Heeding her offer of a “different perspective,” the Spokane City Council unanimously appointed Betsy Wilkerson to the vacant seat in District 2.
Upon her swearing-in, Wilkerson will become the first African-American member on the council in nearly 20 years and the only nonwhite member of the current council.
“My pathway in life has been very different from most at City Council,” Wilkerson said. “I have had to walk alone in my leadership roles, I have had to go further to meet people, I’ve had to listen, and I’ve had to learn to step back. All of that comes to bear because I know as a person of color, when someone sees me, the first thing they see is my color.”
Though she highlighted her viewpoint as a person of color throughout the application process, Wilkerson also touted her lengthy professional resume. She has owned Moore’s Assisted Living, a residential care facility for the mentally ill, since 1993. In that role, she handles budgeting, government compliance and day-to-day operations, she said.
Wilkerson is also deeply rooted in the local nonprofit world, serving as president of the board at the Carl Maxey Center in the East Central Neighborhood and as a member of the board at the Innovia Foundation. In those roles, she’s gained experience with grants, managing capital projects and “balancing the wants and the needs of the people in East Central,” she said.
Wilkerson will take office immediately after she is sworn in, which has not yet been scheduled. Because the council does not meet on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Wilkerson’s first meeting will be on Jan. 27. Wilkerson’s term will last almost two years, and she can run in 2021 to keep her seat.
“I don’t come with any preconceived ideas about the issues and challenges in Spokane, I want to listen to everyone,” Wilkerson said.
Wilkerson will be the first African-American to serve on the Spokane City Council since Roberta Greene, who served until 2003. Wilkerson’s appointment also means the City Council will consist of a supermajority of women for the first time in the city’s history, according to Councilwoman Candace Mumm.
Mumm praised Wilkerson’s experience as a small-business owner and as a member of the nonprofit community in Spokane.
“She just kind of was the full package,” Mumm said.
Councilwoman Kate Burke said she was “excited to support” Wilkerson and encouraged the community to “hold her and the rest of us accountable.”
The seat representing District 2, which includes the South Hill and downtown Spokane, was vacated when Breean Beggs, who had held the position since his appointment in 2016, won his bid for City Council president in November.
Seven finalists were chosen from the list of 32 applicants for the job, which was open only to residents of the district.
One by one, the council interviewed the finalists in a marathon session on Monday morning.
The finalists were Alan Chatham, a partner in Fellow Coworking, a startup coworking space; Pia Hallenberg, a former journalist with the Inlander and The Spokesman-Review; Randy Ramos, a personal trainer and community organizer; Katey Treloar, a former teacher and school board candidate; John Waite, owner of Auntie’s Bookstore and former council candidate; Michelle Weaver, retired former chief operating officer of Embassy Management; and Wilkerson.
Each council member determined their questions ahead of time, but the candidates did not receive them in advance of the interviews.
Though several of the questions were standard interview fare, like a request to describe the candidates’ greatest strength, they also touched on specific issues, such as proposed tenant protections and a new city charter provision that requires the city to negotiate with unions in open session.
In response to a question about improving diversity at City Hall and on city boards and commissions, Wilkerson, the only African-American finalist, said “my presence on City Council will be a start.” Wilkerson said discussion of applying for the seat sparked excitement among her grandkids.
“If I am able to do that for some other kid of color, or some other youth in our community, that would be awesome,” Wilkerson said.
Ramos, a member of the Colville tribe, said his greatest strength is “to be able to bring so many different lenses and be so intersectional in so many different ways,” adding “that gives me an opportunity to hopefully open a lot of people’s eyes.”
Treloar also positioned herself as a unique candidate, leaning on her experience as a teacher and a parent. She said she would bring “moderate, middle-of-the-road” thoughts to the council.
Harkening back to her career in social services, Weaver touted herself as a “big proponent for marginalized communities,” including the homeless, those with mental illness, substance abuse disorders, “you name it.”
Asked about hearing different voices in the community, Hallenberg, a native of Denmark, noted her more than 3,000 friends on Facebook.
“I don’t feel isolated in terms of listening to the community,” Hallenberg said.
Transit and development
Asked to describe a time he has been forced to compromise, Waite lamented the impact the Spokane Transit Authority’s planned Central City Line will have on his dreams of a two-way Main Avenue and his “desire to have a slower downtown.”
“I’ve been all over the country, all over the world, and the neighborhoods and downtowns that are winning are the ones that are slower and pedestrian-friendly,” Waite said.
Weaver said she supports density and argued the city needs to pivot and prepare for “the influx of people that are coming,” which will exacerbate issues of homelessness and housing affordability.
When the Growth Management Act was finally implemented in Spokane in the 1990s, Hallenberg said she “wrote an insane number of newspaper articles about that.”
“I’m all for infill. Don’t sprawl. I don’t want any more sprawl,” Hallenberg said.
The majority of candidates expressed skepticism about building a new county jail, and several advocated that the community continue to invest in pretrial diversion programs and therapeutic courts that aim to reduce the number of people incarcerated.
Before building a new jail, Chatham said the community needs to “get to a level where we feel we’ve taken all the people out of jail that we can.”
Ramos advocated for addressing the root causes that lead to incarceration, like homelessness or mental health.
Hallenberg, however, supported a new jail – not for more beds, but because of the current jail’s condition.
“I know that it’s a struggle keeping that place running. I think it’s just outdated and old,” Hallenberg said.
Treloar advocated for a proactive approach to addressing the city’s social ills, including homelessness. As for the new jail, she suggested that early interventions with young children and at-risk families may reduce the need for a new jail.
“I’d like to try that first and do some specific work around helping our kiddos and then look at if we’re still in a position that we need another jail,” Treloar said.
Tenant protections, homelessness
Several candidates sought to strike a balance in addressing the need for tenant protections. The council proposed a lengthy slate of proposed housing regulations last year, but shelved the legislation until March amid outcry from landlords.
Weaver said tenant protections will help mitigate homelessness but believes “there has to be a way to find the win for both” landlords and tenants.
Hallenberg said she supports tenant protections, but does not believe their absence is a cause of homelessness. She warned about any law that “makes it impossible for the smaller landlords to have rental units.”
“It’s possible to find a middle road,” Hallenberg said.
Though he supported adding tenant protections, Waite suggested the city offer incentives to address low-income and working-class housing.
“Right now, it’s not profitable to build low-income or working-class housing, so no one’s doing it,” Waite said.
Asked what she would do with a magical $1 million in the budget, Wilkerson said she’d dedicate it to addressing homelessness.
Start with “a place to live, safe and secure,” she said. “Once those needs have been met, then we can go to the next level.”
Ramos criticized the decision to table tenant protection proposals. He said many families are worried this winter about their housing security, and said he was “disheartened” to see it shelved without protections in place.
Chatham believes tenant protections will help homelessness and said he knows one or two people who ended up homeless due to rising rent. Tenant protections “will help stabilize those transitions.”
If the council hypothetically found $1 million to spend in the city budget, Chatham said he would invest it in homelessness, particularly providing more shelter. Just because the city adopts laws making it hard to camp outside, homeless people “don’t disappear,” he said.
Treloar, a former teacher, said open collective bargaining for public sector unions provides an opportunity for union members to keep tabs on negotiations and “for the people that are doing the bargaining to be held accountable.”
Weaver says she supports transparency, but on Proposition 1, she said, “I would want to speak more with the unions and the people impacted.”
Ramos was the only candidate to speak strongly against Proposition 1. He warned against doing anything that “undermines” or “handicaps” unions.
Chatham said he would try to call random residents within his district to learn what they want from city government. He also said he would look to livestream his office hours on YouTube or Twitch to demonstrate the workings of government.
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