Edmonds mayor battling opponent and personnel controversy

EDMONDS — If Mayor Mike Cooper wants to keep his job, he must fend off the challenge of former Edmonds councilman Dave Earling.

It’s not going to be easy.

Earling won the primary with a surprising 53 percent of the v

ote. His fundraising total continues to be more than double Cooper’s. And mayors from most of the other cities in Snohomish County are lined up behind the challenger.

Throw in the recent tumult of personnel sagas at City Hall and Cooper’s tenure is clearly in jeopardy only 15 months after

his appointment to the $113,000-a-year position.

“It’s going to be a very difficult election. I knew it,” he said.

Of late, there’s been more talk about his decision to fire the human resources director and negotiate a now-rejected deal with his executive assistant to resign than how he proposed to balance the city budget without layoffs and helped bring a Dick’s Drive-in to town.

“There’s a lot of whisper campaigns,” Cooper said. “I’m confident the voters will eventually see the truth. I feel like I’ve accomplished an awful lot in a year.”

Earling says residents’ confidence in city leaders is waning and they want a change. He portrays himself as one who will be a calming and unifying force at City Hall.

“People are very tired of the drama going on,” he said. “There’s a sense among the community that oftentimes the elected leaders appear rudderless. This is a good community to live in, but the leaders are not meeting the standards of the community itself.”

Cooper disagrees when he hears talk of the need for new leadership from Earling.

“I am the new leadership,” Cooper said. “For voters, it comes down to whether or not you want a person who is more progressive in their leadership style or a person who wants to go back to the old way of doing business.”

Cooper, 59, grew up in Edmonds and graduated from Edmonds High School in 1970. Like his father, Cooper enjoyed a career as a firefighter, retiring in 2006.

By then, he’d made his mark in a second career in politics. A Democrat, he served four terms in the Legislature, from 1997 to 2005. He lost a statewide race in 2004 for commissioner of public lands but enjoyed a successful return to local politics when he won a seat on the Snohomish County Council in 2007.

Last year, when Edmonds Mayor Gary Haakenson resigned to become Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon’s chief deputy, Cooper and seven others applied for the job. The City Council chose Cooper over Dick Van Hollebecke on a 4-3 vote.

He arrived to find Edmonds, like most cities and towns, facing a budget deficit, declining tax revenue and a growing list of maintenance problems.

Cooper said he proposed a balanced budget, attracted tax-generating businesses and teamed with the council to ask voters for help sustaining needed public services. He’s also pushed to curb spending on utilities through energy conservation and on fuel by acquiring electric and hybrid vehicles for city workers.

His friends think he could have done more had he been more effective in using the bully pulpit of the mayor’s office. But Cooper said he’s chosen to advance his agenda slowly.

“You can always do things differently,” he said. “I chose to be a little more mellow with the way I approached the job. I may need to be a little more assertive in how I propose ideas in the future.”

His record is overshadowed by a slew of controversial matters.

Cooper welcomed the City Council-pushed investigation into why Haakenson could authorize paying the higher costs of developing Haines Wharf Park without council approval. The probe should lead to better city rules, Cooper said. Haakenson considers it political payback for his support of Earling and other council candidates.

Cooper’s firing of Human Resources Director Debi Humann angered longtime workers and may land the city in court, since Humann claims she was wrongfully terminated.

And the status of Kimberly Cole, Cooper’s executive assistant, is a continuing source of questions. She tried to resign and accept a settlement from the city, which Cooper and city attorneys worked on. But the City Council nixed the deal.

Cooper doesn’t regret the course of action.

“If I was only thinking about my political future, none of this would have happened until after Election Day,” Cooper said. “I knew there would be political fallout. I did what I did because it was the right thing to do for the city.”

Earling, 68, has lived in Edmonds since 1978 and built a resume of jobs in the public and private sectors.

He spent 11 years as a music professor and band director at Shoreline Community College. A trumpet player, Earling said he performs taps each Memorial Day at Edmonds Cemetery.

When he said he got burned out, he went into real estate. He managed and owned Edmonds Realty Inc. and began to engage in civic affairs through his involvement in the Chamber of Commerce.

Earling, a Republican, won a seat on the Edmonds City Council in 1991. He served three terms before deciding in 2003 to run for Snohomish County executive. He lost that contest to Democrat Aaron Reardon.

In August 2006, Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire appointed Earling to a $95,000-a-year position on the state’s Growth Management Hearing Board, a post he left to run for office. He continues serving as president of Senior Services of Snohomish County.

Earling didn’t apply for the mayoral appointment in 2010, though friends encouraged him to do so. He said he deliberately held off entering the race until this spring.

“When Mike was appointed, I said let’s wait and see how it works out,” he said.

In his mind, it hasn’t gone well.

“People are looking for someone to put the focus on the city,” he said. “When I see the kind of indecision or poor decision-making going on, I want to see if I can’t help fix that.”

On many issues, the two men differ only by degrees.

Both support passage of Propositions 2 and 3, which will increase property taxes to pay for street overlays, park improvements and building maintenance.

Cooper also backs Proposition 1, which raises money from a property tax increase to maintain current levels of public safety and other services. Earling opposes it because he thinks the city could scale back spending, though he did not suggest specific cuts.

Both men hail the importance of crafting a long-term strategy for economic development.

Each endorsed efforts of downtown business owners to form a special district to raise money for improvements.

Earling criticized a new four-year contract with most union workers in the city as having too long a term. “I’d have preferred it only be two years, because we don’t know what the future will bring,” he said.

Cooper said the length of the deal provides “financial stability. We know what it’s going to cost us the next four years.”

On the campaign trail, Earling continues to outpace Cooper in fundraising. He had raised $55,310 and spent $27,948 through the end of last week, while the mayor had hauled in $23,200 and spent $9,171.

One matter that’s not been an issue in the campaign is each candidate’s health.

Cooper has battled multiple myeloma, a blood cancer, and said it’s been in remission since he underwent a stem cell transplant in March 2010. Earling said he’s not been slowed by the defibrillator implanted in his chest eight years ago.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

Mike Cooper

Age: 59

Occupation: Mayor of Edmonds; former Snohomish County councilman, state legislator and retired firefighter.

Priorities: Put the city on more stable financial ground, expand use of clean energy and conservation to reduce costs and attract new businesses.

Website: www. mikecooper.org

Dave Earling

Age: 68

Occupation: President, Senior Services of Snohomish County, former Edmonds city councilman, real estate broker, former state Growth Management Hearings Board member.

Priorities: Provide better leadership, stabilize the city budget and create a more positive environment for economic development.

Website: www. daveearling.com

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