November 7, 2009 in Washington Voices

New faces, new priorities

‘Positive Change’ slate coming into power with mandate
By The Spokesman-Review
The Spokesman-Review photo

(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Spokane Valley voters didn’t just speak Tuesday, they “shouted their wishes loud and clear,” according to Councilman-elect Dean Grafos.

Still, a few things weren’t immediately clear.

For example, how should people address newly elected council member Bob McCaslin, who’s also a longtime state senator? Sen. McCaslin or Councilman McCaslin?

“You call me Bob, is what you call me,” McCaslin said.

Just don’t call him mayor.

“McCaslin has zero interest in it,” he said.

In Spokane Valley’s city manager government, the mayor is a councilmember who is chosen by the rest of the council to be its spokesman. So the job didn’t automatically pass to McCaslin when he defeated Mayor Rich Munson.

Anyway, McCaslin said he’ll be too busy to consider being mayor. He will keep his Senate seat, and will have to spend most of his time in Olympia during the two-month legislative session that starts in January.

“I will come home if necessary,” McCaslin said.

Otherwise, he can count on his fellow council members to excuse his absences while the Legislature is in session. McCaslin is one of five “Positive Change” candidates who were elected Tuesday.

The others are Grafos, who will replace interim Councilman Ian Robertson as soon as election results are certified; Brenda Grassel, who defeated incumbent Diana Wilhite; Tom Towey, who ran unopposed for the position Dick Denenny is vacating; and incumbent Gary Schimmels, also unopposed.

Councilwoman Rose Dempsey, one of two incumbents who weren’t up for re-election, also supported the Positive Change slate. She feels the current council failed to listen to constituents.

Councilman Bill Gothmann, who supported the defeated incumbents, will round out the new council.

The council’s first item of business will be to replace Munson and Denenny as mayor and deputy mayor.

Members of the new council haven’t firmed up their positions, but support seemed to be building this week for Schimmels.

Towey and Grassel joined McCaslin in ruling themselves out, and Gothmann’s stance in the election made him an unlikely candidate.

Grafos said he’s not ruling himself out as mayor, “but I’m probably not actively pursuing it.”

Schimmels and Dempsey, on the other hand, say they would accept the job.

“I would have to adjust my schedule a little bit and I would have to adjust my thinking a little bit, but I could handle that,” Schimmels said, noting he has supervised up to 55 workers as a construction superintendent.

Dempsey said she thinks she also “could do a pretty good job at it,” and believes bringing people together is one of her strengths.

She would like the mayor’s job to be “more of a group thing than having the mayor running around doing everything.”

Although the position is largely ceremonial, the mayor can set the tone of discussions with elected officials of other governments. Subject to council approval, the mayor also appoints members of city boards, commissions and committees.

McCaslin said he thinks the mayor should have political experience, and Schimmels and Dempsey are the “two possibilities.”

Schimmels has been on the council since the city was formed in 2003 “and probably knows the system better than any of us,” McCaslin said. Dempsey is finishing her second year on the council.

Based on campaign rhetoric, the Sprague-Appleway Revitalization Plan, negotiations with University City Inc. to purchase land for a new city hall, the new 6 percent telephone tax, and City Manager Dave Mercier’s contract are likely to be among the new council’s first items of business.

Schimmels said negotiations with U-City already are nearly at a standstill, but he wants to end them altogether. That appears to be a consensus of the new majority.

There’s also broad agreement to make building and planning regulations simpler, more consistent and friendlier to builders and businesses. That’s Grassel’s top priority.

On other hot-button campaign issues, Schimmels counsels a cautious approach.

Like Dempsey and Grassel, he thinks some parts of the Sprague-Appleway plan might be salvaged.

“There’s got to be some good points in this plan that we could keep after spending all this money on it,” Dempsey said.

Schimmels joined Dempsey in voting against the plan, but he said the new council shouldn’t lose sight of the concerns that led to the plan.

“Everywhere you go, there are more vacancy signs,” he said. “I would just holler like the devil that we do our due diligence on it. … Time maybe heals some of this, and we can sit down and say, ‘What should we really do here?’ ”

Grafos and McCaslin, on the other hand, favor a quick and complete repeal of the Sprague-Appleway plan. In fact, McCaslin would like to restore the city’s entire zoning code to the one it inherited from Spokane County.

Views were more muted on the telephone utility tax and Mercier’s future with the city.

The telephone tax was adopted to raise money for street maintenance, which is a high priority for the new majority.

“I don’t know that we’re going to be repealing any taxes right off the bat,” Grassel said. “I know we’ve stated that we’re not going to be putting in any new taxes.”

If there are new taxes, they should be approved by voters, Towey and McCaslin said.

“I believe the citizen will pay money, tax dollars, that we prove is benefiting him,” McCaslin said.

But he thinks a telephone tax for roads is a bad idea.

“There’s no nexus there,” McCaslin said. “There should be a nexus somewhere to transportation.”

Dempsey said the current council felt the same way. Members planned to repeal the phone tax if a suitable substitute, such as a voter-approved street utility charge, was authorized by the state Legislature, she said.

Although the city manager was occasionally a lightning rod for candidates’ criticism, the winners generally say they’re willing to work with him.

Grafos and McCaslin appear to be the most wary of Mercier.

“I need to think about that and review it further and discuss it with our group,” Grafos said. “I intend to work every day to bring a respectful, fair and frugal government.”

He and McCaslin have criticized Mercier’s contract as overly generous in a variety of ways.

“It’s a beauty,” McCaslin said, noting the city will have to pay Mercier’s full annual salary of $166,102 as severance if he is forced out.

McCaslin said the question is, “Does he want to work with us? Will he do what we want him to do, or would he rather go and work someplace else?”

Grassel said she thinks the city might be better served by a strong-mayor government that would eliminate the city manager’s position, but “it’s not one of the first things that I’m going to push for.”

Dempsey and Schimmels hope to convince the newcomers to retain Mercier.

“I feel quite strongly about Mercier,” Dempsey said. “I think he is our secret weapon. I think he is the reason Spokane Valley is in pretty good shape compared to the rest of the state.”

“He’s probably one of the better financial minds” in the region, Schimmels said. “He’s gifted in that.”

Towey said he hopes to work with Mercier to find the new direction citizens want.

“We need to get to the point where people are confident in what we are doing again,” he said.

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