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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Steve Eugster, tenacious Spokane councilman who inspired fury and admiration dies at 78

Steve Eugster, a divisive attorney at the forefront of some of the most controversial issues facing Spokane in the 1990s and early 2000s who reinvented the city’s government, died last month just weeks before his 79th birthday.

Former colleagues reached by The Spokesman-Review, including those who more often than not found themselves on opposing sides on the issues, universally described Eugster as equal parts passionate, intelligent, impulsive, stubborn and disruptive.

His death was announced in an obituary published in Sunday’s Spokesman-Review.

A one-term city councilman serving from 1999 to 2003, Eugster led the effort to create Spokane’s current strong mayor system, which was approved by voters in 1999.

“Without his efforts, the strong mayor system would have never happened,” said former City Councilman Steve Corker, a frequent political ally whose tenure overlapped with Eugster. “Steve felt strongly that there was more accountability with a chief executive officer, and we were ready for that growth.”

The proposal proved controversial with many on the City Council at the time. After he first proposed a shift to a strong mayor system, former Councilwoman Phyllis Holmes, who often disagreed with Eugster’s political positions but considered him a close personal friend, recalls walking into Eugster’s office with former Councilwoman Roberta Greene.

“We asked, who are you kidding?” recalled Holmes. “Who is qualified in this town to be strong mayor?”

“He started listing names, and we said, ‘Steve, those people are 90 years old or already dead,’ ” she continued. “He finally said, ‘well, if pressed, I would serve.’ ”

Eugster never ran for mayor, however, and would later express disappointment with the results of the strong mayor system. Corker recalled that, as recently as a year ago, Eugster had said the only mayor who had understood the office and its responsibilities was Jim West, prior to West’s political career ending in scandal.

Holmes asserted that Eugster’s disillusionment with a strong mayor in Spokane was deeper, and that he had expressed interest in campaigning for an initiative to roll the city back to a council-manager form of government, where the mayor is a largely ceremonial role and a hired city manager fulfills the duties typically associated with a mayor.

Milt Rowland, who worked as Spokane’s chief litigation counsel while Eugster was an attorney and later after Eugster was elected to City Council, recalled Eugster more or less singlehandedly drafting Spokane’s city charter.

“He believed in the charter system, which gave more of a direct voice to the people of Spokane and administration of Spokane’s laws,” Rowland said. “The people have Steve to thank for that.”

The two were on opposite sides in nearly every case they worked on, of which there were upwards of 20, but Rowland said he admired Eugster’s conviction and commitment to justice.

“He was fearless,” Rowland said. “He believed in justice. It didn’t matter to him what others saw, just what he believed.”

Eugster was as well known for his personality as he was his policies. A notoriously outspoken figure, he was known by his colleagues and members to interrupt, yell at and belittle his opposition – and sometimes even his allies – during City Council meetings.

He opposed stricter rules of conduct for City Council meetings, which passed and were said to make meetings run more smoothly. Once, in opposition to a proposal to build a rooftop garden at city hall, Eugster came to a City Council meeting dressed in overalls, a straw hat and bandana, toting a bag of manure and pitchfork.

In 2002, during his failed opposition to a proposed expansion of the Spokane Convention Center, he reportedly cussed at members of the public, who in turn began yelling and name-calling Eugster. That same year, a poll of readers of the Inlander, responding to a prompt asking which actor would best portray the councilman, voted for Pee Wee Herman. Jack Nicholson, Jim Carrey and Bob Denver had a three-way tie for second place.

Greene, a frequent political opponent, recalled her debates with Eugster over the strong mayor system and noted his opposition to starting City Council meetings with prayer. Despite their stark disagreements, Greene said she never considered Eugster her enemy.

“He had his opinions, and he was strong and vocal,” she said. “And if you couldn’t present your opinions in a strong and vocal way, yeah, he ran over you. But that was your fault, not his fault.”

Even before his time on the council, Eugster entered the fray on numerous public issues big and small, suing the city repeatedly over the decades, including once while he served on the City Council.

He helped lead the successful fight to stop the construction of a bridge over the Spokane River at Lincoln Street. Former Mayor Dennis Hession, a neighbor of Eugster’s, served as president of the Spokane Park Board in the 1990s. The Park Board had been asked to comment on whether the proposed bridge would impact city park resources, and the board determined it would not.

“Steve took that as meaning we were in favor of the bridge,” Hession said. “So he sued us.”

“Steve was a bright lawyer, council member, citizen,” Hession added. “Incredibly passionate, and determined, stubborn. When I say he was stubborn, he would get an idea in his mind and then he wouldn’t let it go, irrespective of other people’s opinions or contrary information.”

Eugster also filed a lawsuit that helped scuttle a proposed office building and transit center partnership between the Spokane Transit Authority and Goodale and Barbieri Cos. The 23-story CenterPlace building, which would have been the tallest in Spokane, would have served as STA’s downtown bus station with upper floors containing retail and office space. When that project failed, the bus agency moved forward its current two-story STA Plaza, which still is in use.

He sued the Catholic Diocese of Spokane over recycling at Cataldo School. He took legal action to stop parking on the grass at Cannon Hill Park. He represented a neighborhood group trying to stop construction of the ShopKo at 44th Avenue and Regal Street and an Indian Trail neighborhood group trying to stop construction of a grocery store.

As recently as 2021, he sued the city of Spokane and the state of Washington, claiming both governments had failed to provide adequate resources for the homeless. He told KXLY at the time that he had invited five homeless people into his own home, and criticized a lack of shelter.

But the issue that may have most defined his political efforts was his effort to stop the public-private partnership between River Park Square and the city of Spokane to expand and improve the downtown mall and its parking garage.

Amid growing concerns that the bottom was dropping out of downtown Spokane, with Nordstrom threatening to leave, the Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review, proposed a $110 million facelift for the downtown mall, including a new Nordstrom store, a 24-screen cinema and 170,000 square feet of additional retail shops and restaurants. The renovation also included a new parking garage, which became the focal point for much of the controversy to come.

The city borrowed $23 million in HUD-backed federal loans and sold $31.5 million in bonds to back the project, with plans to ultimately own the parking garage, a partnership Eugster fiercely opposed. He fought the partnership for years through a series of lawsuits.

Once in office, Corker said he and Eugster came to believe the city had been deceived as to the financial viability of the project. In a key vote in 2000, Eugster joined a majority of the City Council by voting against using city parking meter revenue to make up shortfalls in garage revenue, which the City Council had agreed to do in 1997. The vote led to a downgrading of the city’s bond rating.

After the city reneged on its bond commitments, the issue ended up in court, and the city eventually agreed to settle with the developers. Affiliates of the Cowles Co. retained ownership of the parking garage, while the city of Spokane continues to this day to make annual payments to settle debt it took out to settle the lawsuits.

Between 2019 and 2022, the city made yearly loan payments of around $1.7 million. Another $1.725 million payment is due this year, with slight escalations each year until the final, larger balloon payment in 2027.

Eugster practiced law at Lukins & Annis for 13 years focused on commercial takeovers, pensions, divorces and estate planning until 1990, according to a Spokesman-Review profile of Eugster published in 1991. Eugster rose at 3 a.m. on most days writing briefs and researching cases.

“How do you say to someone nicely that they’re violating a restrictive covenant and should stop?” Eugster said in the 1991 interview. “I wish I could raise issues in a way to cause someone to love me. But I don’t think people raising serious issues should expect to be loved.”

Like his political career, Eugster’s tenure as an attorney was not without controversy. In 2009, Washington’s highest court ordered that he be suspended from practicing law for 18 months, ruling 5-4. Four of the justices believed the penalty should have been harsher.

“The only conclusion that can be drawn from our well-settled sanction analysis and precedent is that Eugster should be disbarred,” wrote Justice Mary Fairhurst.

The state bar association had sought to have Eugster disbarred because of the way he handled the case of Marion Stead, an 87-year-old Colville widow who hired him in 2004. The bar association board said at the time that Eugster had failed to abide by his client’s wishes, used her secrets against her and had asked a court to appoint someone as Stead’s guardian without asking experts about her mental capacity.

Eugster would later run unsuccessfully for a seat on the Spokane County Commission, and in 2009 lost a bid to be re-elected to the Spokane City Council.

In 2007, Eugster attempted perhaps his boldest career change of all: becoming a long-haul truck driver, under the handle “Diesel McCoy.”

“I’ve been practicing law 37 years. I need an adventure,” said Eugster in an interview at the time with The Spokesman-Review. “I’m just a kid at heart. I’m just a 63-year-old kid.”