The man stuck the petition in my face as I was about to enter my favorite neighborhood grocery store a few months ago. "Would you like to sign a petition to force a vote on the strong-mayor?" he said -- more a request than a question.
"Why should I want to do that?" I asked.
"We should let the people decide," he said.
"The people did decide," I responded, "and, by the way, why don't you like the strong mayor system?"
He became defensive: "I didn't say that I didn't like the strong mayor system. I just want the people to decide."
"Decide what?" I asked.
"Decide whether or not to bring back the council-manager form of government."
"Why do you favor the council-manager form of government," I asked.
"I didn't say that I favored the council-manager form of government," he parroted again.
"Wait a second," I say, "you are out, standing in my way, trying get me to help you force the city into disarray, and you can't even explain why?"
He paused. I was trouble, no doubt, making him earn every penny of that 50 & cent; or whatever it was he was getting paid per signature: "I just think the people should decide so we could put an end to the confusion."
"What confusion?" I asked.
Then, revealing that his understanding was as deep as the broken record he had been playing, he said: "I just want the people to decide."
"Answer me this, are you being paid to get signatures on this petition?"
"Maybe," he said.
"Maybe?" I responded. "You either are or you aren't."
"I just want the people to decide."
A few weeks later I saw the same guy gathering donations for some charity or another.
And that would seem to be about the sum and substance of the "broad-based" coalition those sensible government people have put together -- petition-pens for hire, paid for by some disgruntled union employees. (As an aside, Senator Jim West, in announcing his candidacy for strong mayor, reportedly said these employees felt "unappreciated" -- which I translate to mean, "Gee we didn't have trouble getting those pay raises under the city manager!")
Then there's a handful of ex-city employees, plus, no doubt, the usual special interests who prefer to stay out of sight but want their access back (meaning: under the old system, the city managers used to take all our calls.)
Who else? I can't think of any individual or group who stands to benefit from going back to the old system.
Even the Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce has come out in favor of keeping the present system. The neighborhood councils? They would have everything to lose should we return to the old way of doing business at city hall; if that happens, the bureaucracy, never a fan of neighborhoods, will regain its former isolation.
We all stand to lose: The city will lose whatever political clout it enjoys in Olympia. After legislators stop chortling over the latest episode of political mindlessness produced by our state's now merely third-largest city, they will quickly figure out that the pattern of influence in Spokane has swung to special interests -- none of which have the political legitimacy necessary to get Olympia's attention.
And at the federal level? Consider this emerging problem: After the next Congressional election, the Fifth District will be sending to Washington a freshman representative, which means that he or she will have zero seniority. George Nethercutt, you recall, made a big splash. He went to Washington as a giant killer; our new representative will be just one more freshman member. Now add to this the political leadership vacuum that will be created in the city of Spokane should the voters decided to return to the good old days. Our city would vanish from the national radar screen completely.
But what's so amazing about this effort to deed "leadership" back to the part-time city council is that the proponents of the ballot initiative are so transparent. The very way these people have gone about buying the election tells us all we need to know about their attitude towards governing. Rest assured, once back in office they can be counted upon to go about doing the work of the people in the same way they have gone about trying to ramrod this issue through. They will act in secret, they will rely on procedural advantage rather than substantive argument, they will avoid public debates wherever possible and they will bet on voter apathy and cynicism. It'll be back to business as usual.
Consider the comparison: Steve Eugster, the author of the petition that brought in the strong mayor system, dealt with the issue in a politically straightforward manner. He first argued that the council should place the item on the ballot. Then, when the council said no, he carried the substance of his argument to the public not once but twice. Before these votes, the community heard many debates on the substance of the switch.
Nor did Eugster's idea emerge from a vacuum, as initiative backers will no doubt argue. Long before his petition, the question about the form of government, along with other reforms such as district representation, had been considered by any number of civic groups. Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, Boise -- all are cities we are wise to emulate and all have strong mayors. But with the way these sensible government folks tell it, the strong mayor form may as well have been dropped on our city from Mars.
It would be easy to get cynical about all this and have a good laugh about typical Spokane politics. Trouble is, it's not funny -- it's our city and our future. Let's hope that the voters keep a sense of optimism about the path -- admittedly a rocky one at times -- the new system is paving and reject the weak notion of giving up and going back to the past.
Publication date: 08/07/03