County Commissioner District 5: Al French, who proudly “led the effort” to fire health officer Bob Lutz, faces current and former county employees

click to enlarge Spokane County Commissioner candidate Maggie Yates chats with Cheney resident John Statham while campaigning Saturday. - ERICK DOXEY PHOTO

Erick Doxey photo

Spokane County Commissioner candidate Maggie Yates chats with Cheney resident John Statham while campaigning Saturday.

As the longest-serving county commissioner — with a hard-charging personality style — Al French sits in the light red District 5, the closest thing the new county commissioner map has to a swing district. But with a war chest of over $80,000 and a slew of endorsements from local mayors, a lot would have to go wrong for him to lose.

AL FRENCH

French brags about considerable job growth in his district, arguing that the West Plains region has become “the fastest-growing light industrial area in the state of Washington,” bringing over 6,000 jobs to this community.

Yet housing in the area hasn’t kept up.

French places much of the blame for the region’s housing crisis squarely on the state government, arguing that by filing a lawsuit opposing the expansion of the county’s urban growth area — the area where dense development is allowed — the state denied as many as 28,000 additional homes.

French’s opponent, Maggie Yates, doesn’t say whether she would expand the urban growth area — arguing she would rely on the expertise of local planners. Instead of stressing deregulation to make it easier to build more houses, Yates’ approach is more about providing subsidies to allow low-income people to afford to rent or buy homes.

French, a developer himself, says builders praise the county for its lack of onerous restrictions, but he says more work is needed to aggressively expand the urban growth area and to convince the state to fix condo regulations.

But French also has a reputation for hardball when it comes to disagreements with other public officials. After repeatedly clashing with Spokane Regional Health Officer Bob Lutz in the midst of the pandemic, French says he “led the effort to terminate him.”

French details a slew of issues he had with Lutz, including H.R. allegations and “insubordination,” but the final straw, French argues, was Lutz’s attendance at a Black Lives Matter rally in the midst of a pandemic lockdown he’d championed.

“When he was telling the community you cannot bury loved ones… he participates in a rally with two or three thousand people,” French says.

The move plunged the health district into chaos over the next year, as dozens of employees fled, citing frustration with leadership.

“How that decision was made really undermines trust in our public health institutions and our local government in a manner that was really detrimental during the global pandemic,” says French’s Democratic opponent, Yates.

After state lawmakers passed Rep. Marcus Riccelli’s bill requiring that local health district boards have equal numbers of elected and unelected members, including someone with medical expertise, the county commissioners decided to dramatically shrink the number of elected officials instead of expanding the board, and to bring on a naturopath with a history of sharing anti-vaccine articles on social media as their requisite medical board member.

French argues that it’s not the health district board’s job to make medical decisions and that they can rely on the expertise of, say, the health officer. But here’s the catch: French also argues that the board can constrain which topics the health officer can or should discuss.

“When the health officer engages in activities that are not supported by the board… he’s overreached,” French says.

In other words, it really does matter who’s on the board — and who the county commissioners are who select them.

MAGGIE YATES

For over three years, Yates was the head of the Spokane Regional Law & Justice Council, the body tasked with implementing criminal justice reform. Yates quit in part because of pushback she was getting from the county about her approach to discussing issues like systemic inequalities in the justice system.

Her willingness to stand her ground earned her praise from local progressives like former City Council President Ben Stuckart.

French claims Yates was about to be terminated before she resigned. But when the Inlander presses, he clarifies that he was the one who planned to terminate Yates, claiming he had “lost patience” with her “inability to perform her job.”

(Commissioner Josh Kerns says he’d wanted to remove Yates for years, but also says French didn’t suggest removing her to him before she quit.)

With murders spiking in rural and urban areas across the country, criminal justice reform has become a more politically risky prospect.

“I think the state Legislature has handcuffed our law enforcement officers in the ability to do their jobs,” says French. “The criminal element is taking advantage of that.”

Where French supports building a new upgraded jail, Yates calls that idea “an incredibly expensive, permanent intervention that doesn’t necessarily make us safer.”

Yates’ role in implementing a multimillion-dollar MacArthur Grant was to try to find ways to reduce the jail population instead, ideally without increasing crime. That included a program offering free rides to court so defendants who didn’t have access to transportation could make court dates. But those efforts often rankled officials like Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, French and Kerns.

“Maggie was trying to find ways to get more people out of jail, rather than keeping the community safe,” Kerns says.

French considers her efforts to be a failure.

“I can’t think of a single program that Ms. Yates advocated for that improved the safety of our citizens,” French says.

Yates argues that many of the initiatives she’s supported have aimed at reducing the number of repeat offenders, in part by giving people exiting jail more support to integrate into the community.

“Our elected leaders haven’t been ‘tough on crime,’ they have blindly clung to their failed policies, spent more of your taxpayer dollars and blamed everyone but themselves for the poor results,” Yates wrote on Twitter last week.

Prosecuting crimes is important, she says, but “we also have to be investing in long-term strategies that are going to be more sustainable and to keep us safe in the long run.”

TARA CARTER

Carter, running as an Independent, is a longtime Spokane County clerk with the district court and is frustrated with the way she says that Spokane County treats employees like her.

“I know several people who have to be on state aid as county workers,” Carter says, “who have to have roommates as county workers.”

She hopes to call attention to what she believes is an “agenda-driven” attempt by the Board of County Commissioners to “break the unions in Spokane County.”

DON HARMON

The Airway Heights mayor from 1994 to 1998, Republican Don Harmon says he’s voted for French in previous elections but decided to put himself up for the job this year. He’s frustrated by the county’s performance.

“My roads are probably the most horrible I’ve ever seen,” Harmon says. “They put in a $3 million roundabout, but they can’t fix the road going to it?”

A former member of the health district board himself, Harmon is skeptical of French’s decision to fire Bob Lutz and says that he thinks a traditional family doctor should be on the board.

But mostly, he says it’s time for new vision.

“Nothing against Al French, isn’t 12 years enough?” ♦

Article Source: Inlander