A gaping divide on the Spokane County Commission burst open Tuesday, as Republican commissioners publicly aired rumors on the dais in a heated debate that was supposed to focus on a plan to expand the number of members on the government body from three to five.
After public comment staunchly in opposition to November’s ballot measure to add two commissioners to the board ended around 7:15 p.m., Commissioner Al French said the need for a larger legislative body simply “isn’t there.”
French used his time to speak against the ballot measure to suggest that Commissioners Shelly O’Quinn and Todd Mielke’s support of increasing the size of the commission was based on the desire to continue what he called “a relationship that’s outside of the Board of County Commissioners.”
“When they’re seen, either on the evenings or on weekends, there’s a question about, ‘Are they talking about county business or not?’ That’s a concern,” French said. “Even I’ve got that concern.”
O’Quinn said French’s comments were “completely inappropriate.”
“I would urge him to tread lightly,” O’Quinn said. “I’m sure that when accusations were made about him and his assistant, that he did not find that amusing or entertaining.”
“While Commissioner Mielke and I get along very, very well, I would never cross the line and say that’s an inappropriate relationship,” she added.
Mielke also said there was nothing inappropriate about his relationship with any member of the commission.
“If you’ve lived here long enough, you have a lot of mutual friends,” he said. “So, yes, there are occasions when I’m invited to a birthday party, and I see another commissioner at the same birthday party, those types of things, that happens.”
French alleged the request for two more commissioners, initiated by O’Quinn, was politically motivated by her and Mielke’s re-election campaigns in 2016, when they would have an advantage over new filers for office. French argues that opponents would not have as much time to prepare for a race because new districts may not be finalized until next summer. O’Quinn, who said after the meeting she was “blindsided” by French’s comments, flatly rejected those allegations.
“To be completely honest, if this was about politics, this is the worst timing possible,” O’Quinn said. “This would actually put four commissioners, on the ballot next year, for a vote. If I’m looking at fundraising, do you really think I want to be fighting for dollars in that environment?”
A captive audience including former Spokane County Commissioner Bonnie Mager, Spokane Democratic Party Chairman Jim CastroLang and several citizens said they wanted a larger commission, but one established at the grassroots level by drafting a county charter.
Spokane’s last attempt at drafting a charter, which reached the ballot in 1995, was defeated following a process that took more than three years. About 58 percent of Spokane County voters – more than 57,000 people – shot down the proposal from freeholders that would have combined the City of Spokane and Spokane County governments.
Members of the public looked on as the commissioners continued to trade barbs about their time management and motivations for seeking more colleagues.
French said he’d chaired more meetings of the Spokane Regional Transportation Council last year than Mielke, even though Mielke was the elected chair. Mielke said that French had missed 116 votes of the Spokane County Commission this year.
French handed out written statements to the audience that stated a county audit showed increasing the board by two members would cost $450,000 annually. O’Quinn read from a Spokesman-Review article in 2011 in which French supported the idea of expanding the commission, accusing him of hypocrisy. French said the county was in a different place, financially, than it was when he made those statements.
Commissioners voted unanimously not to take an official position, as a whole, on the ballot measure, which would have allowed them to create a fact sheet to distribute to voters ahead of November’s vote.
It was the only moment of the night when the three commissioners were on the same page.
Tension has built among the the commissioners in the past year partially as a result of Mielke and O’Quinn’s opposition to a proposed tax for the Spokane Transit Authority that French supported and French’s opposition to Mielke’s candidacy to become the county’s CEO.
Mielke signaled after the meeting it would be difficult, going forward, for the group to work together, including on finding a chief executive officer.
“If we say yin, he says yang,” Mielke said of French.
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