Growing and nurturing business, preparing for future growth, maintaining infrastructure and providing public safety – all while keeping taxes low – were all boxes ticked by four City Council hopefuls on Tuesday night.
While all might be subjects tackled by candidates at a campaign stop in late summer, the only voters who had to be impressed this time were the five sitting members of the Spokane Valley City Council, who are set to make their choice to fill the vacant seat of Rose Dempsey during the April 5 regular council meeting.
“Thank you for doing this and putting up with our questions,” Mayor Tom Towey said told Steven Neill, Ben Wick, Jennie Willardson and Arne Woodard at the conclusion of the interviews, which were held in open session before a lightly attended council gathering.
Each council member asked three questions of each of the applicants, with only a few real curveballs – those came predominantly from Council Member Bill Gothmann – giving the interviewees pause. At one point, Woodard even noted that a question on what he perceived Spokane Valley’s culture to be was “a softball” from Council Member Dean Grafos.
“People here don’t want to be told what to do,” Woodard – who owns a commercial real estate company and sits on the city Planning Commission – said. “They want to be heard.”
Woodard – who was the last to be interviewed in alphabetical order – said he was advised by his wife “not to talk too much” – responded to a query by Gothmann how the city could provide affordable housing to families when Woodard’s application stated that regulations and zoning should only apply to “health and safety” and “let the free market determine the rest.”
Woodard said that some rezones are necessary to serve the public good, but the city should be careful to not encourage a high population count.
“Overall, I believe once we populate, the more problems you’ll have socially,” Woodard said. “The public health is not always best served.”
Woodard characterized Spokane Valley as traditionally “independent, rural and conservative.” He added that the role of a city council member is to listen, have a dialogue and “to lead – it’s hard to lead.”
Woodard said the city will “eventually build” a new city hall rather than continue to rent its current space but, “I don’t think anybody’s considering that today.” He also said he favors an advisory ballot question being brought before the voters first.
He added that he was involved in the efforts to incorporate the city in order to have more responsive government and is not favor in a fee on car tabs to raise money to help maintain roads.
“When you raise taxes, it’s the most vulnerable that get hit the worst,” he said.
Willardson – who has frequented council meetings in the past to champion the library district and comment on land-use decisions – told the council she has been known to be outspoken but could be more tactful as a council member.
“I have a tendency to be a bit of a rabble-rouser,” said the customer service representative from West Corp., adding that she would “be more of a gentlewoman” if she were to replace Dempsey on the council.
Willardson said she believes fees should be set to recover costs but that the city doesn’t “want to lose money on CenterPlace,” a municipally owned event center at Mirabeau Place. Mindful of the current economic downturn, Willardson also said raising taxes should be a last resort, the city should tread carefully before building a new city hall and that the Valley should retain its suburban character.
She added that contracting for services has been beneficial to the city of Spokane Valley and praised its snow-removal efforts.
“My street was getting cleared much better,” Willardson said. “I got bermed in when I was expecting it to be cleaned for weeks.”
Willardson was also the first to bring up the Sprague-Appleway Revitalization Plan, which the majority of the current council has been working to do away with permanently.
“Many businesses were turned into nonconforming uses (under SARP),” she said. “I’d like to see that we don’t rezone without asking existing business what they wish to do.”
Ben Wick, an information technology specialist and Spokane County Interstate Fair superintendent and head of the Fair and Expo Center Advisory Board, also was involved in the 2002 city incorporation effort and was an initial candidate for City Council.
He said he wants to maintain the “high quality of life” of Valley residents and hopes to see the community be a destination place 50 years in the future.
“I plan to still be here,” he said, adding that council member should be the visionaries “driving the ship.”
He said he looked forward to serving on the time-consuming committees and boards that are required by council members, adding that he was newly married but had no children.
“This is the perfect time for me to be involved with the community,” he said.
Wick said the city should intensify its efforts to communicate with constituents through social media like Facebook and a more interactive Web site.
Steven Neill, a materials coordinator who has frequented many council meetings and been an outspoken critic of SARP, was the first to be interviewed and paused before answering Gothmann’s question on how to raise money to improve the city’s roads. Neill, on his application, had stated that one of the ways could be “possibly renegotiating union and nonunion salaries to bring them more into line with the private sector.”
“Cutting wages is not the single answer, but we should open the books for everything,” Neill said. “What are the most important things the city needs to do?”
Neill stated that council members need to listen to the public.
“There are a lot of valid opinions out there,” he said. “You have to be able to say, ‘You know, I could be wrong.’”
As to where Spokane Valley will be in 10 or 20 years, Neill said, “It depends on the decisions we make today. We have so much to offer.”
Neill said the city needs to do whatever it can to attract new business and retain the ones currently located in the city.
“I want to be a voice of the people,” he said.
The council’s choice will fill out the remainder of Dempsey’s term, which is up at the end of 2010. He or she will have the option of running for election to retain the seat.
The council also must fill the vacant position of Bob McCaslin, who passed away March 13. The process will be similar, and applicants not chosen next Tuesday have the option of reapplying for McCaslin’s post.
Applications must be received by the city clerk by Tuesday, April 19, at 4 p.m. The council will review applications in an executive session on April 26, and a list of applicants to interview will also be chosen that night. Interviews will then be held on May 10, with an appointment set to be made on May 17.
For more information, potential applications should visit www.spokanevalley.org or call the city clerk at 720-5102.