Commentary by Robert Herold

The changeover of the Spokesman-Review leadership came in the wake of an internal effort to "restore public confidence." Because of acknowledged bias in its coverage of the River Park Square fiasco, the Review's probity had been challenged. The changeover, however, provided some hope that our only daily newspaper might finally reconcile independent journalism with its ownership's broader interests. So why do they insist on disappointing?

On May 18, the newspaper ran a short article about Betsy Cowles' deposition in the River Park Square parking garage litigation. Actually, the sketchy piece was largely buried in the Region section. Two weeks later, during the first week in June, the paper packaged the Mayor's poverty initiative as a mini-expos & eacute;. I refer to an unflattering article followed up by a snide column. The article appeared on the front page, above the fold. Mayor Powers, we learned, had spent much but gained little.

Now, class, what's wrong with this picture? The editors bury the most important deposition in the most divisive case to hit the city (maybe ever), but then they find the space necessary to run on the front page what amounts to a trivial expos & eacute;?

I happen to agree that the mayor's One Spokane Summit was a mess. It involved two meetings. I attended both: the y'all-come-get-together at Lewis and Clark High School and the invitation-only meeting the next day at Whitworth College. Attendees were subjected to a sound-and-light show emceed by a guy who might have passed for Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man. On Day Two, William McDonough, an "environmental architect" from the University of Virginia, delivered the only speech of any interest. (Well, not so much a speech as a slick promotion of his architectural firm.) In any case, what he had to say had little to do with poverty in Spokane. And we can assume he cared even less, as evidenced by the outrageous fee he charged (which doesn't let the mayor off the hook for having paid it) -- some $20,000 for two "appearances" plus $10,000 for some unnecessary art work, the very best lodging -- and then there was that limousine. Our poverty expert in a limo? What is this -- the Marie Antoinette School of Social Concern? For all this trouble and expense, Spokane now possesses one environmentally correct rooftop garden at City Hall, and has provided information about tax credits for the poor.

The S-R writer does acknowledge that until John Powers came along, no one even wanted to address the fact that Spokane is a poor city, which runs on a version of a plantation economy, which is not good. But had the Mayor done any analysis at all, he would have understood that our problems are more affected by actions taken in the halls of Congress, even the halls of our state house, than in Spokane. As former OMB Director Alice Rivlin pointed out recently, mayors, some of whom do succeed at becoming influential, possess limited powers. They don't control the income transfer programs. The large grant programs come from the national level. Critical tax codes are written in Olympia. Tax-cutting initiatives are proposed by Tim Eyman. Nor can mayors prevent damaging mergers and acquisitions in the private sector. They do deliver city services, but today face overwhelming budgetary constraints. Here is the reality that should have framed Powers' starting point.

Sure, it's decent material, expos & eacute;-wise, but it still only adds up to about $30,000 worth of outrage. And raising the issue certainly counts for something. But as we all know by now, the River Park Square mess is counted in the tens of millions of dollars.

Placed as it was on the front page, the poverty article serves to rekindle long-held suspicions: Powers won't give in on the legal front, so his actions are getting special scrutiny. Well, how about scrutinizing Cowles' deposition? It makes for interesting reading, and I've got bad news for the developers: If they believe disinterested observers would be persuaded to their cause by Cowles' testimony, they delude themselves. To wit:

1. The family decided early on to cap its investment at $15 million, thus making the partnership necessary. (In the end, Cowles admitted, they spent more.)

2. The City reasonably assumed that the financial structure built a firewall between the project and the city's liability. Moreover, given the lofty revenue projections, the City had no reason for concern over the parking meter revenue.

3. The validation fiasco made all these projections moot.

4. Cowles can't explain the garage price. After all, as Gary Ceriani, the bondholders' attorney, noted, if she really believed the Walker analysis, as she claims she does, she would have asked for $40 million, not the $29 million she got.

5. So who came up with the number? Ceriani reveals that Cowles' "team" was making mention of that figure ($29 million, give or take) way back before the appraisals had even been completed. Cowles offered no explanation.

6. All of which leads to the best guess that the garage price represented the difference between what the developers needed for the project minus what they were willing to invest -- nothing more, nothing less.

But perhaps most revealing of all, Cowles acknowledged to Ceriani that her side made every effort to negotiate as high a price for the garage as possible. She never explains how it was that making budgetary life more difficult for the city had anything at all to do with "saving downtown."

Now, if the Spokesman-Review really wants to gain back its credibility, that's the story that goes on the front page.

Publication date: 06/12/03

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Robert Herold

Robert Herold is a retired professor of public administration and political science at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University. Robert Herold's collection of Inlander columns dating back to 1995, Robert's Rules, is available at Auntie's.