It was a broad question and, one by one, they gave broad answers.
In explaining an “overall vision for downtown,” candidates for Spokane City Council at a Downtown Spokane Partnership forum used terms like “vibrant,” “safe” and “recreational activities.”
Then it was Breean Beggs’ turn.
“If we had fiber optic cables to all of the downtown office buildings, that would make it a lot easier for companies to relocate, because they would have that tech pipeline there,” said Beggs, who is running for City Council president after more than three years representing the South Hill.
As candidates make their case at dining halls, in community centers and in TV interviews, Beggs embraces specificity when answering questions about policy, highlighting his work and outlining plans for the years ahead.
But for all of that verbosity, his challenger, political newcomer Cindy Wendle, questions Beggs’ effectiveness.
Sure, he can outline policies that encourage housing development. But, she asks, if the city has known it was facing a housing crisis since 2015, why hasn’t it responded sooner? Yes, Beggs has a plan to alleviate overcrowding at the county jail. But why hasn’t it already been implemented?
“If he’s got a plan, why hasn’t he done it? These issues haven’t come up overnight,” Wendle said.
Wendle, a co-owner of Northtown Square shopping plaza and former branch manager with Washington Trust Bank, has presented herself as a collaborative pragmatist as she battles Beggs for the council’s top post.
In outlining her vision for downtown Spokane, for example, Wendle took a different approach.
“I want to make sure that we are the downtown for people and an area that people want to come back to … with my retail experience, I understand that the experience is what’s really important,” Wendle said.
Though Wendle lacks political experience, she’s a member of a prominent Spokane business family. She’s married to Chud Wendle, the former president of Wendle Motors and former district director for U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.
She hasn’t unveiled multipronged solutions to the city’s problems.
“They’re not my ideas, they shouldn’t come from my brain, they should come from a collaborative effort,” Wendle said.
She’s sharpest in criticizing the work of the current City Council, which she decries as lacking leadership.
That dynamic is manifested most clearly when the two field questions about their approaches to homelessness, which has become a dominant topic in the races for mayor and City Council.
Wendle is adamant that addiction is a root cause of visible homeless. At a forum hosted by Rotary Club of Spokane 21, she described a recent ride-along with Spokane police, during which “every single person that I encountered had meth or heroin on them,” Wendle said.
Like mayoral candidate Nadine Woodward, Wendle pointed to the “enforcement ideology” of Marysville, Washington, a city that has a “treatment or jail” approach to homelessness. Wendle noted that the ideology is coupled with “wraparound services.”
“We’re dealing with a drug problem downtown … the homeless that we have visible downtown and some of the problems that we’re having in the heart of our city really revolve around a root cause issue,” Wendle said during a KSPS debate this week.
That root cause, Wendle argues, can be addressed once the city better communicates with regional partners.
The source of homelessness is complex, according to Beggs, but the city is struggling with poverty. That was OK when housing was cheap, but increased demand has brought on the crisis, making people vulnerable to losing their homes after “a car accident, a medical bill, a temporary loss of a job.”
“Most of them, it’s an economic issue,” Beggs said at a forum hosted by the Spokane Homeless Coalition and the Spokane Low Income Housing Consortium.
Yes, there are homeless people with a substance abuse issue, he said. But there are also many people with homes who also have a substance abuse problem.
“To conflate those two is not very helpful, because they’re different problems with different solutions,” Beggs said, later adding “you have to give people shelter and food and social workers in order to get them stable so that they can get the intestinal fortitude to move forward.”
Wendle has avoided providing simple solutions.
“Simply saying that this one thing will take care of it, isn’t going to take care of it, because it’s complex. It requires partnership, it requires collaboration,” she said.
But as snow hit Spokane last week, the city still has inadequate shelter capacity for its homeless population. Wendle criticized the City Council for feuding with Mayor David Condon instead of working together to solve the problem.
Beggs’ response is that it’s the City Council’s job to set policy, but it’s the mayor’s job to carry that out. The council has asked Condon to present a plan to shelter the homeless, with a promise to sign off on funding for it.
“When the mayor doesn’t do his job, we have to hold him accountable and speak the truth … when he doesn’t do what he needs to do, I need to tell you what’s happening,” Beggs said at the KSPS debate.
Wendle embraces forming partnerships and a regional approach to end homelessness. Beggs said he’s already working on a regional shelter with leaders in Spokane County and Spokane Valley, but those conversations have been put on ice until after the election.
Wendle also questioned leaders for failing to address the capacity issue at the jail at the Rotary forum, but has called for community conversation rather than come out with a specific plan of her own.
“How we go about and define what goes inside those four walls, I think it’s a conversation for this community. I think we can do better and we can do different, but we absolutely need the space to help serve those that are suffering,” Wendle said.
There are about 300 people currently sitting in the jail who are awaiting trial but do not pose a risk to society, Beggs said. Instead of leaving them behind bars, he wants to establish a pretrial community supervision system using electronic monitoring. It would allow those accused of misdemeanors to keep their lives together – hang on to their jobs, keep their homes – and save taxpayers money. The alternative is building a bigger jail, which would cost every citizen about $3,000.
With fellow South Hill council member Lori Kinnear, Beggs has asked the city to explore the feasibility of returning the downtown police precinct to the city’s core and staffing it with officers who will walk and bike the beat. Wendle has said that approach is overly simplified. If officers are going to make an arrest, they need their patrol car nearby.
Fundamentally, Wendle wants voters to ask if the city is better today than it was 3 1/2 years ago. She feels it isn’t, and feels it’s the result of city leadership.
“Leaders step up, leaders take responsibility when they see things that aren’t right in this community,” she said.
Beggs said he has a history of collaboration, and his record on the council proves it. He helped get Avista to agree to the council’s plan to receive all of its energy from renewable sources by 2030, for example. He also highlights his role in the city’s efforts regarding water conservation and strategic planning.
“If you ask people in the administration or council or community whether I have made things better than if I wasn’t there, they would agree,” Beggs said.
But Wendle said Beggs’ proposals come from “an ideological perspective,” and the city needs “a leader that’s going to listen and actually bring the correct solution.”
“I think you need a different type of thinking, someone who doesn’t bring that political ideology with (them),” Wendle said.
Wendle has questioned Beggs’ tenure on the council, and has recently focused on Beggs’ position on the city’s sit-lie law, which prohibits people from sitting or lying on downtown sidewalks during daytime hours.
As protesters camped outside City Hall, Beggs supported the Spokane City Council’s decision in 2018 to temporarily suspend the sit-lie ordinance – a move sharply criticized by Mayor Condon.
Beggs explained at the Rotary debate that the suspension was spurred because there was concern that the sit-lie law was still being enforced and homeless people were being harassed by police, even though the city did not have adequate shelter capacity to enforce the law.
Last November, Beggs told The Spokesman-Review that he would propose amendments to the city’s sit-lie ordinance that would focus the law more clearly on specific behaviors, such as blocking a city sidewalk. This year Beggs has stood behind the sit-lie ordinance and said it does not need to be suspended.
Beggs said his position has actually been consistent. He feels “we should use our limited police resources on people that are actually blocking the sidewalk” or harassing people, not those who are just sitting with their back against a building or wall.
“I don’t think that’s a good use of public resources. That has always been my position,” Beggs said.
He has not been successful in earning enough council support to pursue passage of draft amendments to the city’s sit-lie law to reflect his views. It remains illegal to sit or lie on a downtown city sidewalk, regardless of the level of obstruction it causes.
This story has been updated to reflect that Beggs has drafted amendments to the city’s sit-lie law. Those changes were never brought to a vote by the Spokane City Council.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.