When the incorporation of the city of Spokane Valley popped up on the ballot in May 2002, no one was really surprised. Valley incorporation, with varying names and boundary lines, had been on the ballot numerous times in the preceeding decades. But some people were surprised when the measure actually passed.
Interest in the new city, which formally incorporated on March 31, 2003, was high. Dozens of residents signed up to serve on transition committees that studied everything from roads to police protection. More than 50 people filed to run for the seven new City Council positions, although that number had dropped to 49 by election day. Mike DeVleming, who would become the new city’s first mayor, was one of those who signed up. He devoted hours to campaigning in addition to attending various committee meetings.
“The routine was to doorbell until dark, or almost dark, and then hit the transition meetings,” he said. The committees looked at everything, he said. How should the city handle parks or roads or police? Should it provide the services? Should it contract with Spokane County? Should it contract with someone else?
One group was in charge of finding a spot for a city hall. DeVleming remembers his first look at Redwood Plaza, which still serves as City Hall today. It was a maze of cubicles vacated by Packet Engines, he said. “You almost had to drop bread crumbs to find your way out,” he said.
Creating a new city was such a huge task that the 14 people who made it through the primaries began having planning meetings even before the general election decided who would be on the council, DeVleming said. After the election, the seven winners worked to pick a mayor, set a budget and determine interim staffing. “It was a very busy time,” he said.
DeVleming would work at his job with Vera Water and Power from 5 a.m. until mid-afternoon, when he would go to City Hall. He frequently stayed there until 9 p.m. “God bless Penny, my wife,” he said. “She was a single mom that first six, eight months.”
DeVleming said one of the best decisions the new council made was to hire Prothman, an employee search company, to find experienced people to work at the city. Among those was deputy city manager Stan McNutt. “We called him Yoda,” DeVleming said. “He was wise beyond his years. He was calming. He taught me how to be mayor. He taught us how to be a council, how to work together.”
City Manager Dave Mercier, who was hired a bit later in 2003, was also a key person, DeVleming said. He put the city on the solid financial footing it still enjoys today. “That was because of Dave,” he said.
The early staff was a bunch of experienced people willing to work 60 or 70 hours a week, he said. “They came over here to work for seven rookie council members who had no idea what we were doing,” he said. “It was really building the airplane while we were in the air.”
Another early hire was Parks and Recreation Director Mike Jackson. Jackson still works at the city, but now serves as city manager. “The concept of starting a new city and a new department was intriguing to me,” he said of his willingness to leave his job in Colorado and take a chance on a new city.
The city staff was small and people had to fill extra roles and help out where needed, he said. Cary Driskell, now the city attorney, helped out with some of the recreation programs in the beginning, Jackson said. “It was a very tight-knit organization,” he said. “We were all here for a common cause, to create a new city.”
Shortly after the city was created, the first of three unsuccessful disincorporation efforts was launched. The most recent effort was in 2009. Jackson said he and other staff members didn’t focus on the controversy. “I don’t know that we ever really worried,” he said.
In the beginning the new city contracted with Spokane County for many services. Changes were slow as the city got a handle on what it could afford and what it could accomplish. It took about a year for things to get settled, Jackson said. “To me it was a gradual growing process,” he said. “You look back and wonder how you got it all done.”
As time went on the city farmed out some contracts for park maintenance, swimming pool operations and road maintenance. Spokane County is still under contract to provide some of the city’s major services, including police and animal control.
DeVleming said he wasn’t part of the group that worked to get incorporation on the ballot. “I definitely voted for it,” he said. “I thought it was time. I wanted to be a part of helping form that foundation.”
Councilman Ben Wick was involved in the incorporation effort. The then 18-year-old would attend classes at Eastern Washington University during the day and then spend his nights and weekends knocking on doors or staffing an information table at the Spokane Valley Mall.
Wick said he was inspired by a newspaper story on the incorporation effort. “It was really controlling our own destiny,” he said. “I guess it was the potential that really drew me in and kept me going.”
A variety of issues drove people to the polls. Some feared that the city of Spokane wanted to annex part of the area. Others thought too much of their tax money was being spent in areas outside the Valley. Development was increasingly encroaching into neighborhoods with large lots and horses in the back yard. But DeVleming said he’s not sure any one issue was the deciding factor. “When an election is that close, I think there’s lots of little factors,” he said.
When incorporation passed, Wick was one of the dozens of people who ran for one of the city council seats. He attended committee meetings and training sessions offered by the Greater Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce. He lost the election, but remained involved with the city and won a seat on the council in 2011.
“I think there’s still a lot of potential,” he said. “I’m happy that I’m here. I think there’s just as much opportunity now as there was back then. It’s just a little different.”
DeVleming said the best words to describe his experience as Spokane Valley’s first mayor would be incredible and humbling.
“You just didn’t realize how hungry this community was for leadership, how excited they were to become a city,” he said. “As time goes, I forget more and more the long hours and the disagreements. More and more I’m left with the successes and the smiles.”