The Spokane City Council has had a reputation for not getting along for quite some time. Even though many argue that getting along is not necessarily the main goal of politics, there generally comes a point where people have had enough. Spokane may be about to reach that point.
Since Councilman Rob Higgins was elected as the council president in November, the council has been faced with the relatively straightforward task of appointing someone to serve in his place -- a seat that expires in November.
More than 60 people -- of which 12 made it on the final candidate list -- applied for the position, and many anticipated the council would make its final choice on Monday. But no decision was made; instead yet another fight over the selection procedure erupted.
Higgins had proposed earlier that the individual council members rank the 12 final candidates, and then move the candidates with the highest scores onto a short list. But that was not to be.
"I came in ready to vote," says Councilman Steve Corker. "Roberta Greene and Rob Higgins suggested we narrow down [the list] to three to five. What I said was, 'You are not prepared to vote.' I mean, if a council member today has not yet decided who's the best candidate, then what have the last eight weeks been all about?"
Instead of narrowing down the field, the council decided to vote at Monday night's council meeting, and the first candidate to get four votes will get the council seat. Any City Council member can nominate any eligible Spokane resident at Monday's meeting, so being on the list of 12 really doesn't mean anything.
"Any one of us can bring up a name on Monday, and yes, the one who gets four votes first is the one who gets the seat," says Corker. While Corker insists the proposal he offered is appropriate, he won't say which council member gets to nominate first or whether the candidates will be listed in alphabetical order.
"What should be happening, between now and Monday, is that the council members should be lobbying and trying to get four votes for the candidate they support," says Corker. "No, that's not taking things behind closed doors -- that's normal legislative practice. I'm trying to get four votes for the person I'd like to see in that seat."
Corker got the support of council members Steve Eugster, Cherie Rodgers and Phyllis Holmes -- the last of whom signed on to the deal under protest.
"I chose to go with it so we can get over this issue and move on," says Holmes. "We have three people who are trying to prevent this issue from being resolved. Isn't that ludicrous? It's irrational, and doing it this way is a huge insult to the fine people who have applied for the position -- and it's a huge insult to those of us who have spent time interviewing the candidates on the list."
Holmes says there are a number of candidates on the list she would be happy to support, but she adds it's quite possible that brand new candidates will be introduced on Monday.
"Numerically, it's possible to find a final candidate on Monday. But I'm trying to think with a logical mind as adults would -- there is no way of knowing what's going on in an irrational mind," says Holmes. "There is not even agreement that we need a seventh member."
As the arguing continues, the candidate list is shrinking. On Monday, Philip Grub, a retired business professor from George Washington University and a member of the Spokane Regional International Trade Alliance, withdrew his candidacy. And a few weeks ago, candidate David Bray, a former City Council candidate and the president of the political action committee Taxpayers for Responsible Government, sent a letter to the council saying the seat should be left vacant until the fall election.
"Because of the situation we have ended up in, I don't think the actions of the City Council are any longer in the best interest of the city," says Bray. "If [the council] is taken off this issue, it would probably get a lot more done from here until November. The only thing they really fight on is River Park Square -- that's where we get the stalemates. Why not wait? There is no advantage for a candidate to being on the City Council at this point in time. Yes, that is sad, but the only advantage would be to get some name recognition so the candidate would be ready to campaign this fall."
Bray has not withdrawn his candidacy, but he says he'll decline if he is selected on Monday.
Spokane's transition to the strong mayor form of government left the council president squarely in charge of running the council meetings and setting the agenda. Critics are now saying that the battle over how to appoint the council member is evidence of poor leadership on Higgins' part.
"One reason we increased the salary to $40,000 for the council president was so that we could attract a person who could dedicate some time and provide some leadership," says Corker, who was defeated in the race for council president. Higgins has a full-time job as executive vice president of Spokane Association of Realtors, and Corker says he should spend more time on council issues than he has.
But Higgins is confident that things will move along, although so far they have not progressed as fast as he had hoped.
"Generally, it's been going just fine, though this meeting on Monday was very frustrating," he says. "It seemed what I was proposing was reasonable."
Higgins says he talked to Corker after the candidate interviews and was under the impression that they agreed on his procedure, including the dwindling down of the list to three or five candidates.
As for why this has taken so long, he says there was a four-week period earlier this year when he couldn't get the entire council together at the same time.
"I'd like to have been done with this by now, but if you can't get people together, it's kind of hard," says Higgins.
He'd still like to get together with the council in executive session to talk about the candidates.
"It's awkward conducting business in a fishbowl, but I guess that's just part of the public process," says Higgins. "We are allowed by state law to go into executive session and just talk about the candidates, you know, discuss and evaluate, but of course not select a candidate."
He's puzzled by Corker's suggestion that council members should try to reach agreement prior to the meeting on Monday. "That flies flat in the face of all his talk about open government. I don't think that's normal legislative practice. At least that's not how I practice."
Yet he remains certain that a new council member will be appointed on Monday.
"There's a 50-50 chance someone will be introduced that we haven't met before," says Higgins. "But their chances of being elected will be zero."
Under the new system, it now falls to Higgins to calm the rough waters that have plagued the council -- even if there are those who are churning away to thwart his efforts. While the council president position is new to Spokane, it's been in use for years in places like Seattle and even Bremerton. If the strong mayor can be viewed as the equivalent of the president, then the council president is similar to the speaker of the house. To get things done, any speaker must use his or her authority to make sure that progress is made.
And the kind of hands-off approach that some are charging Higgins with is not a recipe for success, says Lynn Horton, who has been Bremerton's mayor for eight years, prior to which she served on the council for six years -- three of which were as council president.
"A strong council president who is willing to work with the mayor and the council can make things a lot better, when people have a hard time getting along," says Horton. "In my experience, I've always worked issue-based. I've dealt with one issue and then moved on." She adds that keeping the council moving forward is the biggest challenge facing any council president.
"If you can get a good personality configuration among the council members, and people are willing to work with you, that's the best," says Horton. "If you get odd personalities who tend to cause a stir, just ride it out. I think that most city councils have some hitches in their get-along."
In Bremerton, the council president is elected among City Council members at the first meeting of each year. Bremerton made the transition to the strong mayor form of government in the early '80s, and there have been some bumps in the road since then.
"Most councils, like yours, are still part time, and sometimes it's hard for people to understand the nuances that are inherent in the council president position," says Horton. "But like I said, a strong and articulate president can help things go a lot easier."
Even Seattle has had to deal with a divided council.
"It used to be more divided than it is today," says Linda Stores, chief of staff to Seattle Council President Margaret Pageler. "I'd say four years ago, there was more of a feeling that the council was in lockstep than there is now. I think we have a strong council, but there are so many diverging views on the council it's hard to get them to go in the same direction sometimes."
In Seattle, the council president is also elected among City Council members, but serves for two years. Another difference is that in Seattle, every council member is expected to devote his or her full attention to the task -- and they are paid accordingly. "Our people are full-time. It's a regular Monday to Friday job," says Stores.
Not having full-time representation in Spokane was an issue during the council president election last fall.
"We run a half-a-billion-dollar corporation here, yet we have four members with 40-hour jobs on the side," says Corker, who has advocated better pay for council members. "I just don't understand how they can devote time and energy to do this job right."
Corker says the time issue applies even more to Higgins, or whoever would occupy the council president seat.
"If you don't devote the time behind the scenes," says Corker, "things are going to fall out. It rests on Higgins to develop this consensus."