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Making Sense Out of City Hall 

by William Stimson


A group consisting mostly of city employee unions and ex-city officials has led Spokane into a predicament. The group's insistence on an immediate vote over returning to the city manager form of government means that on Sept. 16, primary ballot voters will be picking candidates for a form of government that might not exist after that date.


Win or lose, it muddles the business of picking new leaders. ("If I should be elected, and if there should be an office to be elected to...") If the city manager charter should actually win, the situation will be chaotic, with the people chosen to run for office left out in the cold and others taking offices they didn't seek -- all of it certainly to be challenged in court.


Is this what an organization that decided to call itself "Citizens for Sensible Government" considers sensible? Choosing a form of government is a long-term decision. Spokane had the commissioner form for 50 years. It had the city manager system for 40 years. It could afford to experiment with the strong mayor form for more than three years under one mayor before requiring voters to decide again.


The proponents of reverting to the city manager system feel justified in calling for an instant replay because the strong mayor system won in 1999 by a tiny margin, a couple dozen votes. They figure maybe it was just a fluke.


But that is not an entirely fair analysis. Even a slim majority for changing the form of government was impressive, given the circumstances. The existing city manager government had a large built-in constituency in city unions and in the conservative and high-turnout precincts of the South Hill. Overcoming that advantage exposed a powerful feeling in the rest of the city.


What's more, the election came at a highly favorable moment for the city manager system. River Park Square, the triumph of that system, had just opened and none of its financial problems were yet apparent. If voters were inclined to keep the city manager system, that was the time they would have done so. Put another way, if voters rejected the city manager system in 1999, before all the financial calamities of River Park Square, they aren't likely to want it back now.


It is hard to see how the Citizens for Responsible Government can hope to reverse the 1999 decision -- except if it is a by-product of all the confusion. Perhaps the selective turnout of a primary election and voters who turn their displeasure with the incumbent against the office might cause a vote for the old system. In other words, next month's election will be unpersuasive as an expression of the will of the people. That will almost certainly mean it won't be long until we have to go through yet another election on the form of government.


The one bright spot in this whole situation is that voters will not be judging the city manager system in the abstract. Spokane knows exactly what the city manager system will be like, having experienced that form of government for 40 years, from 1960 to 2000. The question voters will want to ask themselves is, how did Spokane fare under that system?


Economically during that period, Spokane sank from a solid middle class community to one of the poorer communities in the country. Politically, it has squabbled almost constantly, with every proposal becoming a battle between government and citizens.


As for the argument that city manager government put local affairs into the hands of a "sensible" professional, it was a professional city manager who advised the city council to sign off on the terms of River Park Square -- a decision even the members of the council at the time regret.


In the meantime, the idea that you can make city government "non-political" has cost Spokane dearly. The city manager system was invented as an antidote to political bosses, who were organizing the masses to take over city hall, generally for their own financial benefit.


To reform city hall, the more responsible citizens in communities across the country had to find a way to undermine the democracy that was being used against them. They did so by disabling as much as they could the system of political representation.


Under the city manager theory, council members were elected "at-large," with everybody representing everybody, so that in practice no one really represented anyone. This undermined the consensus-making ability that comes of close association between government representatives and those whom they represent. The city council was likened to the board of directors overseeing the progress of a business. (This was a time when boards of directors of businesses had a better reputation for wise oversight than they do today). That model sums up the problem. The board of directors of a business does not really represent the will of shareholders.


The inventors of the city manager system replaced the community's political leader, the mayor, with a "weak mayor," who had no time or power base to become an important local leader. This worked fine at the time because establishment types were perfectly willing to provide community leadership from outside city hall. In the last quarter of a century, the nature of local business has changed. Globalization and control from remote headquarters has drastically reduced the amount of time and interest local business leaders have to give to local government.


From Spokane's standpoint, the problem with the city manager system is that it minimizes the very two things Spokane needs most: consensus-building and leadership.





William Stimson is a professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University and author of Spokane: A View of the Falls.





Publication date: 08/21/03
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