Later, Verner introduced a pet project: the creation of the Mayor’s Sustainability Action Plan, which, on its face, should have been a slam-dunk. In typical Verner style, the process was collaborative — involving 140 citizens — and though she didn’t have to, she brought the plan to the City Council for approval.
It didn’t work out as she expected.
The night she presented the plan to the council, conservative activists moved the conversation to conspiracy theories about the United Nations usurping the country’s sovereignty.
In the end, the council voted to “accept” the plan — rather than “adopt” it — as if it were some unwelcome delivery from FedEx.
“That was a mistake on my part, to go to the council and ask them to approve the plan,” Verner says. “I haven’t made that mistake again. I didn’t have to ask for their approval. And their lukewarm acceptance of it didn’t stop me one bit. It was unfortunate because the news became about the conspiracy theorists instead of about the great benefit to the city of Spokane having a sustainability action plan in place. And I am implementing it, because I know that that’s the will of our citizens.”
Priority No. 1
Public safety has always been atop Verner’s list of priorities for the city. It was there when she ran for office, and it’s still there now, the first bullet point in her five “citizen priorities,” a list she refers to all the time. (The list also includes “infrastructure” and “quality of life.”)
And it’s here where leadership from Verner is most needed, says local attorney Breean Beggs.
“She needs to get the best ideas from the best people and set out a vision for us,” says Beggs, who was involved in the creation of the police ombudsman and the conception of the municipal court. “I’m pretty connected, and I often don’t see why she does certain things.”
Verner’s best moment, Beggs says, was forced upon her, but she reacted decisively to create the municipal court, which handles misdemeanor cases originating in city limits.
For Beggs, the creation of the court has “led the way for alternatives to jail or fines,” such as mental health or drug treatment programs, home monitoring and opportunities to volunteer at nonprofits — alternatives to jail time that Beggs credits with lowering the county’s jail population.
“It’s more effective public safety,” Beggs says. “This was a high point for Mayor Verner. She was under tremendous pressure from the county” not to create the court, which some view as a move against collaboration.
“It’s better justice sooner,” Verner says. “That municipal court has been able to find much cheaper alternatives to incarceration. It’s putting people back out, serving the community through community service assignments instead of sitting in jail. I can take more credit for that one than some of the others.”
Verner’s efforts to promote alternatives to incarceration have contributed to the continued discussion of building a municipal jail, though she still asserts — as she did with Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich at her side — that it’d be wrong to call it a municipal jail.
“That’s a misnomer for what we’re doing,” she says. “We’re trying to find a cost-effective way to provide low-security detention for misdemeanors ... We could be paying $53,000 a year [to incarcerate] somebody who’s committed a $750 offense ... And when I say ‘we,’ I mean the city and the county. Ultimately, if the city built something to house misdemeanants, it would not be something that we’d do in isolation.”
Despite some high praise for Verner, Beggs faults her for not leading in matters related to the police ombudsman. Specifically, he says she was willing to compromise some powers for the ombudsman rather than battle the police union.
“Her style of leadership is to get everyone in the room and work something out. The Guild was not willing to work,” he says. “I’m looking for a mayor to say, ‘This is the way to go, regardless of the Guild. If they’re not willing to do what’s right and compromise the principles of the city, then I guess we’ll go to court.’ ... The administration was willing to compromise rather than go to court. And a lawsuit is not [Verner’s] style.”
She agrees, to a degree.
“The challenge I have in the executive branch is that there are certain authorities that have to be negotiated with the police Guild,” she says. “I’ve had to weigh in the balance what they’re going to want in return in the times we’re in right now, versus what benefit do we gain from getting a concession on additional investigatory authority for the ombudsman.”
She continues, saying that she has a list of priorities she wants to discuss with the Guild when its union contract with the city opens next year.
“Additional investigatory authority could be something on that list,” she says. “My higher priority is the release of records. I’d much rather be able to release the full investigatory file.”
Earlier this year — after an Inlander story discussed the relative lack of transparency in the police department compared to law enforcement agencies across the state — Verner said it was “time for us to take a look at this ... Our city’s not adverse to ongoing reforms.” Earlier this month, the local media — The Inlander, the Spokesman, KXLY, KREM and KHQ — sent Verner a joint letter imploring her to make the police department actions more transparent (pdf).
On Monday, Marlene Feist, the city’s spokeswoman, said Verner was currently formulating a change to the city’s records policy. The new policy could be announced as early as this week.
The man credited with creating the city’s disputed records policy is Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi. For years, his actions have been called into question, and during the last mayor’s race, a columnist with the Spokesman wrote, “Treppiedi’s tactics should be a major campaign issue. Candidates who won’t promise to rein them in don’t deserve to sit in the mayor’s office.”
“He reports to the city attorney, who reports to me,” Verner says of Treppiedi. “As such, I have directed the city attorney to review Mr. Treppiedi’s work and opinions and then to discuss them with me. So there’s less perceived autonomy on Rocky’s part. He knows basically that his opinions are going to be run through the filter of the city attorney, who knows where I want the city to go, which is on the side of greater transparency.”
When reminded that Treppiedi has been working from the same playbook for decades — he still relies on a state Supreme Court case he argued in the ’80s to buttress his opinions keeping a tight grip on any internal police records — Verner says it’s because he’s skilled.
“He’s a good lawyer,” she says. “It’s great legal advice — for the police department. I need to put that in the context of other relationships that we have with the community.”
When it’s suggested Treppiedi appears to be an immovable force in City Hall, Verner says, “No, I don’t agree with that.”
Once again, a well-dressed Mary Verner stands before a small crowd of Spokanites, the bearer of bad news.
It’s lunchtime, and she’s in the basement of St. Anthony’s Church, just off Northwest Boulevard. Her audience is a couple dozen older women, members of the church’s Altar Society. The topic of discussion, which Verner delivers with microphone in hand to the long table of gray-haired congregants, is the city’s budget.
“It is a grim picture,” she says. “It is a very grim, very tight, dismal budget.”
Between bites, the women murmur politely — a lot of “mmms” and “oh mys” — at the bad news Verner gives them: The recession has taken, and continues to extract, a hefty toll.
“It’s nothing to be depressed about,” she says of the red ink filling the city’s balance book, half of a smile on her face. “I’m depressed enough for all of us.”
Not the best re-election message, and the depression likely won’t lift this year. The outlook for the next budget indicates it will be as bad as this “grim” one, which prompted Verner to lay off 70 employees.
She also has to negotiate new contracts with the Local 270 and the Police Guild — a fight that is already shaping up to be the biggest challenge yet for Verner; it will likely test her ability to extract compromise from union leaders who feel they’ve given more than enough. The Guild, notably, has launched its PR campaign, buying billboards around town in an effort to insulate its members from layoffs.
Regardless, Verner looks forward to the budget fight, the year and her re-election bid. But she says she’ll eye them separately.
“I really can’t look at how the budget issues are going to affect my ability to run for office again,” she says. “Maintaining the quality of life and the financial stability of the city has become the drumbeat under everything we do. "But the result that I’ll run on is greater efficiency. This is a government that makes sense.”
Back in the church’s basement — bad news delivered — the mayor is taking questions. Joann Martell raises her hand and the mayor looks to her.
“How in the world can you say you enjoy your job?” she asks. And, suddenly, the mayor just laughs.