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Mount Rainier’s three official City Council candidates appear to have broadly similar visions for the city. Sharing their thoughts during a candidate forum hosted April 14, 2021, by the Mount Rainier Business Association, each said they supported policies that would try to attract dense development to the city’s Rhode Island Avenue corridor, each indicated support for continued re-examination of policing, each said they supported a comprehensive review of how the city handles code enforcement, and each said they would work to reduce staff turnover in positions high and low.
The forum, moderated over Zoom by Joe’s Movement Emporium Executive Director Brooke Kid, featured Ward Two City Councilor Celina Benitez, running for mayor, Ward One City Councilor Luke Chesek, running unopposed to keep his seat on Council for four more years, and Ward Two candidate Jarrett Stoltzfus, also running unopposed. Absent from the debate was Ward One City Councilor Scott Cecil, who recently announced a write-in campaign for mayor, challenging Benitez for the role. Only candidates officially certified by the Mount Rainier Board of Elections were invited to the Mount Rainier Business Association forum.
Kidd’s opening question asked the candidates how they feel the city could best support local businesses still recovering from the pandemic.
The candidates all noted federal stimulus money would be available to the city to help recover from the pandemic. Beyond that, the candidates were short on specifics aside from expressing a strong desire to make downtown Mount Rainier a more-lively destination. To that end, Chesek and Benitez both highlighted their support for the sale of 3200 Rhode Island Avenue to a developer who plans to build a 97-unit mixed-use apartment building on the site.
Benitez, emphasizing her legislative experience on City Council, said the city’s Economic Development Office should be the primary conduit for business assistance related to the pandemic. She spent much of her response discussing the need to promote Mount Rainier as an economic development destination.
“I want to create a retention as well as an attraction plan for businesses,” said Benitez. “We need to start advertising outside the city in order to have other people come and see what the jewel of Mount Rainier is.”
Stoltzfus, echoing some of Benitez’s themes, said he also wanted to make downtown Mount Rainier a regional destination for economic development of some type.
“I really want to build Mount Rainier more and more as a destination,” said Stoltzfus. “Use the unique aspects of our community to draw people not just from within our won community…but bringing others from within the Route 1 corridor; To bring them here and to see what amazing assets we have; To invest their resources and engage with the community.”
Chesek provided the most-detailed response to the question of how to help businesses affected by the pandemic. While it dwelt heavily on recruiting new mixed-use development opportunities to downtown Mount Rainier, he also said he wanted to use federal pandemic stimulus dollars to fund stormwater infrastructure work, and to create grant programs for residential housing assistance and affected businesses.
“Then there is the longer-term question of how we sustain ourselves and our businesses over time. One of them is by creating a vibrant downtown core,” said Chesek. “Having a density of people downtown is important.”
From there, the next question asked how the candidates would address “loitering” in the city’s downtown core, referring to complaints of public drunkenness and criminal activity in the area. Benitez noted the city has a part-time social services coordinator whose job is to help connect residents with supporting services if available. She said she wanted to make the position a full-time job. But Benitez also said the problem was a symptom of a larger issue that Mount Rainier cannot handle on its own, and encouraged compassion for Mount Rainier residents and visitors who lack housing.
“We are not seeking the root of the problem,” said Benitez. “They need support. Some of them are homeless. If we just see them as an object in the way of our progress, we are not thinking from our heart and are not thinking of them as people.”
Stoltzfus noted his career in public transit – he has worked for transit agencies and now works for a company that builds electric transit vehicles – to say it was an issue he was familiar with. He also said Mount Rainier was probably unable to tackle the issue on its own.
“A lot of the issues people bring up with loitering and drunkenness, those are larger societal challenges around the lack of access to housing and healthcare,” said Stoltzfus. “I am concerned about solving the problem and getting our community to a safer place where our community feels comfortable.”
Building on the previous answers, Chesek also said he wanted to make the city’s social services coordinator a full-time job. He also wanted to work more closely with county authorities and neighboring cities to comprehensively address issues related to mental health and homelessness.
“The county is about to open up a facility to deal with mental health issues. It has 16 beds in it. Hyattsville is building a police station with beds in it,” said Chesek. “We need to figure out ways to partner on getting people the help they need.”
The next question asked how the candidates would improve the Code Compliance Department, which has been the subject of several complaints over the past years from residents and businesses about heavy-handed enforcement and less-than-pleasant bedside manners. The candidates were unanimous in calling for a comprehensive review and revision of the city’s building code.
Stoltzfus, who has owned a home in Mount Rainier since 2010, said that much of the current problems at the department stem from the early 2010s when the city had more vacant homes. That led to city officials cracking down on code infractions to prevent squatting and stave off property value declines. But Stoltzfus said the city no longer has a problem with vacant homes to the extent it did in 2010, and the aggressive posture is no longer needed.
“I would really like to take a look at our current code compliance approach,” said Stoltzfus. “We need to look at what are the things that people are doing that are violating the code that really have an impact on our quality life, and how to focus our city staff on things that improve our quality of life.”
Chesek said City Council has not paid as much attention to code enforcement issues as it should have.
“This is one we haven’t really been able to focus on because there has been so much staff turnover,” said Chesek. “When you just cycle in code-enforcement officers and you get new people in who just want to put their foot down, you can have problems.”
Chesek also endorsed a review of the city’s building codes with an eye toward eliminating duplication between the city and county building codes so that projects don’t have to wait for two approvals before starting work.
Benitez said code enforcement issues were “definitely a problem” in the city, and also endorsed a review of the city’s approach.
“We need to build that department as a department that is welcoming to our community,” said Benitez. “But we need to find out where the holes are in the code…a top-down review is definitely what we need.”
One of the last questions asked City Council candidates to describe their dream health and wellness projects for the city.
Chesek said he wanted to create bicycle boulevards throughout the city by making some streets one-way for cars and adding bicycle lanes. In his vision, these bicycle boulevards would connect to the city’s schools and encourage kids to walk or bike to school. Benitez said she wanted to do more activities at the Mount Rainier Nature Center. Stoltzfus said he wanted to hold more events in the city that bring people together in public spaces.