Bellevue and its new mayor: An era of calm and regional influence?

Bellevue Mayor Claudia Balducci, right, and Kevin Wallace, deputy mayor, after they were selected to the positions. Credit: City of Bellevue

In a YouTube video capturing the heat of Bellevue’s light rail talks in 2010, a city council meeting devolves into a shouting match between councilmembers Claudia Balducci and Kevin Wallace.

“You have time and again misled the public,” spits Wallace, insinuating that Balducci’s position as a Sound Transit board member posed a conflict of interest.

Momentarily speechless, she counters with her own allegations: “How many times are you going to put your personal and financial interests before the constituents of Bellevue?”

It wasn’t the first or last time council deliberations resembled a soap opera. But both insist it’s now water under the bridge.

In January, Balducci replaced Conrad Lee as mayor of Bellevue. Wallace was named deputy mayor.

Though the title of mayor is mostly ceremonial — Bellevue operates under a council-manager form of government — the position has begun to carry more clout in regional politics. As Bellevue emerges from Seattle's shadow, the city and its mayor are increasingly looked to as it as a center of economic develolpment, political power and even cultural diversity.

“Right after that vote, we stood up to take a picture together. I looked up at him and I said: ‘We’re partners now,’ remembers Balducci with a laugh.

The next two years will bring their own set of challenges. Will East Link advance on deadline and at budget? Will Bellevue foster the arts and culture hub it envisions? And can a city that insists its neighborhoods are still its heart avoid urban sprawl while growing its downtown skyline?

Balducci seems to think so. Soon after taking the helm, she stepped down from her three-year term as the King County Director of Youth and Juvenile Detention, to assume a new position as Strategy Section Manager for criminal justice in the county’s office of Performance Strategy and Budget. It's a job, she said, that will permit her more time for city responsibilities.

From Seattle’s vantage point, Bellevue may still be somewhat in its infancy, but the years ahead will represent a growth spurt — both developmentally and culturally. By the end of the year Sound Transit expects to move its East Link project to a construction timeline. Balducci insists the drama of city council meetings is behind them, but the contentious placement of a Sound Transit maintenance facility that has identified three sites in Bellevue and one in Lynwood, remains unresolved.

When the council first became aware of the facility in 2011, the members claimed Sound Transit had been duplicitous, negotiating details of the East Link alignment with the city, while omitting its search for a 20-acre-plus rail yard. Sound Transit expects to revisit conversations and ultimately select a site by the end of the year — either a plot near Lynwood’s transit center, two overlapping options in the Bel-Red neighborhood or a final site west of 140th Avenue.

The deepest irony, says Balducci, is that after the city carefully crafted land-use plans to allow for office towers, retail space, apartments and greater walkability in the corridor, a rail yard expected to park 80 cars a night could stifle transit-oriented development. “I definitely don’t know the end to this story yet," she said. "But the key will be to create multiple uses of the site, wherever it goes.”

Balducci, who has served on the Sound Transit Board since 2010 and been one of council’s most staunch supporters of light rail, is optimistic that if a Bellevue site is ultimately chosen, it could be creatively integrated into its surroundings. At her urging, Sound Transit last month convened a panel of the Urban Land Institute, a transit-development think tank.

In many ways, East Link’s maintenance facility is an easy issue for Bellevue, because the key decision on the location rests out of the council’s hands. At the other end of the spectrum are efforts to cultivate an arts scene in the city to match its growing metropolitan status.

“As a city we’ve got a great bone structure, but arts and culture, that’s our soul,” said Balducci.

Past projects have launched to a tepid reception. The most notable is the downtown Tateuchi Center, by now an almost cautionary tale among arts venturists. What was to be a 2,000 seat concert hall — with world-class performers, a cabaret venue and state-of-the-art acoustics — is still largely a vision. Its only notable footprint is a small presentation spot in the Hyatt Hotel. When the recession hit donations had crested at $60 million, leaving a remaining $100 million to be raised.

Bellevue’s other arts ventures have floundered or faced challenges, too. Ten20, a black box theatre built into an upscale apartment tower, struggled to lease its space. And this winter, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Francia Russell Center in Bel-Red conceded that small changes to light rail’s alignment would effectively demolish its facility.

The council recently re-entered talks with the Tateuchi Center, agreeing to a tentative public-private partnership. It's still unclear in what capacity the city might contribute and whether any city support would first need to receive public approval as a ballot measure. But the council has made a symbolic move to make arts and culture a priority for the city.

Balducci says what she wants to be remembered for most in her two- year term is as a peacemaker of sorts, a departure from the divisiveness that’s gridlocked council for a number of years.

“What defines my leadership style is my background in labor negotiations. … It’s not like litigation where you win and walk away or lose and walk away,” she says. “You have to work together the next day.”

Balducci grew up in New York, attended Providence College and got her graduate degree in law at Columbia University. A summer internship brought her to Seattle, where she fell in love with the Northwest and enrolled for her third year of law school at the University of Washington.

Her career has taken her from civil law to criminal justice policy work with many titles in between. She worked for a time as a human resources manager for the King County Jail system, ascending to become a regional coordinator within six years. In 2010 she became Director of the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, where she inherited a 2007 federal investigation that found King County Jails to be in violation of inmates’ civil rights.

Balducci oversaw the final two years of a three-year monitoring agreement, a task that demanded massive administrative and cultural reforms. In 2012, at the end of the review process, King County Jails was ultimately awarded “exemplary” ratings.

Balducci points to revamped jail psychiatric services as one of her proudest achievements during her stint as director. The federal review process galvanized changes by demanding more frequent clinical assessments of suicidal inmates, but prisoners now have access to basic psychiatric services.

There were missteps along the way. She drew criticism for providing accused cop killer Chris Monfont with a TV set in solitary confinement. Balducci was later knocked for omitting details about Monfont’s suicide attempt.

Running a city then would seem a walk in the park compared to criminal justice controversies. But it was a modest cause that first got Balducci involved in Bellevue politics. After witnessing a neighborhood shopping center lose its anchor tenant and weather tough times, she began following the push for redevelopment. She was surprised at the amount of politics behind a simple zoning change. Balducci served on the stakeholder group that ultimately found common ground between neighborhood and council concerns. (The center is now witnessing a revival, which is expected to bring in the coming years new office space, apartments, retail and a remodeled library.)

Balducci was first elected for council in 2004 and was most recently re-elected in 2011 after a well-financed campaign against her, funded heavily by developer Kemper Freeman. Freeman at one point accused her of trading tax dollars for a government job and a seat on Sound Transit’s board. (A formal investigation was conducted after she was re-elected to determine if her involvement with Sound Transit presented a conflict of interest. She was cleared, along with Wallace and former mayor Grant Degginger.)

In council meetings, Balducci communicates a certain cheerful persuasiveness. When asked during an interview to outline what the city faces in the year ahead, she hesitates, cautious not to push what she says might be misconstrued as her agenda, instead of the collective efforts of council: “We’re still in rebuilding mode. But I want the next two years to be our list, as opposed to mine.”

Lee’s mayoral legacy was his international relations — the business partnerships and sister-city initiatives that sprouted from his early years in China. While Balducci says she wants to harmonize the council, one of her assets may lie in her regional perspective from high-level positions with King County as well as her work on Sound Transit's board. A greater focus on the region could not only help Bellevue understand how it fits into the larger Eastside and King County as a whole, but could forge important partnerships in transportation, economic development and affordable housing.

She hopes the approach will make for fewer fiery outbursts and more exciting progress.

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