Cleveland's got nothing on Spokane.
We may not have an NFL team, but our local political arena has been just as bruising over the past couple decades -- and we're just as quick to fire our civic quarterbacks.
John Talbott: Three years and out. John Powers: Three and out. Jim West: Sent packing with two years left on his contract. Dennis Hession: On the hot seat now, two years after being brought in off the bench.
Over the past 10 years, Spokane has had four mayors, and no mayor has been elected to a second term since David Rodgers, who started serving in 1968, when the Super Bowl was turning two.
Yeah, this town is hard on its mayors.
But whose fault is it? Do Spokane voters suffer some rare form of political retardation, in which any mayor who can't fix the streets without simultaneously cutting taxes is doomed? Or are the mayors themselves hopeless bumblers who promise paradise but deliver parking lots?
As another mayoral decision looms, every local voter should wonder why we keep firing our mayors. I have a few theories:
The mayors can't possibly live up to the unrealistic expectations of Spokane voters. This was particularly the case before the strong mayor system. Sheri Barnard was elected for opposing the waste-to-energy plant, but she had no real power to stop the project. Voters expected her to kill it, but that wasn't possible. Frustration ensues.
Now there's frustration over the disconnect between paying taxes and receiving services. There are a lot of complicating factors involved here, as to who really is to blame and whether there even is a disconnect, but voters often sort it out in simple, black-and-white terms: They vote out the mayor.
Voters have unrealistic expectations because Spokane mayors don't communicate effectively. If the people have impossible dreams, then the mayor needs to get up on that soapbox and set the record straight. This is also known as building trust or creating a healthy civic dialog -- foreign concepts around here. It's hard to develop trust when the city won't allow you to vote on the biggest thing since Expo (the River Park Square deal), as happened under Jack Geraghty. Or if you have to endure Jay Leno using your mayor as a punchline, night after depressing night.
Being able to communicate effectively and honestly is a basic requirement of the job.
Not communicating effectively is just the tip of the iceberg; Spokane mayors just aren't ready for prime time. Maybe the rocky road we've been traveling on proves we just don't have any good politicians around here. Or maybe we're just not comfortable with politics, which can -- and often should -- be confrontational. But that's just what we voted for when we switched systems.
The practice of politics, as envisioned by the strong mayor system, gives our leaders the power to walk the tightrope every mayor faces. (Wisdom and skill are needed, too, but the mayor has to bring those.) The tightrope is anchored on one end by special interests -- from neighborhood activists to wealthy developers even to city employee unions -- and on the other by the needs of the whole city. Too many mayors put themselves in one camp or the other: Geraghty was viewed as captive to downtown business interests, while John Talbott's activist anger was viewed as stifling common progress. Both were evicted.
Then there's John Powers, who found himself out in the middle of the tightrope, striking a balance but making neither side happy. In the end, Powers just didn't have the political skill to keep his balance, and he fell in the primary.
Jim West had political skill. When he decreed that the answer to every question at City Hall was "yes," he seemed to hand the keys over to developers. But at the same time, he paid close attention to neighborhood issues right down to which dead-end streets weren't getting plowed. West showed Spokane that the job can be mastered.
Do we really need a mayor? Maybe we should just pass a law that caps the job at one term -- end of discussion. Spokane seems to have been succeeding without a stable presence at City Hall over the past couple decades.
This is ridiculous. Mayors with vision and the tenure to follow through on it can make a huge difference -- mayors like Charlie Royer in Seattle and Vera Katz in Portland, both of whom served for 12 years.
This is no argument for stability for its own sake, or an endorsement of any candidate. It's just a reminder that Spokane voters need to use their brains when they vote, which means having realistic expectations. And try not to vote while angry.
Meanwhile, mayors and mayoral candidates need to show some skill in bringing together the entire community, not just making one group happy. Then develop a vision of the big picture and share it effectively -- vision and judgment are what we want in return for the big bucks we're paying you.
Cities compete, and the winners get a more dynamic economy, a better selection of amenities and the kind of prosperity everybody wants. If we keep firing our quarterbacks when they've just entered the game, maybe we'll end up like Cleveland, one of only six NFL teams never to get to the Super Bowl.