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Valley group aims to undo cityhood

Sun., March 13, 2005

Jackie Brislin knows what can happen when the lights go out.

Six years ago, the Spokane Valley resident fearfully watched the after-hours activity at Terrace View Park near her home. Teenagers raced their cars between trees and ran to the park’s shallow pool to dive in head-first.

Brislin, 69, and her neighbors persuaded Spokane County to install lights in the park to curtail the problem, and it worked. “It was sheer hell here,” she said. “We were calling the police at least once a month. The lights really cut a lot of that down.”

But Brislin’s worries have returned, and she blames the city of Spokane Valley. Several of the lights have burned out and despite repeated calls to City Hall, the private company hired by the city to maintain the parks hasn’t fixed them, she says.

That’s just one reason Brislin regrets a vote she made almost three years ago. “I voted for incorporation, and I’m so sorry,” she said. “I wish I could take my vote back.”

A number of other Spokane Valley residents agree. About 100 citizens began collecting signatures last week to dissolve the young city. If the group gathers 23,865 names by the end of summer, disincorporation will be on the November ballot. Then it would take a simple majority vote to unravel the city.

“We don’t like the idea of an entity telling us everything we’ve got to do,” said Sally Jackson, who’s leading the fight. “I feel motherly toward my Valley, and it’s a child I don’t want to see exploited.”

City officials, meanwhile, say they support cityhood because they care about the Valley, too. They list the improvements incorporation has brought about, including that it has given Valley residents a greater say in regional decisions, more control over the area’s future and the ability to address issues of Valley pride, such as cleaning up some of the junky yards that the county ignored for years.

Talk of incorporation began in the 1950s. It was an issue that always split the community and even now, with cityhood two years under way, the debate lingers. If it disincorporates, Spokane Valley would make history as the first city to dissolve in Washington without the consent of the City Council.

Mayor Diana Wilhite certainly doesn’t want to see it happen.

“Going back in time is not a viable option,” Wilhite said. “The city of Spokane Valley was a city before incorporation. But as an incorporated city … the citizens have seven individuals that are duly elected by the citizens as their voice.”

It isn’t just city officials who feel that way. Retired school administrator Chuck Hafner, who opposed incorporation every time it surfaced, doesn’t want to go back to county rule. He and his neighbors in Ponderosa persuaded the City Council to pass a temporary ban on allowing more than one house to be built per acre in their area. Hafner doubted that the county, which changed the zoning there to a higher density before incorporation, would have been as accommodating.

“I don’t think (the county) would have given us any consideration,” he said. “They’re the ones who are responsible for the majority of the problems we’re having with development.”

‘Overloading the infrastructure’

Jackson said cityhood simply doesn’t pencil out because Spokane Valley is primarily a bedroom community.

“As they’re increasing the development, they’re not building factories,” Jackson said. “We’re building houses and houses and houses. We’re overloading the infrastructure and the schools” without boosting the tax base with new businesses.

Meanwhile, Liberty Lake, which incorporated in 2000, is viable “because they’ve got that nonpolluting, good-income industry out there,” Jackson asserted, such as the city’s high-tech companies.

Jackson grew up on 75 acres in the Dishman Hills and moved to Opportunity as a teenager. She remembers excitedly waving at cars when they’d drive by her house because traffic was so rare. She said she knows growth is inevitable.

“I know things are going to change. I’m not stupid,” she said. “There should be a marriage between change and quality of life.”

City officials’ comments mirror that remark. The rules for growth they’re living under now were adopted from the county. The city is writing its first unique comprehensive land-use plan, a 20-year road map for growth required under the state Growth Management Act. City staffers have held almost a dozen public meetings gathering input from citizens on what the document should say, and more input will be encouraged throughout this year.

Council members often tout themselves as being “business friendly,” though. If the enormous number of building permits issued last year is any indication, that hospitality is extended to developers as well as to the mom-and-pop shops that defined the Valley’s business scene for decades.

Fourth time’s a charm

After three attempts since 1990, incorporation passed in 2002 by a slim margin – 10,272 were for it, and 9,611 were against it. Those numbers irk Jackson.

“One-eighth of the people passed it. It was not a mandate. They came in like it was a mandate,” she said.

Disincorporation backers tried once before, in 2003, to dissolve the city, but they fell far short of the needed signatures. They say they feel more confident this time because they’re better organized, because people are telling them the City Council has had its chance and fallen short and because last summer they collected 8,000 signatures in 12 days to block a council pay raise.

But they’ll need about three times that many signatures, or half the number of registered voters during the last election, to put disincorporation to a vote. It’s even more daunting considering only about 21,000 people voted in 2003, the last city election.

One thing’s for sure: If they pull it all off, it will be a feat for the history books. Only very small cities – cities that were hemorrhaging money and couldn’t provide services – have dissolved. Under the law, the state takes over a city immediately after disincorporation. If there’s debt to be paid or other outstanding liabilities, the citizens elect a receiver to tie up the loose ends. The receiver has the power to tax citizens to balance the books.

The last disincorporation in Washington occurred about 1965 when the city of Elberton, near Garfield, dissolved. By 1969, the 200-acre area had become part of unincorporated Whitman County again.

Grass-roots effort

That’s what the Spokane Valley disincorporation supporters want, to go back to county rule. The group has held three public meetings this winter. As many as 100 people attended the first two. Turnout at the third, when petitions and campaign signs were distributed, was considerably less.

At the meetings, the disincorporation backers resemble Parisians gearing up for Bastille Day – in Mayberry. Self-deprecating Jackson jokes about her big mouth and calls people “Hon.” If someone says his name is Richard or William, she immediately begins calling him Ricky or Billy. The crowd, which includes business owners, teachers and former county employees, cheer when someone drives a point home, and they shake their heads when they hear about council members cutting a citizen off after the standard three-minute comment time at public meetings.

Jackson wanted to start collecting signatures April 1 – April Fool’s Day – but others couldn’t wait. They began last week, so now they have until early September before the first signatures go stale. They’re aiming to turn them in Aug. 21 so that county election workers can validate them in time for the November ballot.

As recently as 2000, Jackson supported incorporation. She said she changed her stance when it became less of a grass-roots effort and when some of the people who once opposed it switched their stance, too.

“I became concerned about the amount of development money in it,” Jackson said. “There was a lack of concern about the services to people.”

Although City Council positions are supposed to be nonpartisan seats, several council members have been active in the Republican Party for years and continue to endorse Republican candidates. Jackson, meanwhile, is a longtime Democrat, but insists that disincorporation is a nonpartisan effort. She begins each meeting by asking people to leave their party affiliations outside.

If the city were to dissolve and return to county rule fairly soon, residents of Spokane Valley would be represented by an all-Republican Spokane County Commission. Although residents of unincorporated Spokane County recently have accused commissioners of favoring developers over neighbors – one of the key gripes the disincorporation supporters have with the city – Jackson said she believes the commissioners would be amenable to the desires of Valley residents.

“If the wishes of the developers are heard above the wishes of the citizens, that would just lead to more unrest,” Jackson said.

Yet Hafner worries that the Valley would be overrun with development under the county.

“The county seems to be just approving anything, where the city is really looking at every area to make sure it’s done correctly,” he said.


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