Councilmember Pam Stuart, who often found herself at odds with the current majority on Sammamish City Council, will not be seeking reelection in November.
Stuart said her decision came after reflecting on a tense and unproductive period of city politics during the COVID-19 pandemic.
After former council member Jason Ritchie resigned in January, Stuart was often the lone minority voice, especially when it came to debates on housing, social services, environmental sustainability and fiscal stability for the city.
Those tensions reached a crescendo when the council majority censured Stuart for allegedly disclosing privileged information from an executive session to the public in early April and blocked her from attending five executive sessions as a penalty. Stuart maintains that she was revealing alleged illegal voting on Ritchie’s replacement by council members during that executive session.
“It was shocking,” Stuart said in a Sammamish Independent interview. “I don’t believe that it is legal to exclude a council member from executive sessions.”
She has since requested an independent investigation into which council rules were broken by whom on the matter.
Council member relationships and discourse have shifted significantly since her term began in January 2018, Stuart said.
Deputy mayor Christie Malchow and former council member Tom Hornish were still serving their first terms at the time when Stuart and Ritchie just starting their tenure.
Stuart said she felt lingering anxieties about “big shoes to fill” in the absence of former Sammamish mayor Don Gerend and former councilmember Kathy Huckabee.
Regardless, she remembered feeling hopeful back then.
“We were all, I think, pretty open and honest and again optimistic that we were going to be able to make progress,” Stuart said.
But the council met its first turning point when it fired former city manager Lyman Howard in August 2018 and former deputy city manager Jessi Bon left shortly after, she said. Without clear guidance from a city manager, the council went “down a path that was dark and ugly,” she said.
Tensions grew as the city’s development moratoriums continued, with fierce infighting within the council and resistance from members of the community.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, she was hopeful that this crisis would push the council to rethink its priorities and consider the broader impact of its decisions beyond Sammamish borders, citing as two examples the need to improve the city’s environmental sustainability and address inequity in COVID-19 vaccine distribution.
But the council continued to dedicate much of its agenda to growth and development issues, rather than completely focusing on immediate community needs, Stuart said.
For example, debates on the city’s construction moratorium and related rulings passed down by Washington state’s Growth Management Hearing Board overshadowed important issues such as small business loans and CARES Act spending, she said.
Stuart had hoped to increase efforts to assist essential workers and families seeking affordable childcare in Sammamish or other neighboring cities through partnerships.
“Many cities made sure that they were reaching out and partnering with everybody to make sure that everybody was being taken care of,” she said. “We didn’t do that.”
Stuart said she also felt excluded from city council deliberations. With the lockdown firmly in place, the council’s discussions in virtual-only sessions became more disjointed to her. The lack of communication was especially apparent when the council majority would frequently fail to include her when discussing what items should go on city council meeting agendas, she said.
“It didn’t have to make it harder to communicate, it just meant that it was easier for some people not to communicate with us,” she said. “And it enabled already bad behaviors to get worse.”
With slower progress than she had hoped for, Stuart does not feel that current council members share her vision for the Sammamish community, especially in terms of environmental and fiscal sustainability.
“I think that those are all really important things we need to be working on and fixing,” she said. “I just don’t think that right now the Sammamish City Council for me is a place where I can get that kind of work done.”