by William Stimson
The man who led the campaign to change Spokane's government back in 1960 was amazed and even a little disconcerted at how easy it was to do. After the campaign, advertising executive Charles R. Devine wrote a private note to his cohorts in which he said, "What should give us who participated genuine cause for serious reflection is how relatively easy it is for a determined minority -- in this case a mere handful -- to bring about a change affecting the lives of nearly 200,000 persons for many years to come."
In his private note, Devine was off-handedly acknowledging something his campaign had gone to great pains to deny in public. The campaign of 1960 to bring in the city manager system -- publicly presented as a popular uprising of citizens -- in fact was conceived and directed by a handful of men, most of them neighbors living within a few blocks of each other along Rockwood Boulevard.
Since the designers of the campaign preferred to have it seen as a spontaneous citizen effort, they never defended their efforts publicly. If they had, they might have argued simply that someone had to do it.
By the 1950s, everyone seemed to agree that Spokane's city government needed updating. Even the five elected commissioners acknowledged that city operations should be improved and that hired consultants should look at them. But the commissioners carefully stipulated that the consultants could not recommend change to a different form of government.
The League of Women Voters had proposed changing to a city manager system, but got no response from the commissioners. In 1957 the Spokane Municipal League backed a "freeholder's election" to reconsider Spokane's government. The commissioners refused to let it get to a ballot.
The general citizenry showed their displeasure with local government a year later, when three of the five commissioners ran for re-election and all were defeated. In the spring of 1959, apparently unable to read the electorate, the commissioners passed a new tax that was so unpopular it was immediately rejected by a four-to-one vote in a referendum.
So by the fall of 1959, lots of people were saying that change was needed in City Hall. But no one could seem to do anything about it. That changed when William B. Hyde decided to get involved.
Hyde was secretary-treasurer of the Spokesman-Review. His power in Spokane went way beyond the sound of that title, though. Hyde's employer, William Cowles Jr., was a reticent man who managed the family's newspaper and deferred to others on civic initiatives. Hyde, however, was just the opposite. He was unapologetic in wielding the Cowles family influence and went about the city rewarding and threatening as he saw fit for the good of his company or for the good of the city. He was known as a person who put his money -- his bosses' money, at least -- where his mouth was.
In short, Hyde was known in Spokane as a man who could get things done. So when in some private conversations Hyde barked that someone really ought to do something about the terrible government in Spokane, his hearers quoted him to others. Devine and a neighbor, Ralph M. Rosenberry, had both heard Hyde's complaints about City Hall and, agreeing, decided on a meeting. The three men met at the Spokane Club and mapped out the campaign of 1960. They drew up a list of influential acquaintances and associates they would tap for money and help.
They asked former assistant corporation counsel Paul F. Schiffner to look into local government forms and draw up a new charter for Spokane. Nine days later, Schiffner showed them a draft charter for the then popular city manager form of government. The campaign of 1960 had begun.
Devine and others collected signatures, pressed wives into service, and hired crews of additional signature collectors until they had the 25,000 signatures necessary to place the item on the ballot. They picketed outside City Hall and packed the chambers so the commissioners would be forced to put it on the ballot.
The change of government passed on March 8, 1960, by a vote of 30,107 to 19,970.
The election to fill the newly created part-time offices was scheduled for May 10, 1960. Dozens of people filed for the seven positions.
Having brought a new form of government to the city, the Rockwood Boulevard group attempted to dictate that it be run by the right kind of people. They drew up a dream list of candidates and recruited them. It was a stellar group. It offered elder statesman Joseph Drumheller, the popular scion of a Spokane pioneer family, and brought into public service soon-to-be-familiar names like Howard Ball and Jerry Kopet.
To head the ticket, they decided upon Neal Fosseen. Fosseen was the perfect candidate: handsome, gregarious, successful, Boy Scout executive, University of Washington graduate, Gonzaga University Board of Regents member, ex-Marine. Like the others, he didn't just decide to run; he was recruited. Fosseen's boss, Old National Bank president Bill Witherspoon, showed up at his office one day accompanied by William Hyde and downtown property owner John Hieber. They prevailed upon him to run in the interest of civic good. The effort to control the city council, it turned out, operated almost like a political party.
Devine, the strategist in charge of getting the chosen candidates elected, figured that there were so many names on the ballot and so little time until the election that many citizens would vote on sheer name recognition. He called upon backers of the campaign to contribute thousands of dollars each to finance a campaign for "Fosseen and the Citizen Six." While most candidates raised and spent a few hundred dollars, the "Citizen Six" pooled their money and bought more than 50 billboards, tens of thousands of brochures and dozens of newspaper ads.
Fosseen and four of the Citizen Six won office, leaving the like-minded, business-dominated council with a five-to-two majority vote in Spokane's new government.
The media-heavy campaign -- something new to local politics in 1960 -- left some Spokanites convinced that "the South Hill" had purchased the right to run the city. In 1965, opponents of the new government, including anti-establishment populists and disgruntled city employee unions, almost succeed in throwing it out. The campaign was extremely acrimonious. A spokesman for the challengers to Fosseen's government said the issue was whether Spokane should have a government "owned and controlled by a few wealthy families, who now force their will upon us all from behind the facade of the city manager." The effort to replace the city manager form failed by only 727 votes out of more than 46,000 cast.
The election of 1960 produced a double-edged legacy for Spokane. There's little doubt that administration of the city improved with the arrival of a professional city manager and under the supervision of some of Spokane's best business minds. The city also finally found a direction in the form of the downtown improvement efforts that culminated in hosting a world's fair. Those who looked back at that record wondered: Exactly what was the harm the campaign was supposed to have done to Spokane?
On the other hand, the open secret that South Hill elites flexed financial and networking muscles to bring in a city government more to their liking deepened long-standing populist suspicions that a select few ruled the city.
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Publication date: 09/04/03