Port Orchard City Council candidates debate downtown change, climate change

Three city council candidates answer questions from citizens in virtual forum

PORT ORCHARD — Concerns over the future of Port Orchard’s historic downtown and the infrastructure for a growing community were paramount in the League of Women Voters of Kitsap County’s Port Orchard City Council July 12 virtual candidate forum.

The forum moderator gave candidates 12 questions submitted by the public to answer. The content of the questions ranged from their personal experience and goals to specifics on ways the city can address affordable housing and climate change.

During the forum, candidates Shaun Williams, running for the at-large position, and Randy Jones, running for Position 2, expressed frustration with the city’s decisions on infrastructure, such as the planned bike path to Annapolis. Both Williams and Jones also took issue with what they see as a lack of support from the city for small businesses.

Current at-large council member Jay Rosapepe, who is running for Position 2, spoke on the city’s current work and future plans for addressing affordable housing, as well as what he saw as an effective response to the pandemic by the city.

Selected questions from the forum and corresponding answers to each are included below.

What inspired you to run for a position on the City Council?

Jay Rosapepe: “What inspired me was the fact that I had lived here when the area west of [SR] 16 was annexed, and it was a good time to become involved in city government. During this timeframe, I’ve served as mayor pro tempe and on various city council committees, including land use and economic development. So wanting to continue to serve and see the work continue that we’ve started has been paramount to running for a third term.”

Shaun Williams: “I’ve lived downtown for a few years now at the marina and I’ve seen some of the changes and they’re not all good … I’ve noticed we need to revitalize downtown because I spend a lot of time there, but I’ve seen what the City Council seems to prioritize, and it’s not downtown. It’s not anything that would benefit the citizens. It’s things that would benefit developers and big business and things like that. So that’s what inspired me to run because we need to refocus our efforts, not on roundabouts and a walkway — a bike path Annapolis — that will destroy a bar because you annexed its parking lot.”

Randy Jones: “I started going to City Council meetings over this eminent domain issue, and I’m not the first person to be raked over the coals by eminent domain from the city over the years. But, yes, everything he said was right. I’ve been here since 1979. If things went through the way the current administration would like, downtown Port Orchard would not look like downtown Port Orchard. And I find it reprehensible that the city of Port Orchard gets into the buying of real estate. And I find it reprehensible — annexation. Whiskey Gulch would not be in this situation if they had not annexed yet. And so I will be here, if I don’t win and if I lose my home, I’ll be back.”

If elected to the City Council, what would be your top priority?

Williams: “My top priority, if elected, would be to get some fiscal responsibility into the council. I don’t know why we’re going into debt and borrowing money for that bike path that I despise. That, and I’m a proponent of accountability, both of police, politicians, public servants, things like that. They should be held accountable for what they do. If they pass an ordinance or a rule that affects the taxpayer and someone sues over it, it’s not the taxpayer that should be funding the defense. It should be the people that approved it. So they should be personally defending it, not the taxpayer. That’s a waste of taxpayer money. And that’s something I despise — wasting taxpayer monies. Everything should go toward what it’s supposed to. I also support a local ban on income taxes.”

Jones: “Yes. I’m hoping to be sitting right next to Shaun. He kinda echoes my thoughts … I’ve sat through the city meetings patiently watching them spend money on lobbyists, huge contracts, tens of thousands of dollars. And other projects. They just can’t wait to get grants and bonds for this project … And our planning department was furious that I was told that my house was on the chopping block because that’s the kind of unaccountability and non-transparency that our planning department has. My first priority is to do what I can to block the planning department from any more destruction.”

Rosapepe: “My first priority while on the council is still to look at improving the infrastructure of the city, including the roads, making sure that we get our roads in order. Water, to make sure that we don’t have any more moratoriums and that we can stop taking water from Bremerton. That is required right now to provide water to the city residents. And also to make sure that we have adequate sewer connections to serve all the residents of Port Orchard, not just the downtown residents of Port Orchard because we are a city that is growing, whether we like it or not.

What does affordable housing mean to you? What city policies, if any, would you support to increase the inventory of affordable housing?

Jones: “Yeah, that’s easy. Stop the handful of developers that want to tear down everything in town. There is affordable housing in Port Orchard, and again, I echo Shaun’s version of, ‘We don’t need to try and bring in everyone from Seattle.’ They will go other places. There is Belfair. There are other places. If you keep the city limits small, the existing houses should be left alone, not just mine.”

Rosapepe: “We’re doing a lot for affordable housing. We’ve made changes to our codes where we now allow accessory dwelling units [ADUs]. So there can be more than one house, one unit on a property. We’ve taken up congregated living. There’s a unit that’s being proposed off of Dekalb in a former church that will help with affordable housing. We’re also working for developers, when they build units, that a certain percentage is affordable housing. And lastly, we have new state laws that we’re going to have to work with for transitory housing in indoor shelters. And these are state laws that are coming down, that the city’s going to have to address in their code. So there’s a lot going on and a lot that I hope the citizens of the city will be paying attention to.”

Williams: “If we want affordable housing, we need to stop with the increases in property taxes and levies. We need to live within our means. Every time we increase property taxes, rent goes up, housing costs go up. Yes, by making the developers pay for infrastructure improvements required for their development, that’s going to cause housing prices in that development to be higher, but that’s something that has to be done, in order to make housing affordable. We need to determine the reasons why housing costs are going up and then counter them so that the housing prices can come back down to affordable levels.”

What do you think should be done with [unused tiny homes in Port Orchard built for the homeless]? What specific actions do you support to address the homelessness issue in Port Orchard? And finally, do you support the emergency homeless shelter that’s going to be located at the former Olympic Fitness Center building on Mile Hill Drive?

Jones: “I would think that we could start with using a 300-acre-plus campus downtown from Kitsap Street up to Strauss. That would be a good place to put homeless people … Maybe we could put them on the bike path. That’s not a serious answer, but the money is being spent on these things and if it’s not being spent, it’s being begged from the state and from the feds to do these things. And how can you worry about homelessness when you’re doggedly spending millions on these government projects [that] should be spent on the homeless …Homelessness is taking a second seat in the planning department.”

Rosapepe: “I believe that nonprofits should be taking a lead on those items. As I mentioned in the last question, we are looking at other items such as the ADUs, accessory dwelling units, and also we’re looking at the new state laws I also mentioned because they’re going to affect Port Orchard significantly. Regarding the shelter on Olympic Drive, I do support that. I do support it with the county, as long as we’re not the only location for a homeless shelter. These should be distributed throughout the county so all residents aren’t congregated in one area.”

Williams: “Well, all the tiny homes and the homelessness shelter are good and nice. The biggest problem with homelessness is not the lack of places for them to have shelter, it’s the issues that cause the homelessness, whether it’s drug use or psychiatric or whatever. We need to put our resources into solving the underlying issues first, because a lot of the homeless don’t want shelter, especially if it’s in a zero-tolerance tiny home area because of their drug or psychiatric issues. So we need to solve the underlying problems first, and then we can work towards giving them housing. We have the ability to provide them shelter; it’s whether or not they want to avail themselves of it and that’s what we have to solve first.”

As businesses prepare for a post-pandemic world, big box stores seem to be more focused on online sales rather than building new stores. What are ways the City of Port Orchard can encourage and support small businesses and other economic development?

Rosapepe: “We’re working with small businesses during the pandemic. We offered aid to small businesses to apply and help them through it. Online sales [are] part of how the city receives its money, but one of the ways we’re doing it through the lodging tax is working with several nonprofits to make sure that the city gets the word out. Why is it a good place to live and work? We want people to move here and to work here. Part of that is the development with Kitsap Bank, which will bring over 200 jobs — additional jobs — downtown. That’s people that are going to be spending money downtown and not taking it elsewhere. So we’re working with businesses both big and small for the development of the Port Orchard.”

Williams: “The pandemic and the shutdown were the largest transfer of wealth ever from the middle class to the wealthy elites. Mom and pop stores were mandated closed while Walmart and Lowe’s were allowed to stay open, even though they sold the same things. So we need to work with our small businesses, maybe provide B&O tax relief or some other tax relief or tax incentive in order to draw them to the town.”

Jones: “This one hits home. Whiskey Gulch is one of the best and busiest restaurants in this town and where was the city of Port Orchard there? … The city has bought up buildings in downtown Port Orchard. They are not a friend to small business. And that makes me choke when I hear that comment, ‘big box stores.’ Hey, they’re going to hang out on the outside of town, Lowe’s and Walmart, they’re on the outside of town. That’s fine. But the small businesses, they’re being choked out. You can’t even put a three-by-three sign on the outside of your building in downtown Port Orchard. So don’t tell me the City of Port Orchard is a friend of small business.”

How well have Port Orchard businesses and residents weathered the COVID pandemic? What could the city do to assist in their recovery? In what ways could the city encourage reluctant or hard to reachhard-to-reach populations to become vaccinated?

Williams: “Unfortunately, it’s too late for what the city could have done or should have done. The city shouldn’t have listened to Gov. Inslee when he said ‘shut down’ and went [noise of disapproval] ‘that will destroy us and our businesses.’ And that’s exactly what happened. We can try to entice them back but I don’t think a lot of them are coming back. Downtown is shop after shop of the same thing, they’ve been there for years. We need something new. Businesses along Bethel — closed. Businesses along Sedgewick — closed, out of business because the government said ‘shut down.’ As for vaccination, that is something between the person and their doctor. It’s not the government’s job or anybody else’s job to say you should get vaccinated.”

Jones: “Vaccination is a personal choice. And you can’t make people do it. If they choose to, there’s nothing anybody can do to talk them into it, other than restrictions on where they can come and go … And as far as the businesses go, being a small business owner for the last 20 years, learn to live within our budget, don’t go off on these wild, crazy ideas or bike paths and government campuses and tear down our libraries to put up a new building and tear down our historic downtown. At the current rate, we might as well burn that old historic downtown sign on the waterfront because that’s not what’s Port Orchard’s city planning department has in mind if they have their way.”

Rosapepe: “I was very pleased with what the city did for their COVID response. They encouraged people to get vaccines, follow the science, wear a mask. We followed the state law, which we are required to do. The city cannot go against state law without penalties. So we did a pretty good job with that. I wish we continued to get the word out and get more people vaccinated, voluntarily, by following the science. We had grants that went to small businesses that applied. We’re giving additional funding — allocation funding — for events that are occurring in the second half of this year to get more tourism back downtown and more businesses to reopen. So I’m pleased with what we’re doing. We can always do more, but I’m glad we’ve been moving forward.”

After our blistering heatwave a few weeks ago and horrible air quality index last summer because of wildfire smoke, more residents are concerned about the climate crisis. What actions can the city take to reduce greenhouse gases and slow climate change?

Jones: “Well, you can’t get people on a bike unless they want to be on a bike, that’s number one. Other than that, the city can certainly go to electric, Kitsap transit can go to electric vehicles. There’s not much I see where the city can do anything. There’s a half dozen people on bikes right now, and that’s about that. Electric outlets for electric cars are great. And I do know we have a few — we can increase that. Beyond that, can’t solve the world’s problem in the confines of Port Orchard city limits.”

Rosapepe: “It’s a good question. And I’ll start off by saying I wish we could always do more. We are looking at whether buildings meet LEED requirements, which helps with the environment by being environmentally friendly. We are putting in additional charging stations as Mr. Jones suggested. And when I was on the Kitsap Transit board, we did put in for more additional electric buses that you’ll see on the roads. It’s not an easy question, but we’re starting to look at what we can do with developers to save energy. Even City Hall, which will be going under an upgrade here, will be going to solar panels, which should take 75% of the electrical load off City Hall and put it towards solar.”

Williams: “While solar is all well and good, and we can provide some tax incentives for people to put them on their roofs, it’s not the end-all, be-all. As for electric charging stations, we have to determine where that power is coming from. In the Pacific Northwest, we have a lot of hydroelectric power, thankfully, but how long will that last when people want to tear down dams in the Snake River? And then with solar and wind, when the sun’s not shining and the wind’s not blowing, what is the backup power source? We have to figure that one out. I am a proponent of nuclear power. And while the city itself cannot do much, when it comes to climate change and attempting to solve it, that is a more of an individual/global thing.”