Say you're a married couple, with strong political opinions and some extra money in the bank. The school district is asking for fancy computers and high-speed Internet connections that will, you think, cost too much in taxes. You decide to spend $3,000 for a mailer to your neighbors, urging them to vote against it. You don't put your name on it -- instead, perhaps to protect your business from political controversy, you hide behind your wife's maiden name and list an out-of-area address.
At least, that's what you do if you're Mr. and Mrs. Alton of Alton's Tire fame.
The Altons secretly funded an anti-tax mailer sent to residents of the Mead School District, in north suburban Spokane, about a week before the March 12 election. Their flier was, say school bond proponents, perhaps a critical factor that led to a school technology proposal failing for the second time in two years.
"Property tax hike?," reads the mailer. "It's your choice on March 12th!"
"They were very deceptive and very effective," charges Karen Stebbins, one of three co-chairpersons of the Mead Citizens Advisory Committee. The Committee supported the tech bond measure, raising and spending about $40,000 to promote it, according to state political records.
The mailer is printed with the words: "Paid for by Andree Rabe, 12310 W. Newman Lake Dr., Newman Lake, WA." Problem is, there is no Andree Rabe anymore, and it's unclear if she ever did live at that address.
The address belongs to a neighbor's of the Altons' summer cabin at Newman Lake, located near the Idaho border, 20 miles from the Mead school district. The owner of that parcel didn't recognize the name Rabe (pronounced "Rob") when contacted by The Inlander, and he says he has no affiliation with the Mead School District or its politics.
"What she did was put my address on these mailers without my permission or knowledge," the neighbor says.
So who's Rabe? She is, as of April 2, 1993, Mrs. Duane Alton.
And she'll tell you so. When The Inlander reached her briefly via telephone, we asked if she was Ms. Rabe, the mailer's sponsor.
"Mrs. Alton," she corrected. "Formerly Ms. Rabe."
Alton's company's Web site includes a bootstraps bio of Duane Alton, a Midwestern boy with sense of determination and entrepreneurship (setting up a Fourth of July fireworks stand) from an early age. An Air Force vet who fell in love with Spokane while serving at Geiger Field, he adopted the area as his hometown in 1964, later working as a service station attendant after the Air Force. Eventually, he opened a tire store on the corner of Hamilton and Indiana, and in 30 years he's parlayed that business into a little empire of 13 shops in Spokane and North Idaho.
Alton is a proud family man, according to his Web bio, "trying never to miss a school play or event," and also socially concerned. "You will always know his strong opinions."
Alton, who even has run for Congress, challenging Tom Foley more than once, puts his money where his opinions are. He gave $2,235 to Republican campaigns -- $100 here, $250 there -- in election year 2000, and last year contributed $1,200 to Proposition 747, which limits local governments from increasing property taxes by more than 1 percent per year, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
Except that in the Mead tech bond case, you'd never know his strong opinions -- strong enough to spend $3,547, according to documents filed with the Washington Public Disclosure Commission. Because, he tells The Inlander, he didn't spend the money.
"It was my wife," says Alton.
That's Mrs. Alton. No, Andree Rabe. She is, he says, a smart and politically astute woman. But isn't he just hiding behind his wife, who's hiding behind her maiden name and a questionable address?
"People think a woman can't campaign now?" Alton counters.
Okay, but the name? And why the address?
There's actually three or four residences on Newman Lake that share the same address, explains Alton.
"I know that may not make any sense," he says, "They all live at the same address."
Due to some county documents being in disarray, the Altons' summer home address does not appear one way or another. However, postal and county authorities familiar with street addresses say two residences aren't allowed to share the same number. Even if there is a screw-up, and multiple houses are sharing the same address, why use that one on a mailer when, according to records at the Spokane County Assessor's Office, the Alton family owns numerous properties in and around the Mead district?
To explain further, Alton has a suggestion: "Do you want to talk to my wife?"
"I wasn't what you call opposition," says Andree Rabe/Alton. "I just wanted to put the information before the people."
She explains that she has children and grandchildren who live in the Mead district, and that residents there are already hit hard by property taxes.
"We have to realize the taxes we pay today are outrageous," she says. Why the mailer? "I'm interested in people being told what the facts are."
Mead's tech bond would have raised $15.4 million for computer equipment, teacher tech training and curriculum development, says Bobbi Blessent, president of the Mead Education Association, the district's employee's union.
Alton's mailer argued that the tech proposal "goes beyond the scope of 'requirement' to 'luxury,'" representing a high expense for a low priority. The mailer accurately warned voters that they'd have to pay $414 in new property taxes on a $100,000 property. What it did not explain -- one thing that steams tech proponents -- was that this money was a total paid out over six years. The owner of that $100,000 property would have to pay $69 a year, for six years.
It's not that the Altons don't have a valid argument. One can reasonably say that schools need to focus on the basics before asking for more computers. The fact that the Altons dissented from the pro-tech, teacher-funded point of view -- most of the Citizens Committee contributors were school employees, records show -- seems to be why a number of students' parents called the school upset about the flyer, Blessent concedes. Many parents and teachers were apparently upset over the fact that someone opposed their beloved tech bond at all. Usually such campaigns don't garner organized opposition.
But the heart of the matter for the MEA, says Blessent, is "that they opposed it deceitfully... We felt they were hiding and not wanting to be up front about opposing the bond."
That's why the MEA has filed a complaint (as of Monday, under a resident's name) with the state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC).
The PDC administers the legalities of politics and ethics, under state law 42:17. That statute gives two somewhat conflicting rules: In 42:17:530, the law forbids political candidates to lie about their opponents, while generally allowing false statements about oneself. But in :510, the law requires that all political advertising include the sponsor's name and address. "The use of an assumed name," the law states, "shall be unlawful."
There's no word about an assumed address.
Just a nasty little community in-fighting. That would be an easy reading of this story from an outsider's perspective, but there's a larger view, too. Sure, this is a conflict between the false-flag-flying anti-tax crusaders and the teachers' mob demanding shiny computers -- or else! -- but it is also an ideological struggle, a fight that draws on state-sized antagonisms between the conservative Evergreen Freedom Foundation and the teachers' union, the Washington Education Association.
The MEA is clearly the local equivalent of the WEA. And Alton? He's an Evergreen Freedom Foundation board member.
On the state level, the EFF champions limited government and lower taxes. The group has made a special cause out of hounding the WEA for its repeated illegal use of members' dues in political advertising, and successfully so: The union's had to pay more than $1 million in court fines in recent years. The union, for its part, sees an archenemy and a union-buster in the EFF. In a temper-tantrum a couple of weeks ago, the union purchased full-page newspaper ads blasting the EFF's "dumb ideas."
For the local teachers union, the battle lines are clearly drawn. They have a villain in Alton, and the fear of a greater injury: What happens, they wonder, if he funds another drive against property taxes when the school's main operating budget comes up for a vote next year?
Stebbins, of the Citizens Committee, says the rumor of war with Alton has both scared and galvanized their faction.
"We're getting involved to let them know we mean business," says Stebbins. "We don't want them to submarine our basic bread and butter."
For Alton, justification is found in the people's vote on the tech bond, not who paid for what mailer. The final vote was a resounding defeat for the bond, at 57 percent of voters against.
"The people could have voted for it or voted against it," he says. "It was their choice."
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