Hitting Home

Lawsuits, money and accusations are making a hotly contested county commissioner race even hotter

John Roskelley’s current residence in District 1. - JOHN ROSKELLEY
John Roskelley
John Roskelley’s current residence in District 1.
In the green, rolling ridges on 20 acres of empty prairie land slumps an old 38-foot Cruise Air motor home on East Heron View Lane in northeast Spokane County.

The motor home, borrowed from a friend, is out of place on open land speckled with sprawling and expensive houses. Yet, it serves a specific purpose: physical proof that Democrat John Roskelley resides in District 1 so he can legally run against incumbent County Commissioner Todd Mielke, a Republican.

Since May, Mielke has been trying to argue that Roskelley isn’t a resident of the district, which would kick Roskelley out of the race and hand Mielke an uncontested election. Three times so far, his argument has fallen on deaf ears. A visiting county auditor ruled against him once, and a visiting judge ruled against him twice, all essentially saying that Roskelley is legally a District 1 resident. The ballot is already being printed with Roskelley’s name on it.

But that doesn’t mean it’s over. Both candidates say that this lengthy, expensive legal fight has shown their opponent to be a liar.

“I can’t look at my opponent and say, ‘There’s a nice guy,’” Roskelley says. “These guys cost my family $15,000.”

In the lobby of the Davenport Hotel, meanwhile, Mielke scoffs at the notion that Roskelley considers himself a victim in all of this. He doesn’t see the residency question as just a technicality.

“I think it’s an issue of character and integrity,” Mielke says, dismissing the rulings in Roskelley’s favor. “He got caught.”

It’s an indication of how bitter this race has become.

Mielke and Roskelley have clashed before.

Roskelley sat on the Growth Management Hearings Board after he stepped down as county commissioner in 2004. He says under Mielke’s commissionership, Spokane County was one of the worst offenders when it came to violating land-use laws. Earlier this year, when Mielke denied he’d testified in favor of a fee for challenging land-use decisions, Roskelley accused Mielke of lying. A video of the testimony does show Mielke voicing his support for the fee.

On his blog and in Spokesman-Review guest editorials, Roskelley has regularly lobbed incendiary criticism at Mielke, accusing him of squandering money, hiking taxes and handing out “sweetheart land deals” for developers. He’s blasted Mielke on the Spokane County Raceway, on attempting an animal control facility bond, and on the broadness of the public safety tax. The entire board, he says, is too monolithic — and full of development-friendly Republicans.

Mielke, meanwhile, paints Roskelley as too quick to regulate — crusading against billboards and cellphone towers. Mielke says he’s been the one who worked tirelessly to make things happen, like resurrecting Crime Check and nimbly changing regulations to pave the way for the lauded Caterpillar plant in the West Plains.

“I like John,” Mielke says. “He and I have different political styles. I think I’m more effective at getting stuff done. One of the things he was good at was telling people, ‘No.’”

Make no mistake: Mielke has been the one behind the challenge to Roskelley’s residency.

For 27 years, Roskelley had lived far out in District 1, at a farm near Newman Lake. But he sold that property in 2011, planning to move to his new land on East Heron View Lane. Until his house was built, however, he had planned to stay at his son’s house in District 3, the county’s southwest corner.

Mielke started investigating. He describes driving home, seeing Roskelley’s red F-250 truck parked at his son’s house night after night. Mielke personally drove out to Roskelley’s bare property, just to confirm nothing was there.

When Roskelley registered to vote — and run for office — from his empty property, Mielke cried foul. He uses the phrase “felony crime.”

“He swears under oath that he’s physically residing at that address,” Mielke says. “But there was nothing there on the day he filed.”

But the judge saw it differently. Since Roskelley was intending to build a domicile on his new property— with a road and a well already constructed — the judge recognized that he never left the district. Voting from his son’s house was just a “temporary accommodation.”

Roskelley has been legally vindicated, but he’s still upset. Back at his nearly empty property, Roskelley holds a photograph out in front of him, pictures of his property that Mielke’s legal team took to use in court. Standing in the very center of his property, 100 yards past his “trespassing for any purpose is strictly prohibited” sign, Roskelley can match the picture to his view.

“There is no way short of sending a drone over the property six feet above the building site that they could have taken their photos without trespassing,” Roskelley says.

“I did not take them. I wasn’t there when they were taken,” Mielke says. “I was told they were taken with a telephoto lens from the [public] property immediately adjacent to John’s property.”

The picture’s looking down at a ridge, at an angle essentially impossible to see from the county’s public property.

Despite the fact that he was found to be right three times in row, Roskelley suspects his legal costs will top $15,000. With a law this specific, he says, pro-bono attorneys weren’t an option.

Roskelley could legally pay for these costs with his campaign funds, but that would leave his campaign nearly broke. So far, he raised less than $18,000. He suspects the residency controversy has hurt his fundraising efforts.

And Mielke hasn’t yet decided to give up the lawsuit. He could still appeal, dragging the legal battle out further — even past the election — while driving the cost up.

Mielke says he doesn’t yet know how much he’s racked up in legal fees. He says he hasn’t decided whether he’ll pay them personally, create a legal defense fund, or — if it’s legal — pay for them with campaign funds.

He has money to spare. He’s raised over $47,000, the fifth highest of any local candidate in the state, receiving donations from business owners, developers, realtors — even the attorney that he used in the residency case.

The largest direct contribution from the Washington State Republican Party this year — $10,000 — went to Mielke. He specifically requested they make his race a priority.

Roskelley, by contrast, couldn’t accept a cent from the Washington State Democrats without breaking his campaign promise to avoid donations and “PACs, political parties, unions, or large donations from businesses.” It’s another way Roskelley has separated himself from his opponent.

“Follow the money,” Roskelley says. “That will tell you who stands to lose if Mielke loses.”

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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...