by Ted S. McGregor, Jr.
With so much attention being paid to the city of Spokane's search for a new strong mayor, it's easy to forget that Spokane County faces the prospect of a major facelift on its board of commissioners. This fall, county voters will vote on two of the three seats, with the potential to stay the course with incumbents Kate McCaslin and John Roskelley or to choose a new path from five or more challengers.
Although the incumbents are of different parties (Roskelley is a Democrat, McCaslin a Republican), the message from both is very similar: County government is working well, and there is unfinished business they are uniquely qualified to attend to. The challengers disagree, saying there are problems throughout county government being ignored by the current leaders that they will fix if elected.
McCaslin, who was a professional association management consultant prior to being elected to the board, says, "there's just so much left to be done," and adds that it takes a good year to get up to speed on the many issues facing an entity as large as the county.
Known as a budget hawk during her first term, McCaslin claims economic development as her top priority. But she knows it's a tricky thing for government to get into the business of creating jobs, and she plans to attack the issue by lending a hand when its needed, as she thinks should be done for the fledgling Center for Emerging Technologies. She also wants the region to look very carefully at the possibility of adding light rail.
"We are in the top 15 nationally for federal money for light rail," says McCaslin. "There's a window of opportunity there that I hope we don't miss."
Early indications are that the project to connect downtown Spokane with Liberty Lake, with stops in between, could cost as much as $300 million, which would be split equally between the federal, state and local governments.
Roskelley, too, says he has unfinished business: "The same issues are still out there that I want to stabilize."
Growth is an issue that Roskelley has worked on extensively as a commissioner. The man who made his name as a legendary mountain climber says he wants to solidify protections for the Spokane River and its shorelines during his second term.
"Business leaders understand that the quality of life must be maintained here," he says. "I've stepped on toes -- when you're in my office, you're going to step on toes with every decision. But I can't bow to special interests."
Roskelley's leading challenger moneywise, Karl Wilkinson, would aim to step on fewer toes if elected. He says the current board is presiding over a county administration that is making life too difficult for businesses that want to expand or locate in the county. He says he'd streamline the permitting and decision-making processes inside the County Courthouse.
"It's not that I want them to approve something that shouldn't be," says Wilkinson, who served on the East Valley School Board for 16 years. "Approve me or deny me, but don't mess with me."
Wilkinson points to cases when county officials have strung out business owners for months or years without a final answer.
But the kind of support that Wilkinson is gathering is just what Bill Sprague is avoiding. Although he ran for county commissioner in 1988 as a Democrat, he's challenging Wilkinson for the chance to likely face Roskelley in the general. Sprague says he will take big contributions in the general election cycle but is looking for small donations from individuals for his primary bid.
"I don't want to be lined up with corporations," he says. "I want to be the citizens' commissioner. It's important for the people to have a voice."
Sprague, a former machinist and traveling musician who lives on 160 acres near Mt. Spokane, says he would work to improve representation if elected. He supports expanding the board of commissioners to five, and he would like to see an interactive website for the board that would allow commissioners to tap into the wishes of the electorate in real time during meetings.
Before making it to the general election, McCaslin will face Sylvia Riddle in the Republican primary.
Riddle, a small business owner with no political experience, says she wants to focus on better jobs, but aims to get there a different way: by improving quality of life as it relates to public safety.
"Our quality of life is in danger here as we have become a dumping ground for registered sex offenders," she says. "We have 1,500 registered sex offenders in the county, and law enforcement wants more help, more staff to monitor these people. And, yes, this is an issue for employers. They research a community before they locate -- they just don't pick a spot on a map."
Riddle says she would use some of the county's current surplus to held fund more law enforcement staff to watch the registered sex offenders.
Whoever wins that primary will likely face Bill Burke, best known as the brains behind Riverfront Park's Pig Out in the Park and the American Music Festival. Burke thinks the current board members aren't doing enough of what they are elected to do: lead.
"Our attitude here is terrible," says Burke, who has studied numerous cities across the country as a specialist for the National Main Street Foundation. "We don't understand how to be winners.
"Our commissioners are only nibbling at the edges of the job," Burke continues. "The community needs them to be leaders, to change that attitude."
Meanwhile, Roskelley also faces a primary challenge from within his own party in Cliff Cameron, who couldn't be reached for comment. And even more candidates may emerge, as the formal filing period begins this week and ends on July 28.
The challengers in these races hope to pin the county's economic disadvantages to the incumbents. The challengers almost sound like soul mates on the issue. (In fact, Burke and Wilkinson seem to underline the shrinking influence of party affiliation in county commissioner races, as both casually chose their party affiliation just a few months back.)
"We've got a flood of new homes but no jobs," says Sprague. "We need high paying jobs. Why aren't industries coming to this town?"
"We're losing our babies," says Burke. "What high school kids do you know who are planning to live in Spokane in their mature life?"
"I'm running for selfish reasons," echoes Wilkinson, who has six children. "My kids will all move away if nothing changes. Our largest export in Spokane County is our kids."
"It really hits you hard when all your kids want to come back to Spokane but there's no jobs," adds Riddle.
Burke and Wilkinson are also quick to point out the shocking level of poverty in the county: 25 percent of the kids in Spokane County live in poverty, and there are 14,000 single-parent households.
Whether voters will make the connection between these shortcomings and the current board remains to be seen. Meanwhile, McCaslin sees the way out in having government actively partner with business in ways that are appropriate for government, perhaps most significantly in areas of infrastructure.
"This community is right on the cusp of going into the biotech industry," says McCaslin, "and we need to capitalize on that."
She adds that continued funding of the Economic Development Council is crucial, although she favors changes to that organization that would reconfigure it as a more regional entity and less political.
Roskelley believes Spokane County has the kind of quality of life that will bring more companies to the region, but argues that it must be protected to ensure that the economy grows the right way.
"When I see what's been built in the past four years, I can't imagine what will be built in the next 10," he says.
Riddle hopes a lot is built in the next 10 years to bring more jobs to the region: "The trend is that we're not getting new businesses, foreclosures have doubled in the last four years and bankruptcies are up," says Riddle. "This is all because our current county commissioners have been too cautious about growth. They're so careful about being environmentally correct, and that has stifled us."
Wilkinson, a professional mediator, agrees, saying continued growth is the key to a better economy: "We're quoted in a lot of places as the worst place to do business, yet it's one of the most wonderful places to live," he says. "My goal, next year or two years from now, is for us to be named in Sunset magazine as one of the best places to live."
"I can't believe that the prosperity that has swept America has skipped over Spokane County," adds Burke, who would like to use some of the county's surplus to push economic development even more. And he goes one better than most by saying that it is, in fact, government's duty to create jobs. He thinks commissioners could act as economic development agents and bring in companies on their own. And he says the county shouldn't be swinging for the high-tech home run every time. Why not capitalize on agriculture-based businesses of the new century, or specialized manufacturing, which is often forgotten in this dot-com world?
Consolidation or cooperation?
In recent years, as Spokane County has become more financially secure and the city of Spokane has become less, the issue of having two separate governments run what can be viewed as a single region has become more discussed. But among candidates for county commissioner, there is little support for the kind of regional government that you can find in Indianapolis or Jacksonville, Fla. -- and the kind that voters rejected here in 1995.
None of the candidates, incumbent or challenger, would stand in the way of a ballot initiative to create a regional government, but all share concerns that it would create a government that would probably cost more, would be more difficult to manage and could lead to less, not more, representation.
Both incumbents, however, answer the consolidation question with a pledge to push for more cooperation between the city and the county in the future. Roskelley hopes the two groups can work together on wastewater management, and both he and McCaslin are even open-minded to a single law enforcement entity serving both the city and the county. But McCaslin says the days of the county letting the city dictate, as happened when the county signed away its rights over solid waste management in the late-1980s, are over.
Fixing county government
When voters rejected the notion of a unified government, many were critical of the Freeholder's decision not to allow voters to take the less dramatic step of allowing voters to update the county's form of government. The current form, which combines the legislative and administrative duties in the offices of the commissioners, is widely considered outdated. Most of the state's urban counties have a system that features a professional county executive to run the government and a county council to create policy.
So is the current system causing problems? The incumbents say no, arguing that the board works well together. And, they point out, it is a smaller government, so it is less expensive.
Another proposal has emerged recently that aims to address the issue by simply adding two more commissioners. Burke agrees with adding more commissioners, as he thinks the current system has led to cases of underrepresentation throughout the county. The other challengers also support the plan.
But McCaslin and Roskelley both argue that it will not reduce any commissioner's workload. Others suggest the plan is aimed to loosen up the decision-making process, in which it currently only takes two votes to pass any measure.
Again, none of the candidates said they would stand in the way of a ballot measure to change the form of government or add commissioners.
The budget surplus
The county currently has about $16 million in reserve, which is being used by both incumbents as a campaign tool. It is proof, they say, of their commitment to financial responsibility.
"We have proven you can keep a lid on spending and not gut services," says McCaslin.
Sprague has no quarrel with putting away money, although he says he would apply a good chunk of it to law enforcement (as Riddle also says she would), but he wonders how it's being invested. "If I understand it correctly, we're only getting 5 percent on it," he says. "Isn't there a way, legally, to make higher interest on it?"
Wilkinson gives the board credit (mostly to Phil Harris, however) for the cushion, and says he'd continue the fiscal prudence if elected. Burke, however, is critical of the surplus, asking how big it really is and how big it should really be.
"What's the rainy day that we're saving for?" he asks. "They say we're the envy of Washington state for the cash reserve. I'd rather be the envy of Washington state for our quality of life. Imagine what $1 million would do for economic development. Or $500,000 for a summer youth job corps. Government is outprospering the citizens."
Burke also says it's ridiculous for the commissioners to take credit for the surplus, since he says it resulted from a windfall realized after the assessor's office finally caught up to where it should have been all along. He says a proper surplus amount should be set by looking at what similar governments keep in reserve. The rest, he says, should be reinvested or given back to the taxpayers.
McCaslin, however, counters that having such a strong reserve has allowed the county to weather the storm of I-695 and puts it in a position where it can lend a hand when needed. And the commissioners have reinvested part of it, she says, pointing to 16 new sheriff's deputies on the street.
Growth management is the usual whipping boy when it comes to county elections, and this year is no different, although the candidates have toned it down a bit. As the final decisions about implementation await the next board, this election will go a long way toward setting what kind of plan the county will adopt.
"GMA is a tool, but it has become the villain," says Burke, who thinks the reason for this is that too many people were left out of the GMA process -- something he says is coming to light now during public hearings on the plan.
"GMA is the law, and I am not above the law," says Wilkinson, "but I want to maintain choices within GMA. This was designed for the West Side -- I want to implement it so it works here."
Riddle agrees, saying she wants to tailor the implementation of the plan to the needs she sees in the community, specifically to allow more growth, not less. "Implementation can change from an adversarial relationship, which is what it is now, to a cooperative attitude," she says.
Roskelley, however, argues that GMA will allow for plenty of growth, and he hopes to continue on the board so the teeth behind the plan, which has been more than five years in the making, will remain in place. "We need to get control over our quality of life before things start happening on their own. We're controlling things a little bit better now, but we're still allowing a lot to get built."
McCaslin has seemingly undergone a change of heart toward GMA while on the board. As a Republican, you'd expect her to fight it, but she accepted the process as necessary for a county that is becoming more urban by the day. "I've tried to be balanced," she says, "recognizing that all sides have valid concerns. There's no question that we need to grow our economy. But we also know that the majority of our citizens want us to apply common sense."
But commissioners make more decisions than those that will relate specifically to implementing GMA, and that's where Wilkinson gives the county a failing grade. He says he has heard more than one business owner say he or she was told that their permit request was denied because county officials were reinterpreting their policies. Other times, he says applications are rejected without explanation, leaving the applicant struggling to figure out what was wrong -- a question officials won't answer, he says, because it's not their job.
"People don't want favors, they want fairness," Wilkinson says. "Tell us what the rules are, then don't change them."
Wilkinson's rhetoric on issues of permitting and growth management closely mirror one of his campaign's leading supporters, the Spokane Homebuilder's Association. That group and other well-funded organizations are mobilizing in this election since so many changes to land use policies are expected to be implemented in the coming term. "I'm going to be battling a lot of money," predicts Roskelley.
More surprisingly, McCaslin has also earned the opposition of some organizations that are active in county politics, and those groups are supporting Burke. But both Burke and Wilkinson are quick to point out that they are true to their own issues and will not be unduly influenced by their contributors. But they also believe, like their supporters do, that the incumbents have to go.
"Kate McCaslin is not a bad person," says Burke. "She's just the wrong person."
"John Roskelley may be a nice guy," says Wilkinson, "but his policies are not good for Spokane County."
Riddle is less distinguishing and lumps the two incumbents together: "Their motives are correct," she says, "but their vision is wrong."
Still, it's an uphill battle for any challenger, one made more difficult by the accomplishments of the current board. When McCaslin and Roskelley started, the board was best known as the roost of Steve Hasson, who, for all his thoughtfulness on the issues, occupied center ring of the local political circus. The county was also hurting financially. Today, the county is fiscally sound, better managed by many measures and no longer the punchline of local jokes.
But as any election season proves, there are chinks in that armor -- from a stagnant economy to perceptions about how GMA is being applied -- which is where the challengers will be pounding away between now and Election Day.