In recent spats with constituents and civic leaders, Spokane Valley Mayor Rod Higgins has asserted his right to dictate the terms of the public comment period at Spokane Valley City Council meetings.
Whether it is rigid adherence to a three-minute time limit (a time limit he previously reduced from six minutes) or his admonishment that public comment is a “privilege, not a right,” the terms and existence of a public comment period at Spokane Valley City Council meetings are totally at the mayor’s discretion.
Higgins is right: Washington state law confirms he is 100% within his authority as mayor of Spokane Valley to limit or disallow public comment completely.
Nevertheless, Higgins is wrong. Our communities desperately need more public involvement in city government, not less. City leaders should be encouraging public comment, even when speakers disagree with the mayor or council members. At a time when the public routinely suspects collusion in secret deals, public officials need to go out of their way to show openness and transparency. Curtailing public comment does neither.
In fact, Higgins doubled down at the most recent council meeting when he, along with council members Arne Woodard, Sam Wood and Pam Higgins, refused to agree to the request that the council’s own governance committee (a committee that he controls) review Higgins’ decrees, decisions and interpretations of the public comment rules. No, Higgins said, he was going to meet privately with the city attorney. He did not need a transparent forum to decide what he can and cannot do.
Higgins is right, but he could not be more wrong. We live in an era in which conspiracy theories abound and where the public thinks public officials meet privately around kitchen tables or at grocery store coffee shops to decide the course of government away from the eyes of their constituents. Our public officials should strive to demonstrate openness and inclusivity at every opportunity. Instead of flexing his muscle in asserting his authority, Higgins had the opportunity to have his decisions examined publicly and he refused.
I can imagine that it is difficult for Mayor Higgins and other council members to listen to public comments. However, Mayor Higgins has been wrong repeatedly for confusing criticism of elected officials with the kind of “political speech” that he has prohibited. Just because a council member is seeking re-election does not justify Mayor Higgins protecting them from public comment by cutting off public criticism of that council member’s actions or inactions. None of the recent public comment periods involved personal attacks on a council member; the comments were correctly aimed at the council members’ public roles as elected officials.
Spokane Valley is facing a choice about its future in the upcoming November election. Unlike the city of Spokane, where voters elect the mayor who serves apart from the City Council, the city of Spokane Valley has a “weak mayor” system of governance. Spokane Valley has seven City Council members elected to staggered four-year terms. After each City Council election, the newly seated City Council elects a new mayor from among themselves to represent Spokane Valley for the next two years. Mayor Higgins is not running for re-election this November; his term as City Council member runs through December 2021.
However, you still have a voice. The November election will give Spokane Valley voters a chance to elect three new council members, and in each of those positions, voters will have the choice between candidates who support Mayor Higgins and his antiquated ideas of public governance, and candidates who advocate for a change to more moderate, more civil, more inclusive city government.
The city of Spokane Valley is growing beyond the 100,000 population mark as we speak. Spokane Valley deserves leadership with the vision and willingness to invite diverse views and ideas into the City Council chambers. We need leaders who know this kind of secretive, separatist behavior is bad for business and bad for our community.
Lance Gurel is a candidate for Spokane Valley City Council Position 3.
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