Spokane Valley Mayor Rod Higgins ousted Spokane Valley City Councilman Ben Wick from his positions on the Spokane Regional Transportation Council Board and the city’s finance committee last week with no warning, no public notice and little explanation.
The decision has sparked new tension between the newest members of the council and the four longer-serving members. The newest members ousted three incumbents in the November election.
At the Tuesday council meeting, Higgins put forth an amendment to change Wick’s committee assignments from SRTC and the finance committee to the Spokane Regional Health District Board and Visit Spokane. Council members Arne Woodard and Sam Wood were named as replacements for the SRTC and finance committee.
“In the beginning when we made committee assignments, I was attempting to set up a system where we would work more smoothly and be more cooperative and that hasn’t worked out that way,” Higgins said at the meeting.
Wick said he was never warned by Higgins that there were any problems in the way he represented Spokane Valley on the committees. Wick, who was appointed to the SRTC by Higgins earlier this year, was vice chairman of the board and selected as chairman-elect to represent the community next year. He also was recently nominated for the Freight Mobility Strategic Investment Board to represent cities on freight mobility across the state.
Spokane Valley City Clerk Chris Bainbridge said she wasn’t certain Higgins could remove Wick from the committees, as the move hadn’t been listed on the council agenda.
“Usually, you don’t make a motion unless it’s on the agenda so people know what’s coming up,” she told Higgins. “We can certainly add it to the agenda that’s coming out the day after tomorrow, if you would like.”
Higgins said prior motions have been made from the floor without appearing on the agenda.
“You have and you can. I’m just saying usually you don’t,” Bainbridge said.
Woodard said Spokane Valley’s governance manual makes it clear the committee appointments are at the discretion of the mayor.
“So, he doesn’t really have to give reasons … if he feels as if the shuffling of the current council is such that something more or different can be accomplished, he has the right to do that and we get to affirm or not affirm,” he said. “That is our role. Not the appointment part of it.
“I don’t care how it affects my appointments or nonappointments, but that’s what the governance manual does say,” he added.
Wick said he is concerned his removal from the SRTC will affect funding allocations for Spokane Valley road projects because a meeting is approaching on Thursday to take action on a five-year allocation of grant funds for major roadway projects, and he had been scheduled to lead it.
“And so I think we’re going to get stalled out a lot on this if we make a change at the last second,” he said.
Councilwoman Brandi Peetz questioned Wick’s removal from SRTC.
“Ben, I would think out of all of us, has the most experience with SRTC, has great relationships with SRTC and has actually moved a lot of our projects forward and works well with our staff,” she said. “So, I don’t understand what the removal would be for.”
Peetz made a motion to add the committee decision to an advance agenda for public comment, but that motion failed.
Wick’s committee removal was approved on a 4-3 vote, with council members Pam Haley, Higgins, Woodard and Wood voting in favor.
Wick said he was hoping for some discussion at the meeting about his committee removal.
“Because this is new to me,” he said. “As the one that’s being removed from the two committees, I guess I wish I’d had a little bit more of an understanding of what was happening to cause my removal of the committees that I sit on.”
Wick later told The Spokesman-Review he still hasn’t been provided with a reason from council members who voted in favor of his removal from the committees.
“They didn’t talk to me before that and hadn’t said a word after that,” he said. “We were all in Yakima together (at the Association of Washington Cities conference) the week before and there wasn’t any issues brought up. It seemed like relations were fairly well.”
Councilwoman Linda Thompson said she was taken aback and disappointed by the decision.
“I just would really like to see us be more communicative and more open about plans rather than being surprised on the dais of something that is totally unexpected … I think that this is quite frankly embarrassing for our leaders and our city on our council to be taken out of a committee publicly like this with really no conversation,” she said at the meeting.
Residents sent several emails to The Spokesman-Review expressing concerns over what they described as a lack of transparency from the City Council, because the meeting was held the day before a holiday and committee changes weren’t listed on the agenda allowing for public comment.
Higgins said replacing Wick on the SRTC committee shouldn’t affect funding for upcoming Spokane Valley road projects, including the Pines Road grade separation.
“Generally speaking, we have friends and supporters across the board on SRTC,” Higgins said. “I don’t see that it would be any issue.”
Higgins said Wick’s committee removal stems from disagreements with the rest of the council on transportation projects and was not an issue of transparency.
“It may look like that, but frankly it was coming,” he said. “It could have come at any time.”
Wick said he hopes Higgins will reconsider his committee appointments. He also hopes meetings are transparent for citizens to be involved in city discussions.
“The citizens of Spokane Valley I feel are getting the short end of the stick on this one, because I feel like I was able to be best representative for regional transportation,” he said. “I encourage more people to stay involved. I will continue to try and be open and bring forth ideas at the meetings and encourage other council members to do the same.”
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