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Bought and Paid For 

by Robert Herold & r & It was Spokane County Commissioner Phil Harris's use of the word "customer" that got my attention. Seems that businesses that are operating in Spokane County and being regulated as regard to air quality by the public authority established to do just that aren't "the governed," but rather "customers."


Wow! The next time a police officer pulls me over for speeding and informs me that he is giving me a ticket, I'm going to tell him in no uncertain terms that, as his customer, I'm dissatisfied. After all, the customer is always right.


That all three of our sitting county commissioners are bought and paid for goes without saying. But I'll say it anyway. Bought and paid for. These are the three most compromised commissioners in memory. It was predicted that they would be this way before the last election, and they've done nothing since then to chart a new course toward representing all of Spokane County. These guys do the bidding of their benefactors and buddies without even making an effort to wrap it up in some kind of PR to make it more appealing. They don't seem to care what anybody thinks -- unless you're a "customer."


I'm referring here to the actions they have taken that drove out of office Eric Skelton, Spokane County's Air Quality Control Officer. The specific complaints were twofold: First that Skelton had aligned himself with supporters of stronger emissions testing, and second that his office had incorrectly or even maliciously handled some data regarding asbestos removal. As for the first charge, Mr. Skelton wouldn't be the first public employee to exercise his right of free speech. As for the second, it proved to be bogus. But what's truly troubling about all this is how the board handled the charges -- especially commissioners Harris and Mielke.


When businessmen are granted the privilege of special and preferred access because the commissioners regard them as "customers," we know that the more general and chilling message to anyone who would take Skelton's place is just this: We are for air quality just so long as you don't fool with business as usual in our little backwater burg.





Let's replay this incident and, for the sake of discussion, assume that the both John Roskelley and Kate McCaslin were still on the board.


Well, first, Phil Harris would still be on the air quality board and would continue to act, well, like Phil Harris, a man who leads our political minor league in nepotism. So no surprise there, Harris would always side with his customers. That's one safe vote, but then these same customers would have to face either Mr. Roskelley or Ms. McCaslin, and then their political glue would begin to melt.


Roskelley, who alone could be counted on to speak on behalf of the environment, would have told these privates of industry to take a flying leap and would never have agreed to take on face value charges that would prove to be false. As for Ms. McCaslin, a Republican and a conservative, first she would have sorted through all the b.s. and come to the nub of the matter quickly. Now, at the end of the day, I might not have agreed with her. Many times I didn't. But I, along with most voters in Spokane County, knew that she was always going to be her own person. And while one might disagree with her, she would make an argument that would almost always be well reasoned, and her rationale could be frustratingly trenchant. And woe to the special interest that would presume otherwise. That the Homebuilders tried to unseat her after her first term speaks to her allegiance to the citizens.


Did you notice the difference? At no time during this entire Skelton fiasco did any current commissioner speak up for the environment. I don't know whether Mr. Skelton was overly heavy-handed in carrying out his enforcement responsibilities, but that's not the point. The point is that the public depends for its clean air on a board that cares about the environment and cares about clean air. When you have a board that cares mostly about "customers," i.e., private interests that government exists to regulate, then the public interest is in peril.


Nor, apparently, have the other members of the Air Quality Control Board been all that much help. Why should we expect more? During the Lincoln Street Bridge fight, we recall that then City Councilman Mike Brewer, now Air Quality Board member Mike Brewer, supported the bridge with this jaw dropping line: "We got to get over the ditch somehow."


By "ditch" Mr. Brewer was referring to the Spokane River Gorge, specially the lower falls.


So we shouldn't be surprised that Mr. Brewer didn't rise to Mr. Skelton's defense and tell off those bought-and-paid-for county commissioners.





Disturbing also is the absence of any reaction by members of the Spokane City Council. It's as if our Council members begin and end every possible issue with the question: "Does my job description say that I should have an opinion about this matter?" It should be more like, "I've got standing in the public debate, therefore I must have an opinion about this and all public matters -- air quality, and lots more: rising heating bills, traffic engineering policies, light rail, the importance of historic buildings."


One hopes that the dismal primary election turnout might be viewed as a message from the voters to the City Council: "Yoo-hoo! Is anyone there?"

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