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Council in Crisis 

by Robert Herold

Honk if you love the Spokane City Council. Okay, honk if you know anyone who believes that our City Council is doing a good job. No takers? Not surprising. After all, the latest data that I've seen had the council's approval rating at 8 percent (KXLY/Inlander poll, May 2002). With the margin of error, it could really be less than 4 percent.

Why is it so bad? Tune into a council meeting and listen to our elected officials; it seems they don't care a whit about approval ratings. If lots of important legislation was occurring and those numbers remained low, you might call it political courage. But what we have here looks more like a treadmill, with the same issues coming around and around, and with no resolution in sight.

Lyndon Johnson put the matter succinctly: When he served as Senate Majority Leader and was having trouble with another senator, he would often ask, "Do you want a bill or do you want an issue?" To Johnson, politics was "the art of the possible." Issues, for Johnson, could go on forever; they got in the way of legislating. And for LBJ, that was a sin. Bills, which can be acted upon, yea or nay, reflect the possible. For LBJ, that was what deliberation and compromise were all about.

On Monday nights we get ad hominems wrapped in theatrics, along with a dash of disingenuousness, all combining to reduce the effectiveness not only of the council but of the city as well. It's funny that at a time when the council and the mayor's office are in a struggle for primacy over who really runs the city, the council would continue its losing strategy of recent years and marginalize itself more and more. Down to 8 percent, in fact (in the same poll, Mayor Powers' approval rating was at 24 percent).

Recent "issues" that have occupied too much time and effort underscore the problem: The lease deal at the Salty's site; the ongoing effort to hold up the projects the voters approved (the convention center, Mirabeau Point, the fairgrounds); the Cherie Rodgers/Jack Lynch fiasco. (As an aside, there are two things that don't wash on this one. First, Rodgers is not Lynch's subordinate, so the classic definition of harassment doesn't apply -- rudeness, perhaps, but let's call it that and move on. Second, where has Rodgers' -- and Corker's, for that matter -- outrage been over the past few years as Councilman Eugster has "harassed and intimidated" city officials and others as they testified before council. A double standard appears to be in play.)

Another rehashing of past business that is wasting people's time is the recent "debate" concerning the mayor's staff. Seems that Eugster believes these positions should be cut. Just out of the blue, the issue is dumped out on the council's table. When he proposed the strong mayor system, Eugster says he thought it would save money (although there was almost no evidence to suggest it would). So he wants to cut the mayor's staff. Why do we need these positions? All we get from our expenditure is a more removed mayor who goes to meetings his staff schedules but does little else, Eugster argues.

In his "saving money" assertion, Eugster wraps himself around voter intent: People voted for the proposal because they thought it would save money. The proposal passed, barely. But pass it did, in reaction, I think, not to the promise of cost cutting, but to some really ineffective government. The Lincoln Street Bridge, for starters -- but there was more evidence that the city had no leadership, at least no accountable leadership. It's just as valid to argue that strong mayor supporters were willing to invest in better decision-making.

As Council President Rob Higgins correctly points out, the strong-mayor system is not designed to save money. It is, however, designed to improve leadership and accountability. And I note that Councilman Corker said as much when he pointed out, quite correctly, that it should fall to the voters --not the council -- to hold Mayor Powers accountable for his staffing decisions.

What happens when "issues" (or, as they really are, non-issues) get dumped on the council legislative table is that the entire body looks bad, and when they look bad the city looks bad. I had occasion to talk to an out-of-town visitor following a recent council meeting. This woman, who is very educated and living abroad, couldn't believe it: Endless debate over a lease that the city had sought with a developer who was trying to do the city a favor. Huh?

While sometimes issues are of such singular importance that they must serve to fight bad policy, legislative bodies have a responsibility of seeing to it that the deliberative function is not compromised by trivial, disrespectful and counterproductive "issues." At the very least, legislative bodies have a duty to adopt rules designed to protect deliberations from being hijacked.

In recent months, members of the council are taking clear advantage of time granted for "Council Reports" to harangue, complain, propose, lecture and attack. It falls to council leadership to see to it that no member of the council uses this privilege (and that's what it is) to such a dubious and undignified end. Higgins needs to realize that his is a job similar to the one performed by Senator LBJ. He must see to it that we get bills that can be acted upon, not just issues that only fester. Are there not, somewhere in Robert's Rules, stipulations that can be invoked? We know that deliberative bodies can adopt other rules that speak to specific situations and circumstances. In any case, to fix the situation Higgins must think and act a tad more like an LBJ.

To succeed, the strong mayor system needs a strong council that understands and embraces its role. Right now, however, the council has become so ineffective that it is dragging city government down with it. We can all get a good laugh at the latest polling numbers emanating from a council flirting with a zero approval rating -- but to those of us who wish to live in a prosperous, dynamic city, it's not really that funny.

The public needs the council to show it understands the wisdom of LBJ's admonition. But they are running out of time. The council will be sorely tested this fall when mediator Lonnie Suko enters the River Park Square fray. If those mediation meetings are fruitful, the council will need to exercise a kind of statesmanship we haven't seen much of. If deliberations over a solution slip back into harangues and attacks on issues that have festered for years, it'll be off to court, where we all lose.

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