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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Lisa Brown promises to find common ground as she tackles difficult challenges

Lisa Brown announcing she was running for mayor of Spokane at the Women’s Club of Spokane on March 2, 2023. Eight months later, voters chose Brown to lead the city for the next four years.  (Colin Tiernan/The Spokesman-Review)

Spiking levels of homelessness. Higher levels of violent crime. Budget shortfalls.

For months, Spokane Mayor-elect Lisa Brown criticized the strategies her opponent, Mayor Nadine Woodward, took to deal with these dilemmas.

In seven weeks, however, she’ll be in charge. And proposing solutions and new directions is a lot easier than implementing them, especially with so many factors outside a mayor’s purview.

Brown will set up shop in the seventh floor City Hall office overlooking Riverfront Park with more political experience and connections than perhaps any of her predecessors in living memory, and she argued on the campaign trail that she could leverage that experience. Brown served as a Democrat in the state Legislature, first as a representative and later as state Senator and Senate majority leader. She led the state Department of Commerce from 2019 until announcing her bid for Spokane mayor in 2023 and served as chancellor of Washington State University Spokane from 2013 to 2017.

Brown has also long been a part of the area’s higher education system, working as a professor from 1981 to 2012, first with Eastern Washington University and later with Gonzaga University. She later served as chancellor of Washington State University Spokane from 2013 to 2017.

When Brown is sworn in at the start of next year, she will be faced with a number of challenges she’s blamed on her predecessor. She has criticized Woodward for failing to reduce the number of people living on Spokane’s streets, drawing down city reserves to delay difficult financial decisions, and struggling to keep vacancies filled long-term in key positions.

Come January, Brown will become mayor and inherit all of those problems. In many cases, the options available to her will be difficult and may risk upsetting the narrow majority of voters that have given her a mandate to lead for the next four years.

Will balancing the budget eventually entail layoffs? Are new taxes necessary to maintain the city services that residents demand? What solutions can be brought to bear on as seemingly intractable and controversial a problem as the homelessness crisis, which stymied Woodward?

In many cases, voters will have to wait longer to know what Brown’s plan is. Now that the election has been called, she said she wants to find common ground in a divided city, and in many cases, she wants to hear from the community before committing to next steps.

“It’s not going to just be, ‘I’m the mayor, and we’re going to do it this way,’ ” Brown said in a Friday interview. “The way that I want to move forward is through a transition team with community advisory groups in some of these areas to identify key challenges and key opportunities.”

Brown said she expects to start that transition process immediately now the race has been called, though as of mid-Saturday afternoon she hadn’t had any conversations with Woodward, who had not conceded, about whether the city will dedicate any resources to ensuring a smooth transition.

First steps

Brown has frequently argued that Woodward dug the city into a long-term financial hole, and she said Friday that climbing out of that hole will be a top priority.

She again said she will convene an advisory group before weighing in what that will look like, but expects the calculus will come down to service cuts, raising taxes – the Woodward administration had in recent months begun to say raising property taxes through a levy lid lift would be necessary – or some combination of the two. In any case, she warned that closing the city’s budget gap would not be a quick process.

Brown anticipates working with the new City Council within the first few weeks of her administration to begin proposing a shift in the city’s response to homelessness, noting that the city will be in the grip of winter when she is sworn in.

On the campaign trail, Brown has been extremely critical of the city’s reliance on the controversial Trent Avenue homeless shelter, the largest in the region’s shelter system and a significant drain on city resources, which she called the worst mistake of the Woodward administration.

Though the shelter houses hundreds on any given night, relatively few have successfully transitioned from homelessness, stymied by the slow development of transitional housing. The Woodward administration had touted upcoming plans to start leveraging funds from a sales tax approved in 2020 for building affordable housing, though the city notably dipped into that fund recently in an attempt to pay to keep the Trent shelter open through next summer.

Brown recently called for the city to wind down that shelter by the end of 2024 and has instead suggested that Spokane should invest in decentralized shelters as a stop gap measure until additional housing and programs can be built.

Some of those proposals have already come under fire, such as when Woodward held a September news conference attacking Brown’s suggestion of “safe parking lots” where the homeless living in their cars could connect with services and legally stay overnight.

The big question mark still hanging over these decisions is the possible creation of a regional homeless coalition, which would theoretically combine the resources of the city, the county, nonprofits and other jurisdictions in the area for a coordinated approach to homelessness. Elected leaders and candidates for office have pointed to this hypothetical entity as a potential revolution of the region’s response to the crisis, but the coalition’s creation has been hampered by disagreements over potential governing structure and other logistical hurdles that would need to be overcome.

Some changes in the administration won’t rely on stakeholders and advisory groups: the mayor’s cabinet will see some new personnel. Brown already has said she intends to replace city spokesman Brian Coddington and Chief Financial Officer Tanya Wallace, though she hasn’t made a decision on who she will hire in their stead.

“Clearly I don’t want to go with the level of vacancies that the previous administration had, so I’ll be looking at interim and transition strategies if we need to do wider searches for positions,” she said.

Brown hasn’t made any decisions on keeping on other cabinet members, she said, including Police Chief Craig Meidl, who came under fire early this year for his communications with local business leaders, which some activists argued had amounted to a shadow effort to undermine police reforms and hurt liberal political opponents.

“We have never had a conversation,” Brown said. “So I want to start there. I feel like that would be a worthwhile experience for both of us.”

Brown expects to quickly begin conversations about what comes next after the defeat of Measure 1, which would have raised approximately $1.7 billion in investments for the region’s criminal justice system over 30 years.

Like many of the ballot measure’s opponents, Brown was highly critical of a lack of guarantees for how that money would be spent, outside of plans for two new jails.

“We immediately go back to the table, and we talk about community expectations for service and we try to build a new proposal for investments in the justice system,” she said. “I don’t think really that happened effectively last time.”

While Spokane’s elections this year became highly focused on homelessness, crime and other hot button issues, Brown said she’s excited to draw attention to issues like economic development, fostering the city’s creative economy and investments in improving outdoor recreation.

“I see some really exciting opportunities with arts and culture, and the things that are fundamentally so good about Spokane, in terms of schools and parks and universities and outdoor activities,” she said.

“Because they’re a fundamental part of what makes our quality of life so good, why people want to be in Spokane and why they’re proud of this city.”