by Pia K. Hansen
There's no question about it, one of this fall's most exciting political races is Steve Eugster's challenge of county commissioner Phil Harris. While Eugster's propensity for confronting everyone from Girl Scouts to downtown developers has caused city residents to laugh, cry and cheer over the past three years, Harris has maintained a much lower profile. It's not that he doesn't get anything done, it's just that he doesn't make headlines quite as frequently.
"We don't scream at each other on TV like they sometimes do on the city council," Harris says, unveiling what is sure to be a campaign theme between now and the November 5 election.
Harris, a Republican, has been involved with county government under one form or another for the past 16 years, representing pretty much the same agenda today as he did when he first first elected county commissioner eight years ago. Occasionally he gets into a tiff with his fellow commissioners, John Roskelley and Kate McCaslin, but on an average day his entertainment value is -- at least compared to Eugster's -- quite low. So it shouldn't surprise anyone that here at the beginning of the campaign, he's got mostly good things to say about Eugster.
"We're kind of friends. I mean, we are not social friends but we do talk," says Harris. "I don't want to judge the work he has done. That's up to the voters in the city to do. But I don't think being on the council has prepared him in any way to become a county commissioner, just like I don't think me being a county commissioner has prepared me to work in Olympia -- not that I'd want to."
Eugster, a Democrat, has this to say about the differences between the two: "Phil is a good guy -- I'm not a good guy. I work hard, I don't mind being controversial and ruffling a few feathers. I am active, and I do not wait for people to tell me what to do. I'm constantly thinking of how to improve government and make it better for the people of Spokane."
If Eugster is elected county commissioner, he would have to give up his city council seat -- which would then be filled by appointment, until the next election (Eugster's South Hill seat is up next year). But those who think moving Eugster out of city hall and into the county will cut down the number of lawsuits he files against the city better think again.
"I want to make one thing perfectly clear: If I'm elected county commissioner, I'm not being restricted from influencing the city to do the right thing," says Eugster. "I can still continue my litigation, and I can act by initiative. I'll continue to push to make the city do the right thing."
He says in his campaign statement that he will continue his efforts regarding River Park Square, to bring to light that the city's deal is illegal and that the agreements making it up should be ruled null and void under the law.
Eugster also wants the county to up the ante with the city. On an issue such as road repair, for instance, he says he wants the county to play a more active role in making the city act.
"The county has to say to the city, 'Look, folks, your road system is part of the county system and you are not taking care of this as you are supposed to,' " says Eugster.
But this is one place where Harris draws the line.
"We, at the county level, don't have any right to do that," he says.
Eugster has long been a proponent of consolidating government between the county and the city, creating a big metro government instead of the two current entities, but Harris doesn't agree.
"No, I don't think that is a good idea. The people have voted, what, three times on that and they have always said no. I'm going to listen to the people," says Harris. "To make it work, I'm saying that the city would have to repeal its charter, and everyone would have to come under the county's government. I don't think the city would ever do that."
Along with the job's $86,000 annual salary, at stake is the balance of power on the three-person board of commissioners. With so few votes determining the outcome of major decisions, any one individual holds a lot of sway. Eugster is also bucking a trend simply because he's a city resident. All three current commissioners now live in the county.
Over the years, Commissioner Roskelley has campaigned against the large boards -- which he says are simply eyesores cluttering up the countryside -- with the ultimate goal of getting them banned. Lately, Kate McCaslin has joined him, leaving Harris in the minority.
"Yes, there was a majority on the board to put the billboards on the ballot, and I don't agree with that. No one can show me a law that says you can ban them," says Harris, who has a strong record of being on the side of local businesses. "I'm not going to vote yes on an issue that will put a legal business out of business. I just won't do that."
If voters approve the ban of billboards, Harris says the county may get sued by the billboard companies and the people who lease out land the boards are placed on. "And that would be so expensive. It would be locked up in court for years, costing us so much money, money that could be much better spent otherwise," he says.
During the last couple of months, Eugster has fought the Spokane Transit Authorities advertising-wrapped buses. He's not exactly supportive of the billboards either.
"I'm for laws that enhance the livability of the area," says Eugster. "You could say you have too much information coming at you from all these boards along the roadside. No, I'm not pleased with the ones we have."
Eugster has said many times that the county needs to get tougher on white-collar crime. Many have interpreted that as Eugster's promise to keep after the River Park Square deal in any way, shape or form, but he has other types of criminal activity in mind, too.
"White-collar crime is a real problem. We have problems with meth houses and elder abuse, and so-called mortgage swapping is a big deal. I have clients who have been affected by that," he says.
Harris, who's always been a strong supporter of the sheriff's department and of law enforcement in general, says the prosecutor's office is getting plenty of support.
"In the time I've been on the board, we've given the prosecutor at least 12 people, and more money than ever before," he says. "And we've given superior court another 18 people and the sheriff's department at least 68 people. These are areas that have always been important to me. It's one of our most important roles that people feel safe."
Apparently, Eugster still doesn't think the county is doing enough. "[County prosecutor] Tucker doesn't have the resources to really do anything about white-collar crime, so we need to help that office," he says.
It's hard to argue with a guy who really, really wants a monorail. And Harris sees a raised railway as the right solution for mass transit in Spokane.
"Light rail is not the way to go," says Harris. "Why would you want that cutting through downtown, with the rails and the cars waiting in line as the train passes. A monorail has none of that."
And then there's the coolness factor.
"Heck, people might even ride it for the fun of it and take pictures, just like in Seattle," says Harris, who doubts that the current light rail plan would help anyone.
"People in Liberty Lake, for instance, would still have to drive to the stations and wait there for the train," he says. "Before you know it, they could have driven downtown in half the time. If you took it out to the airport, at least that would help the businesses downtown, because visitors could take the train down here."
Eugster isn't in favor of light rail either.
"I don't know, I guess I'm just not convinced it's the right thing for Spokane," he says.
And both agree that changes are needed in the way the Spokane Transit Authority is run.
"I think the county commissioners should take responsibility for STA. I'm not too pleased with the special board; it's a system-driven board, and the commissioners could do a lot better job of running it," says Eugster. He'd also like to expand the area STA covers, so that the transit authority could draw in more sales tax revenue.
"I am in favor of this fall's STA initiative -- but on one condition: that the money is used to expand the system," says Eugster. If the initiative passes, however, the incoming money would be used to basically maintain the status quo.
"See, you've got to be careful with government," Eugster continues. "The money isn't always being spent the way it was promised to."
Harris, on the other hand, would like to see the city take over STA, because the transit authority provides most of its services within the city limits. "STA is not doing a good job," he says. "I have always been a proponent of smaller buses that could serpentine their way through the neighborhoods, so people wouldn't have to walk so far to catch them."
The recent incorporation of the Spokane Valley has changed the look of Spokane County, which after this fall's elections will once again be mostly rural.
"I think the incorporation of the Valley is a good thing," says Eugster. "The county has to focus on providing services to all the people in the county, regardless if they are inside or outside of the cities." He adds that this may be a good time to give the Growth Management Act the overhaul it badly needs.
"We should devote time to create a clear and understandable land-use law. I do not believe the commissioners should defer that project to the bureaucrats in the planning department -- they don't know how to do it," says Eugster. "We have created a morass of rules. We need simple rules for simple people."
Harris expects the transition to be smooth, and he's not worried about the loss of tax base.
"They say we'll lose about $30 million, but we already provide services for a lot of money out there, too," he says. "It's a lot more expensive to provide services in a rural area than in a metropolitan one."
So there it is. The choice is pretty simple: Do voters want to keep things the way they are, by supporting Phil Harris for a third term -- commissioners are not, like city council members, term-limited -- or is it time to let Steve Eugster's reforms loose on the county? He is, after all, the one to thank for the strong mayor government we now have in Spokane.
"I just feel like I can do a better job serving the people of Spokane as a county commissioner. That's why I'm running," says Eugster.
Harris points out that the county is a lot better off today than when he took office. The reserve is fat and taxes are lower than in the city.
"I will not change. And I will not vote for a tax increase, I just won't," says Harris. "I'm not going to let politics change me -- I make my decisions based on the law."
Does Harris worry that Eugster's trademark confrontational style will force him to become, if not aggressive, then at least more outspoken?
Harris laughs: "Who knows? I wouldn't be surprised if the guy has sued me before the end of the campaign."