The Spokane Valley City Council appears to be moving from the center to the right after Laura Padden beat incumbent Councilmember Linda Thompson in the Nov. 2 general election.
The ideological shift on the City Council is significant, but it’s difficult to pinpoint precisely how it’ll affect the direction of Spokane Valley government.
The City Council occasionally has 4-3 votes, where the more conservative minority gets overruled. Councilmembers Ben Wick, Linda Thompson, Tim Hattenburg and Brandi Peetz sometimes vote together, while Pam Haley, Arne Woodard and Rod Higgins sometimes find themselves in the minority.
Those 4-3 votes aren’t especially common though. Most City Council votes are unanimous.
“I could count, maybe on one hand, how many times we had 4-3 votes,” said Hattenburg, who was elected to council in 2019.
Even if a move back to the right doesn’t change a huge number of votes, it could affect the city in subtler ways.
For instance, the new, more conservative majority will pick councilmember committee assignments. Committee assignments matter because they determine which councilmembers represent the city on different boards, such as the health district and transportation council. Some boards decide how to allocate taxpayer funds and can guide regional decisions on certain issues.
The conservative majority will likely choose a new mayor, too, replacing Wick after his two years at the helm.
The Spokane Valley mayor is, to a large extent, a figurehead. Unlike in Spokane, the mayor is merely a councilmember like all the others, chosen by council, not the general public.
“The mayor can be influential, however,” Higgins said, adding that the mayor is “truly the face of the city, so it’s important how that’s presented.”
On election night, Nov. 2, a power shift didn’t seem likely.
Four incumbents were up for re-election: Thompson, Higgins, Wick and Haley.
Wick and Haley were expected to win easily on election night after their dominant showings in the primary. They did, topping father-and-son candidates Wayne and Brandon Fenton by 30 or more percentage points each.
The Fentons gained some name recognition during the COVID-19 pandemic when their bar, The Black Diamond, remained open in defiance of Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-home order. They are ardent supporters of former President Donald Trump, even adopting a modified version of his campaign slogan as their own: “Make Spokane Valley Great Again.” They raised far less money than any other council candidates, with neither spending more than $4,200.
The Thompson and Higgins races were the ones with realistic potential to shift the balance of power on City Council. Anyone wanting a centrist City Council was hoping for, at least, a Thompson win or a Higgins loss.
Thompson, who ran as a Democrat in 2008 for the Washington House of Representatives, found herself with 48% of the vote on election night, putting her behind Padden, who managed 51%. Padden spent $32,400, more than any other candidate and three times as much as Thompson.
Padden, who is married to Republican state Sen. Mike Padden, has only padded her lead in the days since. With all of the votes counted as of Friday, she has 53% of the vote to Thompson’s 46%.
Even though Padden is probably more conservative than Thompson, the Nov. 2 results – which represented roughly 75% of the votes – didn’t suggest the status quo on City Council was changing.
Higgins, a conservative, was losing too. He had 48% of the vote compared to 52% for challenger James “JJ” Johnson.
If Johnson had held onto his lead, the City Council probably would have stayed in the middle. Johnson has never held elected office, but he describes himself as “floating left and right of dead center.”
But, as they usually do, the later arriving ballots favored the more conservative candidate.
Higgins mounted a remarkable comeback. As the Spokane County Auditor’s Office kept counting votes, he kept gaining ground, eventually overtaking Johnson. He currently leads 50.01% to 49.66% and is up by a mere 73 votes out of more than 20,000 ballots cast.
When the gap between candidates is smaller than 0.5% and fewer than 2,000 votes, it triggers a recount per Washington law. The recount will happen soon after the election’s certified on Nov. 23, but it’s unlikely to do Johnson much good. Recounts rarely change many votes and he probably can’t make up the deficit.
“Based on history of the last 20 years, it’s incredibly unlikely,” Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton said.
Higgins said it’s hard to say how the new City Council might vote differently, but he sees two issues that might divide council opinion.
The city needs to come up with a new revenue stream in order to pay for future road maintenance, Higgins said. And he isn’t sure that everyone will agree on where the money should come from.
Higgins also said it’s possible councilmembers could disagree on how to address the law enforcement staffing shortage.
Spokane Valley pays the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement. All Spokane Valley Police Department officers are technically sheriff’s office employees.
The sheriff’s office, like many agencies throughout the country, is short-staffed. Higgins said that can’t be allowed to continue forever. Spokane Valley needs more officers and if the sheriff’s office can’t find them, the city will have to consider splitting from the county and forming its own department, Higgins said.
“If that doesn’t get better we’re going to have to take a long look at our future,” he said.
Haley said she expects the new majority might want to spend less city money on parks and trails, at least for the time being.
Still, while Spokane Valley government could change in some ways, councilmembers all said they think the changes will be minor.
Woodard said he thinks the new minority and majority will be able to get along.
“We don’t want a big battle,” he said. “We don’t want people to see us just fight, fight, fight.”
Haley said the same.
“We do work pretty well together for the most part,” she said. “I don’t think that it’ll be super dramatic.”
Hattenburg said he thinks people overestimate the ideological gap between the two council factions anyway.
“It’s more in people’s minds,” he said.
Wick said he doesn’t expect much contentiousness on the new council simply because a new majority will be in charge.
“We all agree on 90% of everything,” he said, “maybe 95%.”