Q&A with Mayor Erickson

Mayor answers questions about her run for Legislature, city growth, commercial code changes and more

POULSBO — Becky Erickson has served the Viking City as mayor since 2010, and before that, she sat on the City Council.

When her current term expires at the end of 2021, Erickson said she will not be running for re-election. The mayor did, however, recently announce her candidacy for a legislative seat, representing Washington’s 23rd District.

On Monday, June 25, the Herald’s senior staff writer, Nick Twietmeyer, sat down for a one-on-one chat with Erickson, covering everything from her candidacy, to current and future challenges facing the city.

Nick Twietmeyer [NT]: Since becoming mayor, what are the three things you are most proud of accomplishing?

Becky Erickson [BE]: “Liberty Bay. Liberty Bay now is cleaner than it was in 1970. It was a huge amount of work, with multiple agencies but I was deeply involved in that from the very beginning in 2010 after I was elected mayor. Huge accomplishment and I’m very, very proud of the work that we all did. I pushed very hard for something called microbial source tracking, which at the time was not a commonly used technique. Now they use it all the time to identify where the fecal coliform is coming from so we can use the appropriate tools. Very proud of that work.”

“Number two, the revitalization of downtown Viking Avenue. When I took office in 2010, we were in the middle of the worst recession in a lifetime. In February of 2010, there were 13 empty storefronts on Viking Avenue, I counted them … The town, from a financial standpoint, was in a huge mess. We had just assumed the debt of the new City Hall construction and our cash flow was falling like a stone. I came into office and had to make some very hard decisions about reducing staffing and beginning the revitalization efforts, both in the downtown and on Viking Avenue. Now, eight years later, the town is vibrantly alive, business is coming in all the time. Viking Avenue, especially, is amazing how it’s been transformed in the last four or five years. Very, very proud of that.”

“The third thing is something that’s not commonly known. The staff at the City of Poulsbo has been restructured. The relationship and how the staff works with one another to provide immediate goods and services to the citizens is very different than it was in 2010. We do not have a public works director any longer. We have a director of engineering and we have a public works superintendent. Those two groups have been separated so that the engineering does engineering and is concentrating on grant applications and the design of the work that’s going on in the city. Public Works is keeping the wheels on the bus, making sure that whatever pieces are in the city are well-maintained. By separating them, they are concentrating on their own spheres that they know best … It is not a particularly exciting idea to a lot of people, but it is absolutely essential to have a staff that is structured in an appropriate way, filling in those holes in the relationship between the staff.”

“I have to add a fourth — before I came on board as a mayor, we really didn’t have any social services in the city of Poulsbo. We had a little, tiny food bank on Third Avenue and we didn’t have any outreach to our more vulnerable populations. That has come 180 degrees, where we have our mental health services that we offer, where we have supported as Fishline has grown in order to provide those social services. Bringing in Coffee Oasis, the transitional housing at Nelson Park, all of those pieces were something that came from the mayor’s office, almost exclusively.”

NT: What are the three most challenging issues you’ve faced during your time as mayor?

BE: “The same things. It’s the same things of making sure we have strong fiscal policies within the city. In other words, we’re very conservative about how we handle cash within the City of Poulsbo and that allows us to fund the important pieces of the Liberty Bay cleanup, making sure that goods and services are delivered appropriately and allowed us to concentrate our efforts in rebuilding our business economy within the city. The three biggest challenges were also the three biggest successes.”

NT: What do you see as Poulsbo’s biggest challenge in the next three years?

BE: “Growth. Growth and growth and growth and everything that comes with growth. The balancing act between growing, being financially secure as a community, versus what comes with growth — congestion, no parking, all of those structural pieces. How do we keep the town quaint and vibrant, and yet allow it to grow? It’s a huge balancing act and it’s very difficult to do. So far, I think we’re being successful. Like a hawk, I watch each development come in, we push them hard for the kind of amenities that we need, we’re very careful about how we grow. But the fact remains, we are growing and there are more people moving here because it is a really nice place to live. As long as it stays a nice place to live, which is what we’re trying to do, it will continue to attract people … Very, very strict standards about what we want to see in Poulsbo with regard to growth. What do our houses look like? How does our construction occur? Making sure that we provide the infrastructure that’s necessary as we grow.”

NT: Doesn’t it stand to reason that the more restrictions that are placed on growth in a given area, the more growth will be staunched in that area?

BE: “Actually, it’s almost directly opposite. The more restrictive you are, the more clear and clean you make those parameters, you build certainty for the development community and it actually entices growth. One of the things that I found really interesting, I did a lot of research on impact fees. The cities that have large impact fees actually experience more growth. The reason being is even though they have to write big checks when they come in the door, that provides certainty about things like infrastructure. The other thing it does is it pumps money into the city from the development community which we take and use to make the city nicer. It becomes more and more attractive, it’s a conundrum. It’s a very difficult challenge. We believe that growth should pay for growth. We charge large impact fees, we take those impact fees and we dedicate them towards parks, schools, roads, sewer, water, all of those things which make our community better and making it better actually makes it more attractive. It’s very hard to balance. The most important thing we can do is establish good standards and stick to them. Build great code and enforce it, that way everyone knows what the rules are and through that code, we can keep our communities safe.”

NT: The city recently worked to clear two apparent homeless encampments, with the city’s population expected to rise significantly in the coming years. What is Poulsbo doing to address the issue of homelessness?

BE: “I will be presenting in August an affordable housing plan. The Commerce Department for the state of Washington came out and said that the best way to decrease homelessness is by providing affordable housing. There is a new study that was adopted by the county — it’s their Homeless Housing Plan — it states very clearly in there that we need to provide more affordable housing and that reduces homelessness. Immediately, we need to do sheltering opportunities, meaning not building shelters, but already at Fishline they give out hotel vouchers and reach out to folks that are struggling. We already have that in place here in Poulsbo.

The reality of it is we need places for our young people and for our people living on fixed incomes to live. The affordability in North Kitsap, affordability everywhere, has gotten to be a huge problem and we need more affordable housing. We need the shelter piece, which is the hotel vouchers, but then we need inexpensive — meaning by income standards — places where people can rent. We also need to provide places where people can buy on middle-income wages, so we need that spectrum. Then we need the supportive housing for people that we will always have to support, those that are disabled, the truly vulnerable populations. We actually already have a lot of that in Poulsbo. Hostmark Apartments is a classic example, but there are huge waiting lists, so we need to provide more of those. That’s a state question and a county-wide question. We do not have the financial capacity internally in the city to support that kind of housing, we just don’t have it, we’re not big enough. State and county should provide resources to build what’s called supportive housing, housing that has subsidized incomes for people that will never really be able to take care of themselves.”

NT: What about those who would argue that by casting a wider net, you will attract those who wouldn’t otherwise qualify for affordable or supportive housing?

BE: “I think there’s a certain truth to that. That’s why you have to have really good income criteria and they need to be well managed by experts, which is something that we don’t have internally to the city, that’s another reason why it should be a county and state function.”

NT: The meeting agendas for the Poulsbo Port Commission now carry an ongoing item that focuses on the shallowing of Liberty Bay, believed to be the result of silt and other sedimentary deposition. If it were proposed by the port, would you be in favor of dredging the bay in order to deepen the areas that have become so shallow as to only permit shallow draft boats?

BE: “This has been an ongoing issue and it’s an issue for the port to figure out with the [Washington] State Department of Ecology, the tribal governments and the Department of Natural Resources. This is not a city issue. It has been an ongoing issue for years; the bay has always been muddy. I’ve been hearing about silting forever. The port keeps kind of kicking the can here a little bit. They need to come out with a firm proposal about what their expectations are and then I can make a response to it. I’m not going to respond to, ‘Oh gee, we need to dredge the bay,’ what are you talking about, really? What does that mean? They have yet to come out with a firm proposal on what that really means. Are they talking about just a little here? Are they talking about interior to the marina? Until they draft that and give us specific information about what they mean, I don’t feel it appropriate to make any comment.”

NT: Poulsbo is currently in the process of updating its commercial district codes. In your mind, what are the most important characteristics or aspects to pay attention to in trying to preserve the character of Poulsbo?

BE: “Height limit, design review standards and where we’re going to allow residential populations. Those are the three. The current proposal that’s coming forward out of the Planning Commission [and] that the council is deliberating on now, was to lower the potential height limit from 40 to 35 feet. Right now, it’s 45 feet with under-structure parking. It should be lowered to 35 feet, that’s what the Planning Commission said.

Number two, how do we handle mixed use in the downtown core. Mixed-use, meaning, where do residential populations live and how is that configured into our code? Do we want residential populations in downtown, or do we not? The third question is the design character of what’s happening in our downtown. Design character means Scandinavian influence — do we have pitched roofs? Color scheme, all of those pieces that come with what the buildings look like. Bottom line, what we’re trying to do is keep our downtown small-scaled and quaint. It’s important that we do that. The recommendations coming out of the Planning Commission, I think, did a pretty good job of it.

I don’t know where the council’s going to end up with this, they’ve been deliberating back and forth. I do know, however, that if you reduce the scale too low, you make the buildings too small, you take away a lot of the financial incentive for reinvestment [and] you have to be very careful of that. We have traditionally always targeted that 35-foot level. I think that that’s a good height, 35 feet is about three stories. The last building that really typified this is Boomer’s Pet [Boutique], which is now closed, but that’s a 35-foot building. It’s very small, it fits right inside the downtown frontage. It’s a beautiful little building and works very well in our downtown. I think that’s kind of what we’re trying to attract, that small-scale quaintness. That’s what the changes that came out of the Planning Commission were addressing.”

NT: When you asked for a raise earlier this year, for yourself and for Judge Jeffrey Tolman, you cited as one of your reasons the increased demands of the position as mayor. In a Facebook post, you said, “There is no raise. By delaying the vote to the budget cycle, there will be no raise for the mayor or the judge. The good news? No more 60 hours a week. I get my life back.” I take this to mean that you will not continue to put forth the same effort as you have in the past. Is this true? What was meant by this?

BE: “I think probably the best way to put this is when I became mayor in 2010, we cut our staff and the things that occurred I did almost independently. I became a worker and a mayor, taking on huge projects: stormwater, revitalization of Viking Avenue, mental health, all of those and I did those myself. Those projects are now completed. The question is do I take on more projects like that? I’m a workaholic, I readily have been all my life. If something comes that I think is really critical for the city, of course, I’m going to engage in that. On the other hand, the 60-hour weeks need to be cut back some, especially because I’m headed for the state Legislature. I see the state legislature as one of those projects.

I’m very project-oriented, I take on projects and I set them up, I work on them, provide resources to them and move them forward. All of the goals established by the council, I think it was in 2013, they’ve all been met. All those projects, all those ideas that they came up with, they’ve been accomplished, so now it’s for me to decide and the council to decide which projects they want to be done in the future. No, it doesn’t mean I’m going to be ratcheting back my work effort, it means that I work a lot more efficiently now than I did in 2010. I know more, I understand processes more. I understand that the projects that are necessary aren’t so overwhelming. The city was in trouble in 2010, we’re not in trouble now. I feel like I have more time.

NT: You said that if you are elected to represent Washington’s 23rd Legislative District, you would not step down as mayor. If the increased duties and demanding hours associated with your position as mayor were contributing factors in your request for a raise, how do you intend to juggle both the duties of a mayor and the demands of an odd-year legislative session?

BE: “The raise was not part of that decision — well, that’s not really true — what it said to me is I don’t have to do the huge projects that I’ve been doing, therefore I have more time, so my project then became the Legislature. What I don’t think a lot of people understand is the Legislature is a part-time institution. It either runs 105 or 60 days, depending on which year of the biennium. It was constitutionally designed to be part-time. It starts in January, ends sometime in the spring. It is 50 miles to Olympia, it’s not like I’m trying to go to Spokane.

I think really the most important thing is there’s a natural linkage because there are so many things that come from Olympia that impact us at the local level, and some of them are not handled well and we end up picking up the pieces at the local end. A voice from a mayor who’s actually had to make city government work would be incredibly valuable there. Classic example: there was a bill coming through this last year that wanted a complete breakdown of every piece of all utility taxes charged on the bill when you got it in the mail. Sounds like a really good idea — they wouldn’t allow us to hand it out in a slip, it had to be printed in the bill. What they didn’t understand by initiating that legislation is that every computer system in every utility company would have had to have been reprogrammed, which would’ve been millions and millions of dollars. It could’ve easily been done by putting an information slip in the bill, but that’s not what the legislation said. That’s the kind of thing that I’m talking about. They go kind of sideways sometimes. I can be a voice that understands [and explains], ‘Well, that’s not going to work because you didn’t think about this, this and this.’ I bring on-the-ground knowledge of state legislation.”

NT: Did you vote in the last election?

BE: “Absolutely.”

NT: Which party did you register under?

BE: “I’m not registered.”

NT: I think you know what I’m getting at here. Some have expressed their concern that you haven’t declared a party affiliation in your run for the state Legislature. How do you respond to those people?

BE: “I am an independent. I think that both of our political parties are very extreme right now and I’m a moderate. It’s very difficult for me to find a home in either party. Additionally, I am a mayor, which is a non-partisan position, it’s kind of hard for me to be a nonpartisan during the day and a Democrat or a Republican at night — sounds a little hypocritical to me. No, I am nonpartisan, I’m a moderate and you know what? The vast majority of people out there are, too.”

NT: I wonder if people find it difficult to decide how they can vote for someone, without an understanding of a candidate’s party affiliation. I think that might make some folks nervous.

BE: “It could. My job is to get the information out there about the things that I believe and that’s what I’m trying to do. I also have 10 years of elected experience in the City of Poulsbo, regionally and statewide that people can check about what I believe and what I do. I am not a vacuum of information, there’s a lot of information out there about who I am and what I do. I am a moderate, I’m a pragmatist, I believe in getting things done and moving policy issues forward so that people actually receive the goods and services that they’re paying government to provide. I’ve done that successfully for a long time in Poulsbo. Does that make me a Democrat or a Republican? Frankly, I don’t care. We need people to provide solutions, not rhetoric.”

NT: Do you really think you can handle the workload?

BE: “Sure. I’ve always worked 60-70 hours a week all my life. One of the things that I haven’t really discussed is my children are all gone now. When I first started politics, I still had children at home. I’m not worried about that at all, I can juggle the workload, I’ve done it all my life. I put myself through college, I worked full-time and went to the University of Washington, so all my life I’ve worked those hours. I’m an intensely curious person and I want to find out and I want to understand and I want to do things. I don’t just talk about it, I do things … What made me decide to do this was the Public Records Act. The state Legislature cannot continue to work in secret. This is wrong, it goes against everything I believe about who we are as a people, how representative democracy should work. They’ve exempted themselves from the Public Records Act, they’ve exempted themselves from the Open Public Meetings Act. I’ve been getting a lot of questions about who I’m going to caucus with. Have you ever thought about the concept of caucusing? They all get into a room and shut the doors and that’s where they talk. What if we tried to do that in the City of Poulsbo? It’s wrong. It’s wrong for all of us and it needs to stop.”

*Editors note: An earlier version of this story mistakenly referred to the mayor’s run for state Legislature as a run for state Senate.

— Nick Twietmeyer is a reporter with Kitsap News Group. Nick can be reached at ntwietmeyer@soundpublishing.com.