By Nicholas Johnson

The Burien City Council met Friday (Nov. 12, 2021) with one of its advisory committees to discuss the council’s “perceived frayed relationship with local businesses” and ways to repair that relationship through improved communication and collaboration.

The apparently first-of-its-kind joint meeting came on the heels of an election and more than four months after the Business and Economic Development Partnership (BEDP) sent a letter to the council seeking to “meet directly with Council to discuss these issues and work together on potential solutions.

“[BEDP] members have been approached by business owners recently with concerns regarding perceived unfavorable statements towards the local business community expressed by some Councilmembers in Council meetings and on social media,” the advisory committee wrote in its letter, which was first presented to the council on Aug. 2.

“Recent conversations related to crime and safety, communication between the Council and business owners, and DESC development activities have all contributed in some way to a climate with diminished levels of trust and rapport between the Burien City Council, and many local business owners in the downtown core and surrounding areas.”

Three of the council’s seven members – Pedro Olguin, Cydney Moore and Nancy Tosta – did not attend the joint meeting, while four of the advisory committee’s 14 members did not attend.

Robyn Desimone, chair of the advisory committee and owner of a downtown Burien business, said the purpose of the meeting was to have open dialogue, rather than finger-pointing, about how to improve communication so that the business community feels heard by the city council.

“This meeting to me is very important to hear you out,” said Mayor Jimmy Matta, who won re-election earlier this month.

Deputy Mayor Krystal Marx, who lost her re-election bid earlier this month, said she feels it’s important to address specific issues that have caused animosity in order to effectively discuss solutions.

“Otherwise, we’re building on a foundation that’s a little bit shaky, and that worries me because a shaky foundation can tend to crumble later on even if the house you built upon it looks really great,” Marx said.

“If there were things that were happening that people felt were antagonistic or attacking or presenting Burien in not a good light,” Marx said, “I think everyone needs to own up to a part that was played in that or else that is going to be the underlying current that happens in the entire discussion.”

Desimone agreed, though she said letters and petitions from businesses have received no response from the council, causing business owners to assume they are not being heard.

“No response is pretty much a negative response, and I’m feeling that there needs to be two-way communication,” Desimone said. “When there’s nothing returning back, I feel like that’s where these conflicts are happening and that’s where assumptions are being made.”

Still, Desimone said she is not sure how best to relay the concerns of business owners to the council.

“As the chair, I do get approached often by business people that don’t know what they’re supposed to do – do I write a letter, do I make a petition?” she said. “I’m not sure what role BEDP is supposed to take.”

Councilmember Sofia Aragon said she sees the BEDP as “the No. 1 sounding board of the business community.

“The council ultimately makes the policy decision, but we need to be informed by you and we depend on that,” Aragon said. “If there’s confusion about roles, I think that’s super important because that really can drive the tone of a conversation and create confusion.”

Linda Akey, the advisory committee’s vice chair, said she believes business owners themselves have a responsibility to learn about and weigh in on emerging issues by attending meetings of the BEDP, which has worked on issues such as the Food Truck Pilot Program and the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s permanent supportive housing project planned for downtown Burien.

“We talk about these things, so there are ways for people to find out about that, but somehow they’re still not getting that information or that feedback back,” Akey said, suggesting also that councilmembers consider attending BEDP meetings to get a better sense of how business owners feel about any given issue.

Desimone said the advisory group did its job by researching the Food Truck Pilot Program, talking with local business owners and making a recommendation to the council.

“Our report to you was that we think the food trucks are a good idea, but not in the [downtown] core,” Desimone said. “So when you guys voted on it and passed it without limitations, that’s when the Burien business food people lost their shit. When you passed down your decision, there was no more communication, nothing went back and forth. I feel that’s the area that’s lacking.”

In March, the council adopted the one-year Food Truck Pilot Program with a start date of May 1. In April, the council delayed the program’s start date to June 30 after receiving pushback from Empresarios Unidos, a Burien-based advocacy group for Latino entrepreneurs.

So far, three businesses have applied to participate in the program and one has been approved, according to city spokesperson Emily Inlow-Hood.

Matta said he was caught off guard when Empresarios Unidos presented a petition in March opposing the implementation of the Food Truck Pilot Program while brick-and-mortar restaurants were still operating at limited capacity due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was pretty excited when we passed that because I thought that we had had the conversation,” Matta said. “So I’m there telling restaurants and the next thing I know people are pissed. So what happened? Should we have had more community meetings just to where we could hear?”

Aragon said the issue of food trucks illustrated for her the lack of connection between the BEDP and the Latino business community at the time.

“How the Latino businesses were able to raise their voices was really their ability to organize, and I feel like there should be a better bridge between the two,” Aragon said. “I think there are equity and diversity issues throughout our advisory committees, but the BEDP is certainly an important one. I’d like to see more focused staff outreach to businesses that we need to get involved.”

Andrea Reay, an advisory committee member and the executive director of the Seattle Southside Chamber of Commerce, echoed Aragon’s call for greater diversity and representation on the BEDP.

“Our business community is incredibly diverse and I would just ask: Are our main industry sectors represented here on BEDP?” Reay said. “We need to have an intentional plan and outreach to add more voices.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the chamber provided annual reports to the council, Reay said, suggesting those could be brought back. Advisory committee member Nancy Scholl said the city should consider investing in training on “truly respectful and effective communication.

“People need to really be not only respected in what they’re offering but to be able to understand the decisions that are being made and why they are being made,” Scholl said.

Aragon suggested the city council’s 10 study sessions each year could serve as opportunities for the advisory committee to work more directly with the council.

“What I like about study sessions is that there isn’t the pressure to vote,” Aragon said. “I would like to hear more from you in those sessions and have it structured so there’s a dialogue.”

Aragon’s fellow councilmembers as well as several advisory committee members expressed support for that idea. Economic Development Manager Chris Craig said he would develop a recommendation for future actions based on ideas shared during Friday’s meeting and bring that back to both the council and the advisory committee during a joint study session.

During Monday’s city council meeting, councilmember Kevin Schilling proposed establishing a quarterly joint meeting with the BEDP as well as assigning a council representative to attend the advisory committee’s meetings.

Toward the end of Friday’s meeting, advisory committee member Joshua Halpin said “it’s important that we are comfortable with being uncomfortable sometimes.

“It’s not always going to be ‘kumbaya,’” Halpin said. “Sometimes people get out of line. That’s going to happen. That’s where we have to forgive and move on and kind of get over it. The important thing is to maintain the conversation.”

 

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].