Furious at being denied free use of City Hall’s council chambers, a group of Spokane residents Friday canceled plans for a weekend citizens’ retreat.
“The council chamber belongs to the citizens who paid for them with their tax dollars,” said Ron McArthur at the group’s morning press conference outside City Hall. It is not a commodity “to be peddled back to us by the city managers and the City Council.”
The group planned to hold a three-hour retreat today but decided not to after the City Council voted 5-1 Monday to rent the chambers for $120 a hour.
Councilman Chris Anderson cast the dissenting vote.
“It’s a shameful day when we have to gather down here to protest the use of our own facility,” said Jonathan Swanstrom, a critic of city spending.
About 30 people - including Anderson - gathered to blast the council for charging rent. They say it’s ironic because the council also voted Monday to approve a $44,625 consultant contract to find out what services residents want.
“The purpose of the retreat was to ascertain citizens’ priorities for city needs and services,” McArthur said. “Our charge for this citizen idea input is free.”
Councilwoman Phyllis Holmes said the goal of the consultant’s contract was to get a wide variety of residents’ comments. While 25 people will make up a standing committee, that group will go out into the community for a series of meetings, she said.
“What I hear from the community at large is very different than what I’m hearing from (the retreat group),” Holmes said.
Councilman Joel Crosby said the retreat group has missed the point. “The council has a policy,” Crosby said. “These are the very people concerned about fiscal responsibility. They should be the very people fighting to pay their own way.”
City policy states fees are waived for city department functions and government agencies. A 23-page list of council chamber activities going back to 1993 indicates the city has stuck to that policy.
The retreat group wants the council to make it an exception, Crosby said. “If the council grants this group free use of the facility, who’s to say another group won’t ask for the same thing?”
The retreat would have been the group’s second this year. About 225 people attended the first one last March.
That one almost didn’t happen when the council rejected Anderson’s request the $285 rental fee be waived, and instead demanded payment up front, in cash.
“I pay a tremendous amount of taxes in Spokane,” said resident Heidi Fay. “I don’t understand the council’s lack of regard for the people.”
The group plans another retreat in September. In the meantime, they say, they’ll form a citizens coalition.
The group also plans to picket a breakfast for the service committee and the consultant. Council members are invited to attend the event that starts at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday on the upper floor of the Opera House.