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Woodward reflects on 2020, her first year as mayor of Spokane

UPDATED: Thu., Dec. 31, 2020

Mayor Nadine Woodward prepares to give the annual mayor’s statement on the conditions and affairs of Spokane virtually from her office on Oct. 12.  (COLIN MULVANY)
Mayor Nadine Woodward prepares to give the annual mayor’s statement on the conditions and affairs of Spokane virtually from her office on Oct. 12. (COLIN MULVANY)

Any new mayor can expect the unexpected.

Mayor Nadine Woodward entered 2020 looking to prove that a career as a television news anchor could translate into city leadership.

But the novel coronavirus arrived in Spokane just weeks after Woodward was sworn in, immediately supplanting her agenda and spoiling any chance she had of a relatively quiet, typical first year in office.

It was, and remains, a daunting challenge.

Though she had never held public office and had no executive leadership experience before voters backed her in the 2019 mayoral election, Woodward said, “I don’t think any veteran, political career can prepare you for what we’ve experienced this year.”

“I’ve proved to myself I can do a lot more than I thought I could,” Woodward said.

Woodward spoke with The Spokesman-Review by phone on Christmas Eve to reflect on her first year in office, which was dominated by the city’s pandemic response but also forced her to address police reform, homelessness and a proposal to fluoridate the city’s water supply.

Pandemic

Woodward spent the first weeks of her administration focused on building her cabinet, bringing on a new chief financial officer and others to help lead her administration.

That footing was barely in place when, in February, what seemed like a faraway news story arrived in Spokane as four patients who contracted COVID-19 on a cruise ship arrived at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center and received treatment at its special pathogens unit.

That set in motion a pandemic response that has yet to stop.

In a harbinger of what would become a solid working relationship with the Spokane City Council, Woodward signed an emergency declaration in March that provided protections for tenants and property owners beyond what had already been ordered by Gov. Jay Inslee. Her administration also worked with governments across Spokane County to establish the Emergency Operations Center, which consolidated public resources and decision-making early in the pandemic. Within weeks, local governments had partnered to transform the vacant Spokane Public Library downtown into an emergency shelter for the homeless.

Although answering the demands of a pandemic wasn’t what Woodward had in mind when she spoke of regional collaboration during her campaign, it forced the city to branch out.

“It really set the framework for what we should be doing as a region anyway,” Woodward said.

Although she has consistently urged residents and businesses to follow guidance from public health officials, Woodward has also been front and center in efforts to reopen the economy that have been met with anger from some and praise from others.

In June, Woodward joined other local officials who pushed for Spokane County to be allowed to enter Phase 3 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan, which would ease restrictions on businesses.

The request, which was summarily rejected, sparked controversy as COVID-19 case counts were increasing in Spokane County. Those mounting case counts were followed by an increase in hospitalizations and deaths, as is often the case, according to health officials.

But at the time, hospitalizations and deaths had yet to show the same upward trend as case counts, Woodward argued. She said officials believed the rise in cases was due to the increasing number of tests, not increased community spread.

“It’s a balance. That’s been the trickiest part of this, is balancing the community’s health with economic health – it’s not one or the other, it’s all of it,” Woodward said.

Woodward expressed concern about the community’s mental health heading into the winter, as have public health officials. She said the city has worked diligently to bring joy to people’s lives, such as by encouraging use of its parks, and she expects that work to continue in 2021.

Woodward also fielded criticism when she celebrated the ouster of county health officer Dr. Bob Lutz, writing in a letter to the county’s Board of Health – which eventually voted to fire him – that his imminent departure in November was “the best news I’ve heard in a long time.”

But Woodward argued “many people were misinformed about that whole process,” particularly her role in it. She never advocated to county officials that Lutz be fired, she said, and had no say in the decision, which was immensely controversial and sparked an effort to lessen the role of politics in public health decision-making.

“It couldn’t have been further from the truth,” Woodward said of rumors she encouraged board members to fire Lutz.

Still, she believes firing Lutz was the right move and stands by her criticism of his leadership, which she alleges was uncommunicative and too often exclusionary of differing opinions. Lutz has since been hired by the Washington Department of Health.

“My relationship with the health district has immensely improved, so we’re all working together again,” Woodward said. “That’s all I wanted.”

Public safety and police reform

Woodward made improving public safety a cornerstone of her campaign in 2019. Despite evidence that crime rates in Spokane were on the decline, Woodward called for improving at least the perception of safety, particularly downtown.

As promised, she relocated the Spokane Police Department’s precinct to a more central location downtown, finding a new home at the corner of Riverside Avenue and Wall Street. The City Council jumped on board, calling for the precinct to feature a community policing model with officers on foot and bike patrols, interacting with people downtown.

The pandemic has made judging the new precinct and its community policing model’s efficacy difficult, Woodward acknowledged, but she still has high hopes for it moving forward.

While the downtown precinct was a campaign promise kept, Woodward couldn’t anticipate the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which spurred protests nationwide, including in Spokane.

“The whole George Floyd situation was so unfortunate. It was unfortunate for the communities of color who felt as if it had happened here. It was unfortunate for the police who were treated as if it happened here – but it sparked a conversation that we need to have in this country,” Woodward said.

More than six months later, that conversation has yet to happen in Spokane.

Woodward has pledged to host community leaders for a dialogue on police reform, but refuses to hold it via Zoom, saying it needs to be “meaningful, and not just everybody being angry and frustrated.” She and Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs settled on a list of participants and planned to host the meeting just as Inslee announced new, more stringent coronavirus restrictions in November.

Meanwhile, community concerns over police accountability helped derail a proposed labor contract with the Spokane Police Guild, which had given a ringing endorsement to Woodward during the 2019 campaign. The guild has operated under an expired contract since 2016, but the City Council unanimously rejected the deal in June because it does not comply with police accountability standards set under the City Charter.

Despite that setback, Woodward said she is “confident we’re going to get that done at the very beginning of next year.”

Homelessness

As a candidate, Woodward pledged to take a different approach to homelessness and demand more personal accountability from those receiving services.

She has not upended the system in Spokane, which still features a network of low-barrier shelters. But it is evolving, in large part due to the pandemic. With federal and state coronavirus aid, the city partnered for the first time in earnest with Spokane County and Spokane Valley to operate and fund shelters through the summer.

Those partnerships led to the purchase of a building on Mission Avenue, which is being operated by the Salvation Army as a low-barrier shelter during the pandemic but will eventually transition into a “bridge housing” shelter. The shelter will be available by referral only, aiming to serve people who are determined to be prepared for the next step into permanent housing.

“We bought a new facility that will be programmed in a way that will get people out of homelessness. I am so excited for that, and to build other partnerships with businesses and schools and things like that to help people get job training, housing – all kinds of things,” Woodward said.

Meanwhile, Woodward’s insistence that a new, grant-funded young adult homeless shelter be located outside the city’s borders nearly derailed the entire project. Ultimately, she compromised and agreed to allow Volunteers of America to determine the location of the new shelter, as long as the nonprofit assuages the surrounding neighborhood’s concerns about potential impact and does not leave that task up to the mayor alone.

“That’s a hard conversation to have every single time, and when it falls on one person, it’s tough,” Woodward said.

Housing

The housing market likely will continue to be strained. People in larger cities like Seattle and San Francisco, who are more free to work from wherever they’d like, are eyeing smaller cities such as Spokane, where their dollar goes further.

Woodward made addressing the housing crisis a key priority earlier this year but, like many plans laid in 2020 they were stalled by the pandemic. Still, Woodward noted that the city kicked off work on its housing action plan, which it expects to have wrapped up in 2021.

Fluoride

Yet another unforeseen topic of debate this year was a proposal to add fluoride to Spokane’s water supply.

With some hesitation, the Spokane City Council accepted a $4 million grant from the Arcora Foundation to study and implement fluoridation. The city can decide to abandon fluoridation at any time, but under the terms of the deal it would have to pay back the money.

“It’s unfortunate that that was one of the strings attached,” Woodward said.

Some members of the City Council are hesitant to order fluoridation, but wish to use Arcora’s money to study and design a fluoridation plan before potentially putting it to a public advisory vote. Woodward has withheld her signature from a request for proposals, which would start the study and design process, before first sending the issue to a public vote.

Woodward argues that the city has already provided council members and the public with sufficient information on the costs of fluoridation based on a study conducted in 2004 and last updated in 2016.

The mayor has not taken a stance on the efficacy and safety of fluoridation, which is endorsed as a means of preventing tooth decay by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but said she’s earned the praise of people on the left and right of the political spectrum for her hesitancy to endorse it.

“I’m not even telling people where I stand on this, because it’s not about where I stand on this,” Woodward said.

The budget

In December, Woodward secured passage of the city’s first budget under her leadership, following a monthslong negotiation process that City Council members lauded.

The nearly $1 billion spending plan for 2021 avoided layoffs, but was otherwise financially restrained.

Losses in 2020 weren’t as severe as the early forecasts predicted by city officials, but the city is not out of the woods. Despite the city’s relatively solid financial footing, Woodward expects 2021 will bring financial challenges.

“We will take a hit next year, for sure … what that looks like, it’s hard to tell,” Woodward said.

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