Six months after a new majority swept into the Spokane Valley City Council promising “positive change,” there has been change – a good deal of it reversing decisions made by the previous City Council.
The change hasn’t come at the speed new members Brenda Grassel, Tom Towey, Dean Grafos and Bob McCaslin hoped. They, along with veteran council member Gary Schimmels, who was re-elected last year, campaigned together on the “Positive Change” slate.
“I think it’s going in a positive direction for the citizens of Spokane Valley,” Grafos said. “We’re getting more people speaking up.”
Holdover council member Rose Dempsey, who along with council member Bill Gothmann often finds herself at odds with the new majority, attributes the slow pace to the steep learning curve faced by the new members. But she also faults their methods, saying in particular she’s frustrated over how the council majority treats city staff.
“There’s nothing positive in the Positive Change group,” Dempsey said.
Among the actions taken by the council this year:
•The council has waffled on a Comcast franchise agreement that took five years to negotiate and may reopen it.
•They killed a comprehensive plan amendment that city staff worked on for months and said was needed to address safety issues and to bring the city into compliance with federal requirements.
•A road project scheduled to begin in June, for which the city received a nearly $750,000 grant, is in jeopardy.
•A shoreline inventory prepared as part of the city’s Shoreline Master Program stalled after Grassel expressed concerns that there wasn’t enough proof that the Spokane River is polluted by heavy metals and PCBs.
Zoning has been one of Spokane Valley’s biggest issues since the city was incorporated in 2003, and the Positive Change candidates ran opposed to a dramatic overhaul of the city’s policies and zoning for much of Sprague Avenue. But much of that plan, called the Sprague/Appleway Revitalization Plan, is tied to the city’s comprehensive plan, which by state law can only be amended once a year, in November. The new council members discovered they couldn’t make changes to the Sprague/Appleway plan quickly.
Grassel said she thought things would go faster, but, “I’m happy to go through the process, recognizing that not everything in SARP is a bad thing.”
Dempsey, who has been on the council since 2008, said she’s frustrated with the slow progress as well – because the council seems to be focusing on revisiting already-decided issues rather than moving forward. “They want to do good,” she said of the new council majority. “But they don’t really understand that there is a process to do the right thing. You can’t just make a motion at the end of the meeting.”
That learning curve apparently led to a dust-up over the Broadway Avenue Safety Project, which would re-stripe Broadway between Pines and Park roads from four traffic lanes to two traffic lanes, a center turn lane and two bike lanes. The goal is to reduce collisions and make travel safer for pedestrians and cyclists; the changes are supported by the Central Valley School District.
The project was approved in 2007 and is in the city’s six-year Transportation Improvement Plan, which is updated annually and details every road project planned. On April 13, the council unanimously approved an amended 2010 Transportation Improvement Plan, which included the Broadway Avenue project. But at that same meeting Grassel voiced concerns about the Broadway project and whether it was really needed.
Grassel said when she voted to approve the Transportation Improvement Plan, she didn’t realize she was actually accepting the projects it includes. “That was definitely inexperience,” she said. “That is a lesson learned on my part. I will be looking at those more closely.”
Grafos offered a similar argument. “I don’t think the council at that time realized they were approving those (road projects) in their entirety,” he said. Grafos said he expected the Broadway project – for which the city has already spent nearly $50,000 in design work – to come up for approval again.
Grassel said she objects to the project because she’s not certain the changes are needed and the city can’t afford to spend the 20 percent matching funds required for the $933,000 project. She pointed to a projected budget deficit and said she believes the city needs a street-maintenance fund more urgently.
“Budgets have to be prioritized,” she said. “The minute I see my expenses exceeding my revenue, you need to cut something.”
Dempsey said she thinks discussion about a budget deficit is premature. The council was presented with the possibility that a deficit could occur by 2013 if no changes were made, but no deficit currently exists.
“This city is in the best shape of any city in the state of Washington,” Dempsey said. “Yes, our income is down, we do have to cut back on things, but we’re not broke.”
The comprehensive plan amendment that failed would have corrected some errors, changed fence heights and adjusted requirements governing line of sight at intersections. Several council members objected to the amendment because of the provision that would have limited fence height in the front yards of commercial properties to 48 inches, or 36 inches if it was sight-obstructing.
“There were too many things to that,” Grassel said of the amendment. “For me it was the way staff brought it to us. They had not brought it to any business people for input.”
Yet as a comprehensive plan amendment it was considered by the Planning Commission and went through a public hearing, at which no one commented. No one attending the City Council meetings when the amendment was discussed spoke against it, either.
At the time, city staff cautioned that some of the line-of-sight and fencing provisions were needed for safety reasons and not making the changes could make the city legally liable. Grassel said it’s the council’s job to weigh those issues against the needs of property owners, and the proposed changes would be “asking (property owners) to give up too much.”
Grassel said she believes things will go more smoothly once the new council members make their wishes clear to staff. “We’re so new, it’s going to take time for us to convey those to them,” she said.
Dempsey said she is frustrated about how city staff members are being treated by the new council members. “Somehow the council members got the idea that the staff is their enemy,” she said. To be blamed for things that are beyond the staff’s control is “demoralizing,” she added.
Said Dempsey of her new colleagues, “I keep hoping they’ll come around and work for the city instead of against the city.”