Liberty Lake mayor has opponent

THURSDAY, SEPT. 27, 2007

Is any city’s future brighter than Liberty Lake’s?

Its property values are on a meteoric rise. Its weekly police reports won’t fill a single page. Its oldest houses are less than 30 years old and its business district is swelling with good paying, light manufacturing jobs.

Mayor Steve Peterson would answer “no,” and he’s asking voters in his six-year-old city to maintain the status quo by electing him to another four-year term in November. He’s the only mayor the community has ever had, and he’s skated through two elections unchallenged. An indicator, he said recently, that voters like the way things are.

This time out, however, Peterson has a challenger. City Council member Wendy Van Orman, who, like Peterson, has been in office since the city’s inception.

Because they’re part of the same political relay team, Van Orman claims a lot of the same government successes Peterson does. Their visions for the future are also similar. And because the two work closely together, they’ve spent a much of the election cycle killing each other with kindness, giving onlookers the impression that choosing Liberty Lake’s next mayor is not unlike choosing between flavors of vanilla ice cream.

“Voters have two great choices. You can’t get any better than that,” Van Orman said. “Of course, I’m the better candidate. I’m the vanilla with the bean.”

Van Orman in the last couple weeks has worked harder to distinguish herself from the mayor. She’s criticized Peterson for taking money from real estate lobbyists. She’s also argued that Peterson, who as strong mayor manages city employees, has understaffed City Hall. And in a roundabout way, she’s attempted to cast the incumbent as a bit of a political brute.

“I’m a woman. I’m not going to go after things with a hammer,” she said. “We need to be more on the collaborative side.”

Peterson, 57, does not back away from the issues raised. True, he’s accepted money from the real estate lobby. He’s quick to point out that both he and Van Orman met with the Washington Association of Realtors’ endorsement committee, which she denies. In full, Peterson’s coffers contain $2,627 including contributions from an automotive dealer group, the builder’s lobby, and Duane Alton, the tire store owner who ran three times as a GOP candidate for Congress.

Van Orman, 47, hasn’t disclosed any of her finances, Peterson said. In small-scale political races, candidates with minimal funds have the option of not disclosing their funding, but they can volunteer the information. Van Orman has chosen not to, though she said recently that most of her money so far has come from small donations from individuals. Van Orman is a part-time office manager for Quality Hardwood Floors, Inc., her family business. Family contributions have played a role, she said.

“I believe people should know where your money comes from,” Peterson said. “Any of my unspent money will go to a 501 C3, like the library or the farmers’ market.”

On the city staffing, Peterson said he’s confident the city has the employees necessary to get the job done. It was Peterson who decided to eliminate former city manager Lewis Griffin’s position from the city’s roster in 2005, which Van Orman said surprised some City Council members. Peterson, a self-described facilitator, took over Griffin’s duties or delegated them to the city’s other three department heads. He’s still not in the office full time. The $700 a month mayor’s job is a side detail to Peterson’s occupation as a full-time pharmaceuticals sales representative. Cutting the city manager from the budget freed up $100,000, Peterson said.

Van Orman said the city staff’s ability to tackle Liberty Lake’s problems showed last summer when a chip-and-seal road project in the Heights subdivision resulted in a blocks-long gooey mess because the rocks dumped over the freshly tarred road were too big and the surface never fully solidified. The city is still uncovering manholes buried by the overlay, she said.

Peterson said the mess was a contractor problem that’s been fixed and wouldn’t have turned out different with more city manpower. As for the actual direction the city government has taken on everything from growth and development to public safety, Peterson is quick to point out that he has not been the decider. In more than six years in office, he’s only voted once, breaking the council tie on the approval of 500-home Rocky Hill subdivision. Peterson voted in favor of the project.

Both candidates point out that much of their government’s early actions centered on adding the essential ingredients to the city government’s structure. Early on, the focus was on adopting the essential city ordinances, which number nearly 200. They developed a comprehensive plan for managing community growth, annexed property that had belonged to the county back in the community’s unincorporated days, took on their first big road projects, including a pedestrian bridge over the freeway. Those steps have laid the foundation for some major changes in the city’s future.

Liberty Lake plans to build a fully functional freeway interchange at mile marker 294 on Interstate 90. The project will create another connector to city land on the north side of the freeway where several thousand homes and apartment units are planned be built. It will also create a new retail center for the city. The interchange was made possible by special tax financing tools Liberty Lake was able to secure from the state Legislature.

That growth is going to have a big impact on public schools, both candidates say. Van Orman and Peterson both favor imposing impact fees on new homes and apartments to offset school construction costs.

Both candidates favor some kind of public private partnership with church groups trying to establish a youth recreation center in the old Sports USA indoor multi-sport facility.

Van Orman is a big supporter of the church groups’ fundraising attempts to collect $1,000 from 1,000 families to launch the recreation center. Peterson supports the idea also and says the city should contribute hotel-motel tax revenue to the center provided activities there result in overnight stays in area motels.

Van Orman wants the city to establish an arboretum and work toward resurrecting its historical role as a gathering place for the greater Spokane community. Liberty Lake itself, which is located outside the city, has a storied role in Spokane’s history, which Van Orman would like to become a bigger part of the city’s identity.

Peterson also would like to see the city work on its identifiable brand, as a progressive community with equal portions of leisure, business and home life. He’d like to add an extra hole to the city’s nine-hole golf course.

Both candidates say the city’s future could be brighter still.


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