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Mayor Steve Peterson shakes hands with Spokane County Superior Court Judge Linda Tompkins after being sworn in to his new position Jan. 3.

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Mayor on a mission
1/11/2012 9:59:52 AM

By Kelly Moore
Splash Staff Writer

Mayor Steve Peterson hit the ground running in his second stint as the elected chief executive for the city of Liberty Lake. He said his first day was spent cleaning weeds and leaves around City Hall, then "partying" at the City Council meeting Jan. 3.

During that meeting, he announced his intentions to fill the city administrator position. Perhaps as a surprise to many, he also announced plans to revive the plans for developing the city's 6.4-acre lot near Greenstone's Liberty Square Building.

Day two in office was spent catching up with department heads, building up future Council agendas and shaping the future city administrator's job description. He said he's building out his schedule and planning briefings with different entities of city operations.

The Splash caught up with Peterson close to the end of his second day to flesh out some of the goals he'd already made public and learn more about anything else he might have up his sleeve.

Q: Let's start by talking about the city administrator. When did you decide you wanted to fill that position?


A: In the last month, Municipal Consultant Mike Cecka has been working on it. We knew we were going to go in this direction, so it wasn't that I made that decision yesterday. We've been planning for it since I think November, when we first talked.

In December, Mike started surveying cities to get an idea of what it would cost us to have one. He also contacted cities of our size and some even a little larger than ours. They gave us their job descriptions so we could kind of meld them together.

Q: How is the job description shaping up so far?

A: I've learned over the last 10 years that city administration comes from two sides  - finance and public works. In my talk at the City Council meeting, I mentioned we'd be focusing more on public works because I think that's where we need our additional expertise.

That will go along with management skills. The reason I say that is because when you have a city administrator with management expertise, they can understand the engineering and technical side.

A city administrator like Arlene Fisher in Cheney, she came from a financial background (Fisher was Liberty Lake's finance director during Peterson's first term). They already had a strong public works program. They needed a finance and administration person. In our case, we need human resource and administration, but I think we need to focus on public works.

Q: This kind of goes along with job description, and I know everything is still in progress, but do you have any idea or expectations as to how someone in this position would work with you?

A: I had a very interesting conversation with one of our Council members. I spent the last week or so at coffee meetings with our Council people. One of those people said, "You lead, and your city administrator will help you manage. The community is looking to you for the focus, the leadership, the vision. Then I think the success will come from helping you with management, implementation  - day to day stuff."

As we build out our job description, I'm very encouraged.

Q: Will having that position filled affect any of the existing positions in City Hall?

A: Right now it's not scheduled to affect anything. As we go forward, we're reviewing all the people that work here and their job descriptions. This is a two-hour discussion we just had. Things we do sometimes look like they are being added on to what we already do. Really, we can use the city administrator position to augment what we're doing. We can help other areas become more efficient and more effective.

This person, I think, will augment what we're currently doing and add to abilities. As we increase our abilities, we'll be able to do more with the same people and expertise we have. It's a different concept. It's not someone just coming in and now I have another reporting stop. It's about becoming more efficient, accountable, open and responsive to the public and the City Council. 

Q: Regarding the 6.4 acres and your hopes to have that off the ground this year. Where is the funding going to come from?

A: It's a capital improvement. That's the No. 1 question we're addressing. Mike and (Community Development Director) Doug (Smith) and I were talking about this, and (Finance Director) RJ (Stevenson's) ears popped up. He was asking the same thing. We're putting all that together.

Again, this is the vision. It's already been put out to bid and designed. At that time, it came in over budget. The city had a bond election, and we didn't get it off the ground. We're going back and somewhat resurrecting that. The funds, the project bid package, all of this stuff needs to go to the Council. We have it on our next agenda as a workshop discussion so we can review the plans, the funding, the potential benefits. They can get their hands on this.

Q: Is there a certain amount already designated in the budget for capital improvements?

A: Yes, we currently have about $5 million in all the capital facilities budgets  - street funds, library capital, parks. There is sufficient money available. That's what I kept trying to hammer at City Council and at the budget sessions of last year. There's a pot of money out there that we can utilize to do some of these projects.

One of the things the Council can discuss is what we want to have as a project  - things like this and the entry to the library. We just have to take a look at what is our priority. The prioritization is what we'll be talking about in the next six weeks or so.

At the meeting Jan. 3, I talked about getting Council members involved in community service groups. The reason being is that you get closer to the community and its needs and wants. When you're out there filling popcorn bags at Pavillion Park, you hear a lot. People are always saying, "We need to do this, or we need to do that."

Q: Kind of along those lines, when studying up on the history of this civic center project, I learned the city tried to float a bond for funding and it failed by a pretty significant margin. What kind of message do you take away from that?

A: Basically we went from 2007, saying let's go for a bond in April and didn't do anything other than the fact that we said, "Hey, we need this. Is this something you want to vote for? This is something we want to do."

I'm a sales guy, OK. That's not how you close a sale. There are features and benefits and this is heavy on the benefits. There was not enough prep work done for that last bond election. We need to do a better job. We asked them for the money without offering any matching support from our existing funds.

We bought an existing building for our library and the momentum went away from that site.

Q: With that in mind, do you think this development is what the public wants out of that site?

A: Again, this is all planning that needs to be updated. There's no telling if we'd still try developing it the same way. 

With that being said, I know the community is definitely behind the Farmers Market. There's an urgency regarding the market because they need room to expand. We've built that market in the little parking lot from 200-400 people each weekend to almost 3,000 in attendance. The community is down there having fun. It's a place they look to go on Saturdays.

We have the STA park-and-ride lot right there, and it overflows into that field already. They just park in the mud.

It's a core piece of the city. When you talk about city center, this piece of land is literally right in the middle of our city.

Q: What all was included in the original plans?

A: Phase One would be what we talked about as far as the amphitheater, the band shell, parking and restrooms.

There were three pad sites available  - one for a community center, one for retail and another. We could keep those pad sites in grass as opposed to weeds so that they look clean. We could sell that off if we want to, if we decide that doesn't meet our capital facilities needs.

Q: Do you think it would still be part of the plan to bring the library out to this site?

A: I think Liberty Lake needs a community center. I mean, we're overrun here in this building. The Council chambers are used on a regular basis. The sewer district has a meeting room that's used on a regular basis. The library has a little room, and it's used a lot, too.

We really need a building where we can get this all together in one spot. We're going to get to a point where we say, "Why don't we just merge all of this stuff together so it's in one location?"

I don't know when that's going to happen. I don't know if it's going to happen. It's a dream.

Q: You said the Council would also be reviewing the Harvard Road Mitigation Plan at the next meeting. What exactly is that?

A: It's basically a capital list of improvements that you can as opposed to someone going out and doing their own traffic study and seeing if we need to put in a traffic light and then we're responsible to put in a traffic light, the mitigation draws from all new projects and put money into this plan that allows you to do capital improvements to benefit transportation around Harvard Road. That map is needs to be updated a little bit, and then the projects and the fees need to be updated.

It's a financial tool for infrastructure.

Q: As far as the utility tax goes, in your opinion, do you think the cut down to 3 percent was far enough?

A: It met their criteria for instituting a tax in times of uncertainty to ensure we had funds available to take care of our operations and sustainability for the future. At the time, they put in a review requirement  - a lot of cities don't do that. In December, they met their self-imposed obligation to do that. They adjusted accordingly and came up with 3 percent.

I talked in 2010 opposing it. I was probably one of the only ones at the Council meeting that did. I supported the Council's decision to reduce it. I think a majority of that was carried by our businesses.

I would have done it a little bit differently  - I favored the option to reduce the tax to 2 percent for electric and gas, while keeping other utilities at 6 percent. I think that would have been fairer. But the Council did what it did, and it lived up to the community's expectations. The community said we trust what you say, and the Council came through.

The cure for our economic ills and money for government is growth. It's not in utility taxes. It's in growth.

Q: You noted your stance on the utility tax when it was established in 2010. Has your perspective changed since then?

A: Again, we will seek fair and reasonable taxation. What is it the community wants? When do they want it? What are they willing to pay for it? How are we going to tax accordingly?

We're not going to overtax anyone. We don't want to put a tax in place that stifles creativity or business. At the same time, if you expect me to have a round-the-clock policeman here, and I've only got so many dollars, I've got to have some more.

Q: So do you have any goals for the tax then, or is the case closed on that subject for now?

A: We'll always discuss where our money comes from, and we're always going to look for alternative sources of funding. The utility tax says as we have a need for policing services or park services or beautification or whatever  - then it has to come from a source of funding that is dependable and reliable like property tax, like sales tax and like the utility tax.

Q: I've heard rumors that you wanted to bring Arlene Fisher back. Do you have plans to hire her or anyone else we might remember?

A: (laughing) I'm nowhere near making any of those decisions, but at the Eastern Washington Mayors Association meeting, Cheney's mayor Tom Trulove leaned over to me and said, "You're not getting Arlene back."

They're very happy with Arlene, and she has a house in Cheney. She has developed a wonderful working relationship with the Council and the people out there. She's very well respected, but I don't think she's coming back to Liberty Lake.

One of the reasons the Council hired Cecka as a consultant is to come and identify our strengths and our weaknesses, the team we have in place, where we're going and what a city administrator will bring to us. We're not done with that assessment. We just started.

Q: The last thing I wanted to talk about is the human resources investigation that was completed last year. In your mind is the book closed on that issue or will we see anything else come out of that?

A: In my mind  - this is Steve's philosophy  - I manage by walking around. I lead from the front. If I'm doing it, I expect other people can do it. If I'm out there picking up leaves and litter, I'm thinking other people can pick up leaves and litter, too.

I'm out there asking what I can do for you, what do you need to be effective in your job, to be self-rewarded in your job. Those issues that you have that have been here in the past go away.

If we have an issue with human resources, the city administrator and I take care of it. That will be one of the things in the city administrator's job description. Personnel policies will also be up for Council discussion sometime soon.

Q: To your knowledge, do you know if there are any liabilities hanging from previous personnel actions?

A: I have no idea. I couldn't tell you. I know we have a meeting scheduled with Canfield, our insurer. We meet with them on an annual basis. Those are briefings that are scheduled but haven't taken place yet.

Q: Well that's all I had to talk about unless you had anything you wanted to add.

A: Oh, I'm pretty talked out for the day. I've hit the ground running, and I'm still getting up to speed on everything (laughing). The party's back.

The next Council meeting will be held 7 p.m. Tuesday.  Likely discussions include Council committee and Mayor Pro Tem appointments, a review of the capital facilities plan and a review of the Harvard Road Mitigation Plan.

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