The race for Spokane Valley Council Position 1 may be a classic battle between youth and experience.
Incumbent Rod Higgins, 75, was appointed to the council in 2013, won election later that year and in 2016 was selected by the rest of the members to serve as Valley mayor. It is a largely ceremonial role, with attendance required at ribbon cuttings and other events. But it also means he presides over council meetings, which have been known to get heated.
His style was once described as presiding “with an iron fist,” which he disputes: “I stick to Robert’s Rules of Order.”
He faces Chris Jackson, 31, who is embarking on his first campaign as a candidate after serving as a Democratic precinct committee officer while a high school senior and working on numerous campaigns for friends and family members. Instead of prepping someone else on issues, and waiting offstage, there’s the need to come up with a response and articulate a vision, he said.
“It’s a completely different feel when you’re in the seat as the candidate,” he said Friday after a forum.
Along with the differences in age, the two bring very different skill sets and resumes to the campaign.
Jackson just finished his doctorate in psychology and wants to use that experience to look for solutions to resolve conflicts and use evidence to reach decisions. It would help with one comment he’s heard from Valley voters and others, that the council is “hard to work with” even when they have common goals. As an example, he points to law enforcement.
“The sheriff and the city want the same thing: to make sure people are safe,” Jackson said. “But they frequently butt heads.”
He would seek a more cooperative approach with county commissioners and the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, which provides Valley law enforcement under a long-term contract. When talk of county budget cuts that could affect the whole Sheriff’s Office comes up, he’d want the council to be able to join discussions on how to help.
Higgins, who has wide experience in finance and management, touts his efforts to use conservative principles to make the city more “business friendly” and holding the line on spending. He uses that experience to discuss the issue that comes up most frequently from voters on the campaign trail, the new City Hall, which some detractors refer to as the “Taj Mahal.”
It’s actually a good business decision, Higgins insists. The city was paying rent for its old headquarters, and like most rents, that was going up. By building its own City Hall, the Valley will pay less on the bonds that were sold at “the absolute bottom of the market” than it was on rent, he said. Plus, the bond payments are fixed, and rent could rise.
By one estimate, the city will save $8 million over 30 years in the difference between the two, he said.
Jackson said the issue he hears raised most involves public safety, although the concerns vary depending on the neighborhood. In lower-income areas, people talk about the lack of sidewalks and adequate lighting. In better-off neighborhoods, he said, they worry about property crimes.
Road maintenance is another issue that comes up, and on this the two candidates have similar views. The city needs a dependable source of revenue for its roads, Higgins said, and its general fund is subject to fluctuation from economic cycles. For years the city has relied on the telephone tax, but that revenue source is declining as people switch from landlines to mobile phones and texting.
“I think we’re going to have to replace it,” Higgins said, although the goal would be to replace it with a revenue source that approximates what the telephone tax used to generate. “Until we get solid numbers, we’re not going forward with this.”
Jackson, too, agrees that the telephone tax is not a reliable solution and wants to see better numbers. He’d first try to reduce some city expenses and then would consider a Transportation Benefit District that could collect a fee on license tabs.
Jackson comes from a well-known family of Valley Democrats – his father, Andrew, ran for county assessor in 2010, and his grandmother Sally is a former legislative candidate and county party chairwoman – which could make him an unusual pick for a council long dominated by Republicans.
But the office is nonpartisan, and he believes that if he can talk to voters about issues before discussing party affiliation, they find they can agree on many city issues.
After all, he said, “there’s no Democratic or Republican way to clean up the streets.”
Higgins said the biggest challenge he has in talking to voters on their doorsteps is getting more than a few seconds of their attention. “It’s a rare time when somebody wants to engage.”
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