by Pia K. Hansen
When covering political races, there's a tendency to focus the spotlight on the differences among candidates. Applying that strategy to the Valley races this year, however, is pretty tough, because almost everyone is having too much of a good time getting along with each other.
In a way, the 14 people running for the seven council seats should be commended for getting along so well. They still meet every Thursday and continue to work on the various transition committees -- looking for a suitable city hall, going through piles of materials to educate themselves on the issues facing the new city.
But look closely, and there are differences. They are subtle, and they are mostly in the candidates' backgrounds. Many highly successful and very devoted business people are running for office, some of them giving the impression that the new Valley council could turn into a kind of chamber of commerce -- yet one with legislative power.
And once they're elected, it's going to be interesting to see the Valley council members' interaction with the Spokane City Council -- an entity none of the candidates wants to be like. And there's also a clear sentiment that the city of Spokane Valley is not going to do anything to make life easier for the city of Spokane. When someone in the audience at the last debate asked about whether the Valley should support the proposed light rail project, candidate Louis Sims said: "No. We don't need it. And especially not for the benefit of downtown Spokane."
So here's a brief look at the races for Spokane Valley city council. If you read carefully, you can find enough differences to sway your decision between now and Nov. 5, when 14 will become seven.
Pos. 1 -- Deanna Hormann vs. Diana Wilhite -- When the list of Spokane Valley city council candidates first came out, only a handful of the 49 primary candidates were women. After the primary, four were left -- two of them in the same race.
"When I found out that there were so few women, I thought, 'Well, why not?' and I signed up," says Diana Wilhite, who owns Safeguard Business Systems. She supported the incorporation effort, though she wasn't directly involved in the campaign.
Wilhite has lived in the Valley for 23 years -- a decade less than her opponent, Deanna Hormann.
Hormann has a managerial accounting background, but is retired. She has lived in the valley for 33 years.
"I've never answered the question as to whether I supported incorporation; I don't think it's important now," says Hormann.
Both women have chaired transitional committees: Hormann, the roads committee, and Wilhite, the finance and administration committee. Neither wants to raise taxes.
"I don't want to make it any harder on people than it already is," says Hormann.
Wilhite shares that opinion, but remains a little cautious. "I was concerned when some of the candidates started talking about how we could provide services cheaper than today," she says. "I'm not planning on raising taxes. But the income sources have dropped, sales tax revenue is down -- so we have to be prudent."
As for where the natural focal point of the Valley is -- or where city hall should be located -- Hormann is reluctant to go into detail.
"I don't think I should have an opinion on where city hall is to be located now," she says, adding that she hopes to eventually be able to concentrate the new city's services in one area.
Wilhite says since the Valley has developed around what she calls hotspots, it's hard to define a single focal point.
"The Valley has changed from agricultural to an urban area," she says. "I guess there is a sense to creating a core. A new city hall will have a lot of synergy around it, no matter where it's located, and that will help business, too."
Hormann is a supporter of the Growth Management Act.
"The function of growth management is to keep development where the taxpayers can support the infrastructure," she says. "We have to find a way of protecting residential areas and businesses so they are not encroaching on each other."
Wilhite says she needs to study the current comprehensive plan in more detail.
"It will need a fine tuning to fit the new city, I'm sure," she says, but has no specific examples.
Both candidates want to contract law enforcement services with the Spokane County Sheriff's Department and stick with Fire District 1.
As for winning over the large group of Valley residents who are still opposed to incorporation, both candidates -- especially Hormann -- are determined to get everyone involved in the new government.
"I am a firm believer in citizen think tanks. Great leaders come out of there," says Hormann.
Wilhite says the opposition hopefully will find that the new city is more easily approachable than the county currently is.
"If we can show them that they get the same services but from a friendlier bunch of people, I think we'll win them over," she says, adding that the new city's biggest challenge will be to stay within budget.
Hormann says setting up the city from the ground up -- and doing it right -- will be a huge challenge.
"If the new city does a professional and thorough job of setting up right, then the base and culture will be established for all the other factors," she says. "Factors like bringing in the better paying jobs we need in the Valley."
This is another race where the candidates clearly agree on more than they disagree.
Hormann is research-oriented and intent on listening to the citizens. "I'm a very detail-oriented person. I like to look at all the angles. I want more than just the fluff," she says.
Wilhite says voters have to look at the candidates' different backgrounds to make up their minds. "I think people who have run businesses and managed other people will be able to catch up a lot faster," she says.
Pos. 2 -- Steve Taylor vs. Edward Mertens -- This race is a classic run between the young and the old. Where the 72-year-old Mertens is a retired businessman who has lived almost all of his life in the Valley, Taylor is a young professional who's spent the last eight years in the Spokane area -- after being transferred here by the Air Force.
Taylor has lived in the Valley for four years, where he has worked as Congressman George Nethercutt's field representative since 1999.
"He is a very young man, he's articulate and all, but I have the business experience needed to do this job," says Mertens about his opponent.
But Taylor doesn't feel like he's lacking experience.
"I've been involved in the political arena for 10 years, starting in high school, up until now where I'm the treasurer for the Spokane Republican Party," says Taylor.
The Valley city council races are non-partisan.
Taylor is not intimidated by Mertens' seniority or longtime Valley residency. "I opened Nethercutt's field office here, and in the process of doing that and of helping the constituents who call in with questions, I feel like I've gotten to know the Valley, the issues and the people here really well," he says.
The two do agree on many issues.
Mertens was very active in the incorporation process, which Taylor also supported.
"It took us two and a half years to get all the signatures together to do this; I was the one who signed the original petition," says Mertens. "I've really studied this."
Taylor says he was involved with the transition committees, mostly the finance committee.
Mertens would like to see city hall located in the Sprague corridor.
"We are looking at enhancing the businesses along Sprague, and I think putting city hall there, in one of the vacant buildings, would be a good draw," says Mertens.
Taylor disagrees. "I would caution people who think that city hall should be the focal point of the Valley," says Taylor. "I'm not looking for a very large government, so I don't think you are going to get a lot of economic development around city hall."
Where Mertens is absolutely convinced there won't be any need for new taxes or levies, Taylor is a bit more cautious.
"We have good tax base and a good revenue flow," says Taylor. "I think we can provide the basic services, but when it comes to major projects such as big road projects, we are going to have to look carefully at how much money is available."
Both support contracting services such as law enforcement with the county, at least for the immediate future. Taylor would like to see planning and zoning come under local control as soon as possible.
"We must be careful not to lock up land and not to drive up land prices," says Taylor. "Just look at King County, and you can see how bad it can go."
Mertens says there are areas of the Comprehensive Plan that need to be revisited, but just like Taylor, he's fine with adopting the county's comp plan for starters.
Both say the biggest challenge facing the new city is the selection of a city manager. After selecting the manager, Taylor says prioritizing the budget is what he worries the most about.
"We don't know what the exact numbers are going to be yet," says Taylor.
That there's still opposition to incorporation doesn't faze either candidate.
"I reach those people every day, when I'm out there knocking on doors," says Taylor. " That group is going to keep us on our toes, hold us accountable that money isn't wasted."
Mertens believes everyone eventually will come around.
"Some of the people who were opposed to incorporation are now on this candidate list," he says. "As soon as incorporation became a reality, people showed up to get on the committees. People want to get involved."
Pos. 3 -- Mike Devleming vs. John Kallas -- While most of the Spokane Valley city council races feature candidates that voters may have a hard time distinguishing -- here's a race where there's no chance of a mistaken identity.
John Kallas, who's the vice chair of the Spokane Democratic Party, voted no on incorporation but decided to run for office anyhow. He is now approaching his campaign with an intensity and a zeal usually reserved for varsity football games.
"I'm here to make the Valley the best it can be, not number six in the state, unlike many of the other candidates," says Kallas, who has lived in the Valley for more than 40 years. "Many of the other candidates are just interested in business; I'm interested in protecting the citizens, too. I'm not a chamber puppet."
Running against Kallas -- who's a retired police officer -- is Mike Devleming, the customer service director for Vera Water and Power. "I voted for incorporation, and when it passed, it became apparent to me that if I wanted to make a difference, I would have to step forward," he says. "I'm more than 20 years away from retirement, my kids go to school here, I work here, and I want to help start this off well."
Devleming has lived in Spokane all his life, and in the Valley for the last 14 years.
Neither of the candidates wants to raise taxes, but Devleming leaves the door open for a levy or two: "It's hard to say that you are not going to pursue levies or bonds when you haven't seen the actual revenue numbers yet."
Kallas is convinced no new taxes are needed.
"I will not vote for any new taxes whatsoever," he says. "Actually, we can provide services better than the county can, and at a lower cost."
Both agree that police and fire protection needs to be contracted out, at least in the beginning.
Devleming would like to take a closer look at zoning.
"The community needs to have a clear vision of what we want to be in 20 or 50 years," says Devleming. "Right now, the zoning is not business friendly at all. The process in itself has become very complicated and not very flexible."
Kallas agrees on that assessment.
"There are some real horror stories -- the permitting process is just faulty," he says, adding that he is big on environmental protection. "Absolutely nobody encroaches on the Spokane River," he insists.
Kallas is the only candidate who has mentioned passing a one percent initiative, dedicating one percent of the general fund to human services.
"I'd support that," says Kallas, adding that he's aware of the movement to disincorporate, but he doesn't think it's going to happen.
"A good first council hopefully can ease a lot of the concerns the opponents still have," says Devleming.
Both agree that starting a new city is a challenge.
"I think the biggest challenge is to get through the massive amount of things that need to be done before we can open our doors," says Devleming. "Then comes hiring a city manager and getting the budget figured out."
Kallas says the new council has a lot to live up to. "The people who get elected will be under real close scrutiny."
Devleming says the biggest difference between the two of them is name recognition and history. "There are many differences in our ways, but mainly I haven't had the luxury of over 40 years of name recognition in the Valley," he says. "I earned the votes I got with hard work, and I'm going to continue that."
Kallas says he knows the Valley and the issues there better than his opponent. "Maturity is the biggest difference between us," he says. "I have been here, I have seen the Valley grow, I can help strike that real delicate balance between protecting air and water, and continued growth."
Pos. 4 -- Gary Schimmels vs. Dick Collins -- Neither Gary Schimmels nor Dick Collins wanted Spokane Valley to incorporate in the first place -- but now they are facing each other in the general election. Sound weird? Well, they are just two of the people on the candidate list who changed their minds once the incorporation effort passed.
"When incorporation passed, my wife said, 'That's it, we're moving,'" says Collins. "I know, we voted against it, but I said, 'By golly, incorporation is a reality, so let's be involved instead.'"
Schimmels also decided to run for office after incorporation efforts passed.
"I did not support incorporation. I never liked the borders they came up with and I still don't like them," he says, although he won't elaborate on specifically what it is he doesn't like.
Collins is the sheriff's jail commander and a captain in the Sheriff's Department, where he has worked for 32 years. Because he works for the sheriff, he has already recused himself from any vote involving contract negotiations with the Sheriff's Department. "I've lived in the Valley for 25 years," he says.
Schimmels is a locksmith and the owner of Affordable Lock Express in Veradale. "I've lived in the Valley all of my life. It's a long time," he says, laughing. "It's 64 years, to be exact."
As in many of the other races, these candidates agree on more issues than they disagree on.
They both looked at newly incorporated cities on the West Side of the state and gleaned as much information as possible about the challenges ahead.
"I've also talked a lot to the people out in Liberty Lake who just went through this," says Schimmels.
Collins has been reading up in the papers about what's going on over there.
"Some of the newer cities on the West Side are having a hard time getting going because of economic issues and loss of state funding," he says. "But the Association of Washington Cities met with us and they say we are the most financially sound area that has incorporated in 10 years."
So, no new taxes?
"If all the experts are correct, then we'll be able to provide the services we are used to without raising taxes," says Collins.
Schimmels believes there may even be a little extra left over.
"Hopefully we can provide more than what people are used to," he says. "We have a great tax base. I wouldn't be in favor of any tax changes for a while." He is worried that the county is predicting a budget shortfall in 2003.
"We can't be blind to that fact," says Schimmels. "As much as $1 million of that shortfall may be our part."
Both candidates seem overwhelmed by the Growth Management Act, the comprehensive plan and the many issues that are part of managing growth.
"I will say that I know some things about GMA, but I haven't really gotten into it," says Schimmels.
Collins is a little evasive on this point, too, but believes the Valley will be fine with the county's comp plan for a couple of years.
"There is no single aspect that really jumps out at me," he says.
When it comes to evaluating services such as law enforcement and fire protection, Collins clearly has the inside track. He believes residents in the Valley will be getting better police protection than they have before, even under the contract with the sheriff.
"The sheriff has six districts in the Valley right now, that go all the way to state line," says Collins. "In the contract we have been offered, these districts will be confined to the city of the Valley, so there will be more deputies per population."
Schimmels wants to contract services with the county as well, but maybe not for as long.
"I guess that we'd have to contract for the first two years," he says. He adds that once the election is over, the biggest challenge is the organization of the city.
"That and then we just have to calm the waters," he says. "We have to make sure to invite people to participate -- there will be no secret deals here."
Collins has a similar punchline.
"We have to be careful to make sure everyone feels like they are part of the new city," he says.
Pos. 5 -- Joan R. McCurdy vs. Richard D. Munson -- Here's another race that includes a candidate who was initially opposed to incorporation, then decided to be a part of the new city. McCurdy moved to the Valley from Sacramento, Calif., four years ago, and she voted against incorporation, fearing that taxes would go up.
"I'm a senior, and I own a home. I'm still worried about taxes going up, so I decided to get involved rather than just complain about it," says the retired computer programmer. "I know the area well, my kids all live here, so I'm sort of a reverse person: they stayed, I moved away, and now I'm coming back to live here."
Munson is a man with a plan -- and he'll tell you about it right up front. "What you see is what you get with me," he says. "This time around, I voted for incorporation and when the vote came in, I decided to run for office." He's a stockbroker and has lived in the Valley since 1977. Today, he's a vice president at Piper Jaffray.
Munson has studied several of the recent incorporations on the West Side. "It's been interesting because you have a chance to see the process that creates a city. It's important to know what steps to take and how to do it," he says.
McCurdy hasn't visited any of the new West Side incorporations, but says she did go to the meeting with the city manager from Kenmore, and has talked to people involved in Liberty Lake's recent incorporation.
Growth and development is another big issue, yet McCurdy hesitates to offer details on where she stands on the Comprehensive Plan.
"It's an enormous document, I have only read the outline of it -- I'm sure there are issues we are going to want to change," she says.
Munson knows how he feels about GMA. "I realize that until we have the time to come up with an alternative, we'll have to go along with it," he says. "But I don't think the GMA is the greatest plan for Eastern Washington. The parameters are all set for Western Washington -- they don't fit here. We are going to have to look at the entire plan right away."
He says that any new growth plan should include not only an environmental impact study, but also economic impact studies.
Neither candidate believes new taxes will be needed to pay the bills.
"I haven't been involved with the budget stuff yet," says McCurdy. "If it comes to an issue of not having enough money for something, I'd rather cut services than raise taxes. I mean, I wouldn't cut life-saving measures, like law enforcement, but cutting some services may just be the price people have to pay for incorporation."
Munson says the tax base should be sufficient. "We have a $30 million tax base; if we can't make that work we are not doing our jobs," he says. "We just shouldn't raise taxes until it's absolutely proven that we need the money."
Both agree that services should be contracted out with the county, at least in the beginning.
"Later, I would advocate looking at other options to see if it's feasible," says McCurdy. "But we need to be careful."
Munson says the fire department is doing a great job, so there's no need to interfere with that -- the same goes for the sheriff.
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," he says. "We'll be the sheriff's biggest client, and the biggest client usually gets what he wants."
McCurdy says the biggest challenge facing the new city is the selection of a city manager. "I'd be looking for someone who is a strong individual, fair-minded and a good communicator," she says. "It would also have to be someone who has strong experience and a good background."
Munson is the only candidate who has mentioned the development of a strategic plan to guide the Valley's growth and direction for the first decade.
"That's very important. There are two other challenges: to make sure the city is safe from crime and to pick a good city manager, hopefully someone who has done it before here in Washington," he says. "That person has to be someone who understands that the government is here to serve the people, not the other way around."
Pos. 6 -- Janine Eldregde-Underdahl vs. Mike Flanigan -- These two candidates agree on most things -- including no new taxes -- but their backgrounds are fairly different. Janine Eldregde-Underdahl was born in Spokane but grew up in the Bay Area. She moved back here about 14 years ago, and for the last 12 years she has worked at the Appleway Automotive Group. Today she's the customer retention manager for all of the group's seven franchises.
"I'm running for office because I got really tired of seeing the taxes go up, and I felt like we were not getting what we paid for," she says. "I want to stop frivolous government spending."
Mike Flanigan has lived in the Valley for 42 years, pretty much all of his life. He says friends and family persuaded him to run. "I wasn't going to," he says, "but my treasurer is also my best friend, and she talked me into it. And my kids wanted me to run." A few other people probably offered their opinion and support as well, because Flanigan works for the Valley Chamber of Commerce. He's been there for two years.
"I say no on taxes as well, absolutely no," he says. "When it comes to supporting levies and bonds, that would have to depend on the projects."
When it comes to managing the Valley's continued growth, Underdahl says she doesn't want to propose any changes to the comp plan before she has had more time to look at it.
"If I have to pick some type of development I think the Valley is missing, it would be culture and art," she says. "Galleries, theaters -- we need that in order to be able to attract successful businesses. It's all about quality of life."
Flanigan, for his part, predicts the comprehensive plan is going to get a major overhaul once the new city is established.
"We will revisit the whole thing. That was a major force behind incorporation that people want a say in how the area is going to grow," he says. "Many people talk about how we are lacking a downtown or a core area, but I don't necessarily think that is bad. Look at other places -- downtowns go through cycles and they are not always good. I think Sprague is coming back, and the completion of Mirabeau Point is going to be a godsend. That will give people a place to gather."
Underdahl sees Sprague as the natural focal point for the Valley, but maybe not the best place for a city hall. "There are so many empty buildings there," she says. "But now that I've seen the Redwood Plaza -- and we are getting a really good offer on that -- I think that might be more of what we are looking for."
Flanigan says the new council's biggest challenge will be to hire a city manager. "Ideally that would be someone who has already gone through an incorporation in the state of Washington," he says. "But it also has to be someone who really knows what it means to work for the citizens."
Underdahl agrees: "The new city manager needs a trail of successes in setting new cities up," she says. "But that person also needs to have integrity, be good at communication and know the real meaning of public service."
So don't they disagree at all? "A difference between us? I'd say I'm more of a person for the people," says Underdahl. "I'm more like the common person out there, where he may have a more political background."
Again, Flanigan agrees. "What separates us is my experience and my background," says Flanigan. "I've been involved with a lot of issues. I attended the growth management hearings, if I have a question I would know right away who to call and get an answer. That's the thing about this project: we don't have time for a learning curve."
Pos. 7 -- Dick Denenny vs. Louis Sims -- They were last on the debate schedule, but that didn't mean they were worn out. In front of a crammed auditorium at West Valley High School, Dick Denenny (former Valley Chamber President) and Louis Sims (business maven and high-tech booster) battled it out for little more than an hour earlier this week.
Denenny is a fourth-generation Spokanite and a Gonzaga Prep graduate. After college, he joined his family's boat business in the early '70s, and since 1991 he has owned a group insurance brokerage company in the Valley.
Sims has lived in Spokane for 32 years, and he opened the debate by saying the election really isn't about him.
"This is about you, about how you want local control and representatives that will follow your direction," he said.
Sims was the director of engineering at Key Tronic in the late '70s. That job was followed by top positions in ISC Systems and Output Technology. He retired in 2000.
Where Denenny has a long list of endorsements, including Avista and the Spokane Association of Realtors, Sims made a point of how he wants to work for the majority vote.
"I have rejected support from special interest groups," he said. "It's important that this new council understands how to follow the citizens' wishes."
Neither wants to raise taxes, saying the Valley's tax base is sufficient to support services. But both want to make changes in the comprehensive plan.
"The Valley will initially adopt the county's comprehensive plan," said Sims. "When the city is established, I'm sure the citizens want to have a say in how the comprehensive plan for the Valley should look, so they can determine their own future."
Denenny said especially the current planning and permit process needs to be reworked because it's too rigid.
When asked about the types of development needed in the Valley, Denenny said he thinks there's an overgrowth of apartment complexes.
"Growth management can create an artificial need for a commodity, like land, and that will drive up prices," he said. "We need to continue to build out into the outlying areas."
Sims would like to see more in-fill. "[It's] vacant lot after vacant lot here, and we just put the sewer in there. Someone should build in those spots," he said.
Sims is dedicated to pushing for higher education in the Valley. "I'd like to see a major research college located here. I still think we need to do that, and we need to do that with Eastern Washington University," he said. Sims is on the advisory board for the college of Science, Math and Technology at EWU. Getting a research university would attract high-tech businesses, he said.
Denenny agreed on the job creation part, but disagreed on the Valley's potential involvement in attracting a research university.
"I don't think that is the direction the council should work in." he said. "We need to have the right infrastructure to attract businesses -- then we can work with the universities, like WSU, which set up the Health Sciences Center."
Denenny has spearheaded opposition to incorporation during the earlier attempts to get it passed, but supported the incorporation efforts this time around.
"I think that's in the past. We are beyond who was for or against. We need to bring everyone into the fold," he said.
Sims said people remain opposed to incorporation because they don't know what they are getting -- yet. Both candidates see the job of helping the new city get off to a good start as a challenge, but as something that can be accomplished.
"I think the biggest challenge is to get people to feel that sense of community," said Sims
Denenny sees the biggest challenge in the numbers. "To get a handle on the actual revenues and to provide services at the lowest cost possible -- that's going to be a big challenge," he said.
Denenny made it clear that he feels better prepared than Sims.
"You can't prepare for this in just a couple of weeks," said Denenny, looking at Sims. "The voters have to look at the candidate's background. Can they access information? Can they work with different groups?"
Sims said that he feels perfectly prepared. "I know how to turn a company around, and look at what has happened at Eastern," said Sims. "I don't have a full-time job, and when I get involved in something, I do so with vigor."