by William Stimson

A peculiar but encouraging thing happened in last week's election. The Chamber of Commerce and the Spokane electorate agreed on a ballot issue. The Chamber opposed the return to the city manager form of government, and on Election Day a whopping 64 percent of voters endorsed that view.

Like last month's close pass of Mars, a phenomenon that happens only once every 60,000 years or so, the coincidence of Chamber policy and the Spokane electorate is something well worth observing.

In an article in the Spokesman-Review, Chamber President Chris Marr urged citizens not to follow the advice of those, including the Spokesman-Review's editorial page, who wanted to return to the city manager form abandoned three years ago. "If you recall," Marr wrote in a guest article in the Review, "problems with that form of government prompted a citywide movement of political change and accountability."

Obviously voters recall it. It was their votes in 1997 to elect John Talbott and in 1999 to change the form that constituted the change. The interesting thing is that the Chamber now sees it as a movement for "accountability" and not, as was the official explanation went as recently as three years ago, the work of "naysayers" who refused to cooperate in the city's progress.

This is encouraging because this divide between the Chamber of Commerce, representing Spokane's established leadership, and voters, representing the popular mood, has been the essence of Spokane's problem for the past four decades.

Imagine what a different city Spokane would be if the Chamber of Commerce and Spokane's electorate had been in agreement on issues such as re-examining government, building a waste treatment plant, building the Arena, building the Lincoln Street Bridge, creating a Science Center or supporting River Park Square.

Whether the agreement had been for or against in each instance is much less important than the fact of a shared view. Given a sense of common cause, good things would follow. Without a common cause, little is accomplished and what is becomes targeted for criticism.

That common-sense view was the theme of Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, an influential book by Francis Fukuyama published in 1995. Fukuyama argued that "a nation's well-being, as well as its ability to compete, is conditioned by a single, pervasive cultural characteristic: the level of trust inherent in the society."

The book is a catalogue of examples of human societies, ranging from nations to small businesses, in which the feeling that "we're all in this together" makes the difference between success and failure. In times of economic reverses, pay cuts can result in strikes or in a new dedication to getting the company back on track. The results depend less on economic facts than on how much workers trust their managers to make unselfish judgments.

Fukuyama might have cited Spokane as an example of what happens when there is too little trust. Spokanites probably spend more time and energy on civic matters than the average community, but a good deal of it is spent undoing each others' work. As a consequence, it does not achieve what it could (e.g., a Science Center), and what it accomplishes comes extraordinarily hard (e.g., the Arena).

River Park Square should have been a great moment in Spokane's history. But the city council members did not trust the Spokane citizens enough to let them in on the details. Had they done so, some of the details would have surely changed, and the project likely would have been a community success story.

The counter-argument to the "naysayer" explanation of Spokane's problems is that its leadership has been untrustworthy. This is equally nonsense. A few years ago, I inscribed a book to former Mayor Neal Fosseen, "To Spokane's greatest mayor." When I handed it to Fosseen, I felt compelled to say, "Just don't let Dave Rodgers see this."

In my estimation, those first two mayors under Spokane's city manager system were easily among the best in its history. The years between 1961, when Fosseen was elected, and 1977, when Rodgers left office, were not only the period of Expo, but were a time when City Hall was focused, efficient and high in morale. The contrast between City Hall in those years and recently under the strong mayor system is sobering to an advocate of the strong mayor system.

But that can be fixed by a new mayor. The problems Fosseen and Rodgers faced were systemic. No matter what they proposed, they battled the suspicions of citizens. Fosseen was frustrated when he asked citizens to approve urban renewal and airport modernization efforts. Rodgers thought at one time that Expo might not happen because voters failed to pass the necessary bonds for finances. As is typical in Spokane's history, both mayors had to scramble and put together plans that did not depend upon voter support.

But by the late 1970s, that kind of improvisation had run its course. Spokane could not accomplish much without the enthusiastic support of the citizenry.

The only way to get that trust is to start with the support of citizens, and by letting them make the first move in selecting a strong leader. That's the role of a more politicized process like the strong mayor system. It is a great sign for Spokane that the Chamber of Commerce has accepted that logic.

William Stimson is a professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University and author of Spokane: A View of the Falls.

Publication date: 09/25/03

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