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Gothmann reflects on years in city government

Bill Gothmann talked about his time as a Spokane Valley city council member during an interview at McDonald’s in Spokane Valley on Tuesday. (Kathy Plonka)
Bill Gothmann talked about his time as a Spokane Valley city council member during an interview at McDonald’s in Spokane Valley on Tuesday. (Kathy Plonka)

Bill Gothmann has been part of the city of Spokane Valley since before the city existed. Now that he has sat on the dais at his last City Council meeting, he looks back on nearly a decade of work with fondness.

A retired engineer and professor, Gothmann started getting involved when Spokane County rezoned his Ponderosa neighborhood from one unit per acre to seven units per acre. “There was an incentive,” he said.

When the incorporation movement began, Gothmann served on the roads transition committee. He sat by and watched the first City Council elections. New council member Rich Munson soon asked Gothmann if he was going to apply for the planning commission. “I said ‘What’s the planning commission?’ ” Gothmann said. “I had never been involved in city stuff at all.”

He put in an application and was selected planning commission chairman in 2003. In 2005 councilman Mike Flanigan opted not to seek re-election and Gothmann began to consider a run for council. Everything came to a head during a break in a council meeting when someone asked Gothmann if he would be running for the seat. “It was Mike DeVleming who said, ‘Of course he is,’ ” Gothmann said. He beat five other candidates for the seat.

“I gave it everything I had,” he said. “Myrna and I knocked on 4,500 doors on our own. I kept track of that,” he said, speaking of his wife of 56 years.

It was a thrill to be involved in those early days, Gothmann said. “I am proud that I was part of establishing a new city,” he said. “How many times in your life do you get a chance to build a city from scratch? I had a chance of a lifetime and I took it.”

The city built CenterPlace, completed Mirabeau Park and built Discovery Playground. “Consider all that’s been done in the last 10 years,” he said.

Things reached a turning point in 2009. The council had been working for years on the Sprague/Appleway Revitalization Plan, an ambitious plan that rezoned nearly all of Sprague Avenue and created a city center at Sprague and University. Gothmann said he supported it because he thought businesses wanted it. Auto Row businesses spoke out in favor of it as did the Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce, he said. “It was established for the purpose of helping businesses out,” he said. “The city needed a city center. It still does.”

Looking back, Gothmann said he thinks the council made a mistake by trying to tackle all of Sprague at once instead of just focusing on a city center. “In retrospect that was the wrong decision,” he said.

Opponents of the plans seized on SARP and used it to campaign against the council incumbents in the council elections that year. Of the five seats up for re-election, all were won by Positive Change candidates, with incumbent Gary Schimmels joining four others on the ticket. Despite the focus on SARP, Gothmann said he doesn’t think SARP was the key issue that year. “I think the key issue was misinformation and disinformation that transferred from the disincorporation issue,” he said.

Gothmann heard people saying that the city couldn’t afford to plow its streets and that SARP was a multimillion-dollar unfunded mandate. “That became the mantra,” he said.

There were other changes as well. The election left Gothmann and Rose Dempsey as the only non-Positive Change council members. They were in the minority on many issues. Dempsey left the council in early 2011 for health reasons after several contentious council meetings. Several high profile city employees have resigned since the new council took office.

Gothmann said he doesn’t think that was a coincidence. “This council came in believing anyone not elected with them was the adversary,” he said. “The staff was an adversary.”

He compared the council to Gen. Sherman in Georgia, bent on destroying anyone who gets in its way. “That relationship still exists today,” he said. “These folks are working for the city, working their tails off for us. If a guy has an expertise, don’t argue with their expertise.”

Gothmann said he also believes that issues are being discussed and perhaps even decided before the council meetings. While still candidates, the council members and their Positive Change supporters met daily for coffee to discuss issues and strategy. Those meetings have continued. Gothmann said he and his wife frequently shop at the Rosauers at Sprague and University and frequently see council members meeting with a group of citizens. “There’s some things going on that are wrong,” he said. “I describe it as a shadow government.”

The new composition of the council is part of the reason he decided not to seek re-election, he said. “To put it bluntly, my attitude is I’m retired and I don’t need this grief,” he said.

Despite his recent frustrations, Gothmann said he has no regrets. “It’s been a wonderful ride,” he said.

Gothmann said he has very little in the way of firm plans now that his work with the city is at an end. He plans to spend more time with his wife, and would like to travel more. He has promised to help SNAP with its capital campaign.

“That’s all I’ve committed to,” he said. After a few weeks off he’ll probably start getting more involved in something. “I don’t picture myself being inactive.”