And Then There Were Seven: We talk to the Spokane City Council finalists gunning for Breean Beggs' empty seat

CIty Council President Breean Beggs
CIty Council President Breean Beggs
The last time the Spokane City Council appointed a new council member, they chose an idealistic lawyer named Breean Beggs.

Now that Beggs has been narrowly elected Spokane City Council president, it's time for the council to select someone new to fill his empty council seat to represent the area encompassing the South Hill and downtown, District 2.

The prospect of getting on City Council without running a bruising political campaign was apparently an appealing one — 32 local residents sent in applications by the deadline. This evening, the City Council announced they'd winnowed that list to the final seven: Katey Treloar, John Waite, Randy Ramos, Betsy Wilkerson, Michelle Weaver, Pia Hallenberg and Alan Chatham.

Each answered a battery of questions dreamed up by the current council members. Those questions give a sense of the priorities of the current council, raising questions about homelessness, landlord-tenant issues, criminal justice reform, climate change, transportation, growth and racial equity.

Several of the finalists share key similarities: Some of the finalists have already run for office, albeit unsuccessfully. Katey Treloar lost this year's school board race to Nikki Lockwood, while John Waite and Randy Ramos have previously run for the City Council.

Multiple candidates are currently living in downtown. Several boasted significant amounts of experience dealing with mental health.

With the departure of Mike Fagan — who's half Japanese — the Spokane City Council is currently entirely white. But if the council votes in Randy Ramos — a member of the Colville Tribe — or Betsy Wilkerson, a black woman, that would change.

On Monday, the council will officially interview each remaining candidate. That very same evening, the City Council will make their selection — a much faster timeline than when Beggs was selected.

So if you have strong opinions about one candidate or another, express your views now.

To help you in that question, we spoke to each candidate briefly, and have attached their answers to the City Council's application questions.

click to enlarge BETSY WILKERSON PHOTO
Betsy Wilkerson photo
Even before her name was selected as a finalist, Betsy Wilkerson became the recipient of a wave of support from racial equity groups like Spokane Community Against Racism, the Black Ministerial Alliance and progressive groups like FUSE Washington.

"Being a small business owner gives me a different perspective," Wilkerson tells the Inlander. "Being a woman of color gives me a different perspective."

Conversations are different, she says, when you have a person of color sitting at the table.

"That’s one of the things that I feel will be unique about my presence on the City Council," she says. "Having navigated a predominately white community and still having achieved a measure of success is something else that I think will be unique."

That experience has given her different tools to try to solve problems, she says. If she gets up and starts yelling, she says, that would just get her labeled as a "black woman."

Wilkerson cites her long history of community service as one of her strongest assets. Right now, she's the board president of the Carl Maxey Center. She's been the owner of Moore's Assisted Living — a mental health organization — since 1993.

"I provide residential housing for people who are mentally delayed," Wilkerson says. "I'm consistently on the front line and really engaged in challenges that are at the forefront of our city."

Initially, she was on the fence about running. But then she mentioned it to her grandkids.

"They got jacked," Wilkerson says. "I would like to bring those young people into City Hall where there’s someone there that looks like them."


click to enlarge Pia Hallenberg - PIA HALLENBERG PHOTO
Pia Hallenberg photo
Pia Hallenberg
"The Spokane City Council has had a reputation for not getting along for quite some time," Pia Hallenberg once wrote. "Even though many argue that getting along is not necessarily the main goal of politics, there generally comes a point where people have had enough. Spokane may be about to reach that point."

That, to be clear, is not something she wrote recently. That's from when Pia Hallenberg was covering City Hall for the Inlander way back in 2001

"I was a journalist with this community for 20 years," Hallenberg says. "I know the city inside and out. I know things work. I understand the city budget and how the city works together."

Working for the Spokesman-Review, Hallenberg covered both Spokane Valley and the Spokane city neighborhoods, where she says she tried to attend at least one meeting at every neighborhood council.

If appointed, Hallenberg would be the third former journalist on City Council — not to mention, of course, Mayor Nadine Woodward's past as a longtime TV anchor.

Hallenberg cites more than just her journalism background as an asset.

"I’ve been involved with the Riverside Neighborhood Council for the last two years, and have lived downtown for the last five years," Hallenberg says. "As a mainstream downtown resident, I would add a voice to the council that’s not there right now."

Photo courtesy of Creative Life Spokane
Alan Chatham
His friends just call him "Chatham."

Alan Chatham, another downtown resident, was the key force behind downtown art projects like Laboratory, an interactive art program and gallery space that has hosted artists-in-residence from across the globe in downtown Spokane.

"I’ve been super involved in downtown urban revitalization, I'm the chair of the Riverside Neighborhood Council," Chatham says. "I’ve worked with a bunch of creatives, business people, all sorts of different residents already."

In particular, Chatham is proud of co-founding Window Dressing, an artistic initiative that began as a project that turned the vacant storefronts into art installations. Eventually, the project evolved into also providing business training and space for emerging art organizations.

"I’m already in a position where I respond to needs of citizens and work toward building a better economically vibrant downtown," Chatham says.

click to enlarge Randy Ramos during the 2015 Spokane City Council campaign
Randy Ramos during the 2015 Spokane City Council campaign
Even before he ran for Mike Fagan's City Council seat in 2015, Randy Ramos was in the pages of the Inlander. In 2014, Ramos was a winner of the Inlander's Peirone Prize, sharing that year's prize with current Councilwoman Kate Burke. In Ramos' case, the award was recognition for his work recruiting Native and non-Native students for the Spokane Tribal College.

Ramos lost the 2015 council race, but he argues that he came impressively close — within 800 votes — to unseating an incumbent as a political unknown. And that was despite running as a single dad with two kids. 

"I showed the community that hey, he has something," Ramos says. Today, Ramos points to his tribal background as evidence as one of his strongest selling points.

"I think it’s my upbringing as an indigenous man. I was taught that every decision that we make has an effect on everything around us, and we have to be mindful of that," Ramos says. He says he wants to create a community that's inclusive of a wide array of voices, particularly American Indians.

"I have direct ties to the land," Ramos says. "Seeing there’s no representative of that in our City Council is a little disheartening. I know there’s a lot of people in the Native community that feel the same way. It’s very unfair."

Since the 2015 election, he says, he's been a community organizer for the Washington Community Action Network, where he pushed for things like the Affordable Care Act. 

"The reason I run is not so much trying to elevate myself, but to help the community," Ramos says. "It’s essential for the city of Spokane to have all sorts of diverse eyes looking at their issues, for what is working and what isn’t working... We need to bring people in. It has not worked up to this point. Something has to change. We have to start asking for other people’s experiences."

click to enlarge John Waite, owner of Merlyn's and Auntie's Bookstore. - DANIEL WALTERS PHOTO
Daniel Walters photo
John Waite, owner of Merlyn's and Auntie's Bookstore.
John Waite would put another downtown business owner on the council. He owns both Auntie's Bookstore and Merlyn's Comics and Games.

"I’ve got 46 years of living-in-Spokane experience," Waite says. "Frankly, I’ve been running businesses since 1984. That’s 35 years of running businesses."

Waite has run for council four times before, at least once in every single City Council district. (Crucially, in one race, he waved signs dressed up in full StarCraft Terran Marine body armor.) He's tried to get appointed before too, competing against Beggs in 2016.

He also says his experience teaching and coaching is a vital part of the puzzle.

"I‘ve been working in that world of communities and kids, families and schools," Waite says. Understanding all those worlds, he says, is a vital tool to have on council. Not only that, but his business-owner experience will be key when it comes time to rally frustrated downtown businesses behind solutions to some of the issues that have become so controversial downtown.

"I can bring a lot of the business community along to help look at and solve our mental health, social and homelessness issues," Waite says.

click to enlarge Katey Treloar - PHOTO COURTESY OF KATEY TRELOAR
Photo courtesy of Katey Treloar
Katey Treloar
Katey Treloar may not have won her school board race a few months ago against Nikki Lockwood, but she believes her experience as a teacher and nonprofit worker represents crucial experience to have on the Spokane City Council.

"I taught for Spokane Public Schools for eight years," Treloar says. "Everything we do starts with our kids. When we look at homelessness, and drug abuse and addiction and abuse, it stems from when our kids are little. As a City Council, there’s no one on the board right now that simply has the passion and education background that is really looking at it from that angle."

Want to stop people from being homeless? Start intervening with families and children right now, Treloar says. That means providing services that help families across entire generations and tries to tie together a community-wide support network.

She saw that first hand, she says, with her nonprofit work at "Bite2Go"

"Kids who get free or reduced lunch at school, it feeds them on the weekends," Treloar says. "We say, 'How can we help those kids? How we can we help the families? Why are the parents having so much difficulty feeding those kids on their own?'"

And she wants to go even further, thinking about other programs that actually pay family members of struggling students to show up, feeds them dinner, and tutors the kids with schoolwork while teaching their parents life skills.


click to enlarge Michelle Weaver - PHOTO COURTESY OF MICHELLE WEAVER
Photo Courtesy of Michelle Weaver
Michelle Weaver
Michelle Weaver, former chief operating officer of Embassy Management, says that as she was looking through the list of questions in the application, she was struck with the relevance.

"It’s homelessness. It’s low-income housing. It's incarceration. It's landlord-tenant [relations]," Weaver says. "All of those things are things that I have had to face in my 20-year career in social services in some form or fashion."

In particular, she notes her work with the Idaho Association of Community Providers, where she partnered with service providers across Idaho who struggled to take care people of people with developmental disabilities with a limited access to tax dollars.

"We were able to find a path forward," Weaver says, "to find people to care for people who had significant challenges."

Weaver was trained as a chemical engineer and says she brings that analytical, scientific, data-oriented mindset — but fused to a deep sense of empathy.

"I’ve got a 20-year history of bringing together people with diverse opinions on challenging issues," Weaver says. "Take any issue that we currently face. What can we agree on? I think probably everybody in the city of Spokane can agree that we want people to be taken care of. I don’t know anybody who wants anybody to be homeless... What can we agree on with that?"

Weaver's significant resume, however, comes complicated with the fact that her previous employer, Embassy Management, was the parent company of Aacres, the company that Washington state cut ties with last year over significant violations.

Weaver says it should be a "wake-up call" about the problems with the developmental-disability service industry across the country."

"Some of the stories that we’ve seen called out about Aacres have happened elsewhere," Weaver says. "I’ll be the first person to take responsibility. I’d love to sit with anybody who wants to have a conversation to talk about it."

Weaver says the challenges represent a genuine crisis.

"Anyone can lead through good times," Weaver writes in a follow-up email. "It takes a strong leader to lead through difficult times.

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, staff writer Daniel Walters is the Inlander's City Hall reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...