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Hession's Turn 

by Robert Herold & r & During the '50s, all across the country, police began to move officers off the "beat" and into the car. Two decades later, we came to understand that this tactic actually led to an increase in street crime. Even today, with crime rates dropping, we aren't certain how much of the decline is merely the result of demographics rather than "police science."


During that same decade, housing "experts," in public-private partnerships with land developers, decided that high-rise, low-income housing was the answer to our "slum" problem. Less than a decade later, we came to understand that our experts' advice had left us with an unmitigated social disaster.


When cities determined finally to take on air pollution, elected leadership turned for advice to their experts, those traffic engineers who gave us one-way streets and couplets. Of course the real problem, then as well as now, was that we live in an automobile culture that has succeeded in starving mass transit. (Real progress would come only when we figured out how to make our gasoline cleaner.) In the meantime, more miles were being driven, urban life suffered and sprawl exploded.


During the '70s, professional educationalists dumped onto a generation of kids the so-called "new math." A decade later, while trying to pinpoint the cause of declining mathematics performance, we discovered that in order for our fifth-graders to understand this new way of doing mathematics, they would need to have the reading comprehension of a high school senior.


The point to this little litany of unintended consequences is that public policy in America often yields to professional expertise -- with discouraging outcomes.





But then who wants to see physicians ignored when it comes to disease control? Or engineers ignored when it comes to levy construction? Still, experts alone should not be permitted to define public choice.


Thus the tension between the bureaucracy -- our rational form of orga nization that relies on "experts" -- and, on the other hand, our elected leadership -- often beleaguered and isolated, thus ever more dependent on those same experts. Nonetheless, if representative government is to be accountable, somehow this tension must be addressed. Knowledge and skill is no substitute for informed judgment. Scientists could build the atomic bomb; they had no special claim on deciding whether to use it. That decision, for better or worse, was a political decision, and, appropriately enough, needed to be made on practical and moral grounds.


Which brings us to our new mayor's strongest challenge: How can Dennis Hession use his experts in the permanent government while at the same time reserving for himself space in which to make those practical and moral judgments? It's not an easy task.


This challenge never receives the attention that the more highly publicized "issues" do. Yes, Spokane faces a budget crisis. Yes, Spokane needs to find new sources of revenue, which might require a fight over annexation. And yes, Spokane residents, many of them, can no longer afford to heat their houses and apartments in the winter months -- and what is the city going to do about that? These issues and problems receive the ink and are the ones discussed at City Hall on Monday nights. As mayor, Dennis Hession needs to inspire confidence and establish a direction within a very small window of opportunity.





From all corners of City Hall, Hession will be challenged. I'm not talking about conspiracy; the tension is built into the system and our culture.


Two weeks ago, I wrote concerning the traffic engineers' plan to cut down almost all the trees on Bernard Street. My column was followed by a Spokesman-Review article, the gist of which was that they plan to do the same on Freya Street. Now, if you pick up a copy of the city's Comprehensive Plan and turn to the pages about streets and traffic, here is what you will read:


"Make transportation decisions based upon prioritizing the needs of people as follows:


& lt;ul & & lt;li & Design transportation systems that protect and serve the pedestrian first. & lt;li & Next, consider the needs of those who use public transportation and non-motorized transportation modes. & lt;li & Then consider the needs of automobile users after the two groups above." & lt;/ul &


This is our citizen-supported and legislatively approved political agenda; but, truth to tell, this has never been the preferred agenda of our "experts," our traffic engineers. Mired as they are in outdated professional doctrine, they continue to work to reverse these priorities. And like "experts" from all parts of our bureaucracy, they claim autonomy, which, if granted, will marginalize political authority. If the city is to be governed in a responsible, accountable manner, this can't be permitted to happen. So, what will it be?


It falls to Mayor Hession to provide the answers.


We wish him well.
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