Spokane Valley has experienced its share of turmoil since the last election. The city manager was sacked, two council members resigned and a proposed utility tax was poorly received. The underlying theme on those controversies has been a failure to communicate.
It’s a theme that is being debated in the race for Spokane Valley City Council, Position No. 1.
Incumbent Councilman Rod Higgins serves as mayor, and he runs a tight ship. Too tight, at times. While the letter of open-meetings law may be followed, the spirit of transparency is not.
After City Manager Mike Jackson was suddenly fired, a state auditor’s report cleared the council majority of legal wrongdoing, but the public still doesn’t know the reason. Three council members were kept in the dark. Two of them resigned in protest. The city ended up paying Jackson far more than he was due under the severance clause of his contract. The council also kept secret the names of the three finalists to replace Jackson.
The possibility of a utility tax had been mentioned at council meetings, but the proposal for a 6 percent levy was placed on the agenda on the same November night as the elections. The idea was withdrawn after much public protest. Higgins acknowledged that the council needed to conduct better outreach.
He and the council deserve credit for facing up to the challenge of financing road maintenance. The telephone tax isn’t sufficient with people dropping landlines. The city hasn’t taken the allowable annual 1 percent bump in property tax collections in nine years, so any new tax will take a lot of explaining to a conservative electorate.
As for successes, Higgins points to the completion of a shoreline management plan and the adoption of a revised comprehensive plan. He says the latter has opened more acres for development. He also touts infrastructure improvements at the industrial park, which should help land manufacturing jobs.
Albert Merkel was born in Germany. His father worked in foreign service and the family lived in several countries. Merkel graduated from University High School. After obtaining degrees in math, political science and economics at Whitworth University, he went to work as a contracting officer for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Baghdad. He also worked in Pakistan, Cambodia, South Africa, Honduras and other countries. He now works with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
His USAID job involved economic development in rural and urban settings, and he wants to take a similar focus in Spokane Valley. He believes the city is too insular and should think bigger, noting that it’s bracketed by two communities – Spokane and Liberty Lake – that are benefiting from economic development that goes beyond infrastructure projects.
Merkel believes the current leadership is driven more by political dogma than data. He would like to see performance measures in the law enforcement contract in order to gauge outcomes and effectiveness. He said the city needs more strategic objectives in general.
Chris Jackson is the grandson of longtime community activist Sally Jackson. He graduated from University High School, and received undergraduate and graduate degrees in social psychology from Western Washington University. He will be receiving his doctorate from a university in New Zealand, from where he recently returned. He wants to teach at a college.
He was motivated to run by the city manager controversy. He emphasizes transparency and stresses his desire to solicit community feedback, but his vision isn’t clear beyond asking others want they want.
The race comes down to the experience of Rod Higgins, and the fresh perspective of Al Merkel. We think both should advance and continue that debate.
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