A staff presentation on the possible purchase of property on Sprague Avenue was interrupted Tuesday as six of the seven Spokane Valley City Council members took time to complain about a recent Spokesman-Review story and editorial and assert they could be unbiased when considering the land purchase.
The land deal has come under scrutiny because the owner of the 8-acre property at Sprague and Herald Road, Jack Pring, has close relationships with several of the council members and has donated to the campaigns of six of the seven. The council members who received money from Pring were unanimous in their declaration that their ties to Pring did not create a conflict of interest.
Councilman Chuck Hafner read a statement blasting the newspaper for questioning his integrity and publishing an “unfair” story with an “undertone of innuendo.” He said, “As I read it, I felt we were going back to the Salem witch hunts of long ago.”
Hafner, and council members Dean Grafos and Arne Woodard were interviewed for and quoted in the story published March 2.
Woodard said he was elected because of his ties to the community.
“You can’t live here and not know about the Pring family,” he said. “I was elected by 11,000 citizens, not one.”
Woodard said he would not see any personal gain from the deal, which would split the land between the Spokane County Library District and the city. The plan calls for a new library on half the site and an expansion of Balfour Park on the city’s portion.
“My wife gets to drive farther to the library,” Woodard said. “That’s not a big gain for me.”
Several council members pointed out that the city was approached by the library district with the deal proposal.
“I know I can be absolutely honest in my vote,” Grafos said. “The library came to us. I did not go out and solicit for Jack Pring.”
“I do not feel in any way this will bias me,” said councilwoman Brenda Grassel. “This has come to the council by the library. We were not approached by Mr. Pring, nor did we approach Mr. Pring. I fail to see the relevancy in this discussion because of that fact.”
Mayor Tom Towey asked City Attorney Cary Driskell if the council members could legally move forward with the purchase. Driskell said that as far as the Public Disclosure Commission is concerned, there is no problem as long as the campaign contributions were legally made and properly reported. “They do not consider that a conflict of interest,” he said.
But council members also have to consider whether they can be unbiased, he said.
“It’s not just the PDC analysis that we as a city ought to be concerned with,” Driskell said. The council can make the decision to purchase the land as long as the decision “isn’t based on any potential benefit you or someone you know would get.”
Once the staff presentation began, City Manager Mike Jackson said the plan depends on the library district passing a construction bond in 2015. “Obviously that bond proposal may or may not pass,” he said. “There is a certain amount of uncertainty.”
If the proposal moves forward, the city would buy the land and then sign an agreement that gives the district the guaranteed right to purchase at least 2.5 acres from the city for a new library. As part of the process the city also needs to deal with a small strip of land on the west side of Balfour Park that is owned by the Spokane Transit Authority, Jackson said.
The council reached a consensus to move forward with the purchase by developing a conceptual site plan and negotiating a letter of intent to purchase with the property owner.