March 11, 2010 in Washington Voices

Spokane County, Valley council rediscover cordiality

Commissioners, city’s new elected officials seek common ground on contentious issues
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Spokane County and Spokane Valley began climbing out Monday from the diplomatic hole elected officials dug for themselves.

County commissioners and the new City Council charted a way forward on several controversial issues in a cordial three-hour joint meeting at City Hall.

The issues include city acquisition of the county-owned right of way for a possible extension of Appleway Boulevard, and a dispute over whether the county overcharged for police service.

The elected officials agreed to put the long-simmering disputes on a fast track for resolution.

In the past, the two groups couldn’t even agree to meet face to face. The council insisted that commissioners had to negotiate with the city manager; commissioners demanded unfiltered policy discussions with their elected peers.

The logjam was broken by last year’s election of four new City Council members – Dean Grafos, Tom Towey, Brenda Grassel and Bob McCaslin – who ran on a platform that included improving relations with commissioners.

Except for McCaslin, who is also a state senator, everyone from both groups attended Monday’s meeting. Participants were careful to keep the discussion general, leaving their staffs to work out details.

Commissioners and council members agreed staff members are making good progress on a new contract for police service from the sheriff’s office. The new agreement is expected to clarify issues that led the city to withhold payments on grounds that it was double-billed.

Although the city agreed in June to pay the $1.1 million it had been holding, the dispute still hasn’t been resolved.

The city continued to consult a Portland forensic accounting firm that supports its position. The county called for the private accountants to confer with the state auditor’s office, which says the county is right.

Commissioners renewed their call for the financial experts to talk face to face, and interim City Manager Mike Jackson said that will happen soon.

City and county staff members plan to discuss the issue Monday, and Marshall Farnell, the county’s chief executive officer, said he is optimistic.

“We’re going to resolve this because Mike (Jackson) and I are sick of talking about it,” Farnell said. “We’re going to get this done.”

The parties also took a first step toward resolving a bitter dispute over whether the county should give the city land to extend Appleway Boulevard east from University Road.

Commissioners had been willing to donate the land with restrictions to preserve a mass transit corridor, but the city sued to force the county to turn over the right of way unconditionally. Two courts agreed with the county, and the state Supreme Court refused to hear a second appeal.

Now the question is whether the city still wants the land. Extending Appleway was an integral part of the city’s Sprague-Appleway Revitalization Plan, but the new council majority wants to repeal or diminish the plan.

Also, with the county budget in tatters, commissioners now want market value for the former Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad Co. right of way they purchased in 1980 for $3.25 million.

Commissioners offered the property to the Spokane Transit Authority, which authorized Chief Executive Officer Susan Meyer to negotiate a purchase.

Meyer sat in on Monday’s meeting and told the City Council the STA will work with the city if it still wants some of the land. To varying extents, commissioners expressed willingness to stick with a previous offer to split the land between the city and the STA.

But Gothmann suggested the city might solve its traffic problems by improving streets it already owns, such as Fourth or Valleyway avenues.

The council agreed to decide within two months whether it still wants part of the old rail line and is willing to pay.

In addition to making peace, council members and commissioners identified a couple of areas for possible cooperation: snow removal and building permits.

Commission Chairman Mark Richard said last week that Grafos had asked him whether there was any way commissioners would consider restoring a canceled contract to plow Spokane Valley streets. In a meeting Thursday to prepare for Monday’s meeting, commissioners agreed they probably couldn’t “unring” the snow-contract bell.

On Monday, though, Grafos proposed only that the two governments try to standardize their plowing policies so they could more easily help one another.

Commissioners warmed to the idea of seeing whether there are roads, divided by the city-county boundary, that could more efficiently be plowed by one government’s crew instead of both.

They also liked Grafos’ idea of working together on building permits, if not a combined permit center. County building official Randy Bissa and his city counterpart, Mary Kate McGee, suggested a shared Web portal for online applications.

Commissioners and council members asked McGee and Bissa to confer with Spokane building official Joe Wizner about the Web portal and other possibilities for cooperation.


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