The last 10 days have been even busier for freshman City Councilmember Jonathan Bingle than the citizens of Spokane realized.
The press and the City’s attention has understandably been on Monday night’s censure of Bingle, which was legitimately surprising for both its speed and decisiveness (Bingle and his allies would probably say hastiness and recklessness).
No one denied the basic facts: Bingle had openly refused to wear a mask on city properties in violation of the state mask mandate and Spokane city policies. Freshman Councilmember Zach Zappone drafted the resolutions and four of Bingle’s fellow council members moved swiftly.
In a discussion that began at the weekly Monday briefing session, and lasted well into the actual City Council meeting, those five members were resolute in their judgement that something official needed to be done. Councilmember Michael Cathcart joined Bingle in criticizing the action itself, but also the fact that the discussion was not on the agenda and required the majority to suspend their usual rules to consider. (It should be noted that, while he was against the censure, Cathcart has complied with city and state masking protocols.)
It was Grade-A political theater, undergirded by a real ideological conflict. The majority was united in saying that Bingle’s actions were not just violations of decorum, they also endangered his coworkers’ health and opened the city up to potentially significant fines. Bingle stood by the sentiments he had previously made in a statement last week, calling mask mandates “authoritarian,” “coercive,” and “unconstitutional.”
In the middle of the censure drama, though, Bingle had already planted the seeds for a second act.
On January 28, Councilmember Bingle proposed a resolution to preemptively condemn vaccine mandates.
Currently, the only city employees required to vaccinate are firefighters who perform emergency medical duties. Beyond that, Council President Breean Beggs tells RANGE he hasn’t heard of any discussion among council members to propose a mandate. “Our position throughout the pandemic is to follow the guidance of local and state public health officials and the applicable science,” he wrote. “So far they are not proposing any additional vaccine mandates beyond the ones for healthcare workers and state employees.”
He made clear it is his belief that Council would have the power to impose a mandate if health officials asked for one, but they haven’t.
And even those unvaccinated firemen still have jobs, Beggs says. “We have created several new dispatch and fire marshal positions that many of the unvaccinated firefighters will be filling.”
So what, then, is the intent behind Bingle’s resolution?
On Wednesday, we reached out to both Bingle and his Legislative Assistant, Nicolette Ocheltree for comment. As of publication on Sunday, neither have responded to that request. If they do, we’ll update this story.
In the meantime, let’s look at the language.
The way Bingle’s resolution reads will be familiar to anyone who has lived through the culture wars surrounding Covid-19 in the United States. The body has a lot of familiar conservative talking points, but interestingly, the summary at the top utilizes the very liberal language of inclusivity:
“A resolution of the city of Spokane, Washington, declaring Spokane to be an inclusive city for families, workers, and small businesses regardless of vaccination status.”
Screenshots obtained by Range
The document was unsigned, but Council President Beggs confirmed that the proposed resolution was authored by Bingle and included in a packet for the Public Safety & Community Health Committee, which is meeting this Monday, Feb. 7. Subsequent publication of that packet confirms Bingle’s authorship.
The committee agenda sheet that accompanies the resolutions remixes the language of the resolution and doesn’t offer any additional context.
THE PROCESS & PLAYERS
Beggs initially told RANGE the resolution “is currently not scheduled for any council action other than hearing about it at the committee meeting.” Council rules of procedure require resolutions like this to find a co-sponsor before they can leave the committee. Resolutions frequently die in committee and never reach council.
Though the Public Health Committee website hasn’t been updated yet, Councilmember Cathcart is the new chair of that committee, having replaced Councilmember Lori Kinnear in January.
Cathcart’s Legislative Assistant, Shae Blackwell, confirmed on Monday that the resolution would be part of committee deliberations, but initially said she didn’t believe Cathcart was a co-sponsor, directing us to Bingle’s office.
Within 10 minutes of reaching out to Bingle and Ocheltree for comment on Wednesday morning, Blackwell followed up to apologize and say that Cathcart had, in fact, agreed to co-sponsor the bill. Blackwell said “[Bingle and Cathcart] had a phone conversation and I was not aware of that until this morning.”
The resolution will come before the committee next Monday at 1:30, and with the required sponsors, Blackwell said it would come before the full council for public testimony soon, likely February 28.
There’s a cliche of war that generals always want to choose their battlefield. Having it chosen for you puts you at a disadvantage. That certainly seemed to be the case at Bingle’s censure hearing.
While Bingle’s decision to defy the mask mandate was deliberate – a matter of personal principle – it was fellow freshman Councilmember Zach Zappone and the majority who had chosen the ground with Monday’s censure vote.
Bingle almost entirely played defense. His arguments were mostly about a perceived hypocrisy in the way rules were being applied to him, not some larger moral principle.
It was Cathcart making most of the arguments of both principle and procedure.
A big point of contention had been that the language of the censure wasn’t delivered until 12:07 p.m. the day of the meeting, and Cathcart said procedure dictated that all council members should have received the final language of the censure and resolution before noon. The majority didn’t contest the point.
When it was Bingle’s turn, he said, “I’d like to point out the irony here, if I could. I’m going to be censured for not following a rule” during a proceeding where a different rule wasn’t followed.
Later, during discussion on whether to consider the resolution asking the Mayor to exclude non-masking people (including City Council members) from City Hall premises, Cathcart took the lead, saying he had concerns about the separation of powers.
When asked what he meant, Cathcart replied the mayor being able to “ban” a member of City Council would be like the president being able to get rid of a member of the Senate. “If you can ban one council member from City Hall,” Cathcart concluded, “you can ban all of us from City Hall.”
Bingle agreed. “It’s a pretty dangerous precedent to set.”
“Right now we’re just debating whether to put it on the agenda,” Beggs replied.
Unlike his arguments on Monday, though, Councilmember Bingle’s anti-vaccination-mandate resolution has a strong moral valence. Whether you agree with the valence or not, there’s no denying the resolution delineates a specific set of principles and makes its case.
Given the makeup of the Council, the resolution is all but guaranteed to fail. Bingle must know this. His goals, then, must lay entirely within the political theater of bringing such a resolution in front of a firing squad who will certainly shoot it down.
It will be interesting to see what Bingle brings to that discussion.
It’ll also be interesting to see who joins him. Some of the most forceful proponents for Councilmember Bingle on Monday were the people who called in to offer public testimony on his behalf.
Next week’s committee meeting won’t have public comment, but the eventual hearing before Council will.
We’ll be looking forward to February 28 — or whenever Bingle’s resolution appears on the Council Agenda — to see how he fights on a battlefield of his own choosing.