In the race between Spokane County Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn and challenger Andrew Biviano, voters will choose between a business-oriented Republican and a Democratic attorney pushing for criminal justice reform.
O’Quinn, first elected in 2012, describes herself as a pragmatic and responsible politician. She’s built much of her campaign on “lean management” strategies, which she says have saved the county more than $1 million a year, even as the county’s expenses grew $20 million during her time in office.
“I have worked hard in my first term as commissioner to bring common-sense solutions and ideas to the county,” O’Quinn said. “I believe I have a proven track record of getting things done.”
Biviano disagrees and said O’Quinn has fallen short in several areas, including efforts to expand Spokane Transit Authority bus service. Since last year, she has opposed two proposals to increase the sales tax for expanded service; one is on the November ballot.
O’Quinn said the STA board is asking voters for more money than it needs. Biviano countered that she ought to trust the board’s opinion.
“When someone says they’re for transit, but all their actions are contrary to that, that raises a question,” he said. “I think people recognize that in the past four years, her actions don’t match her words.”
Biviano also has criticized O’Quinn for helping create a “top-heavy” salary structure for county employees. Most employees make significantly less than those in other counties, while the chief executive and chief operating officers collect large salaries and bonuses, he said.
“She says she’s in favor of employees and wants to pay them more at the county,” Biviano said. “But yet, for five years they weren’t getting a cost-of-living increase, and they got only a negligible one recently.”
O’Quinn has argued that CEO Gerry Gemmill and COO John Dickson are paid appropriately for their work. Gemmill’s contract, signed last year by O’Quinn and former Commissioner Todd Mielke, includes $162,472 in salary, a severance package and a $10,000 signing bonus.
While salaries lag behind those of neighboring counties, “we’ve got great benefits,” O’Quinn said. “If I had the opportunity to give all county employees a raise, I would.”
Campaign finance records show O’Quinn has raised about $100,000, more than twice as much as Biviano.
Developer Cyrus Vaughn and his wife, Janet Vaughn, each have contributed $2,000 to O’Quinn’s campaign – the maximum allowed under state law. His company, Vaughn Development Corp., gave an additional $1,000.
In July, O’Quinn vehemently denied that Vaughn’s contributions influenced the county’s efforts to speed up the permitting process for controversial drive-thru restaurants that Vaughn wants to build on the South Hill.
O’Quinn also has received major contributions from Avista Corp., Baker Construction and Development, the Washington Association of Realtors and the Spokane Home Builders Association.
Biviano, meanwhile, has the support of the Spokane Firefighters Union, the Washington Education Association, the Washington State Council of County and City Employees and several other workers’ unions. He’s also secured an endorsement from an unlikely politician: Spokane Valley City Councilman Ed Pace, a self-proclaimed libertarian, constitutionalist, tea party Republican.
Pace said last week that Biviano, a former federal prosecutor and mental health case manager, is better suited to reform the local criminal justice system. But O’Quinn stressed that elected officials need “buy-in and collaboration” to effect meaningful changes.
“We’ve had a great start, but we have a long way to go,” she said, discussing a wide array of reforms underway with funding from the MacArthur Foundation.
While all three county commissioners are Republican, they have a history of trading personal and political barbs. Tensions peaked about a year ago, when Commissioner Al French suggested O’Quinn and Mielke were in an inappropriate relationship “that’s outside of the board of county commissioners” – a charge they flatly rejected.
Biviano is married to Amy Biviano, who ran for state Rep. Matt Shea’s seat in the Legislature in 2012. He’s never run for elected office, but as a plaintiff’s attorney with Spokane firm Paukert & Troppman, he helped settle a case in 2014 that curbed the county’s practice of jailing people who couldn’t pay their court fines.
“I’ve actually created more change from the outside than (O’Quinn) has created on the inside,” he said.
A Democrat hasn’t sat on the commission since Bonnie Mager was defeated in 2010. And Biviano must overcome a percentage 20-point lead that O’Quinn posted in the August primary.
But voters “feel like it’s time for change,” he said.
O’Quinn’s District 2 represents the southeastern part of the county, including Spokane Valley and a corner of Spokane. Primary votes were isolated by district, but all county voters will have a say in the general election.
Ballots were mailed last week and are due Nov. 8.
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