The reasons for changing forms of government remain valid. Spokane had simply outgrown its council-manager system. Citizens had become weary of being dominated by Spokane's unaccountable and permanent oligarchy. This frustration was clearly evidenced by the emerging political mobilization of neighborhoods. Supporters of the council-manager form of government made the "expertise" argument, that city managers were "expert" in public administration, while elected strong mayors weren't.
Voters weren't persuaded -- perhaps in part because the assertion of "expertise" was being made by very same guys and gals who, without even the hint of a search, had recently hired as city manager the woefully underqualified Billy Pupo on a friends and neighbors Council midnight vote! Then there were the city's obvious failures to navigate the divisive Lincoln Street Bridge issue and the River Park Square issue. The point was made: Spokane needed accountable political leadership.
Mayor Hession, however, gives every indication that he intends to bring back the "bad old days," when the council routinely did the bidding of Spokane's largely self-serving if historically ineffective petty oligarchy; back when neighborhoods were expected to shut up and go away, and when the "public realm" had no standing. Back when, as the late Molly Ivins would have put it, "the bidness of gov'm'nt was do'in bidness."
Mayor Hession has systematically marginalized neighborhood councils, has ignored the Comprehensive Plan, has summarily fired the city's Community Development Block Grant Director (who apparently didn't share the COO's economic development vision), and has driven off two other department heads who had good relations with neighborhoods. The mayor's strategy for winning over the bureaucracy, the lynchpin in the bad old days, calls for the hiring of loyalists. Thus far, this strategy hasn't worked. Morale throughout City Hall, I'm told, is dismally low. The police have actually voted "no confidence" in his leadership.
Meanwhile, the Spokane City Council has sat by and watched all this happen. And why? Council President Joe Shogan has a lot to do with the council's passivity. A close friend of Hession's, Shogan has shown zero willingness to take on the mayor whether the issue is budget priorities, the wasteful MATRIX study, questionable personnel changes or the council's many failed attempts to gain better access to information and testimony.
So, where should we start? A simple charter change and a clarification would improve the situation.
About the charter change: To more effectively ensure mayor-council cooperation, co-accountability and administrative stability (as distinct from "entrenchment"), we can learn from the Seattle City Charter. In Spokane, the mayor appoints senior administrators and the council confirms them. The mayor dismisses "at will." Thus, when he fires the Community Development Director, the mayor makes oblique mention of his "new priorities" but is never required to spell out, let alone justify, what he means. In Seattle, this wouldn't happen if for no other reason than the Seattle charter specifies that all administrators who have been confirmed by council vote can only be dismissed if the mayor can convince a majority of the council to support his action.
Regarding the clarification: The Spokane City Charter specifies that the mayor can hire an "assistant." Mayor Dennis Hession, however, doesn't have an assistant, in the "assist" sense of the word. Rather, he has hired a "Chief Operating Officer."
The city's Website puts it this way:
"John Pilcher became the City's Chief Operating Officer on March 1, 2007. In that role, Pilcher is responsible for day-to-day operations of our City government, with its 2,000 employees and $500 million annual budget. The City's Division Directors also report to Pilcher."
The Mayor of Seattle has several assistants, one of whom is charged with "overseeing operations," but Seattle is four times the size of Spokane and likely 10 times as politically complex. For closer comparisons, we can look at strong-mayor cities Bremerton and Everett. In both cities, the mayor acts as both chief executive officer and chief operating officer, along with providing political leadership. Such was the intention of Spokane's strong mayor charter change in 1999. The mayor's job was made full-time with the expectation that the new mayor would combine those three functions. The city code is clear on this point.
My recommendation: Mayor Hession's newly invented and costly line position of "chief operating officer" is inappropriate and should be summarily abolished. It's a road Spokane has been traveling down since Jim West invented the position of deputy mayor. Mayor Hession has taken this transformation one step further and created a de facto city manager in a city where we thought we had voted to abolish the job.
To reverse direction, the council could simply cut the money from the mayor's budget. Once this change is made, department heads will report directly to the mayor, as originally intended. The mayor can and should hire an assistant as specified by the charter -- a person who brings appropriate administrative skills and experience, and who provides advice and coordination, even oversight of operations. But we wanted our mayor to be in charge, not some unelected bureaucrat.
With the money saved from abolishing the COO position, the council might be well advised to hire its own policy analyst. But becoming more engaged might also help. This change presumes the council wants to play a role in the policy process.