During debate over the City of Spokane's new budget, questions about the neighborhood councils have come up. The program was conceived to tap public opinion and funnel it into neighborhood-friendly public policy, but is it working? Who are the people serving on these councils, and what do they want? As every line item in the budget must come under scrutiny in the quest for streamlined government, the same litmus test must be applied: Are we getting a return on our public investment?
These relatively dispassionate questions are set against a backdrop of political struggle. Currently, the neighborhood councils are an extension of the Office of Neighborhood Services, which reports to the City Administrator, who resides in the Mayor's office. Some on the City Council, however, want the councils empowered even more, to become a kind of quasi-public policy advisory body. Further, those advocating such a change want to see the program fall under the council's responsibility, meaning there would be no need for the Office of Neighborhood Services. It's just another developing front in the war that is still taking shape between the mayor and the council over who is responsible for what under the strong mayor system.
The mayor and his staff argue that the councils were established by the executive branch to ensure a more efficient and accountable delivery of services. Members of the council argue that they were established to inform policy deliberations, and that therefore the neighborhood councils should report to them. Both perspectives miss the more important point by jumping ahead of a more basic question: Are the councils accomplishing what they were created to do?
The neighborhood councils were established back in the mid-1990s, at a time when neighborhoods across town had lost confidence in the responsiveness of the city-manager form of government. The reasons, both large and small, were many. Each neighborhood had its own list of grievances.
Take my own neighborhood, the lower South Hill. Was there anything that the hospitals wanted that they didn't get, from height variances to new skywalks to expedited environmental impact statement processes? Well, there wasn't.
Would the city manager's office ever get around to implementing our council-approved neighborhood specific plan? No chance. And if the neighborhood couldn't trust the city manager to implement the specific plan, then what was to protect the neighborhood's interest in the comp plan process?
Why wouldn't the police department do something to slow down traffic on our side streets? Neighbors felt like they were talking to a wall.
The parks' leadership brought in some "experts" whose idea of progress was to turn Manito into a theme park. Fortunately this presumptuous idea never became a reality, not because of city staff, the council or the mayor, but because of organized citizen reaction. We don't, however, have many groups so well organized as the Friends of Manito.
Accountability? Nowhere to be found.
Our mayors? With only weak authority, they would pass the buck.
Our council? Council members wallowed in the political vacuity of all at-large elections, best reflected in their preferred slogan: "I do what's best for Spokane."
Our city manager? He would wrap himself in "policy." End of story.
Not long after the neighborhood councils were adopted, the city embraced the strong mayor system and the election of our council members by district. That changed everything. But even before those events overtook the neighborhood council system, the concept was flawed in many ways. (In retrospect, it seems likely that early proponents of the neighborhood council process saw it as a political placebo -- a way to placate frustrated citizens to avoid the adoption of the election-by-district system.)
What about the question of legitimacy? Who says these councils are properly representative? In one of his first public meetings, then newly elected Mayor John Talbott raised just this question. At the time I thought his concern odd. After all, it was the frustrated neighborhoods that elected him. But in retrospect, I've come to realize that Talbott's concern was well-placed. He pointed to the elephant in the tent: Why should those few who were involved in neighborhood councils, well-meaning as they might be, presume to speak for the broader, uninvolved electorate? Couldn't special interest groups in a given neighborhood hijack the council to further their own goals?
Support for the neighborhood council idea waned during Talbott's four years in office. And today, except for the Community Development Block Grant neighborhoods, which do have money to pay for services here and there, neighborhood council meetings are typically poorly attended and left searching for leadership. So why should this problematic process be granted a direct conduit to the council? That was Talbott's question. It wasn't answered then, and it isn't being answered now.
Now, with council members who represent districts, the concern that neighborhoods have no voice should be moot -- depending on how effective and engaged your council members are. The debate should shift from who is in charge of the councils to whether we even need them.