Two of a Kind

by Pia K . Hansen

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had a reputation of being tough as nails, once said "I'm extraordinarily patient, provided I get my own way at the end." While this may not be the right philosophy for the next city council president, most agree that a strong leader is exactly what it takes to fill the president's chair on the council here in Spokane.

There are two candidates to choose from. When we asked them which local politician they most admired, they chose different idols.

"Two people come to mind: Mayor Dave Rodgers and then Earl McCarthy," says Al French, a local architect serving his first term on the city council. "Who was McCarthy? He was a strong business advocate in the '60s and '70s and an avid community activist, a Republican activist, I guess. I used to work for him -- I learned a lot from Earl."

Dennis Hession, also in his first term on the council, draws his inspiration from the '60s and '70s as well. "I'd say King Cole. I've gotten to know King a little bit, and I really appreciate his leadership ability," says Hession, about the driving force behind Spokane's famous Expo '74. "I appreciate leaders who are solid, leaders who don't feel a need to always attract attention to themselves, and I think King is that type of leader."

To get to know these men a little better, we also asked them what they'd do in the unlikely event that they had a free Saturday. Hession, a tax attorney, makes no secret of the fact that he is a busy man.

"I have a full-time job, and I serve on the city council, which is supposed to be part-time, but often is full-time," says Hession. "If I had a free Saturday, well, some time ago I used all my free time to work on our house. I built a new addition to the house; I wired it myself and everything. And I do take time to jog every day around noon, five days a week."

French is busy, too, running his own architectural firm and serving as the chairman of the Spokane Transit Authority as well as on many other boards and commissions.

"On a free Saturday -- if I ever get one -- you'd probably find me in my wood shop. I do a lot of woodworking and carpentry," says French. "I just built a solid oak bed for my daughter to use in college. It started as this simple project, because she needed a bed, but then she said I'd better realize I was building it for the grandkids as well. So now it's a family heirloom, I guess."

French -- who boldly says he has "every endorsement there is," including one from Avista, the Metro PAC, Steve Eugster and Steve Corker -- has worked his way into and up through the local political system, first as a neighborhood activist, then as president for the Nevada-Lidgerwood Neighborhood Council and finally as a city council member.

"If I'm elected, I will shut down my architectural practice," says French. "I think the community deserves a full-time commitment to the president's position. We have seen what a part-time commitment can do to the relations on the council and at City Hall. The council has the lowest approval rating it's ever had, and there is not a strong relationship between the council and the mayor any more."

Hession, who served on the Park Board for 11 years prior to being elected for city council, does not believe a full-time president is what is needed, or intended.

"It's not a question of willingness to commit yourself to a full-time effort, but the job as council president is not meant to be full-time, it's not meant to turn the president into another bureaucrat," says Hession. "There are 2,400 employees inside the city already; there should be seven from the outside, seven who bring with them the outside perspective and the connections they have in the community outside of City Hall. It's the concept of the citizen legislature that we are looking at here."

French says that a full-time commitment is exactly what it takes, especially with the council majority consisting of all new people.

"On January 1, we'll have four new council members who have no, or very little experience, at City Hall. I think the role of the president becomes even more important because of that," says French. "I mean, the four new people will be the majority of the council. And we don't want to have to go through a lull and wait for them to get ahead of the learning curve. They will need mentoring and help, that does take a full-time commitment."

Current city council president Rob Higgins -- who was criticized by some for keeping his full-time job back when he was elected -- says the president's position isn't intended to be a full-time job.

"There is not a whole lot of power inherent in the president's position. It's mostly about running the council meetings and appointing council members to certain positions," says Higgins. "Someone who's very aggressive could possibly take this a lot further, and I don't think that was intended." Higgins does agree that the new council president plays a role as far as helping the new four new council members adjust to public life and public service.

"Most of the new candidates lack political experience, but they are all coming in with the right attitude," says Higgins. "You run because you enjoy being involved in the community, not because someone is holding a gun to your head and telling you to run. But to try to make jobs out of these elected positions is going in the wrong direction."

One of the first jobs the new council will be faced with in January is to choose a replacement for whichever candidate is elected president. Added to the three new members being elected in November, that makes four total new members.

To Staff or Not to Staff -- As City Hall has been adjusting to the strong mayor system, several city council members have suggested the council should hire its own staff. It has also irritated some council members that requests for staff information or reports have to go through the mayor's office.

French would like to hire a legislative analyst to work for the council.

"Right now, when all we have is one secretary for seven council members, people ask, 'Why aren't you doing more?' Well, it's hard when that's all the help you have for seven people," says French, adding that a legislative analyst wouldn't be a new position, but simply someone transferred from a different department.

"We need to clean up the regulatory environment and become more business-friendly. A legislative analyst could help us do that," he says. "We have regulations on the books from the '50s, and we're trying to stimulate the economy of the 21st century -- that just doesn't make any sense."

Hession says he fears that the call for city council staff may come from a desire to better be able "to stand up to" the mayor's office.

"A number of council members have a contentious relationship with the mayor, and that may lead to a wish for hiring staff to get people on the council's side. I think hiring should be prompted by the need for assistance, not by the desire to put up walls," Hession.

Higgins says the council definitely needs to hire some staff.

"That was one of my concerns about the strong mayor type of government, that it would be more staff-heavy," he says. "I think a political analyst working for the council would be good, and the independent auditor may come around. Salt Lake City, for instance, has 11 people working for the city council, and that's a city comparable to ours."

Who Has Issues? -- The city of Spokane is facing many perpetual issues: crime, potholes, job creation and growth management, just to mention a few.

As far as growth management goes, French got into a bit of a bind a couple months ago when he accepted campaign donations from Nevada Properties LLC., at the same time as that company was applying for a change in the Comprehensive Plan. Hession declined the same contribution.

"I have been friends with Bob Spears [of Nevada Properties] for 20 years," says French, in defense of taking the contribution. "He supports me now, just like he did last time I ran for office. I didn't champion his issue, as some people have said. If you look at the result of the deal, [Nevada Properties] got about 30 percent of what they asked for."

French recused himself from the unanimous city council vote, but says he would have voted in favor of the change just like everyone else. "My vote wouldn't have changed anything," says French.

When it comes to job creation, Hession would like to explore a port district, saying it would be a good source of money to provide business incentives. State law prohibits some tax incentives that are legal in Idaho.

French, who's endorsed by the Homebuilders' Association, says the city needs to become more business-friendly, making it easier for businesses to establish themselves here.

Both are in favor of cleaning up city regulations. And both support regional solutions on issues such as wastewater treatment.

"A lot of issues have yet to be decided on the wastewater treatment issue. To me, regional planning for wastewater treatment is good government. Utilities are a good example of how you can do things regionally to the benefit of everyone," says Hession. He adds that there still are unanswered questions about the Spokane Valley, Liberty Lake and some parts of the county.

French wants to see some numbers as well. "Governance and rate structure, those are the two things we need to get settled," he says. "I still believe that for the taxpayers, a regional approach will always be cheaper in the long run."

French, who's endorsed by the Police Guild, is calling for more officers and better equipment to help solve the city's property crime problem, which he believes is the source of more aggressive crimes.

Hession sees drugs like meth as the city's biggest crime problem, and he's calling for an increase not only in enforcement but also in education.

And then there's the 800-pound gorilla -- River Park Square.

"The city has committed itself to staying at the mediation table to the bitter end. It's important to the community that we try to mediate this," says Hession, who is on the city's mediation team. "Normally, you'd reach a point in mediation where you throw up your arms and go, 'We can't do this' -- but not in this case."

Hession adds that there is a formal mediation time set aside in January. "At that time, some court decisions may have changed the playing field a bit. People may say otherwise, but we have worked really hard to get this resolved."

French doesn't have a lot to say about the controversy. "In April, we are going to be in court, if we don't reach mediation before that. That's all there is to say about that," he says.

Higgins says he wishes something could be done to put an end to the RPS debacle before the new mayor and the new council takes over.

"I'm disappointed that RPS isn't behind us," he says when asked to evaluate his tenure as president. "In '99, I ran saying let's get this over with, but then the mayor chose his path and I believe that has prolonged the issue. Even Steve Eugster now wants it to be over." Eugster recently unveiled a plan calling for an end to the fight. The city's attorneys doubt his plan can be carried out, says Higgins.

"I told Steve [Eugster] that I would work with him trying to find a solution by the end of the year. It would be great to have this behind us, to have a new mayor and a new council start over without having RPS hanging over their heads," says Higgins. "It would have been great if Eugster had had this attitude back in August of 2001, when the developer was still working with us. But just imagine a resolution -- then [the new mayor and council] could start looking at the future instead."

Publication date: 10/16/03