In a quick, quiet vote Monday night, four members of the Spokane City Council voted to punish a political opponent for daring to criticize them.
Or – if you take a more charitable view – the council voted to uphold standards of basic civility.
That would be a bit too charitable for me. The council booted Evan Verduin off the city Plan Commission, when they probably should have just let him live with the consequences of spouting off on Facebook. Verduin, who ran unsuccessfully against Karen Stratton for a council seat as a member of Team Condon, had lashed out at the council and Stratton over its vote on a new sick-leave policy, posting an intemperate and inaccurate rant accusing them of lying.
It was a dumb move for someone who was just weeks away from seeking council approval to continue as a member of the Plan Commission, and Verduin should not be surprised at what he’s reaped: Free speech does not mean consequence-free speech. Still, the majority on the council could have acted like the adult in the room and ignored his tantrum, rather than attempting to punish and police the speech of a political opponent. Instead, the council rejected Verduin’s reappointment on a 4-2 count, with council President Ben Stuckart and Councilman Mike Fagan casting the losing votes.
The disagreement grew from the city’s new sick-and-safe-leave policy and a badly ailing relationship between Mayor David Condon and the council. The policy, which is a minor triumph for workers modeled on plans that have caused very little disruption in other cities, is nevertheless being greeted as a sign of the apocalypse by some. The council passed the ordinance, Condon vetoed it, and the council overrode that veto Monday night.
After the initial vote, Verduin went full Chicken Little, sponsoring a Facebook post alleging, in overheated prose and all-caps, that the vote was nothing but a SHIP OF LIES!!!! His sponsored post traveled far and wide online.
Most of Verduin’s sour grapes were reserved for Stratton. He accused her of lying to get elected, because she said last year she was concerned about the sick-leave policy and wanted to study it more before voting. This year, after the vote was postponed and she was elected, she voted for the policy.
Verduin concluded that she did not do any further study before voting in favor of the sick-leave policy – because he knows the very contours of her mind, apparently – and threw around a lot of hot, silly talk: “Regardless of whether or not you support paid sick time, we should all be SICK and TIRED of deceitful politicians. I respectfully ask that Karen CALL IN SICK for the rest of her term. We don’t need further contamination.”
Gotta love that “respectfully.”
Verduin did not respond to my requests for an interview this week. Stratton sent Condon a letter, informing him that she would not support Verduin’s reappointment to the Plan Commission. Stratton wrote that Verduin had shown an inability to engage in “civil discourse,” exhibited a “complete disdain for the City Council in general and for me in particular,” and is “unfit” to continue on the planning commission.
“We’ve all gotten so used to that kind of political discourse,” she said in an interview Monday. “I just think it’s time to stand up.”
In a written statement, Condon expressed disappointment at the vote. “Although I am disheartened from time to time by what is said in the public about my official work as mayor, I cannot let that stop my drive to engage and collaborate with citizens of differing views to continue to grow and move our city forward. It was my hope that Mr. Verduin would be evaluated on the quality, value and expertise he brought to this volunteer commission during his first term.”
Verduin was wrong not just strategically, but factually. There is ample reason to take Stratton at her word: that she wanted more time to consider the implications of the ordinance for small businesses. She said that, when she was appointed to the council in September 2014, she felt as if the sick-and-safe-leave proposal had “already left the station,” and that while she supported it generally, she had concerns about the impact on small businesses in her district.
Did her vote this month belie that? Not a bit. In fact, Stratton proposed amendments that spoke exactly to her original concerns, easing requirements on smaller, family-owned businesses. Far from representing a lockstep conspiracy, Stratton’s amendments caused friction among the liberals: A visibly frustrated Councilman Jon Snyder called these proposals a “watering-down” of the ordinance.
In response to Verduin’s original post that claimed the council had not sought any further input on the ordinance from businesses, Stuckart posted a list of 374 businesses to which he and Stratton had mailed requests for feedback. Stuckart called Verduin’s post “patently false,” but said he apologized and took it down after Stuckart challenged him on it.
“I said OK, he apologized, he pulled the Facebook post down, and I’m fine” voting to reappoint him, Stuckart said. “He’s a good Plan Commission member. But I totally see everybody else’s point.”
As a practical matter, the Verduin vote won’t linger for long. The tensions at City Hall will.
Stuckart said communication between the Condon administration and the council is “the worst I’ve ever seen.” The administration recently appointed a special liaison to the council, a position that would not, on the face of it, seem necessary for people who occupy the same building.
“I would say this (vote) is an indication of a broken relationship,” Stuckart said. “We’re going to have to fix it somehow.”
Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.