Lawsuits between cities and their neighbors aren’t rare.
But as Spokane Valley has evolved since incorporation, the interests of the city and the county have clashed in several areas.
The first time the city threatened legal action against the county was in 2005 over the impact that development at Spokane Valley’s borders was having on the city roads.
Then, in August, the city sued the county over the ownership of an old railroad bed that could extend Appleway Boulevard.
In the past year, Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and the city leaders also have found themselves in vocal disagreements over the authority to hire and fire the city’s police chief, as well as the eviction of sheriff’s training classes from the city-owned CenterPlace building.
Then on Mark Fuhrman’s talk radio show earlier this week, Knezovich expressed his dismay over another Spokane Valley policy that discourages city employees from appearing on that program, while its host berated the city manager and called Spokane Valley a dictatorship.
“I don’t know what the true issue is with the city manager,” Knezovich said in regard to newly appointed Police Chief Rick Van Leuven declining to come on Fuhrman’s show based on city policy.
Earlier the sheriff had moved a deputy out of the Valley police force so he could be a guest on the talk show.
After the chief was asked to appear, City Manager Dave Mercier sent out a memo stating that with a council-manager form of government, state law prohibits city employees from engaging in political commentary in their official capacity.
It did not specifically address the Fuhrman show but asked employees to use caution when considering appearances on media programs.
The sheriff also took issue recently with Mercier’s interpretation of laws and city policies surrounding CenterPlace. The city administration forced the Community Colleges of Spokane to end a sublease with the Sheriff’s Office for classroom space after concerns were raised about guns in the building, police drills in the parking lot and an office set up there.
Only a few weeks before that, the sheriff and the city manager disagreed on Mercier’s suggestions that candidates for police chief should have stronger education requirements – none of the three finalists considered has a four-year degree – and that the search should extend beyond the Sheriff’s Office.
Councilman Gary Schimmels said he thinks the events of the past year have harmed the relationship between the city and the Sheriff’s Office, which holds an $18 million contract to police the city.
The councilman also said he has concerns with the city’s drive to move many of Spokane Valley’s other contracts with the county into the private sector.
“The bottom line is, what kind of service are they providing, and is it good?” he said. “I think that is a serious thing that the Valley citizens should ponder and be aware of.”
A majority on the council, though, has lauded the city’s recent efforts to move things such as street sweeping and other public works duties to private firms that have offered to do them for less. Last year, both parties agreed to transition much of the road maintenance to the city or the private sector after county crews were not able to complete the work.
So far, though, only one councilman has suggested publicly that the city should even gather information on forming its own police force not connected with the Sheriff’s Office.
During a recent council meeting, Councilman Rich Munson suggested the city should at least look at what it would cost, but the idea didn’t take with his colleagues.
Although he’s happy with the service and doesn’t see it changing anytime soon, Munson said “the majority of cities of our size that contracted with the county ended their relationship after five years.”
Eight of Washington’s 60 cities with more than 15,000 people contract for police services, with Spokane Valley the largest by far.
While points of contention with the Sheriff’s Office have garnered more attention recently, city leaders also have tried to work out a number of sticking points with the county commissioners in recent years.
The county’s views on handling growth and collaborating with its neighbors to that end are different from the city’s, said Councilman Steve Taylor, who serves on a committee of elected officials that deals with growth management.
“I want the county to be focusing on regional services and not to be a competitor in providing urban services,” he said.
Although model language for joint planning agreements has been worked out, so far no agreement has been reached on sharing the cost of road improvements needed to handle county housing projects that feed into Sullivan Road.
Council members and county officials alike, though, downplay the conflicts and said that in the context of everything they do together, the places where they disagree are few.
“This is just business between municipalities, and this goes on every day,” Commissioner Mark Richard said regarding the Appleway negotiations.
Mercier and most City Council members expressed similar sentiments.
“We’ve got 17 contracts between the city and the county, and we have issues with two of them,” Mercier said.
“There’s much more to smile about than to frown about,” he said.