by Ted S. McGregor Jr.
After coming out of nowhere in 2000 to win Spokane's first-ever strong mayor election, John Powers has had a busy first year. If dealing with a daunting list of issues -- from the complex parking garage litigation to a turf war over annexation to writing a grim budget -- wasn't a tall enough order, he also had to set the tone for the new office. It didn't take long for Spokane to embrace him as it has other mayors -- by holding him accountable for the city's many woes. Why aren't the roads fixed? Why are we still paying lawyers so much on the garage battle? What's up with that city council? We caught up with the mayor earlier this week, just before he joined in the Martin Luther King celebration downtown. Here's what he had to say about that first year.
Poverty is obviously one of the issues that you talked about in the campaign, but have specific solutions come into any clearer focus over the past year?
"What we've got to do in the next 20 years is take that standard of living, which has slipped below the national average by more than 20 percentage points, and grow it to at or above the national average. Two-thirds of the people in this area enjoy an outstanding quality of life. We've got to work on that one-third or more that is struggling.
"Poverty is attacked by education and jobs. To get jobs, you need to be providing core services and infrastructure in a very efficient and cost-effective manner. You've got to have the best water, the best sewers, and we're right there -- we have incredible infrastructure there. You've got to have good roads -- we're not there yet -- but we've made good progress to do that. I think we'll get the support of the citizens this year on the local city component as we work with the state through the legislature on the whole statewide [transportation] package. The reason I'm pushing so hard for the Governor's $8.5 billion statewide transportation plan is that it addresses the big needs across the state, including the North Spokane corridor, continued I-90 improvements and those types of things that we don't have the ability to fund locally.
"The streets and the arterials need to be rebuilt. You can only build out about $25 million a year; we're spending nearly $15 million a year now. We need another $10 million a year. The bond issue that we'll take to the voters [this spring] will give us an additional $10 million a year for five years. And then we'll have to look at other revenue measures; in particular, I'm intrigued by the street utility user fee. That fee could take the pressure off the general fund and have an annual earmarked maintenance fund that goes for nothing but that. If we had a street utility fee that would raise $5 million, $10 million that we could use on maintenance, then we could slide back that general fund pressure. Police, fire, social services, planning -- all those things that are really strapped right now, it would give them more resources and they could deliver better services. There needs to be some legislative tinkering in Olympia for us to be able to move forward with certainty that a street utility fee would be enforceable.
"If there are three things we've done well this year, I think it's financial reform within the organization, very much improved legislative affairs and inter-governmental relations, between the city of Spokane and Olympia and the city of Spokane and Washington, D.C. We have a new lobbyist in Olympia, Tom Parker, doing an outstanding job there. And a lobbyist in D.C., which we haven't had for seven years -- that's big. And then the third component is the roadmap that will get us to become a leading regional city in 20 years, that's the economic community development component, starting with the comprehensive plan. We had a 6-1 vote on the comprehensive plan, a plan that our administration got behind early in the year, pushed it, applauded the citizens' work, worked with the plan staff, accepted what I think were reasonable modifications -- didn't gut it, fine-tuned it, gave it some flexibility. The comprehensive plan is the roadmap for how this city's going to grow, and it includes annexation.
"We are very bold and vigorous in our pursuit of annexation, and it's about time. For 20 years, the city has punted on that issue. We're no longer punting. We have several areas adjacent to the city of Spokane that have developed and become urban in nature because of our infrastructure. And we intend to execute on documents signed by those property owners that say, In exchange for your city infrastructure, water and sewer, that raises our property values and allows us to develop our real estate, we won't oppose annexation. Why wouldn't we go forward on that? And when Commissioner McCaslin says, We need to vote, I say, with all due respect, Commissioner, they've already voted. Here's their proxy, it's seven years old, and their property was worth a thousand dollars an acre on the West Plains seven years ago, and now it's worth $20,000 an acre -- you know why? Because it's got water and sewer on it."
I think we can see why this was put off. It's a firestorm -- we've got the Valley people mad that it's holding up their vote, and any number of people see it as a power grab. Are you ready to go the distance on this? This is going to be a political fight.
"I never go looking for a fight, but when the right fight is in front of you, you never go walking away from it. This is the right thing to do, not only for the city of Spokane, but to lead the region forward. You look at Kirkland, you look at Bellevue, you even look at Tacoma. Would they have had the run that they've had in the past 10 or 15 years if Seattle hadn't resurrected? No. It's the same thing here. You can't pursue a plan based on popularity. You pursue a plan that you believe is right for the citizens you represent and the long-term common good of the city you serve and the region that city serves."
But couldn't this poison the lines of communication even more with the county commissioners?
"We have tried and tried again, and we won't stop trying to build those bridges. It has been disappointing, I have to say. Just to get meetings at times has been very, very frustrating. And when we do get a one-on-one, which I've had, we'll sit down in the room and talk about the points we have -- the convention center's a classic one. Commissioner Harris has told me on repeated occasions, 'I see it, I can support it, I can see it makes sense.' The next thing you know, you read in the paper that he's taking shots at it. It doesn't make any sense to me. At the same time, Phil and I are working arm-in-arm in trying to save the Boeing jobs."
From the commissioners' point of view, you can see the worry. They've lost Liberty Lake, they're at risk of losing the urban parts of the Valley, they're at risk of losing these annexation areas. People say it shouldn't be a turf war, but sometimes that's just what it is. So this all gets down to the deeper question of whether the entire county government needs to be reformed, or if we need a regional government, as was attempted before?
"I think the metro form of government could someday be revisited, and I think it would be the most efficient, progressive form of government. We're now an urban county. Are we as dense as King County? No. Are we the third most dense county in the state? Yes. The role of county government in the past has been the rural, agrarian and suburban areas; high population densities and commercial activities were not designed to be governed under that system. Now that the mid-urban Valley has evolved, we have far more in common with it than with the city of Deer Park. I don't in any way oppose mid-Valley incorporation, in fact I can see the merits of it. And I truly want to have a healthy working relationship with them."
But how can we ever realize these dreams of a regional government if we can't even settle our internal differences?
"But we will. Things don't last forever. We could be one or maybe two elections away from people who would bring a broader viewpoint and more appreciation for bringing people together for the benefit of the region. The question needs to be asked, when's the last time we had a county commissioner serve who resided within the city of Spokane? It's been a long time. I think there's a need for the commissioners to look at their constituents and say the majority of our constituents have unique needs that go beyond the typical suburban and rural, and let's work together to serve their needs. Phil Harris, Kate McCaslin and John Roskelley all represent me. Although I live in the city, I'm a county resident."
There's also this schism with the council and the mayor's office. It was clear that there would be this settling-in period with the new form of government. What is the council's responsibility? What is the mayor's responsibility? Different cities have different answers to those questions, but it was an open question here when you took office. How do you see that relationship evolving?
"I think that relationship has evolved in a good way, I think it has strengthened over the year. And that's evidenced in the budget, which is the ultimate policy statement of the city. The mayor proposing it, working with the council to get it adopted. The unanimous vote adopting that budget, with some reasonable amendments, I think speaks volumes about the new form of government's effectiveness. We came in with financial reforms that weren't heretofore proposed, and we eventually persuaded the council to adopt them.
"I can only say this, on the big issues last year, we worked together. Now there are a couple members of the council that may take shots once in a while and chip away -- I don't think that's productive, but we'll see how that develops. I'll continue to reach out and intend to work with each and every one of them, but I'm not going to get down in the mud on some political games -- we don't have time for it.
"I think River Park Square is another example; I think this council has worked with us. A majority supported my course to support mediation. The public supports it -- you ran the poll. Fifty-five percent of the population wants to see this resolved among the parties through arbitration dispute resolution measures; only 20 percent want to see it battled out in court to the death; and only, what, 12 or 15 percent wanted to see some rollover deal -- pay the money and forget it. We didn't chart our course in response to the polls, we led on that issue, and I think the public is behind the way we're approaching it.
"And there have been some recent developments there that are critical that aren't getting much press. If you see the pleadings filed by the city in December and then the responses -- only two responses. One was an unconditional objection from Prudential Securities. They're a party because they underwrote and issued the bonds on behalf of the foundation. They have a significant role to play as this gets resolved. And then, two, the developer's was, I thought, a very positive step forward. They acknowledged that, yes, the matter can be resolved short of litigation. That's big, you hadn't heard that before in public. And they see the merits of federal Judge Shea appointing a magistrate judge to at least do an initial assessment of the merits of moving forward with mediation by interviewing all the parties, confidentially, assessing the matter and reporting back that, yes, you're ready for mediation now, or, no, perhaps we need two months' worth of discovery and depositions to get additional facts out that will motivate you to come back to the table. Nevertheless, for the developer to say, 'That's a good idea, let's bring him in now to at least assess it,' that's a huge step."
You've seen this script played out before as a lawyer, but this is taking longer than people had hoped. Everybody says, "Powers thought he could solve this," and it's been a year...
"There's two things that I stated during the campaign. This can and will be resolved and the best way to do it is through mediation. And I don't waver a bit on either of those positions. Am I disappointed it's not done yet? Sure. Am I discouraged? No way. I was involved in one case early on in my career that went seven years. This isn't going to take us seven years in litigation, trust me. Another time, on the eve before trial, I had opposing counsel look me in the eye and say, 'We're not going to pay you a dime.' And I walked into court the next day, when the other side called for a recess and said, 'Let's talk.' "
You mentioned the developer and Prudential. Do you see those two as the major sticking points to getting this into mediation?
"I don't see the developer as a sticking point anymore. I did a couple months ago. And frankly, one out of 12 parties is unconditionally objecting -- the others are speaking volumes by their silence. The court can read that. The reason people sometimes don't want to publicly say, 'I want to mediate,' is people misconstrue that as a position of weakness. Oh, if you want to mediate then you must be admitting you've done something wrong or you've got money to put on the table. Far from it. All you're doing in mediation is saying, I will come into the room in good faith and be open to all the other viewpoints in an effort to find a path that we can all agree on."
You were a lawyer and I wouldn't say you were drafted, but I know people said, 'Geez, why don't you run?' You weren't an accidental candidate, but you followed a different route to this office. On a personal level, how does it feel?
"Until you serve in public office, it is difficult to fully appreciate the demands on you as an individual and your family -- and it is significant. Sometimes they can be tiring, but the flip side is this is the best job in town if you believe in the future like I do and those around me do. We went very strong last year -- we went six, sometimes seven days a week, 10, 12 hours. I'm going to ease that back. I slowed down at the end of the year, I took a full week off. I didn't go into the office... well, I went in twice. I stayed home and I read, and I prayed, and I watched movies, and I conversed and I reconnected there and that was important. And I think the family has adjusted, too. It's difficult when your Dad's the mayor, and the teacher at Lewis and Clark says, 'Oh, you're the mayor's daughter.' It's difficult when an adult child stubs his toe and gets in trouble but handles it well. So I think the Powers family is doing fine, although we've had to adjust to a bit of a life in a fishbowl."
You've got an abbreviated term -- a lot of people maybe don't know that, but you've got just a three-year term. Have you thought about running again?
"If I had to make that decision today, I'd be running for reelection, no doubt in my mind. But I think it's too early in the term. We need to focus on the work at hand. I still believe that this community, this regional city, will achieve its potential. I'm proud of the first year; we learned a lot, we finished strong and
I think we're starting 2002 very strong as well."