With the November general election just around the corner, Lynnwood City Council candidates attended a candidate forum Tuesday to speak about their concerns and plans for the city.
Presented by Lynnwood Today and the Lynnwood Chamber of Commerce, with support from Community Transit, the forum included the top candidates for Positions 4, 5, 6 and 7 who will appear on the Nov. 5 general election. Held in Lynnwood’s Community Life Center gymnasium, the event also allowed community members the opportunity to submit their own questions for the candidates.
Among the concerns mentioned by residents and candidates were increased taxes in Lynnwood, a high cost of living and a need for affordable housing in the city.
The forum began with two-minute opening remarks from each of the candidates. Kicking off the forum with his opening statement, Position 4 candidate Jim Smith thanked those who have supported his campaign. During his statement, Smith mentioned his concern for rising taxes — a topic that would be echoed by many of his fellow candidates during the panel. If elected, he said his focus from day one would be to reduce city taxes and fees.
“I know that through some of the years, sometimes they have been necessary,” he said. “But we’ve come to the point where we can and should re-evaluate those.”
Van AuBuchon is also running for Position 4, but he did not participate in the panel.
Position 5 candidate Julieta Altamirano-Crosby said she is seeking a council seat to help Lynnwood during a time when the city is experiencing tremendous growth. Altamirano-Crosby, who has a doctorate in social communication, said she will bring her experience as a researcher to the council to help the city address growth-related issues.
“Preparing for change is my field of expertise as a researcher,” she said. “I know how to listen and understand people’s concerns.”
Also campaigning for the Position 5 seat is David “Doc” Schirle, a podiatrist who said Lynnwood’s growth also inspired him to run for council. According to Schirle, the city is undergoing “dramatic” changes it has not experienced since the city was incorporated. He agreed with Smith that Lynnwood needs to stop increasing taxes and that before the city can grow, it needs to address its current issues like homelessness.
“We need to face those problems in a constructive manner and make some wise decisions so we can make the changes necessary,” he said.
Position 6 candidate Nick Coelho is a small business owner who is hoping to unseat incumbent George Hurst. Coelho began his remarks by recalling his work history, which began as a child growing up in Arkansas, and how he hopes his entrepreneurial work ethic can help improve the city.
“I will bring the entrepreneurial experience and small-business perspective that I have to the council,” he said.
Seeking re-election to the council’s Position 6 seat, Councilmember George Hurst said after focusing his first term on public safety, he wants to turn his attention to affordable housing. According to Hurst, the city needs to provide “missing middle” housing (see more about that here) with city code and zoning amendments. During his time on the council, Hurst said he has advocated for conservative spending and will continue to do so if re-elected.
“I have voted very much against budgets that increase taxes and I just would very much appreciate your vote as I seek re-election in November,” he said.
Also seeking to return to her council seat is Position 7 incumbent Shannon Sessions, who said her unique professional and personal experiences are her greatest asset as a community leader. During her remarks, Sessions cited experience on the council — including serving as its vice president — that makes her “a discerning, authentic leader.”
“I am wholly invested in the well-being for all in Lynnwood’s fast-growing vibrant and diverse community,” she said.
Also vying for the Position 7 seat is Councilmember Shirley Sutton, who currently holds Council Position 4, but instead chose to file for Position 7 against Sessions. Sutton said her more than 20 years of experience working with Fortune 500 companies gives her insight into how to benefit the community. She said her experiences will allow her to help resolve issues the city faces, like homelessness.
“Helping foster peer programs with the homeless is not only the way to better the community, it also makes sense to direct those in need to the right program,” she said.
Top concerns of Lynnwood businesses
Taking the first question of the evening was Smith, who was asked what he thought the top concerns businesses in the city are facing. Restating his opening remarks, Smith said rising city-imposed taxes and fees are always a concern for business owners.
“Businesses actually pay a lot of taxes in Lynnwood, even without the additional fee every year for their business licenses,” he said.
With local businesses bringing jobs and economic stimulation to the city, Smith said the city should make it easier for businesses to operate.
During his response, Schirle agreed that taxes are the number-one concern for businesses. Schirle pointed out that at 10.5%, the city’s sales tax is higher than other area cities, including Seattle and Bellevue. He also cited road conditions and public safety as business concerns.
Speaking to the same question, Altamirano-Crosby spoke about the city’s growth and how it needs leadership that could effectively manage it. She said the city would be able to accommodate growth by working with agencies at the local, county and state levels.
“We have to be aware that Lynnwood is a diverse city, so we have to be prepared for that,” she said.
According to Hurst, the top concern for businesses now is transportation. With the arrival of Sound Transit’s Lynnwood Link light rail extension in 2024, the city is preparing for increased traffic with projects like widening 196th Street Southwest and 44th Avenue West.
“I think we need to educate the business owners that this is going to happen, and this could be an impact on them,” he said.
Additionally, Hurst said communication between business and the city is important and added that lately, businesses are also being affected by homelessness.
Unlike other candidates, Coelho said the city’s sales tax is not a major worry for businesses. As a business owner, Coelho cited labor shortages due to the Lynnwood’s high cost of living and lack of affordable housing as major issues. According to Coelho, business owners are looking at wage increases so employees can afford to live in the city they work in.
“The cost of living is spiking right now and it’s not because of the price of milk and the cost of energy,” he said. “It’s the cost of housing.”
After her time on the council, Sutton said that she believes the city needs to be more inclusive with its diverse community.
“As a community activist, I’m really sensitive to small businesses,” she said. “Minority businesses are generally the ones that don’t have the support that they need to be successful.”
Sessions listed safety, accessibility and ways of engaging new customers as business concerns. If re-elected, Sessions said she would continue to advocate working with businesses and other experts to ensure that Lynnwood businesses grow.
“I’m advocating for businesses and developments that want to enhance and be part of a robust, vibrant community and City Center (district),” she said. “A place we can gather, engage and be proud of while still protecting our already-established neighborhoods.”
A question submitted by an audience member asked the candidates how they would work to prevent Seattle’s growing homelessness problem from coming to Lynnwood. Candidate Jim Smith agreed that the concern was a pressing one and the city should start by clearly identifying the situation. Pointing to Seattle, Smith said the concern is “street people,” which he said is often a result of drug addiction.
“We need to be working to help these people get off the drugs,” he said. “We need to be doing more to give them opportunities.”
While addressing the issue, Smith said the answer may lie in “tough love” when helping those who are homeless due to drug addiction.
Altamirano-Crosby said she would rely on her experience as a researcher to first identify the issue behind homelessness. According to Altamirano-Crosby, there are several reasons people become homeless, including drug addiction, mental health issues, unemployment and crippling debt caused by medical bills.
“As regional leaders, we have to bring together this need for solutions,” she said.
Schirle said he believes the word “homeless” is incorrectly used to describe other issues, like drug addiction, mental health issues and those who are “truly homeless” because of financial reasons.
“Each of those requires its own particular plan of action,” he said.
Coelho agreed that when addressing homelessness, the city needs to clearly identify what it is they are dealing with. Additionally, Coelho pointed out that the number of those homeless in Seattle is four times greater than those who are homeless in all of Snohomish County.
“We need to recognize that we don’t have a giant crisis on our hands here, but we do have people that need help,” he said. “As a city, there’s only so much we can do, but what we do well, we should emphasize.”
During his response, Coelho voiced his support for the Lynnwood Police Department hiring a full-time social worker to work with the homeless, as well as the future civic justice center as ways to address homelessness.
Hurst agreed the addition of a full-time police social worker was a step in the right direction, but the city should take more immediate action.
“It’s more about resources and having places for people to go like detox centers,” he said.
Hurst then pointed out he helped to pass a neighborhood parking permit ordinance that he said was intended to stop campers from parking RVs in neighborhoods.
As an advocate for the city’s compassion with boundaries philosophy, Sessions said she wants to work to help those who are homeless by removing barriers, while still setting boundaries with law enforcement.
“This isn’t just a police responsibility by the way, but also our city departments and you, our community members,” she said. “More than ever, we need our general public to be aware and educated so you can be part of the solution.”
Before addressing the homelessness issue, Sutton said it is important for the city to also prioritize other issues like safety. After working for more than 25 years with the homeless, Sutton said it is better to look for long-term solutions instead of temporary ones.
“I think we need to use more of a philosophy of doing wrap-around services to help everyone that needs this kind of help,” she said.
Lynnwood Link light rail and traffic congestion
Next, the candidates were asked about how they would answer concerns from community members who believe that when Lynnwood Link light rail arrives, traffic and parking in surrounding neighborhoods will be severely impacted. Though the city has been working to prepare for light rail, Smith said the city could do more in anticipation for the arrival of light rail.
“I think we’re going to have to be very diligent,” he said. “I don’t have the answer right off hand, but I think we’re going to have to be working on that now, as opposed to just letting light rail be built.”
With light rail already on its way, Schirle said there was no real solution to resolve all traffic-related concerns. However, he said the city should work with the county and state to improve the roads to accommodate the traffic light rail will bring. Additionally, he said the extra 500 parking spots to be added at the Lynnwood light rail station will not be enough to accommodate the estimated 18,000 daily riders.
“We need to be talking to the people that are doing the planning,” he said. “I plan on doing that and advocating for a more realistic approach to how we’re going to deal with moving people to the rail.”
Though growth can be intimidating for some, Altamirano-Crosby said light rail and the accompanying growth will be an opportunity for the city. She said that the city would benefit by electing responsible leadership.
“It is a challenging time for Lynnwood residents, but I think the light rail is going to bring opportunities,” she said. “This is an opportunity.”
Hurst agreed with Schirle that light rail will have a huge impact and added that with the addition of Community Transit’s future Swift Orange Line service beginning in 2024, the light rail station will see high traffic volumes.
“Community Transit is not going to go into Seattle anymore,” he said. “Their job is to get people into the light rail station.”
According to Coelho, one way to address light rail-related traffic congestion would be to make Lynnwood more pedestrian-friendly, by encouraging more people to use fewer cars. He pointed to the City Center district — the city’s designated downtown, regional growth center — as an opportunity to begin designing more urbanized neighborhoods complete with grocery stores and things people enjoy doing within walking distance.
“If we can plan complete neighborhoods, we can keep cars off the roads, both going to work and living and playing in Lynnwood,” he said.
Though she admitted there was no way to eliminate traffic issues, Sutton proposed including one-way streets, which she said would help reduce traffic congestion.
“I think there’s ways we can make less impact with getting people out of their cars,” she said.
During her response, Sessions said the city has been undergoing strategic preparation for years in anticipation of light rail, like the 196th Street widening project and adding new streets.
“The City Center plan and light rail plan has a big focus on multi-modal transportation,” she said. “So that we’re not needing vehicles to travel, but we’re also making it pedestrian safe and friendly.”
The top issue facing Lynnwood
Council candidates were then asked to describe the top issue facing the city and how they planned to address it.
Smith restated residents’ concerns regarding high city-imposed taxes. Smith conceded that there is no feasible way to remove all of Lynnwood’s taxes and fees, but he said city officials could start by cutting expenses.
“It’s going to have to be something we sit down and work together on,” he said. “We need to collaborate.”
While doorbelling for her campaign, Altamirano-Crosby said public safety was a top concern from residents. If elected, Altamirano-Crosby said she would rely on her experience working with law enforcement to reduce youth crime, address domestic violence issues and promote internet safety.
“This is just to name a few issues in which I have experience,” she said.
Like Smith, Schirle agreed that high taxes were the number-one concern he heard from residents. According to Schirle, the city has gone from a $98 million budget to $113 million since 2015. If elected, he said he would advocate for controlling city spending.
“I don’t believe we’re going to be able to cut taxes,” he said. “I don’t think the council will cut taxes, but what we need to do is to control our spending.”
With the city’s rising cost of living, Coelho cited displacement as the city’s top issue. Coelho pointed out that 50% of Lynnwood residents are renters, including himself.
“I’m a renter and I know what they’re going through,” he said. “I’ve been through displacement in Seattle and I’ve seen how it can completely change the characteristics of neighborhoods and parts of cities.”
If elected, Coelho said he would advocate for adopting an affordable housing strategy, relaxing zoning laws and planning for more density.
While citing concerns from residents about high taxes, Hurst pointed out that since 2014, the council has raised taxes and fees eight times. According to Hurst, city-imposed taxes are driving people out of Lynnwood.
“I think what we need to look at is never has the city had more revenue coming in, but never have we spent so much money,” he said.
Sessions said that in addition to public safety, streets and sewers are top concerns for any city, and affordable housing is also a key issue.
“I’m in favor of more low-income housing, more condos, more missing middle, more market rate and more senior housing,” she said. “We need all kinds of housing in Lynnwood and a variety of it.”
Additionally, Sessions said the city has been working on ways to incentivize developers to bring more affordable housing to Lynnwood. However, she clarified that she was not in favor of requiring developers to include affordable housing units in their developments.
Sutton conceded that while taxes are inevitable, the city could find ways to reduce spending. She said that finding areas in the budget to cut would be better for residents than continuing to raise taxes.
“That’s not the way a community should be treated,” she said.
Sutton also advocated for more community events to promote citizen social interaction.
What to do about taxes
Next, candidates were asked how they would be prepared, if elected, to address high taxes. Smith said the answer is collaboration. He pointed out that the majority of the candidates agreed something needed to be done about taxes and that collaboration is needed on the council.
“Taxes can be reduced if we work on where our spending is going,” he said.
While doorbelling for her campaign, Altamirano-Crosby said she was asked by multiple residents if she would promise to lower taxes if she was elected.
“My answer was, and is, I cannot promise anything like that,” she said. “But I can commit myself to advocate for you at the local and state level.”
Though the city might not have control over the state or county taxes, the council can control the city’s sales and property taxes. However, he said the city cannot hope to cut taxes before cutting expenses.
“My plan is to keep us at the $113 million — maybe $114 million — and not allow the growth of our government anymore,” he said. “That will help us to, at some point, cut taxes.”
Hurst said his hope for this election was to bring new councilmembers who will help control taxes.
“We have to have some control,” he said. “And I think we have to work together with people to do that.”
Instead of cutting taxes, Coelho said he believes residents have more concerns with wasteful spending. He added that once the city can identify wasteful spending, city staff can begin to reduce taxes.
“In government, unfortunately there’s waste,” he said. “But what you can do is be vigilant.”
In addition to becoming more conservative with spending, Sutton said the city needs to be more inventive with how it generates money without taxing residents.
“I think if I went over my budget every month, I would have a problem with understanding and prioritizing,” she said. “And I think that sometimes happens with cities and they get themselves in trouble.”
Sessions agreed that collaboration is important when trying to control spending. If re-elected, Sessions said she would continue to ensure good fiscal management by planning for outcome-oriented budgeting, avoid increasing ongoing expenditures, and support Lynnwood business and the expansion of Alderwood Mall.
Lynnwood’s greatest strength
Candidates were then asked to name what they believe the city’s greatest strength or quality is. Smith said Lynnwood’s greatest strength has always been its sense of community. Though the country is divided in many areas today, Smith said that Lynnwood residents still care about each other and their community.
“Lynnwood is a caring community,” he said. “It has always been growing, it has always been improving as far as how the people of Lynnwood treat each other.”
Altamirano-Crosby said Lynnwood is a welcoming city that is filled with opportunities.
“I see this plan that is coming for growth is full of amazing opportunities,” she said.
Additionally, Altamirano-Crosby said the city’s location near Interstate 5 and Seattle is ideal for further opportunities.
Lynnwood’s rural feeling, which has been attracting families migrating from Seattle, is one of the city’s greatest qualities, Schirle said. With the city’s trees, green zones and parks, residents do not have to worry about being around too much concrete, he added.
“Somehow I hope that we’ll be able to maintain that rural feeling that this isn’t the big concrete town,” he said.
According to Coelho, inclusiveness and volunteer opportunities in the city are Lynnwood’s greatest strengths, which he said was a big change from Seattle. He said opportunities like Lynnwood University and Citizen’s Academy are rewarding experiences for residents to learn about their community and how their tax dollars are being spent.
“The civic engagement and activating of our citizens, I want to encourage and advocate for that,” he said.
Like Altamirano-Crosby, Hurst said the city’s location was one of its greatest strengths.
“We have an opportunity to be a regional model for Snohomish County,” he said.
Though the city has many strengths, Sessions said she was proud of the work the city has done to make Lynnwood a veteran-friendly city through efforts like the monthly Hero’s Cafe, Verdant’s Veterans One-Stop Resource Center and the Veterans Museum.
“I look forward to talking to you more about a veterans’ center in the future,” she said.
Since moving to the city in 2001, Sutton said she has found Lynnwood has always been a caring city with welcoming people.
“Living here for 19 years, I still love living here,” she said.
In turn, Sutton welcomed community members to attend the council’s Monday night city council meetings at Lynnwood City Hall.
Affordable housing in Lynnwood
Next, the candidates were asked what plans they had to bring affordable housing to the city. According to Smith, the city has been struggling with affordable housing for 25 years. He added that affordable housing has different meanings for different people.
“Affordable housing is a whole discussion in itself and affordable housing that someone can afford is two different things,” he said.
Schirle agreed with Smith that affordable housing has different meanings for everyone. Though he said the city might not be able to control housing prices, the council can work to ensure city regulations do not get in the way of bringing more affordable housing to Lynnwood.
“The best thing the city can do is get out of the way, by way of regulations and limiting making it tougher to build houses here,” he said.
Altamirano-Crosby called affordable housing a multi-faced issue and while the city has a need for more affordable housing, she said the council should work to protect property values for its residents.
“We need to start by identifying those residential areas and zoning where affordable housing can be developed,” she said.
Hurst repeated the city’s need to define low-income and affordable housing. According to Hurst, the latest housing developments in the city are valued at upwards from $700,000.
“What we need is to be able to build the missing middle,” he said. “The houses that maybe a first-time buyer or a senior citizen that wants to downsize can afford and these are just not being built in our city.”
Coelho suggested adjusting zoning laws and the city’s permitting process to accommodate more housing options of all kinds. However, he added that the city needs a public policy approach to affordable housing. Coelho proposed working with newly-established state laws to find ways to generate revenue and offer incentives to developers to bring affordable housing to the city.
Unless Lynnwood can spend time identifying areas of improvement in the city’s salary structure, Sutton said some residents will continue to work multiple jobs to afford housing. Additionally, she proposed working with neighboring cities to establish villages for people struggling to afford housing.
Sessions pointed out that many of the councilmembers of have been educating themselves on how to bring affordable housing to the city. She repeated her support for incentivizing developers to include affordable housing units in future developments.
“I’m in favor of a variety of housing, including low-income,” she said. “But we also need to find ways to incorporate and create an enterprise opportunity for these families in the downtown core.”
Supporting the LBGTQ+ community
When asked why the LGBTQ+ community should vote for him, Smith said all communities should look at who will treat them fairly.
“I think that if you have someone from that community that comes up to me and asks if they’re going to be treated fairly — absolutely,” he said. “We shouldn’t be treating anyone differently than anyone else.”
As a member of the city’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Commission, Altamirano-Crosby said she works with many people from multicultural communities.
Schirle said that as American citizens protected by the U.S. Constitution, everyone should be awarded the same equal opportunities afforded to them.
“We all have the rights to expect a government that responds to us and to our needs as human beings and I will continue to fight for every voter in Lynnwood,” he said.
Coelho spoke about his continued support for the LGBTQ+ community through his business, which hosts annual LGBTQ+ Pride events and monthly LGBTQ+ game nights. Additionally, Coelho said he is always learning about the community and the city could as well.
“I think I will be an advocate for elevating these voices in our community and making sure they feel welcome,” he said.
Like Schirle, Hurst said he would protect the rights of all citizens under the Washington state and U.S. constitutions.
“I don’t think that in this city, we can stand for any type of discrimination,” he said.
In her time on the council, Sessions said she has supported resolutions to build more trust between the city and diverse communities. She also said she advocated for diversity and equity training.
“I will also continue to support our human resources department as they find creative ways and meaningful ways to engage future employees who look more like the people we serve,” she said.
As a supporter of the LGBTQ+ community, Sutton said the issue is personal to her and her family. Additionally, Sutton said she has developed good-standing relationships with LGBTQ+ community members at the local and state levels.
“The city has a ‘no hate’ motto and I think that’s something I will live and die for,” she said.
Protecting single-family neighborhoods
The evening’s final question asked what candidates would do to protect single-family neighborhoods as Lynnwood continues to grow. If elected, Smith said as the city welcomes new people, a priority should be protecting the residents who were already here.
“We need to be doing more to keep the people that live here and make sure they can stay here,” he said. “I think that should be the highest priority of the council, no matter who gets elected.”
Schirle repeated his concerns that high taxes will drive out residents, as well as concerns for public safety. Also, Schirle said the city’s growth needs to be properly managed or Lynnwood risks being becoming overrun with apartment complexes like Bellevue.
Altamirano-Crosby said she would work to identify the needs of single-family homeowners to ensure they are being met. If elected, she said she would continue to reach out to the community, even if it means going door to door.
“As a researcher that’s what I do,” she said. “I’ll go to the community, identify their needs and develop the proper programs.”
Ensuring residents are not burdened by high property taxes is a priority when retaining residents, Hurst said. He went on to say that the city should make sure the city is still affordable for senior citizens. Hurst suggested the city should review its codes regarding accessory dwelling units (ADUs) — like mother-in-law cottages — that can be used as affordable housing alternatives for senior citizens.
“We do need to look at our zones and codes to make sure we’re protecting those (people),” he said.
Coelho said the city should be proactive in achieving density where it can. Having more apartment complexes does not mean that those will be developed in single-family neighborhoods, Coelho said. However, he suggested that apartments could be concentrated along Highway 99 and the city’s designated downtown City Center district.
“Let’s be proactive, let’s collaborate with council to formulate a plan and let’s densify where we can,” he said.
If re-elected, Sutton said she would advocate for higher living wages for residents. According to Sutton, residents leaving the city are doing so because they cannot afford to live in Lynnwood anymore. She repeated her support for reviewing the city’s salary structure as well as the city’s codes and zoning laws.
“People work really hard for what they have,” she said.
Crediting former city councilmembers, Sessions said the city was intentionally designed by them with Lynnwood’s single-family neighborhoods in mind.
“That was purposeful, even back then, to protect those established neighborhoods,” she said. “I thank them for that.”
According to Sessions, it was also former councilmembers who laid the groundwork for the City Center district and designated downtown core.
In his closing remarks, Smith thanked voters for their support in the primary election.
“In this election, experience does matter,” he said. “As resident for 47 years, as a small business owner, I have a proven record of accomplishments in our community.”
If elected, Altamirano-Crosby said she hopes to represent the voters’ voices as she advocates for the community.
“I would be honored if you, the people of Lynnwood, chose me to represent our city,” she said.
During his closing remarks, Schirle repeated concerns he heard from residents while he was doorbelling for his campaign. Additionally, residents have told him they feel the city is not doing its job to properly serve the community.
“The job as I see it of Lynnwood City Council — or any city council — is to hear the people, represent the people and get things done,” he said.
Coelho said as a millennial, he hopes to bring a fresh perspective to the city council.
“You may have noticed that I’ve been saying something different than a lot of the people on stage today,” he said. “That’s because I recognize that we need representation that’s forward-looking,” he said.
Hurst began by thanking his wife for enduring another campaign and said that if re-elected, he would continue to practice fiscal restraint. He also added that the solution to homelessness is not filling apartment complexes but allowing people the chance to own homes in the city.
“We just need to be able to get that missing middle in here,” he said.
Sessions began by thanking her supporters, including her mother, and went on to point out that the city has many dynamic issues and future opportunities.
“We need to be sure that leaders we elect help guide us and are truly qualified to do so,” she said. “And are able to work as a positive team, locally and regionally.”
As the city moves into a new decade, Sutton said the city needs leadership, vision and commitment to back the city’s economic and safety needs. She took the opportunity to restate her support for first responders who she said have faced budget cuts.
“Now that we are able to rebuild the ranks of our first responders, we must make public safety a priority.”
Sutton ended her closing remarks by stating if re-elected, she would advocate for bringing Christmas lights back to Lynnwood City Hall and Wilcox Park, which was met with some applause.
A full video of the Lynnwood City Council general election candidate forum will be posted soon on Lynnwood Today.
–Story and photos by Cody Sexton