Five of the seven Spokane Valley City Council members live within a one-mile radius at the south end of town, and only one lives north of the Spokane River where rapid development has angered many longtime residents.
A bill in the Legislature last year could have changed that by allowing voters to replace citywide council elections with a system requiring council members to come from different wards.
“I thought, you know, it was an intriguing idea, something that was worth kind of finding out about,” said Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane.
Ormsby said he sponsored the bill mostly to get people talking and to draw out the pros and cons of the different systems. But that conversation never made it to Spokane Valley.
The bill died in committee, thanks to opposition from the city’s council members.
With help from a lobbyist hired last year to promote the city’s interests in Olympia, council members strategized to defeat the measure but have not discussed it during their meetings at home.
A list of the city’s legislative priorities for next year originally included a bullet point opposing the bill, but it was taken out.
“Please delete this section, but do the work. Since this is a defensive action on our part, we think it best not to alert the opposition of our proactive approach,” reads a document marked “confidential,” e-mailed to council members from lobbyist Tim Schellberg and obtained by The Spokesman-Review through a public records request.
In addition to the lobbyist’s work, at least three council members contacted area legislators by e-mail to oppose the bill.
“I am a firm believer that I represent the entire city when I make my decisions and would not like to have to debate someone whose … agenda is his or her neighborhood. Shouldn’t we elect the best people in the city and not just the best people in a neighborhood?” Councilman Mike DeVleming wrote to Rep. Lynn Schindler on Feb. 19.
“My impression is that this would be an easier route to get elected as opposed to running against one of the incumbents,” he wrote in a later e-mail in the exchange.
DeVleming and his colleagues said they were just reacting to a measure relevant to the city that popped up in the churn of the legislative session.
“None of us saw this coming,” he said in a recent interview.
A quorum of council members was on a city-funded trip to the Capitol when the issue came up, he said, and they were in compliance with open-meeting rules because public notice was given that the council members would be together.
Moreover, DeVleming said the Valley is not so big or diverse that predominant issues like growth and traffic are isolated to specific areas and don’t affect the city as a whole.
Others in the community, though, see it differently.
“This city has about 85,000 population and it covers about 40 square miles. Six of the seven council members live in a cloistered area about one-tenth of the size of the city,” said Howard Herman, who challenged DeVleming in 2005 and once ran for the 4th District state House seat.
A lawyer, Herman researched council wards for the proponents of the bill. He concluded that a change in state law would be required. Council members disagreed, saying that the ward system can already be enacted by a petition and a vote of the people, and that supporters didn’t bother to approach the city before making their case in Olympia.
“The people who were recommending we do this have never been to a meeting and never said a word to us,” said Councilman Rich Munson, who also e-mailed legislators opposing the bill. “I just felt it was sort of a back-door way to get things done,” he said.
Councilman Bill Gothmann indicated he’d be happy to follow the will of the public if it voiced a desire for council wards. That said, he echoed his colleagues in arguing that council members have worked on behalf of the entire city.
“The fact is, the public had the opportunity to choose anybody they wanted, and these are the seven they chose,” said Gothmann, who had also e-mailed Schindler opposing the bill last winter.
Sally Jackson, who was among the bill’s proponents, said she was one of the people who contacted Ormsby.
The leader of efforts to disincorporate the city, she describes Spokane Valley as a useless layer of government. But Jackson said that she only supported council wards to give more people a say.
“It would be better representation for the people,” she said, “your own area would have a voice.”
Supporters and opponents also are at odds on how council wards would affect the community’s flagging willingness to get involved with the 5-year-old city.
After Spokane Valley’s first primary drew 49 council candidates, the next race featured four uncontested seats. This year, three people ran for the seat that will be left open by DeVleming’s departure; church music director and political novice Rose Dempsey won. Gothmann ran unopposed, and Councilman Steve Taylor easily overcame a late write-in challenge.
It’s uncertain whether the council ward legislation will resurface in 2008, though documents indicate the council will oppose the measure if it does.
“We felt like it was an outside influence. It wasn’t something that was coming from our citizens,” Mayor Diana Wilhite said.
Wards still could be established some day as the city grows, Wilhite said. And council members indicated it would be something they would consider if it originated inside the city.
“If citizens come to us and say, ‘This is something we think is important to discuss,’ we’d certainly do it,” she said.