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‘This will pull our communities together’: Woodward sees tough first 100 days optimistically

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward smiles during her first State of the City address during a Greater Spokane Incorporated meeting on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020, at the Spokane Convention Center. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward smiles during her first State of the City address during a Greater Spokane Incorporated meeting on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020, at the Spokane Convention Center. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Fewer than two months after taking office, Mayor Nadine Woodward received a phone call from a federal official that would refocus her administration, and the entire city of Spokane, for the foreseeable future.

In just 24 hours, she was told, four patients diagnosed with COVID-19 would be transported to Sacred Heart Medical Center’s special pathogens unit.

“That kind of changed everything,” Woodward told The Spokesman-Review on Wednesday.

Today marks 100 days in office for Woodward, a longtime television news anchor in Spokane who was elected mayor on a campaign that promised to address concerns, now seemingly distant, of downtown crime and increasing homelessness.

Her focus has shifted instead to the evolving demands of a public health crisis and its resulting economic devastation.

But just two weeks before that fateful phone call from a federal official, Woodward had laid out her central priorities in her inaugural State of the City address, pledging to focus on economic development, homelessness, housing and public safety.

They remain central to her administration’s work, through the lens of a pandemic.

Pre-virus progress

Woodward was able to tackle some initial campaign promises before the pandemic threw government into a reactive mode.

In February, she gathered with local officials and police department leaders to celebrate the unveiling of a new downtown police precinct in the former Umpqua Bank branch at the corner of Wall Street and Riverside Avenue.

The new precinct was a cornerstone of Woodward’s mayoral campaign, in which she promised to address nagging concerns around downtown crime.

The city will invest an estimated $295,000 in converting the space into a police precinct for up to 35 officers, and has now signed a 10-year lease on the space.

New hires, familiar faces

Woodward inherited a number of vacancies in top city positions. Several remain, including a director of neighborhood and business services and a director of emergency management, a role Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer has stepped into on an interim basis.

But prior to the pandemic’s arrival, Woodward was able to shore up a team that includes City Administrator Wes Crago, the former administrator of Ephrata, Washington. She also lured city spokesman Brian Coddington back to his former post after a stint with Spokane Public Schools, and hired away Spokane County’s chief budget officer, Tonya Wallace, to serve as the city’s CFO following the retirement of longtime finance head Gavin Cooley.

“That has helped, because I have really needed them during the COVID emergency,” Woodward said.

Council relationship

Woodward and new Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs have also worked to mend the fractured relationship that had developed between the two branches of government under their predecessors, former Mayor David Condon and Council President Ben Stuckart.

Woodward often joins the council on the dais during its meetings, and Crago is a regular participant.

In addition to seeing eye-to-eye on the need for a new downtown police precinct, Woodward teamed with the council to take sweeping action in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout.

Beggs, who supported Woodward’s opponent in last year’s election, said that when they both came into office they each had advisers warning them to be skeptical of the other side.

They ignored the advice.

“We’re now in the fourth month and working together closely,” Beggs said.

Beggs said he and the mayor can approach each other and ask for support, without the other “extracting a quid pro quo.”

Listening to her State of the City speech, Beggs said Woodward’s policy goals were vague. But he credited her administration with rising to meet the demands of a city and region confronted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I would grade her very highly on her response to COVID-19 and her team. There’s a lot of challenge in having a regional response on that,” Beggs said.

In March, Woodward signed an emergency declaration temporarily banning all evictions of residential and commercial tenants or the imposition of late fees, covering what council members and tenant advocates called “gaps” in a similar order adopted statewide by Gov. Jay Inslee. To protect landlords and property owners, Woodward’s order also banned foreclosures.

The city has also temporarily suspended utility shutoffs and partnered with Avista to raise nearly $100,000 thus far to help people cover their bills for services like water and electricity.

“Right now we’ve been focusing a lot on stabilizing people,” Woodward said.

That work includes offering shelter to homeless people.

New approach, same priorities

Mitigating homelessness was the centerpiece of Woodward’s campaign, throughout which she demanded an approach that instilled personal accountability in those receiving services. She announced plans earlier this year – now on the back burner – to establish a task force to rethink city policy when it comes to homeless services.

COVID-19 has changed the city’s immediate approach to homelessness, but it “still is a priority and always will be a priority,” Woodward said.

Social distancing measures at homeless shelters, implemented to deter the spread of coronavirus, greatly reduced their capacity. In response, Woodward’s administration spearheaded the opening of a temporary homeless shelter at the downtown Spokane Public Library.

Another task force, this one to address the city’s housing crisis, has been created just as the pandemic struck. It has yet to meet.

But as strict social distancing measures affect local businesses, economic development has become an even more acute priority.

Looking ahead, Woodward will focus on rehabilitating the economy, arguing that small business is the “lifeblood of our economy.” The city has done the best it can to keep businesses afloat with efforts like #OrderUpSpokane, which encourages residents to order takeout meals from local restaurants.

“Opening the city back up to business is going to be a huge focus,” Woodward said. “What that looks like, and when it happens? Nobody knows.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has also pressed the city to work hand-in-hand with its regional partners on a response, which has been headquartered in the county-led Emergency Coordination Center near Spokane Community College.

“We realized the importance of not acting alone and that we needed to go regional with this, it needed to be a regional approach,” Woodward said.

Recently, Woodward had a neighbor suggest that if she had known the mess that awaited her, she never would have signed up to run for office.

“I said, ‘Thank goodness we can’t look into that crystal ball,’ ” she said.

For now, Woodward said she is taking things day by day, and remains optimistic.

“This will pull our communities together,” Woodward said.

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