Wilkerson, Plese debate qualifications for Spokane City Council president

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(The Center Square) – Topics of crime, homelessness, support for police, and ballot propositions were key points in a debate Thursday between Betsy Wilkerson and Kim Plese, candidates vying for president of the Spokane City Council.

The non-partisan position is on the Nov. 7 election ballot. The winner will succeed current council president Lori Kinnear when her current four-year term expires at the end of 2023.

The question-and-answer debate was organized by the Spokane Rotary Club, with past president Mike Church serving as moderator, and livestreamed on KXLY+.

Wilkerson is in her third year as a city council member representing District 2 and is current president of the Association of Washington Cities. She operates Moore’s Assisted Living, which provides housing and healthcare to persons with developmental and mental health disabilities.

“Helping people is what I do,” said Wilkerson, who cites her experience in business and on the seven-member council as making her the best qualified candidate. “I have what it takes to (provide) a safe, vibrant, thriving economy for generations to come,” she said. Wilkerson has been endorsed by Kinnear and by union labor and healthcare workers.

Plese also touted her 32 years’ of business experience as owner of Plese Printing and Marketing until its sale last year. She also has civic involvement as former president of the Boys and Girls Club and Executive Women International of Spokane. Plese is endorsed by current Spokane mayor Nadine Woodward, former mayor David Condson, and current Spokane County sheriff John Nowels.

If elected, Plese said she would vote against any tax increases that would further burden local residents, would ease regulations and promote more types of housing to address rising costs, and says the city needs to address crime that is hurting citizens, businesses, and tourism.

The two candidates were divided over two measures that will appear on the Nov. 7 ballot.

Proposition 1 seeks to amend Spokane’s municipal code to prohibit encampments, presumably involving the homeless, within 1,000 feet of schools, public parks, playgrounds or licensed childcare facilities.

Wilkerson opposes the proposition, saying all citizens want to be safe, but believing the measure is “fear-mongering” and unfairly displaces persons who aren’t criminals or breaking laws. “Where will people go?” Wilkerson asked. “Listen to that,” Plese said, who supports the proposition. “She (Wilkerson) wants the homeless within 1,000 feet of schools … I think it’s ridiculous.”

Plese supports and Wilkerson opposes Measure No. 1, which calls for a two-tenths of 1% increase in the countywide sales tax over 30 years to raise revenue for criminal justice and public safety purposes. Cities and towns would get 40% and the county would receive 60% of the revenue, estimated at $31 million in 2025 and growing to $95 million by 2054. The county wants to use its share to build a new, larger jail. Plese said the current jail is lacks space to house inmates at a time when crime is on the rise. Wilkerson called the measure “a blank check” which lacks details, including no specified location for a new jail, and a tax that impacts citizens and businesses.

Regarding a projected $20 million deficit as officials prepare Spokane’s 2024 budget, Plese said many of the expenses stem from the city’s response efforts to crime. “You can’t cut in those areas,” she said. But Plese questioned how effective money spent on homelessness issues have been.

Wilkerson said the city council sought 10% budget cuts in 2021 and 5% cuts last year, but the mayor “didn’t do that … We’ve been raising the alarm the last two years.” Wilkerson did acknowledge, “We do have a big challenge ahead of us.”

Both candidates said they support local police. Wilkerson said, “We need police, without a doubt” and that she has sponsored funding to recruit officers and to provide vehicles and training – “the tools they need.” She disputed Plese’s assertion of inadequate funding, saying the council has provided monies to the department but “it’s up to the administration” on how funds are spent. Plese said she has been endorsed by the local police guild and claimed that Wilkerson’s actions have discouraged recruitment and retention. “Why would an officer come here?” Plese asked.

However, both candidates did say they supported independent oversight of police operations and conduct, including the role of an ombudsman.

Plese criticized the city’s imposition of a large planning fee increase – rather than incremental steps — on new construction projects, saying it has stifled development and hurt businesses. Wilkerson countered that there had been no review of the adequacy of planning fees for 20 years, and that city employees who do the work “need a liveable wage.”

Last September, the city council approved a moratorium on housing development in Latah Valley to study and find more funding for road improvements, public transportation access, and other public and safety amenities. Plese said the council did “an injustice” to developers who “followed the rules” and put infrastructure in place. Wilkerson, who supported the moratorium, said there currently is only a single road providing access to the area, which poses a danger to inhabitants in the event of fire. She said there are discussions with the state Department of Transportation for additional access.

Both candidates said they support the city’s use of “community courts” which handle low-level criminal cases and defendants through diversionary programs while easing the burden on district and superior courts. Wilkerson said she would pursue more state funding to support such efforts. Plese’s support was tepid, questioning their overall effectiveness and saying the county still has high rates of domestic violence and other crimes.

Regarding Mayor Nadine Woodward’s brief onstage appearance with controversial former state lawmaker Matt Shea at a large public prayer rally in August, Wilkerson defended a divided city council censure of the mayor. Woodward has said she was unaware of Shea’s attendance until the last moment. Still, it was inappropriate of the mayor, said Wilkerson, adding that the council’s action was “not against religion. We were denouncing what this person (Shea) stood for.” Plese said the council had “wasted time over and over again” in faulting Woodward, whom Plese contended “had not said anything in support of Matt Shea.”

In closing, Church, as moderator, asked both candidates what their “absolutely best thing” about Spokane was, and the biggest challenge facing city government.

Wilkerson cited the city’s many parks as the best thing, calling them “phenomenal” for the public. The biggest challenge, she said, was improving public safety and communications between agencies, departments, and employees. “We are very siloed in this community,” she said.

Similarly, Plese lauded Spokane’s Riverfront Park and downtown facilities as the best thing, calling them “the jewel of the community.” Crime and communications are the biggest challenges, she said.

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