The implementation of the strong mayor system created a new position on the city council, that of city council president. Under the city manager-council form of government, the mayor basically served as president of the council, leading the meetings and serving as the council's spokesperson.
The city council president is the only member of the council who's elected citywide, and in this primary three candidates are making a run for the two spots that voters will ultimately choose from.
While Pam Behring is running for public office for the first time, candidates Dennis Hession and Al French were both elected to the council in 2002, to serve through 2005. If a sitting council member wins the president seat, a new council member will have to be appointed by the city council to replace that person.
The last time that happened was when Dean Lynch was appointed to fill in for Rob Higgins, who became the first elected council president. Higgins is term-limited out this time around, because he served one term as an ordinary council member and another term as city council president. No one can serve more than two terms on the city council.
Before we get into the campaigning and the issues, there's an interesting wrinkle to this race. On the same primary ballot is an initiative to repeal the strong mayor form of government. If that initiative passes, all the strong mayor candidates are done running for office, and whoever is elected for council president will serve as the new, weak mayor, under the city manager-council type of government.
The constitutionality of the initiative is currently being challenged in court. Conceivably, the initiative could be declared unconstitutional after the primary but before the primary election -- adding to the general confusion about what's going on at city hall these days.
Behring says she assumed that the initiative to repeal the strong mayor government would be on the ballot when she entered the race.
"I don't think it's confusing at all," she says. "Right now, I'm running for council president -- that's my focus. People should realize that this is the only citywide office there is on the council. I don't think it's hard to figure out. The sharing of information is the issue here, not understanding what's going to happen if the initiative passes."
French is not worried about the initiative going either way, since he's up for filling either position.
"There's a possibility that I can end up becoming weak mayor, but the way I look at it those two offices are not that different," he says. "The council president and the weak mayor serve many of the same functions, such as moving legislation through the process and managing and leading the city council meetings. The only thing that's different is the title."
The one thing he won't comment on is whether he supports the strong mayor form of government.
"I guess I've taken the position that I won't endorse either system," says French. "Both systems work when you have good leaders. Government doesn't make good leaders, but good leaders make good government."
Behring, on the other hand, is not shy about sharing her opinions on strong mayor.
"I do not prefer this form of government. I think it's more expensive, it's bigger and it adds an additional level of administration," she says. "And we are only beginning to see the true cost of this type of government. The council already does not have the staff it needs to function in this system, I'm certain the council will ask for more staff, a legal advisor and so on."
She disagrees with the claim that the strong mayor system is more efficient.
"There are all these questions. The council can make a decision and the mayor can veto it, and the other way around," says Behring, adding that as far as she knows, most cities operate on a city manager-type of government. "There are no data to support that more cities are changing over to the strong mayor system," she says. "What matters to me is getting the best type of government for Spokane, and I don't believe we are getting that with a strong mayor."
Hession has more of a wait-and-see approach.
"I support the importance of giving this form of government a chance to show that it's the best for Spokane," he says.
So how long would that take?
"I think it'll take cycling through a full city council that's been elected under the new system," says Hession. "Otherwise, you'll have factions, people who were elected under the old system and are still partial to that, trying to collaborate with people elected under the new system. This fall, after the election is over, all the council members will have been elected under the new system."
Who Are You? -- While Pam Behring is a newcomer to city hall politics, she has been very active in the community for years. Past president of the League of Women Voters (where she's still a member of the board), she's also a member of the Rockwood Neighborhood Council as well as a member and former facilitator for the Neighborhood Council Community Assembly. She lives in the Rockwood Neighborhood and works as an adjunct faculty member teaching anthropology at Gonzaga University.
She sees the position as council president as very similar to that of a facilitator.
"I can listen to the citizens on a broad base, gather all the information and get it to the council in a timely manner," Behring says. "I'd like to see us make decisions before there is a problem. For instance, with the proposed wastewater treatment plant, the county is already talking about putting a moratorium on development because they need this plant so badly. We don't have to let everything come to that crisis moment before we make a decision. We should act in a more timely manner."
Dennis Hession also lives on the south end of town. A local attorney, he was also active in local politics before he ran and was elected for the city council in 2002. He's currently on the city's mediation team for River Park Square. He served as a member (and later president) of the Park Board and as president of the March of Dimes, and he has been involved in many other civic organizations.
"I have a long track record showing certain leadership qualities and a balanced perspective," says Hession, adding that one of his best qualities on the council is his ability to stay above the fray. "I have a way of working with boards that assists them in making good decisions."
While he says he's "for people getting along," Hession doesn't think consensus always is something to strive for.
"The way I see it, the city council should be a vehicle for getting input from the citizens and then making a decision," he says. "There are too many difficult, high-visibility issues that strong-willed people are trying to deal with, to make consensus possible every time. But we should always listen to people. The city council should provide a good atmosphere where citizens are comfortable standing up and providing their input, and that's all about good leadership."
Al French is an architect who runs his own development and design business. He lives on the North Side, in the Nevada-Lidgerwood neighborhood. A longtime neighborhood activist involved on the ground level of the formation of the neighborhood councils and in several other community development initiatives, French was elected to the city council in 2002.
"I think it's an evolution that got me to where I am at today," says French about his decision to run for council president. "I think because I've been on the council for awhile, I understand the challenges and opportunities we have."
But voters shouldn't label him an insider, he says, just because he's served on the council.
"I don't think of myself like that, I'm still working with the community, still fighting the dragon on a lot of issues," says French. "My leadership style is more that of a consensus-builder, and I have a track record there that I'm proud of."
Jobs, Jobs, Jobs -- All three candidates have economic development as one of their top priorities -- and there are only slight differences in the way they want to approach that issue.
"We need to look at how to develop and grow businesses here," says Behring. "We need to inventory our assets and find out who we can recruit. We should ask businesses who located in other areas why they do so."
She'd like to see a reconsideration of creating a port district (which can collect a tax and use it toward economic development).
"We need to have that discussion as a community," says Behring. "Last time it came up, it took such a beating. I'm not sure that can be overcome."
French says job creation is his No. 1 issue.
"I have already created or brought 2,000 jobs to this community in connection with my own business and projects. I don't think any of the other candidates have that experience," he says. "I work throughout the Northwest and in Canada, and I can see what other communities do to create vibrancy."
He says the city council needs to revamp its regulatory process to make it easier for businesses to come here.
"We are burdensome with regulations -- we have some from 1953 that are still on the books. In my district, there is $10 million in construction that should have been completed last year but did not, because of regulations," says French. "People and businesses are coming to the area, to Liberty Lake and North Idaho, [but] they are just not coming to the city. Why? Because we're not business-friendly."
Hession says Spokane still has to figure out its niche -- be it medical science, biotechnology, recreation or high tech -- then develop that area.
"A port district could be considered. It is a source of money, and we have little control over the state laws," he says. State law prohibits tax incentives and gifting of property to companies -- two incentives often used very successfully in Idaho. "We should also try to capitalize more on our assets, like the airport. It's central, it's already there, it could be used in a better way for economic development."
One Spokane -- One of the undertakings the city, and especially Mayor John Powers, has been criticized for is One Spokane -- a large initiative that aims to address poverty in Spokane.
All three candidates in this race agree that poverty is a big issue, but they vary a bit in their assessment of One Spokane.
"I think Ray Lancaster, who is now appointed to lead One Spokane, has a very favorable position with the homeless and the other activist groups. He should be allowed some time to get some work done," says Behring. "If One Spokane can facilitate the factions of the community and help them come together, and from that group develop a plan to help solve the poverty problem, then I think it's a good idea. We need to work in a cooperative way."
French is not as enthusiastic. "I was optimistic when it started but disappointed in the outcome," he says. "The question is whether this is the mayor's initiative or the community's initiative. If it is the community's, then it will survive the test of time. But I don't know which way it's going to go."
Hession says One Spokane perhaps has made it possible for social activists to testify more comfortably in front of the city council.
"We saw that when we had the debate about the homeless ordinance recently. There were a lot of people at City Hall that night, but who knows if that can be attributed to One Spokane?" he says. "I don't think anyone will dispute that we have an unacceptable poverty level in Spokane, but I don't think you can say, yet, that One Spokane has been successful. This problem does not lend itself to simple solutions."
Splitting Hairs -- Ultimately voters have to pick from a small, qualified and fairly homogenous field on Sept. 16. It's difficult to drag out the contrasts among candidates who all say they want the best for Spokane, that they want the city council to work together in a more civil and productive manner.
Behring says she's not afraid to make tough fiscal decisions.
"I'd like for the public to understand that there is an intimate relationship between services and taxes," she says. "Roads, transportation, parks, everything -- that's what government takes care of. Government is a service-provider, but it's the community which decides what it wants to pay for. There are some tough fiscal decisions ahead of us, and I'm not afraid to make them. And you'll always know where I stand. Me being opposed to the strong mayor office and not afraid to say that is a good example of that."
French brings a business owner's perspective to the table.
"The city council as such does not create jobs unless we start hiring a lot of people -- and we don't want to go there," he says with a chuckle. "But the council does create the environment that allows people to prosper. We need to do that a lot better than we do today. I can help accomplish that, and I'm also the only one who has offered a full-time commitment to this position. Though the council member job is only half-time, I'm spending at least 40 hours on it every week. Spending a full-time commitment on this position will allow me to work better with the mayor's office as well."
Hession has great faith in Spokane's future.
"We are at an important turning point in our history. Good things will happen for the economy around here -- I'm absolutely certain about that," he says. "About the relationship between the mayor and the council which is so often criticized, we need to get back to the respect those positions deserve. It truly is a two-branch form of government, and we are supposed to work together. We need strong leadership from someone who's kind of unflappable -- and I think that's me."