Tax money is pouring in.
Downtown is as lively as it has been in years.
Tough decisions over the River Park Square garage fiasco are, for the most part, decided.
And City Council members no longer storm out of meetings in anger.
You’d think that would be a recipe for a smooth, arguably uneventful municipal election season.
Not in Spokane.
A crowded slate of candidates is vying for a handful of City Hall offices, including a five-way race for mayor.
While Mayor Dennis Hession and his supporters argue that the city’s sound fiscal health points to strong management at the top, several high-profile setbacks have left many in the community disillusioned.
Opponents of the mayor say Hession, 57, is a poor communicator, extremely slow at decision making and overly reliant on paid consultants.
They suggest Hession has overlooked too many problems that should have received immediate attention.
Law enforcement officials say gang problems are rising, as evidenced by increasing levels of graffiti. Many at nonprofit agencies have labeled the lack housing for the poor at a crisis level. And while the city’s bottom line is healthy now, even administration forecasts show the city could be back in the red as early as 2009.
Four candidates think they can do a better job in the nonpartisan office that pays $146,900 a year.
“ City Councilman Al French, 56, a developer and architect who lost to Hession in the 2003 race for City Council president.
“ City Councilwoman Mary Verner, 50, an attorney, director of an organization that represents local Indian tribes on environmental issues and a relative newcomer to Spokane politics.
“ Michael Noder, 50, a demolition contractor motivated to join the race because of fiscal problems he says plague the Spokane Regional Solid Waste System, which is run by the city.
“ Robert Kroboth, 73, a retired debt collector who says on his Web site that he will refuse to participate in media interviews or debates.
The top two vote-getters in the Aug. 21 primary will face off in the November general election. The winner will serve a four-year term.
A new mayor
Hession was City Council president when he was appointed mayor by the rest of council shortly after the recall of Mayor Jim West in 2005. A lawyer with a squeaky-clean image and the only other city official at the time to have won a citywide race, he was the obvious choice.
While many believe he has stayed on track, he also has been blindsided by unexpected developments that illustrate the unpredictable nature of presiding over Washington’s second largest city. Consider, for example, the continuing loss of low-income housing, which Hession admits caught his administration off-guard, and the death of Otto Zehm, who died in police custody last year.
From the start, Hession made financial stability his top priority for a city that has always struggled with keeping its spending in line with revenue.
Last month, the city finished the annexation process to place property along North Division, including the tax-revenue-rich Costco store, inside city limits, a goal Hession set early in his administration. The action is on hold because of a county court challenge.
He insisted on a nationwide search for the city’s new police chief and hired Anne Kirkpatrick, a decision that has proved popular.
Two recent Hession decisions, however, have created outpourings of disgust.
In April, he fired Community Development Director Mike Adolfae, an action that angered several community leaders who use money from the department for neighborhood projects. In May, the city told 2,200 North Side trash customers that their garbage and recyclables would no longer be collected in their alleys. A similar action for the South Side was scrapped after the City Council passed a resolution criticizing the move.
The voting records among the three high-profile candidates – French, Verner and Hession – show many similarities.
They supported settlements in most of the River Park Square garage litigation. They opposed the effort by former Mayor Jim West to sell Joe Albi Stadium. They voted to provide domestic partner benefits for city employees.
All three supported a new policy to allow cameras to be placed at intersections to catch red-light runners and send them traffic tickets.
They have consistently supported tax breaks for folks who build apartments and condos. And, they support a police oversight system.
The differences on many issues are more nuanced.
Verner expressed the greatest amount of caution in providing the 78-acre Kendall Yards up to $25 million in tax assistance to pay for public infrastructure, for example. When Hession asked Council President Joe Shogan to poll the council before the vote occurred (after Hession received what he called an “anxious” call from the Kendall Yards developer) – she refused to say which way she leaned.
Verner said she came to the council meeting prepared to vote either way but sided with the majority after adding amendments before final passage, including one to ensure workers on the site get paid prevailing wages.
French, meanwhile, has criticized Hession’s administration for moving too slowly on Kendall Yards and other development efforts that would bring good-paying jobs into the city.
The other, lesser-known candidates have taken some different stands. Kroboth, for instance, ran for mayor in 2000 on a plank of fighting the River Park Square lawsuits.
Noder, whose photo was unavailable, says he would have opposed tax assistance for Kendall Yards or for builders of multifamily housing. He said he supports Kendall Yards and the other projects but believes they would have been built without the subsidies.
“In my mind, the government doesn’t need to help these people,” he said.
He describes his philosophy as “little government, less government” and “get out of the way of business.”
Public safety and taxes
The mayor has held the line on hiring more police and firefighters, arguing that the city’s in-the-black budget won’t stay that way if new employees are added to the payroll.
When the City Council, with support from French and Verner, added two detectives, two neighborhood police officers and four firefighters to the 2007 budget, Hession refused to add them. He pointed to recommendations from the Matrix Consulting Group, which was hired by the city to recommend ways to cut costs. The group advised that, if anything, police and fire staffs could be reduced.
Hession’s refusal added to increasing tension between the mayor and City Council, which also has fought with the mayor over animal control policy and the hiring of a solid waste director.
French, in particular, has made public safety a centerpiece of his campaign. He argued vigorously in a May council meeting that the city should use $2 million from its 2006 surplus of $11 million to build a fire station in the Latah Creek neighborhood. He and Councilman Brad Stark argued that the response times in that growing area are dangerously slow.
Hession responded that the population isn’t yet big enough to warrant its own station.
In the end, the council opted only to earmark $350,000 to buy land for a new station. Verner supported the land buy, but not the full French-Stark proposal.
French also has highlighted crime problems, including a rise in gang activity and car theft, which jumped 28 percent in Spokane last year. He says crime is becoming rampant, and the city needs at least 15 more police officers.
“If you can’t keep your citizens safe, then none of the other things about city government really matter as much,” French said.
Hession accuses French of playing on people’s fears and overstating the crime problem. He has for several months said he is willing to go against the Matrix recommendations based on advice he gets from Kirkpatrick and Fire Chief Bobby Williams.
Although Williams publicly stated during the debate over the Latah Creek station his desire to add firefighters that were cut in 2004, Hession hasn’t yet said if he shares that goal.
Hession’s campaign literature says he supports “hiring more police without raising taxes.”
In an interview this week, he said he’s not ready to detail his plans for police staffing but will soon unveil a proposal that will include a new way of deploying officers.
When pressed on his campaign statement, Hession said he supports adding more commissioned police officers but not by increasing the budget. He said the administration will consider shifts the department can make to create the positions.
“We don’t just talk numbers,” Hession said. “We talk goals and measurable realization of those goals.”
Verner supports hiring more firefighters and police officers but says she has not gotten enough information from police and fire leaders to determine how many. She also says the additions should be part of an examination of other needs to the judicial system.
“I want to make sure we don’t create a bottleneck by hiring more law enforcement officers but not providing the follow-through mechanism,” she said.
She accuses French of politicizing the debate over the Latah station. She says the same thing regarding Hession’s March announcement that he would not ask voters to reauthorize the extra property taxes they approved for two years in 2005.
“I have not been easily swayed during this election season to play politics with important issues,” Verner said. “If I were to do that as a candidate, I would violate my principles as an incumbent.”
Hession has modeled himself as the fiscally conservative choice, holding off spending to get the city’s budget in line. With $11 million unspent from 2006, he announced he wanted the city’s two-year property tax to run out.
“We’re getting this city back on financial track,” Hession said. “Council members have … what I consider to be the old-school budgeting approach, and that is when you have money you spend it.”
French accuses the mayor of lowering service levels by keeping city positions open. Until recently, for instance, there were 13 vacancies in the Police Department.
“We have deliberately reduced the level of service for the sake of building a reserve so that we can look financially, fiscally, responsible in an election year,” French said. “The community has paid a price for that.”
Although incumbents generally enjoy an advantage at election time, anything can happen in a five-way race and Hession – who has raised more campaign contributions than the other candidates combined – is taking nothing for granted.
His advice to voters, even those who oppose him, is simple:
“You want to make a decision about who sits in this chair because I can tell you that the decisions that I make every single day impact you significantly.”
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