In Our Opinion: A contract should be a contract, is no different with STEP


August 30, 2012

Airway Heights City Council recently denied a request by Spokane County Commissioners to be released from a portion of a 2010 contract between the city, county and the Spokane Tribe of Indians regarding STEP, the Spokane Tribe Economic Project that includes plans for a casino.

We applaud the council's decision but we also think the commissioners were correct in bringing the request. Under the section in question the city would have paid the county 20 percent of what it received from STEP for providing services to the development, services like law enforcement. The section also stipulated that both county and city officials remain neutral on aspects of the project.

After the contract was signed, Airway Heights annexed the STEP property into the city limits, meaning the county will no longer be providing services. In that light the county's request to be released makes sense – why receive money for something you're not providing?

But before we get all warm and fuzzy about the county's apparent altruistic stance, it should be noted that Commissioner Al French made no mention of the payments in his pitch to the council to be released from this section of the contract.

What commissioners are concerned with is the neutrality clause regarding STEP. Only one member, Todd Mielke, has come out individually against the tribe's project. The contract clause prevents them as a board from making any comment, and they claim they are being pushed to do so by constituents who are concerned about potential negative impacts the project may have on Fairchild Air Force Base.

The most vocal opponent may be Forward Fairchild, led by Spokane's Greater Spokane Incorporated, a group that would likely prefer the board take a harder, more public stand against STEP.

This contract wasn't something quickly agreed upon. There's documentation of work and public comment dating back to 2007. When they signed the document in 2010, commissioners should have known what they were agreeing to, and apparently they did as both Richard and former Commissioner Bonnie Mager said “Yea” with Mielke writing “Nay” beside his name.

French wasn't on the board at the time and it's understandable why he'd want to have a say in the matter. And in lobbying for the release he claimed the board didn't understand then that an environmental impact statement, or a public comment period, would be part of the process. He also brought to the council's attention an opinion from the Washington State Attorney General's office that claimed decisions of past boards couldn't determine the comments of future boards.

The county's request and Airway Heights' subsequent denial brought this argument back to the forefront. Upon further scrutiny, it appears that the county commissioners were trading their silence for a cut. The commission should have seen that in 2010 and not agreed to it.

But in asking for release from the contract the commissioners are essentially stating that ideological changes override agreed-upon contracts. If that's the case, what contract is ever truly safe? Can a five-year deal for say animal services become null and void two years in because of a change in ideological makeup of an elected board?

And if they didn't understand what they were signing in 2010, something relatively easy to grasp, how can we expect them to understand something more complex, such as the current Joint Land Use Study?

All of this is now likely up to the courts to decide.


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