The lone seat without an incumbent up for grabs this fall on the Spokane City Council has drawn three challengers urging a shift in the way City Hall tackles problems in the northeast part of town.
Three candidates seeking their first election to public office are vying to replace outgoing City Councilwoman Amber Waldref, who reaches her term limit in November. Separated by ideology and background, all three say the northeast corner of Spokane could benefit from a change in perspective putting the focus back on neighborhoods.
Kate Burke, a 28-year-old legislative aide to Democratic state Sen. Andy Billig, said Spokane has neglected the northeast corner of town for too long and needs to shift its focus and dollars to impoverished areas lacking basic amenities, like crosswalks.
Tim Benn, who at 38 years old has already tried twice to reach Olympia under the GOP banner, believes the City Council has lost its focus on local issues and instead taken on political questions bigger than the office.
Kathryn Alexander, a 75-year-old entrepreneur and educator, is pushing better and earlier neighborhood involvement as a way to avoid thorny local political controversies, like the North Monroe lane-reduction plan.
Burke, who grew up on Spokane’s South Hill, sees lost potential in the crumbling sidewalks and unsafe road crossings that surround her in the Nevada Heights neighborhood, where she moved a year and a half ago.
“We have a good start with Hillyard,” Burke said, referring to targeted investments and planning in the former rail yard. “Unfortunately, I think there’s a lot of similar businesses in the area. Some diversity, I think, would attract some more people.”
Burke said the northeast section of town needs “a champion,” someone who would advocate for city dollars to develop an area like Garland or South Perry, beyond Hillyard, in her district that could become destinations in their own right and solve long-festering infrastructure problems in areas with some of the lowest household incomes in Spokane.
“I just don’t see a lot of our tax dollars returned to us,” Burke said.
Benn, who has operated a day care off North Foothills with his wife for nearly two decades, agreed that it’s difficult for neighborhoods to get attention for specific projects. As chairman of the Minnehaha Neighborhood Council, Benn said he needed to collect dozens of signatures to get the city to commit to putting in safety lights near Cooper Elementary School, something he said would have been easier if the council dropped its efforts to address larger, national issues.
“If it takes that much effort for a citizen to get a basic safety mechanism in, to keep children safe, I think that’s ridiculous,” Benn said. “I think (they) need to quit playing political games on the national level and do their job.”
Benn pointed to the council’s efforts on thwarting the travel of uncovered coal and untreated oil trains traveling through downtown as evidence of an unfocused panel. City Council President Ben Stuckart initially pushed to put the question on the ballot, then asked for its removal based on legal guidance from inside and out of City Hall. Petition-gatherers say they have enough signatures to get the issue before voters this November.
“We shouldn’t have a City Council that’s trying to get us sued,” Benn said, referring to a likely legal challenge if voters approve the fine on railroad car owners. “I don’t think they understand the ramifications of the things they’re doing.”
Alexander, chairwoman of the Bemiss Neighborhood Council and herself a small-business owner as head of a tech consulting firm, said city voters should decide if the threat of a fiery derailment is worth the time and effort of a potential legal challenge.
“I’m Spokane-centric,” said Alexander, who moved to the city in 2014 to be closer to her daughter in Seattle, after a career that landed her teaching gigs at universities and colleges in California, New Hampshire and Colorado. “If there is a danger to Spokane from exploding oil, then I think we should do whatever we can about that.”
Other problems, such as how to pay for needed police officers and repairing the condition of Spokane’s roads, could be solved by addressing the city’s housing stock, Alexander said. Too many rental homes are being neglected by tenants and landlords because of the fear of eviction and unfriendly state policies, she said.
“If we could really work with both landlords and tenants, to figure out how to increase the capacity and increase the quality of the housing stock, instead of right now where it’s a race to the bottom,” Alexander said. Improving the availability and quality of housing would lead to an increase in the tax base, giving the city the money it needs to solve big issues, she said.
Burke, who’s received endorsements from Democratic state lawmakers including Billig, Waldref, Reps. Marcus Riccelli and Timm Ormsby, said she didn’t believe taxpayers in northeast Spokane could stomach additional tax increases right now to pay for increased services.
“We just don’t have a lot of money over here, and I just don’t think another bond or tax would do well for our community,” Burke said. “First, I want to make sure we’re getting our share of the money, and then we can go from there.”
Burke said her work in Olympia, and with nonprofit organizations in Spokane, would assist in locating additional state money to bolster the city’s budget and address things like street repair and additional officers.
Benn offered another solution to the city’s police shortage: workforce training in area high schools and colleges. Students could perform some of the investigative functions, under supervision, that Spokane police are too busy to do.
“We could have this as an accredited course, where they’re out there taking physical reports,” Benn said. “Now, you get a report number. Your house gets broken into, and you’re left with a report number, and the only purpose for that is an insurance claim. But there’s no justice in that.”
Benn agreed with Burke that additional taxes are not something working families in the district would be able to withstand.
“I think there’s a culture change that needs to happen in our City Council,” he said.
Alexander said the city needs to reach out earlier and more often to neighborhood residents before making decisions. Too many meetings and presentations take place when families are unable to opine, and when the city presents options, it often seems to voters like officials already have made up their minds, Alexander said. She pointed to the recent passage of the city’s new comprehensive plan, a 20-year plan for development as an example.
“On the comp plan, I think there were maybe 50 people that said something,” Alexander said. “On a population of 250,000, that’s kind of poor.”
Alexander said she was planning to hold a community meeting in September with City Councilman Breean Beggs to address the city’s crumbling sidewalks and hoped earlier outreach would lead to greater citizen involvement.
Ballots are being mailed this week for the primary election in Spokane’s three City Council districts. The top two vote-getters in each district will advance to the November general election. Ballots are due Aug. 1.
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