This time, four years ago, Wendy Van Orman was staking out territory for campaign signs, brushing up on debate topics and chatting with citizens in Liberty Lake about her ideas for the future.
These days, Mayor Van Orman is still concentrating on an array of municipal topics – from the city budget to an impending state highway project that will impact both commercial and residential aspects of Liberty Lake. Only this summer, Van Orman is not reciting platform speeches in preparation for a primary or general election. After a decade on the political scene in Liberty Lake, the second mayor in the city’s history announced earlier this year that she would not run for re-election.
Liberty Lake Mayor Wendy Van Orman has served with the city since 2001, first as a member of the City Council and as mayor since 2008. Van Orman announced earlier this year that she would not run for re-election.
Photo by: Craig Howard
“I’m putting family first,” she said when asked about her reasons for stepping aside.
Van Orman, a member of Liberty Lake’s inaugural City Council in 2001, won a narrow vote over incumbent Steve Peterson in November 2007, collecting 966 votes to her opponent’s 905.
In a series of cordial debates with Peterson that fall, Van Orman highlighted her contributions to the burgeoning city as part of the governing board, including the formation of a top-flight police force, the establishment of a municipal library and Liberty Lake’s recently earned status as an official “Tree City.”
“I’m running to unite the community,” Van Orman said at a debate in October 2007 sponsored by the Liberty Lake Kiwanis Club.
The challenger also pointed to her involvement in developing ordinances that addressed areas like signage and economic development. Her support in curbing garish advertising in the new city had to do with lessons learned from a commercial thoroughfare to the west.
“I didn’t want it to become like Sprague Avenue,” she said.
Van Orman brought a diplomatic and collaborative style to the mayor’s role, working to mend ties with the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District after the city had attempted to take over the utility years earlier. She also advocated for the HUB Regional Sports Center, the embattled facility on the western fringe of Liberty Lake that has become one of the city’s landmarks.
On other capital facility fronts, Van Orman supported the purchase of a 37,400 square foot warehouse in July 2008 that eventually became the new home of the police department and municipal library.
“I think it was the best move the city ever made,” she said. “It saved a lot of taxpayer money.”
One of the volunteers who donated time to a group called “Liberty Lake 2000” leading up to the successful incorporation vote, Van Orman was also active in the formation of the Liberty Lake Sheriff’s Community Oriented Policing Effort and has been at the forefront of the annual community Easter egg hunt. As mayor, she came up with the idea for Liberty Lake Days, a civic celebration that will celebrate its second installment at Pavillion Park this month.
Council Member Judi Owens – who, along with Van Orman and Mayor Pro Tem Dave Crump, represent the three original members of the city’s governing board – said Van Orman has been one of the catalysts in Liberty Lake from the beginning.
“This city exists because of a handful of people, and Wendy is one of them,” Owens said.
When Van Orman replaced Peterson at City Hall in January 2008, she would begin her tenure without Arlene Fisher, the longtime finance director who accepted a similar role with the city of Cheney. More financial turbulence would be on its way as the city dealt with the repercussions of a nationwide recession. Revenue from sales tax and property tax – historically two pillars of the Liberty Lake budget – began to drop off steadily.
“Most people don’t understand what it was like to take over as mayor during that time,” said Doug Smith, Liberty Lake community development director. “There was the slowdown in the economy and the city had several key staff members leave. Wendy took a lot of unnecessary criticism and a lot of it was because she is the kind of person who never speaks poorly of others.”
Citizen concern escalated late last year when the City Council voted to implement a 6-percent utility tax as well as raise property tax to counteract some of the revenue shortfalls. Van Orman also drew the ire of some residents with proposed cutbacks to the library and municipal golf course.
Van Orman said the budget strategy represented “a mix of cuts and added revenue.” The council plans to review the utility tax at their next meeting on July 19.
Smith said, through it all, Van Orman has established herself as “a leader who goes out of her way to listen to the concerns of individuals.”
Owens gave credit to Van Orman for practicing patience in the face of changing dynamics on the City Council and swirling community opinions on municipal matters ranging from the city-sponsored arboretum to taxation.
“She never threw a tantrum,” Owens said. “She was always a class act. I see Wendy as a terrific Christian. She lives her convictions.”
In addition to 40-plus hours at City Hall – a job that pays a mere $750 a month – Van Orman works for her family’s flooring company and has served on the board of the Spokane Transit Authority and Spokane Regional Transportation Council, positions that traditionally have been held by City Council representatives.
As the debate over the future system of government in Liberty Lake continues, Van Orman has spoken in support of a return to the strong mayor/city administrator format utilized by the city from 2001 to 2006. No city administrator has returned to City Hall since Peterson announced the release of Lewis Griffin, effective in January 2006.
A collection of residents are advocating for a city manager to run the day-to-day business of Liberty Lake, now nearing 8,000 residents. Van Orman cast a tie-breaking vote last month that would have meant the city sponsoring a vote for a city manager/council system (in which the mayor serves a ceremonial role) on the November ballot. Citizens must now gather around 200 signatures from registered voters to put the question to a vote.
“I do support having a city administrator as a professional running the city,” Van Orman said. “But I also think Liberty Lake needs a elected mayor who has a stake in the community and represents the citizens well.”