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Conservative Spokane Valley Councilman Rod Higgins faces moderate JJ Johnson in bid for third term

Sept. 16, 2021 Updated Tue., Nov. 2, 2021 at 4:07 p.m.

Spokane Valley City Councilman Rod Higgins is asking voters for a third term in a contest that will show if the city’s electorate prefers conservatives like Higgins or will continue a recent trend of preferring more moderate leaders.

Higgins faces James “JJ” Johnson, a former member of the city’s Planning Commission.

Spokane Valley voters are familiar with Higgins, who was appointed to City Council in 2013 and served as mayor from 2016-20. City Council members are all officially nonpartisan, but the 79-year-old former mining executive describes himself as conservative and has consistently been one of City Council’s most conservative voices during his tenure.

At a City Council meeting late last month, Higgins denounced Gov. Jay Inslee’s decision to issue a statewide mask mandate, announcing that “perhaps it’s time for a little civil disobedience.” He has said he’s opted not to get vaccinated against COVID-19 because he’s had negative reactions to other vaccines.

Johnson lacks Higgins’ name recognition, but he’s been involved with local boards and committees – he sat on Spokane Valley’s Planning Commission for five years and served as its chairman. Johnson also sits on the Spokane County Human Rights Task Force’s board of directors.

After spending years as a project manager overseeing steelwork for large construction projects, Johnson now works for Spokane Public Schools buying textbooks and other materials students need. He describes himself as “floating left and right of dead center.”

Where do they stand on homelessness?

Spokane Valley officials say homelessness appears to have increased significantly in recent years. Many local experts say the housing shortage and rising housing costs are causing more people to become homeless.

Despite the growing problem, the city lacks a thorough plan for addressing homelessness.

There also aren’t any homeless shelters within the city limits. Instead of paying for a shelter in Spokane Valley, the city sends money to the county, which in turn sends the money to Spokane where it’s used to support homeless shelters and services that the Valley shares. Valley residents who are homeless have to travel to Spokane for beds – when beds are available – and services.

Johnson said he’s not sure if the Valley should have a shelter of its own, but he wants the city to be more involved in the regional homelessness discussion.

He said the city should focus on preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place and added that’s the easiest way to address the issue.

“It’s not about sheltering someone, it’s about getting them back on track so they can be a productive part of society,” he said.

Higgins said he’s not opposed to having a shelter within city limits, but if there’s going to be a shelter, it need to have strings attached.

“Let me put it this way: I am not in favor of attracting homeless as they have in downtown Spokane,” he said. “If we have a shelter it’s with the idea that we would be working with that person, or those people, to get them out of homelessness, not simply to provide them with a place to stay.”

Spokane “subsidizes” people who are homeless and incentivizes homelessness, Higgins said. He also said he believes that eight or nine homeless people out of 10 are homeless due to mental health issues or drug addiction.

Only one or two homeless individuals out of 10 became homeless due to other circumstances, Higgins said.

“Those are the people we want to help,” he said. “The other people, maybe their life choices, maybe they can’t help themselves, but they need a different kind of help than living on the street, but they also ought not to be occupying parks and stuff like that.”

Higgins said the money the city sends to Spokane – currently about $750,000 a year – should instead be distributed to Spokane Valley nonprofits, such as Valley Partners.

“I think we could funnel our money through those (nonprofits) and use it much more efficiently for the benefit of homeless people,” Higgins said.

Should the city keep investing in parks and trails?

In the past few years, Spokane Valley has made several major land acquisitions with the goal of expanding the city’s parks and trail system.

In 2020, the City Council voted to buy 45 acres of undeveloped land along the Spokane River for $2.1 million. That former state Department of Transportation waterfront property is located south of Flora Road and Euclid Avenue.

This year, the City Council spent $1.6 million for 17.7 acres of undeveloped land in the Ponderosa neighborhood.

Some council members have argued that investing in parks and trails now, while some undeveloped land is still available, is critical. Others have said that, while they like parks and trails, the city’s focus should be elsewhere for the time being.

Johnson describes himself as a big parks and trails proponent and said that as the Valley builds more housing it will become increasingly important to set aside park space.

“The city of Spokane Valley is under-parked, and I am very much in favor of the land acquisitions that were done recently,” he said.

In 2020, Higgins wanted the city to hold off on buying the Flora Road property. He said he wanted to wait because the COVID-19 pandemic had made the city’s future financial standing uncertain.

He said he “hasn’t developed a position” on whether the city should be investing heavily in parks and trails right now, but he does want the city to follow through on any unfinished projects.

Should the Valley have its own police department?

Spokane Valley is a contract city.

In practice, that means the city operates with a skeleton crew of employees. Instead of hiring more people, Spokane Valley contracts with various private and governmental entities for services.

For law enforcement needs, the Valley contracts with the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office.

It often looks like Spokane Valley has its own police department – Valley police cruisers have their own custom paint jobs, for instance – but Valley officers are part of the Sheriff’s Office.

Many Spokane Valley leaders tout the benefits of the arrangement, arguing it saves the city money. Still, people have debated for years the pros and cons of relying on the Sheriff’s Office for police needs.

Higgins noted that the Sheriff’s Office is short-staffed and Spokane Valley is shorthanded by about 10 officers.

“We need to fix that however we can,” he said.

Spokane Valley is paying for “hellacious” amounts of overtime, because officers are working extra hours to cover for unfilled shifts, Higgins said. He said it’s time once again for the city to consider forming its own police department.

“It shouldn’t be off the table, let’s put it that way,” Higgins said. “We’re on the horns of a dilemma.”

Johnson said he wants the city to continue contracting with the Sheriff’s Office.

“It’s a very cost-effective deal,” he said. “It seems like we’ve got a pretty good law enforcement agency in the county, so contracting through them just makes perfect sense.”

Creating a new police department simply isn’t necessary, Johnson said.

“Why the redundant services?” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

What they say about Shea

Matt Shea is one of Spokane Valley’s most famous residents.

He served as a Republican 4th Legislative District representative for over a decade but didn’t run for reelection in 2020.

Shea generated controversy repeatedly during his time in Olympia and was ousted in 2019 by the Washington House’s Republican Caucus after an independent investigation found he committed “an act of domestic terrorism against the United States” for his role in the 2016 standoff at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Southern Oregon.

Despite the controversies, Shea remains popular among many Spokane Valley residents. Higgins has often defended Shea and argued the former legislator is unfairly portrayed by the media.

Higgins isn’t defending Shea as emphatically now.

“In his time, Matt Shea was a very effective legislator,” Higgins said. “Where he’s gone and what he’s doing now I don’t really know.”

In the run up to this summer’s primary election, The Spokesman-Review asked Spokane Valley City Council candidates how they felt about Shea. No candidate denounced or defended him, and some refused to discuss him at all.

Johnson is the only City Council candidate who has criticized Shea.

“Domestic terrorism is wrong. It doesn’t matter whether it’s done by a guy with a tie or a group with military armor on. Domestic terrorists should go to jail,” Johnson said, emphasizing that Shea’s own caucus expelled him.

Spokane Valley City Councilmembers shouldn’t defend Shea, Johnson said.

Northwest Passages / The Spokesman-Review

“There are individuals who apologize for him,” he said. “It’s pretty hard for me to understand how those individuals can lead an entire city.”

In May 2019, Johnson attended a Spokane Valley City Council meeting and spoke about Shea.

“The current representative of the 4th Legislative District does not accurately represent our hometown,” he said during the meeting. “I hope he doesn’t represent anyone on this body. I hope he doesn’t represent anyone in this room or anyone in my hometown. But I’m not that naive.”

On the roads

Spokane Valley officials say city roads are in good shape, but in order to keep them from falling into disrepair the city needs to spend $16 million a year on maintenance.

Today, the city is spending $8 million a year on average on roads. Revenues from one of the city’s main road funding sources, a tax on noncellular telephone service, keep falling by roughly 7% every year.

The city needs a new, consistent way to pay for road maintenance if it’s going to spend $16 million a year on streets. A Streets Sustainability Committee, formed by the council this year, could provide potential solutions, but for now there’s no consensus on where road maintenance money should come from.

Johnson said the city has been talking for years about how to pay for road maintenance. It’s time to decide on a solution, he said.

“I think they should just determine that they’re going to be pulling it out of the general fund and realize that’s what it is and move forward,” Johnson said.

Higgins said ideally the city will find a stable, recession-proof money source, but he doesn’t yet know how to solve the road funding shortage.

“I’m not sure there is such thing as a stable, dependable source of revenue,” he said.

Relying on surplus funds – which is one of the ways the city’s paying for road work now – is risky, Higgins said, because the economy could collapse unexpectedly.

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