Open house sheds light on city, community resources
By Craig Howard
Lynda Warren dropped by Liberty Lake City Hall May 16 to learn more about the community she will soon call home.
From animal protection to service clubs to a pending roundabout project on Harvard Road, Warren received a helpful course in "Liberty Lake 101" at the city's inaugural open house. The event was attended by about 75 residents according to estimates.
"An event like this shows the city is interested in community involvement and having citizens see who they are," said Warren, who is moving from the city of Spokane to Liberty Lake this month to be closer to family.
Warren had already met Mayor Steve Peterson at a recent event sponsored by Greater Spokane Inc., but said she appreciated learning about upcoming additions to the city such as the Fallen Heroes Circuit Course, a constellation of exercise stations being installed in Rocky Hill Park to honor military veterans.
"I like the community," Warren said. "It's very clean and safe, and it's just a really nice city. It's got the farmers market and other things. There's a lot more going on in the community than I realized."
Mayor Peterson was part of a healthy representation of elected officials and municipal staff on hand to greet attendees at the event spanning three hours. City booths set up in council chambers told thumbnail stories of law enforcement, library services, building and the Trailhead at Liberty Lake Golf Course.
"We're trying to be very transparent," Peterson said. "We're trying to tell residents where we're going, and how we're going to get there, just presenting the vision."
While Peterson acknowledged that participation on the municipal level is not as stout as when the city incorporated in 2001, he said City Hall continues to seek resident input in its efforts to maintain a "safe, clean and green" community.
"We're trying to encourage comments and feedback," Peterson said. "There was a lot of talk and interest after incorporation, but it's different now. Once you start implementing things, it changes. But if you look at what we've done, we've built a good, solid foundation and now we're at kind of this midway point. There are some issues of growth we have to stay ahead of – the interchange is part of that, the roads are part of that."
Spokane Valley Fire Chief Bryan Collins has been a regular at Liberty Lake City Council meetings since taking over for Mike Thompson earlier this year. Collins said it was important for SVFD to be part of the open house – the chief was joined by all five fire commissioners, a sparkling red engine and its crew at City Hall – as a way of "staying connected with the city." Other community resources like the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District and Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Service were represented at the open house.
"We are this community's fire department," said Collins, who just recently moved to an address within Liberty Lake city limits. "When these cities have events, we need to be there to show we're part of that. When the mayor or the city administrator here or in Spokane Valley mentions their fire chief, they talk about ‘our fire chief,' not someone who works for them, via contract. It's important to have a presence here."
While Collins and fellow SVFD cohorts like new Fire Commissioner Mike Pearson have the first and third Tuesdays of each month marked on their calendars for Liberty Lake City Council meetings, the turnout among citizens of Spokane County's easternmost city has been less than stellar over the years. Pat Dockrey, one of the few regulars at gatherings of the governing board and a visitor to the open house, said public participation at meetings is about holding elected officials accountable.
"You have to know what they're saying and what they're doing," said Dockrey, who lives outside city limits, but owns property in Liberty Lake. "I think that's important."
Dockrey began coming to council meetings on a regular basis four years ago. He said attendance at City Hall has improved to some degree since the rancor surrounding the 2011 budget.
"It's been better," he said. "I saw a change two years ago when we had all the discussion about the budget. I think that really got a lot of people out and many of them have continued to come out. It's better than it was – there used to be council meetings where no one was here. That's changed a bit."
Still, Dockrey notes that apathy for city government is still the norm among the general citizenry – even when it comes to issues that affect their own budgets.
"I'm guessing most people probably don't know where their utility taxes now go," he said. "I've always been interested and always wanted to know what's going on. We deal with that in the nonprofits I work with – how do you get people interested in participating and helping? I don't know what the answer is."
Council Member Keith Kopelson fielded questions about the Harvard Road roundabout and the Liberty Lake Ball Fields at the open house. He arrives early at council meetings in order to facilitate similar discussion – though there is rarely a line. Generally, attendance hinges on the topic being discussed, such as last year's debate over the Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Service contract or the cuts proposed to the library and golf course at the end of 2010.
"I do wonder why more people don't attend council meetings, especially with all the people who send letters and emails and have specific questions or complaints or compliments – you don't see those people at the meetings," Kopelson said. "I have more discussions at Albertsons with people than I do at council meetings."
The council relies upon citizens for input, Kopelson added.
"I think a lot of people feel they're going to be attacked by council if they get up to the podium with what they say," he said. "They don't understand that we don't do that. It helps us if you take the time to comment about something. We're going to take it seriously."
Cindy Adolph moved to Liberty Lake from Los Angeles five years ago. She came to the open house to talk with city leaders and gain a better grasp of the issues affecting her community. She grows plants on one of the community garden plots sponsored by the city's Parks and Recreation department.
"After five years, I realize I should know what's going on," Adolph said. "I have not had the time, otherwise I'd probably be at council meetings. I really love it in Liberty Lake, though. I can breathe here."
City Administrator Katy Allen remarked that the numbers at council meetings may not accurately reflect the interest in City Hall's impact on the community.
"I think a lot of people care about what's going on, they just have very busy lives," she said. "I think when there's an event like Liberty Lake Days or the Yard Sales or the Farmers Market, then we see a good turnout. When it comes to public participation with the city, I think it's going to depend on the topic. I think citizens want to see where their tax dollars are going and see that city is spending that money wisely. That tends to resonate. When tax dollars are wasted, then a city is going to struggle."
Allen said the city would like to make the open house a reoccurring occasion on the spring calendar, but added that future events may not run three hours.
"I heard appreciation for how the city looks, just the fact that we're getting our public spaces put together," Allen said. "I think people were grateful that they could get their questions answered about projects like the roundabout and the ball fields. I think what you saw was a lot of positive energy, a lot of good questions and people who wanted to know what is going on in their city."