Are this year's Mercer Island City Council races a referendum on change? Three candidates, all newcomers, say the council is not responsive...

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Are this year’s Mercer Island City Council races a referendum on change?

Three candidates, all newcomers, say the council is not responsive enough to its citizens. Lisa Belden O’Meara, Bob Baker and Brenda Finkenbinder all say the city would benefit from putting more island issues to a vote.

Two incumbents and one other newcomer champion the council’s recent accomplishments. Dan Grausz and Jim Pearman say the Mercer Island Community Center and the agreement reached with regional partners for protection of high-occupancy vehicle access on I-90 are examples of how current leadership is moving the city forward.

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Another candidate, Mike Grady, says he wants to protect park and school investments the city already has made. His endorsement by outgoing Mayor Alan Merkle has some saying this is a three-on-three race, with Grady and the incumbents making up one side of a ticket, versus three challengers looking to change the makeup of the council.

All of the candidates deny being part of a ticket, but even they acknowledge it could appear that way.

“We’re not a ticket, but there are a lot of parallels in who supports different candidates,” said Grausz.

Lisa Belden O’Meara, 54

Occupation: attorney

Personal: married; two children

Background: founder and chair of Save MI HOV, a group petitioning to maintain Mercer Island’s access to the I-90 HOV lanes

Top three endorsements: state Attorney General Rob McKenna; 1999 citizen of the year Ira B. Appelman; former Mayor and state Sen. Jim Horn

Campaign Web site:

Dan Grausz, 53

Occupation: senior vice president of operations for Holland America Cruise Lines

Personal: married; two children

Background: current city councilman (elected in 1999); law degree from University of Pennsylvania and MBA from the Wharton School

Top three endorsements: Mercer Island Fire Fighters; state Rep. Judy Clibborn; state Rep. Fred Jarrett

Campaign Web site: none

Bob Baker, 52

Occupation: pilot for Alaska Airlines

Personal: married; six children

Background: Navy TOPGUN graduate; former federal contracting officer

Top endorsements: none provided

Campaign Web site: none

Jim Pearman, 47

Occupation: mediator for King County

Personal: married; two children

Background: M.A. in public administration from the University of Washington; current city councilman (elected in 2001)

Top three endorsements: state Sen. Brian Weinstein; state Rep. Judy Clibborn; state Rep. Fred Jarrett

Campaign Web site: none

Brenda Finkenbinder, 47

Occupation: owner of Puget Sound Mobile Wash

Personal: married; two children

Background: president-elect of the University Rotary Club; member of the Mercer Island Chamber of Commerce

Top endorsements: none provided

Campaign Web site:; site to be working later this week

Mike Grady, 50

Occupation: senior policy analyst for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries division

Personal: married; five children

Background: 10 years experience in Olympia working on transportation and water issues

Top three endorsements: state Sen. Brian Weinstein; state Rep. Judy Clibborn; Mercer Island Fire Fighters

Campaign Web site:

Combined, the City Council races have a feel of the old versus the new.

Position 2

Grausz is being challenged by Belden O’Meara in what some residents are calling the most hotly contested of the three races.

For Belden O’Meara, access to the Interstate 90 HOV lanes is the top issue for island residents, and she says the current council is not doing enough. She says the Oct. 19 letter signed by regional leaders supporting Mercer Island’s HOV access claims does not go far enough to protect islanders’ access.

“I have a beef with Sound Transit, Seattle and Bellevue,” she said. A light-rail opponent, Belden O’Meara says bus transit on the bridge is the best option for islanders and is concerned that trains are the only option being considered by Sound Transit. Current transit planning could have residents paying to use the HOV lanes, she said. Grausz counters that a great deal of progress has been made in assuring the island’s access to HOV lanes and cautions against angering people the council will have to work with in the future. “If we fight, we lose,” said Grausz. “We need to be working with these communities, not challenging them.”

He says the Oct. 19 letter, signed by King County Executive Ron Sims, the Seattle, Bellevue and Mercer Island mayors and transit-authority representatives, is a major step toward assuring access.

Grausz puts emergency preparation at the top of his agenda for the future. Looking to lessons learned in the Gulf Coast hurricanes, he says, the city needs to ensure adequate food and water supplies to support residents in case a major earthquake damages the bridge and leaves citizens isolated.

In the wake of public debate on whether to allow commercial development in Luther Burbank Park, Belden O’Meara is proposing a park-protection ordinance that would require a public vote on any proposal to significantly change a park.

Grausz’s plan for parks focuses on acquisition and protection of available open space. He says the current council has been successful in protecting parks from development and in funding park maintenance, including at Luther Burbank, which the city acquired from King County in 2002.

Position 4

Jim Pearman realizes people are worried when they see construction cranes in downtown Mercer Island and says he often wishes he could keep the island just the way it is. But he says more downtown housing is necessary to comply with the state’s Growth Management Act (GMA).

“Nobody really wants more density in their community,” he said. Pearman says he’s trying to avoid rezoning the island. A rezone would rewrite the rules for population density and development for the entire island. If rezoned, he said, large properties on the island could be subdivided and potentially developed, something held in check by current zoning regulations.

Pearman also warns against the idea that Mercer is an island that can say no to increased density by refusing to participate in the GMA.

“Doing that could raise property taxes from 7 to 10 percent,” Pearman said, to cover penalties the state would hand down.

His opponent, Bob Baker, questions whether the loss of revenue is a genuine concern. He is upset that so much is going on downtown at once and says voters he meets while going door to door agree with him.

“I want to listen to the people that live in the areas — what they have to say,” said Baker.

He says he is willing to rezone if citizens vote to handle density issues that way. Getting more citizen input and putting island issues to a vote is a key talking point for Baker.

If elected, he proposes putting City Council meetings on TV and mailing a newsletter to better inform voters of what’s going on in city government. He also wants to keep development out of city parks.

He says he would spend more money to replace aging firetrucks and strengthen fire stations against damage in an earthquake.

Pearman said he wants to focus on keeping all of the parties involved in I-90 changes communicating and cooperating with each other. He also wants to develop more programs for seniors at the community center. Getting the center built without increasing taxes is an example of how successful the current council has been in working together, he said.

Baker cites the community center as one more example of how the current council is out of touch with the community, noting that in 1998 voters rejected a bond measure that would have provided almost $20 million to build the center.

Position 6

Though her opponent is a first-time candidate like herself, Brenda Finkenbinder has no qualms about labeling him part of the current council machine.

“He’s the status quo; I’m for change, ” she said.

The council needs to improve the way it communicates with citizens and find ways to increase citizen involvement, she said. Bringing up issues on short notice limits possibilities for public comment and “doesn’t do the citizens of Mercer Island any favors,” she said.

She favors adding contentious issues to the island’s annual ballot.

Her opponent, Mike Grady, says he already is working toward better communication with his “Bike with Mike” program, in which he tours and talks local politics with residents by bike and in coffee shops Saturday mornings. He says he’ll continue if elected.

Grady wants to look at bike paths and sidewalks as a way to improve congestion and public safety on city streets. Making it safer for kids to walk or ride to school will decrease the crush of parents dropping off kids in the morning, he said.

Finkenbinder proposes exploring a “youth court” system on the island. The courts would mirror the county court system but would use supervised minors as judges, lawyers and juries.

Both candidates want to act on the shoreline erosion problem in Luther Burbank Park. Finkenbinder wants to make sure the area is kept natural and avoid a “concrete barrier” solution. Grady wants the city to come up with a strategic plan instead of dealing with issues on a piecemeal basis. He says by doing so the city can win grants to help with parks.

“By addressing habitat restoration issues and erosion issues at the same time, we may be able to kill two birds with one stone,” he said.

Matt Ironside: 206-464-2449