by Kevin Taylor & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & ccusations, criticisms, barbs, insults ... none of this is new to Phil Harris, the rumpled. "aw-shucks," 70-year-old Republican seeking a fourth term as Spokane County Commissioner. In 1994, in his second try at the office, Harris faced both a contested primary and a general election where a "worthy opponent had every union in the county endorsing him," Harris recalls. "I won.
"The second time, Kathy Reid accused me of all the same things one of my opponents is accusing me of this time. And I won.
"Last time it was Louise Chadez and Steve Eugster, and I won the race, was sued by Steve and I won both. It went all the way to the Supreme Court and back, and he paid my attorney $70,000."
The state Court of Appeals made separate rulings of $44,000 and $30,000 against Eugster, who had accused Harris of tampering with the open primary in 2002 by urging Republicans to vote for Chadez.
So it's no surprise that Barb Chamberlain, one of the three Democrats in the race, guesstimates a winning campaign will cost about $100,000.
Chamberlain, a former Idaho state legislator, joins neighborhood advocate Bonnie Mager and former Valley firefighter and state legislator George Orr in the latest assault on Harris. Democratic Party leaders see the contested primary as a benefit, drawing even more attention to the race and Harris's record. The Democratic field will narrow to one after the September primary election.
"With his salary and his sons and all their benefits, we are paying the Harris family nearly a quarter-million dollars a year. I don't think we're getting our money's worth," Orr says, citing a laundry list of allegations hurled at Harris over the years: & lt;ul & & lt;li & All three of his sons, pushing middle age, have been hired by the county after Harris was elected. Their salaries are in the $34,000 to $40,000 range. & lt;/li & & lt;li & In a county that a) took 10 years to fully adopt the state Growth Management Act, b) is the only county to expand its urban growth boundaries every year, and c) has been sternly admonished by state hearing boards for failing to comply with the GMA, builders and developers contribute the bulk of Harris' campaign funds. One of his sons processes permits for the Building Department. & lt;/li & & lt;li & Last fall, the county lowered taxes on card rooms to 2 percent of gross revenue when the city of Spokane was charging 20. Two gaming-house owners (Aces and Big Daddy's) each donated $1,000 to Harris in January. & lt;/li & & lt;/ul &
All this is old hat to Harris who, without apparent rise in blood pressure, deflects all the criticism.
Nepotism? Just good family values, he says. "I can't tell them not to apply. These guys are all pushing 50, and the county is a good employer. I can't fault them for that," Harris says.
Pandering to builders? Ignoring the law? The growth management act is the arm-twisting bully, he claims. "Land use is always contentious. It used to be if someone wanted to put a huge apartment complex in a rural area, we could vote no. Under GMA, if they can show they have water and sewer -- the law is simple. We have to vote yes," he says.
Bonnie Mager & r & Statements like the above could make Mager's head explode. While campaigning she has taken leave of her job as director of the Spokane Neighborhood Alliance, a grass-roots organization that fights for regular folk on the land-use and development issues.
"I've been in the trenches for 19 years," says Mager (pronounced "May-Grr"), who has also served on a variety of county boards and task forces.
She knows land-use issues with an insider's comprehension, has a strong grasp of local history and has relentlessly bird-dogged the commissioners during their recent trend towards fewer and fewer public meetings.
It's clear Mager, 51, knows her stuff inside and out. It's also clear her adversary role can be a drawback. Commission chairman Todd Mielke has already lobbed a few mudballs in that direction, accusing the nonprofit Center for Justice, which is suing the county on several land-use issues, as being a tool for Mager's campaign.
From one perspective, that claim is almost laughable: The Center for Justice had been a watchdog organization for years before Mager decided to run. But it's effective -- once the accusations were made, the political waters are muddied.
By paying close attention, Mager says, "I know what the county commissioners do. I know what works and what doesn't."
On criticism that she's a one-issue candidate: "A tremendous amount of what the county commissioners do has to do with land use. I'm not against growth; I am anti-sprawl."
And a pledge: "I have three kids, and I promise none of them will work for the county."
George Orr & r & "If you build without sewers and you build without roads, my fear is that in 15 years we'll all be buying bottled water, because we are growing by leaps and bounds and not addressing infrastructure," says Orr, who is 63.
During 33 years as a Valley firefighter and seven on the Central Valley school board, Orr has seen the Valley change dramatically.
"Central Valley is blowing out the door. Liberty Lake is blowing out the door. The school district and the cities of Spokane and Spokane Valley went and talked about impact fees and the county commissioners nixed it," Orr says. "If you are against a subdivision they call you anti-growth and that's bull----. The commissioners have to concern themselves with the impact on our water, our roads, fire protection. I was there in Ponderosa during the firestorm, and I saw all those people trying to evacuate on one road out."
Orr also objects to what he calls "sound-bite politics," where county officials will brag about being tough on crime, for example, without adding funding for cops, attorneys or judges.
"If you're going to hang 'em high, that's great. But somebody's got to pay for the gallows," Orr says.
The commissioners need a Democrat, Orr says, "Because you need a conversation. When the vote's 3-0, it's not a conversation."
The county needs to return to televised evening meetings, similar to the Spokane City Council, Orr says, adding, "You may not get your way, but at least you've got a soap box to stand on."
Barb Chamberlain & r & Growth and land use are huge issues that touch on so many others, Chamberlain says, citing jobs, water quality, phosphate levels in the river, adequate drinking water, even tourism and jobs.
"You can have managed growth or unmanaged growth, and right now we are not on a sustainable pace," says Chamberlain, 43, who was drafted away from her public affairs job at Washington State University by local Democratic stalwarts Phyllis Holmes, Neil Beaver and Yvonne Lopez-Morton.
Chamberlain, who grew up in the Spokane Valley, brings unique experience: She was elected as a Democrat in Idaho -- perhaps the most Republican of states.
"I come out of a different set of circles," she says. In Boise, Chamberlain soon learned to reach across party lines in order to be effective.
She also describes herself as the type of government geek who is fascinated by new techniques to achieve drier sewage sludge, which means there is less effluent in the river, which means the county can build more roads or houses without violating the Clean Water Act.
"I think voters are ready for a change, There's a mood that what we have now doesn't appear to be working," she says.
She's not in this for the money (the job pays $93,000 plus benefits), Chamberlain says. "I make $58,000 at WSU. I worked in the Idaho Legislature for $16,000 -- neither fame nor riches."
And, like Mager, she adds that "I think all my relatives are gainfully employed already."
An Insider's View & r & Former Republican County Commissioner Kate McCaslin offers a quick take on the race. In the interest of full disclosure, she has already come out in support of Chamberlain; nonetheless, McCaslin has a keen eye on local government.
She first points to the money, but with a twist. Harris, a killer fund-raiser over the years, already has more than $60,000 -- more than double all three of his challengers combined. But McCaslin sees it more as a weakness than a strength: "$60,000 from 16 individuals is a very, very, very narrow power base. It's not the amount of money -- it's the number of individuals who vote for you."
McCaslin is most troubled by all the behind-the-scenes moves at the County Courthouse that stifle dissent; a culture of secrecy that has grown in recent years as commissioners no longer hold evening meetings or televise the ones they do hold. Last winter, the county even threatened to arrest a citizen (Democratic Party stalwart Don Hamilton) who attended public meetings with his own video camera.