The secret communications between Spokane City Hall and the supporters of Valley incorporation sound like something out of The Godfather.
They probably won't result in anyone waking up with a horse head in their bed. But they have left incorporation supporters frustrated, obstructed the city council's deliberations and exposed what looks like a network of business interests making political horse trades.
Valley incorporators sent a messenger to Mayor John Powers in mid-February with a set of proposals that included the city dropping its boundary appeal. In exchange, Valley supporters would drop their plans for a retaliatory campaign against an expanded convention center, according to documents and statements from those involved.
Powers has challenged Valley incorporators to come to the negotiating table; the proposal that caused such a ruckus Monday night, they say, was a quiet, good-faith response. The proposal was really a series of "talking points," says Dennis Scott, Valley incorporation campaign manager and the proposal's author. Greg Bever, publisher of the Journal of Business (owned by the Spokesman-Review) and the proposal's messenger to Powers, says it was a "good-neighborly, let's get moving beyond this sort of thing."
Spokane has appealed a Boundary Review Board decision that placed the tax-rich Yardley suburb inside the proposed new Valley city. Spokane has long planned to annex that area. An incorporation vote must wait until the appeal is resolved; the appeal is currently scheduled to be heard in Spokane Superior Court on May 24.
Urged on by Councilman Steve Eugster, the Spokane City Council was supposed to vote on whether to drop its appeal Monday night. Shortly before its meeting, though, Mayor Powers' Chief of Staff Randy Withrow asked the council to hold off. The mayor's staff, Withrow told council members, was trying to formulate a response to a proposal from the Valley incorporators.
"It was either implied or stated that Erik Skaggs was behind this," says Council President Rob Higgins, who was present.
Skaggs is a vice president at Metropolitan Mortgage, a Spokane firm that is often involved in area politics. Met Mortgage has, according to Washington Public Disclosure Commission documents, given at least $4,000 to the Valley incorporation campaign. And the company was prominent in the proposal. Even Powers assumed, according to a press release, that Skaggs was behind the proposal.
The city council had voted to defer the matter and was preparing to conduct other business when Skaggs showed up, demanding a copy of the proposal. Reporters had asked him in the interim about it, he says.
"I've never submitted a proposal, and I don't intend to," Skaggs later told The Inlander. He denies any involvement in the matter.
The council meeting began, but council members weren't sure where the mysterious proposal came from, what it said, where negotiations stood -- or, for that matter, if they should give weight to any negotiations with a Valley city that does not yet exist.
"I'm asking you to bite the bullet tonight. Let's deal with this issue and be done with it," Eugster said at the meeting, arguing to drop the appeal.
The confusion, however, was "troubling," said Councilwoman Roberta Greene. There was no clarification from the mayor's office that evening, but numerous supporters of Valley incorporation were waiting, for hours, to address the council.
"Please pull the appeal back and let us vote," said one Valley supporter. "If we fail, we fail," said another, "but if we win, we're all the better for it."
The city council ultimately voted to defer the matter another week. On Monday, they will take up the matter again. As for the proposal, the city has yet to formally respond, as of Tuesday night.
That's the end of the story so far. It leaves city councilors somewhat perplexed, to say nothing of ordinary citizens, and incorporation supporters frustrated.
The proposal itself is a list of 10 ideas that go like this: The two sides would ask various business interests to trade endorsements of the Valley incorporation for endorsements of the proposed convention center expansion -- support our incorporation, in other words, and we won't torpedo the convention center. Bever's Journal of Business would endorse incorporation and Metropolitan Mortgage would pledge not to initiate a campaign against the convention center, the proposal outlined, if Mayor Powers would withdraw the city's Yardley boundary appeal (though, in reality, it's the city council's decision).
The well-connected Bever would never let the Journal sell its editorial influence in a political deal. He says he saw that point on the proposal and disagreed with it, but delivered the proposal anyway. "Those were blue sky points, responding to the mayor" and his challenge to incorporators to sit and talk, Bever says. In a final horse-trading handshake, the proposal called for voters to get both the incorporation and the convention center ballots the same day, May 28.
The proposal was born when Bever approached Scott and his campaign attorney following a Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce breakfast the day after Valentine's Day, according to the two men. Bever is an organizer for the Mirabeau Point park area in the Valley -- a county project that would receive up to $7 million if voters approve the convention center expansion. Bever also supports Valley incorporation and was worried about a "backlash" of unhappy Valley residents against the convention center plan. The way to defuse this no-win situation, he told Scott and Powers, was to get talking.
"I told both of them it would be great if you would talk and get me out of the middle," says Bever.
Bever hand-delivered the talking points to Powers on Feb. 19. There was no response until Friday, March 1, according to Bever, when Powers said he was still working on it, having been tied up in Olympia and with River Park Square matters.
Monday, the city council met. They were asked to hold off their boundary appeal vote, and the proposal became public. City councilors wondered aloud about how to handle it. Valley residents demanded their right to vote, and after much deliberation and warm words, the decision whether to stay the course or drop the Yardley appeal lived another week.