by Kevin Taylor & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & P & lt;/span & hil Harris is like your favorite uncle. He has folksy speech patterns, can joke at his own expense and is quick with homilies. He's the kind of guy who lives his by strict rules -- golden rules, he calls them -- the sort that guided his actions as Spokane County Commissioner for the last 12 years and that he hopes to carry into a fourth term. And the 71-year-old has raised plenty of gold -- more than $100,000 in a bid to extend his rule.
With all those golden rules, his challenger Bonnie Mager wonders, how come Harris keeps landing in hot water over charges of being developer friendly or of hiring his three sons?
Vested interests, special interests, cronies, pals, smoke-filled rooms, patronage, paternalism, nepotism ... do-good lawyers. You name it; this year's race for third district Spokane County Commissioner has it.
The race began nearly a year ago when the Republican Harris announced he'd seek a fourth term and held a January $1,000-a-plate fundraiser that drew a lot of the big players -- and big check writers -- in the county's land use, building and development circles. In recent years, Spokane County neighborhood groups have vigorously opposed development they see as bringing sprawl and traffic to their enclaves -- and they tend to become bitter and disillusioned by a planning process that seems to discount their views.
This resentment boiled over with two candidates quickly announcing challenges to Harris. A third was drafted into the Democratic primary soon after.
Mager, 55, a long-time grassroots activist who has spent years shadowing the county commissioners on land-use issues, emerged the winner. With her victory, the voters made this race pretty much about land use, no matter how much Harris tries to minimize his opponent as a "one-issue" candidate.
Land-use is largely the issue on the incumbent's side, too. A glance at campaign finance reports (available at www.pdc.wa.gov) show a Who's Who of Spokane developers, construction companies, engineering firms and land investors have contributed in large amounts to Harris -- as they have since the former planning commissioner was first elected in 1994.
This sort of heavy investment in a candidate skews the land-use process in the county, Mager says. "I think that was the tipping point. I never thought I would run. Then I thought about how I would do things differently, and I began to see the county commissioners as unbalanced and neighborhoods being shut out of the process."
Harris has been joined by fellow Republicans Todd Mielke and Mark Richard (formerly with the home builders association), and critics see less openness and more unanimous, developer-friendly voting by the commissioners.
Friends of Phil
It's nonsense to think he's for sale, Harris says. "You have to look at who these people are. Arnie Weinman, he's a developer by trade, but he's also a retired colonel in the Air Force who thinks I'm a special guy."
Harris grew up in intense poverty near the Chesapeake Bay and ditched high school to join the Air Force at age 17. He completed his schooling in the military and spent the first of his several careers as a mechanic (rising to master sergeant) who kept helicopters in the air.
"Walt Worthy gave me $500. He's in the city; I can't do anything for Walt. But Walt's connection is he was a survival school instructor in the Air Force when I was flying helicopters out there and dropping people off," Harris says. He knows the Douglass family -- developer Harlan and his developer sons Harley and Lancze -- through the Boy Scouts, Harris says.
Mager counters the Harris buddy list with her own. Her campaign has 300 volunteers, she says, many of them fellow grassroots fighters who, over the years, have challenged the safety of the garbage burning incinerator, worked for tougher storm water and wastewater systems or fought sprawl.
The list includes B.J. Krafft, Kathy Miotke, Jane Cunningham and Julian Powers, Dr. John and Rachel Osborn, Breann Beggs, Bart and Lindell Haggin, county health director Kim Thorburn and a host of others.
In her most recent burst of activism, Mager co-founded the Neighborhood Alliance, an umbrella group that helps residents around the county work together on a variety of issues. Neighborhood groups for years have flocked to land-use hearings with emotional arguments on aesthetics and unscientific complaints about increased traffic and noise. They always lost.
With the Neighborhood Alliance and help from public interest lawyers at the nonprofit Center for Justice, the groups have sharpened their fighting skills. Twice in the last year, a state hearing board has not only rejected major development proposals approved by the county, but said commissioners violated the Growth Management Act in doing so.
Mager herself is not without developer support. Ron and Julie Wells and Don Barbieri have contributed to her campaign. Perhaps more significantly, so has Greenstone, the firm behind much of the development at Liberty Lake and near Post Falls on the Rathdrum Prairie.
Wells and Barbieri build a high-end condo here or there in the city core; Greenstone transforms swaths of landscape into hundreds upon hundreds of houses.
Greenstone, however, has largely escaped the flame-throwing directed at other developers who are accused of piling too many houses onto land, building on marginal land, or ignoring traffic and safety concerns.
"I'm not anti-development," Mager says. "Good development puts money into good planning and works with neighborhoods and realizes not all land is equal."
Many critics in the county are outraged when developers seek -- and routinely are granted -- conditional use permits to go beyond maximum densities on parcels.
"I have a rule -- and it's a golden rule -- not to contradict what my opponent says," Harris says. It's also a rule that tends to diffuse discussion on political differences.
Harris tends to lay on the honey instead of the vinegar, priding himself on thick political skin, and praises Mager's role as an activist. She's done such a good job she should stay in that role, he says, and not get the key to the commissioners' clubhouse or be taught the secret handshake. Mager says it's a been a little disconcerting how nice Harris has been, but she sees it as patronizing.
Of the People?
In another rule that's come to light, Harris says, "I have a rule that once an issue goes on the ballot, I do not comment on it."
Vocal critics at a recent debate hooted Harris for this one, calling it a dodge to avoid commenting on Initiative 933, a property rights measure that would require government compensation for "takings" of private land. It could cost Spokane County millions.
Last week Harris invoked the rule to avoid comment on how he feels about commuter light rail in the county -- only to break the rule minutes later and say he favors a monorail instead.
On charges of nepotism that have arisen since his three adult sons have all found work with the county since he's become commissioner, Harris says it's his clear duty not to oppose their hiring. It's a free country, and it would be wrong if he stood in their way, he says.
In something of the same vein, Harris even says he is upholding the state's Growth Management Act by approving isolated dense developments if they have (or soon will have) sewer or other urban infrastructure. He rejects the notion that this contributes to sprawl.
Harris says he was prompted to run in 1990 when he heard the late Commissioner Pat Mummey sharply cut short a citizen at a hearing. Mummey, who died after a long fight with cancer, is remembered as a tenacious fighter for health and welfare of ordinary citizens and a champion of public health. Harris, to his critics, is seen as out of touch with regular folk.
"When I was first elected, this county was upside down. We were broke, and the commissioners were making bad decisions on land use," Harris says. He notes with pride that Spokane County now is financially healthy and is seen as one of the top-functioning counties in the state.
He says Mager does not have the experience to handle the wide array of issues -- everything from budgeting to lobbying to thorny health issues and strained jails and courts.
Mager offers two rebuttals. "What was Phil Harris before he was elected? He was with the Boy Scouts and was on the planning commission -- that's land use," she says. "And I challenge anyone to say land use is a single issue. It deals with air quality, water quality, economic development ..."
She promises an open, more balanced county government if elected.
Harris counters: "My agenda is the people's agenda, not a special-interest agenda."