Big changes are on the horizon for Spokane County, with two of the three commissioners leaving. Todd Mielke and Linda Wolverton are competing to replace John Roskelley, while Bill Burke and Mark Richard would like Kate McCaslin's job. Issues like land use, economic development and proper management of the massive county bureaucracy are among the key issues in these races. Last week, we shared comments from Mielke and Wolverton; now the candidates for Position 2 get their turn.
If you view the primary function of a Spokane County commissioner as a cheerleader for the region, Democrat Bill Burke may be your man. "I will not be like any other commissioner we have ever had," he promises. You can believe him: After an hour of animated, rapid-fire discussion with Burke, you may feel like you just ran Bloomsday.
In fact, Burke is a promoter by trade, having started out as the marketing man for downtown Spokane's earliest incarnation of a retail cooperative. Then he traveled the country for years, helping build communities for groups like the National Trust for Historic Preservation. (He traveled as a kid, too; as the son of an Air Force colonel, he attended 27 different schools.) More recently, he has been known for Pig Out in the Park, the Labor Day weekend food fest that just celebrated its 25th anniversary.
"I just love to see people having fun," says Burke. "I want to incite excitement."
But Burke has had his eye on politics for some time now; he challenged McCaslin when she won her second term four years ago. Now he says he's ready to lead Spokane County to a more prosperous future. "We're becoming what appears to be desperate," he says of decisions he sees coming out of the county. "We've got to fix this thing."
Specifically, Burke points to the needed water treatment facility -- a project that will top $100 million. He recalls the pro-environment message of Expo '74, saying Spokane should view the project as an opportunity to do sewage treatment better than any other community -- perhaps even to develop a new approach that could be copied or sold. He doesn't want to see wastewater pumped back into the river, especially upstream of downtown Spokane, as some early plans have called for. He prefers putting the wastewater back into the ground -- an emerging but more expensive technology.
But the biggest challenge, he says, is to turn around the local economy. His plan is relatively simple: fix what's broken, and then market the hell out of it. "There are 3,000 counties in this country, 16,000 cities and 19,000 townships," he says, "and we're in competition with every one of them."
Burke says Spokane is the best-kept secret in America, but he'd like to share the news with tourists and business owners alike -- especially among the traffic-weary masses who live along the I-5 corridor, from Seattle to San Diego. "God dealt us a hand of aces," he believes. "Let's play 'em."
His vision is grand -- and won't be cheap to implement. For example, he says he'd like to partner with business to see to it that every business district in the county is rebuilt. As for hot land-use decisions, he promises he would tour any site under consideration; he's against a new gravel pit near a housing development outside of Spangle. "We need gravel pits," he says he decided after seeing the site, "just not there."
He says an important starting point for the county is to get itself in better shape: He says morale is not good, in part due to contract negotiations. He says Sheriff Mark Sterk is doing a great job, but he'd like to examine how many people are winding up in the county jail due to mental illness or drug dependency. He'd also like to create an office of financial gain, where professional grant writers would try to corral any loose change the federal and state government may have lying around.
Burke believes in business being done the old-fashioned way. "My dad taught me the more friends you have, the more business you will do. Spokane County needs more friends."
When McCaslin was two years into her tenure as a Spokane County commissioner, Mark Richard had just left a career as a Realtor to go back to school to study government. Now he's running to fill her shoes.
"I grew up around politics," says Richard, a Republican, whose father was a local judge. "I liked real estate -- the problem-solving part of it -- but it wasn't my passion."
After downsizing his young family to an apartment, Richard made it through school; now he is the governmental affairs director for the Spokane Homebuilders Association. As perhaps the most organized interest group focused on Spokane County decisions, the Homebuilders Association has been a bogeyman in some people's minds. Richard is quick to defend the group, adding that he has helped soften its approach in recent years.
"This industry has poured hundreds of millions of dollars [into the local economy]," Richard says. "I'm proud to represent them."
He views his work there as a plus, as he has been able to see, from the business perspective, how the county works. And his many contacts in the business community will help him, he says, as he works to improve the local economy. Others, however, believe it'll be more like the fox guarding the henhouse, with the Homebuilders' perspective securing a vote on the three-member board of commissioners.
Richard bristles at the suggestion, saying he knows an inappropriate project when he sees one. "I won't support bad development," he says flatly.
Still, he does not shy away from criticizing the complexity of the rules and regulations the county employs. He points to Tacoma, where a recent effort boiled the city's many volumes of regs down to a 15-page, user-friendly guide. "There's always a need for greater clarity in the rules and regulations," Richard says.
Richard says the environment is a priority for him. "[The Spokane River is] cleaner today than it was 20 or 40 years ago, but I'm not satisfied with the condition of the river." To that end, he supports the new study of the aquifer, but he does add that he would like to filter out views on either extreme of the environmental spectrum and rely only on science that has been properly vetted. He also wonders whether Washington state's environmental standards are too strict -- they are tighter than those used by Idaho and the federal government, he points out.
In looking back on the past few years, he says the commissioners "did a good job -- but," he adds, "we can always do better."
A major focus, he says, would be to improve the communications coming out of the commissioners' offices. "I'm tired of all the lobbing of political bombs in the paper," Richard says. "We owe out citizens better civility in government."
And he says he would be a hands-on commissioner, seeking input from front-line county workers. "Everyone I talk to says they can't remember the last time a commissioner walked into their office, except for Phil Harris."
But as with most candidates for all offices this election season, Richard sees economic development as his top priority. "Until we fix out own house," he says, businesses seeking to relocate here "will continue to come right up and bounce off us and land in North Idaho."
He questions why an economic development summit (as has recently been scheduled) wasn't held 10 years ago. Fixing the county's house, he says, includes the creation of a business assistance team that could help projects through the maze of county regulations. And he'd like to steal a page from Jim West's playbook, setting a standard of "getting to the yes."
To see last week's story on Todd Mielke and Linda Wolverton, go to www.inlander.com and push the "Election Coverage" button under "Quick Links."