The race for Spokane City Council's soon-to-be vacant District 2 seat has the potential to push the already liberal council majority even further left.
The two candidates running to replace outgoing councilmember Mike Allen, considered part of the council's conservative minority, bring different backgrounds to the table. One is a small-business owner; the other is a City Hall insider and current legislative aide to Councilwoman Amber Waldref. District 2 includes downtown Spokane, the South Hill and reaches out onto the West Plains.
As the CEO and co-owner of Access Unified Networks, a business that installs voice and data services, LaVerne Biel says her perspective as a small-business owner is missing from the council. Biel, 63, who serves on the board for the East Central Community Organization, ran for a council seat in 2013 but didn't make it out of the primary. She and her husband, Kent, opened their business 21 years ago.
"The main reason I'm running is to make sure I represent businesses and represent the community," Biel says. "I'm making sure that we have people who are engaged in the community instead of people who are part of City Hall."
For her part, Lori Kinnear has been the legislative aide to Waldref for the past four years (and to former Councilman Richard Rush for the two years prior to that). She touts her experience researching and drafting dozens of ordinances and establishing Spokane's Community Garden Program in 2010 as reasons why voters should pick her over Biel.
"I've been here for almost seven years, and I've done everything but vote [as a councilmember]," Kinnear says. "I bring a broad spectrum of civic, nonprofit and government work, and I think that's the mix you need."
At a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters last week, the two candidates spoke about their experiences talking with people in the East Central neighborhood. One issue both are hearing about over and over again is public safety.
Kinnear, 62, says she would like the city to continue collaboration with the county on Smart Justice reforms, such as reducing the jail population and implementing changes to how those who come into contact with the criminal justice system are treated.
"It has to start with Smart Justice reform," she says. "I think our jails are not doing what they were intended to do."
Biel, whose son is a Spokane County Sheriff's deputy, points to the 26 recommendations from the Use of Force Commission in 2012, saying there is one left uncompleted — the cultural audit of the police department. She says that could add another layer of credibility.
Both candidates agree on what they perceive as flaws in the city's police ombudsman office. Each indicated a need for more transparency in the selection and hiring process and said a pool of interim candidates is necessary in case of another unexpected vacancy.
"There was nothing in place that would require the city to put an interim ombudsman in while a search was conducted," Kinnear says. "That's a huge mistake."
One issue that divides the two candidates is the city's proposed sick-leave ordinance. Last month, the council decided to delay a vote on the proposed ordinance until after the November election.
Biel says although she provides paid sick leave for her nine employees, a law requiring certain businesses to do so could create a barrier for new businesses. Her position on the ordinance largely matches that of Allen.
"I believe it was rushed into without a lot of local data from businesses," she says, adding that she thinks paid sick leave is not something local government should consider.
Kinnear says she supports the general idea of paid sick leave, but adds that she would like to conduct her own research before voicing her support for the current proposal.
"A number of years ago, the discussion was about child labor laws and the 40-hour workweek, and we all take that for granted now," Kinnear says. "In 100 years we're all going to look back and say, 'Why was this even an issue?' People expect to be safe and that they'll be treated well by an employer, so let's honor that."
Though the District 2 race is nonpartisan, a look at each candidate's endorsements is revealing: Kinnear has support from Council President Ben Stuckart and Senator Andy Billig (D-Spokane), whose recent campaign she managed.
"I've worked with her for the past three and a half years, and in the last year and a half worked on revitalization of East Sprague and the neighborhood notification ordinance," Stuckart says. "I think she represents the view of that district very well."
Among Biel's supporters are Allen, Mayor David Condon, and Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich.
"She's been a vital force in the [East Sprague] area to grow it back and to grow jobs," Condon says. "I think [she's] critical to have on the City Council."
If Kinnear wins, the seven-member council could see its veto-proof supermajority strengthened, with six of the seven members leaning left (Mike Fagan and Allen are the two most conservative members). Although it would take a sweep by more conservative candidates, it's possible that majority could shrink. That would require Biel to defeat Kinnear, Fagan to retain his seat over challenger Randy Ramos in District 1 and Evan Verduin to unseat incumbent Karen Stratton. ♦