Three challengers hope to bring down Al French in race for Spokane County Commission District 5

Voters can’t complain about a lack of options in the Aug. 2 primary election race for Spokane County commissioner to represent southeastern Spokane County and parts of Spokane.

They can fill in the bubble for a conservative with more than 20 years of local government experience.

If they want a liberal, they can vote for a political rookie who spent three years leading Spokane County’s criminal justice reform efforts.

Anyone looking to avoid Republicans and Democrats is in luck – the ballot includes an independent who wants to focus on finding stable housing for the homeless.

And if none of those sounds right, a former mayor is re-entering the political fray as a Republican nearly 25 years after he left office.

Commissioner District 5 includes all of the West Plains cities as well as northwest Spokane and the South Hill above 29th Avenue. It’s one of five new districts drawn during last year’s redistricting process. Because all five seats are up for election this year in the new system, three of the seats will start with two-year terms, including District 5’s. Starting in 2024, all commission seats will have four-year terms.

For the first time, Spokane County this year will elect five commissioners, each representing constituents in one specific district. It’s a dramatic change from the old setup wherein three commissioners ran in district-specific primary elections and countywide general elections.

The Republicans and Democrats who drew District 5 described it as a swing district. But in past elections, GOP candidates have had the advantage by about 5 percentage points. That’s easily the closest gap in any of the five districts.

If that tight margin isn’t dramatic enough on its own: The party that takes the 5th could be in a good position to win a majority on the Spokane County Commission, which has had only Republican members for a dozen years.

Spokane County Commissioner Al French is effectively the District 5 incumbent.

The Republican served the maximum eight years on the Spokane City Council from 2002 to 2009, then won a county commission seat in 2010. He’s held that seat ever since and is the longest serving county commissioner.

On the campaign trail, French is highlighting his experience, commitment to economic development, work to create jobs and the fact that he’s endorsed by Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich. He’s stressed that he’s trying to convince an aerospace company to open a manufacturing facility near the Spokane International Airport.

Democrat Maggie Yates was Spokane County’s regional law and justice administrator for three years. She led the county’s reform efforts and often focused on reducing jail crowding.

Yates resigned in January. Her departure followed resistance from the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office to a proposal for pre-trial release for some people accused of nonviolent crimes. The county created a new position overseeing the criminal justice system at that time, too.

“I left because I could no longer push the work of my office forward,” Yates said this spring.

Besides touting her criminal justice expertise, Yates said she’d work to improve transparency and make data-driven decisions if elected. She’s also criticized county planning policies and called for a development moratorium along the US Highway 195 corridor.

Tara Carter, a Spokane County District Court clerk, is running as an independent.

Carter said addressing homelessness would be a priority if voters put her on the county commission. She also said she wants to get partisanship out of county government.

“Spokane County needs change,” Carter said. “We need some new voices. We need a little bit more of an open perspective.”

Republican Don Harmon has eight years of experience as an Airway Heights mayor and city councilman, but he hasn’t been in office since the late 1990s.

“All I’m doing is mowing grass and moving snow,” Harmon said, “just decided I want to get back into it.”

Harmon said building a new jail and fixing county roads are his top priorities.

“Our roads are pathetic,” he said.

Here’s where the candidates stand on some important county issues.

Should Spokane County build a new jail?

Politicians have argued about the Spokane County Jail for more than a decade. Repeated inmate suicides and deaths have plagued the facility in recent years.

Elected officials across the political spectrum agree the status quo at the overcrowded jail can’t continue. But not everyone agrees on the solution.

Some, especially conservatives, say the county needs to build a new jail to handle more inmates. Others, mainly progressives, say the county should focus on providing people with more mental health and addiction help rather than creating more cells.

French said Spokane County needs a new jail. He described the current facility as unsafe and “functionally obsolescent.”

“It’s undersized dramatically and it’s expensive to operate,” he said.

A new jail would be cheaper to operate and have enough cells to keep dangerous people behind bars, French said.

In addition to a new jail, French said the county should build a community corrections center. That facility would house low-level offerings and could include a variety of offerings for inmates, such as GED courses, housing assistance resources and addiction treatment.

Yates said the county shouldn’t build a new jail.

“It’s an incredibly expensive intervention that really does little to nothing to improve public safety,” she said, adding that she believes the focus should be on funding programming that reduces recidivism.

The county should spend its dollars on programs that help people find housing, improve early childhood education, increase economic opportunities and expand mental health and drug addiction resources, Yates said.

More specifically, Yates said the county should work to keep people out of jail. She said some of the reforms her office implemented, such as court date reminders and giving people free rides to court, can help individuals avoid future interactions with the legal system.

“It decreases likelihood of criminal activity, so it’s an investment in all of our safety,” Yates said.

Carter said she’s not sure whether the county should build a new jail and would need to study the issue more before knowing where she stands.

Harmon said building a new jail is his no. 1 goal.

“People need to know there’s consequences for what they’re doing,” he said, emphasizing that the new jail should be built to accommodate future expansion.

Racial disparities in criminal justice

Spokane County locks up people of color at far higher rates than white people.

According to a 2017 analysis by the JFA Institute, a Black person in Spokane County is 13 times more likely to be jailed than a white person, and Native Americans are 6.5 times more likely to be jailed.

Yates said many of the programs she supports that could reduce jail crowding also would reduce the criminal justice system’s disproportionate impacts on people of color.

She noted the county spends more than $150 million annually on law enforcement and public safety, yet 60% to 70% of offenders return to the jail at some point after their release.

“That is a clear sign that what we’re doing right now is not working effectively to disrupt the cycle of arrest and actually increase safety and stability in the community,” Yates said. “And it’s failing at significant cost to taxpayers.”

Carter said in order to reduce the criminal justice system’s impacts on people of color the county should “stop looking at race” altogether.

“If we keep saying we have race issues, there will continue to be race issues,” Carter said.

Harmon said he doesn’t have any specific ideas for addressing the problem but would like to get churches more involved.

French said he’s aware that Black people are overrepresented in the jail. But he said he believes the commissioners have limited authority over criminal justice.

The commissioners control departmental budgets, not policy, he said. All the commissioners can do is fund reform efforts when they’re proposed, he said.

“I don’t arrest. I don’t prosecute. I don’t defend. I don’t adjudicate. I’m the landlord in the jail,” French said. “I don’t sentence people to jail. It comes from our courts.”

Should the health board include a medical doctor?

In this case, the Spokane County commissioners reformed the Spokane Regional Health District’s Board of Health.

They were forced into changing the membership of the board to comply with a law the state Legislature passed in 2021 that requires health boards to have an equal number of elected and unelected members.

The lawmaker who wrote the law, Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, said he wanted to depoliticize health boards, which have had authority over public health decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

How the commissioners reformed the board caused controversy. They opted for fewer members, kicking off Spokane and Spokane Valley’s representatives. They also put Alycia Policani, a naturopathic doctor, on the board instead of a medical doctor. Multiple medical doctors applied for the position.

Carter said she’s not opposed to having a doctor on the health board, but didn’t say it was a necessity.

“I don’t think it hurts anything to at least have a consultant doctor,” she said.

Harmon said a doctor, specifically a family physician, should serve on the board.

French, and Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns, were the two commissioners who wanted a naturopathic doctor instead of someone with a medical degree.

The health board has often lacked a doctor in the past, French said. He said the board doesn’t need a medical doctor because it doesn’t make public health decisions and is merely administrative.

“If a doctor is appointed to the health district board, it should not be because his only credential is that he’s a doctor,” French said. “A medical degree is not needed to be a health district board member.”

Yates said the health board should reflect the spirit of the new law and include a medical doctor. She also said she’d advocate for restoring Spokane and Spokane Valley’s elected representatives.

Mask mandates

Would any of the candidates support a mask mandate if the county’s hospitals filled up with COVID-19 patients again?

Three candidates said yes and one wouldn’t answer the question directly.

Harmon and Carter both said they’d support a mandate if necessary.

“I don’t have a problem with a mask mandate as long as it makes sense,” Carter said.

Yates stressed that she’d support a mandate if it were backed by science and medical experts.

French said he doesn’t “like to deal in the realm of hypotheticals.”

However, he suggested he’s generally opposed to the idea and disapproves of Gov. Jay Inslee’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I am not a fan of mandated masking,” French said, adding that “people are intelligent and have the right to self determination.”

How should the county address homelessness?

French said he believes Spokane County already is doing a lot to address homelessness. The county helps pay for homeless services in Spokane, he said. He noted that the county helped fund the Cannon Street shelter, operated by the Guardians Foundation, as well as the Salvation Army’s Way Out shelter.

The Spokane Regional Stabilization Center is a good investment, French said. That facility, which relies on local and state funds, acts as a detox and mental health site for people who would otherwise be in jail.

“They don’t need to be in my jail,” French said. “They need therapy.”

Yates said she believes the county should help lead a regional homelessness response and could invest more in community-based resources and affordable housing.

Carter said she doesn’t have any specific plans for addressing homelessness, but views it as a top priority.

She said the county should consider spending more on mental health and addiction experts who could go directly into homeless camps.

Harmon said he believes homelessness is a major issue, but doesn’t yet have any ideas for solving it. He said that, while he’s unsure of the solution, the health district should be a key player in addressing the crisis.