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When All Else Fails... 

by Robert Herold

For the sake of discussion, let's admit that a strong argument can be made to build the convention center at the west end of Riverfront Park: To begin with, the city would save the cost of land acquisition -- a sizable sum -- while at the same time providing more business for the beleaguered parking garage.

But to choose this option requires that all parties (the city of Spokane, the city of Spokane Valley, the county and the Public Facilities District) first agree to a major conceptual change from what has defined all the deliberations to date -- that the convention center will not be sited on parkland and that it be contiguous with both the Opera House and Ag Trade Center.

It then follows that such a radical reconsideration of the project must begin with a debate over the change in concept, not with the project itself. But instead of entering the river of deliberation here, councilmen Steve Eugster and Steve Corker, at the proverbial eleventh hour in the site-selection process, dropped this very proposal on their colleagues.

Perhaps we need to rethink and debate the original concept. But by jumping ahead of the previously agreed-upon plans -- ignoring the work of the governmental agency in charge, the PFD -- doesn't speak well of the political process in Spokane.

Doings such as this down at City Hall put me in mind of a line attributed to Lyndon Johnson: "Do you want a bill, or do you want an issue?" Johnson, of course, used the line as a rhetorical device -- pointing out that some legislators use the process to create blunt instruments to pound their opponents rather than to hammer out actual policy. LBJ was pointing out that governing should be about bills, not issues. Obviously, LBJ never did any politicking in Spokane, where pettiness and narrow political advantage constitute the preferred M.O.

The fight over CCX is only one illustration. Thus far, however, those charged with making government work seem able to do little more than point fingers. Last week, this newspaper ran an article about the difficult ongoing relationship between Mayor John Powers and the council. Rob Higgins, council president, complained that the mayor is not available at times when he is needed. True, we need our strong mayor to be strong. He needs to stake out positions on everything of public consequence, including the convention center (and just being "for" it isn't enough). Taking a position is where political leadership begins.

But what about Higgins? The position he holds requires him to do more than preside and kibitz. By this time, he also should have formulated positions on all public matters. Ideally, he and the mayor work closely and iron out disagreements. So why aren't they having breakfast together maybe three times a week?

As for the council members, they confuse bickering for governing. The public only needs some evidence that beneath all the posturing there exists a modicum of competence -- that way, we could produce bills instead of issues. But we see little evidence to support this conclusion.

As I mentioned, illustrations abound. Consider the unnecessary delay in the hiring of the city's new chief financial officer. The mayor, for good reasons, reclassified the budget position to one that required much higher qualifications and experience than what the city had stumbled along with throughout the somnambulant council-manager days, where inertia served as a kind of organizational raison d'etre.

The city ran a search and included a variety of people on the search committee, including Higgins representing the council. The committee's first choice dropped out, while the second candidate, Gavin Cooley, a respected local accountant who has been involved in a range of community activities, remained a candidate. The mayor decided to nominate Cooley (who was finally hired this week). Now one would think, given Cooley's high marks coming out of the search, given his experience and given that he has the mayor's confidence, the council would support the nomination. Not so fast, said Al French, who wants to become our next council president. French demanded further investigation. Moreover, apparently some of the council members were bent out of shape because they felt that they weren't included, even though they were represented on the search committee and Cooley had met with most of them in person. Cherie Rodgers, in the end, voted against the nomination, accusing the mayor of having no vision. As has become so typical, she failed to offer any evidence that she had one herself.

Come on, folks, barring a smoking gun -- such as news that Cooley wasn't really an accountant at all, but, say, a former dogcatcher from Portland --the mayor's nomination should be have sailed through. The mayor followed the process, and this is hardly a position that should be politicized.

The public expects that our elected leadership try governing. Is that too much to ask? Don't these folks realize that by acting foolish or petty, they diminish not just themselves individually but the institutions they represent?

Some suggestions:

To John Powers: "Strong" strong mayors don't disappear; they make their cases and rally their supporters -- every day of the week.

To Rob Higgins: Effective council presidents do more than preside and complain. They even fill political vacuums, if mayors aren't around.

To Steve Corker: Would-be mayors don't mess up the deliberative process by dropping radical proposals on the table at the eleventh hour.

To Al French: Responsible prospective council presidents understand that the legislative arm of government should concentrate on policy, not micro-management.

Comments? Send them to [email protected]

Publication date: 05/01/03

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