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A Stronger Council 

by Robert Herold & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & was, and remain, a strong supporter of the strong mayor form of government. I have argued that the council-manager form of government abdicated responsibility to the unaccountable "permanent government" -- the bureaucracy. The old system also placed the city attorney in a quasi-policy-making role, and it made political leadership a sometime thing. Moreover, I was of the opinion that Spokane had become so demographically diverse that issues which could, in the past, have been dealt with as apolitical, administrative matters, by the late '90s begged for political resolution. It was time for elected officials to stand for something.


Following one formal debate on the strong mayor issue, I was approached by retired police chief Bob Panther. Panther said that he agreed with me in theory, but he worried that Spokane simply couldn't produce the talent necessary to make the strong mayor system work. I've referred often to Panther's astute warning and have used his critique as a measure of the success.


If Mayor John Powers failed in part because he confused salesmanship with leadership, Mayor Dennis Hession brings to the office, so far, a different but maybe just as dysfunctional a style. Whereas Powers was emotive, Hession obviously prefers decision-making to be ideally bloodless. Confusing dignity for leadership, he makes decisions in isolation, relying heavily on his legal staff to buttress positions that he seems reluctant or, worse, unable to articulate and defend in public. Instead of seeking broader input, Hession shuts things down by structuring the debate so as to exclude alternative views. He relies on staff members who won't complicate matters. He prefers consulting with his lawyers, which suggests that he fails to understand that they see their job as making it possible for the mayor to do what he wants to do -- in other words, they figure out clever ways to tell him what he wants to hear.





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & N & lt;/span & ow Hession seeks to shut dialogue down even further. He has told the City Council that it has no role to play whatsoever after it passes an ordinance or resolution. Call this the "butt out" school of thought. The council should understand this assertion to represent the mayor's general view about how our government should function.


Hession's argument rests on the premise that there's a clear line between legislation and administration, and that he alone knows where that line is to be drawn. But is placement of the line really so obvious? It can be argued that we have two parallel lines, and that the so-called "administrative process" (which Hession claims is his alone) falls in the area of overlap. Can public administration ever be viewed apart from its inherently political operational environment? Which brings us to the question: In a separation-of-powers system, how should power be shared?


Surely it cannot be argued that the council's role does not extend to legislative oversight. How else could the council expect to consider and pass new ordinances if it has no way of evaluating legislative work-in-progress? Nor should we forget that the council holds the power of the purse. If the executive doesn't want to let the council in on what's going on, the council can exercise influence through the threat of budget reductions and reprioritization. Yes, the council has been taken out of the day-to-day administrative operations and doesn't enjoy the "bully pulpit" that now is occupied by the mayor. But the council remains in a position to exercise great influence -- if it ever chooses to exert its authority.


Mayor Hession has always deflected questions about his political philosophy with the line: "I just want to work on issues" -- as if "issues" and "politics" are easily distinguishable. They aren't. "Working on issues" apart from acknowledging the presence of political consequences may have worked on the Park Board, where Hession served for so many years, but it won't work in the mayor's office. Protected by his bureaucracy, Hession, until his political capital has completely evaporated, can continue to shoehorn political issues into his politically sanitized administrative boxes. If he does, he distorts the very basis of the strong-mayor form of government. The public tossed the council-manager system because it was tired of unelected bureaucrats running the city all behind a smokescreen of "expertise" -- a play that Hession's style promises to rerun. This is all the more reason for the council to weigh in with its own version of checks and balances.





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & hile each of our three strong mayors has struggled with questionable success to institutionalize our new government, one thing is certain: The council has done no better. When confronted by yet another assertion of executive autonomy, the council merely grumbles. Perhaps unwittingly, the mayor, by drawing his line, will finally have forced the council to take some responsibility to provide an answer to the question: What exactly is the appropriate council role?


However it approaches this problem, the council, I believe, can and should use Mayor Hession's assertions to make a strong case for having its own policy analysis operation. Specifically, hiring one experienced analyst, supported by a skilled researcher and number cruncher, aided by a full-time secretary. Without such support, the council is ill equipped to offer informed deliberation and oversight. For the council to continue to rely exclusively for analysis and information on a bureaucracy that the mayor has declared off-limits makes no sense at all.





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