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Spokane’s youngest-ever councilwoman on block watches, light bulbs and the Fightin’ First

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Amber Waldref’s swearing-in at Spokane council chambers was nearly derailed last week when her 19-month-old daughter, Karolina, commenced a fi t of wiggling and crying in the middle of Mom’s vows. But Waldref kept her right hand raised, a wide smile playing across her face. And when the vows were complete, the packed house responded with boisterous applause.

At 32, Waldref has become the youngest woman ever to be sworn in to the council. For years an environmental advocate with the Lands Council, she was elected in November by a 25 percent margin in Spokane’s District 1, which covers the city’s northeast side. (She replaces outgoing two-term member Al French.)

And as a greenie and a mother, she suggested in her inaugural remarks that she’s on a mission.

Citing a Spokesman-Review article from 1977 (the year of her birth), she pointed to the city’s first female council member, Margaret Leonard, who wrote that pollution in the Spokane River was her first priority.

“Here we are 32 years later, and we’ve just started to get a handle on [this],” Waldref told her audience. “And I don’t want to pass this on to my daughter.”

A mere eight hours before her first council meeting, Waldref sat down with The Inlander to talk about cops, jobs and the potential difficulty of smiling politely at global warming deniers.

INLANDER: So you’ve been in office for a week. What have you done for us lately?

WALDREF: Well, I went to First Night and supported the activities of First Night Spokane, which was great fun. Husband and I, after the Gonzaga game, went and saw some comedy at the Convention Center. I’m not sure if this is doing something for Spokane.

I’ve just been getting ready for tonight’s meeting. Starting to figure out the maze of who I need to call to ask questions and get information. I’ve been meeting with all the City Council members. They’ve been getting me up to speed and bringing me to, as Joe Shogan calls it, “the big people’s table.” I’ve been going to all the briefing sessions at City Hall on Thursdays. I’ve been watching every City Council meeting from the comfort of my home, which is really nice. But no longer.

What did it mean to win as a progressive in a working-class district?

It meant a lot. I grew up in that part of town. I know a lot of people. I grew up working-class. It’s part of my blood. So I guess you might say I feel like I was elected by my own family and the type of people I admire.

I believe I understand the issues they’re facing. And I think people are starting to realize that infrastructure — like pedestrian improvements and bike improvements — I never really thought of those things as progressive, but I guess they are. I just thought of them as things that we need in the city.

I think it’s more about neighborhoods and people than it is necessarily about a progressive mandate. I just think people are getting more active in their community, and when they do that they see the need to make it more people-driven and not necessarily just big business-driven. I’m excited about it.

So what’s on the Amber Waldref agenda?

My top goals for the next two years, at least, would be increasing community safety and supporting economic development that’s sustainable, especially at the neighborhood business centers and corridors level. What have been the impediments to implementing Centers and Corridors fully? Obviously something hasn’t been working with that piece of the Comprehensive Plan, so what can we do to incentivize, to do some zone modifications, to have that mixed-use development in those really great historic business districts?

[As far as community safety is concerned], my first stop is going to be meeting with the COPS program director, going to all the COPS shops, meeting the volunteers. I wanna do what I can to improve their ability to reach out to neighbors and form more block watches. We know we have budget challenges. We know we can’t afford more cops on the street here. My long-term goal, of course, is neighborhood-oriented policing. But I think what we can do in the meantime is identify those small things that are contributing to lack of safety, whether it be lighting in neighborhoods [or] pedestrian and bike safety. Those things cost money but not as much as a police officer.

What’s it like to be the youngest woman ever elected to the council?

It’s exciting. I really feel like people in their 30s and 40s in Spokane — we pay a lot of the taxes, our children are in school, we are very much a part of the community — but we’re not really represented as much. And a lot of that is because we don’t have the time, because of the needs of bringing home the bacon to keep the family going. I’m just excited because I feel like as a young working mom, I really understand the challenges that working families face. The challenges of just getting up in the morning and getting your daughter to school and getting yourself to work.

How do you think you’ll fit in with the rest of the council?

I like to listen and ask lots of questions before I make a decision. I’m not rash. I appreciate Steve Corker in that he always tries to speak to the issue fully. You’ll have an issue like the [development of the old YMCA site], and he can speak to both sides but then say, ‘This is where I’m going to come down.’ I’m hoping to be polite and to-the-point and to have my research be thorough and to truly listen to people before I speak. I like to talk, too, as you can tell. But I do hope to be a judicious decisionmaker.

So when someone at the podium says that global warming is imaginary and the mayor’s sustainability plan is a U.N. conspiracy… Ohhhh! I would respectfully disagree. And I would say, look, there’s probably somewhere we can fi nd common ground. We both want to save money at the city. Whether we disagree about global warming, at least we can agree that, hey, changing all the light bulbs to CFLs or changing the heating system for City Hall [might] save the taxpayer money. Go for the silver lining.

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