by Robert Herold & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & hat Roger Flint is in violation of the city ethics code seems not in dispute. More to the point, rumor has it that our city attorney corps has determined that violation is moot because Mr. Flint's contract didn't specify the ethics code. (Flint recently took a job with a firm that does business with the city.) On further application of this logic we find that no sitting department head in the city is bound by the ethics code, either. The Spokesman-Review, in attempting to better grasp this seemingly odd reasoning, sought to obtain written opinions prepared by our city's legal staff. No can do, responded Mayor Dennis Hession. He cited "attorney-client" privilege. Besides, he added, their opinion is still in draft form.
So let me get this straight: Mayor Hession cites as authority his attorney's opinions, which we aren't allowed to see because he is their client. But even if he agrees to let us in on the written record, we wouldn't know any more than we did when we started because there wasn't a written record at the time the decision was made.
Stuff that in your freedom-of-the-press dumpster.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & his isn't the first time that Mayor Hession has tied himself to the stake and lit the match. Almost three months ago, in trying to get to the bottom of the street bond issue, I submitted a public disclosure request. First, the city begged for more time -- they needed at least a month. Then they asked for even more time, at which point I objected and even threatened to call an attorney. Presto! Only about three days later, I received word that -- no doubt working night and day -- staffers had rounded up all the documents. Since Mayor Hession had referred all civic criticism stemming from the street bond issue to his legal staff, I just sort of expected to find a written argument in there supporting his assertions.
Upon examination I found ... exactly nothing.
There was no trace explaining why they made the decisions they did. There was nothing in the record, neither from the engineers nor the mayor's lawyers, to support the idea that the paving project was a "maintenance"-only project. Actually, the ballot item we voted on and the City Council ordinance adopted uses the words "repairs and improvements." The ordinance goes even further by specifying that the project is inclusive of "but not limited to" repairs and maintenance. The maintenance mythology leads to the "curb-to-curb" mythology, which has been construed to mean that projects paid for by the street bond don't have to follow the city's comprehensive plan. Leaving trees is akin to adding "amenities," as traffic engineers have said, and they can't do that. (And, no, you won't find the words "curb-to-curb" or "amenities" in those documents, either.)
It's all made up by traffic engineers and our legal staff to justify wrong-headed public policy -- and then they won't talk about why they support what they support because of attorney-client privilege.
After further complaints shook loose more documents (I've been through 10 -- or is it 11? -- cartons of the stuff of public policy-making in Spokane), I still have no answers. I just kind of assumed that since Mayor Hession says he is bound by advice provided by his legal staff, somewhere in all these boxes I would find a stack of written opinions on the matter. But as did the Spokesman-Review in the Flint matter, I came up empty-handed. I did request that my contact in the City Attorney's Office personally certify that I had been given everything they had. Not wanting to sign on the dotted line, he forwarded my request to the City Clerk, who told me that she couldn't certify anything of the sort. So they take no responsibility, nor do they admit to anything, and they certainly don't want to be held to a written finding.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & 've been around public agencies for more than 40 years, and I've never seen anything like this dodge. With all this secrecy, it's as if the mayor and his people think they are doing private land deals or sitting in on jail-cell confessions. But we're talking here about public policy, for crying out loud.
That policy should be supported by rational argument really isn't a new concept, except, it seems, on the Fifth Floor of City Hall. Consider: The state supports an entire office of Assistant Attorneys General right down there at the Foley Federal Building. And while they no doubt do provide informal advice, they also write opinions -- even findings -- that enter the public record.
This is what we commonly call the practice of government.
At the federal level, even in perhaps the most secretive administration in U.S. history, Attorney General Albert Gonzalez eventually had to come clean on the advice he gave to President Bush regarding torture -- advice he gave when he was serving as special counsel to the president. He wrote an entire memorandum arguing that torture was OK.
If the mayor wants to hide behind his lawyers, while not exemplary of strong leadership, he can do just that. But at the same time, his lawyers must provide written opinions on the matters. Better yet, Mayor Hession could publicly ignore his legal staff and make the case himself, from the bully pulpit, thereby redirecting the concerns of the press back on himself.
Instead, alas, he seems to have chosen a third option. Here it is, with apologies to Harry Truman:
The buck stops here ... no, there ... or maybe there. But I can't talk about any of this. So see my lawyers. But they can't talk either.
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