City business in Black Diamond has ground to a halt as a new council majority, which opposes a development that would add 6,060 homes, struggles for power with a mayor who was elected by the same anti-development group.
In Black Diamond, most of the City Council isn’t showing up for work.
Three of the five members didn’t come to a council meeting two weeks ago, and last week they refused to attend a special meeting they themselves had called.
Councilmembers Erika Morgan, Pat Pepper and Brian Weber are trying to wrest control of city government from Mayor Carol Benson. They say she hasn’t done enough to control a development that would add 6,060 homes over the next 20 years and quintuple the rural King County town’s population of 4,200.
City business has ground to a halt as the new council majority delays payment of even routine bills including gas for police cars and 911 service. For several weeks the city was without a building inspector because the three voted down a contract proposed by city staff.
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Council meetings have deteriorated into shouting matches as the majority tries to operate by rules it adopted in January, while the mayor refuses to acknowledge the rules after two attorneys advised her they may violate state law.
To register its protest, it would seem the council majority could just vote “no” on any proposals related to the Oakpointe (previously YarrowBay) development. But the members say their aim is to completely remake city government and give the council more power over the development’s impacts on traffic, schools, the environment and residents’ small-town quality of life.
“The people we got elected in the past to be our voice weren’t doing what they got elected to do, which is doing a better job at managing and controlling development,” said Weber, who, like Pepper, defeated a council incumbent in November with almost 70 percent of the vote.
The mayor, who ran unopposed, received 92 percent.
This former mining town at the edge of King County’s urban growth area approved an agreement in 2010 with Oakpointe to develop two master-planned communities with homes and commercial space. Angered by the decision, residents voted out incumbents in 2013 and again in 2015.
Benson was elected to the council in 2013 with support from the group, Save Black Diamond, which says it is devoted to holding the city accountable as the development unfolds. Now the group accuses Benson of rubber-stamping the developer’s plans.
“We are required by law to honor the commitments made by the previous mayor and City Council. We can’t go back and undo what’s been done,” said Benson, who was appointed mayor in 2014, when the then-mayor quit.
Black Diamond sits along a two-lane highway with prominent views of Mount Rainier. While the neighboring cities of Maple Valley and Covington have grown steadily over the past decade, adding homes and shopping districts, Black Diamond has grown by fewer than 200 people since 2005, said Chandler Felt, King County demographer.
Many locals like it that way.
“A lot of us moved out here to get away from traffic and development,” said Weber, an electrical engineer who has a 50-minute commute to Boeing’s Renton plant along congested Highway 169. “When you finally get here and see Mount Rainier framed by evergreens, that’s nice.”
The battles begin
Weber and Pepper joined a third Save Black Diamond incumbent on the council, Erika Morgan, to form the new majority. The battles started almost immediately, with the three in January approving new council rules that appropriated some of the mayor’s power.
The city attorney warned the new rules may violate the separation of powers between executive and legislative branches and interfere with the mayor’s authority to manage staff and the business of the city.
The attorney also warned that the three council members, who constitute a quorum, may have broken the state’s Open Public Meetings Act if they agreed on the rule changes before they were publicly introduced and adopted.
An attorney for the city’s municipal-insurance provider concurred.
The new majority fired the city attorney in April and has hired two attorneys to advise it. The mayor hired an interim city attorney that month.
The three council members say they refused to participate in the last two meetings because the mayor substituted her agenda for theirs. The first item of business on her agenda for the second meeting was censure of the three for failing to attend.
The city’s interim attorney, Yvonne Ward, said the three council members could face criminal sanctions. “Not showing up is a violation of law,” said Ward. “Their one job is to go to council meetings.”
The Teamsters union, which represents city managers and directors, has filed two grievances, saying the council majority and two advisers, former Metropolitan King County Councilmember Brian Derdowski and Bellevue software manager Kristen Bryant, whose parents live in Black Diamond, have improperly interfered with the staff’s professional duties.
Councilmember Morgan said the current staff doesn’t stand up to developers and doesn’t rely on science to make its land-use decisions.
“The staff isn’t especially good at their jobs. They’re saying the development is a done deal and there’s nothing you can do about it. Everything about the development has started to fall into that camp,” Morgan said.
“We’re under attack”
Others have questioned the involvement of “outsiders.”
The new rules were written by Derdowski, who opposed the 1996 redrawing of the county’s urban-growth boundary to include 1,500 acres of former timberland on the edges of Black Diamond that would become the new development.
He said he’s been fighting the Black Diamond development, and other growth proposals he considers out of scale, around the state, since he left the County Council in 2000.
Morgan said she asked Derdowski to write the new rules and worked with him to finalize them as a way to strengthen the city’s legislative branch.
“I told him, ‘I need a way to shift the driver to the citizens who live here, from the staff who doesn’t live here,’ ” said Morgan.
She said Derdowski has also provided scripted responses to help her and the other two council members deal with the hostility they’ve faced from the opposition. “We’re under attack. We want something sensible to say,” Morgan said.
Pepper said the three have not made any decisions outside of council meetings, even in email, which would violate state law.
“We are super, super careful. None of us have any intention of breaking the law or doing anything illegal,” she said.
About a mile from City Hall, Oakpointe is clearing and grading land for the first 350 homes. The companies do not currently have any issues before the City Council, said Oakpointe spokesman Alex Fryer. He said the developer is aware of the turmoil and is monitoring council meetings.
In the meantime, some Black Diamond residents have reconciled themselves to the coming growth.
Bob Edelman was part of a group, Toward Responsible Development, that brought an unsuccessful legal challenge to the 2010 development agreement. Edelman, whose wife, Janie Edelman, is a council member and ally of the mayor, said he thought plunking down 6,000 homes at the edge of Black Diamond was “too much, too fast.”
But with five years passing and the developer yet to build a single home, he said the city — with a functioning government — can control the construction’s pace and scale.
Asked how he thought the conflict between the mayor and the City Council would be resolved, Edelman said, “In court.”