Candidates work to make case to voters
By Josh Johnson
Splash Staff Writer
Of the six candidates vying for the three contested Liberty Lake City Council seats in the Nov. 5 election, four are new faces to city government. Outside of old-fashioned door-belling and sign-waving, an Oct. 2 forum organized by the Greater Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce presented one of the few opportunities to visit with voters.
A crowd of about 50 people attended to hear from five of the candidates - Position 1 challenger Debbi Haskins missed after an unexpected four-day stay in the hospital, for which she has recovered.
With ballots already mailed to voters and the election less than a week after publication date, The Splash pulled from comments at the forum as well as separate interviews with each of the candidates to shed light on the topics being discussed in each race as the finish line approaches.
While many topics were covered, this article will specifically highlight three: 1. What uniquely qualifies the candidate; 2. The candidate's view of the utility tax; and 3. One person or thing the candidate admired from recent City Council history.
Lori Olander, 50, a nurse anesthetist who is retired from serving in the U.S. Navy, may not have had her opponent at the forum, but she worked hard to distinguish herself nonetheless with a mantra of "small government, low taxes and balanced growth."
Appointed as a Council member is June 2012, she has been one of the most consistent critics of the utility tax, stating at the forum that "all of services we want to provide need to be paid for with the sales tax."
She said she is nervous about rapid growth - especially residential growth that is outpacing the capacity of local schools - and said the city's "biggest challenge is retaining that feel as a small city as we surge ahead anticipating a doubling of our size."
Haskins, 51, works as a paralegal for Koegen Edwards LLP, a job she said has provided a wealth of experience in the world of municipal finance. The law firm represents Spokane County and many cities and towns - although, she made clear, Liberty Lake was not among them - all experience she believes would suit her well for a role on the finance committee.
"I've been to numerous (meetings of) county commissioner, City Council, school board, library board, fire district - a lot of work with government," she said. "We are doing bond issues so we're doing things and we're helping people, so I get to see the good side of what can happen."
Haskins, who was born and raised in Spokane Valley and moved to Liberty Lake three years ago, met Mayor Steve Peterson through her job. She talked to Peterson before deciding to interview for a vacancy on the Council last year, and when she decided to run for election this time, Peterson endorsed her candidacy.
The only position without an incumbent - Council Member Josh Beckett chose not to seek another term - this will be the first political office for either Hugh Severs, 27, or Jeff Sitton, 36.
Severs runs a financial strategies group with Northwestern Mutual and has a degree in landscape architecture. As a resident of the River District, he said he wants to be a part of maintaining the traits that caused he and his wife to choose Liberty Lake to raise their two sons, ages 6 and 3.
"(They) are the inspiration for my desire to make our community as awesome for them as it is for us," he said.
Sitton owns Spokane Roofing Co. and is also the father of two young children, ages 5 and 3. He emphasized his experience making difficult decisions and abilities as a communicator as reasons he would do a good job.
"I feel that as a City Council member, I will bring forth a common-sense approach, a positive, proactive attitude and a willingness to get the job done," he said.
Incumbent Odin Langford, 61, has served as a Council member since 2007. His challenger, Mike Tedesco, 35, has a master's degree in urban planning and has held various jobs focusing on economic development.
The age disparity between the two led to one of the lighter moments at the candidate forum, when Tedesco joked that "part of my (campaign) approach is bringing a fresh perspective - because I'm really trying to accentuate the age difference between us."
Langford responded by recalling a quote by Ronald Reagan: "I will not use (age) to my advantage, nor will I ever declare that his youth and inability and inexperience is an issue."
Both men emphasized public safety. Langford has a master's degree in criminal justice, and Tedesco said his urban planning expertise is also useful in this area, citing the example of how planning for mixed-income housing correlates with lower crime. Like Severs, Tedesco is seeking to be the first Council member from the River District.
Langford also distinguished himself from other candidates by making a point to talk about paying off all long-term debts.
Olander said at the forum that while she hadn't though much about the utility tax when she first joined the Council, it "has kind of become a topic I've championed." She called the link between the tax and the street maintenance program it is now linked to "a little bit artificial."
"We never had it for our street fund before; it's just that amount of money has freed up the general fund to build up a fairly large amount of money that's not reserves and that's available for spending on projects," she said, adding that growth should provide an influx of sales and property tax to pay for these needs.
She added that the tax hurts business recruitment, using Spokane Valley as an example of a city that only taxes telephone.
Haskins said that in her view, the city is running really well at present, "and if something's going well, don't try to change something."
"I know the big taboo word right now is the utility tax, but I think that's what's helping this community," Haskins said. "It doesn't mean we need to keep it at what it is right now."
She said that as far as the argument that a prior Council planned for the utility tax to be phased out, "it's pretty difficult in this environment to ever know what's going to happen in this economy."
She said she would want to study more to know what rate she thinks the tax should be charged at, but that she is "definitely opposed to raising it."
Sitton and Severs both expressed an interest in maintaining the tax at its current 3 percent rate - at least for now.
Sitton did say he would be open to "tweaking" the tax to make it more business friendly.
"We want to attract businesses," he said. "In regards to the utility tax, I believe it brings in about $660,000 per year ... and $40,000 of that is paid by Huntwood, I understand. You know, that's a chunk of change for any business."
Severs praised city staff and the research and expertise that went into recommending the continued need for the tax in conjunction with street maintenance.
"Maybe (in the future) we are able to lower it, I don't know. That will be a topic I'm sure we'll be looking at maybe 5, 10, 15 years from now," he said, emphasizing that the need to keep the city on track with great infrastructure was paramount for the time being.
Tedesco's approach to the utility tax was unique from other candidates in that he called for it to go to a public vote. He said this would allow for both accountability for what the funds are used for as well as security for the funding source.
"The unpredictable nature of the tax has got to be tough on businesses," he said. "It goes to Council for renewal once a year."
Langford said the use of the utility tax as a funding source for street maintenance was important for everything from the economic development gained from a well-kept infrastructure - to vehicle alignment.
"The city has 90 miles of road lanes, and they don't take care of themselves," he said. "... If you get off on (Spokane exits) Lincoln, Division, any of those, you better stop and get a realignment. That doesn't come free."
City action admired
The Splash asked the candidates if there was a moment from recent City Council business or a Council member's individual actions that they particularly admired.
"Hands down, it's Josh Beckett," Olander said of the outgoing Council member. "I'm impressed by his willingness to speak his mind, get the conversation going, and he stands up for a different opinion. I'm not saying I agreed with everything he always said, but I really think his tactics for conversation were useful, and I'm going to miss it."
Haskins expressed admiration for projects the city has taken on, singling out the Fallen Heroes Circuit Course installation.
"I think it shows how Liberty Lake feels about their citizens and what's important to them, and that makes me proud to be part of the city," she said.
Severs brought up a meeting he attended over the summer when a heated discussion broke out over the content on a sign regarding the city's 6.4-acre parcel. He said he admired the passion of the discussion and the checks and balances of the system. Severs also expressed his admiration for Council Member Dan Dunne's approach to debates.
"I don't know Dan personally, but when he speaks, I always go, ‘Gosh, I think he's trying to get a solution,'" Severs said.
Sitton, who was on the tail end of a busy summer roofing season for his business when asked the question, said he couldn't think of a past city action or a person he admired. Later, at the candidate forum, he was asked about his shortage of prior attendance at City Council meetings.
"My commitment to Liberty Lake is that, if elected, I will be one of the most active Council members around," he said. "I will dedicate myself to Council just as I do to my business."
Tedesco said the project that will improve the long-vacant field next to Liberty Lake Elementary School - working with the Central Valley School District to build ball fields on a site that wasn't slated in the near term for development - receives his nod as most-admired city action.
Langford didn't hesitate with his response.
"Without a doubt, the hiring of a city manager has made and will continue to make this city more professional, and I think that's what we all ultimately want is a professionally run city," he said.