GOP will take control of county council

By Warren Cornwall

Herald Writer

The Republican takeover of the Snohomish County Council was upheld by absentee ballot counts Friday, giving the GOP control of the council for the first time since 1989.

The victories by Republicans John Koster in the 1st District and Jeff Sax in the 5th District already had people predicting a shift in the council’s political direction.

"My six years here as the lone Republican has been an extremely interesting experience for me," said councilman Gary Nelson. "As President Bush said, ‘Help is on the way.’ "

How that will distill into legislation remains to be seen. But it could mean increased skepticism toward tax increases, an unwinding of recent land-use regulations, a push for more deputies, and differences between a Republican council and a Democratic county executive, according to an examination of voting histories and comments from candidates and council observers.

The switch won’t be complete until January, when Sax and 4th District Democrat Dave Gossett are sworn in. Koster will join as soon as the voters are certified Nov. 21, because Ashley was appointed to finish a term.

Jeff Sax

That will place the three Republicans in command, accompanied by Democrats Gossett and Kirke Sievers. Sievers and Nelson come up for election in 2003.

Koster defeated incumbent Mike Ashley with 52 percent of the vote to 45 percent. Sax beat incumbent Dave Somers by four percentage points, according to Friday’s results. Gossett beat Republican Dave Schmidt by 6 percent. Election officials had counted nearly all ballots by Friday.

County Executive Bob Drewel and Nelson extended olive branches to each other Friday.

"It would be my feeling that the council would try to reach out to make sure that we have very few differences" with the executive, Nelson said.

The council will almost certainly shift direction, Drewel said. However, "We are fully prepared to work with and cooperate with the new leadership of the county council."

It’s too early to say what will be on the agenda in coming years, Nelson said. But he ticked off a list of subjects that could get attention, including environmental and land-use regulations, sheriff’s staffing, bidding processes for county contracts and growth in county staffing.

Land-use regulations could be some of the most closely watched. The housing industry was a major source of money for the Koster and Sax campaigns, while environmental groups were top contributors to Ashley and Somers.

"I think there’s going to be a dramatic change in the council direction," said Mike Pattison, lobbyist for the Snohomish County-Camano Association of Realtors. "The concerns of private property owners and the issue of affordable housing will be given priority that they didn’t receive under the current council."

The current council has tightened land use regulations against the protests of the housing industry. Sax and Koster, meanwhile, have said they oppose a recent vote limiting housing density on developments near cities.

Steven Greenebaum, executive director of the Edmonds-based Citizens for Environmental Responsibility, said the campaign rhetoric from Republicans favored a return to the unregulated growth of past years. What did he think would be the new policy direction?

"Unfettered development," he said.

Debates over tax increases may have been partly trumped by Initiative 747. While Koster and Sax had voiced opposition to Drewel’s proposal to raise a portion of the property tax by 6 percent, the initiative caps increases at 1 percent.

Koster shied away from saying what measures he wanted to pursue right away. "The first thing I’ve got to do is get my wheels down, get oriented," he said.

Sax, meanwhile, said he first wanted to see a thorough audit of county operations to find out how money was being spent. He also vowed to press for more deputies, saying Sheriff Rick Bart should get the additional 47 deputies he is seeking.

"I would like to see Sheriff Bart’s budget for this year approved," he said.

The Democrats could still leave their mark on several important pieces of legislation before the switch.

Just a day after the election, the council voted 3-2 for new growth limits around Lake Stevens. Sievers and Nelson voted against it.

The council on Nov. 19 begins hearings on the 2002 budget, and could vote within days. That budget proposal from Drewel includes money for five more deputies. Drewel has said the fiscal pressures mean the county can’t afford the dozens of deputies sought by Bart.

You can call Herald Writer Warren Cornwall at 425-339-3463 or send e-mail to cornwall@heraldnet.com.

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