorse a candidate in the race.

Position 4 At Large Bill McKay vs. Christy Watts

Watts is a 27-year Tri-Citian who came from Southern California. She retired from Ben Franklin Transit in April and hopes to leverage her marketing experience and long civic resume into a post on the council.

She is a Rotarian and serves on the city’s community development block grant committee and other positions.

McKay is a former Idaho dairy farmer who switched gears in 1992 when he earned a degree in accounting. He moved to the Tri-Cities and developed a self-storage facility, which he still owns.

He has volunteered with a variety of organizations. As a loan officer, he made $120 million in local loans. He is running as a fiscal conservative who can help the city with some fiscal challenges.

BillMcKay 2017 3
Bill McKay

Watts called lack of land for industrial development one of the city’s top challenges. She favors expanding the city’s urban growth boundary across Interstate 82.

McKay, who favors focusing on core services such as police, fire and parks, said winter road damage is one of Kennewick’s biggest financial challenges.

The opponents also differ on the The Link proposal for the Three Rivers Convention complex.

Watts supports The Link as a key to creating a city where young people want to live.

“I like everything about The Link,” she said.

Christy Watts
Christy Watts Courtesy

McKay, who is working with Councilman John Trumbo on the anti-Link effort, countered that the city could be left holding the bag if or when sales tax collections fluctuate. He said the 2,300-seat theater isn’t large enough for its purpose. Watts disagrees.

In a nod to an issue that roiled the council in 2015, both candidates agree the city council was correct to avoid taking stand on the discrimination case against Richland’s Arlene’s Flowers. McKay said the Barronelle Stutzman had the right to refuse to serve the gay couple seeking flowers for their wedding. Watts said she was wrong.

McKay is endorsed by the Benton Republicans. Watts is recommended by the Benton Democrats.

Kennewick Ward 3 John Trumbo

Trumbo, a retired Tri-City Herald reporter, is running unopposed. He is focused on core government functions and the rising cost of government. In the absence of a challenger, he has focused on opposing The Link proposal from the Kennewick Public Facilities District.

John Trumbo

Trumbo disputes the potential economic impact claims and estimates the new tax, which would add two cents to a $10 purchase, will cost Kennewick residents $30 a year.

He is endorsed by the Benton Republican Party.

The seven-member Kennewick City Council is the chief legislative body for the city with responsibility for hiring, firing and reviewing the city manager.

Kennewick, population 82,000, has a biennial budget of $270 million and employs 385 people, including 104 law enforcement personnel and 53 fire department employees.

Property and sales taxes are its largest revenue source, representing $106.3 million in the current budget and charges for services such as water and sewer utilities is the second largest revenue source at nearly $79 million.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514, @WendyCulverwell