One is a popular Republican incumbent who has helped shape government from inside and out. The other is an outspoken physician and widely recognized community advocate whose controversial ouster from the county health department two years ago helped set the stage for what’s become a grueling political showdown.
Voters will decide whether Todd Mielke gets a second term on the Spokane County Commission or Democratic challenger Dr. Kim Thorburn gets the $93,000-a-year job instead. Both tout their years of leadership experience and ability to help steer Spokane County to a prosperous future.
Mielke said he deserves to be re-elected because “I know government.” The 44-year-old is a former state lawmaker who became a lobbyist before winning his first bid for county commission four years ago.
“And we are making progress on huge issues to prepare this community for the next 20 years. That’s everything from cleaning up the Spokane River … to what to do with the jail and how to protect some of our major employers like Fairchild Air Force Base.”
Thorburn, 58, is critical of what she calls Mielke’s penchant for bending land-use laws in favor of developers and promises a fresh approach to governing that recognizes overall community needs rather than those of a few special interests.
“I am very different from my opponent,” said Thorburn, who left her job at Planned Parenthood to campaign for the commission.
The race is among this season’s most-watched. Mielke has pulled ahead in fundraising with more than $113,000 in contributions, including nearly $5,000 from the Spokane Republican Central Committee and $1,600 from Avista Corp. Thorburn has raised just over $80,000, including $1,600 from the Service Employees International Union and nearly $1,500 from Spokane developer and Democratic activist Don Barbieri.
Mielke’s campaign is built on what he calls a solid first term, and a promise to give Spokane County four more years of leadership that will help position the region for continued prosperity. He promises continued progress on regional sewer issues.
Thorburn promises greater government transparency and fiscal responsibility. She disputes suggestions that her candidacy has anything to do with revenge, given that Mielke was chairman of the Spokane Regional Health Board when it voted to fire her in 2006 as county health officer, a position she’d held nine years.
Several wedge issues have emerged on the campaign trail.
Among them is Mielke’s decision, along with fellow Commissioner Mark Richard, to purchase Spokane Raceway Park earlier this year, just months after telling voters the county was so broke it needed a tax increase to continue paying jail guards.
“As commissioner, I would not have voted to purchase the race track,” Thorburn said. “I believe there are more priorities that our county faces that we could have used the money for.”
Mielke makes no apologies for outbidding private investors to buy the 315 acres for $4.3 million. Not only was it a good investment that will benefit the region, he said, but it was consistent with one of his original campaign promises: to “promote and build recreational opportunities.”
Mielke has complained that media coverage has focused more on the controversy and a questionable meeting involving elected officials than the vast support from racing enthusiasts, room for a 60-acre park and a potential site for a law enforcement training center.
Thorburn said racing enthusiasts recently gave her a couple runs around the track in a race car, and she applauds their efforts to clean up the site.
“We still don’t know the full cost,” she said, arguing the county needs to quickly test water and soil to determine whether the site requires an environmental cleanup. “I know the sheriff is interested in the training facility. It is not an option I would close the door on but, again, the way I would evaluate those things is the cost of them in comparison to other county needs.”
Thorburn, a former professor of medicine at the Hawaii School of Medicine, also criticized a meeting at the track in June that included Mielke, Richard and representatives of organizations seeking the county contract to operate the racetrack.
Mielke said he did nothing wrong; Jim Emacio, the chief civil deputy prosecutor, has since said the meeting “probably” did not violate the state’s Open Public Meetings Act because commissioners told him they did not participate in the discussions.
Having a county attorney defend a meeting just adds to her belief that business is being conducted “out of the light of day,” Thorburn said.
“I really aspire to operate to the spirit of the (open meetings law). I don’t want to figure out how to skirt it,” Thorburn said. “I want to figure out how to follow it to its broadest sense. The spirit of the law is that we do government before our communities.”
Mielke said the process used to purchase the racetrack shows he is a champion of open government.
“There is old-school politics, that Phil Harris got accused of, where you get a dozen people in the room and everybody decides what they are going to do. New-school politics is something I adhere to, which is you do go out and get public input and get them involved,” Mielke said.
“When we were looking at whether we should go forward and purchase the Spokane Raceway site … we had a public meeting. We had between 600 and 700 people show up,” he said. “It was the largest public hearing that anyone can remember in the Spokane region.”
Thorburn, whose firing from the health department was blamed on communication problems, has found herself on the defense, too.
Mielke has attacked her management of the department, saying she threatened to fire public health nurses who spoke to county officials, tried to stifle due process during an air quality issue and attempted to quiet opponents of a fluoridated water supply.
Thorburn flatly denied each of the claims. “He said that at a forum, too. I have no idea where he is getting that.”
Mielke said he’s most proud of bringing together officials from North Idaho, the Spokane Tribe and other agencies to work on a regional sewer plan. One of their early successes was a ban on phosphorus in all dishwashing detergents, he said.
“I spent the majority of my time in my first four years working on the Spokane River cleanup,” he said. “Protecting the aquifer … is one of the fundamental priorities of government.”
And if the effort – which includes converting 10,000 septic tanks to sewer – fails, the region’s wastewater capacity will run out in three to five years. If that happens, it could force officials to shut down all new residential and commercial development in the region, he said.
“We are looking at between $500 (million) and $800 million in technology upgrades. If we don’t continue and find a solution, we take dramatic steps backwards,” he said. “I believe it’s the most substantial issue facing this region.”
But county officials also expect next year to ask voters to raise property taxes and sales taxes to pay for a new jail and community corrections complex. Once estimated at $100 million, commissioners learned this summer that the projected cost ballooned to $245 million, not including $8 million a year needed to operate it.
All these projects are coming at a time when the economy is heading south, which hurts local governments that depend on money from sales taxes, Thorburn said.
“I am a fiscal conservative,” she said. “Unfortunately, when the economy tanks is when we need government most. What I think is a better way to manage government money is to know that we are going to have these cycles, so don’t be spending surpluses on one-time expenditures that are really of questionable government priority.”