Commentary by Robert Herold

As I have said before, I want the River Park Square project to succeed. I do believe it does, and will continue to contribute to a downtown revival. I also take the position that this revival is critical to the social, cultural and economic success of not only the city but also our entire region. Moreover, while skeptical, I accept subsidization as a fact of American political life. Our "free-enterprising" Republican farmers, irrigators and barge operators no doubt will agree with me.

That said, the source of the reported criticism of Mayor John Powers' handling of the dispute over the mall's garage is troubling. At best it suggests political naivete on a grand scale; at worst, a death wish.

I refer to Sunday's Spokesman-Review article that reports that Mayor Powers is in trouble with influential business leaders and supporters because he vetoed the loan to the Parking Development Authority. Without even getting into the fact that The Spokesman continues to find ways to go after those who stand in the way of the original garage deal (although no longer on the editorial page), those quoted in the story seem to be saying the mayor should just have made the loan/gift to prop up the garage, the consequences be damned.

Chris Marr, incoming Chamber of Commerce president, is quoted as having warned that the Mayor might be risking his chances for reelection in 2003.

Hello! Chris, are you and your friends kidding?

Do you understand that Powers is your best hope? -- maybe your only hope, since other potential strong mayor candidates down the road would be even more antagonistic toward the business community. And I might add that "business community" is far too broad a description of what is at work here -- perhaps "vestiges of old Spokane" might be more accurate.

It's important to put things in perspective. Powers didn't dream up this issue; he inherited it. Or, to put it another way, the drop in the bond rating has been caused by the original deal; his veto precipitated what was going to happen anyway, without some negotiated solution. And make no mistake, the garage is bankrupt. Whether we accept that now, six months from now or a year from now, it is still a deep, black money pit.

Perhaps business leaders have a candidate in mind who will stand before this suspicious electorate and say up front that he or she is four-square behind a deal that forced the city to get involved in a garage that was purchased for what turned out to be twice what it was worth; perhaps they believe that the city should fund a loan that will likely result in city programs and services being reduced.

I'd pay to see that campaign speech.

Just to set the record straight, here are the political results that the Mayor has managed to deliver to date:

1. He redefined the issue, most importantly by taking the charge of fraud off the table. In doing this, he tried to calm the proverbial troubled waters. Would Powers' critics have preferred the Steve Eugster approach -- you know, the one that would have us talking not about an equitable settlement but jail sentences? Believe me, that remains the only other option given the political climate in Spokane today.

2. He managed to hold together a very shaky council coalition and take off the ballot the matter of the PDA's existence. Do his business community critics understand how difficult it was to win this vote, and how important it was that he win this vote?

3. He continues to focus on the issue at hand rather than be thrown off course by the blather of so-called "negotiations with members of the council" that amounted to little more than refinancing an unworkable set of questionable arrangements.

It is as if his critics don't understand that, like it or not, politics has changed in Spokane. They blame Powers for not conducting business as usual when things just can't be done that way any longer. This isn't to say Powers' tenure has been perfect. His learning curve is showing, his relations with the council have been rocky (as, perhaps, they should be to some degree) and significant initiatives may not be getting enough attention from his office. Still, it is River Park Square that threatens to drag him under, as it did his predecessors John Talbott and Jack Geraghty.

One doesn't have to be a supporter of Talbott and Eugster to understand that after their respective elections, politics in Spokane would never be the same again. What Talbott and Eugster did was associate campaign platforms with issues, and issues with performance, thus making elections vital for perhaps the first time around here. Before Talbott, and more significantly Eugster, poorly defined candidates were elected to the council having promised vacuous nonsense like "to do good things for the city."

My own guess is that both Talbott and Eugster are transitional figures. The former was voted out; the latter may no longer be electable, if for no other reason than his reliance on a decidedly anti-political political style. Instead of coalition-building, Eugster, in the words of the famous Tammany pol George Washington Plunkett, has seemingly gone into politics to "do the skyrocket act." In contrast to Eugster's preferred style, I suggest that the courts are a terrible place to work out policy differences.

John Powers inherited this new political landscape, and to this he also laid claim to a seat of governance -- the strong mayorship -- that came with real authority, another first for Spokane. As regards the garage, he positioned himself smack-dab in the middle. He told the voters that he would not be stampeded into a witch-hunt, but neither would he be party to a coverup.

Given his performance to date, a fair observer would have to conclude that he has delivered on his promises to the electorate, thus honoring the election that he won. And for this he is now being savaged by some of his so-called supporters. Yes, there is some predictable chafing between the council and the mayor's office, as any city with a new strong mayor is bound to experience. But the council, like the business community, might do well to understand that the people chose to adopt a strong-leader position rather than continuing to rely on the power centers of the city's past.

Instead of berating Mayor Powers, our business leaders might look to some real culprits, like Roberta Greene and Phyllis Holmes. Week after week, these two sit up there on the dais and provide us only with raised eyebrows, all the while muttering their tut tuts about the mayor, stopping long enough to dismiss critics such as Eugster with empty statements such as "...there are two sides to the issue."

As the two remaining council members who bought into the garage deal on the public's behalf, they owe the city more. If they believe they can justify this deal, then they should make their case. If they believe that Powers is pursuing a wrongheaded strategy, they should spell out why.

But there's the rub. To admit that the mayor is right would require, once and for all, that we accept that the Empire Club has closed its doors. We must accept that in the new political landscape, economic resources or social standing do not equate directly with political influence. For some in Spokane, that is something they're not yet willing to concede.

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About The Author

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.