The race for Spokane County Commissioner used to be one of the main events on the local electoral landscape. But with a news cycle dominated by the latest fallout from presidential and vice presidential debates, it seems to be hard to get people focused on the races that will add two new faces to the three-member board of commissioners. Veteran Phil Harris remains, while Kate McCaslin and John Roskelley are leaving their posts after eight years.
Another reason the race may be more low-key than in years past could be due to the performance of the commissioners in recent years. Through fiscal prudence, the commissioners managed to stay out of controversy while setting Spokane County on relatively firm financial footing. It is considered among the most fiscally sound counties in the state.
When you look at the three commissioners, you really do see the face of the county. Even though a three-person board seems to offer a tricky leadership dynamic, a delicate balance has been struck that has worked. A moderate approach has been the result -- but even that was not enough to keep the city of Spokane Valley from leaving the nest.
So will voters seek to preserve some balance, or will they choose a board that will tilt one way or another ideologically? Of course, every candidate claims to favor balance, but it's safe to say that different candidates have different views on the issue that the county is often judged on: land use. Democrats, it's fair to say, tilt a little more towards careful growth, while Republicans tilt more towards open growth in the name of economic development.
Todd Mielke -- If you're a little confused about what Mielke is running for, you're not as confused as you might think: Last spring, Mielke dropped his candidacy for Congress to pursue the top job at Spokane County instead.
"I just had a gut feeling there were many issues beyond my control [in Congress]," Mielke says of the switch. "And the more people I talked to, the more I heard, 'There's a bigger need in the county than in Congress.'"
Mielke says he now believes he can make a bigger impact on the local standard of living as a commissioner than as a congressman. Specifically, he wants to make sure the county provides a playing field upon which the private sector can be successful.
"We have a great standard of living here," he says, "as long as you have a job."
Mielke, who grew up on Spokane's North Side and holds a degree in finance from EWU, has a strong background in government, having served as a state representative in Olympia, then as a lobbyist. As a representative, Mielke was hailed as a leader in his own party, even winning national awards. But among Democrats, he is still remembered for, they say, taking the side of the insurance companies in dismantling the health care reforms of the early 1990s. (Republicans at the time felt the plan would increase health care costs -- something that has happened anyway.)
As a lobbyist, Mielke has been able to understand the perspective of business as it relates to regulation, but again his critics wonder if, as commissioner, he will stand by citizens or corporations when tough decisions need to be made. Among his clients have been tobacco companies.
"I'm a non-smoker," says Mielke, who is a single father of a teenage girl. "After the national tobacco settlement, these companies were required to comply with certain conditions in every state they do business. My job is to make sure they stay in compliance."
Mielke's experience in the larger political world shows through in his campaign. He has raised a lot more money than his opponent, and he is running a very organized campaign. He says his varied background has prepared him to lead, and that he is focused on making Spokane County a great place to do business. And despite his working with large corporations, as a commissioner he wants to focus on the needs of small businesses. Despite his pro-business stance, however, he says he will not accept every land deal that comes along.
"I don't think anybody agrees it should be hands-off, anything goes," he says. "Reasonable rules are good."
Still, he says it's how those rules are applied that is the problem. Mielke would like to see the county get more consistent when it comes to permitting, by streamlining the fee structures and requirements across different departments.
And Mielke says it's way past time for the various cities and towns to join with the county to tackle the region's shared issues. "The fact is," he says, "there's not enough money for the jurisdiction to go it alone."
Mielke would also like to apply his background working the levers of government (he also worked on the budget as a representative) to maximize the amount that flows into Spokane County. He points to the $400 million in state projects that have come to the region over the past decade, saying he would like to continue that trend -- especially for capital projects related to the Riverpoint campus in downtown Spokane.
Linda Wolverton -- With a front-row seat to the ups and downs at Spokane County for the past 15 years, Wolverton wants voters to know she will need little on-the-job training as a commissioner. She started out as an employee of the Spokane County Treasurer's Office, and 11 years ago she was elected Treasurer -- a job she has held ever since.
So what's her assessment of the Harris-McCaslin-Roskelley triumvirate? "I think they did very well on the budget -- very well. And I would want to continue that," Wolverton says. "But I think they didn't do as well on employee relations."
Wolverton says stubbornness on the part of the commissioners has led to stalemates with employees' unions that are costing real money: As the stalemates persist, savings in health care plans haven't been able to be implemented.
Wolverton says the county's reserve fund has been bigger than it needs to be, but the result has been good: consistent tax rates in the county. "Keeping taxes low, that's the best thing for the economy," she says.
Born and raised in Ritzville, Wolverton and her husband -- a retired Spokane Police Department detective -- still own wheat-producing land there. She is a certified public accountant, having received her accounting degree from EWU. Essentially, she runs the region's biggest bank for public entities. She handles funds for almost every district and municipality. Her big innovation, she says, was to develop a pool of money that could be invested in two-year instruments, instead of the overnight, low-yield stuff the county was using before. She claims the system earned the county $25 million over her tenure.
The big question surrounding Wolverton is whether a bureaucrat can make the transition from a supporting, numbers-crunching role to a leading role. She says she has already done that once, when she took over the office she worked in.
She says knowing the details behind the issues will be a strength for her. For example, while she says she wants to help the new city of Spokane Valley succeed, she points to some issues with the contracts for services. For one, she says the new city should shoulder the burden of liability insurance for the sheriff's deputies who work there. As for the county's new role as provider of services to Spokane Valley, Wolverton says the next few years will be critical in understanding which of those services will remain county functions and which may be taken over by the new city.
Wolverton says the Sheriff's Department is a major chunk of the budget, and she'd like to see more emphasis on crime prevention, which relates to everything from how the state releases criminals from prison, to mental health issues, to dealing more effectively with domestic violence.
And she says the aquifer and the Spokane River are major assets -- economic assets -- so they need to be protected. And she worries that some in the race (meaning the two Republicans) may be more willing to cut corners on such protections to allow businesses to do what they want. In fact, her concern that the board of commissioners could become unbalanced, with a monolithic growth-at-any-cost mentality, is exactly why she says she joined the race. Overall, she says a real strategic plan, when matched to a more stable comprehensive plan (the current one is constantly amended, she says), will allow business to grow in the right ways.
"We need to grow," says Wolverton, "but we need to plan, because infrastructure is way too expensive."
Next week, meet Bill Burke and Mark Richard, the candidates for the other open seat on the board of commissioners.