by Pia K. Hansen

Imagine for a moment what it's like trying to catch seven small rabbits on a full-size football field. It would go something like this: While you have one cornered, the six others take off in all different directions. When you have one rabbit under one arm and reach out for the next, the one you had already caught wriggles loose and takes off. That's what it's like trying to get to sit down with all the members of the new Spokane Valley City Council. It's not like they try to avoid you, it's just that they are very, very busy people.

A position on the Valley council is considered part-time, just as the mayor's job is -- although Mayor Mike DeVleming sounds a bit like he regrets not asking part-time of what?

"I work at least 40 to 45 hours on this job, and I have another one as well," says the mayor, who works for Vera Water and Power. "No, I'm not really surprised by the workload in itself, but I thought most of my time would be spent in meetings, yet I spend much more time on communicating with the city council and the staff."

Councilwoman Diana Wilhite, who owns Safeguard Business systems and is the new council's lone woman, agrees: "Actually, it's more consuming than I thought it would be. It feels like I have two full-time jobs. On top of meetings, there is all the reading, documents, plans, everything -- I've given up on any extra curricular reading at all."

Every single council member said the number of hours they work by far exceeds the part-time job description, but they also indicated that the work is really rewarding.

"I can't remember having this much fun in my life, ever," says Richard Munson when he picks up the phone. Munson is an assistant vice president at the investment banking firm Piper Jaffray during the day.

"But the number of hours also surprised me," he says. "I think I spend 60 hours a week with this city council job. It's very rewarding, though. And intellectually, with all the reading and the learning, it is intellectually very stimulating."

That has to be the understatement of the day. The incorporation of the Spokane Valley is one of the largest incorporations in the nation, including a $33 million budget plus the hiring of an entirely new staff -- everyone from city attorney to the receptionist at the front desk. Spokane Valley is the ninth biggest city in the state.

The city council is non-partisan, but even for someone with political experience it's a challenge.

"Starting a city from scratch is a huge undertaking," says Steve Taylor, who holds a day job as Representative George Nethercutt's field representative. "In politics that I have worked in, you are always campaigning, advancing the party's policy. Here it's non-partisan and there is a lot of responsibility. It's a different experience."

Pollyanna Continued? -- One of the most peculiar things to observe during the campaign for the Valley City Council is how well all the candidates get along -- even during the primary, when a field of 51 was being narrowed down to 14. It seemed as if this group had gotten together and decided to incorporate the Valley, but it didn't really matter who among them all was elected to actually do the job.

When observing the city council today, everyone still seems to get along fine.

Unusual? Slightly. Everlasting? Hardly.

"Well, perhaps it's a honeymoon period we're in, and no, I don't think it's always going to go this well, but I expected to get along with this group," says DeVleming. "But now the honeymoon is about six months old, and we have faced some serious issues and we have worked through them. We are working together well."

The other council members agree: "We are still good there, we get along fine," says Gary Schimmels, a locksmith from Veradale, adding a quick jab at the city of Spokane. "You know, it might be a good disease -- maybe the city council down there in Spokane will catch it, too?"

So far there don't seem to be any factions on the council, even when there's a split vote.

"No, there is not even remotely anything that looks like factions," says Mike Flanigan, who works for the Valley Chamber of Commerce. "At least up until now, people vote on their principles. We do have disagreements, but we can talk it out. I think we've all become friends because of this."

Perhaps there's something in the water? No, it's more likely that the sheer magnitude of the task of forming a new city is keeping the council on track.

"Generally, I don't think the local media has been able to grab onto how significant what we are doing is," says DeVleming. "We might get hung up on a sewer plant, or the couplet at Sprague or the color of the police cars -- but what we are doing here is so much bigger than that. We have not created a building moratorium, not even for a short time period, I think we are the first bigger city that has been able to incorporate without doing that, at least in Washington state. We jumped right into the fray and were able to keep up with the bigger issues -- keep all those balls in the air."

Taylor, who at 27 is the youngest person on the council, thinks that besides the respect the council members have for each other, it also helps that they are similar in many ways.

"There are no extreme right-wingers on the council, and no one from the left fringe either," he says. "I'd say we are all pretty much moderate to conservative. The council in that sense is very homogenous. And nothing has gotten personal -- that, of course, could change down the road."

As far as getting a grip on this huge project goes, everyone agrees that the interim consulting group hired to help get things off to a good start was well worth the expenditure.

"We were blessed with the interim group," says Dick Denenny, who runs a group insurance brokerage firm. "They had the quality that we needed, the experience. Regardless of the cost, whether it ends up being $700,000 or $1 million, it was well worth it to hire them."

New Kid on the Block -- When the Valley incorporated, the new city became a third and sometimes unexpected participant in many ongoing regional negotiations and projects, such as light rail and the sewage treatment plant.

Over the years, the county and the city of Spokane have fought their own turf wars over growth management, zoning and annexation, just to give a few examples. Now the Valley is thrown into this somewhat volatile mix, and the new municipality has to prove itself to be heard.

"I do think we've been heard by the county, and the city is starting to come around," says Flanigan. "There have been some issues, you know, in the past. To people downtown, we have always been a suburb, and some people have a hard time adjusting to the fact that we are now a major player within the state. We have a balanced budget, we have revenue, it looks like we will have a reserve and we didn't have to increase taxes. Not many other cities that I know of can say the same thing."

But it takes time to establish a political character and an image to go with it.

"I don't think it's easy for us to be heard," says Munson. "But one of the main reasons is that we don't have a reputation yet -- people don't know how serious to take us."

Wilhite looks at the initial negotiations with the city and the county as much like the adjustments one makes in a new marriage.

"You need to take the other's concerns seriously," says Wilhite. "Especially with the county, we have been working on that, because we have had a number of discussions with them about the price of services and contracts. It was a learning process for all of us, the county included. They just didn't know exactly how to come up with a price for us."

Currently, the Valley has a contract for policing -- the fire districts are separate, and the new city can annex into them if it chooses to do so -- and in time a contract will probably be worked out for municipal court and probation court. The one for road maintenance just took effect last week.

Wilhite explains that many of these contracts are of a shorter nature. "They will run 12-18 months while we try to find out if we'll be better off starting our own departments, contracting with someone else or doing something completely different," she says. "We don't want to raise taxes. It's important to us that we get the best deal for the citizens of the Valley."

Because she is a small-business owner, Wilhite says it's been a challenge for her to become accustomed to the way a municipality does business.

"Coming from the private sector, there are just certain things we have to do as a municipality that you don't have the luxury to do in the private sector," says Wilhite. "I'm thinking of how personnel is hired and how they are promoted and all that -- that's state law, you can't mess with that. And you can't just go out and buy things. If your purchase is over a certain amount, it has to go out for competitive bid. I'm just so used to looking for the best deal for the dollar."

Welcome to the halls of government.

An independent building and planning department has been started at Spokane Valley City Hall, and it has about 200 code enforcement cases to look at that were left over from the county.

"The planning, zoning and building department are huge challenges," says Schimmels.

The care of the parks has been contracted out to the county, but Valley residents can expect to see their pools stay open on weekends and at night for the first time.

Many of the already existing contracts can be looked upon as interim, because they fill the gap between the incorporation of the new city and the actual formation of an administration at city hall. Things may look very different the next time negotiations come around.

Taylor says it may be a better idea to get the private sector involved in some of the contracts. "The over-arching issue is contracting. We need to look carefully at where our resources are going to go," says Taylor. "Is it cheaper for us to contract out, or take care of a service in-house, or perhaps reach out to the private sector? We have to figure that out."

Bringing Government Home -- There is something contagious about the energy this new city council exhibits. On the surface, this high-energy approach may look a little na & iuml;ve, like "Hey, wanna play government?" But don't be mistaken -- the new council is on a mission, and a huge part of that mission is to bring government closer to the people who pay for it.

"I have a lock shop here in Veradale. About 10 people came in this morning to talk business," says Schimmels, whose phone continues to ring while we talk. "The mayor says this shop is City Hall East."

Some of the issues the city council is looking at are indeed local, and are the type of issues that could raise some hackles in the community.

"We are kind of putting our footprint out here," says Schimmels. "We are going after the junk car ordinance and the garbage piles, and we are getting after the panhandlers as well. It's the community's stamp, you know. We have to make a statement about what the city of the Valley is all about -- but we don't want to be vicious about it."

The mayor and every single council member mention that they haven't had to raise taxes and that so far they are providing excellent services for the community.

"I think the public is beginning to see the real benefits from the formation of this new community," says Denneny. "It's everything from the parks program we are launching this summer, to keeping the pools open on weekends, to what we plant to do around Mirabeau Point. That place won't just be for recreation. We are hoping to be able to bring people together there for cultural events, to make that a focal point of the community."

But there are plenty of regional projects the new council is expected to weigh in on, light rail being a prime example. None of the council members favors light rail -- at least not now, saying that Spokane can't afford it or doesn't need it.

"There are so many problems with rail running through the Valley already," says Denenny, who serves on the Spokane Transit Authority's newly formed task force. "I'm just not sold on the idea."

The badly needed sewage treatment plant that the city of Spokane and the county have been discussing for quite some time now also needs the approval of the Valley city council.

Denenny favors a regional approach to that issue, as do several other council members, but with a few conditions:

"If we had an entity that could run the plant and still give control to each regional body that's using it, so we can make sure the Valley can take care of its needs, I'd be for that," he says. "It would be a little like the Public Facilities District. It would require interlocal agreements, but there are models out there for that."

Ultimately, all the council members agree that any new contract or investment comes down to the cost -- the bang they can deliver for the Valley residents' buck.

"We need to figure out what we want to pay for ourselves, before the contracts come up again," says Munson. "For instance, with the municipal court system, if we are more cost-effective we might do our own system. But do we want our own roads department? It's very expensive to start that."

What's Next? -- The new city has already hired a city manager. In mid-April, David Mercier accepted the job, and he spent his first day at city hall on May 1. Mercier was the city manager of Battle Ground, Wash., from 1997-2001. His last job before returning to the city manager position was as director of Kenbrio Consulting, which advises clients on computer and governmental issues.

In a very short interview earlier this month, Mercier said he was excited about his new job -- but really busy getting everything organized.

"By the beginning of June, we'll have much more of a feel for the different departments, and hopefully we will be done with most of the hiring," he said.

The city council anticipates holding some type of overview session toward the end of summer or in early fall.

"Honest to gosh, I'm hoping we can have a strategic planning meeting no later than July," says Munson, who pushed the need for long-term planning throughout his campaign for office. "We need to be sitting down and looking at a five- to-10-year strategic plan, seriously looking at what we are doing and what happens down the road as a result of those actions."

The council is in the midst of developing a Growth Management Plan and has just recently appointed a plan commission.

And so it goes: one meeting at a time, one report at a time, one person hired, one commission appointed. Piece by piece, the new city of Spokane Valley is coming together.

Perhaps a little overwhelmed by the workload, and certainly challenged by the work ahead of her, Wilhite sums it up pretty well: "You know, once we get through hiring department heads and once we get the contracts done for now, things will calm down," she says.

"You know," she adds with a laugh, "the people who succeed us -- for them, this will be a piece of cake."

Publication date: 05/22/03

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