Spokane Democrat Brings Challenge to Conservative Commissioner

Oct 28, 2014

The battle for Spokane county commissioner matches an incumbent republican who has also served on the Spokane City Council with an attorney who is a newcomer to politics. Al French has been on the county commission for one term. Also a veteran of the Spokane City Council, French has been an investment consultant and real estate developer.

Commissioner Al French and challenger Mary Lou Johnson.
Credit Al French campaign website; Mary Lou Johnson

French touts his economic record as his major accomplishment, and gives as one example his efforts on the commission to make it easier for businesses to get building permits that helped bring the Caterpillar facility to Spokane on the West Plains.

French: “Streamline processes and ordinances. You know when we permitted Caterpillar we were able to turn that building permit around in two weeks. You know a project like that would normally take three months. And that was one of the things we were able to promise caterpillar and we were able to deliver on that.”

Opponent Mary Lou Johnson has a background as a nurse, an attorney in the federal court for 17 years, and experience in mediation work. She feels that background allows her to see all sides of an issue, and make careful evaluations, things she sees as a plus for the three member commission.

Johnson: “If any three people have an issue they are discussing, no single one of us has all the answers. And so if you have a broader range of perspectives you will get better results. Unfortunately my opponent said in a debate he has a sort of disdain for compromise, and I think that is what government is about and what government has lost.” French feels his comments on compromise were incorrectly taken.

French: “Mediation is a process you go through to bring two parties that have a disparate position to a compromise, and we do that all the time at county. I am not foreign to that, [I] did it in the city council and the county. What I have said is I am not willing to compromise my beliefs and principals, I am going to fight.”

Mr. French and the commissioners have come under fire from some quarters for the manner they expanded the Urban Growth Area in the county, under the state's growth management act. Once brought into the UGA, former rural areas can be developed with much higher density of homes per acre. While critics questioned the commissions agreed upon projections for population growth over a 20 year period. French points out there were other criteria that the expansion was based on, including environmental concerns, as the expanded the UGA to cover parts of the Little Spokane River.

French: “To bring a sewer into an area, we had to bring it into this urban growth boundary, so we had to extend the boundary to extend sewer lines, so we could eliminate septic tanks over the top of our drinking water. And they want to criticize us for doing that. I think protecting our water, our aquifer is job number one.”

Mary Lou Johnson questions the transparency of that statement.

Johnson: “And the question is are we doing it because of the aquifer? Is there adequate explanation and risk this point of time, or are we doing it to extend sewer along Highway 2, so we can have more strip commercial development, where taxpayers are going to pay to put that sewer in, and the big stores can come because the sewers are already there.”

Johnson also wonders about the transparency issue, whether French would benefit from his previous work in real estate, by helping landowners whose property is moved into the UGA who have a chance to make money by turning undeveloped raw land into developments. French says in the 21 areas that were brought into UGA, he received monetary contributions from only two or three people.

When it comes to the controversial Spokane casino proposal, Al French defends his record in opposing it, saying he’s doing all he can to make sure there is no encroachment that threatens Fairchild Air Force base. Plus, he discounts a contract made with the Tribe that would share profits with the county.

French: “There is nothing in this agreement that talks about what would be legitimate expense., what qualifies as a profit, and there’s no auditing. Where’s the transparency when you can’t audit. You know my opponent criticizes me for spending time and energy for fighting this thing, I’m not going to let a bureaucrat in Washington D.C. decide this thing for me without a fight.”

Mary Lou Johnson agrees the air base should be protected, but questions why the county has spent at least 300 thousand dollars to fight the casino.

Johnson: “We will ge that decision my opinion is lets live with that decision I would oppose spending any more money if the casino is approved.”

Approval of the casino project is now in the hands of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Governor Jay Inslee.