John Talbott has never held an elected office in Spokane, but he’s been voicing his opinions about city politics for years.
The retired Air Force colonel who wants Mayor Jack Geraghty’s job has a record of city involvement that began shortly after his return to Spokane in 1989.
“I didn’t like what I saw then,” Talbott said recently. “And I don’t like what I see now.”
He makes frequent visits to City Hall, often to criticize the way City Council members spend taxpayer dollars.
He’s led several initiative drives aimed at repealing council decisions, from the approval of public involvement in a downtown redevelopment project to increased pay for top managers.
One of Spokane’s best known political outsiders, he has run unsuccessfully for the council three times. He also served on several community boards.
Talbott got his first look at the inner workings of city government in 1989, when he joined the Community Development Board.
He spent 18 months on the panel before resigning. In a letter to then-Mayor Sheri Barnard, Talbott said several “extremely unpleasant conversations” about spending with Director Mike Adolphae prompted his abrupt departure.
Talbott had a similar experience after serving two years on the board of Mid-City Concerns. He resigned at the end of a board meeting, shortly after tangling with fellow board members about the downtown ministry’s future.
In both cases, Talbott grew frustrated with the boards’ spending and policy direction. “My anger was affecting my ability to focus,” he said.
Asked whether anger also might affect him as mayor, Talbott said he couldn’t answer the question, but changed his mind a moment later.
“I’m going to be working for the people of Spokane,” he said. “I’m not working for the board.
“I’ll have the citizens’ support.”
Over the years, Talbott’s own support of various council candidates has come - and eventually gone.
In 1991, Talbott and Orville Barnes challenged incumbent Bob Dellwo. After losing in the primary, he targeted a different council district with an unsuccessful write-in campaign against incumbent Bev Numbers.
Just days before the election, Talbott, Barnes and Councilman Joel Crosby appeared on television, advertising a campaign they hailed as a way to bring fiscal responsibility to City Hall. Barnes and Crosby won their races.
In 1993, Talbott changed his mind about Crosby, saying the mayoral candidate voted “no” so often he didn’t know how to lead. Talbott launched his own candidacy for mayor, losing in the primary to Geraghty and Crosby.
In a letter to the editor, he endorsed Geraghty, along with then-council candidates Chris Anderson, Darlene Becker and Phyllis Holmes.
Four months later, Talbott’s support for Geraghty dwindled when the mayor backed an increase in real estate excise taxes.
“It’s obvious the leadership given by Mr. Geraghty is not a leadership for the citizens. It’s a leadership for the special interests,” Talbott said at the time.
In 1995, Talbott challenged Barnes, saying he was a tired councilman who failed his supporters.
During each campaign stop, Talbott blasted city officials for spending recklessly and being out of touch.
Talbott’s frustration over pay hikes led him to sponsor an initiative in 1993 aimed at rolling back the salaries of city employees earning more than $50,000 a year.
The proposed ballot measure sent more than 300 non-union employees scrambling for the cover of organized labor. Talbott missed a filing deadline, and the council rejected the petition. When Numbers suggested he botched the petition on purpose for political gain, Talbott fumed.
“I wanted to grab her by the hair and jerk her off the podium,” he told a reporter at the time.
Today, only 16 city employees aren’t in a union.
A city employee asked Talbott about the initiative during a recent appearance before union members.
“I’d do it again,” Talbott responded. “I just don’t think we can require people to pay higher and higher taxes. They earn less every time we do that.”
Another city employee wondered how Talbott could work with city employees when he’s “had so many negative things to say” about them.
Talbott said he couldn’t really respond without knowing the particular instances, but he doubted the attacks were ever personal.
“I don’t expect all of you to like me, but I do expect you to work with me,” he said. “That’s the nature of the beast.”
In 1995, Talbott vowed to stay out of City Hall after taking umbrage at a comment from Crosby about persistent visitors to council meetings.
“I feel a sense of total futility in participating in this process,” Talbott said. “I will not be one of those bothering you any more in the future.”
But Talbott couldn’t stay away. Months later, he joined a successful campaign to put the proposed Pacific Science Center to a public vote.
Voters turned down the plan to build the center in the Riverfront Park Pavilion.
Last year, the council voted to put a $37.5 million bond issue on the ballot to fix the city’s streets. Talbott joined city spending critics Dick Adams and Jonathan Swanstrom to form the “Nay Sayers” organization to oppose the proposal. The city had misspent money it already had, they said, so why give it more?
Voters rejected the bond.
Talbott’s most passionate fight with City Hall has been over the $100 million redevelopment of River Park Square downtown.
Last February, he joined Adams and Margaret Leonard in a lawsuit aimed at stopping the city’s involvement in the project.
The still-pending lawsuit questions the council’s use of an emergency ordinance to move the project along.
The public-private partnership should have gone to a vote of the people, but the council was more interested in bowing to special interests than learning what residents want, Talbott said.
When the City Council approved another phase of the project last July, Talbott asked all but Councilmember Cherie Rodgers to resign. Rodgers cast the only dissenting vote.
Talbott bristles when critics accuse him of opposing everything. Instead, he considers himself on a crusade to make government more accountable and give something back to the community he loves, he said.
“We have a responsibility to be our brother’s keeper,” Talbott said. “Over the years, I’ve been blessed by mentors and teachers … that have equipped me to be where I am today.
“I have a responsibility to use those talents and skills.”
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