The two candidates in Lakewood’s one contested City Council race agree more needs to be done to improve the reputation of the second-largest city in Pierce County.
Incumbent Marie Barth says momentum is building, but it will take time to improve Lakewood’s image.
Challenger Ben Gonter says cleaning up the city’s low-income neighborhoods is a good place to start.
Gonter, 47, challenges the stereotypes he’s heard about the city he grew up in, including impressions about the city being unsafe and having poor schools. That said, Gonter believes the city is in need of repair.
“I am not happy with the decline and the decay that has (happened) in the last 10 to 25 years,” he said.
Gonter wants to see Lakewood restored to the city from his childhood memories. His family operated Gonter’s Music City off Gravelly Lake Drive in the 1970s and ’80s. He has continued the family legacy by recording songs and posting performances on YouTube.
Barth, 64, also a lifelong resident of Lakewood, said a lot has been done since the city was incorporated 19 years ago.
“All you have to do is listen and you would see that things have changed tremendously,” she said. “Even in the four years that I’ve been sitting on the council, things have changed and we are in a forward motion.”
The trajectory of the young city is improving. That’s largely due to the City Council working to grow its economic base and increasing middle income housing to attract more stable residents, Barth said.
“We have plenty of low-income housing. We need to be able to retain the seniors that are downsizing and going to other communities right now because we don’t have developments that are geared toward that,” she said.
Gonter proposes the city replace run-down low-income housing with new construction.
“I want these poor people to live in living conditions that everyone should live in,” he said. “Demolish these things, find grants to put people in for a few months and build new homes.”
He also proposed that the city do a better job with code enforcement, including reducing the number of junk cars in people’s yards.
“Why is it that I can drive around the city of Lakewood and I can see infraction after infraction? Junk car, junk car, and houses that are in decay?” he said. “Laws and codes are useless if they are not enforced.”
Barth, a real estate agent with more than 40 years experience that includes founding an escrow company with her husband, also wants the city to clean up its neighborhoods.
The task isn’t as easy as Gonter makes it sound, she said.
“You have to follow the process,” Barth said. “You can’t just tell someone you can’t park your car there or you don’t like their house and bulldoze it down.”
The city is working on eliminating blight through its abatement program, Barth said. The city works with property owners to address everything from hoarding issues to vacant properties that turn into neighborhood nuisances.
If an owner doesn’t fix the problems, the city will. The owner must repay the city for the work.
“If Mr. Gonter is critical, then perhaps he should get on the planning commission or apply for a position on one of the many advisory boards,” she said. “Maybe then he could find out what’s going on in the city because I don’t think he understands.”
As a realtor, Barth knows the impact foreclosed homes have on surrounding property values.
She hopes to see the city soon create an online “wall of shame” where pictures of foreclosed properties will be posted with the name of the bank that owns them.
“We can’t make the banks do anything,” she said. “And if it’s not violating specific codes, it’s not against the law to have a boarded up building if it’s secure and safe.”
Gonter chose to run against Barth instead of the two other Lakewood Council members up for re-election — Mayor Don Anderson and Paul Bocchi — because: “I never heard from Marie Barth and that upset me.”
“I’m not impressed with her lack of education. She has an associate's degree. I think education is the most important thing that a person can have,” he said.
Barth graduated from Pierce College.
Gonter, a special education teacher in the Bethel School District, also received a degree from Pierce College. He also has a degree in anthropology from Central Washington University and a master’s degree in education from City University, an online university headquartered in Seattle.
Gonter believes sitting City Council members should have at least a bachelor’s degree.
Barth scoffed at Gonter’s suggestion, saying she ran a business for 29 years and “knows how to read a budget.”
“I’ve been to the school of hardknocks,” she said. “I’ve been there and graduated. And I’m a good steward of people’s money.”