Every new mayor hopes for a honeymoon.
But in Spokane, where a winter storm could drop 8 inches of snow atop the steep streets and cause a mess, no mayor is guaranteed a quiet early phase at the city’s helm. Thanks in part to her choice to retain top officials across multiple city departments, Nadine Woodward and other city leaders are confident her transition will avoid any major early hiccups – no matter what Spokane throws at her.
“As overwhelming as this can be – it’s like drinking out of a firehouse – I’m at a place now where I’m really feeling great about things,” Woodward said, acknowledging a number of immediate challenges are ahead.
Whatever bridge between the mayor’s office and City Council had existed, it has long since collapsed.
Now it’s up to Woodward and council members, including a yet-to-be-named appointee and newcomer Michael Cathcart, to rebuild it.
Members of the council, who have seen their panel’s goodwill with outgoing Mayor David Condon slowly erode over his eight years in office, have unanimously expressed optimism about working with Woodward.
That bright outlook persists despite a clear ideological divide. The council has a veto-proof majority of six liberal-leaning members, contrary to Woodward’s center-right disposition.
But that’s ideology on paper. In practice, the two branches of government have pledged to work together and are already showing signs of collaboration.
Woodward met shortly after her election victory with Councilman Breean Beggs, who will become City Council President in January. Though she wasn’t interested in rehashing the past, Woodward said she wanted to understand the challenges the City Council has faced and build on their common ground.
Particularly, Beggs stressed the need for open lines of communication to the administration.
“I don’t bring political baggage to this role, and I know the importance of having a good, working relationship with our City Council,” Woodward said.
Councilwoman Karen Stratton, who won a second term representing the city’s northwest district in November, has been a sharp critic of Condon’s administration. She will do “everything I can to help (Woodward) be successful,” but remained skeptical of department heads who were hired by Condon.
“I am concerned about some of the appointments that this former mayor made, that I don’t think necessarily are qualified to be in the positions they are, and I worry that we will continue to see our boots-on-the-ground staff overworked because we have department heads or division heads that don’t know exactly what job they’re supposed to be doing,” Stratton said.
Stratton said she hopes Woodward will analyze those positions and looks inside the city’s own workforce for promotions, particularly at the utilities department and human resources, which she said “is a trainwreck waiting to happen.”
The details remain under wraps, but Woodward and members of the City Council have hinted at progress on one of her signature campaign promises: opening a new police precinct in the heart of downtown Spokane.
Woodward called for a new precinct early in her campaign, making it a hallmark of her vows to address public safety concerns downtown.
She’s likely to face little pushback in this effort from council. In July, council members Lori Kinnear and Beggs introduced a resolution asking the city to study the feasibility of a new police precinct and for the department to take a more community-oriented approach to policing the streets, with regular bicycle and foot patrols.
Woodward’s transition team has involved stakeholders working closely with the police department and Downtown Spokane Partnership as they have toured potential precinct locations. Woodward said she is “hoping that sooner rather than later” her administration will announce the location of a new precinct and a timeline for its opening.
Kinnear has stressed that the current downtown precinct at the city-owned Intermodal Center can’t handle the additional officers who will be hired through the public safety levy, which voters approved earlier this year and provided the funds necessary to hire 20 new police officers.
The new space could be home to as many as 30 officers, Woodward said. The Intermodal Center currently has 10 officers assigned to it, and there is little room available to accommodate more.
“There are a lot of little details to be taken care of, but I think that with two council people and mayor-elect moving forward, it will lessen any glitches,” Kinnear said.
Homelessness was often at the center of debate between Woodward and her opponent, outgoing City Council President Ben Stuckart.
Woodward advocated for a tough-love approach to homelessness, and she criticized the city for doing little more than handing out sandwiches to enable a lifestyle of vagrancy. She also suggested waiting until the city of Boise – which had its laws against public camping struck down by a federal appeals court – carried out an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court before opening any new permanent emergency shelters in Spokane.
Some of that uncertainty has already been settled before she even takes office.
Condon and the City Council agreed to purchase the building at 527 South Cannon Street for a new warming center this fall. Then they agreed to a contract with new nonprofit Jewels Helping Hands to operate the warming center at least through the winter months.
Earlier this week, the Supreme Court declined to take up Boise’s appeal, leaving in place the lower court ruling that mandated cities have shelter space available before they ticket homeless people for violating laws against public camping.
“I can’t change that. A lot of those decisions were already made. We’re going to get through the winter, and moving forward we have guidance on exactly what we can and can’t do,” Woodward said.
After results were posted on election night, Woodward first thanked “the good lord.”
But she didn’t forget the Spokane Police Guild.
The guild gave Woodward a resounding endorsement in her bid for mayor, and she’s now in charge of negotiating a new contract with a union has been without one for three years.
Woodward declined to elucidate her expectations, but said there are meetings scheduled in January.
“That’s a priority. They’ve been working three years without a contract. We need to move on that as much as we can,” Woodward said.
Although outgoing Mayor David Condon points to progress in police accountability, including a reduction in the department’s use of force, it has recently been roiled by scandal. In October, an officer was accused of raping a domestic violence victim he was tasked with interviewing. Later that month, body camera footage was released showing Officer Daniel Lesser lifting his police canine into a pickup truck to make a violent arrest and threatening to kill the suspect.
Woodward elected to keep Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl in the job, signaling her strong endorsement of his leadership. During the mayoral campaign, Woodward said her team polled the community to assess the police department’s popularity.
“This community loves its men and women in blue,” Woodward said. “As mayor and as the boss of our police chief, I want our force to know they have an advocate in the mayor’s office.”
Beggs said he hopes the new administration can work more closely with the council in its negotiations with the Guild.
The council used to hold executive sessions with the mayor and city attorneys to discuss matters exempt from open meeting law, but the practice stopped in 2016 after the council voted to publicize the details of closed-door discussions leading up to the ouster of former Police Chief Frank Straub.
At the time, the council waived its executive privilege so that it could speak with an independent investigator, sparking Condon’s ire and threats from city attorneys.
With a new mayor, Beggs wants the council to once again be more included in ongoing negotiations.
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