December 29, 2011 in City

Verner looks back at trials, triumphs

Mayor’s tenure included Zehm case, snowfall records
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Jesse Tinsley photo

Spokane Mayor Mary Verner points out landmarks in the downtown area to Payshense McDuffie-Richmond, a fifth-grader, during a recent office visit. Verner is nearing the end of her term as mayor.
(Full-size photo)

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Background and the latest updates

Verner used veto pen sparingly

In four years and one month as the city’s mayor, Mayor Mary Verner only vetoed two pieces of legislation form the City Council.

• She vetoed the city’s shoreline master plan as a result of an amendment that changed development rules along a portion of Latah Creek that is owned by the city’s former chief operating officer, John Pilcher. The City Council overrode that veto in January 2009.

• She vetoed a change to the comprehensive plan, the city’s long-term growth guide, regarding property in the 2700 block of East 35th Avenue earlier this month. The council also overrode that veto. 

Biggest accomplishments

We asked Verner what she considers her biggest accomplishments. Here is her response:

“Clearly financial stability in the recession is fundamental to everything now. But sometimes that overshadows a long list of accomplishments that were embedded in financial stability for the city, such as our economic development support for the private sector during my time in office. Great progress has been made in those targeted areas when we took the targeted area approach and focused our attention to the University District. 

(Verner also noted other areas in the city where the city has focused on economic development, including around the city’s Waste-to-Energy Plant, where Verner hopes to attract environmental-themed businesses.) We have companies coming to us now wanting to use the water and the steam (from the plant) and it’s inside the city effective with the annexation. Most of these accomplishments are multifaceted, but they all fed into supporting the financial stability, not just of city government, but the community as a whole.

The effort around sustainability for the city is showing real benefits, real tangible financial benefits, not only to the city government in saving us hundreds of thousands of dollars … but also in the private sector.”

Spokane Mayor Mary Verner will leave office at the end of the week as the city’s longest serving strong mayor of the four who have served in that capacity.

But she also will be the 10th mayor in a row to only serve one term.

Verner appeared likely to break the streak after garnering a huge primary victory over David Condon. But her popularity collapsed in the wake of new revelations in an ongoing police scandal and summer water bills that began showing up at homes, mostly after people voted in the primary.

Verner said she likely will run for office again in the future. She’s been rumored as a possible Democratic candidate for Congress. When asked specifically about that possibility, she said she’s not sure if she will challenge U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane.

“That’s not something I’m really ready to discuss yet,” she said.

As far as work in the meantime, Verner said she’s not ready to reveal what specifically she’s considering but acknowledged that she will do some collegiate-level teaching.

“I’ll just tell you that I’m exploring higher ed and private sector business in that arena in which I believe what’s good for the environment is good for the economy.”

We sat down with Verner to talk about her four years and one month in office. We tossed out topics, names and a quote and asked her to describe what those topics mean to her.

Background: After being mistakenly identified as a suspect in a possible theft, janitor Otto Zehm died following a violent police confrontation in 2006 while shopping for soda pop and candy at a Spokane convenience store. A week before Verner lost her election, a federal jury convicted the first responding officer, Karl F. Thompson Jr., of violating Zehm’s civil rights and lying to investigators. In 2009, the city responded to a lawsuit from the Zehm estate by saying Zehm was responsible for his own death and that Thompson didn’t violate police procedures. When asked after the verdict why the city took that position even though the city’s assistant police chief felt otherwise, Verner said the answer likely will become clear through a citizen’s commission that she has formed to examine the case. Soon after the verdict, Verner requested that the U.S. Department of Justice investigate the Police Department’s practices.

Verner: “It’s just a tragedy all around. It’s been a very painful experience for our community. We have had some good come out of it, which is about the best you can hope for when a community experiences something like this. We have the ombudsman program in place. We’ve made changes in the Police Department. … We have the citizens review commission well under way now under (former Gonzaga Law School Dean) Marty Martin’s leadership. I just checked in … with (U.S. Attorney) Mike Ormsby. I’m still waiting for the Department of Justice to let me know if they’re going to do that patterns and practices investigation.”

Water rates

Background: Water rates may have been the second biggest reason (behind Zehm) that Verner lost her bid for a second term. Condon hammered her for agreeing to the City Council ordinance in 2010 that lowered water rates for those who use less and increased rates for those who use more. Although most people pay less, some water customers pay significantly more. The water structure wasn’t her idea, but she signed the law that created them. During her tenure some utility fees have climbed significantly, especially for sewer, which was increased in large part to help pay for systems to prevent pollution into the Spokane River.

Verner: “I think about my desire to have a comprehensive approach and the tension between the executive branch and the legislative branch has been that my push for a comprehensive approach has been thwarted by a council that has taken a more piecemeal approach. I brought in the review of the utility rate structure. … I believe that I am leaving that entire conversation at a point where the city is in a better place. But we still rely on the City Council ultimately to pass the utility rates and it’s certainly been painful for me this year to have been saddled with City Council action and have that be a huge factor in my race for re-election as mayor. … I think where I stood has been a place that most voters, if they knew where I stood instead of what they were told, I think could believe that we were headed in the right direction.”

Sewage overflow tanks

Background: Verner has opted to push ahead plans to build “combined sewage overflow” tanks and to vastly improve treatment at the city’s wastewater plant to comply with requirements in the city’s discharge permit. The projects, which will cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars, could be in danger as new City Council members and Mayor-elect David Condon, who have suggested they may challenge state cleanup requirements, enter office.

Verner: “My immediate reaction is the loss of Mike Cmos, which still chokes me up to this day. (Cmos, a wastewater department employee, died in an implosion at the city’s sewage treatment plant in 2004) … It’s a necessary investment in cleaning up the Spokane River and preventing raw sewage from going into the river. I think we have a much more sophisticated understanding now of what we need to do. I learned this year – and I thought I understood it quite well – the difference between South Hill CSO tanks and the opportunity for alternative approaches on the North Side of the city.

“It’s a commitment that we made long ago and I want us to remain committed to that. It also is interconnected with the facility (sewage treatment plant) that the county just built. This is a regional approach to preventing sewage from going into the river and cleaning up the phosphorus in the river. … Many, many hours (have been) spent by a lot of people coming up with cleanup plans and the financial analysis and the engineering analysis of how we’re going to make sure we no longer are discharging contaminants into the Spokane River.”

Riverfront Park YMCA

Background: The fate of the YMCA had as many false endings as a Terminator movie. The Spokane Park Board agreed to buy the land and building in 2004 for $5.3 million and put $1 million down but didn’t have a plan in place to pay for the rest of it. Eventually, they decided to seek Spokane County Conservation Futures property tax funding to buy it and tear down the vacant building to provide a better view of the falls. Some votes went against the plan; others went for it. Eventually, in the final votes that counted, the County Commission split in favor 2-1, and City Council split in favor 4-3. It took a lot of political wrangling from park board members, like Steve McNutt, and elected leaders including Verner, City Council President Joe Shogan and others to win support for tearing it down. Verner’s main argument during the debate was more about finances than improving the park. The city had no other option that was certain to pay off the bill for the building, she said. The building was torn down this year.

Verner: “Difficult decision, but the right one. And today when I look out the window or take my grandchildren for a walk through Riverfront Park I see a beautiful additional open space right on the shores of the Spokane River at the falls. It was the right decision, and I’m glad that we completed the work that was anticipated for those who had the vision for Expo ’74 and Riverfront Park.”

River Park Square

Background: When Verner served on the City Council, she voted in favor of settling lawsuits sparked by the city’s involvement in the reconstruction of River Park Square, which is owned by the Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review. The city will pay a total of about $43 million from 2005 through 2027 as a result of the settlement.

Verner: “Complex litigation that I was able to vote to bring to closure as a city councilperson. I pursued it to its absolute end during my time as mayor going so far as to travel to Seattle on my budget to meet with Yale Lewis (a Seattle attorney who had once worked on the case) to find out if there was any other legal theory that was feasible to pursue for the satisfaction of our citizens, who still carry a grudge, and then to be able to move on. I’m pleased that it was closed out. I don’t think that any future administration will really have to deal in any significant way with the issue.”

‘Folks, it’s just snow’

Background: During Verner’s tenure, the city broke numerous snow records including: the most snow in a November, most snow in a December, most snow in a single snowstorm, most snow in a 24-hour period, most snow in a calendar year and most snow in a single winter. Things didn’t go well during the first big snowfall with Verner as mayor, in January 2008. Complaints mounted about the city’s slow response, resulting in a news conference in which Verner said: “Folks, it’s just snow and we’re doing the best we can to remove it.”

Verner was mocked for the statement. But less than a year later, an even bigger snowstorm, the biggest on record in Spokane, gave her a second chance at improving her snow record. By then, new procedures were in place to better clear snow, including contracts the city could use to bring private contractors on duty in an emergency.

Verner: “I just have to laugh in response to that. It was Marlene’s (city spokeswoman Marlene Feist’s) worst nightmare I think. … My particular quote was a big learning experience for me in how you express yourself when you know you’re going to be quoted by the media. The whole media experience has been definitely a chapter in my higher education. But I still believe that we need to keep things in perspective. We learned a lot in those two years of snowstorms. That’s for sure. And we improved our snow removal process significantly since then. … I come from a place of understanding that there are a lot worse things than snow, and I wasn’t engaging brain before speaking on that one. But it’s certainly something that I’ve had lots of laughs thrown my way about.”

Annexation

Background: Perhaps the biggest change instituted in Verner’s tenure is the annexation of the West Plains. At the moment Verner leaves office, about 10 square miles will become part of the city in what is the biggest expansion of Spokane in more than a century. Verner succeeded after years of failed efforts by negotiating with Airway Heights and county officials. She was aided, too, by new state law and by former Mayor Dennis Hession’s successful effort to annex the North Division Costco.

Verner: “I am really grateful that we accomplished the West Plains annexation. I think we reached a fair outcome for everybody. We allowed the county two years to adjust their finances and their operations. Airway Heights was able to gain some revenue. … The city has been well positioned to pursue economic development on the West Plains in a way that we only toyed at before and now we’re fully in there engaged. A sense of accomplishment.”


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