November 5, 1995

The Puzzling Question Of Consolidation Supporters, Opponents Scrutinize Plan To Merge City, County

By The Spokesman-Review
 

On the surface, it’s the simplest of proposals:

Take a map of Spokane County, erase the dotted line that designates the city limits and call the whole thing one community.

Formalize the change by combining city and county departments, and replacing the Spokane City Council and county commission with a single legislative body.

Make those changes, supporters say, and local government will be more efficient, more responsive and better prepared to handle regional issues like land-use planning.

The concept is simple, but the details may kill the 42-page “unified charter.”

Any voter who studies the document before going to the polls Tuesday will find something to dislike. Even freeholders who wrote the charter had strong disagreements over some of its contents.

Some don’t like the idea of an allpowerful elected executive with authority to make political appointments and veto council decisions. Others think a 13-member council would be too large to reach consensus.

Some Valley residents oppose the charter’s prohibition against new cities. Some politicians wish it allowed partisan elections.

Proponents can’t convince voters each of those controversial details is good. Instead, their message is “adopt it now and change it later, if necessary.”

“What I always remind people is, all you have to do is get a small group of people together and petition the council” to put proposed changes on a future ballot, said Darlene Wilder, vice president of the League of Women Voters.

Some elements of the charter are almost universally liked. They include district representation, the right to recall politicians and the right to put initiatives on the ballot.

Voters rejected the Spokane Arena four times in six years before agreeing to build it in 1991. They rejected Valley incorporation three times in five years and may face it again next year.

But if consolidation isn’t approved Tuesday, it could be years before it’s on the ballot again - if ever.

Supporters would have to go through the same process that took four years the first time. It involved collecting 18,000 petition signatures and holding an election to pick freeholders and authorize their work. The freeholders spent 2-1/2 years writing the charter that voters will consider this week.

“If you look around the nation, it often takes from 10 to 20 years for it to resurface again” after a failed vote, said former freeholder Steve Worthington.

Nationwide, consolidation fails eight out of every nine times it’s placed on a ballot.

And for all their grumbling about poor representation, lousy county parks and inconsistent regulations, Spokane County voters in recent years have been reluctant to make changes.

Consolidation would bring profound changes and put Spokane under the glare of academic and media scrutiny. Only 28 other U.S. communities - none of them in Washington, Oregon or Idaho - have consolidated governments.

Under consolidation, Spokane would become a community of nearly 400,000, instead of two of about 200,000 each.

Proponents say that means more unity and better regional decisions. The community would send one lobbyist to Olympia rather than two.

Opponents say it means only bigger, more wasteful government.

“If we’ve proved anything in Washington, D.C., in the past 40 years it’s that big government doesn’t solve anything. It’s not efficient,” industrialist Raymond Hanson said at a news conference last week.

In all likelihood, Spokane Valley residents will never have their own city if consolidation passes. But they’d probably get city-style services and pay city-style taxes.

From the South Hill to Liberty Lake - and to a lesser extent in towns like Latah and Millwood - people would notice a difference in the way government sweeps streets, makes zoning decisions and enforces laws.

If consolidation fails, the drive to form a city in the Valley may be strengthened. “Wait for the freeholders’ proposal,” was an argument used against incorporation in May.

And the city of Spokane likely would become more aggressive about expanding its boundaries through annexations that usually are opposed by fire districts, county officials and the people who become city residents.

Look at Spokane from the air, charter proponents say, and it’s one community from the Idaho border to Sunset Hill.

Maybe so. But if consolidation fails, the divisions already felt in neighborhoods will become more obvious.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Drawing of puzzle pieces; Graphic: “Putting it all together: The consolidation proposal”

The following fields overflowed: SECTION = THE PUZZLING QUESTION OF CONSOLIDATION

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