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‘Only going to get tougher from here’: Spokane County redistricting committee deadlocks on picking leader

UPDATED: Thu., April 15, 2021

The Spokane County Courthouse pictured in 2019.   (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
The Spokane County Courthouse pictured in 2019.  (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The special bipartisan committee tasked with dividing Spokane County into five new commissioner districts hit a brick wall Thursday in its first big task, picking a nonvoting chairperson to run the process.

After interviewing four candidates Wednesday , the Redistricting Committee deadlocked 2-2 on three separate votes. Because Thursday was the deadline set by state law for the committee to select the chairperson, the decision now goes to Spokane County commissioners, who previously challenged the constitutionality of the new process.

County commissioners have until the end of the month to name a chairperson.

From the outset of Thursday’s meeting, it was clear committee members wanted different things in their prospective chairperson, and had two different candidates in mind.

The two members appointed by local legislative Republicans – former U.S. Attorney Jim McDevitt and former county GOP chairwoman Robin Ball – backed Bill Hyslop, a lawyer and two-time U.S. attorney under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Donald Trump.

Hyslop has deep ties to the community, is a former president of the state bar association and the only candidate the committee interviewed with mediation experience, McDevitt said.

But Hyslop has a long record of donating to Republican candidates, including County Commissioner Al French, countered Brian McClatchey, director of Policy and Government Relations for the Spokane City Council, who was appointed by local legislative Democrats. French is an outspoken opponent of the five commissioner law.

Asked how he would address any perception of bias based on his ties to Republican candidates, Hyslop told committee members he would ask the public not to jump to conclusions until they had a chance to watch how he handled the process. He cited his work with Democrats on various projects, and has “good friends on both sides of the aisle.”

As the nonvoting chairman, “the role is not to make decisions, the role is to bring people together,” he said.

But Natasha Hill, a local attorney and the other committee member selected by local legislative Democrats, said Thursday his role as chairman is also to be the voice of the committee to the entire Spokane community.

“I don’t like the fact that (Hyslop) donated to a sitting commissioner,” Hill said. “Perception is reality for an individual.”

McDevitt and Ball voted yes on a motion to make Hyslop the nonvoting chair, while McClatchey and Hill voted no.

Hill then nominated Gary Stokes, general manager of KSPS and a journalist with a long history of covering politics. In his interview, he told committee members he has always been fascinated by the political process and viewed his role as “being Switzerland”.

“I love bringing disparate people together,” he said.

But Stokes has no mediation training, Ball said Thursday.

“This is not a mediation,” McClatchey countered.

It would be impossible to find someone who was completely nonpartisan, McDevitt said, adding Stokes voted Democratic in the last two presidential primaries.

Hill and McClatchey voted yes on a motion to name Stokes as the nonvoting chairman, McDevitt and Ball voted no.

In a final move, Hill and McClatchey nominated Gloria Ochoa, the director of Local Government and Cultural Affairs for the city of Spokane. Ochoa wasn’t interviewed by the committee but was on the two Democratic appointees’ original list. She was later dropped after McDevitt said he would have trouble working with her based on past experiences with the city.

That motion also failed on a 2-2 vote.

The committee will now “stand down” until the commissioners appoint a chairperson, which McClatchey conceded may be Hyslop. They will have a brief meeting after that to set a schedule for public meetings on how to divide the county into five roughly equal districts.

They will have to study the data, which won’t be final from the U.S. Census Bureau until the end of September, before deciding where the new boundary lines go.

“It’s only going to get tougher from here,” McClatchey said.

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