Liberty Lake voters clobbered the candidate who favored dismantling their community sewer and water district, declaring their 70 percent majority a "back-off" message to city leaders.
But the city is not backing off, Mayor Steve Peterson said Wednesday. The lopsided reaction to a city employee's bid for utility district commissioner means Liberty Lake is not reaching voters, he said.
"I think there is a great misconception by the public about the benefits of combining the city of Liberty Lake and the sewer and water district," Peterson said. "I think my gut feeling tells me that we did not get out a clear message to the public about why we're doing this."
The city has talked about taking over the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District for eight months. It has advocated the takeover as essential for empowering the city to approve subdivisions and business developments, as necessary for eliminating services duplicated by the district and the city. And city officials have appealed to voters' wallets, promising lower water bills if they prevail.
Tuesday, voters said no thanks.
They rejected Doug Smith, incumbent Frank Boyle's challenger for district commissioner. Smith is Liberty Lake's director of planning and community development and a key player in the city's plans to take the district over. His platform mirrored the city's arguments.
"It seems that Doug Smith runs the show out there, and at the very least he is the expert they all rely upon," said Carl Humphreys, a vocal opponent of the city's plans.
Last month Humphreys spoke against the takeover plan during a City Council meeting. The mayor, city manager, planner and attorney shouted Humphreys down, before his allotted three minutes of speaking time ended.
Humphreys wasn't surprised by Peterson's interpretation of the vote. Likewise, Humphreys and his neighbors say they haven't gotten through to the city. Many of the city opponents live outside the city limits and cannot vote on city politics. They do get to vote on sewer and water matters and fear disenfranchisement if the city took over.
South of the city limits, Smith garnered 10 percent of the vote. And non-city voters, while making up less than a third of the community's registered voters, produced 44percent of the votes cast Tuesday.
Inside the city, Smith lost both polling precincts, securing 48percent of the vote in one and 41percent in the other.
It was a hotly contested election for a typically low-profile position. Days before the election, Jim Frank, the city's premier developer, sent out fliers to renters in his Big Trout Lodge encouraging them to vote for Smith. If Smith got elected and utility rates are reduced, Frank promised to pass the discount to renters.
Vandals ripped up campaign signs planted in the community. Boyle supporters found several of their signs tossed in the ditch. Smith's signs were uprooted, while other nearby signs were untouched.
Peterson said the city would work on its message. The local government is also talking about a joint study with the utility district to determine whether there are advantages to a city-controlled district.
Boyle interpreted his landslide victory as a mandate for a public vote on whether the district should be taken over. Peterson said there wouldn't be a vote needed if a feasibility study indicates the city can't save utility customer's money.
"If that's the case, we don't have to go any further," Peterson said. "We put together a good city. We're hammering out our fifth budget and we're hammering out good development. If we can't do that here, we won't." • Tom Lutey can be reached at (509) 927-2179 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.