Four Republicans, Democrat Denson square off for county council seat
Four Republicans are competing against Democrat Robyn Denson for the Pierce County Council District 7 seat being vacated by Derek Young. Young is serving his final year because of term limits.
The Pierce County Council is responsible for passing legislation, setting county policy, adopting the county’s budget and holding government meetings. The salary is $120,285.
Members are elected from seven equally populated districts. Each council member represents about 131,500 people and is elected to a four-year term. District 7 represents the Gig Harbor and Key peninsulas, Fox Island, west and north Tacoma, and Ruston.
The two who receive the most votes, regardless of party, in the Aug. 2 primary election advance to the Nov. 8 general election. It’s likely that Denson, as the only Democrat, will face whomever of Mitch Anderson, Josh Harris, Paula Lonergan or Chuck West emerges among the Republicans.
Denson, a 47-year-old Gig Harbor City Council member, has been campaigning since last summer, nearly a year before anybody else began.
“I started early because it’s such an important position and I wanted to make sure I put my best foot forward to make sure our communities get the representation that we need,” she said. “I appreciate having time to talk to everyone, so there really was no reason to wait.”
Her extended effort netted name recognition and issue awareness. That’s particularly true in Tacoma, where she was unfamiliar.
She has also raised $97,820 in donations, far exceeding the other candidates combined. She has been endorsed by Young, a Democrat, and his council predecessor, Republican Terry Lee, both Gig Harborites who served eight years.
“And we needed to raise money,” she continued about the early start. “People told me it will be an expensive race and I wanted to be competitive and wanted to give myself time to really know the folks and build the funds I would need to run a race that could win and give respect to all the people who were supporting me.”
Denson has received more than 600 donations, including $80,000 from individuals.
“My donations are generally not huge, but I got a lot of them and that really makes me proud,” she said.
She established herself early as the Democratic standard bearer, likely convincing other potential candidates that the party was in good hands.
“I was getting my name out there and letting people know I am serious and ready to serve, and I know the issues and I have the commitment,” she said. “People were seeing I was willing to put the work in.”
The Republicans come from across the district and offer varying backgrounds.
Anderson, 63, was a financial advisor until recently. His Merrill Lynch employer in Tacoma deemed running for public office a conflict of interest. Anderson committed to run during the May filing week and resigned his position the following Monday.
“So that is how serious I am about running for office,” said Anderson, who grew up and lives in Gig Harbor. “I literally quit my job to do this. I couldn’t abide by their decision, so we had to separate.”
Anderson has gained recognition on both sides of the Narrows through holding various positions at the Gig Harbor and Tacoma-Pierce County chambers of commerce. He served on both boards for several years and continues on Tacoma’s finance committee.
He has raised $11,827 for his campaign, mostly from individual donors, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission. Though he didn’t begin campaigning until May, Anderson said his candidacy isn’t a whim.
“My wife and I talked about me running for over a decade,” he said. “When that opportunity came up (he was urged by the Puyallup-Sumner chamber president to run), that’s what really clicked with my wife and me. It was a late start and I’m behind in money raising, but this is something I’ve always wanted to do. … Some think it’s kind of scary (to quit his job). It should be, but my wife and I feel at peace about it because we really feel it’s where we should be.”
Paula Lonergan, 69, retired from state government, where she worked for 30 years as a human resource manager and program manager. The wife of Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Mike Lonergan, she has been appointed to serve as a Tacoma Human Rights Commissioner and Washington State Affordable Housing Advisory Board member. Currently she chairs the Pierce County Sheriff’s Civil Service Board. The Air Force brought her to the area, and she made it her home.
“I did not want to go back to the East Coast,” said Lonergan, who lives in the Proctor District of North Tacoma. “I love this area and very much believe this is my time to give of my services and do a good job for the people because I’m not here for myself. This is not something I have to do, it’s something I desire to do to represent the people of the 7th District.”
Lonergan has raised $16,610, $10,000 of which she contributed.
West, 64, is a household name around Key Peninsula, where he retired last year as a battalion chief after 35 years with the fire department. In 2019 he was elected to the Peninsula School District board. He has been involved with the Key Peninsula Community Council, serving as president. He helped establish the Key Free Clinic and is its board president. He also owns a construction business.
In 2004, West’s son Zech, on leave from the Navy, and new daughter-in-law Adrienne were returning from their honeymoon when they borrowed his Jeep and took it into the Cascades. While turning around on a narrow roadway, they slipped off the road, rolled over a cliff and were killed. They have been Chuck’s inspiration to serve the community.
“My son had been an avid skateboarder who had struggled in the community with places to safely practice the skill,” West said. “After his death I rallied the community, formed a nonprofit, raised funds and built the skate park in Volunteer Park on the Key Peninsula to honor them. We continued the nonprofit to help KP Parks with other project to support youth activities.”
West has raised $12,210 for his campaign, much of it from the real estate industry.
“Pierce County is where I have raised my family,” said West, who graduated from Peninsula High School. “I want to assure that our children and grandchildren will have a safe place to grow up and prosper.”
Harris, 47, owns a construction company. The Tacoman has served on the board and was executive director for Tacoma-Pierce County Crimestoppers, served as chairman of Toys for Kids and co-chairman Toys for Tots Pierce County, served as co-chairman and managed logistics for Charlie’s Dinosaur, and was a co-founder of Tacoma Safe. He is endorsed by the Tacoma Police Union.
Harris gained notoriety by paying $300,000 to bail out three Tacoma police officers involved in the March 3, 2020, death of Manuel Ellis. Ellis, a Black man, died when police attempted to arrest him for allegedly trying to open car doors of occupied vehicles.
Most recently, Harris on May 30 went to a homeless camp near Cheney Stadium to retrieve stolen tools and other items. A man drove at him in a car and Harris shot him in the head and hand.
Harris wasn’t charged with any crimes. An investigation found he fired in self-defense. The man he shot survived and will be charged with assault with a deadly weapon. Harris has twice been charged with theft in Pierce County, according to Superior Court records from 2008 and before.
Harris has raised $28,985 for his campaign, including $20,000 from himself. He didn’t respond to the questions below from Gig Harbor Now.
Question 1: Public safety
Local law enforcement leaders have been critical of police reform efforts undertaken during the last two legislative sessions. This includes restrictions on pursuing suspects in vehicles, use of force and detaining people suspected of illegal drug possession. Which of these reforms have been successful, and which should be changed?
I think the biggest mistake was hog-tying our police by taking away the tools they needed to do their job. Due to the tragic incidents of a couple years ago — mostly in other parts of the country — there was a knee-jerk reaction by our liberal legislators to defund the police. This has led to open season on the citizens and businesses of Pierce County by the local criminals.
Due to pursuit restrictions, criminals simply drive away from law enforcement with stolen goods, and nothing can be done about it. Due mainly to a lack of sufficient funding of the Pierce County Sheriff, we are down 57 officers and dozens of staff. Detectives are being removed from special programs such as the Proactive Property Crimes Unit just to get cops on the street.
As your Pierce County Council member, I will seek out inefficient programs to cut and reallocate that money to bring the Sheriff’s Department back to the proper level of service which will increase safety for all of us.
As to the use of force, sometimes the arresting officers need to control suspects who are high on mind-altering and in some cases strength-enhancing drugs. This is an area where we do need to revisit research and training on choke holds and other suspect-controlling techniques. I also know that in a hand-to-hand scuffle with a suspect who is going for the officer’s gun, and a taser has been unsuccessful, we must devise alternate methods of controlling suspects, short of shooting them. We also need to protect the lives of our law enforcement officers.
Finally, I believe that it was a big mistake to decriminalize small amounts of hard drugs such as fentanyl, heroin, methamphetamine and others. Government-sponsored programs to give away free needles has been a drastic failure — just look at Portland. We need the ability to go after the users to get to the dealers who will lead us to the suppliers. We can start by reopening the jail and fixing our dysfunctional court system. I would then partner with organizations such as Pierce County Alliance and The Tacoma Rescue Mission to address the addiction problem.
I support a criminal justice system that emphasizes both empathy and accountability, one in which everyone feels safe and protected, and one in which our law enforcement officers are able to do their job to keep the community safe.
As the chair of the Gig Harbor City Council Intergovernmental Affairs Committee in 2021, my colleagues and I included as one of our legislative agenda priorities a request that 2021 police reforms be modified to resolve unintended consequences and provide clarity in various police actions and equipment as well as in powers regarding the use of force to prevent someone from fleeing a lawful detention and ensure the ability to conform to the duty to intervene.
The majority of these issues were satisfactorily addressed during the 2022 session. However, ensuring clarity around the power to pursue suspected criminals remains one for which I will continue to advocate as county council member. In regard to the 2021 drug possession law, the county and state need to work to establish a real means to encourage recovery while protecting the public.
As a county council member, I’ll promote the exploration and trial of additional, alternative response options to certain types of calls so that our law enforcement professionals can focus on what they do best — fighting crime, particularly violent crime, and pursuing habitual offenders. Integrating other community service providers, including mental health professionals, to respond or co-respond to calls that are in their professional wheelhouse will ensure a better, more appropriate response, while freeing up our officers and deputies to focus on solving crimes and putting criminals in custody. I’ll also work to support our justice system so they can get caught up and clear the backlog of current criminal cases.
As a sitting council member, I have a strong track record of supporting our Gig Harbor Police Department. In my time on council, I’ve fought for more officers to be hired, supported the addition of new positions and made sure our officers had the training and resources they needed to respond to calls quickly and keep our community safe. I’ll bring this same commitment to community safety and community service to Pierce County and look forward to working with the community to ensure everyone feels safe and protected.
I believe the attempts directed at police reform have gone too far. The systemic recruiting issues that are contributing to the staffing shortages we’re currently facing have been a problem for quite some time. Legal changes have exacerbated this problem by painting everyone in law enforcement with a broad brush as bigots, who are out of control and want to kill others, especially people of color, and are totally out of touch with the people in the communities they serve — is simply untrue.
Attempts at the state level to solve a problem have, once again, only made things worse by not fully understanding the problem to begin with or caring about the potential ramifications of what they’ve done that we’re experiencing now. Citizens need protection and want proactive law enforcement. They would like to see crime prevented and criminals caught while in the act, or shortly after an act has been committed, as opposed to reporting an incident and hoping to see an officer within the next hour or so, if at all, to give a full report of what has occurred —with little or no follow-up.
We need more officers on patrol who are able to pursue suspects when there is reasonable suspicion that an unlawful act has taken place. The ability to pursue has been somewhat restored, but we need to do more to ensure criminals know they will be pursued if suspected of committing a crime.
Ongoing use of force and similar training is necessary. This must be a subject that officers and their leadership receive on a regular basis. It’s equally important to understand and ensure that officers remain safe while on duty.
We have too many instances where officers are judged by what’s seen on a video clip without the public having full knowledge of what may have led up to an incident. There may have been prior other interactions with an individual, perhaps an assault, threats made, a weapon displayed, other behaviors or verbal exchanges that indicate someone is mentally unstable, under the influence of drugs, or have resisted arrest leading up to apprehension.
Just as the military is having trouble recruiting quality candidates, so is law enforcement. It takes a certain type of person to willingly put their life on the line for others. With his pandemic executive orders, the governor and Legislature have changed the working conditions for law enforcement and created a much more hostile and dangerous work environment for them. We need to also look at what’s going on with “catch-and-release” proceedings relative to our courts and our prosecutors. Criminals not only need to know that crime does not pay, but when caught, will be held fully accountable for what they have done at every level of criminal behavior.
This last legislative session saw the failure of SB 5919 which would have given our law enforcement officers back some of the ability to pursue criminals with “reasonable suspicion.” This bill would be a good start to bringing back some common sense, but it would only be a start. Our criminal justice system is broken and will take some time to repair. We need to start by showing our law enforcement officers that they are respected for the tough job they do. There is always room for reform in any system, but this has gone too far. Let’s turn this around and go after reform of our mainstream media. Today’s media is so slanted that true journalism is lost.
I have worked beside law enforcement for 35 years and I have seen firsthand the compassion they have for their fellow human beings. The images we have seen in the media are the rare events. There are always going to be people in any profession that will lack the moral compass we come to expect of a profession, even as doctors, politicians or journalists. They should be dealt with as they arise, not lumped together calling the whole profession into question.
Question 2: Homelessness and affordable housing
Should county government facilitate the building of more affordable housing? How? What can the county do to address homelessness?
The current homeless population in Pierce County is 4,356 people of all ages which account for approximately 0.46% of our citizens, or less than ½ of 1%. I understand that there’s a program currently underway called Community First Village which is modeled after a program in Austin, Texas. This is a great first step which will house approximately 330 people. I have heard many opinions about what percentage of the homeless population is addicted to drugs. Estimates range from 40% all the way up to 90%. I tend to think we are more in the 45–50% range. If we would just focus on the half of the homeless population that are not addicted to drugs and give them a hand up — not a handout — we would have one of the most successful programs in the entire country!
I am currently reading a book by Gregg Colburn and Clayton Page Aldern called “Homelessness Is a Housing Problem.” I am very interested in what they have to say about the root causes of homelessness versus cost and availability of the local rental market. This is another area where I would like to see more public-private partnerships because government does not have all the answers, and there are already some private organizations doing a great job.
Our county government should absolutely be a leader in promoting the construction (or conversion) of more affordable housing, particularly “actual, long-term/permanent” affordable housing. I have over 20 years’ experience working for a number of nonprofit entities involved in affordable housing, everything from managing Section 8 vouchers and weatherization programs for low-income seniors to the construction of homes with Habitat for Humanity. I have also served as the non-partisan housing policy analyst for the state House of Representatives. I’ll bring my experience to help the county come up with the best solutions to increase housing availability for all income levels.
Our county should be a coordinating and collaborative body, working with both for-profit and nonprofit housing providers and partners to increase the inventory of rental and ownership homes. Regardless of the partner, the county must ensure the public benefit is commensurate with our taxpayer investment and that the housing is managed in such a way that it remains affordable for the long term.
Pierce County recently passed a bipartisan-supported Comprehensive Plan to End Homelessness. I’ll get to work implementing the plan to address the immediate crisis by moving people off the streets into safe housing situations, which includes first steps like sanctioned encampments and safe parking. Some of our unhoused population, particularly chronic homeless, need those first steps to stabilize and become receptive to receiving services like mental health and substance abuse treatment.
I’ll also address the root causes of homelessness to prevent more people from entering into homelessness. Diversion programs have been really successful for those most at risk, but we also need to look further upstream to make sure our children and families have opportunities and the support they need throughout their lives to achieve healthy, productive and safe lives.
I have vast experience with housing policy as well as working for and volunteering with nonprofits like Communities in Schools, Habitat for Humanity and homeless shelters. I have absolute confidence we can successfully address this crisis effectively and with compassion. We need leadership and action.
The issues of homelessness and housing affordability have become intertwined as if making housing more affordable will eliminate the root cause for homelessness. However, that premise is simply not true! This may be a controversial thing to publicly state, but it appears the more we’re doing to help the homeless, the more we have seemingly facilitated and encouraged more homelessness.
Tens of millions of tax dollars have been devoted to providing temporary housing and intervention services in an attempt to coax people into accepting help. However, what we end up doing is providing for clean-up and hygiene facilities, conveying people to emergency care, investigating crimes committed in camps and in surrounding areas, dealing with the rising costs associated with paying for theft and smash-and-grab crimes, as well as protecting the lives of those who are employed near areas where camps/tents arise.
Homelessness is a symptom of a much bigger problem in someone’s life. Nearly all homeless individuals have a family of origin. There are the homeless who have burned every bridge to their family and are unable to return home for a number of reasons.
When a fostered young person comes of age or an individual is released from institutional care, they are quite often unprepared to live on their own. Rather than becoming a victim of trafficking, these individuals may need temporary, no-cost housing, especially if they haven’t worked or are unprepared to work. Employment and other services, coupled with housing, would help this group of individuals get on their feet.
Individuals who are living on the edge and only a paycheck away from becoming homeless who have lost their job may have many issues (financial, budgeting, insufficient income, childcare, inadequate job skills, etc.), but are usually motivated to get help or will take the necessary steps to get back on their feet. Homelessness is not the lifestyle for them. So, creating an environment where these individuals can take advantage of affordable housing may be just the right solution for them.
Government can help by providing funding for shelters that include effective intervention programs and by encouraging builders to develop and incorporate affordable housing as part of their new building plans. Pierce County already has programs and policies in place to facilitate this.
There are the other individuals, those who are unwilling to make a change because of lifestyle choices, to include drug use or an uncontrolled mental health condition, that require a different set of options and solutions. For this category of individuals, we have little leverage unless and until an individual is ready to change and receive whatever help is available. We’re unable to help because we cannot force anyone into treatment or make them consistently take their meds. In time, some may be willing to change, but only if they can relate to someone willing to reach out, talk with them and offer help when ready.
Even if we’re able to take these individuals off the streets and house them, they will still need monitoring to ensure they haven’t overdosed, aren’t ill and suffering, have enough to eat, aren’t destroying property or a danger to themselves or to others. This second population isn’t decreasing and there are still far too many that resist change, actually preferring to remain on the streets. Judicial decisions have also handcuffed the authorities from successfully dealing with the homeless situation by “protecting their right” to remain homeless.
You ask if the county government should facilitate the building of affordable housing. In this case government seems to be the problem. Ten to 20% of the cost of building a home is incurred before the shovel is in the ground. Government’s role should be to provide infrastructure and facilitating the permit process, not hindering. Recent changes to allowing more density in the corridors was a good start.
Here on the Peninsula the county should provide permitting services. Forcing us to drive across the toll bridge to talk with someone about building plans is burdensome.
There are some legitimate homeless people who should be helped, but we have gone beyond and are now harboring criminals. It’s time to take back the streets and start enforcing the laws again. For those people who legitimately need assistance, we should support the efforts in meaningful ways. But government is the worst provider of social services when compared to the success of nonprofit organizations like the rescue mission.
Question 3: Fox Island Bridge
Do you support replacing or refurbishing the 68-year-old Fox Island Bridge? What do you think would be the fairest way to pay for it?
Based on what I heard from the Pierce County group of experts at the June 29 meeting at Goodman Middle School, there is uncertainty as to how long the current bridge can last. Maintenance is scheduled for this fall to replace worn-out bearings which should add life to the span. I must say that I was a bit surprised to see the puzzled look on the faces of the experts when asked the simple question, “What if the residents don’t want a new bridge?”
The main reason that came up as to why the county would like to replace the bridge is that the bike lanes aren’t wide enough! For that they want to spend about $180,000,000 of our tax dollars? Since the county doesn’t currently have the money to replace the bridge, it seems they would be happy to toll Fox Island residents to pay for it. I have personally heard from some of those residents who are on a fixed income and travel to Tacoma for medical appointments. This would be a financial hardship on them, having to pay two bridge tolls just to get to Tacoma.
Based on what I know so far, I would recommend continuing regular maintenance on the bridge and spend the money to do a thorough survey of the span to get a more accurate estimate of remaining life. If the bridge does need to be replaced, I would start a sinking fund to set aside the money to replace it.
The question of replacing or refurbishing the Fox Island bridge will be dependent upon the wishes of the residents. The county engineers are recommending replacement given increased seismic safety, cost-efficiency and maximum longevity of the structure. The county has determined that the refurbishment option doesn’t save much money and would still require additional work in the near future, resulting in a higher cost overall. The disruption during refurbishment, given there is no available detour on/off Fox Island, would be significant.
In all likelihood, residents will have the opportunity to vote on a special taxing district to fund a portion of the bridge with an increase in their property taxes. They will decide.
Having spoken with many Fox Island residents over the last few years about this bridge, I’ve heard loud and clear that if the bridge is to be replaced, most residents would like to go with the least expensive option, “without bells and whistles.” The sentiment I’ve heard most frequently is that residents want a strong, safe bridge, but given they will likely be funding a portion of it, they want to keep costs reasonable through efforts such as lowering the height and narrowing the width of draft bridge designs that have been proposed over the last few years.
I’m against the idea of tolls, but beyond that I’m ready to dig in and explore creative funding options. In addition to a likely hefty contribution from the county road fund, I’ll focus on leveraging as much state and federal dollars as possible. As a former government grant writer, with a track record of successfully writing grants voluntarily for Gig Harbor to stretch our city resources, I’m ready to support county staff in thinking creatively about how we can get this bridge funded to have the least financial impact possible on residents.
After attending the most recent county-sponsored meeting to discuss the upcoming bridge repair work, I must be quite honest and admit that I cannot answer your first question. County engineers propose replacing this bridge based on the determination that it’s the best long-term solution. I don’t really have a solid grasp of how these experts reached this conclusion. The $100+million figure mentioned seems like an unattainable number.
I worked with state engineers in the Transportation Department very early in my career, during the I-90 bridge construction. While I have some insight into the bridge’s current condition and understand that more work is needed to maintain the existing structure until a new bridge is completed, I don’t actually know the potential cost to refurbish the existing bridge as compared to building a new one. Nor do I know the anticipated length of time a refurbished verses a new structure is expected to last.
During this meeting, there was discussion about possibly siting a new bridge in another location. However, while I completely understand that it may not be a good idea at this time to talk about where that new structure may be placed, I must assume some consideration has been given to where that could possibly be placed and why.
Building any structure over water to connect an area will have noise and environmental impacts as well as potential right-of-way costs associated with it. I simply don’t have enough information until I have a much better idea of what the county has in mind. When that time comes, we can talk about the cost and how to pay for this structure.
We need to call for a strategic plan to bring all of our roads up to standards. Most of our county roads do not meet their own current standards. It’s time for a plan that will take us into the future. Our road system on the peninsulas, for the most part, was never planned. It evolved from the old logging roads that were graveled and then eventually paved in the same locations with no shoulders. The Romans did a better job of planning and building.
We need a plan to address the Fox Island bridge as well as KP Highway. And we need to make it a priority to lobby the state for upgrades to our overpasses (Wollochet and Burnham) and SR302.
One simple, common-sense repair to the Purdy congestion would be to have the state add on- and off-ramps to Highway 16 at 144th Street. This would allow our school buses, transfer station trucks and general traffic to avoid going down the hill into the Purdy congestion. I would estimate it at 20% of the traffic that would be cleared from the area. That would mean a lot for traffic flow.
Question 4: Priorities
What would be your top priority should you be elected?
Law and order is my No. 1 priority! I will prioritize spending to eliminate non-essentials, thus creating the funding to hire 57 new sheriff deputies right now!
My top priority as a county councilperson will be ensuring that District 7 is a safe, healthy, beautiful place for people to live, work and play. Supporting strong, vibrant cities while protecting the rural character of our smaller outlying portions of our district will be a primary focus. Conserving our natural beauty by preserving trees, wildlife corridors and critical habitats should go hand in hand with making sure we have adequate housing developed in areas that have appropriate infrastructure and reasonable access to jobs, transit, parks and other amenities.
Community safety is an extremely critical component of quality of life, and I’ll continue my track record of supporting appropriate numbers of law enforcement personnel. Specifically, I’ll advocate for increased sheriff deputy presence in unincorporated Gig Harbor, Fox Island and the Key Peninsula while also supporting the integration of additional community mental and behavioral health services to free up our law enforcement officers to focus on addressing crime.
My top priority is public safety and increased law enforcement presence/patrols, as well as on-duty officers, for District 7 and other understaffed unincorporated areas of Pierce County. Linked to this would also be deputy and jail staffing, which is also an ongoing issue.