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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Seemingly routine planning commission appointments spur latest confrontation on Spokane Valley City Council, with one member worried it’s ‘devolving’

Spokane Valley’s new council members Al Merkel and Jessica Yaeger are congratulated after being sworn in as new members at Spokane Valley City Hall on Tue, Jan 2, 2023.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

Contentious discussion and lengthy meetings are seemingly becoming the norm for the new makeup of the Spokane Valley City Council.

A routine confirmation of Mayor Pam Haley’s nominations to the Spokane Valley Planning Commission Tuesday turned into a 30-minute argument over how those nominations were made – and left several council members questioning the conduct of the recently elected member Al Merkel.

“Merkel is just up there stirring the pot and pointing the finger and making accusations and stuff like that,” longtime councilman Rod Higgins said. “And it’s downright dangerous.”

This week’s city council meeting had only a handful of items on the agenda: a presentation on how the city could bolster its police department, a visit from county prosecuting attorney Larry Haskell and a call for a vote to confirm the mayoral nominations.

The nomination of landscape architect Justin Weathermon, general contractor Vadim Smelik and wholesale produce buyer John Robertson was the only agenda item the city council was asked to vote on. It took more than 30 minutes for them to do so.

Merkel raised concerns over the mayoral nominations as soon as the agenda item arose. Merkel’s complaints centered around what he viewed as Haley’s failure to properly vet the eight residents who applied to volunteer on the commission.

Merkel said he was disturbed when he learned none of the candidates were contacted by Haley prior to the nominations after he reached out to them to inform of his own vote.

Haley acknowledged during the meeting that she did not conduct interviews with the candidates, adding that most of the nominations were made based on the applications themselves and speaking with references who knew the applicants. In an interview, she said she did not deem it necessary, as there were only a handful of completed applications that indicated the candidates would have enough time and relative experience to serve.

Haley said she’s participated in numerous interviews in her life because she has managed several businesses and has taught classes on how to interview. She said candidates who interview well usually have a lot of practice, but aren’t necessarily the best candidates.

“How they do in an interview is not necessarily how they’re going to do in the job,” Haley said.

Deputy Mayor Tim Hattenburg and city staff also reviewed the applications, she said.

Merkel continued to press the issue, calling for the applications, which were included in the meeting’s agenda, to be displayed on the monitors. Haley declined, stating that she does not believe the applicants would want their personal information displayed to the public.

Higgins then raised a point of order against Merkel, quoting from the city code that nominations to the planning commission are to be made by the mayor and approved by a majority vote from the council.

“Nowhere in here does it say that council members should be interviewing people,” Higgins said. “It’s the mayor’s appointment to make.”

Haley ruled in favor of Higgins, saying Merkel’s conduct violated the code. When Merkel asked for clarification on what violated the rules, Haley responded it was not a time to debate who she had appointed.

“This isn’t a debate over who was appointed, this is whether or not you want to agree with who I have appointed or not,” Haley said. “You can certainly vote against it, but this is not a time to rehash.”

“Sorry, are you ruling on the point of order right now?” Merkel asked.

“Yes, I did rule on the point of order,” Haley responded. “Let’s see who agrees with me.”

Hattenburg, Higgins, and council members Laura Padden and Jessica Yeager raised their hands in support. Council members are only asked to weigh in on a point of order upon appeal of the mayor’s ruling.

Haley then tried to move to public comments when Merkel interjected again to ask if Haley was ending council discussion.

Higgins then raised another point of order against Merkel.

“Mr… The councilman, since I’m not supposed to use his name, but the guy in the orange down there,” Higgins said in reference to Merkel’s polo shirt. “Are you trying to purposefully undercut the mayor here, make her look bad? That’s the only thing I can get from last week’s meeting and this week’s meeting. Please cease.”

Merkel raised a point of order in response. He said Higgins levied a direct accusation of motive and would like to see evidence he was attempting to undercut the mayor.

Haley ruled Merkel was out of order and Higgins’ comments were not a direct attack. Merkel called for an appeal and was the only council member to vote Higgins’ comments were out of order.

The spat was the second time this month Merkel and Higgins have locked horns at a public meeting.

Councilman Ben Wick and Merkel were the only two to vote against Haley’s nominations, but for differing reasons. Wick said he felt it was wrong to replace former planning commission vice chair Walt Haneke, whose term ended in December and who was one of the applicants passed over this round, with Smelik, who has only lived in Spokane Valley for around six months.

Wick added that the planning commission has an important task this year, with amendments needing to be made to the city’s comprehensive plan to fall in line with the slate of state legislation regarding housing and development passed last year.

The commission makes recommendations on any changes before they are voted on by the council. They often have more time to delve into the details of planning than council members do, Wick said.

“There’s a lot of big things that impact zoning and land use in Spokane Valley,” Wick said. So, to me, it’s gonna be a big year. One that I wouldn’t probably put in new people, or at least that many new people.”

Wick said he had a different approach than Haley when it came to nominating volunteers to one of the city’s citizen-led committees during his stint as mayor in 2020 and 2021. He would interview every candidate in an effort to be more communicative and transparent with constituents.

He did not see anything wrong with Merkel reaching out to the candidates, as council members have a right to make an informed vote.

“While the mayor gets to nominate for appointments, it is a council appointment, it’s not a mayor appointment,” Wick said. “I do feel like the council does have an ability and should pay attention and weigh in to the recommendations from the mayor.”

A ‘devolving’ dais?

Incumbents on the council agree that the most recent election has changed the way they conduct their business.

“We seem to be devolving,” Wick said. “I don’t think I have ever seen a Spokane Valley City Council meeting as contentious or more heated as they have been since the first of the year.”

Meetings would run on time, and councilmembers would agree on a vast majority of the issues brought before them , Hattenburg said.

The council would rely on the expertise of city employees from various departments who would speak on an agenda item, he said.

Merkel has a different approach.

He has examined the city’s budget independently, questioned the viability of applying for grants for capital improvement projects based on the “sunk costs” of spending time doing so and called his own meetings to discuss city matters with constituents during his free time – all within the last month.

“I have no problem with someone having their opinion and perspective, of course,” Hattenburg said. “But it’s also gotten a way to where it’s disrespectful to others.”

Higgins echoed Hattenburg’s concerns, adding that he believes Merkel is trying to paint the council as inefficient, financially irresponsible and uncapable of dealing with issues important to constituents. Higgins said that perception is “just not true,” and has not been how the council has been viewed historically.

Merkel would disagree. He said he is holding up to the promises of the platform that he was elected on, which called for more transparency and a closer eye on the way city money is spent.

“The public is asking me questions, and my job is to try and ask those questions on the dais, even if I don’t necessarily agree with them,” Merkel said. “Because that’s what we’re supposed to be doing, and I feel like that’s just not what has happened in the past, and to me, that’s bizarre.”

Haley believes Merkel’s conduct is more personal, that he is trying to prevent her from being re-elected when her term is up in two years. Higgins shared a similar concern regarding the mayor.

“We’ve never had this happen before at city council,” Haley said. “It’s really disturbing to me because I feel like it’s not allowing us to do things we need to do to address all the city business and everything.”

Merkel said he does not have a “grand plan” to prevent anyone from being re-elected, but is trying to be transparent about elected leaders’ actions to let residents decide for themselves.

By asking questions on agenda items, Merkel said he is trying to do his part in ensuring the city is conducting city business in an efficient and effective way. He added that he believes that is what the role of a city council member entails and feels other members of the council have tried to silence his input.

Padden said it’s a “two-way street”; Merkel should be open to input from other council members, just as they should be receptive to his. It is not possible for any single member to do all of the work alone, she said.

While they differ in opinion and approach to the role, Merkel and the incumbents said they all hope for a more collaborative environment moving forward.

“I will continue to try to communicate with him and try to get things to get on a better note, because there’s a lot of things we need to do,” Haley said. “And you know, it just doesn’t help at all.”

Wick agreed.

“We need to learn how to work together as a team,” Wick said. “Once you’re elected, we’re team Spokane Valley. There’s seven council members with seven different perspectives, and we have to find our rhythm of listening to each other, talking with each other, and coming up with the best decisions for Spokane Valley.”