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Mike Fagan earns high praise, even from political opposites, for approach on City Council

Spokane City Councilman Mike Fagan makes the first speech of the day at the Liberty or Death Rally on Aug. 18, 2018 in Franklin Park. Fagan was met with cheers when he mentioned that Initiative 1639, a gun control measure, was tossed out by a judge  that week. Libby Kamrowski/ THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane City Councilman Mike Fagan makes the first speech of the day at the Liberty or Death Rally on Aug. 18, 2018 in Franklin Park. Fagan was met with cheers when he mentioned that Initiative 1639, a gun control measure, was tossed out by a judge that week. Libby Kamrowski/ THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

From atop the dais at his final meeting as a member of the Spokane City Council, Mike Fagan wedged a warning about the potential adverse health effects of 5G wireless connectivity into a discussion about unrelated legislation.

“But I can’t get the government to acknowledge (them),” he said.

Fagan, who left office last week after two terms on the City Council, remained suspicious of government even as he became firmly entrenched in it.

Fagan stood alone on the council in warning, with little evidence, of the potential perils of vaccines, an influx of illegal immigrants coming across the Canadian border and even the existence of chemtrails, a long-debunked conspiracy theory.

But when a constituent called, Fagan answered.

Fagan, who represented the council’s northeast district and lost a bid for City Council president in November, sometimes raised eyebrows with opinions not just out of left field but off the map.

Although his political ideology rarely overlapped with that of his liberal-leaning colleagues in recent years, they expressed adoration for his commitment to constituent services, as well as his congeniality on the dais and behind closed doors.

“From the minute I got on City Council, what I learned from him is when there’s a problem in your district, you go to your district. You visit those constituents,” said Councilwoman Karen Stratton.

That focus is evident even in the voicemail message on his cellphone, the number to which is hardly a closely guarded secret.

“Well, hello there, folks,” he starts, before asking the caller to leave a name, phone number, email address – “whatever means it is that I need to get back to you.” (Fagan did not return a request for comment for this article.)

Before he worked to change the political system from within, Fagan made a name from himself fighting it from outside – sometimes in costume.

Fagan famously donned a weasel costume and followed then-Congressman George Nethercutt, who had reneged on a promise to self-impose term limits. (Never one to shy away from criticizing a public official, Fagan also drew condemnation after calling Gov. Jay Inslee a “lying whore” in 2013.) He also co-founded the political action committee Voters Want More Choices and partnered with Tim Eyman on a number of anti-tax initiatives in Washington.

Though he voted with his colleagues more often than not, his one-man stands brought him the most attention.

Fagan was removed from the board of the Spokane Regional Health District in 2015 after he publicly questioned the efficacy of vaccines.

“I believe that more will rise to the surface as the vaccination debate heats up,” he wrote in a Facebook post at the time. “Kind of like the global warming thing, one day there is, and another day there isn’t. Only science will tell.”

Science has told. According to the World Health Organization, not only are vaccines safe, but someone is “far more likely to be seriously injured by a vaccine-preventable disease than by a vaccine.”

In 2017, he questioned the nature of trails left by aircraft in the sky.

“What I would like to do is issue a challenge to the citizens out there, if they see an airplane in high atmosphere, watch the airplane’s activities for a while,” Fagan said at the time. “You’re going to see a trail come out of that airplane, that dissipates and enlarges itself, floating back down to the ground. Then what happens?”

What happens, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, is that the cloud of vapor and sulfur resulting from jet engine combustion slowly dissipates into the atmosphere.

But those moments are blips in a tenure more centrally focused on responding to the concerns of citizens in his district, his colleagues recalled in interviews with The Spokesman-Review. Fagan’s fellow council members did not allow their political differences to infect their personal relationships.

Former City Council President Ben Stuckart, who like Fagan was elected to the first of two terms in 2011, called on state Rep. Matt Shea to resign last year following reports that Shea had directed surveillance on progressive politicians, including Stuckart. Fagan co-hosts a right-wing radio show, the Right Spokane Perspective, that welcomes Shea on as a guest.

To Stuckart, that sort of outward-facing fissure was never going to impede their internal work on the City Council.

“We worked well together,” Stuckart said.

During his bid for mayor, Stuckart said he experienced the impact of Fagan’s neighborhood-focused approach to serving on the council while campaigning door-to-door in Fagan’s district.

“It was probably over 30 people over the course over the last eight months that said Mike had been to their house or been to their neighborhood,” Stuckart said.

When the city proposed opening a new homeless shelter adjacent to Project id, a nonprofit on Havana Street that serves intellectually and developmentally disabled adults, Fagan responded personally to the organization’s concerns. He joined the groundswell of public officials and community members to oppose the project, which was ultimately scrapped.

“It wasn’t like he just came in and talked to us, he actually went out and got involved in the program and got to see it in action. It was like he was really trying to learn what we are and what we are about,” recalled Bob Hutchinson, executive director of Project id.

Fagan earned Stratton’s respect when he helped a marijuana retailer navigate a maze of regulatory hurdles, despite his personal apprehensions about the industry. Stratton, who has ties to the marijuana industry herself, “didn’t want to get involved in it,” she said, and tapped Fagan to step in.

“He went inside this cannabis store, he listened, he understood what they needed,” Stratton said. “That showed such integrity, that he was willing to stand up and say I don’t agree with anything the cannabis industry is doing, but these are my constituents and I’m going to listen to them.”

In a gesture showing her appreciation, Stratton gifted Fagan a pair of marijuana-themed socks he’s been known to wear to council meetings.

Though Council President Breean Beggs only served with Fagan during the latter’s final term, he saw Fagan adapt his approach.

“I watched him evolve in my four years to really understand the process of government, and it doesn’t have to be an ‘us versus them’ on most issues. He started picking his battles,” Beggs said.

Being in a political minority, Fagan seldom singlehandedly drafted legislation that became law. But his colleagues still commended his willingness to collaborate on issues including the council’s objection to a regional 911 dispatch center and a long-term plan to pave the city’s dozens of miles of unpaved streets. In 2017, he worked with Beggs on an unsuccessful proposal to increase oversight over how the police department uses funds seized from suspected criminals.

“That’s frustrating when you’re in the deep minority to get things done. But he figured out how to do it,” Beggs said.

When Fagan joined the council, its conservative members were in the majority.

Nancy McLaughlin said she and Fagan are generally on the same page philosophically – less government involvement, more personal responsibility. But when Fagan joined, McLaughlin recalled his belief that “ ‘I’m going to come in and change the world and we’re going to put a stop to government encroachment.’ ”

“He quickly learned that he only had one vote like everybody else,” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin said she watched Fagan grow from a “shoot-from-the-hip” councilman to the “most improved legislator.”

“He became a really good team player,” McLaughlin said.

In prepared remarks at his final council meeting, Fagan warned that government “was not and is not intended to be our savior.” Still, he asked citizens to honor him by participating in it.

“Keeping your finger on the pulse of your government, getting involved in the process, and being a part of any solution that may come of your volunteerism,” Fagan said.

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