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Too Strong? 

by William Stimson
Through the 1990s, various local civic groups brought in experts to advise Spokane on how a community achieves success and prosperity. Daniel Kemmis, David Chrislip, Neal Peirce -- all nationally recognized authorities on what makes communities work -- came to give their advice.


They all had pretty much the same message. What works, the experts said, is collaborative leadership, meaning community initiatives do not go ahead until a very broad range of leaders are satisfied it is the right thing to do. The other key to local harmony is "bottom-up" or grassroots leadership.


The experts don't offer this as a democratic ideal but rather as a very practical matter. American local government has evolved in such a way that any one of many groups -- business, taxpayers, neighborhoods, environmentalists, bureaucrats -- can veto anyone's idea of progress. Initiatives that do not have strong support up front are likely to be derailed before they become law.


But all that advice was for naught. By the end of the 1990s, Spokane had turned into a bad example for the experts to show other cities. When River Park Square financial predictions turned out to be catastrophically wrong, many in business and government could say, "I warned them, but they wouldn't listen." There was no effective collaboration.


Even before the financial problems set in, the project suffered for its lack of grassroots support. In 1997, River Park Square's chief political supporter, Jack Geraghty, lost the mayoralty to the project's chief critic, John Talbott, ending any chance of a creative rescue before the issue descended into the courts.


In 1999, Spokane got a new chance to try a collaborative approach when voters dropped city manager government and adopted the "strong mayor" form. After two years' experience with the new charter, however, things in City Hall are proving to be anything but collaborative. A solid majority of the City Council feels that Mayor John Powers has tried to exclude them from policy-making. That majority is taking countermeasures that are about to hardwire city government with an adversarial process, the opposite of what the civic experts advised.


The present discord cannot be blamed on the old downtown-vs.-North Side divide. But it may be to some extent a byproduct of those old squabbles. The River Park Square crisis that caused the changeover in Spokane's form of government appears also to have formed John Powers' view that the entire citizenry of Spokane must be represented by a single strong voice.


This became the theme of Powers' campaign for office. He announced the campaign standing alone and outside City Hall. If elected, he said, he would be the first mayor who could speak for the whole community. Once elected, Mayor Powers dropped the customary "the City of Spokane" in favor of "this administration." He encouraged many city hall managers to leave and replaced them with what he often refers to as "my team." Powers clearly sees the newly created office as a unifying voice in the community.


"My sense," Powers says, "is the city organization was comprised of a lot of individual departments, individual programs, individual enterprises, that did their thing and focused on only their thing, and in many respects, even competed within the overall organization. What we're trying to do is bring that into more of a collaborative approach where there's one organization and it's for the good of the community that everyone needs to make contributions."


The complaint made by members of the city council is that the mayor appears to regard them as one of the "individual enterprises" that needs to be disciplined and brought into his unified scheme for Spokane.


"Undoubtedly the most important experience in John Powers' background is his coaching experience," says Councilman Al French. "He's used to calling the plays. But we're not his team."


French, an early and enthusiastic supporter of Powers' candidacy for mayor, looked forward to working with Powers and arranged weekly meetings with the mayor after he joined the council. "My meetings with the mayor every Tuesday were the mayor telling me what was important to the mayor, not the mayor listening to what was important to me or to my district."


It's a common complaint. You would tell the mayor your opinion, says Councilwoman Roberta Greene, "and leave feeling it didn't make any difference at all."


Councilman Steve Corker, who will run for mayor against Powers this fall, says that early on he asked the mayor to appoint him as the city's representative on the board of a charity. Powers let him know, according to Corker, that was not likely to happen because, he said, "I like people who are on my team."


Greene, the veteran of seven years' work on the council with three different mayors, says: "John came in with that kind of view: 'Either you're for me or you're against me.' He says that, 'Either you're on the team or not.' We're not interested in that at all. We're interested in being a source of advice and information. I'm going to tell you what I think. If that's different from where you are, it doesn't mean I'm disloyal. It just means I have a different view."





Failure to Communicate -- The official contact between the mayor and the council is Rob Higgins, president of the City Council. Higgins has genuine sympathy for the mayor. Powers, says Higgins, took on an extremely difficult job, having to establish a new form of government, deal with River Park Square litigation and contend with a council full of people who had either backed a different form of government or a different candidate for mayor.


Asked about complaints of the other members, Higgins says: "I really don't want to come off as another council member attacking the mayor and his staff. We have enough problems, and I don't need to be one of them." His more-or-less official comment is: "John inherited a difficult situation, and his lack of political experience has not served him well. It is a learning process, and in a second term he should do much better."


But then Higgins admits that he, too, has been perplexed by Powers' apparent lack of interest in working with the council. On the all-important negotiations on River Park Square, for example, the council is almost completely excluded. On the other hand, Higgins says, the mayor is "nowhere to be found" when the council is wrestling with major city policy involving hundreds of millions of dollars. "I look around and wonder, 'Where's John? Where's the mayor?' I suppose he gets information through his staff. But I don't know."


As president of the council, Higgins is the logical clearinghouse for information between the two branches. But Higgins says they almost never talk nuts-and-bolts policy. "I've often wondered," Higgins says, "who John gets his political advice from, because he doesn't take it from me."


The breakdown in communications with the mayor has left council members to fend for themselves. They have no staff of their own and are not allowed to contact city hall's experts directly. A year ago, when some members requested information from the city's budgeting office, Powers sent them a sharply worded memo: "Management of the City Budget is my responsibility with the bottom line being -- it is my job to run this city.


"I am requesting," the memo continued, "that the concurrence of four members of the Council be required for my office or any City staff under my direction to research, draft, investigate or review any matter for the Council." If taken literally, that would mean the council would need a majority resolution to ask a question about how the city was operating.


It was never taken literally. With a few exceptions, council members say they have been able to get budgeting information by going through the mayor's office, as requested. Yet the commanding voice rankled. The mayor's strongest supporter on the council, his long-time friend Dennis Hession, points out that the mayor's request can be defended as a simple matter of good management. Departments can't be responding to eight different bosses. But Hession admits the memo's tone was wrong. "That, to me, was a mistake," he says.





Finger-Shaking -- A week after that memo circulated, another widely publicized incident illustrated how awkward working relationships were between the mayor and council members.


On May 16 a year ago, Councilwoman Cherie Rodgers was standing in the public reception area of the council offices being interviewed by KREM-TV reporter Kevin Oliver. Susan Brudnicki, head of Neighborhood Services and Powers' former campaign manager, saw this interview taking place and went down to the fifth floor to report it to city administrator Jack Lynch. Lynch took the elevator to the sixth floor and walked up to councilwoman and reporter. There ensued a heated conversation in which Lynch accused Rodgers of attacking Mayor Powers. Lynch, according to an official investigation, became flushed during the conversation and shook his finger at Rodgers.


Rodgers filed a complaint against Lynch, saying he had harassed her. The city's personnel director brought in Victoria Loveland, a personnel specialist at Gonzaga University, to conduct an independent investigation. Loveland found that "Mr. Lynch's conduct did not rise to the level of harassment in violation of the City of Spokane Personnel Policy." However, Lynch's behavior "can be characterized as 'exaggerated criticism' of Ms. Rodgers in the presence of city staff members and is therefore unprofessional behavior."


The real significance of the incident was what it said about the political relationships in City Hall. What would cause Brudnicki, a senior member of the mayor's staff, to think that she should report to her superior that a member of the city council is giving a media interview? What would cause a member of the mayor's staff, Lynch, to decide that it was necessary for him to intervene when a member of the council is talking to the press? It was at the very least a breach of long-established democratic etiquette for an appointee to shake his finger at an elected official; U.S. Secretaries of State, for example, may resent criticism from members of Congress, but they are not permitted to shake fingers and shout at them.


Mayor Powers dismissed the incident as an unfortunate clash between two individuals. He did not see it as a political problem. "There's an apology on record from Jack Lynch to Ms. Rodgers," he says.


Lynch's letter of apology began: "Dear Ms. Rodgers: Despite being exonerated by an independent investigation that concluded I did not threaten, intimidate or harass you in violation of any City of Spokane policy, I nonetheless hereby provide to you this written apology for your perception that I acted in an unprofessional manner."


Needless to say, this apology did not mend any fences. Rodgers has completely given up on Powers. "When I need information, I get it from the City Clerk's office, like any other citizen," she says.


Once a supporter of the strong mayor system, this spring Rodgers announced she was joining forces with those seeking to revert to the city manager system.


There are only seven council members, and writing one of them off so irreconcilably is bound to complicate Powers' stated aim of uniting the city. Worse, Rodgers is an influential North Side representative, and the North Side has long been the missing link in the city's efforts to unify.


Powers later alienated a second of the three influential North Side representatives, Al French, when he made changes in the city's neighborhood program. The neighborhood program was one of the things French had planned to talk about in those short-lived Tuesday meetings with the mayor. French is a bona fide authority on neighborhoods, having been one of the originators of Spokane's program and president of the Nevada-Lidgerwood neighborhood from 1996 until he ran for council on 2001.


French complains that when Powers appointed his campaign aide, Brudnicki, to head the neighborhood council, the organization became a "top-down" tool used to communicate City Hall's desires to citizens rather than a "bottom-up" organization intended to do just the opposite. French says the neighborhood organization grew from three councils in 1996 to 25 in 2001. But since then, it has been stagnant, possibly even losing members. "Why did it meet this dead space?" French asks. "What happened? I think it's a lack of understanding of the real value of that tool."





Dueling Branches -- A solid majority on the council (French, Rodgers, Greene, Corker and Eugster) has come to believe it is inevitable that Spokane's new city government will follow an adversarial track. They are gearing up to duel with the office of the mayor. The council plans to write into the next budget the cost of policy advisors for producing their own studies of issues. They will require that at least one lawyer in the city attorney's office be assigned to give the council advice that is totally independent of the mayor. In the budget just passed, the council took the mayor's requests and altered them as it saw fit. For example, the council decided on its own to give the city community policing program additional resources. The police chief himself testified, as part of the mayor's budget presentation, that he did not need this money. The council, believing the chief was reciting administration policy and not his true needs, decided to allocate an additional $500,000 to the police department, while cutting the mayor's request of $100,000 for his signature "One Spokane" program to $20,000.


"He's going to get a lot more challenges," says French, who is running against Dennis Hession for the position of council president. (Higgins is barred by term limits from running again.)


French says that when he joined the council he had expected to play a more collaborative role in working with the mayor. "He should come to the council and say, 'Here's where I want to go, here's how I want to get there. Can we get there together?' But that type of approach I don't see happening between the mayor and council.


"I'd like to be able to think," French continues, "that there are ways of being able to deal with that without having to create volumes of ordinances and resolutions to try and enforce a relationship that should happen naturally. But maybe that's what we have to do."


The one council member who has no criticisms of how Powers has conducted the office of mayor is the author of Spokane's charter. Steve Eugster disagrees with the mayor often and they argue in a way that "only another lawyer would understand." But that, Eugster says, is as it should be. Powers is "just being a strong mayor," Eugster says. He believes the rest of the council is frustrated only because it hasn't been willing to use the strengths of its own branch, including the power of the purse. The council has all the tools it needs to joust with the strong mayor. Council member complaints are "a reflection of their own inability to legislate."


Eugster says other members' attacks on Powers are mostly cheap shots. Keeping information away from them? "I can't count all the times I've asked for information, and I got it that day," Eugster says. "By the way, the council members never had that ability in the past." Does the mayor demand loyalty in return for cooperation? "What else is new? Don't these people understand politics?" Is Powers remote from the council's business? "That's bullshit. John Powers is there when you need him."


Eugster points out that there's nothing in the charter that says the mayor has to cooperate with the council. "I think he's naive," Eugster adds parenthetically, "because if [Powers] spent more time hashing out policy, he would be pleasantly surprised." But how the mayor chooses to conduct his office is not the council's concern. The council needs to act to bring about what it wants.





Staying Focused -- Mayor Powers himself answers reports of council complaints against him by saying, "We've taken steps of late to have more direct involvement of the council in selection of senior employees."


For the most part, though, he feels complaints are the product of council members "struggling to let go of the past," their prerogatives under the old city manager system.


"I don't want city government at any level, my office or the council's office, mired down in petty, irrelevant personality issues. That is not good government. That is not what I'm about. If someone wants to play that game, they can go play it by themselves.


"We've got to be up here," the mayor continues, "the big picture for the community." The big picture includes such initiatives of his administration as civil service reform, a coordinated agenda before the state legislature, a new comprehensive zoning plan, a proposal to limit expenditures on city election campaigns and changes in utilities charges that were hampering new house construction. "Anybody who can read a balance sheet, anyone who knows a financial statement, knows that this city is in better financial health today than it was in January of 2001," when he took office, Powers said.


"What is the city government doing? Is it providing for the public health and safety and welfare? Are we delivering core services in an economically effective and valued way? Is the city at the table of economic development bringing the type of jobs to the community that we need? Is the city doing anything about the poverty levels that are way too high? When we focus on that, the rest of the stuff is absolutely irrelevant."


This, however, is just the opposite of what those outside experts advised Spokane a decade ago. They argued that in local politics, process is product: that is, once a substantial part of the community feels it is included, results follow almost automatically. On the other hand, even the grandest plan will founder if too many people are alienated along the way.


So the experts disagree. There have been fads in thinking about local government, and the "collaborative government" idea may turn out to be another one of them. Adversarial government works at the federal level, and it may be what we need to make things work here in Spokane.


If not, the argument between the council and Mayor Powers will be remembered as another round in Spokane's long-running political war with itself.





William Stimson is a professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University.





Publication date: 04/24/03
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