Snohomish County has had a lot of turmoil in the last two years.
First, county executive Aaron Reardon resigned in 2013 amid a scandal over his use of office time and resources for campaigning. Now Dave Somers, the chair of the county council, has challenged County Executive John Lovick for his job.
When we met for an interview, Snohomish County Executive John Lovick was keeping tabs by phone on the latest meeting of the Sound Transit Board he sits on. He said it’s vital that voters pass Sound Transit 3 in 2016. The tax measure will bring light rail to Everett and his constituents.
“Holy moly!” Lovick said. “If we don’t do it this time, we’re done. That’s why I’m just so passionate about this.”
Unlike King County Executive Dow Constantine, who has a Sheriff's deputy to drive him and provide security, Lovick drives his own car. As a former sheriff and state patrol officer, Lovick is well-trained for that job.
He drove us to see examples of another project he's passionate about: school safety. As Snohomish County sheriff, he created a unit of deputies all based at area schools. As executive, he started a project to improve pedestrian safety around schools.
New housing developments are going up quickly here, which can suddenly send dozens of kids onto roads without shoulders or sidewalks. Lovick’s program inventories the school routes and adds paving, striping or crosswalks to make them more pedestrian-friendly.
At Totem Falls Elementary, Lovick showed off the crosswalk with barriers and flashing lights as some kids walked their bikes across the street.
“How do you guys like this?” Lovick asked them.
“We really like it a lot,” a girl responded – music to Lovick’s ears.
Lovick’s proposed budget for 2016 would increase funding for this program to $1.5 million. Initially he feared having to make significant cuts to county services next year, but the financial picture improved.
“The economy has turned around and it’s done a lot of good things for us and we will only have an average of about a 1 percent service level reduction," he said.
Lovick’s opponent Dave Somers said the county’s economic health is not as robust as Lovick’s proposed budget makes it seem.
“We’ve got continuing issues with our budget that I’m really concerned about and one of the reasons I got into the race for county executive,” he said. Somers got his start as a biologist and is now in his third consecutive term on the council while seeking the executive job.
Somers said recovery from last year's Oso landslide was “a big financial hit” that has cost the county millions of dollars, even after reimbursement from state and federal agencies.
Another frustration for both candidates is the lack of progress on a new county courthouse.
“We’ve known for years and years we need a new courthouse,” Somers said, but plans to replace the existing 1967 structure have escalated in cost and complexity.
It was a disagreement with the City of Everett over paying for more parking spaces that seems to have derailed the latest plan. But Somers said courthouse financing was one of the sticking points between Lovick and the council last year that ultimately resulted in the executive’s veto.
The courthouse project is now on hold. Somers wants to bring all the parties together and see if a cheaper proposal can be found.
“We have to pass a budget by November so the two things play off each other – we have to make sure the budget is sound, and then at the same time decide how to move forward on the courthouse,” Somers said.
The Everett Herald described Somers as a “rumpled policy wonk.” He said he’s familiar with the land use issues which are such a big deal in Snohomish County these days – they include the push for density, and the proposal to bring commercial flights to Paine Field, which he supports.
Somers has also been involved in strengthening county regulations after the Oso landslide. He said the county still needs more advanced mapping technology, but they now require more information from builders before projects go forward.
“So we’ve taken that step, put the burden on the developer [that] they have to provide that information, so that’s more than we did before," he said.
Mike Pattison with the Master Builders’ Association said he’s satisfied with the balance the county is striking around preventing landslides. His group is supporting Somers – as are many environmental groups. Pattison describes Snohomish County politics as a “small family,” with its own quirks, but he said this race has been about issues, not personalities.
“While it’s a little bit peculiar to have a council member and an executive from the same party running against each other, it’s refreshing that it’s issue-based,” he said.
But some of Lovick’s supporters see the race as less pure. Chris Dugovich is the president of the Washington State Council of County and City Employees, which is supporting Lovick. Dugovich sees Somers' alarms about county spending as politically motivated.
“To bolster his effort to show a ‘fiscal crisis’ in county government,” Dugovich said. He said that Somers rejected a tentative labor agreement with county employees in an open council meeting last August, taking union officials by surprise.
Dugovich said the recent tension between certain council members and Lovick is striking considering the level of enthusiasm when Lovick accepted the executive post – “it was a coronation” at the time, Dugovich said. He said Somers’ challenge to Lovick may have more to do with the fact that Somers faces term limits on his council position in two years. He gauged the race as “extremely close.”
Noah Haglund is a reporter covering county politics for the Everett Herald. He said the Democratic party and labor unions have largely supported Lovick, but other Democrats seem torn.
“They see good qualities in both candidates and they’re not really sure which way they want to go," he said. "I also think it’s going to be a question of who gets the most Republican votes. I think we’ve seen some signs that Somers might have the edge.”