In a defeat for government reformers, voters said no Tuesday to a proposal to merge Spokane city and county governments.
The vote caps an effort that started 30 years ago, long before voters elected freeholders to write a charter in 1992.
“The loser is the whole Spokane community,” said former county Commissioner Pat Mummey, who has advocated consolidation since the 1960s, when she was a leader in the League of Women Voters.
“This was the one good chance for good government.”
The charter would have erased Spokane city limits and eliminated the County Commission and City Council, replacing them with a city-county council and an elected executive.
Opponents had warned the charter would cause tax increases. Charter backers answered the claim, producing a study showing the charter could save $5.5 million or more in management salaries alone.
But the predictions of savings were impossible to prove because financial decisions would have been made by a council that would exist only if the charter were passed. Proponents were forced to acknowledge that voting for the charter was a leap of faith.
“I think the message here is that people are unwilling to spend money when the potential costs are unknown,” said Bill First, co-chairman of the anti-consolidation group We The Taxpayers.
Supporters were backed by businesses, which contributed the bulk of more than $200,000 raised by We The People. The business group Momentum donated $100,000.
First’s group and two others that opposed the charter had only $12,000 between them.
“This is a stinging defeat for Momentum,” said First, adding that the group should concentrate its efforts on economic development, where “it has had wonderful results.”
“People are starting to wonder whether it is proper for Momentum to get involved in the political arena.”
While many claims made by both sides were debatable, the anti-consolidation Grass Roots Citizens Committee printed some that were grossly inaccurate.
In a flier that arrived in 43,000 mailboxes just four days before the election, the group claimed freeholders had a hidden charter and that property tax assessments would double.
Charter backers said they couldn’t gauge how much the flier had hurt their cause. They’ve filed a complaint with the state Public Disclosure Commission, calling the mailer “a last-minute tactic to scare and misrepresent the facts.”
“They can sit around making things up with no basis in fact and distribute it as gospel,” complained Ed Sharman, co-chairman of We The People.
Backers knew the charter was a long-shot. Of the hundreds of U.S. communities that have considered consolidation, only a handful have approved it - typically on the third or fourth attempt.
The issue fails eight of every nine times it’s placed on the ballot.
Spokane’s proposed charter was attacked for a variety of reasons, not just for its potential to raise taxes.
Public employees feared for their jobs, city residents worried about their services, farmers didn’t want to be linked with the city and some Valley residents would rather have their own city.
The idea may have been too radical for a community that has rejected even minor changes, such as increasing the number of county commissioners.
“The assumption was that people want consolidation,” said First. “I’m not sure that’s true.”
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: LONG ROAD TO NEW TRY Stung by Tuesday’s apparent defeat of the “unified charter,” backers say they haven’t decided to put the issue back on the ballot anytime soon. “Certainly, if it’s a close vote, we would probably have reason to do it again,” said Tom Agnew, who campaigned with We The People. Tuesday’s vote was the culmination of three years’ effort. The same process, outlined in the state constitution, would be required to put consolidation on the ballot again. Here’s what’s involved: Supporters would circulate petitions calling for a start to the unified charter process. The number of signatures required is 10 percent of the turnout of the previous year’s general election. (The Citizens League of Greater Spokane needed 18,000 signatures in 1992.) Voters would be asked to approve the charter-writing process. They would vote on freeholders at the same time, but those volunteers would serve only if voters approved the process. Freeholders would study local government and write a charter. There is no time limit for the work. The document they write might be different in many ways from the charter the original freeholders spent 2-1/2 years writing. In fact, it could call for changes less sweeping than city-county consolidation. Voters would be asked to approve the charter. - Dan Hansen