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Originally published November 2, 2011 at 10:17 PM | Page modified November 3, 2011 at 10:27 AM

Light-rail views drive Bellevue council races

The candidates for Bellevue City Council have been generally civil to one another during public forums, but in interviews, campaign ads and messages sent out by independent groups, the accusations have been flying.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Position 3

John Chelminiak

Age: 58

Neighborhood: Vuecrest

Occupation: Public-affairs consultant

Education: Bachelor of arts, Washington State University

Civic experience: Bellevue City Council member; former Bellevue Planning Commission member; former chief of staff of the King County and Snohomish County councils

Campaign website: johnworksforyou.com

Michelle Hilhorst

Age: 42

Neighborhood: Newport Hills

Occupation: Senior AT&T manager

Education: Bachelor's degree, East Carolina University

Civic experience: Past president, Newport Hills Community Club; volunteer work with United Way, Habitat for Humanity and other groups

Campaign website: michelle4bellevue.com

Position 1

Aaron Laing

Age: 36

Neighborhood: Enetai

Occupation: Attorney

Education: Bachelor of arts, University of New Mexico; master's in sociology and law degree, University of Washington

Civic experience: Co-chairman of Enetai Neighborhood Association light-rail committee; pro bono legal work for nonprofit organizations; active in Urban Land Institute

Campaign website: aaronlaing.com

John Stokes

Age: 72

Neighborhood: Woodridge

Occupation: Retired attorney

Education: Bachelor's degree, Texas Tech University; law degree, George Washington University

Civic experience: Member of Bellevue School District fiscal advisory committee and Bellevue Parks and Community Services Board; former Bellevue Schools Foundation trustee; Washington State Parent Teacher Association "outstanding advocate" for 2009

Campaign website: johnstokes.org

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Claudia Balducci

Age: 44

Neighborhood: Lake Hills

Occupation: King County director of adult and juvenile detention

Education: Bachelor of arts, Providence College; law degree, Columbia University Law School

Civic experience: Bellevue City Council member; Sound Transit board member; co-founder and board member of Lake Hills Neighborhood Association; past chair of Eastside Transportation Partnership

Campaign website: balducciforbellevue.com

Patti Mann

Age: 52

Neighborhood: Newport Hills

Occupation: Seattle paramedic and firefighter

Education: Graduated Sammamish High School, attended University of Washington

Civic experience: Trustee of Northwest Burn Foundation; PTSA board member, Newport High School

Campaign website: pattimannforcouncil.com

Position 7

Jennifer Robertson

Age: 43

Neighborhood: Somerset

Occupation: Attorney

Education: Bachelor of arts, University of Puget Sound; law degree, Willamette University

Civic experience: Bellevue City Council member; former Bellevue Planning Commission member; volunteer in PTA and Girl Scouts

Campaign website: robertsonforcouncil.com

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The candidates for Bellevue City Council have been generally civil to one another during public forums, but in interviews, campaign ads and messages sent out by independent groups, the accusations have been flying.

Developers, business groups, rail-transit advocates, environmentalists and the "progressive" group Fuse are on track to pour $100,000 into independent-expenditure campaigns that, in some cases, have engaged in personal attacks.

Much of the debate surrounds Sound Transit's light-rail plan and a planned $299 million upgrade of roads between downtown and the Bel-Red Corridor, where developer Wright Runstad hopes to build a massive transit-oriented project with retail, offices and up to 1,000 homes.

There is talk on both sides about nefarious forces "buying the election" — but there's disagreement about whether that means "outsiders" who stand with Wright Runstad and Sound Transit in support of light rail, or local developer Kemper Freeman, who hopes to kill the transit plan.

For all the recriminations, the election won't change the council's balance of power.

Council members supported by Freeman already have a 4-3 majority and could pick up one or more seats. Unlike Freeman, the candidates he supports, incumbent Jennifer Robertson along with Aaron Laing, Patti Mann and Michelle Hilhorst, say they want to see the rail line built, but they are worried that it could hurt neighborhoods and interfere with traffic.

Candidates on the other side, John Stokes and incumbents Claudia Balducci and John Chelminiak, say it's time to sign an agreement with Sound Transit that moves the rail project forward.

Stokes, Balducci and Cheminiak — all backed by executives of Wright Runstad — are also more inclined than their opponents to raise property taxes and impact fees on developers at some point for roads to accommodate Bel-Red growth.

Ballots in the all-mail election must be postmarked by Nov. 8.

Position 1

The council majority's chances of picking up a fifth seat may be greatest in this race because incumbent Grant Degginger, a member of the council minority, isn't running for re-election.

The candidates, land-use attorney Laing and retired government and private-practice attorney Stokes, both say they support Sound Transit's light-rail plans, but Stokes questions Laing's commitment to the project.

Laing, who lives just west of the light-rail route along Bellevue Way Southeast and who co-chairs the Enetai Neighborhood Association light-rail committee, would have preferred a rail route on the far side of Mercer Slough.

But he now says he's "excited" about the city-Sound Transit negotiations for the Bellevue Way route, and hopes an agreement will be signed.

He says rail foe Freeman contributed to his campaign after saying, "He appreciated that I had the backbone to sit there and tell him that I'm a light-rail supporter."

Stokes has supported Sound Transit's Bellevue Way route all along, which he says is a good, if not perfect plan. "There's a time to move forward and get it implemented," he says.

Stokes says he's afraid that if Laing is elected, he would delay the project and jeopardize funding for a downtown tunnel.

Laing and Stokes are at odds over how far the city should go to support redevelopment of the Bel-Red Corridor.

Laing says he isn't sure the city should continue raising impact fees for road-building in and around Bel-Red, and says more money should go to neighborhood projects like sidewalks.

Stokes says the council needs to look at "a larger Bellevue" that can accommodate commercial growth in Bel-Red and Eastgate. The focus on downtown made sense for decades, he says, "But things have changed. I'm concerned about an attitude that major development needs to stay in downtown."

Laing disavowed an independent-expenditure mailing funded in part by Freeman alleging Stokes was "hiding" a 19-year-old reprimand by the State Bar of Texas over his handling of a lawsuit.

Position 3

Hilhorst, an AT&T manager, has taken on a tough challenge in attempting to unseat two-term Councilmember Chelminiak, a public-affairs consultant — especially after he narrowly survived a bear attack outside his family's cabin at Lake Wenatchee.

The candidates don't directly disagree on the advisability of light rail or the need for a tunnel to keep trains off downtown streets, but Hilhorst's emphasis is on protecting South Bellevue neighborhoods from noise, traffic snarls and visual blight, while Chelminiak's basic message is simple: "Get 'er done!"

Hilhorst says she's concerned about the cost of the $299 million roads plan — much of it supporting Bel-Red development — where she says, "There's only one player in the game," Wright Runstad.

She also says high-density Bel-Red zoning has made it difficult for existing industries to expand and that overly restrictive zoning kept a fencing studio from locating in the struggling Newport Hills Shopping Center.

Chelminiak rejects Hilhorst's suggestion that the City Council reconsider the higher road-impact fees.

The fees won't be prohibitive for developers when the economy improves, he says, and the city can negotiate waivers in the meantime.

"If we want to incent a company to go earlier, the city is all ears. We would love to do that. But you don't do that by throwing out a particular policy unless you think the policy is wrong."

Position 5

Mann, a Seattle paramedic and firefighter, began her campaign saying she was "committed to making sure" Sound Transit moved its planned light-rail line from Bellevue Way Southeast and 112th Avenue Southeast to the other side of Mercer Slough, along the Interstate 405 corridor.

She backed off after the City Council tentatively agreed to Sound Transit's preferred route — and says the city's task now is to make sure the rail line isn't too noisy, too bulky or too close to homes.

Balducci, a Sound Transit board member, has supported the agency's route all along, putting her at odds with the council majority the past two years.

A lawyer and director of King County jails, Balducci says the city also needs roads to handle economic growth. "If there's one thing that stands in the way of our prosperity continuing, it's that we're going to choke ourselves off on our traffic and employers will go someplace else where they can come and go more easily," she says.

To build roads serving Bel-Red and downtown, Balducci voted for property-tax hikes called for in a council-adopted road-financing plan.

Mann says Balducci's pro-tax votes were out of touch with economic reality. She says it's time to take a fresh look at the funding plan.

Mann suggested Balducci had a conflict of interest when she voted for Sound Transit's preferred rail route and then was promoted to county jail director by the man who appointed her to the Sound Transit board, County Executive Dow Constantine.

Balducci, whose promotion was also mentioned in a Freeman-funded mailer, dismissed the attacks on her and Stokes as unwarranted smears.

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Jennifer Robertson, an attorney first elected to the council in 2009, is running unopposed.

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

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