by KEVIN TAYLOR & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & f Todd Mielke wants to show he can make tough decisions, he only needs to mention that he was on the board that fired nationally renowned Dr. Kim Thorburn as Spokane County Health District Director over communication breakdowns two years ago.
And if Thorburn wants to show she is a good communicator, she will convince voters to unseat Mielke in the general election for Spokane County Commissioner.
In a remarkable turn, Thorburn has been campaigning for the last year against one of the elected officials who fired her from the county's top health job.
The Inlander caught up with Thorburn on a drizzly Saturday morning while she was volunteering in the annual Spokane River cleanup. Wearing thick work gloves and rain gear, Thorburn had been assigned a section of road north of the T.J. Meenach Bridge and was soon crouching to fill her bag with shards and splinters of broken glass from beer bottles and even a TV screen that certain geniuses seem to delight in crashing against rocks.
There's undoubtedly a metaphor here, but we had a different question in mind: Is it payback?
Thorburn, her lean face expressive under close-cropped hair, straightened and smiled.
"I think it is for my supporters," she laughs. "I hear it all the time. For me it is water under the bridge. It's just the district I live in, that's how you find out who your opponent is."
Mielke had spent Saturday morning marshalling campaign volunteers and preparing materials for late-campaign advertising. He met later for a lunchtime interview at a Mexican restaurant on Northwest Boulevard (for the record, he went with beef enchiladas and a Pepsi).
"I'm always curious about is this retaliation or what is it?" Mielke asks. "The thing that I point out is I encourage people to look at her background. She says she has a collaborative approach to people and that's not what the board of health found."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he move to oust Thorburn by the 11-member health district board, comprised of local elected officials, was harshly criticized as an attempt to appease industry with a more compliant director, one not so strict on health rules that impact business costs.
Thorburn had a reputation as one of the top public health administrators in the nation. The Health District has still not found a replacement after two years.
Thorburn supporters turned out in force at the meeting to fire her, cramming a Health Building auditorium to boo and hiss theatrically at board members. Mielke and another board member requested police presence -- almost unheard of at county meetings -- even though the crowd was pretty exclusively white-collared and gray-haired. Three officers, one with a Taser, showed up in the foyer.
Mielke was among three high-profile board members, County Commissioner Mark Richard and Spokane Mayor Mary Verner the others, who each told Thorburn how excited they had been, initially, to work with her only to sour on what they called Thorburn's rude and confrontational behavior.
Given the criticism of her communication skills, why is Thorburn running for office?
"My job was undone," Thorburn says. "I disagree with them, I think I am good at communicating. I am sort of a shy person."
Thorburn can seem socially awkward, a contrast with former lobbyist Mielke who appears at ease and able to quip with almost any crowd.
The two agree on tough issues facing the county -- jail expansion, sewage and growth -- but not on how to resolve the issues. "I'd say it's 180," Thorburn cracks when asked how she differs with Mielke.
After describing herself as a shy person, Thorburn was asked about her decision to seek the commissioner slot. "I didn't think I would enjoy campaigning. I like the official part -- I love working in government and I thought, ugh, campaigning. But you know what? I especially like the person-to-person part where I can really engage. Doorbelling has been a blast!" she exclaims.
She starts to go into the topic of her firing, then trails off and repeats, "It is water under the bridge."
Instead, Thorburn compares her old job to how she sees the role of a county commissioner: creating a healthy community. "Environmental health is all about land use. Keeping the environment safe for humans with water protection and air protection is all about public health," she says.
Thorburn uses the example of the county allowing development on Five-Mile Prairie in violation of the state Growth Management Act as being a potential health risk. With few adequate roads off the prairie, safety and even lives are at risk if there is a fire such as the one that roared through the Valley's Mica Peak area in July.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & hile Thorburn puts a spin on her firing, Mielke also distances himself from previous commissions and their controversial land-use decisions, several overturned for failing to comply with the Growth Management Act.
"Our land use has changed dramatically in the last three-and-a-half years. There were challenges when I first took office that were there six or seven years ago. I wasn't part of that," Mielke says.
He sees sewage treatment as the thorniest issue facing the county. Mielke, during the lunchtime interview, made a joke by using the straw that came with his soft drink to indicate his stature among commissioners.
"Mark Richard likes to say he is the lead commissioner on the jail and criminal justice ... I say I got the short straw and am the lead commissioner on wastewater," Mielke says, holding up his straw with just a short segment showing above his thumb and forefinger.
Sewage is not a sexy issue that attracts people into elected office, but it can't be ignored and is pretty much a crisis for the county, both candidates agree.
Mielke points out that the tangled and contentious process to reduce oxygen-killing nutrients in the Spokane River has been recently blown up as federal regulators admitted making errors in allowable discharge limits on phosphorous.
The setback creates doubt if the county will ever get a permit to build a sewage plant to discharge up to 8 million gallons per day of treated wastewater into the river. In the meantime, the lack of a treatment plant is stalling the county's efforts to remove septic systems over the drinking water aquifer and -- if it gets bad enough -- may even result in a halt on building, Mielke says.
He cites his grasp of the complexities -- after a three-year effort at plunging into a collaborative effort among dischargers and regulators -- as the best potential for finding a solution without raising rates so high that the are unaffordable for low-income and elderly residents.
Thorburn contends she too has experience in this area because the health district issues septic system permits. The county must explore other options besides "a pipe in the river," she says, such as the emerging onsite treatments inside septic systems to neutralize bacteria and nutrients, as well as using treated wastewater for land application and irrigation. These options take pressure off the river, she says.
Both agree jail expansion is critical. Thorburn says she would attempt to address overcrowding with better community mental health services. She calls this a "front door" approach to find alternatives to jail for people whose mental illnesses, as opposed to criminal intent, get them in trouble.
Mielke, in a recent North Spokane Rotary debate, says the entire justice system is being reviewed with options of better electronic home monitoring, faster court appearances and more standardized sentences for an arena that consumes 73 percent of the county budget.
Former county commissioner Kate McCaslin, now president and CEO of the Inland Pacific Chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, takes issue with both candidates. McCaslin has endorsed Mielke.
Buying the raceway, she says, "is totally inappropriate. Local government has strayed so far away from the core activities in which they should be engaged, it's scary," McCaslin says.
She reserves harshest comments for Thorburn.
"I was on the board that gave her a vote of no confidence and she should have been fired at that time," McCaslin says. "An elected official has to be balanced and fair, listen to everyone involved and then make a judgment based on the entire community."
BACKGROUND: County Commissioner since 2004. Previously ran his own government affairs/lobbying firm. Also aide to late Spokane mayor and state senator Jim West. Graduated with degrees in Finance and Operations Management, Eastern Washington University, 1990.
FINANCING: Raised $105,539. Largest donors: Bob Materne and Barbara Materne ($3,200); Richard Vandervert and Bonnie Vandervert and Vandervert Developments LLC ($3,200); and Spokane County Republican Central Committee ($3,150).
[ISSUE] TRANSPORTATION: We are heavily invested in the North-South Corridor. We've got to figure out how (with local funding) to move the project forward and link with Interstate 90. It's public safety. Without it, heavy truck traffic carrying hazardous materials goes down Division and Ruby. Last year we had one catch fire.
[ISSUE] THE JAIL: Our jail was considered the third largest mental health institution in the state four years ago. We need a better way to deal with mental illnesses than in a hardened jail. We are doing an assessment of the whole judicial system -- it is 73 percent of the budget -- we need community corrections programs and programs to diminish recidivism.
[ISSUE] THE RACEWAY: There is no sports complex in western Spokane County. It would take at least $6 million to get 60 acres, we got it for $3.9 million plus the auctioneer's fee. Did we have a legitimate purpose in mind? Yes. Did we pay a good price? I think we got a great buy.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & K & lt;/span & IM THORBURN, 58
BACKGROUND: Director of Spokane County Health District until fired by board (which included Mielke) in 2006. Medical Director, Planned Parenthood of the Inland Northwest until deciding to explore run for office in May 2007. Previously head medical officer California and Hawaii state prison systems. Graduated medical school with an M.D., University of California San Francisco.
FINANCING: Raised $80,369. Largest donors: Donald Barbieri ($1,600); SEIU Healthcare 775NW ($1,600); Richard Sayre and Karen Sayre ($1,500).
[ISSUE] TRANSPORTATION: Transportation is huge. I think other areas [besides the north-south freeway] need attention. This is an exciting time for transit. The express routes are really popular. I am happy to hear they are talking about Deer Park.
[ISSUE] THE JAIL: The first proposal came out -- just for capital expenditures -- at almost a quarter of a billion dollars, and that's just the beginning because [jails] are costly to operate. If we spend that much on a jail, how are we ever going to have a community-based mental health service so people don't go to jail just for mental health issues? We have to invest in prevention first.
[ISSUE] THE RACEWAY: At this point we own it, so now it's a question of what do we do that's in the common good. I've seen the enthusiasm among the race drivers and I'm delighted they are getting some use out of it. Until we get an environmental assessment and get the place cleaned up it's hard to say what's next.