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Permitting Permutations 

by Robert Herold

The Journal of Business ran an article recently that carried the headline: "Development Process Improves." Seems that after years of complaining that county and city bureaucracies act more as the ministers of red tape than as facilitators, the business community sees improvement. The city especially earns kudos, and the name Dave Nakagawara, "the city's top building official," is singled out for praise. "He is trying," says long time critic, Mike Taylor, president of Taylor Engineering. "I can't say enough good things about Dave Nakagawara," says Walt Worthy.

About the same time I read this article, I received from the mayor's office their official "Delegate Report" -- a summary of the goings-on and citizen recommendations that were produced during the Mayor's recent poverty summit, or, as it came to be called, the One Spokane conference. I perused the report. As things turned out, I think this "summit" turned out to be just one more "visioning exercise" designed to produce good feelings and impressions, but little more. I paged through to the pertinent section in the report and there did find mention of the importance of streamlining permitting. "One-stop permitting," was the exact request.

Then I turned back to the Journal article and looked without success for any mention of the mayor. While this development is happening on his watch, "the mayor's office..." is mentioned once, only in passing. But not Mayor John Powers.

So, as they say, class what's wrong with this picture?

When he ran for office, candidate Powers placed poverty at the top of his list of problems to resolve. Also, during his campaign, he stated that he wanted Spokane to become a mecca for small business. He wanted a government environment that would be supportive of small business.

As it turns out, our mayor, or any mayor for that matter, goes at the problem of poverty with an almost empty quiver. After all, poverty as a systemic problem, was long ago passed along to the state and federal governments. Our many local agencies -- mostly non-profit and religious -- do the critical work of triage. The income maintenance programs, however, are run by either the state or the federal governments. An expanded range of social service programs are funded by the state. Education, for one, draws much state support, and what it does get from the local community is not under control of our mayor. Or consider health care. Just how is our mayor supposed to go about reforming health care? This is another state and national issue.

So what's a mayor from a relatively small, politically challenged city supposed to do about fixing poverty, a deep and long-developing problem that lies largely outside his scope of authority? Mayor Powers never addressed this question directly, and, as a result, when he calls together the community he isn't in a position to provide criteria, not even the necessary operating definitions. In the end, his many citizen visionaries move onto the more happy-face theme of prosperity, leaving the serious work, I suppose, to those who were struggling with the problem before the summit took place.

While the Mayor's quiver isn't nearly full, he does have some arrows to shoot. He can work to make the delivery of city services more effective. Example? Yes, he can work to streamline the permitting process by way of making Spokane a better place to do business, by making business more profitable, by helping to alleviate poverty through more and better jobs.

So why is it that Mayor Powers is now well into his term before we even hear about an effort to streamline permitting? And why is it that when we do hear about such an effort it comes not in the form of a specific plan, but as just the actions of a mid-level bureaucrat, who, apparently, is propelled by his sense of professionalism?

Class, that's what's wrong with this picture?

I get nervous when I discover that mid-level bureaucrats presume to speak for elected leadership. While you won't get any argument from me about the importance of fixing the permitting process, neither will you convince me that closed-circuit relationships between the bureaucracy and interest groups is good.

I think the mayor should take the lead on fixing permitting. He should deal directly with the interest groups, and, if he needs new policy, with the council. He must articulate the problem -- and in terms of prior approved policy as found in the Comprehensive Plan. Finally, he should propose a plan.

When we get this, I'll know that Spokane has a strong mayor operating in a system that is producing direction, responsibility and accountability.

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