When the strong mayor is elected on Nov. 7, voters are also asked to pick a City Council president. Since the strong mayor will be more like the city's CEO, the council president is supposed to pick up many of the daily tasks the current mayor takes care of. Leading the council meetings, composing the agenda and taking care of the council's daily business will be some of the president's tasks, and two current councilmen, Steve Corker and Rob Higgins, are running for the position.
Many city councils across the nation have presidents, so it's nothing unusual. What is a little unusual, however, is the way the Spokane City Council president will be elected.
"I couldn't find another city that elects a council president at large, like we are doing," says Higgins, who's served on the council for a total of 11 years. "In every other city with a strong mayor form of government, the council president is elected by the council." Sometimes council members will rotate the position among themselves, serving one- or two-year terms at a time.
"As for what exactly the president is supposed to do," says Higgins, "I'm afraid we have created sort of an unknown. What's going to happen with the position depends a lot on who is elected."
Higgins looks at the council presidency as a part-time position, which will be compatible with his full-time job as executive vice president of Spokane Association of Realtors. But Corker says being council president will require someone's full attention.
"I know he feels like it's a part-time position, but I don't agree with that at all," says Corker, who works part time as an assistant professor at Gonzaga University, as well as at Fairchild Air Force Base. "I look at it more like the old mayor's position. I mean, just being council members, we already put in between 30-40 hours a week. We all sit on three committees, once a quarter I go to the neighborhood council meetings, and then there's all the mail and the phone messages and the e-mail. There's a lot to take care of."
Corker adds that Higgins doesn't always respond to his mail and phone calls in a timely manner, something Corker sees as a major problem if he's elected council president.
But Higgins says Corker is pressing for a full-time position for reasons other than concerns over his ability to hold the job.
"The guy is basically unemployed, he is looking for full-time employment," says Higgins.
At the core of this debate is the size of the salary the new council president will receive. Originally, the council president's salary was set at $22,000 annually. This spring, Eugster proposed the salary be set at $50,000 instead, and after negotiations the council arrived at $40,000.
Corker, who voted for the increase, insists the job simply can't be done in a part-time manner, regardless of who is elected, and that he is employed well enough.
"This is not some type of a part-time board assignment, where you meet once in awhile. It sounds to me like what Mr. Higgins wants is a city hall that's run by the staff."
Both candidates have extensive records of public service with commissions and citizens groups, but Higgins comes out ahead when it comes to inside city hall experience. He was first elected to the council in 1982 and served as mayor pro-tem for mayors Jim Chase and Vicky McNeil. He ran for mayor in 1989 but was defeated by Sheri Barnard. In the early '90s, he served on the Washington State Transportation Commission, and then in '97 he was re-elected to the council. He's chaired the city's finance committee and has been involved with the budget process for many years, and is the chairman of the Spokane Regional Transportation Council.
"You know, I'm running for council president because I love Spokane. I've lived in the same neighborhood on East Mission all my life," says Higgins, who holds a master's degree from Texas A & amp;M with an emphasis in public administration. "What I would do, as president of the council, is help find some common ground. We need to get the contentious issues that tend to polarize people behind us. They have obviously occupied all the time of this council, and we need to stop that bickering."
Corker was first elected to the City Council in 1999, and he currently serves on the Spokane Park Board, the Public Safety Board and SEACAB. Corker holds a BA in political science from Stanford University, and in 1977 he led the effort to create the Spokane Arts Commission. He was appointed by governors Gary Locke and Mike Lowry to serve on the state council for the Prevention of Child Abuse and has been a member of the board of the Northeast Neighborhood Community Center.
"I go to all the community assembly meetings, and I find them extremely informative. The neighborhood councils are the future of that consensus building everybody is talking about," says Corker. "I'm so glad the neighborhood councils now have a chance to become part of the charter. That shows we really listen to the people who serve on them."
Corker says he decided to run after many people first approached him as a strong mayor candidate.
"I thought about the council president position back when I was elected," says Corker. "Later, I decided I would be better at this than at being strong mayor. One of the things we need to pay more attention to is due diligence. That's brought up over and over again with River Park Square, for instance. Due diligence takes time to read and understand the issues; we need to become more thorough at doing that."
Among some of the issues facing the new city government is the perception of the City Council as being split, bickering and unable to get anything done because of personal disagreements. Though both candidates say this is going to have to end, they have different ideas as to where the problem is coming from.
"Steve Eugster runs the council," says Higgins. "If you could see what's going on behind closed doors, you'd realize that he's in charge. We need a president who can control him, and I believe I'm that person."
Higgins says the recent debate over whether to dissolve the downtown Business Improvement District was a perfect example of a personal grievance of Eugster's that took up too much of the council's time in a way that he wouldn't allow as council president.
"We had so many big issues in front of us, and yet we were spending hours and hours on this issue," says Higgins. "We had the Lincoln Street Bridge and the budget, yet here we were meeting about dissolving something that was working just fine."
But Corker doesn't agree that Eugster is the source of all the council's woes. "I have a whole binder full of Steve's proposals, and only three or four of them have actually passed." Corker adds that he would control the microphones during the meetings and make sure nobody interrupts or spends too much time on side issues.
Higgins agrees that the meetings need to be managed better.
As for the split, Corker says he's exasperated by the media's selective coverage of controversial issues -- most votes have been 6-1 or 7-0, he claims -- but still, many voters think about the council in terms of "majority" and "minority."
Corker belongs to that so-called majority, counting on the support of Eugster, Cherie Rodgers and Mayor John Talbott. Higgins belongs to the minority, often voting along with Phyllis Holmes and Roberta Greene.
If Talbott loses his bid for strong mayor, the majority/minority split may be skewed, regardless of whether Corker or Higgins becomes council president. None of the other seats on the council are up for election, but the wildcard is who's going to be appointed to serve instead of Corker or Higgins.
"Anyone can apply for that vacant seat," says Corker. "To replace me, that person would serve the two-year balance of my term. To replace Higgins, the person would serve until next fall, and then have to run for a four-year term in a district."
Corker and Higgins support different strong mayor candidates.
"Personally, I'm going to vote for John Powers," says Higgins. "But I have worked in public administration for a long time in this city, and I feel certain I can work with Talbott as well."
Corker puts his faith in Talbott's camp: "I have said publicly that I'm going to vote for Talbott, I'm confident he's knowledgeable and the right person for the job," he says. "But it's not like I'm going to resign if Powers wins. I can work with him, too."
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