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Rift continues over Spokane City Council’s STA board appointments

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(The Center Square) – A Spokane County commissioner continues to challenge a decision that excludes two members of the Spokane City Council from appointment to the Spokane Transit Authority’s board of directors.

County Commissioner Al French is upset that councilmembers Jonathan Bingle and Michael Cathcart, who represent the city’s Northeast District 1, were not named to the STA board last month after requesting appointment.

“At the risk of being a broken record, let me continue to reiterate – the Northeast District is in greatest need for its voice to be at the table,” French, who chairs the 14-member STA board, wrote in a Jan. 29 letter to Spokane mayor Lisa Brown and city council president Betsy Wilkerson.

French’s letter was preceded by a Jan. 26 letter in which he wrote that the “will of the voters for representation … was summarily dismissed or was flatly ignored, as the Council President later indicated that she represents the interest of the Northeast District.”

During the city council’s Jan. 22 meeting, Bingle and Cathcart alluded to politics and disregard of seniority while being rebuffed on certain 2024 board appointments and chairmanships. The city’s four STA appointments instead went to councilman Zack Zappone, council newcomers Paul Dillon and Kitty Klitzke, and Wilkerson, who said she provided citywide representation as council president.

“That makes no sense to me,” Bingle said at the time, contending that his district has the highest STA ridership and the highest percentage of low-income persons using the regional bus service.

“This is offensive to my district and offensive to me personally. And I hope we can do something about it,” he said.

“It was not [meant] to be offensive or diminish,” responded Wilkerson.

Under council rules, nominations to Spokane’s inter-governmental committees – there are 51 of them – are made by the council president, subject to majority approval by the council.

Although the mayor’s position and city council seats are nonpartisan, there is an underlying rift at times between the more-conservative Bingle and Cathcart and their more-liberal colleagues, and between French, a Republican commissioner and former councilman, and Brown, a former Democratic state lawmaker.

“I feel in the absence of a logical basis for this decision, these actions are being made instead purely based on politics,” French wrote in his Jan. 26 letter to Brown and Wilkerson. French followed that up in his Jan. 29 letter, saying he hoped they would “reconsider your current path.”

“… excluding the Northeast District could be perceived as a form of discrimination, if not retribution,” he stated. “Solely pursuing your own objectives, without regard for the will of the voters, is the tyranny of the majority … (and) plain bad governance.”

French’s letter was also sent to all city council and STA board members, STA chief executive officer E. Susan Meyer, and legal counsel Megan Clark.

On Tuesday, Brown’s office issued a statement saying, “As a representative of the entire City of Spokane, the Mayor’s priority is ensuring city representation on local boards and commissions. The City Council has a process on how they decide who will serve in those roles and the Mayor trusts that the Council will be able to work out those arrangements.”

In a Jan. 18 letter to the STA board of directors, Brown and Wilkerson noted that Spokane was the largest jurisdiction by population in the public transportation benefit area and the city wanted at least one of its representatives to serve on the board’s operations committee.

Along with French, the STA Board of Directors includes fellow county commissioner Josh Kerns and elected representatives from the cities of Spokane, Spokane Valley, Cheney, Airway Heights, Medical Lake, Liberty Lake and Millwood.

They oversee a regional transit system with nearly 700 employees, a service area of nearly 248 square miles, and a total operational budget of $216.8 million in 2024. The system served over 6.3 million riders on fixed routes through the third quarter of 2023, plus others through paratransit and ride-share programs.

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