Leadership styles are an issue in Aberdeen mayoral race

November’s race for Aberdeen mayor features two candidates who come to the contest with very different perspectives.

Pete Schave, with 18 years on the council, has had leadership stints as council president, but mostly he’s been just one member of a 12-person council, navigating the sometimes slow-moving council and committee process to get things done.

Incumbent Erik Larson won his mayoral seat on his first try at elective politics. His experience with municipal government has been on the job training. At times he’s been subject to criticism for not being inclusive when it comes to making decisions and setting direction for the city.

Here’s a little perspective on the background and priorities for each candidate.

Councilman Pete Schave

Schave says his main priority is to get city staff working together with a more unified goal in mind for the city’s future. Schave said Larson, who is completing his first term as mayor, has micromanaged city staff. He said he wishes Larson was better about discussing larger plans with city staff and council before rushing to make a decision.

“Over the last four years, issues have popped up as told by the mayor and his decisions are already made,” said Schave. “Not just without the council, but the city staff as well. They don’t know what the mayor is planning on doing on issues until (he’s) telling them what to do.”

Schave, 66, is retired but spent years as a truck driver in the logging and wood products industry.

When he was 38, Schave joined the Aberdeen City Council for the first time, and has since spent 18 years on the council in two different stints.

If elected, Schave said he would take more careful note of the council’s opinion on issues and get voters’ approval before making decisions regarding major issues such as homelessness.

Schave said the decision driven by Larson to purchase and clear land that for years had housed a homeless camp on Aberdeen’s riverfront was a mistake. Schave believes that for less money, the city could have allowed people to live on the site and manage issues as they arose, as opposed to opening the new city-sanctioned tent facility behind City Hall.

“Money-wise, we probably would’ve been better off to deal with the problems on the waterfront, letting them stay there without disrupting their camp too much,” said Schave. “Then we could’ve worked as a group to find a solution. Instead we’ve uprooted everybody, moved them to the city hall parking lot, at a tremendous expense.”

So far, the city has approved expenditures of up to $85,000 to build and maintain the fenced-in camping area behind City Hall for up to three months since the opening day July 15. Over 60 people were staying there as of last week.

Instead of clearing the riverfront, Schave said the city should’ve had more open discussions and consulted staff and outsiders about other options. Ideas like a “community house,” which exists in Longview and is described online as a clean and sober homeless recovery center, should have been explored instead, Schave said.

His thought was to possibly establish a community house in one of Aberdeen’s abandoned buildings, providing beds and services on-hand for people to be assisted out of homelessness.

“The goal is to solve the reasons they’re homeless, and the success rate in doing it this way has been pretty good,” Schave said of the community house idea.

Schave also took issue with the city’s current plan to use some of its own general funds to pay for a planned long-term camping site for homeless people. He said a priority would be to push the county to use funding allocated for homelessness to address the city’s issues.

The leadership style differences between Larson and Schave came out in discussions with council members.

Council member Dee Anne Shaw said she isn’t sure who she would support more as mayor between Schave and Larson, and said she could work with either. She described Schave as someone who acts slowly and takes his time; someone she would go to if she needed a more thoughtful response.

“If I want something done, I would need to work with Pete (myself) to get it done more quickly, whereas the mayor is quick, and sometimes I wish he would slow down,” said Shaw.

In response to criticisms about his management style, Larson said he tries to keep the council informed of everything he’s working on, but added that’s not always realistic, and that it’s difficult with a 12-person council. Larson added that there are times he feels certain council members aren’t necessarily uninformed about his decisions, but that they simply don’t agree with him.

“I try to keep the council as informed as possible, but having 12 council members sometimes makes that difficult and it doesn’t always happen as I’d like it to,” said Larson. “But there is a difference between not being informed and just not agreeing. I think it’s more likely certain members of the council don’t always agree with what I’m doing.”

Supporters of Schave include former Aberdeen Mayor Bill Simpson, who served on the city council with Schave for years. Simpson described his friend Schave as “caring” and “very much a team player.”

“He’s very transparent, you can see right through him, and there’s no phoniness about him,” said Simpson. “I support him very fully.”

Council President Tawni Andrews, who didn’t make it past the primary as one of four mayoral candidates, was similar to Shaw in not endorsing one candidate yet, and said she wants to see first how the two respond to questions leading up to the election.

With Schave, Andrews said she is concerned the longtime councilman is too “old school” and said she doesn’t want to revert to the city being less proactive as she said it was under Simpson’s administration.

“(Schave)’s a big friend of Bill Simpson, and I’m worried about reverting back to that administration,” said Andrews. “I don’t want to go back to that, we need to be proactive, communicative, and I’m going to press that as a city councilperson.”

Incumbent Mayor Erik Larson

Four years ago, Larson used the slogan “Let’s build a brighter future,” and said he had to work hard to get voters to take his run for mayor seriously, especially since it was his first time running for any public office at 23 years old. But since getting elected, Larson, now 27, said he feels he’s built up a resume to show he’s got the city heading in the right direction.

“Having worked through all the projects and initiatives, I think I’ve been able to build a portfolio of work so-to-speak of, ‘Here’s what I’m able to provide, the change I can create, and do effectively with the role,’” said Larson. “Now I’m asking people to continue to support where we’re headed, and to continue to be a partner with moving the area forward.”

Larson, an engineer for the Vaughan Company in Montesano, got married a little over a year ago. His family has roots in Aberdeen, and operates Duffy’s Restaurant.

In particular, Larson said he hopes to get re-elected to continue work on major projects such as the North Shore Levee, which is now finished with design work and recently got $10 million in funding through the state capital budget for construction, but is still years from completion.

The levee project, which would build a levee barrier to protect thousands of homes from flooding and take them out of the FEMA floodplain to reduce insurance costs in low-lying Aberdeen homes, has been a focus of Larson’s.

In terms of upcoming projects, Larson said the city has nine-figures-worth of development of public infrastructure funded through state or federal avenues.

Regarding homelessness, Larson has said he’s relieved to have completed the process of clearing the major homeless encampments along the Chehalis River, which he and city officials said was unsafe and unfit for habitation.

Now with over 60 people at the city’s homeless camping site behind City Hall, Larson and city staff are attempting to find a new property and establish a more long term facility. Larson said the camp is more of a stopgap solution for the larger issue of homelessness, and that it will take a longer time to fully address it.

But he said a long-term facility will help address a fundamental need of the homeless “and alleviate some negative aspects of it both for those experiencing homelessness and others impacted like businesses and residents.”

Larson added that he thinks the community house can be a great program, but dismissed Schave’s notion that a community house would be cheaper than a city-run encampment.

“When you look at the cost of operating a (community house) facility like that, compared to what the city’s running, to say it’s a lot cheaper than what the city is running, it’s making a lot of assumptions that just aren’t realistic,” said Larson.

In addition, Larson took issue to Schave raising issues with the city purchasing the property and clearing it, as opposed to several months ago when the city was starting to consider closing it down.

“Part of me is frustrated because there have been opportunities for Pete Schave to get involved in this discussion,” Larson said of the situation with the riverfront homeless people. “The time to have that discussion was three or six months ago. To say, ‘OK, let’s rethink this’ when we’re in the final hour, it’s not very responsible.”

Larson noted he thinks Schave is bringing up his criticisms of how the city handled the homeless encampments now as a way to distance himself from the current administration.

In terms of endorsements, Larson’s campaign website has many notable elected officials pledging support, including U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, State Reps. Mike Chapman and Steve Tharinger, and The Daily World’s 2019 Citizen of the Year, Bette Worth.

Chapman was particularly supportive of Larson in how he’s worked to get support for Aberdeen in the state Legislature.

“Erik has been a tireless champion for Aberdeen in Olympia, advocating for economic development and public infrastructure projects,” said Chapman in a text message. “Nobody works as hard as he does on behalf of Aberdeen’s future.”

Many of the decisions of how to manage Aberdeen’s homeless situation on the Chehalis were made specifically by Larson, and some council members said they took issue with how he would act on things quickly without discussing plans with council first.

Andrews, who was glad the city swept the riverfront camps but wished the city helped the previous landowner first, said Larson tends to “get in his own way” by acting too quickly.

“Erik has some good ideas, but his communication skills aren’t that great,” said Andrews.

Andrews came in third in this summer’s four-way primary race, followed by Janae Chhith in fourth place.

Simpson said he feels similar to Schave and others in not always having a unified plan the city and council agree on.

“It has to be a team effort, and it doesn’t seem like it has been that way,” he said.