“My mom had her own little weekly newspaper, the Research Triangle News,” Verner says. “We followed local, national and state politics, even as a kid.”
Verner grew up the only daughter of a traveling telephone engineer. Her family — father Bill Bagley, her mom, Latrelle, and her older brother Randy — “lived in just about every state in the Southeast,” Verner says, thanks to her dad’s work for General Telephone and Southern Bell.
As a high school senior, Verner started earning college credit at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. She might have continued her education there if she hadn’t followed her dad on just one more move, to the Virgin Islands.
“It was really nice down there,” she says. From 1978 to 1992, the island of St. Thomas was her home base, though she lived there on and off. “There’s a lot to do outdoors, as you can imagine. I enjoyed snorkeling — some surfing, hiking the trails, sailing ... Fruit picking. There are 97 different varieties of mangoes.”
But not all was sublime.
“It’s a different lifestyle on a Caribbean island where the power goes out all the time and your drinking water comes off your roof,” she says. “It’s certainly more comfortable than, say, living in a hut in Uganda, but it’s definitely not comfortable.”
Soon, she met an airline pilot named Jaime Verner, married him, and had a daughter, Diane, in 1981. The family lived in Oahu and Philadelphia, among other places, but the islands were always home, where she first got involved with environmental issues.
“Social consciousness just doesn’t spring anew later in life,” she says, mentioning that she helped organize environmental youth groups and got involved in the protests surrounding the Navy’s bombing of nearby Culebra.
“I never heard Mary say, ‘I want to be president some day,’” says one of her closest friends, Ruth Holder, who met Verner more than three decades ago. “She was a foot soldier, quietly working to get things done ... She was always a doer. At the beach, not only would she would carry out her own trash, but everybody else’s as well.”
In 1988, after she and her husband divorced, Verner finished a degree in medical anthropology from Davidson College in North Carolina.
“I had always been interested in how culture affects behavior and policy,” she says, explaining the degree. “I know it sounds esoteric and academic.”
After college, Verner went to work for the environmental protection division of the Virgin Islands government. Then, in 1989, Hurricane Hugo struck.
“It was the final straw for me,” Verner says of the Category 5 hurricane that left 100,000 homeless and caused some $10 billion in damage. “I lost everything. I mean, everything. My money. My belongings. Almost lost my life. Almost lost my daughter’s life.”
She ended up in Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and earned a master’s degree in 1992. That year, she got a job offer from the Spokane Tribe to create its natural resources department. She was 36.
“Was it scary? It was exciting. Pretty big move. I felt really good about it, and I was excited as anyone would be, and, you know, apprehensive about the unknown,” she says. “But by the time I was 36, I knew I wasn’t going to single-handedly conquer the world.”
In Spokane, she met and briefly married a man, with whom she had her son, Daniel. For a time, she also took classes at Gonzaga’s School of Law before and after work, and eventually got her law degree. In 2000, she moved to Fitzgerald, Ga., to help care for her ailing mother. There, she passed the Georgia bar and got her private investigator license before moving back to Spokane in 2002, her mother in tow.
Spokane is now home base. Her daughter and now two grandchildren are here, as is her son. Her mother passed away in 2006, following her father, who died in 1989. Two years ago, her brother Randy died.
“Cancer took everybody,” she says.
A Team Player
In early 2009, Verner was preparing to give a tour to a few reporters of the city’s evidence room, where over the previous decades local law enforcement agencies had been stuffing the cinder block building to its breaking point.
She was trying to drum up support for replacing the dilapidated building, but it didn’t work. Voters rejected a proposal from the city to bond out $18 million for public safety facilities, which included a new evidence room. After the "no" vote, Verner directed her staff to find a solution.
Her work finding a new property evidence facility, she says, exemplifies her ability to forge a collaborative solution.
“We’ve come up with some incredible solutions through the use of project teams,” she says. For the evidence room, city staffers from the finance division, police department and utilities division worked together to devise a solution. “You wouldn’t have thought these people would have ever come to the same room and resolve problems together.”
Her project team soon realized that if they moved police offices out of the privately owned Monroe Court, they could use the money they were paying on the lease to finance a loan for the purchase, remodeling and some operational costs of two new buildings, which would be used for more office space and a new evidence facility. Under their plan, both buildings will be paid off in 20 years.
“I was a little skeptical of the project teams,” Cooley says. But they’ve worked. He credits her desire to create centralized accounting, which, he says, has instituted accountability where there was none before.
“All roads lead to Rome. All the finances funnel through her now,” Cooley says, adding that without the mayor’s directing it, each department would have pushed back hard enough to scuttle it. “It’s almost like she’s anti-short term fix,” he continues. “She’s a principle-based thinker. I haven’t seen any ‘the ends justify the means.’”
Big (Box) Problems
Not all of Verner’s efforts at finding common ground have been successful.
In the Southgate neighborhood, south of town, a brouhaha began in 2006 when a 220,000-square-foot Walmart was proposed. Around 600 people showed up to a neighborhood meeting to discuss the potential for a big box store, which many feared would destroy the community.
More than a year later, as rumors swirled that a Home Depot was eyeing the neighborhood, Southgate residents began to beat their drums even harder to prevent the development.
They publicly called for City Hall to get involved. The new mayor was happy to oblige.
Within a month, the battle became “quite a drama in the bowels of City Hall,” a pro-development Southgate landowner told the Spokesman.
As Southgate residents and developers negotiated potential designs in a series of meetings — or charettes, as they were called — Verner praised them. In fact, she helped broker the talks and gave them her stamp of approval, saying they were “a way forward” and suggested that “maybe we can use this same model to resolve [similar conflicts] in the future.”
But half a year later, the City Council voted to allow big-box development in the neighborhood. Councilman Al French tacked on an amendment upping the size of allowable stores.
Southgate residents were angry and argued that the developers got everything they wanted. The common ground Verner had sought was elusive. She threatened a veto.
“It is my strong desire to veto [a] portion of the ordinance,” she wrote in a statement. In the end, she didn’t veto it or even sections of it, which is in her power.
Later, Jon Snyder, now a councilman, called the decision “reckless,” and said it would “suck the lifeblood” out of surrounding neighborhoods.
“The neighborhood was promised a full planning process and what they got was a couple-day charette, and then they got the rug pulled out from under them,” he told the Spokesman. “I don’t know how we can look at this as a positive for Spokane.”
She didn’t veto it, but Verner didn’t sign the legislation, either — a symbolic gesture that led some to question her devotion to finding the middle ground for both developers and neighbors.
“I pretty much had to eviscerate the entire agreement in order to veto the language I found offensive,” she says. “That was after months and months and months and months of reaching compromise, and although it had elements in it that I absolutely abhor, it also had some things in it that I thought were good for the neighborhood. "You don’t just throw all of that out and go back to square one, when square one was a horrible place.”
It wasn’t the last time Verner had an issue hijacked.
During her first year in office, she seized upon a long-ignored ordinance that would have replaced the city’s overlooked, broken-down bus benches with ones that were compliant with the city’s Comprehensive Plan. The one change needed, Verner argued, was the removal of advertising.
She soon lost control of the debate. Councilman Al French blocked her and articulated his own vision through three town hall meetings. In the end, Verner’s push to enforce the law failed, and French won the day.
“They’re ugly,” Verner says of the new bus benches, still with a bad taste in her mouth. “Ultimately, Councilman French is really crafty, and he crafted a way to get his will.”
Next Page: Verner goes green, gets guff. Plus, taking on the law.