As the housing crisis worsens, the city of Spokane struggles to staff the planning department needed to respond to it

click to enlarge Vacancies and turnover in high-level positions have made City Spokesman Brian Coddington, left, a particularly influential figure in Nadine Woodward's administration. - DANIEL WALTERS PHOTO
Daniel Walters photo
Vacancies and turnover in high-level positions have made City Spokesman Brian Coddington, left, a particularly influential figure in Nadine Woodward's administration.

In the final year of Spokane Mayor David Condon's administration, then-City Council President Ben Stuckart pushed a plan that he hoped would ease the housing shortage and boost neighborhood business centers: It involved rezoning sections of the North Monroe and Perry Street corridors to allow for denser housing.

He had the support of the city administrator, the City Council and the mayor. But after Nadine Woodward defeated Stuckart and became mayor, the project got shelved.

"Nobody gave me a reason why or who made a call," Stuckart says. "I was just told, 'Nope, when David left the building, it got stopped.'"

It wasn't that Woodward's new administration opposed the project. It was that, with a slew of important vacancies in the city's planning department, the staff who would do the rezoning were needed on other projects like the downtown plan.

"They stalled during the transition process," city spokesman Brian Coddington says. "Then as we got into COVID, it hadn't been picked back up yet."

Last month's dramatic exit of Cupid Alexander, the city's neighborhood services division director, exposed just how understaffed the city's housing and human services department had become, handicapping the ability of the city to address homelessness.

But other departments, like planning services, have been overworked and understaffed as well.

"We're down four positions in planning, at the time of the greatest housing crisis ever," City Council President Breean Beggs says.

The city not only has two vacant assistant planner positions, there's no official planning director to oversee the planning department, and there's no official division director to oversee the planning director. If you include the two director positions, almost a quarter of the planning positions are currently empty.

The frustration is councilwide: Councilman Michael Cathcart details being told that "really important steps" he believes are necessary to ease the housing shortage are "too staff intensive and too time intensive." Councilwoman Candace Mumm recounts developers' complaints about the lack of staffing to respond to their concerns, while Councilwoman Lori Kinnear talks about the missed opportunities to transform North Division Street to take advantage of new bus lines.

"That department is on life support," Kinnear says of the planning department.

Thanks largely to vacancies, only three-quarters of the planning department's 2020 budget was spent last year. Over in Cupid Alexander's division? Barely more than a third.

But all the vacancies have made even getting information about the vacancies more difficult.

Worried about a "potentially larger pattern of key departments being understaffed," Beggs sent an email to the city administrator and human resources on June 23, asking for a spreadsheet detailing vacancies across all city departments, stressing that "community members have already paid their taxes for these budgeted positions."

He never heard back. Instead, just a week later, the city's HR director resigned, adding to the growing holes in City Hall.

"We are just completely understaffed," Beggs says.

The Woodward administration argues that the amount of vacancies and departures isn't particularly unusual, and that much of it may be related to exhaustion from the pandemic.

"We had a lot of our staff and division leaders doing around-the-clock work for months during the beginning of COVID," Woodward says. "We've gotten to a point 15 to 16 months later, where people are strained, they're stressed, they're tired."

Others have a more cynical explanation.

"This new administration has been there long enough, where they should see where the weaknesses are, where they should boost staff," City Councilwoman Karen Stratton says. "I'm kind of at the point where I think they just don't care."

A DIRECTOR SEARCH IN SEARCH OF DIRECTION

Spokane City Hall, to be clear, was understaffed when Woodward was elected. Condon, her predecessor, had wanted the new mayor to make her own mark, and he recognized that hiring quality candidates would be tricky when they knew a new boss could just as easily fire them. At the end of 2019, over 40 major positions were vacant.

In fact, the planning director position had been vacant since March 2018, when the Condon administration ousted Lisa Key from that role. Cathcart hoped that would change when Woodward took office.

"The first thing I said to the mayor is, 'We need to prioritize hiring a planning director,'" he says. "We need to go out and headhunt."

But as the Woodward administration focused on hiring other roles, like a city administrator, a chief financial officer and a human resources director, the planning director recruitment didn't begin until September.

In a speech to the City Council in October, Woodward named "recruiting a planning director to identify new ways for our city to grow and thrive well beyond this pandemic" as one of her top priorities.

"The first thing I said to the mayor is, 'We need to prioritize hiring a planning director,'" he says. "We need to go out and headhunt."

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But behind the scenes, Beggs suggests, the administration's commitment to the department was less robust.

Beggs says the council "begged" the mayor to not ax one of the city's empty planner positions. Eventually, the council agreed to eliminate one of the planner positions and create a new "community and economic development division director" position, a high-level position that would oversee planning, code enforcement and a number of other departments.

Toward the end of November, both Mumm and Cathcart sat on a panel to interview four planning director finalists. But the panel couldn't agree. While Mumm selected what she felt was a front-runner, Cathcart didn't believe any of the finalists had the experience to tackle the growth challenges of a city like Spokane.

"I recommended they go back out and do a new search," he says.

But instead of following either councilmember's recommendation, the whole hiring process came to a halt: Coddington says the administration put it on pause, while deciding whether it made more sense to first hire the community and economic development director.

For months, the planning director position hiring process hung in limbo. It didn't help that, back in September, Woodward's first city administrator had abruptly resigned.

"You had this five-month gap when everything was on hold," Kinnear says.

And when the planning director search finally restarted in May, the administration sent two of the four director finalists to be interviewed by a second panel, one composed primarily of community members.

"The community panel was unanimous," Coddington says. "The right fit was not there."

As a result, he says the administration decided to find a firm to recruit new candidates.

Nearly 500 days after Woodward took office, the planning director search had effectively been sent back to square one. Mumm, however, says the panels shouldn't be blamed.

"At the end of the day, it falls to the mayor to bring forth a candidate," Mumm says.

City Council President Breean Beggs has become more outspoken in his criticism of the mayor's decisions in recent months. - DANIEL WALTERS PHOTO
Daniel Walters photo
City Council President Breean Beggs has become more outspoken in his criticism of the mayor's decisions in recent months.

THE HIRING CHILL

Coddington argues that it's crucial to take the context into account when judging the mayor.

"She had, what, 75 days to get up to speed on the city operations before a global pandemic?" Coddington says. Almost overnight, the city had to convert a 2,000-employee in-person organization into a mostly online work-from-home operation. Department heads, including the director of human resources, had to take on new roles to respond to the pandemic.

"I'm sitting in a City Hall that has a fraction of employees here," Coddington says. "We're not back in-person here."

Not only that, but because of the concern that the pandemic would devastate local tax revenue, the city was particularly conservative when it came to filling vacant positions.

"We've already put a freeze on hiring," Woodward told the Inlander in April 2020. "We have already cut back on nonessential spending."

Technically, hiring was allowed during the pandemic, Coddington says, but each position required explicit approval from the city administrator, a restriction that was only lifted last month.

Either way, it turned out that the city's budget wasn't battered by the pandemic nearly as much as anticipated: So when the City Council learned in May that millions of dollars had been withheld that could have been spent on unfilled staff positions, frustration poured out.

"We're sitting here without enough planners in planning. We have code enforcement that is way behind," Stratton said at a May 13 study session. "Our employees shouldn't suffer as they have been with too much work and too few people to do it."

Beggs argues that the hiring limits came from an ideological place, that the mayor believed "each person you don't hire, you're helping the taxpayer somehow, you're doing God's work if you don't hire a government employee."

But Coddington says that, in fact, the city had explicitly allowed hiring to continue for the planning and housing and human services departments. In fact, there was a planner hired in February, but then another vacancy opened up in April.

That's where an entirely different bureaucratic apparatus comes in: the civil service commission. The merit-based civil service hiring system was designed to protect employees from politics or favoritism, but it has become a major hiring bottleneck in recent months.

To hire new planners, for example, the commission has to not only develop a new list of potential candidates, it has to update the civil service test for the position, a process that can take months. Kelsey Pearson, chief examiner for the civil service commission, says she recognizes that civil service needs to adapt and that their process hasn't been working like it once did.

But beyond the bureaucracy, the appeal of a government job in Spokane isn't what it was during the depths of the recession, Pearson says.

"We are just quite frankly, struggling to recruit planners," she says. "Spokane used to be more of a draw, more of an affordable place to live."

And that's the irony: Spokane needs more planners to help solve the housing crisis that is making Spokane less affordable. But, thanks in part to the housing crisis, it's become harder to convince them to work here.

EXIT SIGNS

Coddington expects the community and economic development division director position to be filled by the end of this month. As for the planning director? Strategic Government Resources, the recruiting firm hired by the city to recruit a new slate of candidates, just started advertising the position last week. They'll be taking applications through Aug. 5.

In the meantime, Mumm says, the City Council approved a stopgap measure on Monday: Use the money the city saved on not hiring people last year, and pay for contractors and consultants to help the planning department get caught up on delayed projects. A city spokeswoman says a consultant may help resurrect the North Monroe and Perry projects in coming months.

As for the housing and human services department, Coddington says the mayor and the HR department have been meeting personally with the department's staff to listen to their concerns and identify possible solutions.

"We're hoping to bring stability back to that department," Woodward tells the Inlander. "I want to make the organization healthy again."

So far that stability hasn't come. Stratton confirms that another department employee, Homeless Program Specialist Matt Davis, submitted his resignation last week.

"We've lost a lot of really good people," Stratton says, "And we're going to lose more."

It's practically a demographic inevitability.

"More than half of city employees are eligible to retire right now," Pearson says. "They could leave tomorrow." ♦

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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...