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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Truth testing: Negative ads color Spokane mayor, City Council President races

These mailers were sent to Spokane residents by or on behalf of Mayor Nadine Woodward and challenger Lisa Brown, and City Council President candidates Kim Plese and Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson.  (Emry Dinman/The Spokesman-Review)

Local elections in Spokane have gone negative.

Less than two weeks away from the November election, when voters will determine who will lead both branches of City Hall for the next four years, attack ads and misleading accusations are full blast in a largely proxy battle between Mayor Nadine Woodward and challenger Lisa Brown. The other citywide race, that of City Council president between Kim Plese and Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson, has similarly been marked with negative ads.

For the most part, the candidates haven’t been running these ads themselves, with independent political committees doing the dirty work of issuing ominous warnings superimposed over unflattering photos of the candidates whose campaigns they’re trying to sink.

The Spokane Good Government Alliance has taken up the task in support of Woodward and Plese, as well as the conservative candidates for City Council aligned with them. The Citizens for Liberty and Labor has done much the same in support of Brown, Wilkerson and other liberal candidates for local office. The committees cannot legally coordinate their messaging with the candidates.

It’s not an even battleground, however, with the developer- and real estate-backed Alliance far and away outspending the competition to blanket the airwaves and fill mailboxes with ads buoying conservative candidates and painting liberal ones as radicals.

Here’s a rundown of some of the claims , and the story behind those attacks.

Claim: Woodward and Plese would fight for lower taxes and opposed a property tax increase last year.

Source: Mailer paid for by the National Association of Realtors Fund, though similar claims are made in other ads

It is true that Woodward vetoed a relatively small annual property tax increase last year, though her administration has asked for the same tax increase to be approved this year and has stated that even larger increases are needed to sustainably fund her proposed budget. Last year was the only year she has opposed the annual property tax increase, according to her unofficial chief of staff, Brian Coddington.

Woodward and Plese both support Measure 1, which would raise $1.7 billion over 30 years by boosting sales taxes. Both have argued they oppose unilaterally increasing taxes but would support asking voters to raise their own taxes; however, Woodward has clarified she would not feel the same about asking voters to raise their own taxes to pay for homeless services, for instance.

Claim: Brown has a history of supporting “Defund the Police” candidates and campaigns.

Source: Mailer paid for by the Spokane Good Government Alliance, though similar claims are made in other ads

Brown supported Natasha Hill for congress in 2022, and Hill did say during racial justice rallies in 2020 that the police were part of the “worst gang this country has ever seen” and should be defunded. During her campaign for mayor, Brown has not advocated for reducing the police department’s budget, though she has stated she would pursue bolstering nonpolice teams to respond to some emergency calls, such as someone in a mental health crisis, modeled after the CAHOOTS program in Eugene.

Claim: Brown worked against local efforts to clear Camp Hope.

Source: Mailer paid for by the Spokane Good Government Alliance

Brown and Woodward frequently sparred on the right way to clear Camp Hope and blamed each other for a failure to make progress. The state Department of Commerce, under Brown, spent $24 million on programs to house and shelter those living in the homeless encampment, most of which went to programs, such as the Catalyst Project, that were requested by Woodward and other city officials.

Claim: Wilkerson said she was “not really enthused to help” with a murder investigation.

Source: Mailer paid for by the Spokane Good Government Alliance, though similar claims are made in other ads

Wilkerson has denied ever saying this. During the 2021 election, a clip from body-camera footage shows two officers discussing an interaction that had just occurred with Wilkerson, with one relaying she said she wasn’t “too enthused to help” officers with the investigation of a nearby killing that had taken place the day before.

Wilkerson has said this was a mischaracterization of her request for a search warrant, which limits what officers can look through and seize, prior to releasing surveillance footage of the assisted living facility she owns and operates. Wilkerson released the footage after officers returned with a warrant.

Claim: Wilkerson led efforts to remove a new police precinct that the community had overwhelmingly wanted.

Source: Mailer paid for by the Spokane Good Government Alliance

During the summer of 2022, the former East Side Library became a new precinct for the Spokane Police Department – much to the surprise of some area residents and their elected representatives. Officers were relocated into the building out of the second floor of a nunnery at St. Ann Catholic Church, which had been used on a temporary basis as a precinct for several years.

Woodward had proposed using the 6,000-square-foot building for police and on-site behavioral resources as a neighborhood policing location. City officials then said the Spokane City Council would decide how the library would be used.

Soon after, however, Woodward unilaterally decided to place the precinct in the building over the opposition of the City Council, including Wilkerson. Woodward has pointed to a city-commissioned survey that showed overwhelming support for the move, though Wilkerson and others have criticized the methodology.

Wilkerson later joined efforts calling on the administration to reconsider and to ask local organizations to propose other uses for the building.

Claim: Wilkerson voted to defund drug investigations

Source: Mailer paid for by the Spokane Good Government Alliance.

The City Council voted last year to increase oversight over how the police department used money seized during drug investigations through a controversial process called civil asset forfeiture.

The ordinance in question required that the City Council sign off on the department’s use of those civil asset forfeiture funds, and it dedicated half to youth drug prevention programming.

Woodward vetoed that ordinance, arguing the department needed those funds to pay for confidential informants, undercover vehicles and more.

Claim: Plese would work to repeal reproductive rights

Source: Mailer paid for by the Citizens for Liberty and Labor

During her failed 2022 run for county commissioner, Plese told We Believe, We Vote, a conservative Christian organization based in Spokane, that she fully supported repealing the Washington law that grants women the right to an abortion. It’s debatable what power she would have over reproductive rights as a voting member of the Spokane City Council. She could push to lobby the state or challenge the law in court, and the City Council in 2022 passed a resolution asking that city employees be barred from assisting law enforcement in another state, such as Idaho, in an investigation into someone who broke that state’s laws against abortion. That resolution was nonbinding, however, and Woodward declined at the time to say whether she would follow the recommendation.

Plese has declined to comment on her 2022 survey responses during her run for City Council President.

Claim: Woodward added 500 beds to the city’s homeless shelter system

Source: Mailer paid for by the Spokane Good Government Alliance

This number is factually debatable and in any case lacks context. The beds Woodward can most clearly take credit for amount to between 350 to 410. Some of those have since been closed, and the rest of them may not survive 2024, regardless of who wins the mayoral election.

Woodward has taken credit for a number of shelters opening during her administration, such as the city-run Trent Avenue shelter. It created around 350 shelter beds, though even this number has fluctuated frequently and dramatically since the facility opened last September. The city has never identified a long-term way to fund the facility, however, and there are currently no plans to keep the doors open after the end of next year.

Woodward has said the shelter was a short-term solution and has voiced support for efforts to overrule Martin v. Boise, which forced cities in the West to provide shelter in order to criminally enforce laws against camping on public land and which Woodward has said motivated her decision to expand shelter capacity in Spokane.

Woodward also took credit for the other city-run shelter, Cannon Street, changing from seasonal to year-round, though that facility closed abruptly in early May and there are no plans to replace its 60 beds.

The city was involved with securing grants to help support other shelters that the city does not run, including the Volunteers of America-run Hope House and Young Adult Shelter.

Claim: Woodward added more police officers in neighborhoods.

Source: Mailer paid for by the Spokane Good Government Alliance

Woodward launched a major reorganization of the police department in 2023 that shuffled officers from various duties into patrol positions, primarily focused on increasing personnel downtown. This didn’t increase the number of officers in neighborhoods, just changed their roles, and it removed neighborhood resource officer positions, which Woodward’s opponent has attacked her for.

The City Council has funded additional positions in the police department, but the city has struggled to recruit to fill them.

Claim: Rather than increasing shelter space or creating housing, Woodward leased the Trent Avenue homeless shelter from Larry Stone, a wealthy donor, for more than fair market value.

Source: Mailer and TV ad by the Citizens for Liberty and Labor. Stone has threatened legal action against stations that run that ad, calling it defamation, while Woodward has asked the state to force the ad off the air.

Regardless of how voters feel about the Trent shelter and Woodward partnering with a political ally, it’s misleading to state that the shelter was chosen in lieu of increasing overall shelter space. The Trent shelter was the single largest increase in shelter capacity in the city.

It is, however, arguable that Woodward has pushed funds dedicated to building affordable housing to supplement the costly facility. Most recently, the City Council voted on Monday to pay for the shelter next year with, in part, $4 million in federal COVID-relief funding that had been previously dedicated to an affordable housing project. That project will still be funded, but with the 1590 fund, a sales tax approved in 2020 to build affordable housing.

Councilman Michael Cathcart, a frequent ally of Woodward’s, argued that this allocation meant the city was essentially dipping into 1590 funds to pay to temporarily keep the Trent Avenue shelter open, rather than making long-term investments in housing.

Stone, who is one of Woodward’s top donors, did increase the lease cost compared with the prior owner, but he has argued this was still a fair market rate due to improvements made to the facility as part of the lease. He has also claimed another possible tenant made a similar offer.

Claim: The Trent Avenue facility that Woodward selected to be the city’s largest homeless shelter didn’t have running water, bathrooms or showers, so Woodward forced the city to make those improvements.

Source: Mailer from the Citizens for Liberty and Labor, though this same claim was made in a television ad commissioned by the same political committee.

The first part of this statement is essentially true. The second part is debatable.

The Woodward campaign has argued that the facility does technically have running water because staff have access to plumbed sinks and toilets the homeless cannot use. More to the point of the ad, the City Council made the ultimate decision to invest around $1.5 million into building bathrooms, showers and laundry facilities for the Trent facility – though council members appear to now be reneging on that commitment. However, council members have argued that they were forced into this position because the Woodward administration decided to move forward with a large congregant shelter without bathrooms, creating humanitarian concerns, and the long-term cost of maintaining temporary bathrooms and laundry facilities was significantly more expensive than the lump sum investment.

Claim: Homelessness increased by 50% since Woodward took office.

Source: Mailer from the Brown campaign

The homeless population throughout the entirety of Spokane County, not just the city of Spokane, did increase by more than 50% from 2020 to 2023. It’s difficult to compare the increase in Spokane County to the rise statewide, because King County opted to not do an annual count of the homeless population this year, heavily skewing the statewide numbers. The statewide homeless population increased by roughly 10% between 2020 and 2022. Homelessness in Pierce County, home of Tacoma, increased 12% between 2020 and 2023. The root causes of the increase in Spokane County are complex, though it is true that Woodward campaigned in 2019 on decreasing visible homelessness.

Claim: The city’s budget reserves dropped from nearly $30 million in the green in 2020 when Woodward took office to $9 million in the red by 2023, a nearly $40 million decline in four years.

Source: Mailer from the Brown campaign

This representation of the city’s finances are misleading, at least based on how most people think of budgets. These figures include unrealized gains and losses on the city’s investments, which the Woodward administration can’t control. As an institution, the city is also heavily restricted in what kinds of investments it can make and almost always carries those investments to term, according to city finance officials.