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Trouble in Tacoma 

by Robert Herold

The irony is unmistakable. At the exact time that those urging the return to the council-manager form of government here in Spokane are touting the superior "management" supposedly guaranteed by that system, Tacoma, the last remaining city of any size in the state that hasn't converted to the strong mayor form, is experiencing a managerial meltdown. First their police chief went berserk and killed his wife. Attention then focused on the city manager, who had allegedly failed both to hire the right man, and worse, to get rid of him when evidence pointed to chief's instability. Now, compounding this issue, we hear of corruption in the police department. Tacoma will vote on switching to strong mayor this fall.

In the meantime, Spokane, under its first strong mayor, is experiencing possibly the most forthright, well-organized, focused and effective government in the city's recent history. I know, I know -- council-manager ideologues will have great difficulty accepting this fact, but there it is. After all, the previous regimes didn't set the bar very high.

The accomplishments are numerous: A long-simmering mess of entrenchment in the city attorney's office has been cleaned up and replaced by something that looks and acts like a professional operation; the city has its very first professional financial officer; the city is now pursuing a coherent and rational legal strategy in the RPS garage case. And the city's bond rating has risen as the city's finances finally have received the attention they have needed for years -- and years and years. To bring this about, no doubt a few oxen needed to be gored. I refer to the union members who didn't get all -- stress the word "all" -- the raises they wanted. Goring oxen, especially entrenched ones, was never the strong suit of the council-manager regime. Indeed, not one of these long-festering problems had even gotten so much as a sniff from the previous system in all the years it had been in power.

But it doesn't follow that all council-manager governments make a managerial mess of things, any more than it follows that all strong mayor forms of government provide stellar management. Neither result is assured, but the point here is that the new system is paying dividends already. And as history has shown Spokane, and now Tacoma, the council-manager system was being overwhelmed by the kinds of complex, sometimes acrimonious, issues that real cities have no choice but to deal with.

We're also hearing all about how city managers are just so responsible to their city councils. But, to no surprise, proponents of the initiative can't explain how it is that the Spokane City Council fired exactly one manager (Pete Fortin, for political, not managerial reasons) between 1960 and 2000. Nor can they explain how it came to pass that in the last two years of the council-manager regime's existence, three managers came and went, but none was fired for managerial incompetence. All were dispatched for openly political reasons -- an action that, because the manager is supposed to be protected from politics, is just not supposed to happen in a council-manager system.

The truth is, any future manager in this city would face the fate of the last three managers (who served a total of less than three years), not the first four (who served 37-plus years). Put another way, since our city has become so politicized, an apolitical manager -- any apolitical manager (as they all are supposed to be) -- is likely to be politically dead on arrival.

I find it fascinating that initiative proponents, who want mayors to have zero authority, also make the truly absurd assertion that until recently the city actually had effective mayors. We are left to assume that proponents really do want figurehead mayors who dutifully take orders from the economic elite and work to put the resources of the city at their disposal, with few questions asked. Again with those good old days.

The truth is, no weak mayor under the council-manager system ever produced strong leadership, if by strong leadership we mean what is exemplified by the likes of strong mayors such as Kevin White of Boston (Quincy Market restoration), William Donald Shaefer of Baltimore (Inner Harbor development), Jerry Brown in Oakland (investment dollars from San Francisco) and Charles Royer of Seattle (the city's rejuvenation during the '70s and '80s). All these mayors ensured that the public interest was served, even when private involvement was critical to success. Today, Spokane needs real leaders, rather than merely figureheads. The city needs to retain its strong mayor form of government.

This mayoral election is critically important. Strong mayor elections must be about issues, not simple name recognition or blithe platitudes about economic development. Mayor Powers has a record, and it provides a foundation for the debate that needs to come. For the system to work in the long run, elections need to be about an agenda; tenures in office are then defined by those agendas; and, finally, the citizens can make

decisions based on real issues, not the usual election-year fluff.

So along with their own agendas, let's hear what candidates think about how the union raises were handled, the legal strategy for the garage and the new positions of chief financial officer, One Spokane coordinator and city economic development czar. Summer's over; let the campaign begin.

Comments? Send them to [email protected]

Publication date: 09/04/03
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