Spokane County Commissioner Nancy McLaughlin took issue this week with a mailer sent by challenger Josh Kerns.
Kerns, a legislative aide to state Rep. Jeff Holy and, like McLaughlin, a Republican, made several claims about McLaughlin, who served two terms on the Spokane City Council before being appointed to the commission in February. He cited Spokesman-Review stories and signaled to voters that she’s not a true conservative.
McLaughlin, who has raised more than three times as much money as Kerns, called her opponent’s claims “disingenuous.”
Claim: McLaughlin has a “history of supporting tax increases.”
Cited story: “Voters likely to get library plea,” Dec. 15, 2012.
Analysis: Depends on what constitutes a “history.”
In 2012, during McLaughlin’s second term on the City Council, she expressed support for a ballot initiative that ensured branch libraries could keep their doors open amid a budget shortfall.
The four-year plan, which voters easily approved that February, boosted library funding by increasing taxes by 7 cents for each $1,000 of taxable property value, or $7 a year for a property assessed at $100,000.
McLaughlin said at the time, “I feel good at the 7-cent level that it’s an acceptable amount that I hope the citizens can get behind.”
McLaughlin was not alone in wanting to give voters that opportunity. Conservative Councilman Mike Fagan was the only council member to oppose the tax increase, but even he voted to put it on the ballot.
It’s worth noting that the same ballot included Proposition 2, which required the City Council to have a supermajority of five votes to approve any tax increases without voter support.
McLaughlin championed Proposition 2.
Regardless, Kerns said Friday he disapproves of all tax increases, no matter how few or far between.
“When the major theme of your campaign is no new taxes … I don’t think that’s an unreasonable thing to ask of a public official,” he said.
Claim: McLaughlin “threatened to eliminate 22 police officers from our streets.”
Cited story: “Candidates differ over police,” Oct. 17, 2009.
Analysis: Citing a grim budget forecast in 2009, then-Councilwoman McLaughlin said she would support Mayor Mary Verner’s plan to eliminate 22 police officer positions if the Spokane Police Guild rejected contract concessions.
“This was a matter of economic reality,” McLaughlin said Friday. “We didn’t have enough money to retain many of our city employees – public safety included.”
Asked what he would have done differently, Kerns said only that he would not vote for any reduction in the police force, calling the idea “irresponsible.”
“That was right when we had a huge ramp-up of property crimes in our community,” he said. “I just think that’s a dangerous, dangerous statement for an elected official to make.”
It’s worth noting that McLaughlin alone did not have the power to eliminate positions. Doing so required a vote of the City Council.
Claim: McLaughlin “signed (a) pact with an extremist group that will result in higher housing costs in our community.”
Cited story: “Spokane County, neighborhood groups sign sweeping settlement in land-use disputes,” June 20, 2016.
Analysis: Although McLaughlin voted to approve the settlement in June, the land-use disputes long predated her February appointment to the county commission. The settlement, which took 18 months of mediation to broker, created guidelines for urban growth and resolved four lawsuits against the county, one of which dates to 2005.
Kerns said the settlement, which prevents the county from expanding the boundaries of its urban growth area until 2025, will put a premium on land and thus raise housing costs.
McLaughlin, meanwhile, said the county had few options given the constraints of the Growth Management Act, a state law enacted in 1990.
“It was time for us to provide some predictability for these builders and developers who were sitting around wondering what to do with those lawsuits ongoing,” she said.
Among the groups involved in the settlement was Futurewise, an environmental advocacy organization that works on zoning issues across the state. Echoing comments from a representative of the Spokane Home Builders Association, Kerns called Futurewise an anti-development “extremist group” that disregards property rights.
Kitty Klitzke, the Futurewise representative who worked with the commissioners on the settlement, balked at the label.
“I think if we were extremist, we wouldn’t have gotten involved at the beginning of the process,” Klitzke said. “We don’t litigate until we absolutely have to. And we wouldn’t have entered a settlement.”
She added, “I can say that Commissioner McLaughlin is not going to just go with whatever Futurewise wants to do. There was a lot of compromise.”
Claim: McLaughlin “pushed to raise her own salary 67 percent while on the Spokane City Council.”
Cited story: “67 percent pay raise urged for City Council,” May 22, 2008.
Analysis: Kerns’ claim contains a significant logical jump. In 2008, McLaughlin proposed the creation of the five-member Salary Review Commission, and the City Council approved it. The salary commission then independently decided to raise council member salaries from $18,000 to $30,000.
A common sentiment among council members was that higher salaries would help raise interest in running for council seats.
“If we want to have a pool of candidates that we consider really good leaders, then we need to bring in folks who aren’t just retired or independently wealthy,” McLaughlin said Friday.
Kerns criticized McLaughlin’s view that working on the City Council is a full-time job and deserves a salary that could feed a family.
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