City Councilman Brad Stark hasn’t been one to walk away from a good fight. Then again, neither have his opponents in the race for his South Side council seat.
One of the candidates, George McGrath, has attended most City Council meetings for well over a decade, taking politicians to task when he’s felt they used tax dollars unwisely.
Another, Richard Rush, led a charge against the city’s decision to remove trees along Bernard Street, a fight he and other neighbors took all the way to the Eastern Washington Growth Management Hearings Board.
A fourth candidate, Karen Cannon, is new to city politics and admits to not being as well-versed on the issues. She says her open mind will help her better represent the citizens.
Stark, who was 24 when he became the youngest person elected to the City Council four years ago, has become one of the most vocal members of the group. His supporters say he works hard to achieve solutions to city problems. His opponents argue he causes more antagonism than success.
In one of his most criticized moves, he voted to sell Joe Albi Stadium, arguing that the stadium was a cash drain.
He now apologizes for the action, saying he didn’t realize the “emotional attachment” citizens had for the stadium. He says, however, that the vote was the impetus to start new talks on building a park north of the stadium.
“Being in the forefront of these policy initiatives, yeah, I’m going to get whacked once in a while,” Stark said. “The only way that you don’t get whacked is to offer no ideas.”
Stark has led the charge to examine whether the city should ask voters to renew the property tax increase they approved two years ago. He has made public safety a focus of his campaign and argues that the city is considerably understaffed in the police and fire departments. He said the city’s large budget surplus from the end of 2006 was achieved at the expense of public safety.
Rush, a 55-year-old stay-at-home dad, has centered his campaign on the comprehensive plan – the city’s long-term growth initiative.
His said his goal is “making this a walkable, bikable, world-class city, a city that the comprehensive plan envisions.”
Pointing to the intense citizen input received when the plan was created, he says that leaders have ignored its guidance. He promises to be the voice on the council to ensure it is followed from start to finish.
“It seems like any issue that comes up in this city we address on an ad hoc basis rather than going back to our plan to see, well, what did we plan to do?”
He said he remains undecided on whether he supports continuing the city’s two-year property tax increase but is concerned that if the city asks voters for more money without truly needing it, the public will reject tax increases when there’s a real need.
Rush said the City Council was too quick to approve subsidies for the Kendall Yards development and should have negotiated to ensure some low-income housing needs would be addressed in the 78-acre property.
“The City Council did not so carefully examine the deal they were offered for the $25 million they gave up,” Rush said. “We could have potentially addressed some of those issues.”
McGrath, 70, said his campaign is about bringing a citizen voice and taxpayer accountability to City Hall.
He argues that extending the two-year property tax is “opening a can of worms for an awful lot of spending by the city.”
At council meetings and in his campaign, he has been a consistent voice against tax credits for people building condos or apartments. He also opposed subsidies to developers of Kendall Yards.
“We need to do a better job of managing the money that the city brings in,” McGrath said.
McGrath, who works for the state Department of Corrections selling goods made by prisoners, started coming to City Council meetings close to two decades ago, motivated by his opposition to new barriers that had been erected in the middle of 29th Avenue.
He said he felt politicians ignored citizens’ feelings and, at the urging of his wife, he made council meetings part of his routine.
“What I’m trying to do is to make the City Council and City Hall realize that they have to look at the issues they are voting on,” he said.
McGrath would like to start random drug testing for all city employees from the mayor on down.
“I don’t think it will make me very popular, but that’s something I believe,” he said.
Cannon, who works with people who have developmental disabilities for Catholic Charities and as a waitress at Domini’s in downtown Spokane, said her top priorities are bringing quality jobs to the city and reducing poverty.
Cannon, 39, has not formulated opinions on many issues in the race. For instance, she didn’t know what “tax-increment financing” was when asked about it Thursday. Tax-increment financing is the mechanism used by the council to subsidize infrastructure at Kendall Yards. She said she needs more information to give an opinion.
She said she continues to study the issues and that being undecided at this point isn’t a drawback.
“I’m not jaded,” she said. “I have possibility on my side.”
It’s rare to find a city issue on which Stark doesn’t have an opinion.
Stark, who works for Associated Builders & Contractors, has been the chief adversary on the council to Mayor Dennis Hession. The two exchanged harsh words at a council meeting earlier this year in which Stark accused the mayor of spreading lies about the city’s progress in finding a solution to its animal control dilemma. (After Stark spoke, Hession returned to the podium and warned, “… Don’t you dare ever call me a liar again.”)
Stark campaigned with former Mayor Jim West when running for office in 2003, and the two remained friends. Stark joined the rest of the City Council and called on West to resign after the scandal that led to West’s recall broke in 2005. Stark also, however, criticized the council for spending too much time on recall-related issues.
Last year, Stark lost a close race for county assessor against Ralph Baker in the Republican primary. Stark says he intends to serve a full four-year term but won’t turn that into a promise.
He might, however, have difficulty running for a partisan office anytime soon. Pointing to Stark’s past political contributions to Democrats, the county GOP disavowed Stark’s assessor’s candidacy in the closing days of the primary.
“At the end of the day this is my home, and we love it here,” Stark said. “This is where my heart and passion is at this moment and probably will be for the next four years.”