Cary Driskell, who helped lead Spokane Valley incorporation effort, leaves after 20 years at City Hall
Feb. 5, 2023 Updated Tue., Feb. 7, 2023 at 2:22 p.m.
If a 20-year-old city like Spokane Valley can have founding fathers, Cary Driskell is one of them.
He helped lead the incorporation effort in the early 2000s that led to the Valley splitting from Spokane County and forming its own city government. Within Spokane Valley’s first month of official existence, he was hired as its lone staff attorney. Over the last two decades, he’s either written or reviewed every city law and provided legal advice to every city politician.
As long as Spokane Valley has had a government, Cary Driskell has been a part of it.
Driskell, 57, left his job as city attorney last week.
“It was time to find another adventure, another challenge,” he said, adding that before finding a new gig, he plans to take some time off, visit a handful of national parks with his stepdad and go on an overseas trip with his daughter.
City Council members, both past and present, said Driskell’s departure will be a major loss.
“I think if you had a face for the city of Spokane Valley, it would be Cary,” City Councilman Tim Hattenburg said. “He is one of the founders.”
City Manager John Hohman, another of the Valley’s original employees, said Driskell’s “fingerprints are pretty much all over” city government.
Hohman also praised Driskell’s work ethic.
“I’m as dedicated as I can be, but he’s taken it to another level,” Hohman said. “He would be one of the first people in the door and absolutely the last one out. I routinely remember seeing emails from him at 10 p.m., 10:30 p.m., 11 at night, weekends, of course.”
City attorneys don’t usually last as long as Driskell did. He said he stayed because he worked with “outstanding” people, and his work gave him a chance to make a difference.
“My job, every single day, was to go to work and figure out how to make my community a better place,” he said. “That has been incredibly fulfilling.”
Spokane Valley Yes!
Driskell, who grew up in Moscow, didn’t seem destined to be a city attorney when he was a student at the University of Idaho. His freshman year didn’t go well academically, and he didn’t return in the fall.
“I took a year off,” he said, then corrected himself. “They invited me to take a year off.”
After spending some time working at McDonald’s and as a bartender, Driskell went back to school, this time at Boise State University. He graduated in 1991 with a political science degree, then went to Gonzaga University’s law school.
Driskell passed the bar in 1994 and started working for Spokane attorney Charles Dorn, mainly focusing on divorce and personal injury cases. Next, he worked as a land use attorney at the Valley law firm Trunkenbolz and Rohr, where he eventually became a partner. In 2001, the Washington State Bar Association named Driskell “Outstanding Young Lawyer of the Year.”
It was around 2001 that Driskell got involved in the Valley incorporation movement, after one of his firm’s clients, Raymond Hanson, asked him to serve as the effort’s legal counsel. He eventually became co-chair, campaign director and spokesman for Spokane Valley Yes!
Four incorporation attempts throughout the ’90s had failed. Driskell said he and other incorporation leaders, including Dennis Scott, worked to change the messaging in the lead-up to the May 21, 2002, vote.
Painting Spokane as a boogeyman was one of the keys, Driskell said.
Spokane had been annexing “peninsular” pieces of the county for years, targeting areas rich in commercial businesses that generated enormous sales tax revenues. Driskell said the incorporation effort would have greater success if it could convince voters that Spokane was intending to gobble up parts of the Valley merely for the tax benefits.
The other key, Driskell said, was hammering the talking point that Spokane County wasn’t giving Spokane Valley much value for its tax dollars. The snowplowing was poor, for instance, and sidewalks were scarce.
“The reality was Spokane County was drawing a lot of taxes from us and providing a low level of service,” Driskell said. “We really banged on that.”
With those two priorities front and center, incorporation leaders made a pitch to voters: form your own city and create a lean government that makes your tax dollars go further. That philosophy, of running an efficient and minimalist City Hall, is largely the same one many Valley politicians promote today.
In addition to new messaging, Driskell said the final incorporation effort focused its campaign energies on specific pockets of Spokane Valley that had shown the most interest in cityhood. Drumming up support in those areas was critical, Driskell said.
The final tally was close, with just over 51% of voters favoring incorporation.
“We have a really unique opportunity to say, ‘Here is the course we want to chart for this community,’ ” Driskell told The Spokesman-Review on election night.
Residents elected their first City Council that November, and Spokane Valley incorporated on March 31, 2003.
‘Building the plane as you fly it’
Driskell, who in 2002 and 2003 worked as a defense lawyer in the Spokane County public defender’s office, became Spokane Valley’s first staff attorney in April 2003.
He wasn’t the city attorney in the beginning. That job went to Stanley Schwartz, who had helped Liberty Lake incorporate. Schwartz was a contractor, however, and often put Driskell in charge of writing new city laws.
“He helped write all that code,” former Spokane Valley Mayor Diana Wilhite said. “He knows it inside and out.”
For the first couple of years, the Valley’s city code practically mirrored Spokane County’s. The city had adopted county laws as placeholders from the outset.
“You’ve heard the analogy, ‘You’re building the plane as you fly it?’ ” Driskell asked. “We were doing that.”
Gradually, Spokane Valley reviewed all of the borrowed laws. Driskell estimates he has personally written half of the Spokane Valley municipal code and reviewed drafts of the rest.
Spokane Valley City Councilman Rod Higgins, a former mayor, questioned Driskell’s guess.
“I think his estimate of 50% is probably low,” Higgins said.
The first code Driskell wrote established the city’s regulations for nuisance properties. Nuisance laws are wide-ranging, but cities often use them to prevent property owners from accumulating garbage or junk vehicles on their land.
Nuisance properties can become hotbeds of crime and hurt neighborhoods, Driskell said.
“That kind of house is like an epicenter of criminality,” he said. “It ripples out from there.”
Of all the laws he’s written over the last 20 years, Driskell said he’s probably most proud of the nuisance code. He said he’s often visited former nuisance properties, as the city is cleaning them up, and met grateful residents who thanked him for making the neighborhood feel safe again.
“That makes me feel awesome,” Driskell said, “to be part of the system and craft the code and make it functional so it’ll stand up in court.”
As Spokane Valley’s cast of political characters has changed, Driskell has been one of the few constants in city government.
Former council members said the fact that Driskell has remained, even as politicians have come and gone, is a testament to his professionalism.
“I think Cary tried to keep politics out of his job,” Wilhite said. “I know at times he probably had to walk a fine line, but Cary did a great job at that.”
Driskell acknowledged that he constantly had to find the line between legal advice and unwanted opinion.
“I think the fact I lasted 20 years is a pretty good indication I had a decent read on that,” he said.
While Driskell’s political awareness may have helped him hold onto his job, he also simply loved what he did.
“I’ve gone to work 20 years, every morning I get up and I’m ready to go,” he said. “I think there have been maybe five days in 20 years where I thought, ‘Oh God, I don’t want to go to work.’ ”
Editor’s note: This story has updated to clarify that Spokane Valley’s first city attorney was Stanley Schwartz, who helped with the Liberty Lake incorporation effort, not Liberty Liberty attorney Stanley Schultz.
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