There was a time where every Spokane City Council meeting almost guaranteed a headline in the next day's paper or a spot on the evening news. Words like "disrespect" and "dysfunctional' were often used to describe the way council members were behaving or treating each other. It's pretty amazing how fast things can change.
Politics obviously involves arguments and discussions -- after all, that's how policy is generated. But it seemed like the City Council had a hard time establishing a united front on anything, whether it was River Park Square, downtown parking, annexation or staffing.
Today, with three new members and a fourth one, lawyer and tribal advocate Mary Verner, just appointed this week, council meetings of late have been conducted swiftly and without much banter. So does that mean the council simply isn't getting anything done?
"Oh, we are getting plenty done," says Brad Stark, who was sworn in on Jan. 1 to represent the South Hill district. "I have been really challenged by the workload -- not as much the number of hours, but the issues we deal with and the intensity of what comes up." To get everything done, Stark says he begins his day job as a Boy Scout executive at 5 am.
"Still, it's been a positive experience being on the council," he says. "I went into it with open expectations, and I'm really enjoying it."
Stark's campaign focused on, among many thing, streamlining the permitting process at City Hall and the continued development of the University District.
"We are at the beginning of a rewrite of all the development codes to bring them in line with the comprehensive plan. That's one of the bigger projects we are looking at right now," he says.
And the University District is still at the top of his list.
"The master plan for that area is coming up pretty soon -- within a couple of months, it should be ready," says Stark. "That will be a huge asset to the city and the region."
He says he's been positively surprised by the caliber of the people who work for the city.
"I've been spending a lot of time getting to know city staff and the folks who work here. Let me tell you, we have a high quality staff," says Stark. "They are all very dedicated. We have incredible folks here doing an amazing job."
During the election, Stark said he'd be voting for now-Mayor Jim West, so it's no surprise that he says the council is working well with the mayor.
"I think there is a real positive attitude at City Hall. Mayor West calls it the 'no surprises' rule -- you know, we deal with things that happen out in the open," explains Stark. "I really like that. And we have worked together well on the council."
Among bigger issues on the horizon, Stark is especially worried about transportation and the continued funding for Spokane's many parks.
"The Parks Department's fund balance will be drawn down to zero by June 30th," he says. "We are going to have to find a way to deal with that. A charter amendment is an option, and there's always the potential for a park bond further down the road."
Money and especially a balanced budget are also on Bob Apple's mind. The contractor and bar owner represents the Northeastern district, and he was sworn in alongside Stark in January.
"We have a major budget problem, and it's not being addressed," he says. "The last council signed off on a budget anticipating a sales tax boost that didn't happen. We are short about $8 million, perhaps even a little bit more than that."
Under the strong mayor form of government, the mayor and his staff develops a budget, which is then presented to the city council for approval. Apple is anxiously awaiting West's proposal.
"I'm sure the mayor is working on it. I'm hoping there will be a draft proposal around April we can take a look at," he says. "I'd like to prevent the slash-and-cut approach to budgeting, but the later in the year we get to see the budget, the more likely it is that we'll have to cut and slash." Apple won't say what he would cut, if necessary, to balance the budget.
Just like Stark, Apple has spent a lot of time getting acquainted with City Hall staff and departments.
"I've been really surprised that the city seems to have a lot of antiquated equipment," he says. "I thought they would be all up to date on stuff. Right now, the phone system is being replaced with a much better one, but the computer system is pretty bad, too."
Replacing computer systems can be pretty expensive. So where would the money come from?
"Well, there is that," Apple responds. "We'll have to look at that."
Among the bigger issues in his district, Apple says he's mostly worried about the condition of the streets.
"The streets are always a concern -- it just continues that way," he says. "I told the Mayor that I want a repair crew in Northeast Spokane. The city had one crew last year, and we are scheduled to have two this year -- the money was already appropriated for that. I'd hope we'd get three -- that would be one for each district."
Baker Commodities, also known as the rendering plant, is on Apple's list as well.
"They are either going to have to stop stinking up the neighborhood and comply with the rules, or go out of business," he says.
Job creation and new ways to attract businesses to the area are perennial hot topics. Unfortunately, the last year has brought a couple of big business disasters.
Joe Shogan, the third of the three newly elected city council members, worries a lot about what impact Metropolitan Mortgage's bankruptcy will have.
"I think what's happening with Met Mortgage right now is the equivalent of a white-collar Kaiser situation for this city," says Shogan. "It could potentially have huge consequences. I wonder what's going to happen to Summit Development. That's in my district, so of course I hope it works out, but I worry."
Shogan agrees with Apple and Stark that, so far, serving on the council has been a good experience.
"I've been surprised by the amount of paperwork and the amount of e-mail traffic. I mean, e-mail is fine for setting up meetings, but I prefer people call me," says Shogan, who's also an attorney. "I guess I'm more of a face-to-face person when it comes to communication."
Shogan ran his campaign largely on his deep involvement in the neighborhood council program.
"I still attend as many neighborhood council meetings across my district as I can," he says, quickly running through a week's worth of evening meetings. "Most of the neighborhoods in my district are going through the neighborhood planning process and that's a lot of work." Shogan says he's also working with the building community and city staff to hold a Five Mile Summit to better plan the future for that area.
STA and its budget trouble are at the top of Shogan's list as well.
"I see it as a social justice issue more than anything. We must make sure that public transportation is available," he says. "I mean, they're talking about cutting service to Fairchild. That is one of the biggest employers in the area, and we're trying to keep them here and keep them happy. That just boggles my mind." Shogan supports the proposed sales tax increase that's been put on the May ballot in an effort to preserve STA's services at the current level.
All in all, it's been a relatively smooth transition for the three newly elected council members. But who knows what the future will bring? Shogan, Apple and Stark agree that getting elected and serving on the council has been a positive experience. Yet each of them qualified that statement by adding "so far."
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