Each candidate running for the Des Moines City Council Nov. 7, 2023 General Election was asked 10 questions by The Waterland Blog, covering topics like their reasons for wanting to serve on the council, what they think about current issues in the city, and what kind of solutions they have.

The following responses to our questionnaire in our series is from Des Moines City Council Position No. 2 candidate Rob Back, a former councilmember who is challenging incumbent JC Harris.

Ballots will be mailed out on Oct. 18, and are due by 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023.

NOTEPhotos, links and the order of how candidates are presented are identical to the King County Elections website.

Rob Back

1. Why are you running for city council? Please explain what inspired you to run and why you are qualified.

“My 35+ years of experience as a maintenance contractor and property manager have been very successful. In 2015, Des Moines was on the brink of bankruptcy, and we faced the possibility of dissolving as a city and possibly becoming annexed into the adjacent jurisdictions that surround Des Moines. I served as your council member from 2016 until 2020, and in that time, we were able to completely turn our situation around. During my 4 years in office, we achieved the following:

    • Consistently sustainable and solvent city budgets with appropriate contingencies.
    • Raised our legal contingency funding requirement, exceeding national standards.
    • Earned a significant bond rating upgrade from Standard & Poor’s as well as Moody’s.
    • Saved the city over $500,000 from these bond upgrades, allowing us to refinance all of our outstanding bonds from 2008.
    • Now able to issue new bonds to finance marina redevelopment at a much lower interest rate because of our excellent credit reports.
    • Significant increases for various human services allocations to community organizations that provide resources for our residents in need.
    • Significant increases for police and public safety.
    • Significant increases to invest in infrastructure and public facilities.
    • Received the Government Finance Officers Association Award for our excellence in the city’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report.
    • Most notably, we received our State Auditor’s Report giving us a “clean bill of health” for the first time in years.”

2. What are the three biggest issues facing Des Moines residents, and how can they be solved?

“Public Safety! Public Safety! Public Safety! If our community doesn’t feel safe, then we have no real sense of community. During my time on the council, we achieved the following:

    • A fully staffed Police Department for the first time in over 15 years with a “hire-ahead” program for more officers needed in succession planning.
    • Continued financial support for our Officer-In-Training program to ensure our city remains fully staffed in the future.
    • We now have 6 detectives as well as a specialty Street Crimes Unit. We were also able to acquire our first K-9 Police Dog.
    • We created the South Des Moines/Redondo Police Substation that is now vertically integrated with the FBI, the ATF Violent Crimes Unit, the U.S. Marshals, and the King County Sheriff’s Gang Unit. All these agencies can now work with our own DMPD in coordinating and authorizing resources on-site.
    • Created and supported our Emergency Management Program, which can now network with the Regional Office of Emergency Management resources.”

3. What are your thoughts on local crime, and the job the Des Moines Police Department is doing?

“Because of my stance regarding public safety, I have received an official endorsement from our Des Moines Police Guild. Law enforcement needs uncompromising support from our elected officials, especially in Washington State. In my time as a council member, I went on numerous ride-along tours with various officers while on duty. I cannot speak highly enough about the job they do and the “spirit of excellence” in how they do it. I will NEVER defund our police.”

4. What is your opinion on how City Manager Michael Matthias is doing?

“In January 2016, when I took office, my first task was to assist the council in hiring a new City Manager. Initially, we chose a candidate with experience in Nevada, but he took another job. Ultimately, we voted 7-0 in favor of Michael, who was initially a 6-1 vote in his favor. Although he wasn’t my top pick, I supported him. I believe that a successful City Manager benefits the entire city. I’ve consistently rated his performance highly, especially in addressing the financial crisis and restructuring our administration. However, one consideration that I can suggest is that we appoint an Assistant City Manager at some point in preparation for his eventual retirement.”

5. How do you think the city is handling issues regarding airplane noise and pollution from Sea-Tac Airport?

“While I was on the council, I addressed the State Senate Transportation Committee in favor of SB5370, sponsored by Senator Kaiser, to establish a committee for selecting a new airport location. Our city is disproportionately affected by SeaTac’s constant growth, raising concerns about the health impacts of having an international airport as our neighbor. We need more than just new windows and noise abatement for our homes. I’m monitoring Burien’s situation after their recent court ruling in their favor. This will remain an ongoing issue, and we must continue working with the Port.”

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6. What are your thoughts on building a hotel near the Des Moines Marina?

“Personally, I’m not in favor of the hotel idea. My opponent provided misinformation about construction on the north parking lot. Our pier, constructed in 1980 with RCO Grant Funding, stipulated that the north lot couldn’t be developed and is protected from being sold to a private developer. As for letting the private sector undertake a project at the Marina, it’s uncertain. Some private properties obtained for the Marina’s construction in 1970 were acquired using eminent domain powers. Selling them for a private project might not be possible. Any such project should involve the community and seek their input.

7. What are your thoughts on the passenger ferry pilot program?

“I’d love to see a year-round Des Moines Water Taxi service. Some opponents initially criticized the light rail, arguing it was a waste of money due to low ridership. However, Angle Lake Station’s success demonstrates that new ideas can gain traction. The same can happen with a Des Moines Passenger Ferry service over time. I’ve attended Puget Sound Regional Council discussions on the topic, and the region needs more transportation options as it grows. A water taxi route from Tacoma to Des Moines and Seattle harks back to the “Mosquito Fleet” of wooden ferries a century ago. Kitsap Transit polling showed demand for transport to SeaTac, making Des Moines a sensible destination. “If we build it, they will come.”

8. Do you have any ideas on how to help Des Moines businesses that are struggling with recent issues, like COVID or increasing crime?

“COVID had a significant impact, and federal intervention was necessary. As for crime, please refer to my earlier remarks on public safety. Concerning downtown businesses, having another grocery store someday would be ideal. However, the success of a full-service grocery store in our downtown might depend on locals’ commitment to supporting it. I reached out to Trader Joe’s during my time on the council, but they believed it might not significantly increase their customer base. They thought it might only shift existing customers from other locations.

9 How would you change recent issues having to do with the “boil water” advisory or ongoing sewage spillages in Des Moines?

“WD54 has faced long-standing issues. During my time on the council, as the City Environment Committee Chair, I requested the District’s Comprehensive Plan. While their rates have always been low, they lack the capital needed for major infrastructure improvements. This concerns me, given our investments in the Marina and downtown projects. Personally, I’m not in favor of the City taking over WD54, but we must explore potential solutions. Highline Water merging the two districts is worth suggesting. Regarding sewage, our shores are now part of King County’s Shellfish Protection District, which monitors for safe levels. They have initiated a program encouraging septic system inspections and drain field repairs if needed. There are also concerns about possible container ship sewage dumping from vessels en route from China to Tacoma, which should be addressed if confirmed.”

10. How would you balance the needs and interests of different neighborhoods and communities in Des Moines?

“It’s a challenging question to answer because our separate neighborhoods have distinct needs. Pacific Ridge, Redondo, and our Downtown have unique requirements. During my time on the Council, we created a Citizen Advisory Committee, but it ceased due to a lack of interest and COVID. However, it has recently been re-established, and I believe it’s essential for these communities to have a more prominent voice as we move forward.”

TOMORROW: The same 10 questions asked of Position No. 4 candidates.

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