Republican Spokane County Commissioner Al French is facing a potential rerun of 2010, when he ousted Democrat Bonnie Mager in a close race.
This time, Mager has shed her Democratic Party affiliation, choosing to run as an independent.
Political newcomer Mary Lou Johnson also is vying in the Aug. 5 primary for a spot on the general election ballot as the Democratic candidate. The top two vote-getters will face off in November.
Under state law, commissioner candidates run by districts in the primary then run countywide in the general election.
French represents commissioner district No. 3, which covers southwest Spokane County and portions of the South Hill and North Side of Spokane. The job pays $97,000 a year with benefits.
French, 63, is basing his campaign on his experience – eight years as a Spokane city councilman as well as four years on the county commission. He got his start working on neighborhood issues in northeast Spokane.
His career in architecture and real estate has given him expertise in economic development, he said.
“That’s my background. That’s my experience,” he said.
Mager, 63, said French is too cozy with the people who have money and power.
“Let’s get big money out of politics,” she said. “People recognize that government is literally being bought out from under them.”
Mager said her experience in environmental affairs and neighborhood issues prior to her term on the commission qualify her for a return to the county’s elected executive board.
“I would cut down on a lot of the crony capitalism and would restore good faith in county government,” she said.
Johnson, 67, has moved on from a successful career as a nurse practitioner and nursing educator followed by a law degree and work as an attorney in U.S. District Court.
She has taken up the cause of criminal justice reform, pushing for Smart Justice concepts for getting offenders to turn their lives around.
“This is something the board of county commissioners could have done four years ago, six years ago,” she said. “One of our failed strategies is using incarceration for our rehabilitation programs.”
Sound growth or sprawl?
Both of the challengers are taking on French’s record.
Johnson said that French’s support for expanding the urban growth boundary is a mistake. The expansion of areas where urban-style development is allowed is now bottled up on appeals.
“We’ve been wasting money defending improper urban growth expansions,” Johnson said.
Mager is also a critic of urban expansion.
She said the commissioners’ decision to expand the growth area has allowed several developers to move ahead on projects despite appeals. The developers are using a loophole in which they can have their projects “vested” for approval despite the possibility the expansion may be overturned.
“It’s a game,” Mager said. “It’s what happens when special interests put people in places of power.”
French responds by saying that the city of Spokane has failed to absorb population growth and that people are preferring places on the urban fringe. He has said that urban sprawl is not a problem in Spokane County.
French stresses economic development. He said Mager failed to attract any new businesses in her four years on the commission. “I don’t think she can point to anybody,” he said.
French lists accomplishments in attracting new businesses, including a Caterpillar distribution plant on the West Plains. He said other businesses are going to be coming to that area of the county. He has a proposal to support private development of a train loading center, called a transloader, on the county’s Geiger Spur rail line. He says it would attract a dozen new businesses if it is built.
He also criticized Mager for not taking a stand against a new Spokane tribal casino and resort, proposed for property along U.S. Highway 2 across from Fairchild Air Force Base. He contends she negotiated a deal to not fight the casino in a closed-door meeting. Commissioners had to push Airway Heights to allow the county to submit a challenge against the casino as a threat to Fairchild Air Force Base flight patterns.
Mager said that she and former Commissioner Mark Richard, a Republican, agreed to let the Spokane tribe go through the process of applying for the off-reservation casino without a fight.
French and his fellow Republican commissioners have spent $300,000 with a private law firm to fight the casino proposal that’s now before the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Mager called that a waste of money. Johnson said it doesn’t make sense to spend money fighting the proposal and that it’s time to “get beyond that issue.”
Mager said the project would bring 5,000 jobs in construction and ongoing operations, making it a substantial economic development project.
French disputes those job numbers, saying they would likely be a fraction of that amount.
Johnson has been talking about income inequality and a need for more apprenticeships and worker training. She said the county needs to plan for climate change.
“Both Bonnie and Al have had a term on the county commission, and we still have some major issues,” she said.
Johnson has criticized French for his handling of the reorganized solid waste system, in which Spokane Valley and Cheney have decided to break away – moves that may be followed by other cities.
The county is taking over the solid waste system from the city of Spokane later this year, although the city will still run the Waste-to-Energy Plant on Geiger Boulevard.
Johnson said the problem is French’s lack of collaboration with the other cities.
“I don’t think it was handled well,” she said. “I am concerned about how much that is going to cost all of us.”
French said the choice by the Spokane Valley City Council to contract privately for garbage services was largely a decision to control their own solid waste system, even though the county offered to provide services at a competitive price.
The Spokane County Elections Office is starting to drop ballots in the mail today for the primary election.