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Racial equity proposal sparks more disagreement at Spokane Valley council meeting

UPDATED: Wed., Aug. 14, 2019

Spokane Valley's $14.2 million City Hall building, which is the subject of a lawsuit over allegedly faulty construction, is shown in April 2019. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Valley's $14.2 million City Hall building, which is the subject of a lawsuit over allegedly faulty construction, is shown in April 2019. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

For the second time in three weeks, race became the subject of a tense and awkward exchange at a Tuesday night meeting of the Spokane Valley City Council.

This time, the exchange was between Mayor Rod Higgins and Spokane NAACP President Kurtis Robinson.

Robinson was attending Tuesday’s meeting to discuss the city’s racial equity policy as well as Higgins’ and Councilman Arne Woodard’s previous comments about the policy.

While Robinson spoke Tuesday in favor of the equity policy, and said the earlier negative reaction to it was indicative of why it was needed, Higgins interrupted him twice.

Robinson was reading aloud from a letter from the Spokane Coalition of Color, which includes the NAACP, the Hispanic Business/Professional Association and the Spokane chapter of the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition, during the public comment period at the beginning of the council meeting.

The letter was written in response to comments Woodard made last month while speaking against a racial equity proposal from fellow council member Linda Thompson. During his response to Thompson’s proposal, Woodard said a man was as “black as (an audience member’s) hat” and also made comments about light-skinned minorities.

Higgins interrupted Robinson’s speech, saying his statement about council members’ comments during the previous meeting were inaccurate and that he needed to “get the facts right.”

Robinson paused and continued reading the letter, saying he would like to work with council members who “were ignorant and who had made disparaging remarks,” mentioning Woodard by name. Higgins again interrupted Robinson, saying he couldn’t attack council members and telling him that public comment is not a political event and that he was “making it into one.”

Robinson said he was taken aback by Higgins’ reaction and that, if race wasn’t a problem, then Spokane Valley council members should welcome a proposal and discussion.

“If there’s no structural or personal issue, there is no reason for the pushback,” Robinson said.

Robinson continued reading the letter, saying when public officials “denigrate people of color’s lived experiences, they are speaking out of turn.”

“When city officials downplay the presence of people of color in the community, they are making themselves look out of touch with reality. We challenge them and everyone in Spokane to do better,” Robinson said.

After the meeting, Higgins said he doesn’t usually interrupt people during council meetings but that Robinson’s comments in his letter weren’t completely accurate and he needed to correct the record. He said he also doesn’t tolerate personal attacks against council members.

Higgins said he might be willing to meet with Robinson one on one and that he has spoken with a leading member of a group of activists that regularly holds vigil in front of city hall. Robinson and several local politicians were at one of those vigils before Tuesday’s meeting.

Higgins said the council already passed a resolution in 2017 declaring Spokane Valley an inclusive city and saying discrimination was not allowed. He said Thompson and the Spokane Coalition of color’s request for a new policy was political and that more resolutions wouldn’t accomplish anything and are outside city business.

“We have a resolution,” he said. “If we have another resolution that says basically the same thing (does that) make somebody feel good? We’re not in the feel good business. We’re in the business of government.”

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