The top 12 of ’12
By Josh Johnson
Splash Staff Writer
Perhaps you've heard of the six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon? Well, the biggest stories of 2012 for the community of Liberty Lake could be referred to as the six degrees of separation from Steve Peterson.
The return-trip election of the former mayor was named our top story in this annual special issue a year ago. In 2012, many of our biggest stories ended up being connected to Peterson's return to leadership in Liberty Lake. As such, The Splash decided to add an extra wrinkle to this year's list, connecting each of our top 12 stories to the back-in-office mayor in some form or fashion. In most cases, this wasn't very hard to do.
1. City staff makeup and shakeup
While 2011's top story was about the changes - and some drama - concerning the city's elected officials, 2012 was a year of change - and some drama - among City Hall staff.
The city entered 2012 with an interim city administrator, Mike Cecka, who helped Liberty Lake search out an ultimately find a permanent city administrator, Katy Allen. Allen, a longtime Liberty Lake resident with an impressive resume of big-city municipal experience, started in June. With the hiring of Allen, it wasn't long before one of the city's longest-tenured employees, Community Development Director Doug Smith, was let go.
In other news, city staff members filed to form a union, but needed a majority of eligible employees to vote in favor for it to happen. The June tally showed an 8-8 split, so no union was formed.
Also in 2012, former Trailhead Golf Professional Mollie Thola filed a lawsuit against the city, Smith and Recreation Coordinator Michelle Griffin. Thola alleged mistreatment when she was an employee with the city. A trial was scheduled for October 2013.
Steve Peterson connection: The mayor was at the center of much of this. Ultimately, it was his decision to let go of Smith, whom he had hired as one of his first staff members after the city incorporated and he became its inaugural mayor in 2001. He also hired Thola, but was out of office during the period of mistreatment cited in her lawsuit. Peterson, who hired and let go of the city's first city administrator in a previous term, saying the position wasn't necessarily, changed course early in 2012 with his decision to bring back the top municipal position.
2. LLSWD transition of leadership
Two of the longest-tenured leaders in the history of the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District were in the headlines in the latter quarter of 2012.
Frank L. Boyle, who at 20-plus years was the longest-serving commissioner in the history of the district, passed away in late September. The district, which has since made plans to honor Boyle, chose Kottayam V. Natarajan Jr. as his replacement.
Then in early December, General Manager Lee Mellish announced that he was resigning after 20 years leading the district. He plans to close out his service in the spring after his replacement is found and trained.
Steve Peterson connection: In his previous term as mayor, Peterson often engaged in sharp and public disagreements with Boyle - particularly as the city explored assuming control of the LLSWD. After Boyle's passing, however, Peterson publicly acknowledged Boyle's service to the community. Both men had recently noted the positive working relationship the city and district enjoy today.
3. ‘Round about' an embattled intersection
Many Liberty Lake residents have long made it a practice to avoid the intersection of Harvard Road, Mission Avenue and the Interstate 90 off-ramp, particularly if they would be forced to make a left turn. While calls for a stoplight have been made in year's past, this year the city worked out an agreement with the Washington State Department of Transportation to build a roundabout at the intersection. The roundabout is one of the projects tabbed for 2013, and an open house was held in December to talk more about the design and functionality of the plan.
Steve Peterson connection: This was one of the mayor's priorities when coming into office, and he led a push for how the deal would be brokered, with both the city and the state sharing responsibility for the project's $1.5 million price tag. Peterson identified funding stored in the Harvard Road Mitigation Fund for the project.
4. Library enjoys three cheers (at least)
Once it started, the wave of good news for the Liberty Lake Municipal Library was tough to stop in 2012. It started when the City Council agreed to allocate a set percentage of its property tax revenue to the library, allowing it a more consistent and reliable funding mechanism with which to plan for the future. The decision modified the 2012 budget, enabling the city to increase staffing enough to reopen on Mondays, a move that took effect in September. Meanwhile, the library joined the CIN network - a group of libraries chiefly in Idaho - providing patrons with access to 500,000 titles, up from 30,000 prior. Then, in the fall, the library brokered an agreement with the Spokane County Library District for reciprocal borrowing between the two entities - opening up another 500,000 titles to patrons. As icing on the cake, a long-sought improvement to the library's entryway is currently under construction.
Steve Peterson connection: Among other connections, Peterson was an advocate in his first term for separating from the county system and creating an independent city library. From the beginning, he had hoped for reciprocal borrowing with the county system, and that vision finally came to fruition in 2012.
5. CVSD, city swap lot for 10 dollar bill
Central Valley School District voters have never approved a new school to be purchased on the vacant lot next to Liberty Lake Elementary School, leading to the district putting development of the lot on the back burner for the time being. This fall, the city and district brokered a deal that sells the lot to the city for $10 so it can be improved into recreation fields. The agreement allows the district to purchase the land back for $10 plus improvements when it's ready to build the school.
Steve Peterson connection: The mayor was working on this concept in his previous term, and with the help of CVSD Superintendent Ben Small, the two parties were able to come to an agreement that will improve the lot until it is ready for use.
6. Civic center discussion returns to forefront
Plans to develop a 6.4-acre plot of land next at the corner of Appleway and Signal were re-engaged in 2012, as an initial phase that would expand parking and green space near the Farmers Market site was formulated, with longer-term development still being debated for the vacant city-owned lot. The land was labeled a priority by the City Council after its summer planning retreat. Pending the finalization of some pieces of the funding, the city is aiming to make strides on the lot in 2013.
Steve Peterson connection: He was mayor when the city purchased the lot, envisioning a site for a library and community center. He recently engaged a team of students to study the concept of a retail incubator developed into the site.
7. Utility tax gets green light for another year
By all accounts, the process for working on the 2013 budget went much smoother than years' past. Many Council Members credited Finance Director RJ Stevenson (who had completed his first full budget cycle on the job) and City Administrator Katy Allen with the improved process. Still under debate was the 2-year-old utility tax, which was initially passed to help cover an anticipated shortfall in city coffers, but which created a surplus in its first year and so was reduced by half - to 3 percent - for 2012. Some council members discussed reducing it further or eliminating it for 2013, and the Council received some testimony favoring the tax's eradication, but ultimately the tax survived intact in the 2013 budget. Some council members have said they plan to take the issue up again early next year.
Steve Peterson connection: Interestingly, the mayor was one of the staunchest opponents of the tax - at that time as a citizen - when it was first instituted for 2011, and he campaigned on the concept of reducing or removing it a year ago. During the budget season, he has been one of the tax's chief defenders, claiming now that its purpose has been defined to use for road maintenance and infrastructure, it is necessary for the city's future health.
8. Districts join forces for SV Tech
Led by the Central Valley School District, a consortium of Spokane Valley school districts developed plans to purchase and renovate an old building early in 2012. The result was Spokane Valley Tech, which will move into the upgraded building at the corner of University and Sprague in Spokane Valley this January. Officially a branch campus of a Spokane skill center, Spokane Valley Tech focuses on career and college readiness through programs as diverse as aerospace manufacturing and cosmetology. The school is seeking funding from the legislature in 2013 to further expand.
Steve Peterson connection: There is no direct connection, but Peterson has been a cheerleader for the project and has praised CVSD Superintendent Ben Small's leadership in helping make the project a reality.
9. Residential building spikes
While not approaching pre-recession levels, the city of Liberty Lake did see significant growth in its residential building in 2012. The inspection and permitting needs were such that the city contracted with Cheney to bring on another inspector, and Greenstone Homes reported sales approximately doubling in its two main Liberty Lake developments - River District and Rocky Hill - over a similar timeframe in 2011.
Steve Peterson connection: Peterson has a close connection at the city of Cheney. Cheney's city administrator, Arlene Fisher, was Liberty Lake's first finance director - hired by Peterson.
10. Tech campus comes to life
Early in 2012, Liberty Mutual moved into the Meadowwood Technology Campus - the former home of Agilent/Hewlett Packard. That major tenant and the arrival of a few others has brought bustle and daily traffic back into the facility. Greenstone purchased the site in 2010 and has shared plans to further develop the property as the market allows.
Steve Peterson connection: The Meadowwood Technology Campus was the site of an election forum in October 2011 during his campaign against current Council Member Josh Beckett. When asked if he would be looking to assume control over the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District, Peterson drew some chuckles from the crowd with an emphatic, "Oh no." He said the two entities had "buried the hatchet."
11. Twin bill of success for CV basketball
The 4A state championship games had one thing in common in Washington state last March: the Central Valley Bears. Both the boys and girls teams closed out impressive seasons with championship game appearances. While the girls team was ranked among the state's top teams all season, the boys team flew under the radar most of the year and peaked at the state tournament. Both teams fell short in the final game, but a dual second place finish was a significant achievement for the school. One Bears team that did take home top honors in state was the boys cross country team, which achieved the feat this fall.
Steve Peterson connection: Another one of Peterson's early hires, former city maintenance and green space guru Ron Knudsen, is an assistant coach with the CV boys basketball team.
12. Goats graze on city's problem pastures
An innovative approach to a weedy hillside become one of the more talked-about stories of 2012 when Parks and Open Space Superintendent Jennifer Camp brought in 27 goats to gobble away at the tough-to-remove overgrowth. The grazing workforce was so successful the city later moved them to another trouble area at Rocky Hill Park, and the goats made their way into the budget for an encore performance in 2013.
Steve Peterson connection: The mayor - who has long been vocal with his praise of outside-the-box thinking - has lauded the goats as fitting in with his vision for a "safe, clean, green" community.