While there is plenty of debate about political candidates and the future of government in the city of Liberty Lake, there has been consensus on at least one topic during the latest campaign season – there will be some fairly significant changes at City Hall after Nov. 8.
The most recent discussion regarding the future of Spokane County’s easternmost city came last week during a community forum sponsored by the Greater Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce at the Meadowwood Technology Campus. The Oct. 13 event featured mayoral hopefuls Steve Peterson and City Council Member Josh Beckett as well as City Council candidates Shane Brickner and Keith Kopelson. Resident Mary Munger was also on hand, representing the platform in favor of Proposition 1, a citizen-led initiative that would change the form of government in Liberty Lake from the strong mayor/city council system to a city manager/council format. Council Member Judi Owens took the stand against the proposal.
Beckett and Peterson are on the ballot in hopes of replacing current Mayor Wendy Van Orman while Brickner and Kopelson are contending for Pos. 5, to be vacated by Owens. Council incumbents Cris Kaminskas and Susan Schuler are running alone on next month’s ballot, as is Planning Commissioner Dan Dunne, the only candidate running for Pos. 3, currently occupied by Mayor Pro Tem David Crump.
Crump, Owens and Van Orman – all members of the inaugural Liberty Lake City Council going back to 2001 – each announced earlier this year that they would not run for re-election.
Munger led off last Thursday’s discussion by pointing to the inclusion of a city administrator’s position in the original city code as well as the revised version in 2006. Peterson released Liberty Lake’s first and only city administrator, Lewis Griffin, toward the end of 2005. Munger and Prop. 1 supporters have used the scenario in their argument for a city manager, who can only be fired by a majority decision from the City Council.
“This offers a better value for city government,” Munger said. “It would give the city a full-time, qualified, educated and professional administrator.”
Van Orman broke a tie vote on the City Council back in June, deciding against a city-sponsored rendition of Prop. 1. Residents like Munger and Ron Ragge then went to work, gathering signatures to put the issue on the November ballot. On July 18, the Spokane County Elections Office verified that the petition included enough approved signatures to make the initiative official. Prop. 1 requires a simple majority, or any margin over 50 percent, to pass.
Munger said that while a city manager would handle the day-to-day administrative duties at City Hall, “the policy decisions would still be in the hands of elected officials.” Munger has been critical of the city’s approach to the 2011 budget which she says “included cuts to staff and services even before the budget was approved.”
“The budget process last year was sad and frustrating,” she said.
Owens countered by saying the city has “had a successful track record” going back to the official incorporation day of Aug. 31, 2001.
“We’re a fiscally sound city and we’ve accomplished that in challenging economic conditions,” Owens said. “Changing the form of city government will not improve the city’s success.”
Owens acknowledged the less-than-smooth road traveled by the jurisdiction in recent years, pointing to the loss of key staffmembers like Finance Director Arlene Fisher and senior council members as one of the reasons for the turmoil.
“We’ve had a lack of experience,” Owens said.
Owens said several cities who have transitioned to a city manager system wind up reverting back in structural change that is more “fickle” than constructive.
“There’s nothing wrong with our form of government,” Owens said. “We need to hold leaders accountable and move on.”
Munger took exception to the argument that the latest struggles at City Hall were connected to “a moment in time,” saying a city with nearly 8,000 residents and a budget of $12 million should have a “professional administrator” in place.
Owens conceded that a return to a city administrator – not a city manager – would benefit the city and added that Munger’s movement was “not a mandate from the people.”
“A city manager doesn’t report to the citizens,” Owens said.
A pair of Washington cities have already conducted votes on the strong mayor/city manager question this year. The town of Langley on the southern edge of Whidbey Island rejected the move to city manager by a 76 percent margin in August. Meanwhile, Yakima voters opted to retain the city manager/council system by a ratio of 52 to 49 percent in February. Airway Heights was the last city in Spokane County to make the change from strong mayor to city manager in 2002.
City Council contenders Kopelson and Brickner have both lived in Liberty Lake for seven years and have plenty of superlatives for their inherited hometown. Kopelson was in retail management for 25 years before recently starting his own company. Brickner, born and raised in Eastern Washington, works in pharmaceutical sales.
Kopelson, 45, is emphasizing his background in business as he runs for his first political office. He told the crowd of around 150 last week that “it has been an interesting process to get involved in politics.”
“We live in a great city,” Kopelson said.
Brickner, an EWU grad, volunteers time with the Liberty Lake Police Department and started a local Grief Share support group after the death of his brother. He said his quest for office began following a conversation he had with Liberty Lake Police Chief Brian Asmus about some issues going on in the city.
“He asked me, ‘Why don’t you run for City Council?’” Brickner said. “I realized I could be part of the problem and complain about it or get involved and do something about it.”
Kopelson and Brickner both expressed support for Prop. 1 with Kopleson comparing the system to a CEO of a company who reports to a board of directors.
“We need someone with experience and accountability who can’t hold up the process with a veto,” Kopelson said.
Brickner, 36, said the change would give the city a “neutral leader.”
Kopelson called the city’s 6-percent utility tax on phone, cable, gas and electric services “a cash cow” and said he had talked with “a lot of people impacted by the tax.” Brickner stopped short of the cattle reference, but said he supports “the reduction or elimination” of the tax.
Both candidates said the city could improve the local business climate with Brickner suggesting limits on leasing costs for commercial renters and “finding a balance with the sign code.” Kopelson, co-founder of the Liberty Lake Merchant’s Association, expressed hope that City Hall and the business community could work on improved communication.
“We need to keep money in the city,” he said.
When pressed to pick a favorite among the mayoral candidates, Koppelson and Brickner both expressed support for Peterson.
As the mayoral candidates took the stand, Beckett used the platform to play off the slight.
“That’s OK, Keith and Shane – I don’t hold grudges,” he said. “We’ll be OK in January.”
Peterson and Beckett were appearing at their third debate during the week, a schedule that began with the “Rally in the Valley” event at Central Valley High School on Monday and a lightly attended event sponsored by Greater Spokane Inc. on Wednesday.
In his opening remarks, Beckett said the mayor’s race was “about how the city is going to close out the first decade of leadership and move forward.” Backing off previous remarks that have been critical of both Van Orman and Peterson, Beckett said the city’s first two mayors had provided Liberty Lake with “tremendous leadership,” although he did take a jab at Peterson’s failed attempt to annex the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District in 2003.
“That’s not what we want to return to,” Beckett said.
Peterson, a Liberty Lake resident for the past 13 years, referenced his support of organizations like Friends of Pavillion Park and the library board, but emphasized that the current race “is about the future of Liberty Lake.”
“I want to maintain a vision of a safe, clean, green community,” he said.
While the candidates disagreed on the city’s recent decision to spend $35,000 on a consultant to map out potential changes at City Hall, including the addition of a city administrator – Beckett opposes the move while Peterson supports it – both agreed that bringing back a city administrator would be prudent. Each candidate also acknowledged that the hire should not come from the current lineup of municipal employees.
Beckett continued his criticism of the city’s proposed central business district which would reduce traffic to two lanes along Liberty Lake Road. Peterson said the idea was included in the Transportation Improvement Plan passed by City Council in 2009 and said slower traffic would actually improve the retail environment.
In describing their leadership styles, Peterson pointed to his stellar attendance record at City Council meetings in six years as mayor and said he was routinely at his office “by 7 or 7:30 each morning.”
“I manage by talking to people, asking them ‘What can we do better?’ or ‘Do you have any ideas?’” Peterson said. “It’s like an interview process on a constant basis.”
Beckett, who won a chair at the council dais in the November 2009 election, said he visits City Hall to speak with full-time staff as much as any representative of the governing board and often consults with Police Chief Brian Asmus.
In addressing the utility tax and last year’s budget situation, Peterson said he “never thought the city was broke.” He also criticized Beckett for supporting cuts to the library.
Beckett took exception to the claim of the utility tax as “a slush fund” and said recent hires by the city – from the golf pro to the finance director – have all been “budgeted positions.”
In closing, Beckett questioned Peterson’s ability to “be a collaborative leader” while emphasizing that Liberty Lake’s “role in the community and region have changed” since his opponent was in office nearly four years ago.
For his part, Peterson said his tenure as mayor speaks for itself.
“You know me and what I’ve done to make the community better,” he said