Anacortes City Council members Matt Miller and Ryan Walters are candidates for mayor on the Nov. 2 ballot. Current Mayor Laurie Gere is not seeking re-election. The mayor is elected to a full-time, four-year term and serves as salaried chief executive officer of this city of 18,000 people.
Ryan Walters has worked in local government for 14 years, but he began developing his public service skills several years before that — in the mid-1990s at Anacortes High School, where he served as president of the Associated Student Body.
Walters went on after graduation from AHS to earn a B.A. at the University of Rochester, studied for a summer at the London School of Economics, earned a law degree at the University of California-Davis, and served as a civil deputy prosecuting attorney and as assistant planning director of Skagit County.
Walters, an Old Town resident, is now planning director for the Samish Indian Nation, a job he said he’ll give up if elected the full-time, salaried, chief executive officer of this city. The general election is Nov. 2; on the ballot for mayor are Walters, 41, and fellow City Council member Matt Miller, 55, a resident of the Hillcrest area. The mayor is elected to a four-year term.
Walters said he’s tuned in to community needs because of his long history in Anacortes and his work with local organizations, neighborhoods and small businesses.
“I grew up here in Anacortes, my family is from here, multiple generations of my family are from here. We really call this place ‘home’,” he told the Anacortes American earlier in his campaign. “I’m running because there are things I want to see happen in Anacortes. I’m not running just to get the title. I’m not running because I’ve been here a while. I’m running to make some change happen, to improve things for Anacortes.”
The challenges awaiting the next mayor are many: cleanup of the former water treatment plant site and the former A Avenue landfill; possible strengthening of the Whistle Lake dam; continued improvements to city streets, the wastewater treatment plant and stormwater handling; and continuing to safeguard the city’s finances while guiding municipal government through the gauntlet of uncertainty that is the COVID-19 pandemic.
What voters might expect
When it comes to COVID-19, both Walters and opponent Matt Miller said in a candidates’ forum last week that they would not want to force city employees to get vaccinated. For Walters, the exception is first responders like police officers and firefighters who face the public. His position may not be set in stone, however.
“We don’t know what this virus is going to be like in three months. It has continued to change, and I think that the situation will change and our response will have to change,” he said.
As for masks, Walters said state and federal guidance should be followed.
Masks are “asynchronous in their benefit: I wear a mask to protect you; you wear a mask to protect me. I think that really does justify where we are with requirements for masks, especially indoors” and at outdoor events, he said.
In different interviews, Walters has given some insight into what voters could expect from him.
“Details matter,” he said. “How you administer policies matters. How you execute on policies and projects matters. I enjoy writing the law, and I’ve written quite a few laws for the City of Anacortes that we’ve adopted by ordinance. I think that also is very important but also how those get executed is very important, and I think I can play an important role in making those things happen.”
Walters considers government transparency to be “one of my most fundamentally held values.” He said communicating well with the public is important “and government should be upfront about what it’s doing and shouldn’t hide bad news” — an apparent reference to the city’s nondisclosure for two years of contamination at the former water treatment plant. Walters said he’ll “lead cultural changes” in some city departments to address these issues.
Walters said the city could be more proactive in code enforcement. He pointed to a process for handling code violations when he was an attorney for Skagit County. His office would send a letter inviting the property owner to work out a voluntary compliance agreement with county staff. The owner provided a timeline to accomplish the work, and it could be extended if needed. The idea was to make progress toward a solution, he said.
“For these structures that are falling into the water, we ought to agree on a timeline and get that in writing as an enforceable agreement and hold them to it,” he said.
Walters said retaining Anacortes’ small-town character is key.
“We don’t want to lose our small-town character,” he said. “We need to be an inclusive city, not an exclusive city, and we really head in that direction when we get to be so expensive for housing. We start to exclude people who work here but can’t afford to live here.”
Walters has said housing affordability is the No. 1 issue facing Anacortes — “the key to ensuring we continue to have a strong middle-class community here,” he said previously. He supports the development of more types and styles of housing — small units, townhouses, triplexes, condos — especially downtown and along R Avenue, where redevelopment would improve the vibrancy of those neighborhoods, he said.
Small units, such as one-bedrooms, have an important place in the housing cycle as starter homes and as homes for people who want to downsize when they get older, he said.
Walters said he’d like to see incentives for vacant land to be made available for development and for numerous older properties to be redeveloped and repurposed.
Walters wants to improve downtown parking, make curbside dining areas — aka “parklets” — permanent and lead meetings with business owners on the downtown’s needs. He envisions Ninth Street as a walkable connection between downtown and the waterfront, with distinct paving, new storefronts and an unobstructed view of the water.
Walters said the city must have a coordinated response to address homelessness.
“It’s wrong to paint all the homeless with the same brush,” he said. “People who are committing crimes and doing drugs need to be dealt with by the justice system; other people simply need help connecting to services. But our biggest problem is those suffering from mental illness or substance abuse.”
He would advocate for more resources for, and greater responsiveness from, designated professionals trained in responding to calls involving mental illness or substance abuse.