by NICHOLAS DESHAIS & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & M & lt;/span & ore than 100 Rotarians gathered under swaying chandeliers in the Spokane Club last Thursday to hear from two candidates vying for the Spokane County Commission. The two men, incumbent Mark Richard and challenger Brian Sayrs, were there to debate and debate they did -- behind closed doors before the invite-only audience.
Though the private atmosphere of the luncheon lent itself to one potentially decisive issue -- open government vs. Bush-style secrecy -- the two on stage ignored it. Instead, they outlined their differences.
Richard cast himself in the mold of a traditional fiscal conservative: he says he'll keep taxes low by funding his pet projects -- a jail expansion and the North Spokane Corridor -- through means other than local taxpayer money. Sayrs, on the other hand, says the biggest problem facing the county is its unresponsive commission. He says he'll set up neighborhood councils throughout the county, returning some power to a more local level. As they rambled their way through each question's allotted two minutes, both men were silent on a sticky accusation leveled by Sayrs.
Richard, Sayrs alleges, governs in secret, without transparency and behind closed doors. This issue -- nebulous as it may be -- could prove very real this election year, a year that might pivot on the Bush Administration's legacy of grey prisons in eastern Europe, of a vice president who claims his office is not part of any branch of government, of cherry-picked intelligence leading to an unnecessary war, of the most secretive presidency since Richard Nixon's.
It's not a good year to run as a Republican and Richard knows it. "For a moment, set aside the letter behind my name," he says, referring to the capital 'R' that will appear on ballots. His accomplishments, Richard argues, speak for themselves. And, besides, look at his support, which dwarfs Sayrs in all the important ways. First, Richard has out-raised his opponent two-to-one. According to the Public Disclosure Commission, Richard's brought in $82,365 compared to Sayrs' $35,560. Also, in the August primary Richard received 18,956 votes to Sayrs' 16,591. In Liberty Lake, where Sayrs has been on the city council for seven years, he lost to Richard 585 to 818.
"The fact is that when we look at the Republican and we look at the Democrat, the majority of people out here are going to vote Republican," says Liberty Lake's Mayor Wendy Van Orman. Council members in the city run non-partisan, and Orman says she hopes Sayrs chances for re-election aren't damaged if he loses the county race because she believes he's an effective council member. "The same goes for Mark Richard. They are both wonderful, effective leaders." She wouldn't say whom she's voting for.
"This is nothing but a convenient political tool that has nothing to do with reality," Richard says, combating Sayrs attempts to paint him as Bush-style politician. "I think it's a political tactic, absolutely ... It's an attempt to create a political story and there's no story there." He adds that Sayrs is good at saying one thing while doing another and lacks the judgment necessary to be a commissioner. A little, you could argue, like McCain's veep choice, Sarah Palin. "Look at his track record," Richard says. "Follow the news. He doesn't say much. He doesn't do much."
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he first bit of evidence Sayrs offers against Richard involves a tour of the Spokane Raceway Park taken by Richard and fellow Commissioner Todd Mielke earlier this year. The tour, organized in part by Richard's campaign manager Martin Burnette, came just one month after the two men voted to purchase the track and surrounding property for $4.3 million. The commissioners met with Jonathan Adams, an official with the National Hot Rod Association.
"I'm not a fact finder, I'm not an investigator, and I'm not a judge [but] when a majority of commissioners meet to discuss or even just listen to public business, there should be some sort of notice," says Richard Ford, open government ombudsman for Attorney General Rob McKenna. "In this case (at the Raceway), both commissioners said no public business was discussed," Ford says, so the matter is effectively moot unless a witness appears to counter their claims.
"Commissioner Mielke and I didn't go there together. We showed up at the same place ... unbeknownst to each other." Richard says the tour dealt with NHRA-certification, a topic that has not been brought up or voted on at any subsequent commission meeting. "If I was unethical would I have really met out in broad daylight on county property and had some clandestine meeting that would have put at risk the citizens' interest? I mean, honestly. I'm a little bit more intelligent than that."
Sayrs believes the meeting was a "clear violation." "If they feel the need to be poking around, then perhaps what they're doing is wrong. It's not just a matter of whether it was intentional or not. It was clearly intentional ... He was trying to do something in secret."
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & t the Rotary meeting, the candidates took turns at their respective podiums, answering questions submitted by anonymous club members in the audience. The two men attempted to illustrate their differences, talking of their views on the county's roads and the threat of "peak oil." When a question came up concerning the number of employees working for the county, the two men for once saw eye-to-eye, defending the public servants. Richard said cuts had been made to the county's workforce already and commissioners had to be "careful" when making further cuts. Sayrs said the employees are professionals and deserve to be treated as such.
Despite the candidates' agreement on this point, county employees have become fodder in the campaign's battles.
Two years ago, some activists from Orchard Prairie showed up at a public meeting where county employees were answering questions about an upcoming road construction project. When one of the activists began filming the meeting, the employees shut it down citing privacy issues. After some complaints, including one from state Sen. Lisa Brown, Richard responded, "We have initiated a policy to clarify that public meetings are open to the public and can be recorded in response to this incident." But no policy was ever drafted.
"It slipped by me," Richard admits. "We dropped the ball." Richard, who as a commissioner makes $93,000 a year, says the amount of work he is expected to do can distract him from other issues. "If you lived a day in the shoes of a county commissioner, you would realize the number of issues and the complexity and the volume of papers that hit our desks everyday."
"I respect the privacy of public officials and the employees of Spokane County. There's no doubt about that," Sayrs says. "But when they're doing their county work, they're working for the people and their activities do have to be open to scrutiny."
Richard agrees, but points to other issues of the situation that deserve scrutiny. Don Hamilton, the man who attempted to film the meeting (and a professional photographer who contributes to The Inlander), has donated to Sayrs' campaign and frequently holds Democratic functions at his studio, Toad Hall. Also, Bonne Beavers -- a lawyer for Spokane's Center For Justice, which just filed a federal complaint on the neighborhood activists' behalf attempting to stop the construction project -- donated to Sayrs' campaign. "Is it a transparency issue or was it an approach and an intentional effort to try to create controversy and a political issue?" Richard asks.
The Rotary meeting likewise finished without incident and nothing that happened came close to being aggressive. The candidates finished their closing arguments, thanked the members for their kindness and were quietly applauded. Lunch hour was over and the men in suits had to get back to the office. Some older folks stayed behind, to shake hands and discuss just which way they're going to cast their ballots.
BACKGROUND: County Commissioner since 2004. Previously worked as the government affairs director for the Spokane Association of Realtors and Spokane Home Builders Association. Graduated with a degree in Government from Eastern Washington University, 1999.
FINANCING: Raised $75,925. Largest donors: Spokane County Republican Party ($2,150), Avista ($1,600), Adirondack Lodge ($800).
[ISSUE] TRANSPORTATION: I created three years ago the Council of Governments, which brings [together] elected officials, for the first time in 25 years ... Out of that we came together with one unified voice, and we signed resolutions that I helped deliver to the state and federal government that said we believe that the expedited completion of the North-South Corridor is our No. 1 regional transportation priority.
[ISSUE] THE JAIL: The vast majority of our new beds will be a community corrections center ... which is taking individuals, not just minor offenders, but taking our medium risk offenders and [transitioning] them out of the jail through programmatic solutions that include drug and alcohol, mental health, education, parenting and working them back into being working citizens in the community. We can't lock them up and throw away the key. We're turning out an angry population... a population that is just turning back into the jail.
[ISSUE] THE RACEWAY: The math makes sense. I think we're going to find two to five years from now, the public is going to be tickled that we did what we did. It's going to take time and people are going to need to give it a chance to be successful ... This is already generating, the convention bureau estimates, just short of $300,000 in economic development into the area... in less than a third of a (racing) season.
BACKGROUND: Liberty Lake City Council Member since 2001. Previously worked as an independent software engineer. Studied chemistry at Gonzaga University before graduating from Regents College in New York. Joined U.S. Army and worked as a signals analyst.
FINANCING: Raised $35,560. Largest donors: Donald Barbieri ($1,600), Michelle Messer ($1,400), Bernardo-Wills Architects ($500).
[ISSUE] GROWTH: We have to stop subsidizing sprawl ... We don't require developers to pay their fair share of infrastructure ... They know that we will ride to the rescue. We'll build that school and the roads. We'll build those parks because the public demands it. But it means we're taking from the large group and supplying it to the smaller group.
[ISSUE] THE JAIL: My concern at this point is it's being so over-designed. When you design a building you want it to last 50 years. But you don't build the building so it takes 50 years to fill ... You build this huge building and what are you going to do? [Are] you just going to turn off the lights? No, you're going to fill it ... If it's so big that you can't fund the correctional activity and you can only fund the punishment activity, because that's the funding you've got, then you haven't solved the problem. You're just storing more people.
[ISSUE] THE RACEWAY: All of the reasons they came up with why the county has to own it, none of them hold water... I would like to be able to put it in the private sector because they are better at these things than government is... I actually don't anticipate that we'd lose a lot of money on it, but when you make a mistake sometimes bad things happen... They put us in debt for this.