RACE FOR MAYOR 2017 Tacoma Weekly interviews the candidates

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Jim Merritt for Mayor kickoff celebration running up to the election. Event held at Frighthouse Square's Rainier Room. Photos by Russ Carmack
Merritt’s grandson Tanner joined him at Merritt’s general campaign kickoff. “Jim’s family is his inspiration for all that he does in Tacoma, as he wants to make sure all of our children and grandchildren can enjoy this incredible city for generations to come,” says Anna Heath, his campaign’s administrative coordinator. Photo courtesy of Jim Merritt

[Following last week’s interview with Tacoma mayoral candidate Victoria Woodards, this week the Tacoma Weekly sat down with candidate Jim Merritt to talk about his goals and ideas in his race for Tacoma mayor.]

In the race for Tacoma mayor, Jim Merritt is not a new face. In 2009 he was defeated by current Mayor Marilyn Strickland, and now he’s making his second attempt for the seat hoping to outdo his only competitor, Victoria Woodards.

Born at Tacoma General Hospital, Merritt was raised in the East Side of Tacoma and Fife. After graduating from Fife High School, “I was the first one in my family to go to college,” he said, and earned a bachelor of architecture degree at University of Washington’s College of Architecture and Urban Planning, graduating number one in his class. “From there I came back to Tacoma and hoped to make a difference. I’ve been an architect and leader in both the public and private sector doing things for 30-some years.”

Merritt lays claim to having been involved in many of Tacoma’s most key accomplishments, from the restoration of Union Station and Teamsters Hall to being part of the University of Washington-Tacoma location proposal and helping start the city’s Landmark Preservation Commission. Several of his contributions to Tacoma are highlighted on his campaign website (www.jimmerrittformayor.com), and the Tacoma Weekly asked him to elaborate on what his specific role was in two of these:

Clean-up of the ASARCO smelter site: “Through a competitive application process, I was selected by Tom Aldrich of ASARCO, the City of Tacoma, town of Ruston and Metro P arks to facilitate an open process and set the stage for an agreeable solution. I led the team that brought together the City of Tacoma, town of Ruston, Metro Parks, ASARCO, the EPA, 35 community stakeholder groups, and thousands of citizens to the table to work out an honest solution supported by everyone.”

The SR 509 bridge concept and it being built under budget: “I helped mobilize a committee of community organizations to discuss and study alternatives for the bridge design. With research of cable-stay and other bridge designs and guidance by renowned engineer Arvid Grant, I developed a sketch of a cable-stay bridge that would add more value to Tacoma’s cityscape than the proposed regular concrete bridge. Armed with the concept and the support of a wide range of community organizations, we made presentations to the City Council, Congressman Norm Dicks, and the State of Washington. (Tacoma) Mayor (Karen) Vialle and Congressman Dicks served as key allies in the fight. The idea gained momentum quickly and the design was accepted by the State and now frames the arrival to the City of Tacoma.”

Merritt also states that it was he who proposed the alternative route to take I-705 away from crossing through the heart of downtown Tacoma, ultimately leading to the the creation of the city’s Link light rail system.

“This option provided the opportunities for future development that even today are just being realized – from the arrival through the city to the cable-stay bridge over Thea Foss Waterway, the re-use of the Union Station to the History Museum, a landscaped ravine and the view of Mount Rainier to the Chihuly Bridge of Glass across I-705,” he said. “At the time, key members of the Chamber of Commerce shouted me down about wanting to change the I-705 route, but now I think we can agree that the re-route of I-705 was ultimately good for the revitalization of downtown, particularly for transportation with the implementation of Link light rail and other development.”

Now that he has his eyes set on winning the mayor’s office, Merritt said he is focusing all of his energies on accomplishing that goal. “This is the first time in about 35 years that I don’t have an architectural project. My project is running for mayor of Tacoma.”

Given these big-picture projects with city stakeholders and the “movers and shakers” of the downtown core, when asked if he had any experience working one-on-one with neighborhood residents, Merritt’s said he has been on the Northend Neighborhood Council for almost a decade.

ON THE ENVIRONMENT

With the liquefied natural gas (LNG) installation at the Port of Tacoma being such a polarizing issue, Tacoma’s mayoral candidates are being scrutinized closely for their stance on bringing this fracked fossil fuel operation to such a densely populated area. Merritt says he opposes the plant largely due to what he calls “p.r.” type replies from Puget Sound Energy in response to his queries on the safety of having such a plant on the Tideflats.

“I haven’t gotten any answers from PSE and I’ve been asking them for five or six months,” he said. “I’ve asked them for the specific risks and consequences that they want this community to accept and I get p.r. That’s not good enough for me.

“What about the fracking? What about the size of the tank? How much are we spending on something that has three days of peak shaving? And how much is it going to be for the TOTE ships? I hear that it costs $20 million to retrofit a ship so are they really going to do it? This is too many things.

“I’ve never been in favor of the LNG plant. I made it clear from the very beginning that I could never support a project that would not fully share with Tacoma the degree of risk and the consequences they are asking the community to accept. The most important part of any project – above aesthetic, above cost – is safety. The facts that I’ve gathered so far don’t align with PSE’s campaign that the plant will be ‘clean and safe.’

“For example, scientists from around the world have spoken out against the placement of LNG facilities and natural gas pipelines in areas susceptible to catastrophic seismic activity, and the facts speak for themselves. After seeing the consequences of poor risk management related to chemical facilities in Houston following Hurricane Harvey, the value of disaster preparedness cannot be understated.

“I told a representative for PSE directly that I could not support the project if they could not counter the ‘anti-LNG’ narrative with science and facts about safety of life and the environment. Whether they are unwilling to provide this information or simply unable to, they have not won the trust of our citizens. Projects that are good for Tacoma do not start as backroom deals and do not cut out important community stakeholders. Will this 50-year project make it more difficult for us to transition away from fossil fuels in the future? How will this project impact the ability to retain current business operations at the port? If we don’t know the answers to these questions, neither do those looking to invest in our community on the Tideflats or elsewhere. Backroom deals are bad for business and do not promote job growth long-term.”

In order to address some of the public’s concerns about transparency at the port, the city’s move to adopt a subarea planning process for the Port and Tideflats, with the Puyallup Tribe at the table as well, is underway to establish a shared, long-term vision and a more coordinated approach to development, environmental review and strategic capital investments for the area. Merritt said he supports such a plan but is worried about how the process is going to play out.

“The subarea plan is proceeding on a very small, narrow direction,” he said. “To me, not knowing our long-term vision and how we accommodate our industrial job base holistically, I think this is becoming one little piece. But it’s how our city has done a lot of this – we don’t have an overall vision but we have all these little sub-pieces and this is another one.

“If you start with uses and only fight about uses, my worry is that we’ll fight around the uses. So it’ll be nothing but get in your foxhole and throw rocks because we are not looking holistically at a solution. The Port will dig in and we’re just going to fight instead of taking a deep breath, get to the issues, make sure the tribe is fully engaged, make sure anybody down there is fully engaged. But they have to sit at the same table – no deals.”

ON BUSINESS

Merritt said he firmly believes that one of Tacoma’s top priorities should be growing its tax base. “As beautiful as we are, if we don’t get our tax base up by getting jobs going in our community and reverse the trend of being the bedroom community for the people in King County and Seattle, we’ll be a very beautiful area that doesn’t have a tax base and that’s when it starts to slide,” he said. “We need to grow jobs. My feeling is that Tacoma is strategically placed, that we can be the economic engine for the western part of the state. From Tacoma, we can service everything from Vancouver to the ocean, to Port Townsend and two hours west. We can be the economic engine and promote that.”

Merritt believes that it’s all in the operating costs of doing business in Tacoma, and as mayor he would reach out to companies in Seattle/King County and show how these entities could have success in Tacoma. “Our goal would be to start helping and strategizing with an economic development board and economic development department as mayor to reach out. It’s not a thing for the staff to do. The mayor needs to do that to help get jobs growing. That would be a key factor.”

Once such a tax base is established, Merritt said this could provide an opportunity to sunset the city’s Business and Occupation (B&O) tax. “Let’s face it, we can’t afford to take anything off the table right now because we don’t have a tax base to take care of it. It’s that simple. What are we doing as a city? We’re charging user fees right now because we can’t afford anything. With somebody like DaVita leaving, the tax base of that now has to be spread out for others.”

Reaching out to companies currently in Tacoma is key as well, according to Merritt. “I think we’ve been remiss as a city in reaching out to companies that are here, to be responsive to their needs because in the last eight years the losing of the Frank Russell company and DaVita is not good. The fact of the matter is what happened to Weyerhaeuser? Why didn’t Weyerhaeuser get any consideration to come back home? We could have had a building turnkey ready for them and y’know what? When you talk to Weyerhaeuser, nobody (in Tacoma) talked to them. If you talk to developers up in Seattle that did the job, they’ll say, ‘we cold called them and they came our way.’ Where was Tacoma?”

Small businesses and projects are also a significant part of Tacoma’s business landscape, and Merritt used the city’s permitting process as an example of something the city needs to work on to become “a city that has reliable answers.” He explained, “That means getting into the departments, collaborating with the city manager to look at how departments respond. How do we get collaborative decisions in about the six different permit pieces that are part of any decision that goes into a project, even small ones? There’s a lot of little elements. So we get concerted, reliable decisions that are not changing every week. Once we get to those decisions, people start realizing that Tacoma has their act together finally. You have to get to a culture of yes and getting good answers we can count on.”

ON PUBLIC SAFETY

Another factor in attracting businesses to Tacoma lies in the level of public safety the city has in order to make the working people who live here feel safe and business owners confident in bringing clients to town. Merritt said he’s aware of this, and plans to address public safety as mayor.

“What I worry about is getting the public safety up to the level we need,” he said. “We’re at about 50 percent of what we need in our police force. Our police force is 20 percent of the numbers of Seattle’s police force and we’re not 20 percent of Seattle’s size. The numbers are dramatic as that.”

Homelessness comes into the picture when discussing public safety, as Tacoma has seen a spike in homeless people on the streets. Merritt said that first and foremost the community needs to be consulted on a serious level to understand the nuances of the problem and the partnerships that can be formed.

“The emergency ‘tent city’ put many business owners and residents into a frenzy as they were brought in to the plan at the end instead of the beginning,” he said. “What came out of the city’s plan is too much reliance on our already understaffed law enforcement and not enough investment in forward thinking solutions that lift people out of their current conditions to give them a better future.”

Merritt said that many of us are just one paycheck away from the curb. “From rising rent to addiction and mental health, the issue of homelessness is massive and complicated. Tent cities and the criminalization of homelessness do very little to address the causes of homelessness and do not change the conditions people are currently in. The city should invest in programs that collaborate with existing organizations for the long-term, instead of spending millions of dollars on emergency mitigation.”

ON COMMUNITY UNITY

With so much divisiveness in the country today – racial tensions, political divisions, economic disparities and the like – an important role for mayor of any city would be to bring people together to foster inclusiveness. Earlier this month this topic came into play in Merritt’s campaign when he made a last-minute decision to not attend a mayors’ forum in Tacoma on LGBTQ issues in favor of attending an Indigenous Peoples Day event in Seattle. Here is what he had to say:

“I accepted a last-minute invitation from members from the Puyallup Tribe to attend an Indigenous People’s Day event because, for me, the invitation represented a sort of budding ‘olive branch’ between Tacoma and the people of the Puyallup Tribe at a time when tensions are high and trust is low. For example, some questioned why I attended an event all the way in Seattle, but didn’t know that it’s in part because Tacoma hasn’t declared Indigenous People’s Day like Seattle and Olympia. We are a city that values diversity, but still has strides to make toward inclusiveness. For too long in Tacoma politics, tribal members have not been treated with the same respect and dignity as other constituents (or worst case not treated as constituents at all) despite the number of members and allies who live in Tacoma and the fact that the Puyallup Tribe is one of the largest employers in the county.

“It was an extremely difficult call to make for everyone on the campaign team. I responded to topics from the LGBTQ forum in writing and sent a staff person to act on my behalf to answer questions, take notes, and respond to issues. The organization who held the forum did not allow any other person to represent the campaign on my behalf during the forum or announce the reason for my absence. I have deep respect for the Rainbow Center and the work they do in the community. I hold our LGBTQ community in high regard and will work as mayor to be an advocate for their issues.”

With a little more than two weeks to go until Nov. 7 election day, Merritt said he is feeling “great” at this point.

“I believe that over my 35 years, I have probably sat and collaborated and discussed at various city councils and authority councils for more meetings than anyone on (Tacoma) city council. But to reach out and collaborate – my whole mission is to open the doors and change the way of communicating. I look back on my career, I had a lot of collaborations with city council back when I started in the 70s.

“The first week in office, we’re going to take off the door to the mayor’s office.”

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