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Originally published Wednesday, November 16, 2011 at 11:11 AM

Danny Westneat

Black Diamond shows democracy in spades

Two incumbents on the Black Diamond City Council lost bids for re-election by margins of 46 and 51 percentage points. "It's the town that roared," one observer said of the uprising brought about by the way the council dealt with a developer's massive proposal.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Incumbents always win. Votes can't trump money. You can't fight City Hall.

These are rules we know to be true. So to prove them wrong, maybe what it takes is people so new to politics that they don't know these are rules at all.

That's as good an explanation as any for the political landslide that swept through the Southeast King County town of Black Diamond last week.

Three seats were on the ballot for the five-seat council in the town of 4,000. Two of the seats were held by seemingly well-liked, scandal-free incumbents.

It's not just that these incumbents lost that's attracting attention. It's that they were annihilated, by 51 and 46 percentage points, respectively.

The third seat, which was open, was won by a candidate from the same slate of political newcomers. His victory margin was 51 percentage points.

"It's the town that roared," says David Bricklin, a Seattle attorney who said he's never seen a political uprising to match this in more than three decades of working on local land-use issues.

What's happening in Black Diamond is that a developer, Kirkland-based YarrowBay Holdings, came in five years ago wanting to build the largest development in the history of King County.

It would add 6,500 housing units, quintupling the old mining town's population and bringing in more commercial space than is housed in the Auburn SuperMall.

To get an idea of the scale of change we're talking about, consider the schools situation.

Right now Black Diamond has one elementary school, with 10 classrooms (older kids mostly go to school in Enumclaw).

The development proposes adding four new elementary schools, two middle schools and a high school (90 percent paid for by taxpayers).

"It's plopping a Tukwila on top of us — without the two freeways to feed it," says Ron Taylor, 52, one of the newly elected council members.

The problem, they all say, is not just that the project is too big. It's a corrosive sense that a slick visitor had rolled the little town.

"We're country bumpkins out here," says Joe May, 66, another of the new council members. "I'm the same — I'd just as soon sit on the end of my dock and fish. So I think they looked at us and I think they said, 'This will be easy pickings.' "

The three say Black Diamond has come to seem like a company town. YarrowBay currently provides 35 percent of the town budget, the money going toward salaries of the city staffers needed to review the company's own complex development proposal.

They know they can't stop the project.

But they say the old council didn't insist on enough mitigation for the inevitable clogging of the two-lane Maple Valley Highway and farm roads.

Others make a case the city struck a decent bargain, insisting on two master-planned communities with half the land set aside as open space, rather than featureless sprawl.

But if ever an electorate has spoken, it's this one. In a huge blow to the developer, it said: Stop! Slow down. Do this one differently.

"It was a very loud statement from the people," May says. "Even though I was in the middle of it, I was absolutely flabbergasted by the results. I didn't know this sort of thing could happen in politics."

How did it? The old-fashioned way. They spent hundreds of hours in tedious zoning meetings stretching over years. Then, they took their bill of particulars straight to the people, often door to door.

Granted, voter outreach is easier in a small town than in a big media market.

But one of the challengers, a 42-year-old mom of four named Tamie Boxx-Deady who had never run for any office before, not even student council, found the energy to doorbell 1,200 of the town's 1,500 homes.

"Have you heard the saying that democracy is now a luxury item — it's only for people with money?" Boxx-Deady says. "This was about an entire town saying, 'No, we won't stand for that. It isn't just for the powerful. It's for everyone.' "

I love it. For all the talk right now about how dissatisfied we are with the status quo, here are the "country bumpkins" actually doing something about it. Showing us what democracy really looks like.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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