The battle for the empty Spokane City Council seat representing northeast Spokane pits the right-hand man of Washington’s most famous political operative against a relative newcomer to city politics.
Mike Fagan is a co-director of Voters Want More Choices. That’s Tim Eyman’s political action committee, which has successfully placed several initiatives on the state ballot that limit taxing authority of government officials.
He is running against Amber Waldref, the development director for The Lands Council, a Spokane-based environmental group that works on Spokane River issues, among other things.
The two are vying for the seat that will be vacated by Councilman Al French, who is prevented from running again because of term limits. Because only two candidates filed for the seat, the contest was the only Spokane council race not featured in the August primary.
Waldref, who has raised three times as much campaign money as Fagan, has won the backing of the Spokane County Democratic Party and Councilman Bob Apple – northeast Spokane’s other council representative. Fagan has been endorsed by the Republican Party and French.
French said he chose to back Fagan because Fagan has a strong history of neighborhood activism and an understanding of government finances from working as a volunteer on community boards.
Even so, Fagan has had some personal financial difficulties. In 1997, Fagan and his wife filed for bankruptcy. They owed almost $92,000, mostly in credit card debt, according to federal court documents.
“I obviously recovered from that,” Fagan said when asked about the bankruptcy. “It was medical related.”
Each Spokane City Council member has publicly opposed Initiative 1033 – that’s an Eyman and Fagan proposal to limit local and state government’s ability to raise taxes beyond inflation or an amount for population growth.
Waldref has focused attention on Fagan’s work on the state initiatives, saying that they are partly to blame for gaps in city services and infrastructure problems, such as the condition of city streets.
“I am not in favor of the way that Mr. Eyman and Mr. Fagan have scared taxpayers into thinking that they can get something for free,” Waldref said. “Mr. Fagan is still putting forward initiatives that are going to cut our local services.”
But Fagan said I-1033, like other ideas floated by Voters Want More Choices, is about giving citizens a voice and working to change a “regressive tax system.” Supporters of I-1033 note that governments still would have the right to increase taxes and fees beyond inflation as long as citizens agree in a public vote. He said politicians often give a “sky is falling” account of the results of his and Eyman’s initiatives, but simply learn to live within their means when they are approved.
“It’s the people who vote on whether or not they want to limit the size of government, (and) they want to limit the amount of taxes that the government is taking,” Fagan said.
Fagan, whose father, Jack Fagan, also is a co-director of Voters Want More Choices, has long been involved in neighborhood issues, serving on local boards and other groups. He gained significant attention in 2000 when as co-chairman of the Eastern Washington Term Limits Action Committee he dressed in a weasel costume and hung around events featuring then-U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt, who was running for a fourth term for Congress even though he had promised to run for no more than three.
Part of Mayor Mary Verner’s 2010 budget strategy includes raising revenue by $1 million to help cover the city’s expected $7 million deficit. Some council members have suggested increasing business license fees as part of raising that money.
Fagan has made limiting city taxes and fees a cornerstone of his campaign and said he does not support increasing the license fees.
“I would not be supportive of anything that would further hamper, create regulation, etc., for business,” Fagan said.
Waldref said she would support a modest increase in business license fees, adding that those fees haven’t been raised in several years. She added she wouldn’t support raising other taxes at this time, but said she could not rule out doing so in the future.
“We can’t put off the table any tax increase,” she said. “That would be very irresponsible to the citizens.”
Fagan also hasn’t made a complete pledge against new taxes or fees. Both candidates say they are open to ideas for raising revenue to increase funding for street repairs, including the creation of a vehicle tab tax – as long as voters have the final say in the matter.
Fagan opposed the creation of a police ombudsman position, saying duties of the position should be handled by the police chief. However, since the job exists, he said it should be given investigatory power to examine accusations of police misconduct.
Waldref said she supports the creation of the position so the city has someone “looking out for the citizens and making sure we resolve issues before they escalate.” She also believes the job should be granted investigatory power.
The candidates have given varying levels of support for Verner’s Sustainability Task Force report, which suggested ways to cut the city’s energy use and reduce carbon emissions.
Waldref said she was “very much in favor” of the proposal.
“We are cutting edge as a city in looking at ways that we can be more efficient and ways that we can cut our carbon footprint as a city,” Waldref said. “These are ways that we can save the taxpayers money.”
Fagan said he would have voted to support the plan, especially since the final version was clear that the city was not adopting the ideas, but simply accepting the report for further consideration.
“I believe there is not consensus in the scientific community that humans play a significant role in global warming,” he said.
Waldref notes that most climate scientists believe that human activity is a significant cause of warming.
“It’s putting our nose in the sand to say ‘It’s not happening and we don’t need to take steps to prepare for that.’ ”
Pointing to his work with neighborhoods, Fagan said he is a “man of principle” and has “the courage of convictions.”
Waldref said she would bring a fresh approach to the council and would work to ensure a voice for the district.
“I have a record of being collaborative, of working with all parties and coming forward with solutions,” she said.