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Semantics of the deal 

by Robert Herold


River Park Square parking garage critics, most specifically the "new minority" on the City Council, continue to muddy the issue by failing to draw necessary distinctions. They begin with a lament unfortunately wrapped in more than a small amount of demagoguery. It was morally wrong for the city to do what it did, they charge, because Spokane should not be providing a subsidy to the wealthiest family in the city. How many times have we heard the debate begin with this charge?


And right here is where I get off the boat. I say that it matters not a whit if this or any other form of subsidy goes to the wealthiest family in the city -- or to the second-wealthiest for that matter. I mean, would it make things better if the family getting the subsidy was number 76?


What matters is the subsidy itself. Should the city government be subsidizing the private sector under the guise of public-private partnerships? Our situation isn't all that unusual. When all the rhetorical chaff is peeled away, we face this fundamental question. And really, it's easy to answer. Government at all levels in America is granted a wide degree of discretion when it comes to fashioning public policy in pursuit of the public interest, up to and including the granting of subsidies. And who is responsible for determining what's in the public's interest? Our elected officials, that's who. Not judges. Not even citizens.


As a matter of historical record, here in the good old U.S. of A., our governments at all levels have been subsidizing the private sector -- including some of our wealthiest families -- since shortly after Alexander Hamiliton wrote more than 200 years ago that it was a good thing to do.


Don't get me wrong, I'm not a big fan of so-called public-private partnerships. I, too, realize that the public usually gets the short end of the proverbial stick (and no doubt will in the future -- see George W. Bush's approach to energy development if you really want to talk about giveaways). But with that said, whoever thinks that our City Council created the concept had better check their planetary address.


One might go so far as to say that the land of the free and home of the deal runs on public-private partnerships. Railroad development in the 19th century was a public-private partnership -- what else would you call granting of rights of way and payment for miles of track laid? Dam construction is another one -- the BPA is paying back on the lower Snake River dams at interest rates that you and I could never get. Then there are all those roads that the nation's largest road-building outfit builds for private enterprise free of charge -- also known as logging roads built by the Forest Service.


Public-private partnerships all.


Our little project is small potatoes.


Some would call this corruption, and it might well be. But for better or worse, it's the American way of political life, and to expect the Spokane City Council, facing as it did the prospect of continued deterioration downtown, to somehow set aside our prevailing culture is to expect too much.


The Council's great failure was that when the risky numbers were first reported, they neither used that as fodder for negotiating a better deal nor did they simply address in a straightforward manner the need for subsidization in this case. Instead, the Council wrapped itself in boosterism and rolled over. It did as it was instructed.


So we come to the matter of the "deal." We shouldn't use the word. At all. Never again, for what we are supposed to have here is a "partnership."


Look up the word in the Oxford English Dictionary. It instructs us that partnership involves the "sharing with another or others in some activity, especially in a business firm where he shares risks and profits."


We should not be all that surprised that what began as a partnership ends as a deal. Whenever the term "public-private partnership" has been invoked, we head down a slippery slope, for contained within the use of that term is a euphemism that serves to justify governments taking action that would otherwise be deemed illegitimate.


"A deal," as some have put it, "is a deal." But notwithstanding the legal merits of such a statement, we cannot negotiate our way out of the problem unless we recognize, once and for all, that both sides must work as the partners they said they were when they were searching for a hatrack of legitimacy upon which to hang this project.


What's so interesting about our little problem is that, for a variety of reasons and even mini-tragedies, we find ourselves in a situation that the railroad barons, irrigators, loggers, barge operators and the like have managed to avoid. In order to resolve our problem, we face the need to transform the term from what it is -- a slogan -- into what it needs to become -- a reality.


All of which brings us to the role of the mayor. While it may be a stretch to conclude, as has Betsy Cowles, that John Powers is now fully responsible for what happens, it certainly follows from the actions taken that he came out of the PDA issue with everything he could have wanted. That was, of course, until his hope that the city's bond rating would not be damaged as a result of his veto last week was dashed. Both sides share responsibility for the city's credit plunge, as the rating agency seemed to indicate in its opinion, which stated that the reason for the demerit was due to the parties' inability to solve the problem outside of litigation.


But politically speaking, Powers persuaded the council to take the issue of the PDA's continued existence off the ballot. Then, because of Dean Lynch's courageous vote -- assuming Powers can hold together this fragile four-vote majority -- he now can deliver the city to the deal, should acceptable terms materialize.


Now is the time for specifics. The mayor -- and the developer for that matter -- should more specifically (and publicly) lay out terms that they would find acceptable. Vague references to mediation will likely not work, if for no other reason than the mayor also faces the task of convincing a skeptical public.


We are left with two options. Either we figure out how to transform our euphemism from a slogan into a true partnership, or we go to court. The former, preferred option requires that the partners work to reconcile their conflicting rules of engagement to address the question of what sharing risks and benefits really means.


A court settlement will scar this town for decades to come (while providing a small army of attorneys with a windfall). We need a fair and equitable negotiated settlement. To succeed, the parties must rise to a level of political and civic leadership, both public and private, that we have yet to see reached from any quarter.


The textbooks term it "statesmanship."

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