Two candidates hoping to unseat conservative Spokane Valley City Councilman Arne Woodard say their goal is to shift the balance of power on the council.
Former government contract negotiator Al Merkel and accountant Lance Gurel said they more often agree with more moderate members of the council, Brandi Peetz, Ben Wick and Linda Thompson.
“The Spokane Valley City Council needs a change of leadership,” Gurel said. “There are a lot of decisions that are decided by 4-3 votes, and it’s always the same four.”
Adam “Smash” Smith, a professional mixed martial arts fighter and owner of a martial arts academy who also is running, said he’s not necessarily looking to change the political makeup of the council, but instead hopes his story will spark young people’s interest in local government.
“We need somebody to start connecting our generations so we can move forward,” Smith said.
Woodard highlights his experience. He has served on the council for nine years and is the only candidate in the race who has won an election.
He said the council’s current minority is tempted to invest in social issues and criticized them for considering using reserve money to pay for street work. He said the current four-person majority is in office because that is what the majority of Spokane Valley wants.
“We have to think as (council members) for all the community we serve, not just some portion,” he said. “The majority of voters that vote have a certain way they want things done. You have to listen to that. After all, they put you in office.”
Both Merkel and Woodard suggested using a tax to pay for street work, with Merkel suggesting finding a way to make drivers pay for a tax, and Woodard saying that a tax on utilities could be an option, or potentially a sales tax. He said property tax wouldn’t be a fair way to pay for streets because it could make Spokane Valley less attractive to businesses.
Gurel said Spokane Valley should pay for streets without new taxes.
“Rather than raising taxes now, I would advocate dipping into reserves,” Gurel said.
All four candidates say they are focused on development.
Merkel said one of the biggest issues he is hoping to solve is updating the city’s older regulations to match what Spokane Valley has become.
“We’re just about tied for fourth-largest city in the state, which is amazing for such a young city,” he said, “but the problem is we’re being run like a city of 10,000.”
He said developers currently aren’t required to pay for all the impact they make on existing communities.
Developments aren’t bad in themselves, he said, just the regulations that don’t require them to work within neighborhoods. He said most of Spokane Valley lives in single-family homes instead of apartments, and that’s the population he is looking to represent.
“I’m running for the residents of the city that currently live here, not the potential residents of the future who want to move,” he said.
Woodard said candidates and Spokane Valley will have to accept it is no longer a rural community and people who want to move there will find a way. He said some areas of Spokane Valley that have been designated for apartment growth in the future will eventually have apartments as more housing is needed.
“If there wasn’t a demand for apartments, they wouldn’t be built,” Woodard said.
He said he also favors condos because they give young people a chance to own their residence. He said he’s hoping the state will loosen condo regulations so more can be built in the Valley.
Gurel said he agrees that single-family housing areas should remain the way they are and said keeping multifamily homes in a few specific corridors is a good idea as well. He said the city also should buy more land to build parks because available land is quickly disappearing from the city’s core.
“It’s only going to get harder to find open land,” he said.
He said everyone, especially people living in apartments, need access to green spaces.
Smith said he hopes the city will do a study on housing issues and find a balance between single-family homes and other types of housing.
“Spokane Valley is founded on big lots, that generation, the last thing they want is big apartments,” he said.
Smith said he’s concerned about the growing presence of homeless camps in Spokane Valley. He said Balfour Park in Spokane Valley, where he frequently took his martial arts students, doesn’t feel safe anymore. He added, however, that if law enforcement responds, there isn’t a place in the Valley for homeless people to go instead.
“We don’t have anything here in the Valley,” he said. “If you tell them to leave that park, what are they going to do, walk downtown?”
Smith said he grew up poor and was homeless in his early 20s and understands the struggles people face, but a lot of the activities he’s seen in parks are not acceptable. He said he hopes Spokane Valley will partner with the city of Spokane for services. He said he is concerned that if there was a large number of services in the Valley, people who live in Spokane would come to the Valley instead, which could quickly overwhelm a small service site.
“We don’t have the resources the city (of Spokane) does,” he said.
Smith’s three opponents agreed that most of the infrastructure for housing and homelessness assistance are already in Spokane and future services should be focused there.
Gurel said Spokane Valley should step up to help the homeless because, even if its not as visible, homelessness is still an issue.
“I think Spokane Valley should take responsibility for its part in a regional problem,” he said. “We’re not out on an island somewhere.”
Woodard, who said he and one of his children were once homeless, said Spokane has a place for homeless people to go, and Spokane Valley supports those services by giving money to the county.
He said the Valley is not set up to handle an influx of homeless people and believes people who use services should be trying to get out of their circumstances.
“If you’re homeless in Spokane Valley, damn right I’m going to take care of you and help you as best I can based on your desire to get out of homelessness,” Woodard said.
All four candidates said crime is a growing issue in Spokane Valley, and Merkel argued the city should change its contract with the Spokane Valley Sheriff’s Office for public safety so the sheriff’s office would receive incentives for reducing crime.
Other candidates said they didn’t see an issue with the public safety contract.
Merkel and Smith are both facing legal issues.
Merkel was charged with driving under the influence in May after, police say, his vehicle crashed into a group of boulders at the edge of a lawn at a Spokane Valley residence. Spokane Valley Police Department deputies arrested Merkel and took him back to the station for a breath test. His blood alcohol level was 0.12. Merkel has pleaded not guilty and charges are pending.
Smith has pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, driving without insurance and driving while his license was suspended. Smith said most of his traffic-related charges were from when he couldn’t afford insurance or to pay to renew his tabs and registration. He said the disorderly conduct charge was from December 2017 when he had a disagreement with a business partner. He said he knocked on the business partner’s door hard enough to damage it and was charged with disorderly conduct. In an interview last week, he said traffic violations shouldn’t disqualify him from serving on the City Council.
Two candidates said they were concerned about the growing extremist rhetoric in Spokane Valley politics. Gurel said the city should consider working to dispel Spokane Valley’s reputation for extreme ideologies and bigotry because it could make businesses afraid to move to the Valley.
“I think the City Council can take an affirmative stand against hate and bigotry,” he said, “I would support that kind of thing.”
Woodard said activists speaking out about racism are making a problem where there isn’t one. He said he has supporters from all backgrounds and doesn’t judge people based on their skin color.
“The people that are calling racism and calling white supremacy are the ones creating the problem, because it’s not here,” he said.
When Smith walked into his first Spokane Valley Council meeting five years ago, he said, he was the only person of color there and the only person under 40.
“Everybody stared at me like I was an alien,” he said. “(I thought) this is not a place people feel comfortable, somebody needs to break down this barrier.”
He said he hopes running for office will inspire younger, more diverse people to vote. He said he knows many families in Spokane Valley and a lot of people who don’t vote.
He said people who have been repeatedly elected in Spokane Valley, such as state Rep. Matt Shea, a legislator who has promoted far-right conspiracy theories, don’t necessarily represent many of the people living in the Valley, just those who are outspoken and show up to the polls.
“That’s not who we are here, but that’s who’s voting,” he said.
Candidates at a glance
Why running: “I haven’t lost my passion for making this the best place in the state to live. I still meet with countless numbers of citizens, as well as groups, on a weekly basis to try and solve the issues they have no matter what they are, or help them find the contact they need to try and solve those issues. I’ve lived here all my life, so people know I have huge contact capability. We’re not done with the direction of the Valley yet.”
His pitch: “I have unbelievable experience, not just inside governments, but being self-employed basically for 47 years. I have an incredible amount of what I call life experience in a wide array of subjects that really help with city business.”
Education: Graduated from Gonzaga Prep in 1971 and had about a year and half of college classes at Spokane Community College.
Political experience: Woodard has served on the council for nine years and was deputy mayor. He also has served on community boards such as the Spokane Regional Transportation Council.
Work experience: Owned real estate business from 1994 to 2018. Previously worked in construction and rebuilding homes damaged by floods or storms. He also has owned a bakery named Backburner Breads, sold bread-making equipment and owned a health food store.
Family: Married. Has seven children and 12 grandchildren.
Adam ‘Smash’ Smith
Why running: “I think we need somebody to start connecting our generations so we can move forward with a better guestimation of how people feel in our community. Right now we have such a low number of people who vote, we really are missing the younger people. … They can’t relate to anybody in City Hall, I hope to bring that connection and help everybody feel a little more comfortable when walking around their neighborhoods.”
Pitch: “I have really strong morals and values as far as who I am as a leader. I’m not somebody that just stepped up and am running for this position and started to change my life to be a good person, I’ve already been a community leader for so many years now. What I already do for my work pushed me into this position.”
Education: Graduated from West Valley High School in 2007. Attended Eastern Washington University majoring in business administration for two years, but did not complete a degree. Went to District 9 fire academy. Has structure, wildland firefighter certification and has EMT as well as hazardous chemical certification.
Political experience: First-time candidate.
Work experience: Owns Spokane Valley Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Has worked as a firefighter for Spokane County Fire District 4 since 2015 and previously worked for Spokane County Fire District 10. Worked for J&J Plumbing for seven years, has fought MMA on ESPN and around the U.S. and Canada. Coaches team of MMA fighters. Worked in customer service at Best Buy and worked as front desk agent at the Historic Davenport Hotel.
Why running: “It’s really about serving the city. Our city is kind of at a crucial time period in our history; our city has about 100,000 residents, which ties us for fourth largest city in the state. The problem is we’re being run like a city of 10,000. Our codes and laws aren’t set up or suited for this kind of city and this kind of demand. There are a lot of decisions and things that are going to come up in the next five to 10 years for council that I think are really important, and I think the council needs somebody with my kind of experience.”
Pitch: “It’s really about expertise on some of these issues. It’s understanding how we can deal with developments, and moving our city to where it needs to be. At the same time, it’s keeping that neighborhood feel, that neighborhood integrity that we’ve all moved to. These are the things my opponents are not looking at.”
Education: Graduated from University High School in 2004. Graduated from Whitworth University in 2009 with bachelor’s degrees in mathematics, political science and economics.
Political experience: Ran for Spokane Valley City Council in 2017. Is a Republican Precinct Committee officer for Spokane Valley.
Work experience: Currently unemployed. Previously worked for Coordinated Car as a contract negotiator. Worked for Veterans Affairs as a contracting officer and was contracting officer for the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Why running: “Once I started going to City Council, I felt like (Woodard) was someone I had enough differences with and from that I thought I could do a better job as a City Council member than he could. I really think I’m the best person for the job.”
His pitch: “I think that as an accountant, I’m uniquely qualified to work with finances. My opponents have looked at budget issues and think we need new taxes. I find myself the least politically conservative being the person to say no, we need to use the money that we have more wisely.”
Education: Graduated from Walter Johnson Senior High School in Bethesda, Maryland, in 1966. Attended the University of Maryland for two years but did not finish a degree. Graduated with bachelor’s degree in accounting from Arkansas Tech University in 1996. Graduated with an MBA from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in 1998.
Political experience: First-time candidate.
Work experience: Has owned an accounting business since 2006. Previously worked as a financial analyst for Florida State University. Worked as financial officer and director of development for Arkansas Tech University from 1995 to 2001. Previously worked as a welder, orchard manager, home rebuilder.
Family: Married, five children, 13 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
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