Spokane City Council
After losing to Steve Corker in 1999, Al French is back running for city council again. That kind of persistence belies a dedication that may not qualify him for the office, but it certainly helps. French is that somewhat rare candidate who will be able to be effective immediately. Because of all the work he has already been doing for the past decade as a neighborhood activist, he is familiar with City Hall and many of the initiatives either already implemented or in the pipeline. French, who is also an architect, is especially well versed in the subtleties of the Growth Management Act, and his support of the city's growth plan should make him a valued expert on the council from Day One.
As city voters engineer the kind of council that will work best with the new strong mayor form of government -- and within districts -- French may be a prototype. He has worked on local issues as an advocate for economic development in Northeast Spokane, and now he will bring those concerns to the council. But he has also worked enough on citywide issues to know that there is a balance to be struck between advocating for a district and the city as a whole.
This is a close race that will lead to a strong council member either way. In fact, there aren't many differences on the issues between Dennis Hession and Dean Lynch. But Hession gets our nod here for his edge in experience and for bringing another legal mind to help balance the perspectives coming from the council dais on Monday nights. Hession's years on the Park Board, although sometimes marred by moments of inflexibility, did add up to an organization that continues to serve the city's best interests effectively. And his familiarity with the pressure cooker of local politics, as chair of the Park Board, should give him a unique perspective on the current growing pains the council is experiencing as a result of the new strong mayor form of government. Hession has run on the idea that he can help create a better council, and we think he will be a better fit as the council relates to the strong mayor's office.
Dean Lynch has his heart in the right place, and he deserves credit for listening to constituents' concerns throughout his short tenure, but he seems a little thin on the issues and politically clumsy. On the proposed loan to the River Park Square parking garage, his was the swing vote. Even though in voting for the loan he was wrong, in our view, what was more disturbing was his rationale -- that he figured the mayor would veto it anyway. In that vote, we didn't see any core values on display, only transparent politics. Certainly Lynch has been learning on the job and has shown promise, but Hession will bring more immediate background and depth to the issues. Lynch also doesn't seem to understand how deeply the problems on the council are impacting the city's chances for a better future -- he seems to see it as a case of a sitcom-like dysfunctional family. Hession sees these problems as the serious matter they are and pledges to work to make the council a more cooperative and effective body.
Once a very good councilwoman, Cherie Rodgers seems to have lost her bearings in recent years. Still, she has the right disposition for the job and is the closest thing we have to a populist on the council (and every city council can use at least one voice of the people). Still, here's hoping she can regain her initial promise and start to be for things instead of just against them in her next term.
Rodgers was at her best when she was for the little guy and his concerns, from clean water to excesses like the parking garage and the Lincoln Street Bridge. But on the parking garage in particular, the little guy has moved on and Rodgers hasn't. Polling shows that a significant majority of Spokane citizens supports the mayor's plan of mediation forced by the threat of litigation. More and more, Rodgers seems to favor litigation alone as a means of uncovering serious wrongdoing, criminal or otherwise. The problem is that it's an all-or-nothing game, and in taking such a stance she endangers the position of the city. In pushing to prove the bonds were not tax exempt, even if she's ultimately successful, she could wind up costing the city more in a settlement. In pushing the argument that the whole deal is bogus because of violations of open meeting laws, she could succeed in placing the entire burden of the mess on the city's shoulders.
Many of these positions mirror those of her fellow council member Steve Eugster; Rodgers would do well to realize that Eugster is often wrong, and that his lawsuits have and could do great damage to the city he serves. There are other legal opinions at work in the mayor's office, and a little trust of the mayor would help Rodgers remove the scales from her eyes. Her apparent knee-jerk support of Eugster's positions even came up in the last couple weeks, as she has criticized the mayor's defense of the city's need to annex county land. Why would she criticize something that most agree is crucial to the city's continued existence? Her oath of office should dictate that she defend the city, not take up positions that undermine it.
In fact, this could wind up being a big problem for her, as some are suggesting that her race with Jeff Colliton may be a referendum on Eugster. People may seek to suck the air out of Eugster's balloon by removing his supporters on the council. It's a sad development, because Eugster was a most promising council member, with a great mind for what needs to be done to save the city. But now the standard bearer of the local reform movement has driven away much of the effort's support by his excessive use of lawsuits instead of legislation. If Rodgers loses her seat, she and all those who believe in reforming the city can perhaps thank Eugster for destroying the movement from within.
And Colliton is no alternative, as he is unrepentant for his role in the River Park Square garage controversy -- as a city councilman in 1997, he voted for the deal that turned out to be so deeply flawed. Yes, the mall has been good for downtown, but the council he served on failed to apply due diligence to the inner workings of the financial deal, which could cost the city $40 million more than it baragained for.
Despite her flaws, Rodgers has just the right disposition on the council to be a part of a more cooperative future. She is respectful and respected. She works extremely hard on understanding all the functions of the city, and she has become a kind of Erin Brockovich-esque expert from her years on the council. With a little refocusing, she could start to apply what she has learned to specific legislative initiatives that could help make this a better city.
I-747 * Property Taxes
Tim Eyman's last initiative, I-722, which capped property tax increases at two percent, was declared unconstitutional. Now we have Initiative 747, which aims to fix all that by going one better and capping property tax increases at one percent per year. As we have said before, if Eyman wants to be involved in the state budget writing process, he should run for the state legislature -- he certainly has the political savvy to win a seat. But initiatives that seek to micromanage the budget writers twist the original intention of initiatives, which first came into being to address progressive issues that were not getting attention from state legislatures. Those issues traditionally have always held the public good in common, until recent times when initiatives sought to limit taxes as a way to shrink government. The problem here is that these initiatives often undermine that common good by appealing to the lowest common denominator. They ask people to make complex funding decisions that have far-reaching impacts along with a bevy of unintended consequences. Budget writing may be the highest art form in government, and to think that everyday people can just jump in and do it just as well as the experts is akin to passing over a qualified surgeon and doing your own open-heart surgery.
We all want lower taxes, of course, and more efficient government, but these initiatives are sold as if there is no downside -- as if government will just waste your money as long as you let it. That is ludicrous, and there certainly would be a downside to passing I-747 -- perhaps as much as $500,000 a year in Spokane County. It's also worth pointing out that property tax increases are already capped at the rate of inflation, or roughly three percent.
Fire departments have been identified as the biggest losers in this equation, perhaps eventually needing to run special annual levy votes to maintain funding. As we have seen in recent weeks, our public safety employees are among our greatest assets. To force them to beg is no way to run a society. Neither is asking the citizens to write our state budgets -- that's why we elect a legislature.
I-755 * Home Care Quality
While the natural impulse is usually against creating more bureaucracy at the state level, Initiative 755 promises cost savings by regulating the home health care system. As the baby boomers reach retirement age and beyond within the next 20 years, the strain on state and federal budgets will be significant, as Medicare and Medicaid fund many of the services to which they are entitled. Home health care offers a lower-cost alternative to placing people in nursing homes -- and it's an alternative many older people would prefer. By creating a reliable and accountable home health care system, the state could save millions by being more efficient. Yes, there is a cost to creating a new system, but that cost will be shared by the state and the federal government.
There's also an element of public safety involved in I-755, too, as the new Home Care Quality Authority, overseen by appointees of the Governor, would allow those seeking home health care to find out crucial information about those service-providing companies and individuals they may hire. Users of the home health care system deserve to be given the information they need to make good decisions on that most basic human issue: health.
One caveat: Implementing such a new system will take flexibility. When a bureaucracy issues rejections more eagerly than it approves valid new proposals, it does us all a disservice. Helping those already in the field succeed under the new rules should be made as easy as possible so good home health providers aren't needlessly burdened.
I-773 * Cigarette Taxes
When the legislature fails to act on issues that need attention, the initiative process works the way it was intended. That appears to be the case with Initiative 773, which would levy higher taxes on cigarettes to help fund the state's Basic Health Plan and revive programs aimed at preventing underage smoking. This initiative does raise the specter of the majority imposing its will on the minority (smokers), but it is also progressive in that it taxes something that winds up costing society money in the long run.
Even though underage smoking is a continuing problem, the main reason for voting yes on this initiative is to expand the state's Basic Health Plan. Right now, the state's health care system is in crisis, with doctors leaving the state because they can't get paid for services rendered; meanwhile, the ranks of the underinsured or uninsured are sure to swell with the ongoing economic downturn. As of now, there are 400,000 people statewide who qualify for the Basic Health Plan but can't get into the program. The legislature has failed to expand the program, and there's no evidence to suggest they will expand it any time soon. This appears to be a logical way to address a major problem in this state. The money raised through I-773 would fund slots for at least 50,000 additional people to gain coverage.