‘Interesting and challenging’
Ten minutes after Tom Towey took his seat as a new Spokane Valley City Council member on Jan. 5, 2010, he was elected mayor. The year since has been a whirlwind as Towey struggled to learn his new job and oversaw some controversial decisions and confrontational meetings.
Towey said he favors a statement by City Manager Mike Jackson to sum up his first year as mayor. “It was the fastest year ever, it was the longest year ever,” he said. “It’s been both interesting and challenging.”
Spokane Valley has a city manager form of government, and the mayor is a council member elected to the ceremonial position by other councilors. Towey is serving a two-year term as mayor.
He was elected to the council as part of a group of five – four new council members and one incumbent – who ran together on a “positive change” slate. But in the year since he took office, Towey said he has devoted his time to learning both sides of each issue. He voted against the stands taken by other “positive change” councilors several times.
“I think I’ve grown tremendously over this past year,” he said. “The tremendous amount of research you have to do to make a qualified decision, I didn’t expect.”
Sometimes it can be hard to get full information about both sides of an issue, he said. “You really have to train yourself to seek that other information,” he said.
It has at times been apparent that Towey is dedicated to fully researching issues. He reads each week’s council meeting packet several times, but doesn’t stop there. When the council was considering undoing a plan to restripe Broadway Avenue west of Pines Road to add a center turn lane and bike lanes, Towey drove out to take a look at the section of road and compared it to an already restriped section east of Pines. He voted with the four-person majority to keep the project.
The Broadway project was one of several that brought out conflicts in the council, which often sees the five “positive change” council members pitted against council veterans Rose Dempsey and Bill Gothmann. The exchanges between some council members have at times seemed like personal attacks.
“I’ve been criticized for not using my gavel,” Towey said of the disagreements. “As time goes by, I believe we’re starting to gel as a unit. Every once in a while, we slip.”
A little healthy debate is a good thing, he said. “The council, in asking questions, is a better council for it. I encourage debate. I encourage information coming from all sides. I think the council has asked the right questions. We all have biases, and we all have prejudices. I’ve always tried to be completely neutral until I get all the facts.”
Gothmann said he believes the mayor has done a great job. “He tries his best to be fair,” he said. “I knew him before he got on the council. I always respected him as a principled man.”
Early in Towey’s run for office, Gothmann supported Towey and sent him a $100 campaign donation. After Towey began associating with people who supported disincorporation, the two talked and Gothmann said he asked Towey to stop using his name as a supporter. “The next thing that happened is here in the mail came a check for $100,” Gothmann said. “I didn’t ask for that.”
Gothmann offered himself as a candidate for mayor but said he supported Towey’s election to the post. “He’s had my support all along,” he said. “I think there’s mutual respect between us. He’s a good guy.”
Longtime councilman and current Deputy Mayor Gary Schimmels was on the “Positive Change” slate with Towey. “We had some controversial issues there up front for a few months,” Schimmels said. “It smoothed out and we’re moving along.”
The job of mayor isn’t something he would want, Schimmels said. “He has to go everywhere,” he said. “He has to like what he’s doing or he won’t do a good job. From what I’m hearing and what I’m seeing, he’s doing a good job. He doesn’t do everything the way everybody thinks he should, but that’s his call. I think he’s well received by the staff and the public.”
Despite his sudden immersion into mayoral duties, Towey said he believes he was prepared. “I attended council meetings for a whole two years before I became a councilman,” he said. “I don’t think I had very many surprises.”
The “positive change” candidates held strong opinions on several issues, including the stated desire to get rid of the Sprague/Appleway Revitalization Plan. One of his main concerns has been that there was no funding in place to pay for changes called for in the plan, Towey said.
“That dictates where we’re going in the future,” he said. “We’ve got to live within our means.”
Some changes have been made to SARP during the year, and more changes are still under consideration. “We’re certainly going to still evaluate SARP,” he said.
With that goal being worked on, the council now has to set new goals. Towey said the council will use its winter retreat, scheduled for Feb. 8, to discuss the city’s direction.
“We’ve had some preliminary discussions,” he said. “This winter retreat is going to make clear what our goals are.”
After a career spent working at Rosauers, Towey has learned to put a premium on customer service. It’s to the point that when he asks for public comment during council meetings, he sometimes slips and asks for “customer comments.”
“You can always improve customer service,” he said. “That’s the bottom line. It’s a work in progress. I think in this last year we’ve made tremendous gains in customer satisfaction.”
If his first year as a mayor can be called a success, Towey points to several staff members who have “bent over backwards” to help him do his job, including his assistant Sue Passmore, City Clerk Chris Bainbridge and City Manager Mike Jackson.
“There’s a tremendous amount of people that have helped me,” he said. “I knew basically what it was about, but the first time in politics is a shocker.”
Despite his satisfaction with the job, Towey has already decided that he won’t run for mayor again in January 2012 and will leave office when his council term is up in 2013.
“I’ll do as much as I can when I can,” he said. “I want to find someone to take over the council seat that’s better than I am.”