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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Cathcart may not be part of new county commission, but his proposal should be

Spokane Councilman Michael Cathcart speaks during a press conference announcing a proposal for a new police precinct at the former East Side Library on Tuesday, May 17, 2022.  (Greg Mason / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Councilman Michael Cathcart speaks during a press conference announcing a proposal for a new police precinct at the former East Side Library on Tuesday, May 17, 2022. (Greg Mason / The Spokesman-Review)

In the week before the election, Range Media asked the candidates for County Commission whether the commission is accessible and accountable enough to the public.

I thought this question was important, but unlikely to produce much in the way of concrete answers or proposals. After all, the issues of whether the county’s meeting agendas are detailed enough (they aren’t), or whether meetings are held in accessible times and places (they aren’t), or whether the public receives ample notice before decisions are made and has a chance to comment (they don’t) – are questions that don’t necessarily thrill the electorate in the final days of a race or inspire detailed policy papers.

So it wasn’t surprising that most of the answers were vague and to-be-expected. Incumbent commissioners Al French and Josh Kerns thought things were going just swell, naturally (“My record is clear,” French said, “I have been a champion for transparency … “), and Mary Kuney didn’t answer. The challengers – Amber Waldref, Maggie Yates and Chris Jordan – all agreed the county could improve, and offered an idea or two in that direction.

But it was Michael Cathcart – the City Council member who lost to Waldref in the race for the commission – who produced the fullest, most detailed case for improving public access at the County Commission.

As one of the first initiatives in this brave new five-commissioner world, commissioners ought to turn Cathcart’s ideas into a formal proposal, put it onto an agenda, invite public comment – and adopt what emerges from that process. Because Cathcart’s proposal would represent an advance of light-years in improving public access to county government, and be a fantastic first step for the new era.

“Democracy cannot survive behind closed doors, nor can it survive inaccessible government decision making,” Cathcart wrote in his answer. “Open government is the only way voters can effectively hold our politicians and institutions accountable.”

That’s right on the money – but it’s not what made his answer so good. He followed up with a detailed, point-by-point outline of how he would improve public access to the county commission.

They include: livestreaming all meetings and archiving videos of the meetings; implementing a policy to provide language access for people who speak little or no English; building a database of all votes, and amendments, the commission takes and a searchable database of all legislation voted on; ensure all agendas are posted early and easy to find and understand; and aggressively promote meetings to the public, in an effort to bring people in. (You can see all the answers at rangemedia.co/commission-county-business-transparent-incumbents-spokane-election)

“These are the kind of things that have been top of mind even before I ran for City Council,” he said in an interview this week. “I think it’s very important for constituents to have access to our government.”

This has been a theme of Cathcart’s public life, and he’s been involved with several open-government efforts at City Hall in his time on the council. He co-sponsored a proposal requiring the city to adopt a language-access plan with Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson. He and former Councilwoman Kate Burke pushed, during the pandemic, to expand the filming of council committee meetings.

He says he’s interested in seeing whether there might be a way to try and make government proposals more accessible to the public through the use of simple, clear, layman’s-term summaries of legislation.

“There’s so much we do that’s technical and legalese,” he said. “It might help to get people involved to boil it down and make it more easily understood.”

His grand idea for making local governments more accessible – all local governments in the region – is to take the city’s current efforts, via Channel 5 and its web site and Vimeo page, and build upon them to mimic The Seattle Channel. That’s a one-stop online shop for information, videos, documents and reports about Seattle city government.

“I would like to see us do something like that, but regionally – the city is there, the county is there, the valley,” he said.

The obscurity and opacity of county government has been a longstanding feature of the current regime. What’s going to emerge from this week’s election is a shakeup with few local precedents – the shift to the strong mayor at City Hall in January 2001 is the only substantial, comparable local government remodel in recent history.

Cathcart brings a sincere and specific track record to the issue, and his proposals would go a long way toward adding sunshine and public participation to the region’s biggest governmental body.

The new commission majority will be the same as the old commission majority, but now there’s a significant minority to help push for the change.

As Cathcart said, “People can’t make good decisions without good information.”

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