Time to Talk?

by Doug Nadvornick & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & hen Spokane City Councilmember Nancy McLaughlin walked out of Mayor Dennis Hession's office recently after a meeting about the city's new efficiency study, she felt good about their conversation.

"But I didn't have much to take back," she says. "It's like, he listened but he didn't communicate back well."

McLaughlin's relationship with Hession has a Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus flavor. She gets along well with him, but "I was expecting more open communication and I'm frustrated about that," she says. "Early in his term, he'd come up to visit us like he missed being on the council, but when he got busier, we'd see little of him and have to seek him out."

During interviews with The Inlander, several councilmembers cited communication problems with the city's chief executive. A few consider them minor or a symbol of the normal tensions between two branches of government. For others, the problems are more serious; the relationship is "fractured," according to Councilmember Mary Verner, although none of the seven councilmembers are yet calling for Hession's head.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & C & lt;/span & ouncilmember Rob Crow thinks the problem is not a lack of communication but a matter of perception. He believes city officials have never resolved the roles of the council and mayor in Spokane's seven-year-old "strong mayor" form of government.

"The mayor thinks the council's authority should be limited to the budget and some contracts while he makes policy," Crow says. "I believe the council should make policy and the mayor should carry it out. It's a misunderstanding and it's something we need to talk about."

"Having a strong mayor doesn't mean you should have a weak council," says Councilmember Al French, who this week announced he's challenging Hession for mayor this fall. "The mayor has simply ignored this council."

French and several colleagues cite the mayor's response to the Jan. 29 council resolution that calls for the city to hire a private company (to replace Spokanimal CARE) for animal control, rather than creating its own system.

"Three days later, we found out the mayor was meeting with the city of Spokane Valley to explore the idea [of creating an animal control system]," says Councilmember Brad Stark. "He flagrantly ignored the council's policy-setting decision."

A few councilmembers are also upset that the mayor didn't include them in the process of hiring a new solid waste director.

"We never heard that a new director had been chosen until we saw it on the advance [council] agenda," says McLaughlin. McLaughlin believes she or Crow, the council's representatives on the regional solid waste board, should have been part of the interviews with the two finalist candidates.

"I just didn't think about including them," replies Hession.

A few councilmembers dispute that.

"I had to do my very first public records request to find out why [the new director from Kansas] was picked over an in-house candidate," says French.

He says he found a memo that shows Hession considered the idea of allowing councilmembers to be a part of the interviews but rejected the plan. Hession says the memo wasn't his and that he doesn't accept that interpretation.

The council went along with the mayor anyway and approved his choice with a 4-3 vote.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & H & lt;/span & ession agrees the city charter gives policy-making authority to the council. "But I'm exercising my responsibility to make policy decisions as well," Hession says. "For example, I can enter into and sign any contract for less than $40,000 without council intervention. That's policy-making, and I do it all the time."

As for the animal control resolution, "we decided to explore other options," he says. "Calgary has a system that pays for itself. It's my job to explore opportunities like that and give [the council] options from which to choose."

Hession inherited a chaotic situation, taking over when Jim West was recalled from office after more than six months of intense controversy. And after a relatively calm first year in office -- at least to the outside observer -- the kinds of challenges that all mayors face have started coming fast. He's had to work without Deputy Mayor Jack Lynch, who has taken a mysterious health-related leave of absence; he's had to negotiate the tricky job of releasing an efficiency study that could lead to city employees losing their jobs; and now there are these questions about his relationship with the council. Hession says it's all part of the job, but adds that a common denominator is what he views as the Spokesman-Review's consistent choices to make city business as controversial as possible.

"There's less here than is being reported," says Hession, who thinks his relationship with the city council is "good."

"Councilmembers may not hear from me all the time," he says, "but they're briefed constantly by our employees on all kinds of issues, whether they come before the council or not. I think the current council gets more information from the administration than when I was on the council. No question."

"The mayor has tried to step up communication with councilmembers," says the city's chief financial officer, Gavin Cooley. "There's a rule that there should be no surprises. Make sure everything you work on has a council sponsor so that there's someone to shepherd it through the legislative process."

The mayor will need the council's help if he wants to make some of the changes recommended in the city's Efficiency and Effectiveness Study during this election year. One councilmember thinks that Hession will get support if he includes the council in the implementation phase.

"We want to be in on the discussions between the cabinet, department heads and staff and hear what the concerns are and what's being said," says Councilmember Bob Apple.

Today, Acting Deputy Mayor John Pilcher will brief councilmembers about the process so far in sorting through more than 250 recommendations.

"We're making progress" in getting the council involved in implementing the efficiency study, says Council President Joe Shogan, "but it's still slow."

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & s the council's senior member, Al French has worked with each of the city's three strong mayors. "We haven't had a good example yet of a mayor who fit the system," he says.

Although French has been less than happy with Hession's job performance, "this relationship is not as bad as the council's relationship with John Powers."

For one thing, French doesn't question Hession's intentions. "We're all invested in keeping Spokane moving forward," says French. And he insists, despite his criticism of the mayor, that he'll support Hession when the mayor presents good ideas.

French and his colleagues also believe they need to strengthen the council's position.

"We're close to hiring a part-time policy analyst and researcher to help us," says Stark. "And we're finally interviewing the mayor's appointees to city boards and commissions."

Mary Verner says that she and her colleagues shouldn't rely so much on the mayor's office when it comes to getting information about city initiatives.

"We need to do some of our own legwork," says Verner. "I had some disagreements with the Fire Department, but I went to the mayor and the fire chief and got my own information."

"Does the mayor need to take more of a lead role?" asks Nancy McLaughlin. "Yes. Is it his responsibility alone? No."