The candidates locked in a tight race for the Spokane County Commission say November’s vote is a decision between two distinct leadership styles.
Democrat Mary Lou Johnson, making her first attempt at elected office, paints incumbent Republican Al French as a divisive politician unwilling to compromise. French calls Johnson’s promise to create a collaborative approach on the commission a way to bog down decision making, frustrating job growth and leading to wishy-washy outcomes.
“This community has had a decade of sitting around talking,” French said. “We know what we want. We need leaders, not mediators.”
But Johnson said French’s form of leadership leads to policy decisions that benefit some business interests and organizations over others.
“I think there’s a perception in the community that he is helping some people at the expense of other people,” Johnson said.
A razor-thin August primary has both candidates feeling confident heading into the final stretch of the campaign and racking up major contributions and endorsements. The contest will determine whether the county commission remains exclusively Republican or if a Democrat can return to the board after a four-year absence.
French, who has held public office in Spokane at the city and county level since 2002, says he has a record of job creation in Spokane in private and public life. He argues that his work to revise county building codes attracted Caterpillar and other companies to the West Plains.
“We got out of the way of impeding business,” French said of his first years in office. He said Johnson, who has worked as a nurse practitioner and an attorney in federal court, does not have the same practical background in job creation he brings to the table.
“She doesn’t understand what it takes to meet the needs of business,” French said.
Johnson said the economic focus for the county needs to be on startups and building the tech community, which she said will spawn jobs in other sectors. Focusing on policies that will grow just one area of the economy is a short-sighted strategy, she said.
Johnson also said French is hogging credit for job creation that required the collaboration of many different entities in the county.
“Just because you worked on something doesn’t mean you’re completely responsible for the outcomes,” she said.
The biggest issue facing the county is the amount of money spent on criminal justice, Johnson said. A participant in the Smart Justice campaign that contributed to the “Blueprint for Reform,” Johnson said the county needs to implement more of the report’s recommendations to cut down on the portion of the budget spent on law enforcement.
This year, the county will spend about two-thirds of its $157 million budget on criminal justice programs. But Johnson said that money is not being spent as wisely as it should be.
“I don’t think people feel that safe,” she said.
She cited the overcrowded Spokane County Jail and lack of resources for offenders re-entering the community as issues that need to be tackled with solutions proven to cut recidivism.
“The criminal justice system has been researched more than any other system,” she said. “We can document what works and what does not work. We need to have an evaluation system in place.”
French said the county is implementing the reforms outlined in the blueprint. He said calls to move faster ignore the practical pace of making changes in government.
“That’s a statement made from the outside looking in, not the inside looking out,” French said.
Johnson has attacked French’s leadership on issues of growth and solid waste management. In November 2013, the Growth Management Hearings Board shot down a French-backed plan to incorporate 4,100 acres of county land within the urban growth boundary. The commission did not allow enough community input before making population growth projections necessary for the expansion, the board ruled.
At a debate last month, Johnson accused county commissioners, including French, of rounding up population projections without justification in areas where they want utilities extended for development. This violates the Growth Management Act, she said.
French called those attacks unfounded attempts by liberal members of the community to hide the shortcomings of the city in attracting new business and residents.
French said politics were behind the rebuke from the growth management board. The acreage expansion is necessary to extend sewer lines to a new high school for the Central Valley School District and areas of the county where aging septic tanks are due to fail, French said.
“We consistently win in the courts, because we apply the law,” French said. He points to a 2013 survey by the group Smart Growth America that rated Spokane County in the top 10 percent of communities nationwide as evidence urban sprawl is not an issue.
But Johnson said those numbers were compiled in 2010, just as French was taking office. She said many of the indicators in the study pointed to the smart planning decisions in the city, not the county.
“We need to do more infill,” Johnson said. “We’re not going to stay in this position.”
Both candidates said they would protect Fairchild Air Force Base, the county’s largest single-source employer, from future rounds of base closures. But they differed on what their role should be in that process.
French defended the commission’s continued legal expenses, now topping $300,000, to fight plans by the Spokane Tribe of Indians to build a casino within the flight lines of the base. He said the commission is bound by state law to prevent development that would threaten the base, and representatives at the Pentagon have told him Fairchild might be vulnerable in the next round of base closures if training capabilities are reduced there because of an altered flight pattern.
But the Air Force has remained neutral about the proposed casino. When the Spokane City Council dropped its opposition to the casino earlier this year, President Ben Stuckart read an email from Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Terry Yonkers that said of the planned casino, “The risks were low and presented an insignificant disruption to the mission.”
French said he talked to appraisers who warned that property values would plummet 10 to 15 percent if Fairchild shut down.
“They said, ‘You’ll end up looking like Detroit,’ ” French said.
But Johnson said she doesn’t agree with French’s interpretation of state law and the legal expenses that have resulted from fighting the casino plans.
“Unless we found out something new, I would not support more use of taxpayer dollars” to fight the casino development, she said.
In the August primary election, French topped Johnson by just 222 votes. Johnson has since added an endorsement from the third-place candidate, Bonnie Mager, the former Democratic county commissioner who was unseated by French in 2010. Mager ran as an independent, garnered 8,000 votes and has emailed her supporters urging their vote for Johnson.
French said he believes when the race goes countywide, he’ll get a bump from rural GOP voters. The primary was only open to voters in the commission’s 3rd district, which is the southwest part of the county, including many parts of the city of Spokane.
Johnson had raised roughly $83,000 as of Friday, according to financial disclosure reports. French’s coffers totaled more than $92,000.
French campaign contributors include the Spokane Home Builders Association, Klink’s Williams Lake Resort and Avista Corp. Johnson has received contributions from the Spokane Tribe of Indians, local painters, electrical and steelworkers unions and the Spokane Regional Labor Council.
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