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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Valley leaders clash over racial equity proposal at Tuesday council meeting

Shirley Grossman (left), Joan Berkowitz (center) and Judy Silverstein hold signs denouncing white supremacists and bigotry at a Spokane Valley City Hall rally in a photo from 2018. Residents gathered to express messages of love and peace and later to ask the city council to denounce racism through a proclamation. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

A tense and awkward exchange about race arose at a Spokane Valley City Council meeting Tuesday night, exposing a rift about whether the city is welcoming to people of different ethnic backgrounds and whether it needs to take action to be more so.

The exchange came after Linda Thompson told her fellow council members and Mayor Rod Higgins that she wanted to prepare a policy for an upcoming meeting about racial issues that will involve the city of Spokane Valley, the NAACP and Republican Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, among others.

In response, Higgins, Councilman Arne Woodard and Councilwoman Pam Haley told her the city’s already done its part for equality and that racism isn’t a problem in Spokane Valley.

They also said a group of activists that has called on Spokane Valley to condemn white supremacy was wrong and that a proposal to address racial equity wasn’t needed.

“We already have that,” Higgins said. “I don’t see that we have to go forth further down that road necessarily. I know what the people that appear in our front yard have to say, but they’re in error.”

Higgins was referring to a 2017 resolution Spokane Valley passed declaring Spokane Valley an inclusive city and a place where discrimination of any kind isn’t tolerated. Deputy Mayor Pam Haley, who frequently votes with Higgins, said council members shouldn’t “reinvent the wheel” and should instead focus on existing policies.

Woodard, the longest-serving member of the council, said he had friends who are minorities who told him they hadn’t been discriminated against and that proposals to address equity could create more issues.

“I think we’re trying to make a problem where there isn’t one,” Woodard said. “I say that from the last year of experiences of talking to people who are very dark skinned, people of color, and I’ve asked them the question, ‘Do you feel that you’re prejudiced against? Do you find discrimination in Spokane Valley?’ Everyone of them said it was a great place to live.”

Woodard went on to describe a situation where a man whom he described as “darker than (an audience member’s) black hat” was stopped by police. The officer told the man he had stopped him because he didn’t recognize him and his car was beat up. Besides that incident, Woodard said he hadn’t heard of any race issues in Spokane Valley.

Woodard’s opponent in the race for his Spokane Valley Council seat, Al Merkel, who identifies as Hispanic, said he found Woodard’s comments “bizarre,” “insensitive” and “inappropriate.”

“To hear one of our council members talk about the issue like that makes me think that we should look at the issue a little bit closer,” Merkel said.

Woodard said Tuesday that talking about race could cause people to question their beliefs and the community’s and that Spokane Valley is “fabulous.”

“We have a fabulous community, and we have a lot of ethnic groups that look like all of us up here on the council,” Woodard said. “They’re light skinned, but they are not us, and they feel comfortable.”

Merkel also said he took offense to Woodard’s comments about light-skinned minorities.

Wednesday, Woodard clarified his comments, saying he meant that that it’s impossible to know what racial background someone is based on what they look like. He also said people who have called him racist, such as activists, are the ones causing issues in Spokane Valley and that people who don’t like Spokane Valley shouldn’t live there.

“If you don’t like where you’re living in America, you don’t have to be here,” he said.

Woodard’s other opponent, Adam “Smash” Smith did not respond to a request for comment, but said in an interview last month that he has faced discrimination growing up in Spokane Valley and while he worked as a firefighter in Spokane County.

Smith said he was the only person of color at the first Spokane Valley City Council meeting he recalled attending and that he felt others looked at him like he “was an alien.”

Kurtis Robinson, president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, said he’s open to meeting with Thompson to discuss an equity policy. He said he’s never experienced issues in Spokane Valley, but many people of color he’s spoken to do not perceive Spokane Valley as a welcoming place.

“ Their feeling is not that Spokane Valley is this welcoming place for communities of color,” he said. “As a matter of fact, it’s very much the opposite.”

According to the American Community Survey’s 2018 data, more than 91% of the people who live in Spokane Valley identify as white. In the city of Spokane, about 85% percent of people identified as white.

Robinson said the pushback on a proposal to explore racial equity isn’t surprising, because most people don’t want to investigate a structure or a community in which they’ve spent their whole lives. He said talking about race won’t create issues, it will only uncover issues that have existed in Spokane Valley for years.

“For everybody to say that race is not an issue here in Spokane, Spokane Valley, the Spokane community, Eastern Washington is either in complete denial or is basically not willing to sit with the truth,” he said.

Thompson said she’s also heard from young people in Spokane Valley that there is racism and discrimination in the community.

“When someone says we don’t have a problem in our community, that’s not realistic,” she said.

Thompson said she was taken aback by the response to her proposal, which is based on a workshop she attended at the National League of Cities, and said maybe if she could have explained it more clearly things would have gone differently at Tuesday night’s meeting. She does not have a proposal written for the meeting with McMorris Rodgers and the NAACP, which does not have a date set.

Councilwoman Brandi Peetz spoke out in support of Thompson’s idea, saying it couldn’t hurt to research race issues, especially if Spokane Valley council members will eventually be meeting with the NAACP and McMorris Rodgers to discuss the issue. Thompson said Councilman Ben Wick also asked her for more information after the meeting.

Thompson said the city could act as a conduit to ensure Spokane Valley is inclusive for everyone who lives there and that the response from fellow council members wasn’t discouraging, because she believes in educating others.

“Raising awareness among people is an opportunity for people to learn and for council to take a look and not be threatened, but say, ‘What can we do to ensure anyone who is looking to move to our community, or start a business in our community, knows that everyone is welcome here?’ ” Thompson said.