December 12, 2009 in Washington Voices

Few voters cast ballots

Voting rate was 49.6 percent for five council positions
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Despite a lot of campaign spending and generous doses of controversy, Spokane Valley’s City Council elections last month failed to generate as much turnout as the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District.

All 10 Spokane County fire districts with candidates or propositions on the ballot exceeded Spokane Valley’s 49.6 percent voting rate for five council positions.

Only seven of 62 voting districts in Spokane County had lower turnouts in the Nov. 3 general election.

Spokane County’s overall 52.3 percent turnout wasn’t much better than Spokane Valley’s. However, the countywide average included numerous jurisdictions without enough disagreement to generate a frown.

Spokane Valley, on the other hand, had some of the more expensive city council campaigns in the state.

Based on expenditures reported to the state Public Disclosure Commission through October, newly seated Councilman Dean Grafos raised $24,726 and spent $19,572 to unseat recently appointed Councilman Ian Robertson.

Tentatively, the Grafos council campaign was the 56th most expensive in the state. It exceeded spending in numerous Western Washington cities but fell far short of many Seattle campaigns, which ranged up to $211,416.

Spokane City Council candidates Jon Snyder and Nancy McLaughlin also outstripped Grafos with outlays of $35,962 and $37,930.

Still, Spokane Valley candidates’ spending was substantial.

Robertson raised $9,548 and spent at least $8,255 in his losing battle to keep the position to which he was appointed in August. That puts him in 125th place for spending among 597 council candidates across the state.

Political newcomer Brenda Grassel raised $10,786 and spent at least $9,779 to unseat incumbent Councilwoman Diana Wilhite, who raised $14,125 and spent at least $12,175.

The second-most expensive Spokane Valley campaign belonged to Mayor Rich Munson, who reported raising and spending $14,368 to defend his council seat.

Despite Munson’s spending, longtime state Sen. Bob McCaslin defeated him with less than $5,000. McCaslin said he returned $600 in donations to keep his fundraising below the $5,000 threshold for reporting to the Public Disclosure Commission.

Munson and McCaslin both termed Spokane Valley’s turnout “disappointing.” Neither could explain why city residents discard their ballots more often than other Spokane County residents.

“I wish I knew the answer because, if I did, I probably would have gotten a lot more votes,” Munson said.

“I wish I could point at something and say, ‘Here’s what would get the people out,’ ” McCaslin echoed.

Munson has advocated broadcasting city meetings on cable television and the Internet as a means of ensuring voters have access to information.

Given a litany of well-publicized issues that generated a six-month disincorporation drive that clothed the city in yard signs, McCaslin believes the council election turnout should have been higher.

He cited the Sprague-Appleway Revitalization Plan, including controversial provisions for a new city hall and restoration of two-way traffic on Sprague Avenue, as well as controversies over library service and sign regulations.

McCaslin also pointed to disputes with county commissioners that led to cancellation of the city’s snow-plowing contract and are blocking extension of Appleway Boulevard.

Despite all that, critics were unable to find anyone to run against Munson until McCaslin reluctantly signed on at the end of a weeklong filing period in June. McCaslin said someone later asked him why he was running for City Council while still a state senator.

“I said, ‘Because you’re not,’ ” McCaslin recalled. “And he looked at me and said he was too busy.”

No one filed against incumbent Gary Schimmels or Tom Towey, who went on to win the position Dick Denenny is vacating.

Like McCaslin, Munson believes people throughout the nation are losing interest in government. Munson sees “a general distrust of government,” starting at the federal level, and feels people are “too darn busy right now.”

“The only time that people get engaged is when they perceive that they’re being hurt, and that’s really the wrong reason,” Munson said.

Indeed, McCaslin said, “If you come up with a tax, that will get people out.”

McCaslin thinks the city election results reflected the will of the majority. Munson said he accepts the outcome, but would have felt better about losing with a larger turnout.

Historically low voter turnout is “one of the reasons you have some extreme positions that are passed here in the Valley,” Munson said. “You have to organize fewer people to get the vote.”

He cited Texas Congressman Ron Paul’s strong showing in last year’s presidential primary as an example of “extreme positions” that he thinks don’t represent the majority view.

In any event, Spokane Valley residents have never had much enthusiasm for their municipal government.

Just 51.4 percent of voters supported incorporation when it passed in 2002.

Before that, three Valley-wide votes and two proposals for smaller cities came no closer than 44.3 percent.

Some of the city’s critics, including disincorporation organizer Sally Jackson, have said they think incorporation finally passed only because opponents thought they could safely stay home.


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