Todd Mielke was a bit confused the first time he was asked if he’d consider heading Greater Spokane Incorporated.
Mielke said he was having lunch with the chamber’s former CEO, Rich Hadley, in October when the topic came up. Mielke and fellow Spokane County Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn were preparing the next day to endorse longtime county employee Gerry Gemmill as their next chief executive, after Mielke failed to gain Commissioner Al French’s support for the job in May.
Hadley said he wanted to ask Mielke about the CEO position. Mielke, who finished his 10th full year in office in December, thought he meant for the county.
“I said, ‘Oh, I think we’re going to wrap it up tomorrow,’ ” Mielke said. “He said, ‘No, no, we want to talk to you if you’re interested in the GSI CEO position.’ ”
The departure of Steve Stevens, the former CEO who abruptly left GSI after 15 months, had been announced a few weeks prior to Hadley and Mielke sitting down. The long-serving commissioner’s name appeared on a list of 25 candidates for the job, which was narrowed by an executive team at the chamber.
Mielke sat down for an interview last week in his county office cluttered with binders and paperwork from a decade on the dais at Spokane County.
“I figured the best way to organize was just empty my drawers,” he joked, adding that he’s looking forward to a new opportunity after a lengthy stint in elected office. He will join GSI in February.
The decision to head south from the courthouse to GSI’s downtown Spokane headquarters had nothing to do with French’s lack of support or any of the political – and sometimes personal – attacks that marked Mielke’s last year as a commissioner.
“The county CEO job is water under the bridge,” Mielke said.
Colleagues and employees described Mielke as a hard worker who had a hand in many large-scale projects that will define Spokane County well into the future. But the Republican commissioner also has drawn criticism for the controversial purchase of the Spokane County Raceway in 2008 and was sanctioned by the Public Disclosure Commission last year for campaign activities.
Bonnie Mager, the former Democratic county commissioner who fought the acquisition of the racetrack, said it was an example of Mielke’s calculating political mind.
“I think Todd is a very adept politician,” Mager said. “From my perspective, what we actually need are people looking at community goals and what’s best for citizens. I think he tends to put his career objectives ahead of that.”
But Mielke said he believes he’s left Spokane County better than he found it, and all the major projects he stood behind were in an effort to solve problems.
“I’ve lived under the belief that no one elects anyone into office to just maintain the status quo,” Mielke said. “Everybody wants you to fix something.”
Bruce Rawls had a problem to fix.
The Spokane River had been named an impaired water body by the state because of its levels of dissolved oxygen in the 1990s. Rawls, the county’s utilities director, was trying to convince public officials they needed to expand wastewater facilities to ensure future development and growth.
“We’d reached a stalemate,” said Rawls, now retired.
He found an ally in Mielke, who headed the task force that ultimately led to a $173 million water reclamation facility on Freya Street. That plant has been the source of some controversy because of its cost and the level of polychlorinated biphenyls it is permitted to discharge into the river, but Mielke defended its construction, and Rawls and others said a solution wouldn’t have been possible without Mielke’s support.
“He rescued the wastewater reclamation project,” said Vicky Dalton, the county auditor and sole elected Democrat in office at the courthouse. “That was dead.”
“This is a pretty devastating blow to the county,” Dalton said of Mielke’s departure.
“Without his help, that plant would not have been online in 2011,” Rawls said.
Mielke said he believes the facility is one of the best of its kind and credited Rawls for most of the work.
“That is a flagship program that goes a long, long way to cleaning up the Spokane River,” Mielke said.
Mielke pointed to other projects, including revamping the emergency communication network and reorganizing animal rescue services, as parts of the legacy he hopes to leave. He credited many of his colleagues for those successes, including Nancy Hill, the director of the Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Service.
“Her vision was, the facility that we put this in shouldn’t look like an afterthought, because we don’t want animals to be an afterthought,” Mielke said.
Hill said the county would miss Mielke’s energy and attention to detail.
“He was tireless,” Hill said. “Todd always did his homework.”
Marshall Farnell, who left the county last month after serving in administrative roles for more than 40 years, said he sees success in Mielke’s future and described him as “a good guy.”
“He’s been a good commissioner,” Farnell said. “His disagreements have always been professional. Nothing ill-tempered or nasty.”
Mielke described his role in those major projects, like the new SCRAPS building on Trent Avenue, as a facilitator.
“Everybody says, what do you want to do in life?” Mielke said. “I’ve always been really challenged to define the job, but as far as the role, I’ve always said I want a job where I assist other people being successful.”
Mielke’s time in office has not come without its share of criticism, however.
Buying some dirt
One of the places Mielke saw a solution to a problem was in the $4.4 million purchase of what became the Spokane County Raceway on the West Plains.
Mielke and fellow Commissioner Mark Richard agreed to buy the 315-acre plot in 2008, earning the admiration of racing fans and the ire of taxpayers who said the purchase was a waste of money.
“I think the biggest criticism is people that don’t think government should be involved in racing as a recreation, even though we’re not involved in racing,” Mielke said. “We don’t put on events. We own dirt.”
Mager, who fought the acquisition, said it was a mistake. The county spent way too much money “for a broken-down racetrack,” she said.
Many ideas have been floated about how to use the property, which continues to host racing events with a budget independent of Spokane County. Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich has pushed to develop a regional law enforcement training center there, and Mielke said 70 acres of the property has been designated as the site of a future sports complex.
Buying the racetrack was an investment in recreation for the county, Mielke said as he pulled out a smartphone and crunched the numbers of the purchase price. The county hoped to buy at least 60 acres with $3.6 million in funds, and was able to acquire more than five times that, Mielke said.
“If we did nothing but put a fence around it and keep it for future use, it would still be considered a good purchase,” Mielke said.
Still, Mielke said he’s aware the racetrack controversy will likely be one of the most memorable decisions he’s made in office.
“Taxpayers don’t typically want you to spend a lot of money on something their generation doesn’t get to utilize at all,” Mielke said. “Hopefully, the racetrack is a small piece of my 11-year career.”
Other controversies are more recent. In the past year, Mielke was fined $100 by the Public Disclosure Commission for using county staff in election activities in 2012, and his interest in the county CEO position drew complaints of favoritism that reached the Washington attorney general’s office.
Those complaints were lodged by former County Commissioners John Roskelley and Mager. Mielke paid the fine and said last week he believes the process naming him the top pick for the county CEO job was fair.
“I think I competed for a position. I think I was held to the same standard as everyone else,” he said.
Mager said she’s still pushing the attorney general to audit the process that led to Mielke’s recommendation, but she’s received no communication from the state indicating interest.
“I don’t think this is a specific transgression, it’s something that has precedent,” she said. Mager believes a vote to boost Farnell’s salary just a few years before Mielke applied for the job was inappropriate. Mielke and other commissioners said it was necessary to bring Farnell’s salary in line with colleagues throughout the state.
The decision to leave the county and join GSI was not fueled by political fatigue or what Mielke called a challenging year on the commission, including allegations by French of a relationship with O’Quinn extending beyond the Spokane County Courthouse that both have repeatedly denied.
At the whim of public
When Hadley approached Mielke in October, the longtime politician said he was gearing up for another campaign.
Mielke’s seat, which will go to an appointee determined by the Spokane County Republican Party and affirmed by French and O’Quinn, will be up for election in November. It would have been Mielke’s fourth campaign, after victories in 2004, 2008 and 2012.
“I’m 51 years old,” Mielke said. “I think anyone that gets to this age says, hmm, 65’s getting closer.”
It wasn’t the fatigue that weighed on Mielke’s decision to leave elected office, he said, but the possibility of another 16 years competing regularly for a job.
“I would see myself saying, ‘Wow, do I want to go out on my own terms?’ ” Mielke said. “No matter how many hours you put in and how hard you work at it, you are at the whim of public perception every four years.”
The post at GSI will afford an opportunity to approach problems from a new perspective, Mielke said.
“The unfortunate thing in elected office, the overwhelming majority of people that you hear are negative,” Mielke said. “They see something as not right. And I’m the eternal optimist.”
Colleagues say that optimism will serve Mielke well in his new gig, and he plans to use the knowledge gleaned from a lifetime in Spokane County politics to improve the business community in Spokane.
Taking on the economy
Mielke’s initial contract with GSI is for three years, he said. One of his first orders of business will be charting the organization’s future role in regional economic development and recruitment.
Many in the city, including former City Councilman Mike Allen, have said the process of recruiting new businesses to Spokane should be spun off from the chamber, which may be too interested in the market share of its members at the expense of expansion. Mielke said his door would be open to discuss the issue.
“I need to get out and observe, and I need to get out and listen,” Mielke said.
But, he said, in his experience the process of creating a good environment for existing businesses and attracting newcomers should be linked.
“People won’t be interested in the Spokane area if we get labeled as having a bad business environment, where it’s labeled difficult to succeed,” Mielke said. He pointed to the reports of Spokane adding nearly 9,000 jobs over the past two years in the areas of health care, manufacturing and the hospitality industry as encouraging.
Hadley and Farnell both said they see Mielke transitioning well into his new job.
“I think Todd will do an excellent job,” said Hadley, who held the top executive job at GSI from 1993 to 2014. “He’s been heavily involved with the chamber and GSI, and he’s been involved with many of the key projects for the region.”
“The GSI job fits his personality, and his knowledge of the community,” Farnell said. “I would think that’s a long-term job for him, but who knows what he’s going to do?”
Mager, too, thinks Mielke will serve well in his new position.
“I think the GSI agenda is more consistent with his values than the county CEO or even a commissioner,” Mager said.
Mielke said his focus right now is on transitioning to his job leading GSI, which he described as a blank canvas. He wouldn’t rule out another turn in public office down the line.
But for now, his goal as he kicks off a career downtown is the same as his advice to his replacement on the Spokane County Commission: Listen and absorb more, and talk less.
“My grandma used to tell me a lot, God gave you two eyes, two ears and one mouth, do the math,” Mielke said.
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