The City of Aberdeen has its share of pressing issues that need to be addressed in the coming years, and mayoral candidates — incumbent Erik Larson and his challenger, longtime City Councilman Pete Schave — discussed several of them at a recent session with The Daily World editorial board.
The city’s approach to its homeless issue has been fast-moving and changing with recent actions by the city and court rulings. The city has purchased property on Michigan Street, just behind the row of businesses along State Street, and is moving toward location of a longer-term homeless camping site. Schave said he was opposed to the location and believes better options are out there.
“I think based on the outcry from the citizens we can find a location less intrusive on downtown, slightly outside of the downtown area,” said Schave.
For years, homeless people had lived in a large homeless camp along the Chehalis River near where the proposed camp would be. When Larson led the effort to dissuade campers from living there it resulted in a federal lawsuit and eventually to the city buying the original homeless camp property so it could be cleared altogether. That led to the city opening a temporary camp behind City Hall and now the effort to find a longer term location.
“I still can’t understand why we had to be so quick to move the river camp to City Hall and now from there to somewhere else when I still believe we could have solved some of the issues at the river camp a lot cheaper in order to still provide a place (for the homeless as directed by federal courts).”
Larson described the series of events from the decision to purchase the river camp property to the Michigan Street site purchase, both of which were approved by the City Council.
“The council voted to approve the river camp property purchase by a pretty wide margin,” said Larson. “The idea there was to buy it and work through this from one end to the other and get people off the property without dispersing them into downtown. Difficult decisions had to be made.”
“I’m sure we’ll have this (Michigan Street) camp for now, but hopefully, if I’m elected, we could find some better solutions that would have an outcome, find out why they are homeless and solve those issues,” said Schave. “What happens when this camp fills up? Buy another piece of property, then another, it’s an open checkbook.”
Schave said when discussions started about what to do with the now-closed river camp, “I suggested we look at different options as to what we had to do and that didn’t really happen.”
Schave favors some sort of facility to house homeless people indoors. Larson says that sounds good and he also wants to pursue long-term options, but it would be much more expensive and take years to accomplish when something has to be done now. He said that other options were considered by the city and its ad hoc committee on homeless issues, and the Michigan Street alternative was the best. He also said during that process he didn’t receive any direct input on usable alternatives to the Michigan Street property and says he was disappointed that Schave, who has been on the boards of the Salvation Army and Coastal Community Action Program, two entities that help the homeless population, didn’t volunteer for the ad hoc committee to develop a city response. Only two council people did.
“If somebody has a better idea I’d love to hear it, but until they do I’m a little bit tired of the criticism,” said Larson.
Larson called the hiring of a city administrator “long overdue,” calling it an “absolute necessity” and he’s committed to finding a qualified candidate who fits within the budget the council has approved. The administrator would handle the city’s day to day operations and serve as an executive representative to the various boards, commissions and hearings. “For a city our size with our complex issues we need to have a seat at that table,” said Larson.
The city recruited for a city administrator last year and, Larson said, lost out on two candidates because the pay the city was offering wasn’t competitive. The council increased the allocation, but by that time, Larson judged that it was too close to the election and candidates would be wary of taking the job lest the political will was to change with a new administration.
“I’ve been opposed to having a city administrator,” said Schave. “I’ve taken the stand from the get-go that Mayor Larson has micromanaged our staff to the point where they don’t act like department heads anymore.”
Schave said he doesn’t feel the city is in a financial position to absorb the cost of a city administrator, and if properly led, the city’s departments could run the show well enough on their own.
“A city manager has a lot of benefits but I never felt financially we’re in a place where we could do that as a luxury. If I am mayor I will bring back the camaraderie and the ability of our staff to be like department heads.”
Larson said in his interactions with city staff he’s had no indication they feel micromanaged and unable to effectively do their jobs. In fact, he said of Schave’s statements, in his discussions with staff they are “frustrated with what’s being said (by Schave) when they (the staff) don’t believe it’s true.”
Schave said if elected he would continue with the current plan for the Gateway Center, though he has concerns about what he sees as the lack of a solid plan as to how the space would be used and operated.
The center is proposed for the vacant space immediately west of the Wishkah River Bride, along Wishkah Street. It likely would house Greater Grays Harbor Inc., and other business development entities, perhaps tourism and historical museum presences and possibly private business, with tenants paying rent to the city, which would operate it.
“I think it’s an expensive building going in and there’s no real plan for how it’s going to be operated,” said Schave.
Larson said the anchor tenant would be Greater Grays Harbor Inc., the regional chamber of commerce. Schave said a portion of the money Greater Grays Harbor uses to maintain its operations comes from the same sources that fund the city. Larson agreed that was true to an extent, but said Greater Grays Harbor receives a good portion of their funding through memberships of local businesses who use the organization to promote their businesses and promote investment in the region.
As for options for the Aberdeen Museum of History since its location in the Armory Building was destroyed by fire a year ago, Larson said there is potential for community partnerships to display the city’s history in different locations.
“There’s an opportunity to do something with the Gateway Center, more industrial and commercial history that ties in with economic development,” said Larson. The Grays Harbor Historical Seaport could be used to showcase the city’s maritime history, and possibly a third location could be used downtown to display items related to the city itself.
Asked what role the mayor and City Hall should have in re-establishing the museum, Schave said, “there’s a very adequate museum board out there and I’m willing to work with them” to come up with ideas where the surviving historical items from the museum can be put on display.
Larson said he’s tried to be hands-off and not influence the museum board’s plans. “I’d rather see what they come up with first,” he said.
North Shore Levee
Both candidates agree the North Shore Levee is a project that could drive increased outside economic development in the region. Larson called it “probably the biggest project we’re working on now. I think the community really lives or dies on that project.”
The flood control wall would, between Aberdeen and Hoquiam, take about 4,200 properties out of the mandatory federal flood insurance requirement. Larson said taking those properties out from “under the thumb” of the flood insurance requirement would encourage growth as far as investment and housing goes.
“I think a tremendous amount of progress has been made on the dike project and I’m confident it’s all going to go through,” said Schave.