by ROBERT HEROLD & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & F & lt;/span & ormer Spokane City Council President Rob Higgins was the first to warn us about the rapidly rising and corrupting costs of campaigning for local office. Preferred access bought and paid for would be, in Higgins' mind, the dire result of our high-cost campaigns. He might have added that the largest contributors would inevitably be large, well-funded, special interests.

This election year, three large contributors stand out. Dennis Hession has cumulatively received -- at last count -- $14,200 from Avista, part of his almost $200,000 war chest. Mary Verner accepted contributions from two unions: $10,000 from a coalition of county and city employees, and $7,500 from local firefighters. She has raised about $75,000 altogether.

About the unions: Unions legitimately speak for the interests of their membership. Viewed in the most positive light, unions seek "fairness." They don't think that Mayor Hession has been fair. Viewed in the least positive light they seek special advantage -- higher salaries and ever more generous benefits with expensive job security. My guess is that the truth lies somewhere in between. However, Mayor Hession is on solid ground when he insists that Ms. Verner explain how she intends to maintain distance from those unions and objectivity should she win.

We should, I think, be much, much more concerned about the Avista contribution. Avista is a publicly regulated monopoly privileged to serve the public interest. Therefore, it has never had any business trying to influence local nonpartisan elections -- unless the company is certain that service to the public is threatened. That dire eventuality obviously isn't the concern this year.

Consider the following list of vacuous reasons for supporting Hession given to me by Avista's government affairs department:

We support Dennis Hession because he is an intelligent and capable leader. He will make good public policy decisions.

Hession has a high degree of integrity and has a very good skill set for the job.

He has had to step in and lead the city at a very difficult time.

His track record is solid. The past 20 or so months have seen the city grow and prosper. Sales tax revenues are up around 14 percent.

We believe he will lead the city in the right direction and that will be good for our community and our company.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & B & lt;/span & ut Verner also fits this profile. Intelligent? She would come to office carrying a glittering education resume. She has a bachelor's degree from Davidson (ranked 10th-best liberal arts college in the country by U.S. News); a master's degree with high honors from Yale, no less; and a law degree from Gonzaga. Experience? She has had a good run on the council -- first appointed, then winning at the polls. She has worked in a politically charged work environment. She is much more collaborative than Hession (an assertion which I doubt even Hession would dispute), and she has had as much if not more executive experience over the years than has Hession. Mayor Hession came into the job 18 months ago with very limited executive experience. Since taking office -- and not to discount his understated and dignified style -- his clumsy, heavy-handed work with the MATRIX study, taken together with any number of troubling and problematic personnel decisions, suggests that he is still learning. As for his highly touted budget skills, the truth is that critical job continues to be performed by the very able Gavin Cooley, a John Powers appointee.

Avista seeks to downplay its contribution. After all, the company spokesperson said, more than $12,000 was an "in-kind" contribution, reported only as a formality. OK, so what did the mayor get for that innocuous $12,000? Turns out the money bought "polling" -- translated, "a strategy."

Avista's justification puts me in mind of the old Charley Wilson line. Recall that Wilson, Eisenhower's nominee to be Secretary of Defense, was the president of General Motors. When asked by questioning senators about potential conflicts of interest, Wilson breezily responded that he had always believed what was good for the country was good for General Motors, and that what was good for General Motors was good for the country.

Wilson never visited Spokane.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & attended a neighborhood council meeting a short while ago, held by the city to discuss the upcoming paving project on Lincoln. The neighbors, it turns out, were just as angry over Avista's slaughter of the urban forest, euphemistically called "pruning," as they were over the prospect of losing trees. Some demanded to know why the city wasn't pressuring Avista to put its lines underground -- as power companies are doing all over America. And then, a few days later, the company announced its plans to once again raise rates.

Urban forests? Streetscape? Rate increases? These are all legitimate public concerns that, no doubt, Avista would just as soon evade.

Could it be that Avista just doesn't want to deal with a mayor who has a long (and knowledgeable) interest in environmental matters, who supports neighborhood councils and who believes that the council-approved comprehensive plan should not be left to gather dust? Could it be that company officials fear that a Mayor Verner might not always agree with them when they assert that what's good for Avista is always good for Spokane?

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