By Nicholas Johnson

The Des Moines City Council returned Vic Pennington to the dais Thursday night (March 3, 2022) after the former councilmember and three recent city council candidates applied to fill Anthony Martinelli’s former seat.

“I look forward to working with each one of you,” Pennington told the council. “And I hope that sometime in the near future we can get together and have discussions about our priorities or different views, and I hope that we can come together and find a common path.”

The council voted 4-2 to appoint Pennington to fill the Position No. 6 seat previously held by Anthony Martinelli, who resigned in January amid allegations of domestic violence and abuse.

Pennington, who was previously elected to the council in 2013 and 2017 before stepping down to become chief of South King Fire and Rescue, will serve the remainder of Martinelli’s four-year term, through 2023, and have the option to seek election to a new term in 2023.

Pennington was one of three final candidates for the position along with Tad Doviak and Yoshiko Grace Matsui. A fourth candidate, Priscilla Vargas, dropped her bid for the open seat during the council’s Feb. 24 meeting and endorsed Pennington.

Following the vote, Mayor Matt Mahoney said the council’s decision, which came down to Pennington and Grace Matsui, was a difficult one.

“These councilmembers were very strained over this,” said Mahoney, who voted for Pennington, as did Deputy Mayor Traci Buxton and councilmembers Jeremy Nutting and Harry Steinmetz. “A lot of them, including myself, lost sleep.”

All in all, some 47 residents submitted written comments urging the council to appoint one candidate or another, with an overwhelming majority – 38 – supporting Grace Matsui. Five supported Vargas, three supported Doviak and one supported Pennington, who told the council Thursday night that he purposely did not seek endorsements “because I wanted to do this on my own merits.

“I know a lot of the members of the community are disappointed in our decision tonight,” Mahoney said. “I get that. And I can understand why.”

Grace Matsui, who ran against incumbent Mahoney in 2021, thanked the residents who wrote in to urge the council to appoint her, many of whom argued that she was not only well qualified for the position but would bring racial and gender diversity to the all-white and almost-entirely male city council.

“It takes courage to speak out, especially in a public forum, and I appreciate your support,” Grace Matsui said before the vote. “Regardless of tonight’s outcome, I’ll be keeping out, I’ll keep working to make sure Des Moines is a safer, more vibrant and more inclusive place to live and raise a family. I hope that we can continue to all work together in a positive light.”

Councilmember JC Harris, who voted for Grace Matsui, said the appointment process is comparable to a job interview, not a popular election.

“I hear the public’s desire for diversity,” Harris said. “I get it. But it is also not unreasonable for us to want applicants to be in line with our vision, as well.”

Councilmember Gene Achziger, who also voted for Grace Matsui, criticized Pennington for suggesting that the council should appoint him in part because of 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.

“Without his return, we’re somehow in peril of financial ruin?” Achziger said. “The fix was so delicate that we are likely to plunge into poverty without him? I see no reason to believe that the other two applicants are a threat to the stability of city finances. Both of them have experience handling financial affairs of sizable operations.”

Achziger also urged his fellow councilmembers to consider the council’s lack of racial and gender diversity, claiming that of cities with more than 8,000 residents in southwest King County, Des Moines is currently the only one without a person of color on council, in spite of the city’s population being 43 percent residents of color.

“It has been suggested that BIPOC representation and representation of women on the council is not essential because most Des Moines voters chose white men in the last election,” Achziger said. “I find this highly offensive because it suggests that voters cannot select candidates based on issues, values and a history of community engagement. Perhaps those making such arguments are stating the most apparent reason why we need gender and BIPOC representation on the council: you are marginalizing women and people of color.”

Steinmetz argued that Pennington’s experience as a former councilmember rises above the experience and qualifications of the other candidates.

“The fact that Mr. Pennington has been here before gives him a knowledge base that is beyond what either of the other two can bring to the table,” said Steinmetz, who also argued that Grace Matsui, who sits on the Legacy Foundation’s board of directors as well as the King County Water District No. 54 board of commissioners, would face conflicts of interest if she were appointed to the council.

“You cannot be sitting in a decision-making position on two bodies that are, you know, don’t have the same interests,” he said. “You’d have to recuse yourself because it’s a conflict of interest. I can’t limit the council to five only on certain issues or six only on certain issues.”

Mahoney argued that Pennington’s executive-level experience at South King Fire and Rescue suggests he is better suited to making tough policy decisions as a councilmember.

“His experience is longer, it’s greater and has more depth; it is at the executive level, where policy and other types of things are formed,” Mahoney said. “It’s the tough decisions certain people make at a higher level that really brings a quality to this city council.”

Mahoney echoed Steinmetz’s concerns about Grace Matsui having conflicts of interest. He also suggested that she had spread misinformation on social media that “was harmful to our community.”

“I feel it necessary for you to look at yourself,” Mahoney told Grace Matsui.

Mahoney also criticized Grace Matsui’s management of the water district, which she oversees as a commissioner.

“I’m concerned that that water district can’t sustain the growth we’re trying to do in the city,” he said. “I believe it’s managed in the way the city used to be managed, where you just do enough to make it by. There needs to be hard decisions with that district, in infrastructure and funding and possibly LIDs and other things, and I think that’s the task that lies before you.”

Harris said Mahoney’s criticism of the management of the water district was inappropriate, however he agreed with Steinmetz’s concerns about Grace Matsui’s involvement on several governing boards.

“We’ve had councilmembers on like five different organizations and committees,” Harris said. “If I had my way, I would limit councilmembers to one thing.”

Harris also said some of Grace Matsui’s supporters engaged in negative, unfair campaigning against Pennington.

“You should be talking about what your applicant can do for the city,” he said. “Talking smack about somebody else? I mean, come on. This is not an election.”

Several councilmembers encouraged Grace Matsui and Doviak to run for election in 2023, when the seats held by Nutting, Harris and Pennington will be on the ballot. Buxton urged the community to identify promising candidates early and put in the work to reach voters.

“I think we’ll be successful if we can bring the community together behind a candidate,” Buxton said. “And I think some of the issues that we have this week that are so acute are not going to be as much of an issue in the future.”

For her part, Grace Matsui has already filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission to run for election to the city council in 2023.

 

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].