Edmonds council rift puts filling of vacancy on hold

EDMONDS — The political scene hasn’t been so pretty of late in this picturesque town.

The City Council for weeks has been stuck in what some describe as an ugly 3-3 face-off over filling a vacancy left by the resignation of a council member.

The council is scheduled to resume its discussion during its March 11 meeting. If members can’t cobble together a majority by the end of March, state law will send the appointment decision to the Snohomish County Council.

“I cannot break that tie,” Mayor Dave Earling said. “And frankly … it’s probably just as well that the mayor can’t get involved.”

The impasse is just the latest bout of internal rancor in the city of 40,000 people.

As it stands, half of the council is allied behind and seeking to appoint former Councilman Steve Bernheim,* who previously served one four-year term through the end of 2011. That included a brief stint as interim mayor.

“We’ve stayed with Steve, we believe in Steve, we know his work,” Councilwoman Adrienne Fraley-Monillas said. “He has actually been mayor of our city between Gary Haakenson and Mike Cooper, so we know what he can do.”

Joining her in support of Bernheim are councilwomen Joan Bloom and Lora Petso.

If that side is looking for experience in office, the other is looking for a new face by supporting Stephen Schroeder, a former assistant U.S. attorney with no experience in elected office.

“I’m really looking for a new council member who I think can work really well with staff and there isn’t a history of tense relationships,” said Councilman Strom Peterson, referencing Bernheim’s past tenure. “That’s why I’m looking to bring somebody who has a fresh perspective, especially people coming in from different sectors of the community.”

Joining Peterson in support of Schroeder are council president Diane Buckshnis and council president pro tem Kristiana Johnson.

The vacancy opened at the beginning of the year following the resignation of Frank Yamamoto, who stepped down for health reasons. The appointee will serve in council’s Position 6 through the fall of 2015, when Yamamoto would have been up for re-election.

By mid-January, the council had received 14 applications from people interested in the job. Other than Bernheim, the only other applicant with experience on the council is Ron Wambolt, who also ran unsuccessfully against Fraley-Monillas last year.

In a questionnaire, Schroeder said he would like to run for re-election to the seat, while Berheim said he would not. Peterson maintains he and Bernheim are mostly in-sync as pro-environment and social progressives.

“It’s not so much issue-oriented, but making sure we can move forward and build the relationship with the administration,” he said.

Peterson’s bloc has offered up alternatives to Schroeder and accuses the others of being unyielding in their support for Bernheim.

Fraley-Monillas counters that Bernheim is her side’s consensus candidate, not necessarily everyone’s first choice.

On both sides, there’s hope of striking a compromise before March 31, when state law would kick the decision over to county leaders.

“Looking at it mathematically, it only takes one council member to agree with somebody else’s choice,” Petso said.

Over the next couple of weeks, she and the other decision-makers will reach out to learn more from the half-dozen or so applicants who have received some support during the appointment process.

Divisions on the council were there long before the current disagreement. Until recently, they often voted 4-3, with Yamamoto on the side of the council members who now support Schroeder.

“It’s been a rough year and a half for the city of Edmonds,” Fraley- Monillas said. “We haven’t gotten a lot of things done that we need to get done because of this split. Having somebody who is going to carefully look at these issues and work across the aisle with both sides is really going to be benefit the citizens of Edmonds.”

Fraley-Monillas would like get the council focused on areas other than downtown, where she said a preoccupation with maintaining Puget Sound views has distracted attention from problems along Highway 99 and elsewhere in the city.

The city’s year began with political gridlock when they tried to select a council president and president pro tem. In both cases, Earling broke a 3-3 tie to chose the winner.

Under state law, however, the mayor can’t be the tie-breaker for a political appointment.

In other signs of turbulence, the city has gone through a succession of finance directors. The most recent, Roger Neumaier, cited “micromanagement” by some council members when he resigned abruptly in January.

Another ongoing issue is a defamation lawsuit against the city from former human resources director Debi Humann. It’s now pending in federal court and mainly focuses on the administration of Earling’s predecessor as mayor, Mike Cooper.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

Correction, March 7, 2014: Steve Bernheim’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.

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