By Nicholas Johnson

Candidates seeking appointment to an open Des Moines City Council seat addressed the council Thursday (Feb. 24, 2022), with Priscilla Vargas dropping out to endorse Vic Pennington and public support pouring in for Yoshiko Grace Matsui.

In January, former councilmember Anthony Martinelli resigned his Position No. 6 seat on the council amid allegations of domestic violence and abuse. Earlier this month, four people applied to fill the vacancy, including Vargas, Pennington, Grace Matsui and Tad Doviak. Each of their full applications, as well as comments from the public, can be reviewed here.

The council’s six current members are set to discuss the candidates and vote on who to appoint during their March 3 meeting. The appointed candidate would serve the remainder of Martinelli’s four-year term, through 2023, and have the option to run for election to a new term in 2023.

During Thursday’s meeting, Vargas told the council that she no longer wanted to be considered for the position, adding that she believes Pennington to be the best person for the job.

“You have a really talented, experienced person amongst this group and that’s Vic Pennington,” said Vargas, who ran for a seat on the council in 2021, losing in the general election to Gene Achziger.

Pennington, who was previously elected to the council in 2013 and 2017 before resigning in January 2020 to become chief of South King Fire and Rescue, thanked Vargas for her “unexpected” endorsement.

Before the candidates addressed the council, City Clerk Bonnie Wilkins reported that 14 written public comments had been submitted in support of Grace Matsui, while three had come in for Vargas, another three for Doviak and none for Pennington.

Grace Matsui, who ran against incumbent Matt Mahoney in 2021 but lost in the primary election, was first to address the council Thursday, arguing that her experience working for the city of Seattle “means that I can hit the ground running.

“I would bring my accumulated skills from working in government and higher education to cooperating with the whole council to set a course for Des Moines that incorporates the viewpoints of the residents,” Grace Matsui said, arguing that among other things the council should reflect the diversity of the community, which she said is 43 percent people of color.

“The demanding work of a city councilmember requires us to listen closely to the concerns, particularly of under-served or under-represented residents, and propose programs and services that reflect that they have been heard,” she said.

Grace Matsui said she would work to address concerns about crime and safety, whether it be slowing traffic in school zones or reducing violent crime and property crime through community policing. She also said she would push for more in-person activities for youth and for thoughtful development of the marina, which she called “the single most important asset in Des Moines.

“We are at a crossroads … of whether Des Moines will continue to be a hidden-gem seaside town or further develop an economic engine that will lead to the growth of prosperity among all residents,” Grace Matsui said. “The development of the marina can be that engine.”

Doviak, who ran against incumbent Traci Buxton in 2021 but lost in the general election, said that he is a people person who understands the value of building relationships in order to get things done.

“Relationship building is the cornerstone of getting things done,” Doviak said. “If you can’t or won’t build relationships with the people who can help you help the city of Des Moines, then there’s no point in even seeking to serve on city council.”

Doviak said he would work to do what’s best for the city so that “every person is valued and respected.

“That sometimes will require thinking outside the box or working with a person or group that might not make sense at first,” Doviak said, “but I’m not afraid to try new things or listen to new ideas if it helps the community.”

Pennington, who in January stepped down from his position as chief of South King Fire and Rescue, said the council could benefit from his experience, citing his work as deputy mayor in 2016 to shore up a $1.7 million budget deficit amid concerns that the city was on the verge of bankruptcy.

“This council is a young council, and I say that with all the respect in the world, but there’s a big learning curve here,” Pennington said. “We have a really sustainable city but we need to continue to ensure that that happens, and that happens through economic development. And it’s on us to make sure that we do it in a way that isn’t going to always go out for a levy lid lift or go out for bonds because that’s a big burden on our taxpayers.”

Pennington also referenced some residents’ desire to see “a person of color on the council that’s a representative of our LGBQ, BIPOC communities” before describing his recent efforts as chief to bring principles of diversity, equity and inclusion to South King Fire and Rescue.

“As the incoming fire chief, I went to Harvard, to the Kennedy School, and I learned about strategies for building and leading diverse organizations,” Pennington said, noting that the agency changed how it recruits by doing more outreach, mentoring prospective recruits and removing costs associated with testing.

“And what is equally important,” Pennington said, “is I started the program in our organization, and it continues today, to teach our current leadership and our workforce about diversity, equity and inclusions and unseen bias.”

While most council members thanked the candidates for applying and coming to speak during Thursday’s meeting, councilmember JC Harris lamented the fact that more residents did not apply, arguing that while Pennington would not necessarily be his choice, the former councilmember is “the only qualified applicant.

“We’ve trained everybody to think that basically anybody can do this,” Harris said. “It’s problematic because the job really has no requirements – there’s like no exam, all you have to do is show up for the main meetings and that’s it.

“If Des Moines really wants change,” Harris said, “it must put forward candidates that are willing to learn and speak up and vote on principle.”

Mayor Matt Mahoney said he disagreed.

“I think everybody has a qualification and it’s about the passion,” Mahoney said. “This process was never going to be perfect, but it was the council-approved process given the limitations of Zoom to make it fair and equal.”

During the council’s Feb. 10 meeting, Harris objected to the plan to interview candidates all at once and without council members being allowed to ask whatever questions they like, as had occurred during the 2020 appointment process to replace Pennington.

“We should each be able to ask whatever we want based on what we are concerned about in the applications,” Harris said during the Feb. 10 meeting, adding that he found it “deeply frustrating” when interviewing candidates all at once in 2020 and “watching people go down the line and just parrot one another’s responses.”

Councilmember Harry Steinmetz, who was elected in 2021 but had applied to fill the council’s vacancy in 2020, said Feb. 10 that as a candidate in 2020 he found interviewing all at once to be frustrating “for exactly the reasons Harris gave.” However, Steinmetz also noted that those council members who asked individualized questions did so with “a little zinger against the candidates that they disfavored and for the candidates that they favored.”

In 2020, Harris criticized as political the council’s 3-2 vote to appoint former councilmember Luisa Bangs over Steinmetz, which came a few months after Harris unseated Bangs with a 120-vote election win. For her part, Bangs did not seek election in 2021, when Achziger defeated Vargas for the Position No. 3 seat.

Also during the Feb. 10 meeting, Deputy Mayor Traci Buxton assured her fellow councilmembers that they would have plenty of time to ask the candidates anything they like – outside of a public meeting – and report back during council discussion before the March 3 vote.

“We’re going to have the opportunity to sit and say I interviewed this candidate and asked them this question and this is what they said,” Buxton said. “We’re going to have the opportunity to report back our experience of interviewing these candidates if we invest in that, so that’s our opportunity to do.”

Correction: This story originally misstated Yoshiko Grace Matsui’s last name. Her last name is Grace Matsui.


Nicholas Johnson (he/him) is an award-winning writer, editor and photographer who grew up in Boulevard Park, graduated from Highline High School and studied journalism at Western Washington University. Send news tips, story ideas and positive vibes to [email protected].