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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Lili Navarrete appointed to two-year stint on Spokane City Council

Lili Navarette has advanced to an open Spokane City Council seat. She previously served as activist in residence for Eastern Washington University. Pictured in this 2020 photo at the school in Cheney, Navarrete holds a fact sheet during a workshop informing immigrants of their rights in the legal system.  (TYLER TJOMSLAND/The Spokesman-Review)

Barbara Liliana Navarrete Lorenzo, better known as Lili Navarrete, has been appointed to fill an open seat on the Spokane City Council for the next two years.

The City Council voted 4-2 to support her appointment after a marathon meeting Monday. Councilmen Michael Cathcart and Jonathan Bingle voted in opposition, stating earlier Monday that they disagreed with the appointment process and felt the candidates should have faced greater public scrutiny. 

Navarrette is believed to be the first Hispanic or immigrant member of the Spokane City Council, at least since the modern conception of the legislative body began in the ’60s.

She was one of 17 applicants for the open seat representing south Spokane and vacated by Betsy Wilkerson, who was elected in November to the citywide position of City Council president.

Navarrete immigrated from Mexico City to Spokane in 1988 and wrote in her application for the open seat that growing up she had not felt represented by city government, noting she had “always wondered why a person of color was not up on the dais” until recently.

“As we want to move Spokane into the future, I wanted to make it as the first Mexican or Latino on the city council ever,” she said. “This opens the doors for any BIPOC person, it can be done. It doesn’t matter the language you speak, the skin color you have, we can make it.”

She wants the city build a “permanent and sustainable” homeless shelter that could house those unable to go to other shelters, saying the city has relied too long on temporary facilities. The city operates but does not own the Trent Avenue shelter, which is the largest in Spokane. In the last year, city leaders have regularly expressed concerns with the arrangement and a desire to close that facility.

Other top-of-mind goals for Navarrete include making it easier for people for whom English is not their first language to interact with city government, such as by hiring a sign language interpreter for council meetings and providing closed captions in other languages, as well as for public transportation.

Navarrete works as a community development officer for the state Commission on Hispanic Affairs and previously as director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood for Greater Washington and North Idaho, where she worked alongside Councilman Paul Dillon, the other representative for south Spokane.

“Lili got here on her own merits,” Dillon said. “She’s always been a hard worker, she’s always centered equity in her approach and I think is really specialized in meeting communities where they’re at.”

Dillon said the council received more than 150 emails in support of her candidacy, including endorsements from community organizations, businesses and organized labor, including the influential Spokane Firefighters Union.

“It was very clear that she had strong community support, she really campaigned effectively for this seat and I think treated it in a different way than the other applicants,” Dillon said.

She volunteers on the Spokane Immigrant Rights Coalition, Hispanic Business/Professional Association and Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network. In 2020, she served as “activist in residence” at Eastern Washington University.

Cathcart called Monday afternoon for the appointment process to be delayed to allow for a debate or public forum between candidates, noting the length of the term and arguing the public should have more opportunity to see the candidates and weigh in. Bingle appeared to echo Cathcart’s concerns.

Dillon called this argument “gaslighting.”

“We followed the process, we did community outreach,” he said. “We followed the same process we have for past council candidates. It just feels disruptive and not really bringing a proactive solution to the table.”

Dillon also argued that, whether or not it was Cathcart’s intention, the impact of changing the process now that Navarrete was being advanced would be a slight to a person of color. He noted that Cathcart did not attend a closed-door executive session at which council members discussed the merits of the candidates.

Cathcart said Dillon’s comments were “incredibly offensive,” noting that he is married to an Asian immigrant and the father of a mixed-race son, and he had preferred the candidacy of Alex Gibilisco, a council staffer and Guatemalan immigrant.

He added that he had made the same arguments ahead of the appointment of former Councilman Ryan Oelrich to a three-month term that ended in November, but felt public debate was even more important before appointing someone to a nearly two-year term.

“This idea, that it’s racist to suggest we should have a conversation with the public, about who should be their representative, is disingenuous on its face and goes against everything I have stood for as a council member for the last four years,” Cathcart added. “It doesn’t make any sense to me, and it shouldn’t make sense to the public, that this candidate should be chosen behind closed doors.”

Cathcart added that he had not attended the executive session to discuss candidates because he “did not trust being in a room talking openly about this,” and felt that the City Council had become markedly less collaborative since the November election.