Sadie Charlene Cooney, who worked in the Spokane County Assessor’s Office for nearly 40 years and was the first woman to lead that office, died last week. She was 87.
Cooney, who grew up in Kansas City and moved to Spokane in 1958, started out in the assessor’s office as a clerk. Spokane County commissioners appointed her assessor in 1992 after George Britton retired before completing his term.
In 1994, Cooney ran for county assessor and won. She held the position for another eight years, but her tenure was most memorable for a handful of controversies.
A 1996 report by Washington Auditor Brian Sonntag found a long list of issues with the Spokane Assessor’s office. Mistakes and backlogs were costing the county millions of dollars.
“Weak internal controls increase the potential for the occurrence of fraud and undetected accounting errors,’’ the audit stated.
Cooney repeatedly violated ethics laws and admitted to having her county staffers work for her election campaigns while on the job. In 2002, a judge fined her $3,000 for using county equipment and employees in a reelection campaign. Spokane County spent more than $180,000 to fight and settle a legal claim that Cooney retaliated against employees who didn’t support her 1998 re-election bid.
Despite her rocky time at the helm of the assessor’s office, Cooney was a hardworking public servant, said former Spokane mayor and friend Sheri Barnard .
“I’m going to miss her so much,” Barnard said. “She was fun, funny, loyal, dedicated to her beliefs: faith and politics and family.”
Barnard said a shared passion for politics was a big reason the two became so close. The Democrats used to talk politics for hours on end and worked on each other’s campaigns.
Like Barnard, Cooney and her husband Joe were heavily involved with the Democratic Party.
When Joe Cooney died in 1996, The Spokesman-Review described the lawyer as a “Democratic stalwart.”
“My dad, he was an influencer; he ran many, many campaigns,” Michael Cooney said.
Politics was big in the Cooney household.
“It was just all part of the DNA of the family,” Michael Cooney said.
One of Cooney’s greatest strengths was her ability to make profound connections with people quickly, Michael Cooney said.
“She was very special that way,” he said. “People would start talking about their lives to her.”
A few years ago, Cooney flew out to Georgia to attend her granddaughter’s graduation.
After her plane landed, she needed a wheelchair to get to baggage claim, and an airport employee helped her make the trip.
“By the time she gets to me, and this couldn’t have been what, five to 10 minutes, she says, ‘Michael, this is Damian. You should hear him sing,’ ” Michael Cooney said, explaining that his mother befriended the man almost immediately. “That’s just one of a million stories.”
Even though she was friendly, Cooney was strict with her two sons.
Once, Michael Cooney did something of which his mother didn’t approve . Maybe he got caught telling a lie or didn’t vacuum the house – he doesn’t remember.
He still remembers his punishment.
“The worst thing she ever did to me was she said, ‘You’re not going to the (Gonzaga basketball) game tonight because you did not do what you were supposed to do,’ ” he said. “You couldn’t inflict worse discipline on me than to take away the Zags.”
Cooney was a devout Catholic. Her faith was a major part of her identity, Barnard and Michael Cooney agreed.
“The essence of her is her faith, but she was a progressive woman,” Michael Cooney said. “She was about women’s roles improving and their wages being appropriate, being on the same level as men. (The gender wage gap) drove her absolutely nuts.”
Cooney loved working for the assessor’s office, Barnard and Michael Cooney said.
The controversies during her time leading the department hurt her.
“There were some very difficult times,” Michael Cooney said. “I know that she shared that mistakes happen and she was sick about it. … Unfortunately, when you’re the boss, you’re responsible for it, and she understood that. She never deflected that, she took those hits and they were painful.”
In 2002, Cooney lost her re-election campaign to Duane Sommers. The loss was hard to take.
Eight years later, Cooney ran again as a 76-year-old but didn’t advance past the primary election.
“She just wanted to be assessor again so badly,” Barnard said.
Michael Cooney said COVID-19 killed his mother. If it weren’t for the virus, she would have lived at least until her early 90s, he said.
“We were robbed,” he said. “She loved this community and spent her whole life trying to make it better for people. It’s going to be very lonely without her.”
The Cooney family will have a celebration of life at their Corbin Park home Monday from 5-8 p.m.
Funeral mass will be held Tuesday morning at 10 a.m. at St. Aloysius Catholic Church.
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