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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Valley Councilman Al Merkel enters the race for soon-to-be vacant seat in Washington Senate

Spokane Valley City Council Position 3 candidate Al Merkel, now a city council person and state Senate candidate, debates during a Northwest Passages Pints & Politics forum held Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023, at the Mirabeau Park Hotel & Convention Center.  (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane Valley City Councilman Al Merkel has announced his candidacy for a state Senate seat being vacated by fellow Republican Sen. Mike Padden.

Merkel intends to retain his seat on City Council while vying for the 4th Legislative District Senate position and would serve in both roles concurrently if elected, he said.

“This is a four-year position, and an incredibly important four-year position for some of the issues that we’re talking about here in Spokane Valley, and similarly, in the other cities in the 4th District,” Merkel said. “We need somebody who is willing to advocate for those issues, and for the people’s issues here in Washington State.”

Prior to his election to the council last November, Merkel, 38, ran unsuccessfully for the Spokane Valley City Council in 2017 and 2019. He currently co-owns a dog grooming business with his wife, and spent most of his career working as a contract specialist for a handful of companies. He served as chief financial officer and, briefly, chief executive officer of Sequoia Detox Centers from 2019 to 2021, and is a sitting GOP precinct committee officer.

Also joining the race for Padden’s soon-to-be vacant Senate seat are Democrat Miguel Valencia and Republicans Mike Kelly and Rep. Leonard Christian.

If elected, Merkel said public safety, education and pushing to reform the Growth Management Act would be his top areas of focus.

The Growth Management Act was passed in 1990 to guide planning for growth and development in Washington. It mandates local jurisdictions to set when and where development should occur in their area in comprehensive plans published once every seven years. The act was intended to protect overgrowth of cities into natural areas, but Merkel believes it has incentivized purchasing property that may be included in future plans, with the intention to sell or develop later. That can dramatically increase property values and affect zoning regulations at the local level.

“This whole act needs to be really looked at,” Merkel said. “Because I think at this point, it’s gotten away from the original intention, which was to provide some regulation on growth in terms of nature. That has now become just artificial growth parameters that let some people profit, and other people not profit. Meanwhile, it hurts neighborhoods and hurts streets and hurts zoning.”

In the public safety realm, he’d like to see more proceeds from the state’s cannabis tax funneled into local law enforcement agencies, harsher penalties for drug possession and bolster efforts to address homelessness.

Merkel has served as an emergency substitute teacher for the Central Valley School District, which he said has provided him a first-hand look at the challenges facing public education. He said he’d advocate for more local control over school districts, better management of school district growth and district resources to avoid tax increases for property owners, and reforming or repealing mandates unfunded by the state legislature.

“The most particular ones, is really looking at school sizing requirements, looking at what types of classes are mandated to be required versus optional to be required by the school district,” Merkel said. “So it’s being able to turn some more of this back into local control and local decision making.”

Government transparency, community engagement and oversight of government contracts will continue to be important to him in his prospective new role as a state senator, which were all touchpoints of his city council campaign, Merkel said. He regularly harps on those values during council meetings.

“Even from the state perspective, there’s a lot of state contracting that I feel like it’s just not done very well,” Merkel said. “And I know that that may seem like a boring and nerdy topic, but hundreds of millions of tax dollars go through state contracting, especially when we’re looking at homelessness efforts and other things. If we can improve those processes, I think that that would be a major, major taxpayer savings and efficiency in government.”

Although he’s only served in office for about five months, Merkel has stirred up a fair amount of controversy during his stint on the Spokane Valley City Council.

He’s drawn the ire of his fellow council members for questioning city staff over what could be regarded as mundane issues, like applying for grants to pay for road construction projects, and for calling on the council to reconsider past decisions, like the approval of a stormwater and lane reduction project on the blocks of Sprague Avenue near City Hall.

The disagreements between Merkel and his fellow council members have spilled into public view, with arguments and round robin accusations of violating the council’s procedures becoming a routine part of their Tuesday meetings.

Merkel said he believes he would be able to work much more collaboratively with fellow legislators in Olympia.

An investigation into Merkel’s conduct towards city staff is expected to wrap up soon, although it has not proceeded smoothly. The investigation was launched in early March after complaints describing “offensive, hostile or unwelcome interactions” between Merkel and City Hall employees, according to City Manager John Hohman.

The investigation will come to a close without the third-party investigator speaking to Merkel, according to emails provided by the councilman that include correspondence between his lawyer and Seattle-based attorney Brenda Bannon, the woman tasked with the investigation.

Initial attempts at an interview fell short due to Bannon’s qualms with some of Merkel’s conditions to participate. He had tried to bring a civilian witness, one of his supporters, to the interview, which the investigator was not comfortable with. Assurances of the interview being recorded, and the option to have a court clerk present as a witness, did not satiate his concerns.

Merkel has said he is willing to participate in the interview, under his terms, even though he believes the investigation is politically motivated. He’s lamented not being provided details of the complaints, who the complainants were and who the witnesses involved in the investigation are.

Merkel would not be the first Valley councilman to serve in the state Senate and the city at the same time. The late Bob McCaslin, Sr. held both roles concurrently for about a year in the late 2000’s, before resigning from the Senate due to health issues following heart surgery. He died just a few months after he resigned.

“A lot of people remember Mr. McCaslin, Sr. very positively,” Merkel said. “And they remember the work that he did in both positions very positively. So I think that, to me, speaks well to the ability to do both.”

Merkel said the upcoming election will be consequential to the future of the state, due to a new governor taking office for the first time in more than a decade. He said Olympia will need legislators ready to tackle the important issues of the next era, and he looks forward to working alongside Rep. Suzanne Schmidt and whoever is elected to the other state representative seat for the 4th Legislative District.

“I think that it’s important we have somebody who’s willing to really work for the people through that transition,” Merkel said. “And I’ve shown that I’m willing and able to do that here at Spokane Valley, better than any other Spokane Valley City Councilman. It’s widely known that I pick up the issues that the people lay down, and I will be doing that in Olympia just as well.”