John T. Powers Jr. gets a passing grade as mayor. He's served for one year thus far as the newly created "strong mayor" form of executive. The Inlander asked five individuals familiar with Spokane civic affairs to grade Powers in four key areas -- you'll see the report cards they scored throughout this section. Their grades vary widely, but the consensus is that while Powers shows promise, he must work hard and also win over currently hostile parties (the county, the River Park Square developer) if he's to achieve honors by the end of his term.
The four subjects were:
* Being "Strong" ("How well has Powers defined the role of the strong mayor?")
* Poverty Issues ("Powers has called himself the "poverty mayor." How well have the poor and unemployed fared on his watch?")
* Regional Vision ("How effectively has he nurtured relationships with other governments and communities in the region?")
* River Park Square ("How effectively has Powers used his strong mayor position to resolve the River Park Square parking garage conflict?").
These are tough subjects. The graders ranged from bitingly critical (think of that embittered high school teacher telling you how tough it was going to be in the real world) to rather kindly and bland (like a grandmotherly third-grade teacher).
Out of 20 possible grades, Powers received two Fs, three Ds, eight Cs, six Bs and a single A. Maybe that's the nature of the bell curve; the graders say it reflects a mixed performance review. Ultimately, the grades averaged a solid C+.
Not stellar. But given the number and complexity of issues at hand, and given that Powers was a political amateur establishing Spokane's first executive office, perhaps a C isn't a bad grade for his first year, either. And as any teacher will say, at least there's room for improvement.
Rob Brewster COMMUNITY CRITIC
Brewster, president of ConoverBond Development (developer of the Holley Mason Building and others), thinks Powers possesses energy and commitment. Now, he says, Powers must add some sharp strategy.
"The mayoral election is over," says Brewster. "It's time to stop cheerleading; pick a winnable issue, show us you can achieve it and rack one up on the resume."
His suggestion: make Spokane a business-friendly city. Instead of working from the bottom up on poverty, suggests Brewster, strengthen city-business ties and finish River Park Square, thus creating jobs. "Business makes issues like poverty go away."
Powers ranks a C grade for the RPS mess, says Brewster. The mayor has commitment to "move forward," but the mud-slinging of well-intentioned naysayers has hurt the value of the parking garage, which is "an excellent asset." Brewster also splits on Powers' nurturing of regional relations, praising his stand on defending Yardley as a city growth area while decrying the annexation as a whole.
(Brewster awarded two grades, an A for Yardley but a D for annexation; The Inlander averaged the two at a C+.)
"We are missing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to join with the Valley for the creation of one unified city government," says Brewster, adding, "It's bad policy not to be having acting discussions with Valley leaders to form one comprehensive metro city."
Powers wins good grades from Brewster on addressing poverty (an A) and for defining the strong mayor position (a B). "We typically like to consider Spokane conveniently immune to national downturns, but we're not," Brewster writes. It is "a hard time to step in as mayor and look good on employment issues. Here's a hint: Poverty issues are nearly always a losing proposition for any politician; jobs are a win-win."
Sheila Collins COMMUNITY CRITIC
Operator of Catered For You, Collins was part of the downtown-business-and-neighborhood-activist coalition that Powers assembled to capture the mayor's seat. Collins' grades for Powers are almost opposite Herold's -- mediocre marks as strong mayor and resolving RPS, but pretty good in developing regional relations and handling poverty.
Under her grading, Powers gets a B- overall.
"I would urge the mayor," advises Collins, "to work hard to empower staff to do their job and to expect nothing less than excellence from them. To be [diligent] in his relations with the City Council. To listen carefully for the wisdom of the citizens. And to teach the county commissioners the meaning of cooperation. Good things will follow."
Robert Herold COMMUNITY CRITIC
A former political science professor at Eastern Washington University, Herold is well-versed in the civic affairs of the Lilac City. He now writes a weekly column for The Inlander, tackling in his editorials recent issues like the city's growth planning and the widening of Interstate 90.
Powers wins Bs from Herold for his performance as strong mayor and in resolving the River Park Square mess.
"Powers gets points for appointing an effective and capable administrator [Jack Lynch]," he says. "He also has raised and driven a number of important issues -- the budget being the most important. He took on the difficult issue of the reserve and deserves points for this as well."
Herold notes that relations with the county are at an "all-time low," however. "The mayor didn't cause the problem, but it festers on his watch."
Similarly, the poverty issue is one Powers inherited and that continues to dog the city's working folks. "Powers placed poverty at the top of his list of campaign promises," says Herold. "To date, he has nothing much to show for his efforts."
Chris Marr COMMUNITY CRITIC
Marr is one of those people who can function like a canary in the mineshaft for Powers: Thumbs down from him means the mayor is losing oxygen from the business community. Marr is vice president of Foothills Lincoln-Mercury/Mazda and the chairman-elect of the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce.
He gives Powers mixed grades. In the middle are a C and a C+ grade for regionalism and defining the strong mayor position, respectively. Like much of Powers' work, says Marr, the mayor has taken important first steps, particularly in recognizing that regional cooperation is vital to Spokane. Yet first steps do not a journey make, and the "net result of his initiatives are not very evident." In defining the strong mayor, Powers spent too much time early "on the trappings of office, which may have furthered his popularity with the voting public, but which cost him valuable opportunities to forge strong early relationships with the [City] Council and key business leaders."
Marr might have failed Powers half a year ago, but believes the mayor is hitting his stride with strong stances on issues like urban growth, annexation and a fiscally conservative budget.
Powers' low point, in Marr's opinion, is his handling of River Park Square, which he grades an F. The worst misstep was Powers' failure to offer his negotiating talent to last summer's effort by several city councilors to negotiate a settlement, says Marr.
On a brighter point, Powers wins a B grade in addressing poverty. Powers' efforts to pass tax increment financing and win an empowerment zone designation are "small steps up a long, steep mountain," says Marr.
John Talbott COMMUNITY CRITIC
Spokane's former mayor, Talbott was unseated by political newcomer Powers in the November 2000 election. Talbott remains knowledgeable and opinionated about Spokane public affairs, at least in part because some of those affairs continue to entangle him, particularly River Park Square. Resolving the RPS imbroglio was one of Powers' platforms in the election. It was an albatross around Talbott's neck, and it appears to be weighing down Powers, too.
As for Powers' handling of RPS, says Talbott, he gets an F. "I don't see that he has contributed anything to it. I think he has moved us further from a solution, not closer to it."
Talbott also fires scathing words at Powers' role in defining the strong mayor position, "because you can't get close to him," and charges that Powers is "out of touch with poverty."
Talbott's central piece of advice: The city needs more money, and Powers must convince the public to support tax increases to build better roads. To do that, says Talbott, Powers must tighten city hall's belt. "Until he demonstrates that he is willing to reduce the burden of overhead, in personal staff and in senior staff at city hall...he's not going to get the tax increases he needs."