Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Friday, October 19, 2007

"Pullman candidates show sharp contrasts"

From today's Lewiston Tribune:
PULLMAN - From water to Wazzu, the men running in the only contested Pullman City Council race this election have different ideas about how to run the city.

For instance, challenger Nathan Weller said there is too much discord between the city and Washington State University, and he wants them to work together more often.

But incumbent Ward 2 City Councilor Al Sorensen said the relationship between city and school is humming along nicely, and has resulted in some positive changes for students in recent years.

"We're not here to be dictators over the students," Sorensen said of how city government works with the student body, including meetings twice each year with student government.

He held up one example of concerns students had about lighting on College Hill. Once the city knew there was a potential problem, it quickly discovered that trees had overgrown streetlights in the neighborhood. A quick trim job fixed the situation, Sorensen said, and no new lighting was needed.

But Weller said unifying the community is one of the key parts of his campaign. One deep divide he sees between the university and some citizens is over WSU's new golf course set to open next year.

Some community members see the course as a drain on the region's unknown water resources, while others think it will be an economic driver that will enhance Pullman's standard of living. But in his message of unity, Weller said common ground can be found.

"It's about reaching out to those people in creating a consensus, and really looking at ourselves as 'we,' not WSU and Pullman," Weller said.

That extends to what Weller sees as a heavy-handed approach the city may take toward landlords who don't properly maintain their properties. He said he's against any regulation because it may drive a wedge between students and the city if rents rise.

"I live in an apartment," he said. "And I want to live in a clean, well-taken-care of apartment. But my fear is that (the cost of increased regulation) is going to be passed on to the renters themselves."

He also thought it was unfair to create a blanket ordinance over all property owners and managers, when there are only a few problem cases.

Sorensen said the ordinance the city is considering is far from heavy-handed. "It's a business registration ordinance," he said. "The main reason is to gather info on businesses so if there's an incident, the authorities can contact (property owners)."

Sorensen said he's troubled by the substandard housing where some students and citizens live. And while such properties are a small minority, he said the city needs to be proactive to protect its residents.

"I have seen some absolutely scary situations," Sorensen said. "I've seen an actual piece of solid steel in place of a fuse. There's going to be a catastrophe, but I want to avoid that catastrophe."

If landlords who don't take simple steps like converting to circuit breakers can be made to register with the city, it will be easier for their tenants to seek recourse when there is a problem, he said. And if the city wants to take the more expensive route of mandatory building inspections, he said many renters would be glad to pay a few extra bucks a month for increased safety.

"I'm not trying to go after folks," Sorensen said. "I'm targeting unsafe housing. Period."

On the water issue, Sorensen said the city is renewing its push for a long-delayed addition to its wastewater treatment plant that would supply treated effluent to water city parks and play fields, and WSU green spaces like the new golf course. "Anything that you can do to reuse whatever you're using now is a good thing."

The plant would be built by WSU, but the school has lowered its priority in its last two budget proposals, and the state hasn't funded it.

Both Sorensen and Weller agreed water concerns shouldn't stand in the way of economic development, and both said water conservation can alleviate pressure on the region's aquifers. They also found common ground in supporting large developments like the proposed Hawkins mall on the Moscow-Pullman Highway.

Big development like that or a proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter on Bishop Boulevard would help attract and create smaller businesses, and help keep Pullman and Whitman County shoppers from fleeing to Moscow and Lewiston, they said.

Sorensen said he is also concerned about the state of Pullman's side streets, and said residents may have to be tapped to pay for improvements.

"There's just not enough revenue in our current maintenance fund to address all of them (side streets)," he said, adding that state or federal grants should be used to supplement any tax increase. A $2.24 million revenue bond passed by voters last year was only for improvements to city parks, sidewalks and paths, Sorensen said, so money is still needed for street repair.

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