With her 60 percent showing in the recent primary election, Mary Verner is on her way to breaking the city’s mayoral reelection ban. How did she succeed where so many have failed? A relatively unknown opponent and a motivated base of supporters both helped, but mostly Verner seems to be the first to recognize that Spokane doesn’t really want too strong of a mayor.
Back in 1999, fed up with a lack of civic direction and buck-stops-here accountability, we voted to dump our city manager-led system — it just was not up to the task of enabling a dynamic city to rise. Instead, we voted in a strong mayor system, where leaders take positions, others disagree and we seek progress via politics. But we’ve never let it work. If a mayor goes out on a limb (pretty much the job description), we vote ’em out.
John Powers, our first strong mayor, once convened an antipoverty forum. Wow, a Spokane mayor shining a light on a huge local problem. You’d think he’d get some credit, but no — he had the temerity to hire a caterer who served chocolate-covered strawberries to guests who spoke at the forum. Columnist Doug Clark made a big joke of it; Powers was one and done.
Spokane wanted change, but we always pull back into the slow lane — where you won’t get in a wreck but where you won’t ever get anywhere either. Mary Verner hasn’t taken big public stands on much of anything, and we seem to love that about her. Maybe she really does want to bring people together, and maybe she really isn’t interested in taking any credit. Those are good things. Or maybe she saw what happened to Powers and figured out Spokane’s cardinal rule: If you never put your fingerprints on anything, you can’t be blamed.
Verner deserves credit for navigating a tricky run of city budgets, but it took her nearly four years to take an independent stand on the biggest moral question of her tenure, the Otto Zehm case. Even then, her call to resolve the civil case was delivered vaguely via email (her communication method of choice for the media lately), with no sign of action emerging since. And with news that the Feds had called asking for a meeting about their separate case related to the Zehm death, the silent treatment prevents us all from knowing if she was aware of these overtures, simply ignored them or is completely out of the loop. The buck stops where in City Hall, exactly?
But this isn’t all about Verner; it’s about us Spokane voters, too. I’m happy we’ve gotten to the point where we trust a mayor enough to give her a second term. I’m also confused: More than a decade into our quest for better leadership, is it true that what we really want is another city manager?
Ted S. McGregor Jr. is the Editor and Publisher of The Inlander.