Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce President Chris Marr packed a large hall at the First Presbyterian Church's Spokane City Forum last Wednesday by posing the question, "Whatever Happened to Business Leadership?" There's a lot of nostalgia for a system of government that once managed to produce news other than lawsuits and quarrels.
Marr proposed a re-activated and invigorated "elbow grease and open-checkbook" business leadership. It is time, Marr said, to put to rest the myths about an inner circle that controls Spokane's activities. He drew a laugh by remarking that, as Chamber president, he often wanted to find these people who could allegedly solve any problem with a phone call, but he has never been able to locate them. "The Empire Club," Marr declared, "is closed."
What should a revived business leadership do about the perpetual in-fighting? Marr proposed the city's leadership deal with "the negative minority" by ignoring it. While all cities have negative people, "We've chosen to elevate that group to the power of a movement." He quoted Winston Churchill: "If we get in an argument between the past and the present, we shall lose the future."
Whatever Churchill meant by his rhetorical flourish, Churchill the historian cannot have been suggesting it's a good thing to ignore the past. That is an invitation to repeat past mistakes. After all, Spokane did once have a vigorous, engaged business leadership, just as Marr would recommend for the future. Until about 1997, the strategy of Spokane's leadership was just what Marr recommends, which is to ignore "the negative minority." Then that negative minority elected one of its members, John Talbott, mayor, and it was impossible to ignore.
A reconstituted business leadership had better not dismiss the past until it figures out what went wrong there.
What went wrong was a clash of cultures. Along with their many abilities, business people have a blind spot when they engage in governing as they have other things to tend to, business leaders recoil at the endless political processes. Eventually they circle up and say to sympathetic cohorts, "Let's get this thing done." They short-circuit the system. They make a phone call, hold a small meeting and announce the outcome.
The problem with this method is that, successful or not, it creates suspicion. Take the example of Jay Cousins, one of Spokane's notorious "naysayers." He decided he wanted to get involved.
"I showed up with this happy-go-lucky, banana-eating grin and a willingness to participate with my local government, and my local government said, 'You don't count.' The planning commission would go into the back room with a developer, and they'd all cut a deal. The developers had free and open access to the city manager, and strolled in and out of the city manager's office, took each other to play golf, went to breakfast, and all belonged to the same clubs. And whatever the developers wanted, the developers got."
At least that's how it appeared to Cousins. The developers and the city manager may well simply have been trying to get the needed thing done. But Cousins, who knew he had certain rights in governmental matters, dug in his heels and became one of that mysterious legion called the naysayers to complicate every move the city wanted to make.
This isn't peculiar to Spokane. Neal Peirce, a political scientist who has studied regional and local governments for more than 30 years (and a sometime advisor to Spokane) points out that most cities operated under nearly unilateral business leadership at one time. But starting in the 1960s, that process began to fall apart. Other interest groups -- neighborhoods, environmentalists and dozens of others -- rose up to challenge the business urban agenda. None of these groups had the power to get its way, but all had a veto on what others did. The only way to get anything done is through a slogging process of coalition-making.
But if less efficient, the process at least promises a better outcome. Cousins is again the example. Unlike many people who are frustrated by government, he kept badgering until he had to be included in many of the meetings. With greater access, his perspective changed. "I've certainly come quite a distance to recognizing that these people view themselves as doing good things. And they do them as much out of concern for the community as the reason I do the things I do."
He began to see that some of the frustration he felt arose from perfectly legitimate concerns and pressures on the "insiders" that he had not fully appreciated before. "Every one of these people that annoyed me on one level actually had these other things going on," he admits. Finally, Cousins himself discovered the truth that in politics, process was more important than any given outcome, because the process must continue: "We could disagree today, and tomorrow we could actually find ourselves working on a committee together where we had common purpose and goals and agendas."
Should there be a re-invigorated business leadership, which Spokane certainly needs, the Jay Cousins case suggests the only way to produce a different outcome: not ignoring negative thinkers but engaging them.
William Stimson is author of Spokane: A View of the Falls.