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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Growing rift on Spokane Valley City Council? Committee assignment changes show divide between majority and minority

Pam Haley’s tenure as Spokane Valley mayor has gotten off to a contentious start.  (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

The year has gotten off to a contentious start for Spokane Valley City Council.

On Tuesday, City Council voted to strip Councilman Ben Wick and Councilwoman Brandi Peetz of nearly all their committee assignments.

Committee assignments matter because they provide elected officials with an opportunity to advocate for constituents at the regional level.

Not all committees are equally influential, but some set important regional policies and distribute millions of dollars throughout Spokane County every year. Regional committees can have power over everything from economic development and homelessness prevention to housing and long-term transportation planning.

The mayor chooses committee assignments, and City Council can either approve or reject the mayor’s appointments. Council voted 4-3 in favor of Mayor Pam Haley’s choices with Wick, Peetz and City Councilman Tim Hattenburg opposing the move.

Haley opted for a lopsided committee assignment breakdown.

City Councilman Rod Higgins now sits on seven committees. Councilman Arne Woodard has six, Haley has four – the mayor is required to sit on two of those – and City Councilwoman Laura Padden has three.

Wick and Hattenburg have one each. Peetz has two, but she wasn’t assigned to a single regional committee. Haley only appointed her to Spokane Valley’s internal Finance and Governance Manual committees, which Peetz said haven’t met in two years. The Governance Manual committee reviews City Council’s rules and procedures while the Finance Committee looks at financial policies.

“Everyone should have a regional board,” Peetz said. “That’s where a lot of the work happens.”

The committee assignments were shared more equally during Wick’s run as mayor from 2020 through 2021. When Wick took over, he started with five committee assignments. Peetz and Higgins had four, City Councilwoman Linda Thompson had three, and Woodard, Hattenburg and Haley each had two.

The new arrangement shows the divide between the more conservative City Council majority – Haley, Higgins, Woodard and Padden – and the more moderate minority – Wick, Peetz and Hattenburg.

Once the results of the November election were in, it appeared likely the direction at Spokane Valley City Hall would change. Padden, who is married to Republican state Sen. Mike Padden, unseated Thompson, who had previously run for state office as a Democrat. Padden’s win shifted the balance of power on City Council to the right.

Hattenburg, who has served on City Council since 2020, said he’s appreciative that Haley put him on the regional board he wanted: the Spokane Transit Authority.

But he said he’s disappointed Wick and Peetz lost so many assignments and feels the changes represent a move toward partisanship on the officially nonpartisan City Council.

“I had previously run in partisan races, and that’s one of the reasons I was excited to run for council, the nonpartisan nature of it,” Hattenburg said. “I guess it would appear we’re getting away from that.”

Haley’s rationale

Haley explained during Tuesday’s City Council meeting her reasoning for the redistribution of committee assignments.

“Both you (Wick) and Ms. Peetz mentioned that you were having to spend a lot of time away from your family while being the mayor and the deputy mayor,” Haley said. “There’ll be more appointments in a year and at this point it’s just to give you guys a little bit of time for your family, so thank you.”

Wick and Peetz said they don’t think it’s true that family time considerations are why Haley took away their committee assignments. Both said their schedules allow them to sit on committees while also spending time with their families. Wick pointed out that one of his previous committees, the Lodging Tax Advisory Committee, only meets once a year.

In an interview, Haley said other factors also influenced her decisions, and the public deserved to know about them.

“I don’t want to talk badly about other council members,” she said. “But I had very good reasons.”

Haley said Wick damaged key relationships for the city during his time on the Spokane Regional Transportation Council, which some would argue is Spokane Valley’s most important regional board. The regional transportation council is a federal Metropolitan Planning Organization and a Regional Transportation Planning Organization under Washington law.

Wick had been serving as the Spokane Regional Transportation Council’s chairman. Haley said his actions as chairman caused the Spokane International Airport to leave the board entirely and also damaged the board’s relationship with the Spokane Transit Authority.

Wick acknowledged that the airport and STA were upset when the Spokane Regional Transportation Council voted to remove them from the SRTC’s internal administrative committee. But he said that took a vote of the SRTC as a whole, and it wasn’t his decision alone. He also said that when the airport left the SRTC, the airport’s executive director said he had to leave to focus on running the airport during the pandemic.

In addition to criticizing his performance on the Spokane Regional Transportation Council, Haley said she didn’t think Wick did a good job while he was chairman of the Spokane Regional Health District’s Board of Health.

The Board of Health has had a tumultuous two years during the COVID-19 pandemic. The list of health board controversies is long – and many have been outside the full board’s control – but the most notable was the firing of health officer Dr. Bob Lutz.

“I made the best calls we could for our health district and our community,” Wick said. “The health district had to make some tough calls.”

Wick said he wished he could speak more about his time on the health board but couldn’t due to pending litigation. He didn’t mention any specific lawsuit, but Lutz is suing the health district for wrongful termination.

Haley said she took away Peetz’ committees for a more general reason.

“She has a really hard time showing up for things, particularly on time,” Haley said. “When you’re late to stuff, it makes it difficult.”

Peetz said Haley’s assertion was untrue.

“My record speaks for itself as far as attendance goes,” she said. “I don’t miss my meetings.”

Taking away committee assignments limits Wick’s and Peetz’ official influence over regional decisions, and Haley acknowledged that her appointment choices weren’t as equitable as Wick’s.

“I actually had a lot of heartache over that,” she said, adding that she switched assignments around “a million times on paper” before making her final call. “It just felt like I was doing the best I could for the citizens of Spokane Valley.”

More conflicts coming?

The way Wick distributed committee assignments at the start of 2020 was a break from the norm. During Higgins’ time as mayor, the committee splits looked more like Haley’s.

Wick said he doesn’t regret choosing a more equitable distribution, even if that choice hasn’t been reciprocated.

“In my opinion, it was the right thing to do,” he said. “I tried to put people to where their strengths were.”

Woodard and Higgins said they think it’s misleading to compare Wick’s committee appointments to Haley’s. Not all committees are equally powerful, they said.

“If you look at important committees like SRTC, Ben didn’t distribute those,” Higgins said. “Quite frankly, I don’t think that anything is amiss here.”

Padden said she doesn’t think Wick and Peetz have any legitimate reason to be upset.

“There’s no rule that says you have to distribute them a particular way,” she said. “This is how things work, and this is why we have elections.”

Haley described 2022 as a “test year.” If Wick can show a more Valley-centric philosophy while he serves on Visit Spokane, and if Peetz can improve her meeting attendance, committee assignments could change in 2023, Haley said.

It’s possible that change in committee assignments could damage collaboration between the seven City Council members going forward.

Wick described the situation as a step backward for Spokane Valley and said the divide between the majority and minority on council appears to be widening.

“It’s been a fireworks show from day one,” he said. “I think the community deserves better.”