by Robert Herold
It's been a year since John Powers took over the city's newly empowered mayor's office, and back then I offered some unsolicited advice. So how is he doing?
A year ago, I stressed the importance of making good appointments. From all indications, his most important appointment, Jack Lynch as his head honcho administrator, seems to be working out well. Lynch has quietly and effectively gone about his work, and he represents the mayor well, most importantly before the city council.
His immediate staff appointments continue to draw criticism, however. For example, does he need both a staff director and a director of communications? Such niggling concerns pale in the face of larger concerns. Powers needs to be more productive.
What does the mayor need in order to produce results?
It would seem that Powers is in need of some serious policy analysis, if for no other reason than to help him frame and pursue his agenda. Notably, no one on his staff has that specific charge. As he begins his second of three years, the mayor also needs some expert and continuing help on external political relations, including relations with the state and the county.
Yes, the mayor needs his daily schedule tended to, but perhaps he is succeeding too much. If there is a single criticism of the mayor's style of operation, it is that he is far too protected and isolated. What an odd turn of events, to hear this over and over again about a person whose temperament is so outgoing. You don't inspire confidence when your presence is defined in terms of formal meetings -- there is something to be said for management by walking around. One city employee told me that the last city leader who actually dropped by to see how things were going was Terry Novak back in the 1980s.
In his seeming isolation, the mayor gives up what may be his biggest asset: the bully pulpit. Spokane has never seen a public official with Powers' talent on the stump. But we go days, weeks, without ever seeing him. On more than one occasion, political stories have broken and the mayor's office has failed to articulate a position.
A year ago, I also urged that the mayor find a focus and quit running for an office he already won. But as we have learned, Powers is a cheerleader and a negotiator by temperament and profession. He isn't likely to change all that much. As a result, what to some seems like the endless campaign, may to Powers look like offering the town encouragement. In any case, I suggest that he needs to knit his style into his substance more effectively. When he has appeared before the council (and I'm not at sure that's a good idea -- any more than it's a good idea for the President to drop in on the Congress), he is always prepared and on point. His performance on the budget and on the need for a reserve fund deserves high marks. But he does have this tendency to let his cheerleading get the best of him, and this can be a problem, especially when the mayor addresses problems that demand both a carefully presented analysis of the issue and a clear position. In the near future, the mayor is likely to face any number of issues that demand from him more than mere enthusiasm.
Powers certainly is facing difficulties not of his making. He can't do much about the recession (although he might want to make Avista bills a matter of public debate). Then there was 9/11. The mayor couldn't have picked a more difficult time to launch a maiden voyage. Still, in fairness, many small issues and needs should have been addressed this past year, but weren't. For example, he made poverty his highest priority, yet to date it is unclear what he proposes to do. Meetings are being held. A summit is promised. But does the mayor have an agenda?
Answers to this and other issues are apparently in the offing, but time is running short for a mayor with an abbreviated three-year term.
And what about neighborhoods? Not much there either. He might take a cue from successful mayors, such as Richard Daley of Chicago and Jerry Brown of Oakland. They tend to the little things -- abandoned cars, graffiti, absentee landlords, public order. To do this, they get out on the street, they look things over, they are visible.
Now we come to "the issue." River Park Square. A year ago, I pointed out the obvious -- he needs to resolve it. Somehow. Here, for perhaps very good reasons, he has adopted a legal and political strategy that could drag things out through his entire term. In the meantime, he sits in the middle. Opponents of the project complain that he isn't going after obvious fraud. The developer complains that he is escalating the conflict. Business interests just want the issue to go away. In the middle of all this, Powers continues to pursue action through the courts, while he urges mediation. Seems to me that his approach, especially given all the acrimony that surrounds this issue, is reasonable, responsible and prudent. Whether he is right in his legal claims remains to be seen. Obviously the preferred outcome would derive from negotiations, with the city not being left holding the bag. But how? Let's hope this issue doesn't become for Powers what Vietnam was for Lyndon Johnson.
Spokane has no history or experience with a major who did much more than cut ribbons. In many respects, we are fortunate to have as mayor someone with such obvious talent for political life.
Now, after a year, we've all heard the pep talk; it is time to see actions to match those enthusiastic words.
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