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Three candidates, different visions in Spokane City Council President primary

Spokane’s city charter says the council president is elected by a citywide vote, gets one vote on the seven-person council, sets the agenda for and presides over the body’s meetings, and may convene special meetings. It sounds fairly straightforward, but wait: there’s more.

The council president also serves as a public face for the group; they often represent the city in legislative hearings; they communicate with the mayor’s office and city departments; they help set the council’s priorities and participate in active debates over ordinances and policies that steer city government. To put it in fewer words: it’s a pretty influential seat.

The candidates

Betsy Wilkerson already serves on the city council, representing District 2, which includes Spokane’s East Central neighborhood. She said experience is needed to address the issues the council faces.

“Homelessness, housing, public safety,” she said. “We really have to do deal with those before we can take on how we want to see Spokane in the next year.”

Kim Plese is a former print shop owner. Last year she ran for a Spokane County Commission seat. She said the city council needs to be more engaged with neighborhoods and residents.

“You know, I have no problem going out and meeting new people and listening to challenges in every neighborhood,” she said.

Andy Rathbun is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. He ran for city council in 2019. He said the council isn’t playing ball with the mayor’s office.

“The city council needs to work more in hand with the mayor, not against the mayor. That’s my big concern,” he said.

Plese and Rathbun agreed with Wilkerson that the city's immediate priorities are housing, homelessness and public safety.

Housing

Plese said housing construction has been stymied by regulations that make building less appealing to developers. She pointed to increased fees for new construction, which she said bear part of the blame for increased housing costs. And she thinks city policies on rental units unfairly tilt the playing field in favor of tenants.

“Instead of being an equal-partner kind of situation, I think the landlords and tenants that I see feel that everything that they see goes into the tenant’s favor, and not the landlord’s,” she said.

Rathbun, a former landlord who owned rental properties in Spokane, said he got out of the business earlier this year because of policies he felt were stacked against property owners.

He said he’s not against increasing housing density, but the city needs to change or repeal ordinances and regulations that he thinks stunt construction.

“This city council’s just focusing on multiplex, high-density, and that’s not the only answer,” Rathbun said. “We need everything going.”

Wilkerson also said more housing across the board is the way to go. She supports a 2020 state law that allows local governments to direct some tax money into affordable housing. She said more housing produces other positive effects.

“You go to my neighborhood, East Central, there’s lots of vacant lots. And if those spaces were activated, that would help with crime, people would be around, and it would create a more connected sense of community,” she said.

Homelessness

Spokane’s increasing homeless population is a political flashpoint. And as a voting member of the council, the president has a role in shaping the city’s response.

Wilkerson supports the city’s Good Neighbor Agreement, which requires participating shelters and residents to follow rules aimed at minimizing impacts to nearby neighborhoods. And she favors treatment, mental health services and transitional housing. But she also says the city has been thrust into an uncomfortable role in managing and reducing homelessness. That’s putting pressure on the budget.

“Government…this was never our role, homelessness,” Wilkerson said. “How do we step into that space and move it forward based on our limited resources? And there will be some difficult decisions to be made.”

Plese sad she wants to implement a plan that involves increased funding for mental health care, substance abuse treatment and job training. She opposes direct aid to homeless people, which is not something Spokane currently offers.

“I’m a person who is willing to give someone a hand up. And I think just handing out money to the homeless situation is not a good thing,” she said. “They just become more dependent on our community.”

Rathbun says homelessness is having a material negative effect on Spokane’s economy. He wants the city to get stricter on unhoused people.

“I absolutely believe we need to enforce the laws that we have on the books, meaning the sit-and-lie. I think we need to outlaw, one hundred percent, public panhandling. It’s driving businesses out the downtown. It’s deterring visitation, our tourism industry,” he said.

Public safety

All three council president candidates agreed Spokane’s police department is understaffed. SPD said last month the department had 70 vacancies, and another 65 officers are eligible for retirement.

Since 2016, the Spokane Police Department’s council-approved budget has risen from $57 million to $72.9 million. This year, police funding is nearly a third of the city’s general fund spending. In June, the council unanimously approved a four-year police union contract that includes pay and benefit increases aimed at recruitment and retention.

Despite all that, Plese said she thinks the council has an unfavorable attitude toward Police Chief Craig Meidl and the whole department.

“It seems like they’re always focusing on the negative instead of talking about the positives,” she said. “That, I would definitely change.”

Rathbun said the city council is too focused on limiting what police can do on the job.

“You can’t be against the police and say that you’re for public safety. Public safety and police are number one hand-in-hand. We have to give them all the tools and support to do the jobs they do, and not tie their hands behind their back,” he said.

Wilkerson was among the local voices calling for reform in the wake of George Floyd’s murder three years ago. The union contract she and the council approved last month included some expansion of the police ombudsman’s investigative powers. And she says she’d like to see more targeted recruitment to diversify the force. Those are steps Wilkerson believes will increase trust in the department. She also acknowledged change hasn’t been easy.

“When it comes to community, I think we have a lot of work to do,” she said. “Conversations have broken down, and there is such a lack of trust on both sides. Communities don’t trust the police, and I believe police don’t believe that we support them and they don’t trust us. So therefore, this schism exists.”

A key figure in local government

Outgoing city council president Breann Beggs has said the job requires a number of qualities: communication, diplomacy, administrative skill. The ability to talk and to listen. A gift for persuasion. A desire for cooperation.

Two of the contenders who hope to succeed Beggs will emerge from the August primary for a final vote in the November general election.

The winner will be a key figure in governing Spokane today, and establishing what the city aspires to be in the years ahead.

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for fifteen years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.