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French Invasion 

Al French calls out County Commissioner Bonnie Mager - 13 months ahead of the next election

The other day, Bonnie Mager was sitting in downtown Spokane’s Community Building, sipping on a tall iced coffee drink, scribbling notes about something or other on a yellow legal pad and downplaying the fact that someone has challenged her to what could amount to a pretty nasty and very public brawl.

Thirteen months in advance of Election Day, the battle over Mager’s Spokane County Commissioner seat has begun. It could be an in-the-mud, no-punches-pulled throw-down extraordinaire. It could be a bloody, nasty race. It could be much like Mager’s race four years ago, with charges of nepotism, threats of lawsuits, opposing ideologies and party politics fueling the down-to-the-wire result, when she dethroned a three-term incumbent. It could be, but we might not know for a while.

“As exciting as campaigning can be,” Mager says, not really putting off an excited vibe, “the voters really elected me to do my job. And these are some of those most challenging times that we’ve faced since, I think, many [current elected officials] have taken office.”

It’s a standard line for incumbents — the I’m-way-too-busy-to-pay-attention-to-that-jerk routine — but it’s also a kind of soft put-down. Al French, a Republican and the first to announce he’s challenging Mager, is getting in the way of some very important races going on right now, Mager says. There are the three Spokane City Council seats (one of which French is vacating after two terms come January). There’s also Proposition 4. And Initiative 1033.

“I think all my constituents know that I’m planning to run again next year,” Mager, a Democrat, says. “But there will be plenty of time for a 2010 campaign in 2010.”

French, who has been called the dean of the Spokane City Council, said he did not want to comment for this article. He didn’t express the same reservations in the Spokane Journal of Business, where he announced that he was running for Mager’s seat.

“[The] county is a big county,” he told the Journal. “Unlike a city race, it’s going to take time to make sure everybody is familiar with what I have to offer to take this county to a more sustainable financial position.”

His announcement in Spokane’s one and only business publication is fitting. He’s a businessman, having owned his own architectural firm for a number of years. He’s pro-development. And the campaign will quickly jell, many say, around one single subject.

“Unless things change, it’s going to be the economy, the economy, the economy,” says former County Commissioner Kate McCaslin. “I don’t see things changing.”

French, in his interview with the Journal, says his experience is needed at the county, which is going through some tough times with an anticipated $12 million shortfall this year. He tacks up the difficulties to a “repressed” economy — not depressed or struggling, but held back by something.

Regardless, this chained economy has led to dire times at the county. With consumer spending down, the county’s sales tax revenues — a major source of its discretionary spending — are down. And since nobody’s building anything or buying any new property, the county is also missing out on more funding sources: no new property taxes, no excise taxes, no fees collected, no nothing.

And with state government also feeling the crunch, it’s been shutting down other funding avenues for the county, for things like health care and mental health. This has put the county in a lurch since — as state law mandates — the county has to provide certain services for its citizens. Boring things like road maintenance, garbage disposal, elections.

On top of all that, in the last decade the county has been losing its retail centers (and therefore some pretty profitable sales tax bases): Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake both incorporated in 2001. And soon, Spokane is going to annex part of the West Plains, transferring another piece of the business-generated revenue pie from the county’s plate to its own municipal platter.

And — yes, there’s more — if county officials decide to dip into its already depleted reserve of $10 million, they’ll damage the county’s bond rating, making it harder to get new loans and driving up its interest rates on existing debt.

So — long story short — county leaders are in a spot. They have to figure out where to find another $12 million to cover their $150 million budget. Which is due Dec. 10. By law.

So that’s the trouble with the county, but French could face his own troubles with his candidacy. An ambitious politician, French has run for higher office before. And lost. He’s attempted to become Spokane’s mayor and council president to no avail. In May, when being questioned about his attempt to change the City Charter to stay in office longer, he said his ambition was “nothing more than at the city level.” Four months later, that’s changed.

He’s been investigated for ethics complaints but always come out clean. When a complaint by the Spokane Catholic Credit Union was brought against French to the Washington State Board of Architects, the board said the “matter is a contractual dispute and not under the jurisdiction of the Board.” Case closed, but not before the board noted that French had practiced architecture without a license for a total of 18 months in the last nine years.

When Mager was voted in, the budget was an issue but it wasn’t the issue. The economy was cooking just fine and other concerns — mainly land use — ruled the debate. And she ruled at the land-use debate.

“I think we’re in some ways at a crossroads. Neighborhoods see that pretty clearly. I tap into that,” she says, stating that land use — and curtailing some development — is still very important to her. “If it begins to look too much like Southern California here, at what point do we lose what we’ve got? Why do people come here and give us economic development? It’s because people love our quality of life.”

But during her last campaign, some thought she liked the subject maybe a bit too much.

Then, Doug Kelley, chairman of the county planning commission, had donated to Barb Chamberlain, one of Mager’s Democratic opponents. He wasn’t quite happy with Mager. “I need to hear [Mager] advocate strong positions on issues other than land use,” Kelley told the Spokesman-Review. “We need to see Bonnie show the same kind of depth, advocacy and understanding that we saw in Barb.”

Three years later, Mager’s not the only one to say she’s branched out.

“I like to joke that I’m the most conservative member of the council and I’m sticking with that story,” she says, laughing. But McCaslin, who was known as a no-nonsense, budget-balancing conservative commissioner, agrees.

“The interesting thing about Bonnie, on many of the fiscal issues, she’s the one speaking out for more of the conservative approach, which is interesting,” McCaslin says. She pointed to Mager’s lone dissent against the county’s controversial $4.3-million purchase of Spokane Raceway as an example of Mager’s prudence.

McCaslin, who currently works as the CEO at the Spokane chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, was quick to point out that she wasn’t endorsing either Mager or French. “I think Al’s great. … Bonnie and I have a reasonable relationship. … Both have the public’s best interest in mind.”

John Roskelley, who served on the county commission with McCaslin and Phil Harris as the solo Democrat, isn’t so egalitarian.

“Al is classic pro-development. We’ve seen his stripes over and over,” he says. Because of his time as the odd man out, Roskelley says he’s learned that a minority voice is invaluable. And it’s a minority voice, he says, that would be lost if Mager is replaced by French, a man cut from the same development-friendly mold as Mager’s colleagues, commissioners Mark Richard and Todd Mielke. “It’s absolutely imperative to keep a balance. You can’t keep three people with the same philosophy of build.”

But McCaslin’s not as worried. “Just because somebody has a ‘D’ or an ‘R’ behind their name doesn’t mean that a balance will be achieved,” she says.

Regardless, Mager and French are two very divergent lines that have — somehow — converged on the same point. But one thing’s for sure: Their votes will be different.

“I think I provide some needed balance. I’m not going to speculate on what Al’s votes are going to be, but I think I provide needed balance,” Mager says. “My record speaks for itself.”

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