Behind every Spokane City Council member is a legislative aide.
The LAs, as they call themselves, answer phones, handle schedules, do research and run interference for their elected bosses. The work allows an intimate knowledge of City Hall mechanics, a perfect classroom for anyone who may want to join City Council in the future.
At least that’s how Lori Kinnear sees it. Kinnear, who is currently Councilwoman Amber Waldref’s aide and formerly worked under Richard Rush, is running for council in District 2, which represents southern Spokane. She’s been in City Hall six years, attending committee meetings, helping write ordinances and talking to residents.
“I have the most knowledge, experience, the best background,” Kinnear said. “This is my job. I’m taking it very seriously.”
Her opponent, LaVerne Biel, the CEO of a business she owns with her husband, doesn’t subscribe to this point of view. Instead, she sees City Hall as a fishbowl, its occupants’ view of the world distorted and desperately in need of some fresh air.
“I think it should be a citizen legislative position. I think it should be someone who is active in the community,” Biel said. “I think it’s important that we have a monitor on how it affects the citizens, how it affects the businesses. I’m not really sure that she knows how to represent the citizens.”
In the race to replace Councilman Mike Allen, who decided against running for re-election earlier this year, voters are being told they have a choice: the insider versus the outsider, the experienced versus the naif.
Kinnear rejects the label of insider.
“It’s the only thing that I’m being labeled. I’m not being labeled corrupt or incompetent, or anything. If that’s the worst, then OK,” she said. “And quite frankly, this isn’t Washington, D.C. When does experience count against a person? I struggle with why it even deserves response.”
And Biel, who unsuccessfully challenged Councilman Jon Snyder two years ago, rejects any suggestion of being inexperienced.
“I’m a quick study,” she said. “I haven’t always ran the business with my husband. It’s been 11 years. I waitressed for 10 years. I did personnel safety and federal compliance for a general contractor I helped manage. I have a lot of work experience, but it’s been in the private sector, which has always been focused on getting things done and accomplished.”
Regardless of labels, the two candidates say they would bring different skills to the council, even while both point to public safety and crime as the top concern for voters.
So far in the race, Kinnear has raised nearly $33,000. Major donors include unions such as the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, Laborer’s International of North America Local 238 and the Washington Education Association.
Biel has raised about $44,000. Major donors include Avista, the Associated Builders and Contractors political action committee, Inland Northwest Associated General Contractors, and DAA Northwest, an auto auction house.
Kinnear said property crime, human trafficking and emergency response times by the fire department are the issues driving her campaign in its last month.
“How can we help people not be victims and reduce property crime?” Kinnear said, noting that it took coordination among the council, city staff, citizens, police officers and county officials to truly address the issue.
“The county is its own entity. You can’t dictate what you want to do. You have to work with them,” she said. “It’s a moving target.”
Kinnear said she would push the police department to put in place and expand its community policing program.
“We need officers to directly interact with citizens,” Kinnear said. “That’s imperative.”
Kinnear said human trafficking in Spokane is helping to drive lesser crimes, such as property crime, but noted it’s an issue that doesn’t concern most people.
“People don’t see it as a problem, but that’s in large part what’s driving the crime,” she said. “We’re just this sleepy little town where they can bring in bodies and disperse them. We have to stop that.”
Biel, whose son is a deputy with the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, said adequate staffing and updating equipment for the police and fire departments have “risen to the surface” as Election Day approaches.
“We’re running about the same number of police officers as we did 10 years ago. As we grow and our population expands, we need to be sure that we have enough police officers,” Biel said. “Same with fire. We need to be making sure equipment and personnel are keeping pace.”
Finding the money to pay for it, Biel said, could be achieved by getting the council to focus on the city’s goal to “deliver efficient and effective services that facilitate economic opportunity and enhance quality of life.”
“I’m still going back to the mission statement,” she said. “We get off in the weeds. City Council has a tendency to get off course, and we need to get back to the core of what we’re doing.”
Biel criticized the current majority on the council for focusing on issues it shouldn’t, such as a shelved policy for employers to provide paid sick leave and an apprenticeship ordinance it passed last year, which requires a portion of bigger public works projects to be done by apprentices. Instead of putting time and money into such initiatives, Biel suggested the council focus on projects to increase public safety and monitor street projects.
“Now that we have the 20-year bond, making sure the money is allocated and spent where it needs to be spent,” Biel said, referring to the street levy voters approved last year.
A distracted council is a symptom of being run by insiders, Biel said.
“She works at City Hall. She’s the legislative aide for Amber Waldref,” Biel said, adding that her own work puts her in contact with different business owners who are using her business’s voice and data systems, giving her better perspective on how City Hall’s decisions affect people.
In recent years, the role of council aides has grown, and the current crop is active in a way not seen before.
In 2008, the entire City Council was served by one assistant. Since then, the number of aides has grown, and the number of hours they work also has increased. In 2005, the city spent about $400,000 on the salary and benefits of the City Council and its staff. Ten years later, that number has doubled.
Blaine Stum, Snyder’s aide, is chairman of the city’s Human Rights Commission, involved in the Inland Northwest Business Alliance and writes for Spokane Faith and Values, a news website focused on religion. Stum is particularly outspoken about issues affecting Spokane’s LGBT community, and recently was quoted in a Buzzfeed story about an alleged assault on a transgender woman in Spokane earlier this year.
Skyler Oberst, Karen Stratton’s aide, co-founded the Compassionate Interfaith Society and Friends of Compassion. This week, he began writing for the Huffington Post’s religion page.
Rush, who was defeated in his re-election bid by Allen in 2011, is Councilwoman Candace Mumm’s aide, and is still involved in Democratic and progressive politics in town.
Before she left to become president of AgForestry Leadership, a natural resources advocacy group, Sheryl McGrath worked as Councilman Mike Fagan’s aide. McGrath, daughter of conservative council regular George McGrath, previously served as chairwoman and state committeewoman of the Spokane County Republican Central Committee.
Perhaps the most politically active among the assistants is Adam McDaniel, who is council President Ben Stuckart’s senior executive assistant. McDaniel, a former Air Force airman, works as a Democratic political consultant and runs McDaniel Projects, a campaign management firm.
Stuckart said he thinks having full-time, politically active assistants is “great.”
“It’s allowed us to be the most active, productive and strongest council since the founding of the strong mayor,” Stuckart said, referring to the 2001 change in government creating a separate mayor-council system.
Stuckart acknowledged that the council has become more political under his leadership, but said it has led to better government.
“I don’t think the council should be a rubber stamp for the mayor, as it was in the past,” he said. “We’re much more political, but we’re much more civil. (Former Council President) Joe Shogan used to yell at the public and freak out. In 2001, Steve Eugster was suing his fellow council members.”
Allen, who has endorsed Biel in the race to succeed him, voted against making assistants full-time positions, but wouldn’t criticize the work of his office mates.
“It never made sense to me to have part-time council members, yet have full-time council assistants for every single council member,” he said, noting that it’s up to individual council members whether their assistant should be politically outspoken or not. “We’re all involved in politics because we have passion for it and want to make a difference.”
Kinnear echoed Allen, but added that council positions are full time, regardless of pay.
“I think it’s good the legislative assistants are politically active. They mirror the interests of their council member. They double their efforts,” she said, noting that she and Waldref have tried to cut back on their workloads. “Amber and I have cut back. We do our 40 hours a week. But then we go right back to 50.”
Kinnear did not fault Biel’s private- sector experience, but suggested being a council member did not allow time for other employment.
“Jon Snyder sold his business because he realized he couldn’t do a good job and own a newspaper,” she said. “I don’t see where you cut back. I don’t know where that would be. This is public service.”
Biel said she doesn’t shy from hard work.
“My skill sets are really on providing oversight, looking at trends, looking at efficiencies. That’s really what I enjoy doing. I have good HR skills. I have good listening skills. I’m always focused on implementation,” she said. “Everything I’ve done comes down to hard work. I’m willing to put in the hard work for this position. I think I’ve proven that’s what I’m made of.”