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Wednesday, August 21, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane County Commission candidates debate jobs, justice, housing … and Matt Shea

In one of their first debates Monday, Shelly O’Quinn sought to defend her record on the Spokane County Commission while challenger Andrew Biviano criticized a lack of “urgency” in the county’s efforts at criminal justice reform.

“The goal of the justice system is not just to punish people. It’s to stop crime, reduce crime. I think we’ve lost sight of that,” said Biviano, a Spokane attorney who previously worked as a federal prosecutor and mental-health case manager. “We want them to get their lives together, and we want to stop spending money feeding and clothing as many prisoners as we have right now.”

O’Quinn, a Republican elected to the commission in 2012, argued that the county has made significant progress in that area. A recent study by the National Institute of Corrections highlighted concerns about staffing, overcrowding and aging facilites at the Spokane County Jail and Geiger Corrections Center.

Officials responded quickly to that study, O’Quinn said, and they continue implementing other reforms with nearly $2 million in grants from the MacArthur Foundation. But she agreed with Biviano that innovative treatment and supervision programs are needed.

“We have to reform our mental health system,” said Biviano, a Democrat. “It’s inhumane in many situations, and again the human costs and economic costs are staggering.”

O’Quinn added, “We have a meth and heroin epidemic in this community. We will not see our crime rates reduced unless we can make investments not just in criminal justice … but in our community.”

The candidates squared off Monday morning in a debate hosted by KSPS, Spokane’s public TV station. They are vying for position 2 on the commission, which represents the southeastern part of the county, including Spokane Valley and a corner of Spokane.

O’Quinn, who has a business background, said she has helped cut more than $1 million in annual spending by streamlining county functions.

For example, people wanting to hold events in county parks now can apply for a permit online. Before, they had to make several trips to the parks department office to fill out paperwork, racking up clerical expenses, she said.

The county must save even more to avoid going into debt, O’Quinn said. As population increases, the county’s expenses grow 3-4 percent each year, while its revenue grows only 1-2 percent, she said.

“It doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out that those lines cross soon,” she said. “We have to figure out how to continue to provide our mandated services, while making sure that we are doing that within the funds available to us.”

Biviano said he already has cut costs as an outsider, citing a case he settled with the county in 2014.

“The jail used to have a process of locking people up if they were too poor to pay their court fines,” he said. “We were able to find a solution with the county and change that process, as well as help the taxpayers save millions of dollars on unnecessary jail costs.”

Biviano also said too much of the county budget goes to top executives. He criticized current and former commissioners for approving a large raise for the county’s chief executive officer, and for creating the position of chief operating officer.

At the same time, “Spokane County government pays its employees about 80 percent of what they get paid in other counties,” Biviano said. “That’s unjustifiable. That’s below average.”

O’Quinn noted that the county competes economically with North Idaho. She also said The Spokesman-Review is partly to blame for economic woes, claiming “divisive” coverage has deterred employers from the region.

Asked for clarification, O’Quinn faulted the newspaper for reporting local politicians’ statements about the effort to recall Mayor David Condon.

“The city was going through the conversations around the recall, and I think it’s one thing for there to be newspaper articles printed about the recall – absolutely,” she said. “It’s another when there are divisive – when leaders in this community are using that as a political platform for their own political gain versus trying to just come to a resolution on the issue.”

Biviano also brought up the long-running public feud between state Rep. Matt Shea and Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, questioning why O’Quinn and other elected Republicans have been unwilling to reprimand Shea for implying that a deputy was involved in a triple homicide north of Spokane.

“The only possible justification for this is (O’Quinn’s) own political wellbeing, and trying to avoid any negative stuff from Shea herself. That’s not the courage that we need and leadership to move this county forward,” Biviano said. “If you don’t stand up to a bully, the bully gets stronger.”

O’Quinn said she wanted to avoid political theater, and didn’t want to comment on Shea’s statements until she’d had a chance to discuss them with Knezovich. During the debate, she said Shea “crossed the line in this situation. He crossed the line when he accused a deputy of wrongdoing that he was not involved in.”

Biviano has been at odds with Shea since 2012, when his wife, Amy Biviano, campaigned for Shea’s seat in the state House. One day that August, Shea visited the couple’s home in Spokane Valley, snapped a photo of himself standing on their driveway, and posted it to his Facebook page, listing their location.

Officials from both parties viewed Shea’s unusual move as distracting and intimidating, demanding he remove the photo.

KSPS also hosted a debate Monday with Spokane City Councilwoman Candace Mumm and legislative staffer Josh Kerns, who are running for position 1 on the county commission. They squared off Thursday in a debate hosted by the Spokane Rotary Club.

The KSPS debates aired at 7 p.m. Monday and can be viewed online at ksps.org. All county voters can take part in the elections. Ballots are due Nov. 8.

Editor’s note: Spokesman-Review reporter Chad Sokol participated in the debate as a panelist questioning the candidates.

Correction: An earlier version of this story contained an error about the location of district 2.

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