Opinion

Conservation courts controversy in Federal Way | Bob Roegner

Apparently, conservation of environmentally sensitive property can be added to the list of controversial issues for would-be candidates this election season.

By way of background, at its March 15 meeting the Federal Way City Council authorized Mayor Skip Priest’s administration to apply for a grant for $400,000 to King County for funding under the Conservation Futures program for 2012.

If the grant is awarded, the city would match the funding with $400,000 from its Surface Water Management Fund. The city would then purchase 17 acres in the Spring Valley area for preservation. The area is considered an environmentally sensitive area due to its wetlands and is a spawning ground for salmon.

The city has worked with the county and local non-profit organization Friends of the Hylebos (FOH) to place parcels in this area and others into public ownership for future generations. Over the years, approximately $1.1 million has been obtained for this purpose, and both the city and FOH have received significant regional acknowledgment for their success.

Former FOH executive director Chris Carrel, in his new capacity as city communications/grants coordinator, represented the new mayor on the issue. The city council approved the submission 6-1 with council member Linda Kochmar voting no.

Those are the basic facts. When the story was printed in the Federal Way Mirror, the blogs, emails and community discussion suddenly took off. There were straight-forward comments by some who simply oppose spending any public money on the environment. Others said the idea was all right, but the amount was too much. Still, others wanted to spend it on police. But there were also accusations against Priest because he supported the grant application and because his wife, Trisha Bennett, was on the FOH board of directors. The accusations suggested a conflict of interest. There were also comments that Carrel and Priest were some how in “collusion” — again suggesting wrongdoing.

A couple of citizens asked me about “facts and fairness” in the issue. It is a great issue for public debate. However, in the spirit of full disclosure, I served on the FOH board, with the mayor’s wife and others, until its recent merger with EarthCorps. I can add some factual information to the discussion while hopefully retaining my objectivity. But that’s for the reader to judge.

FOH is devoted to preserving, expanding and maintaining the Hylebos wetlands. It is a non-profit organization where much of the work is done by volunteers. As with many non-profits, it relied on government grants and local fundraising to fulfill its mission. But also like many non-profits, it lost significant public funding. As a result, Carrel and the other staff either left or were let go almost a year ago as FOH worked on merger options.

If you oppose public funding for environmental protection, that is a valid political viewpoint and you should write as many letters to the editor as you have time for. The opposite position is just as valid. That’s why we debate and have elections. If you thought it was too much money, that is also valid. You should also consider some other facts. The city money in question cannot be used for any general fund category, including police. It can only be used for surface water related projects. Similar criteria guide the county funding source.

Carrel and the mayor are not in “collusion.” There is nothing sinister about what Carrel has done. He is staying true to his long-held philosophy while carrying out the mayor’s direction. This is his new job. The mayor is his boss. If he actually gets the grant, he will have been doing his job. That’s not something bad — that’s what public employees are supposed to do. However, if you accept that he has done this part of his job well, but you are also one of those who believe Priest erred in filling the communications/grant coordinator position in the first place (as some do), that is also a valid point of view — but that was an item of discussion in January.

Some said if they had known Priest would spend the money this way, they wouldn’t have voted for him. Facts are relevant here. Priest has been a supporter of FOH for more than two decades. It has been part of his platform every time he runs for office. And the other three options for Federal Way mayor? Mike Park and Jim Ferrell both supported the grant application and have supported FOH on many occasions. Linda Kochmar didn’t vote no because she is opposed to protecting the environment; she voted no because she was concerned about what other regional projects Conservation Futures could fund that might also benefit Federal Way.

And Trisha Bennett, the mayor’s wife? She didn’t do anything wrong, either. There is no “appearance of conflict of interest,” nor is there an actual conflict, as she derived no personal benefit from the city submitting the grant. The only parties to benefit will be the property seller and the public. Don’t we want the city’s first lady supporting public benefit projects? Some felt Priest should have recused himself from the matter. In a strong mayor form of government, the mayor does not have a vote at council meetings except in unusual situations. This wasn’t one of them. There was also no legal reason for Priest to distance himself from proposing the issue for the council’s consideration. He was doing his job.

Lastly, the county money will be spent somewhere. Would you rather have it here for this project or somewhere else for another project?

It has been a great community debate. Keep expressing your opinion!

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