by Robert Herold

Thanks to Judge James Murphy, political expression remains alive in Spokane. A couple weeks ago, Murphy denied the River Park Square developers the right to seek information regarding conversations Mayor John Talbott, and sitting members of the City Council Steve Eugster, Cherie Rodgers and Steve Corker might have had about the mall and its troubled garage.

Boiled down, the Cowles family alleged that they have been victimized by false statements against the garage project. Specifically, they argue that such talk not only damaged the project itself, but that it resulted in the denial of an important loan to the PDA, further putting the project in jeopardy. Counsel for the bondholders anticipated Murphy's ruling when he pointed out at an earlier hearing before a federal judge that the Cowles side continues to view the garage as a private business deal when it isn't and hasn't been since the very first time they went to the city and asked for help. At that moment, they no longer could lay claim to the same level of confidentiality that they can assume when operating in the private sector.

Judge Murphy's decision stopped this assault on civil liberties, especially the right of free expression. Besides, truth is a defense against libel. Some comments may have derided the project while still being completely accurate.

Sure, there were probably discussions between all these people and community activists outside elected office, including some from Metropolitan Mortgage. This is nothing surprising; the insurgents on the council were not secretive about their feelings about the garage, and they won enough votes to sit in judgment of it. To make such conversations fodder in legal disputes would send a chill through our very political process. And does anyone doubt that these same kinds of conversations have not been taking place on the "other side" of the political aisle for, oh, maybe a century or so?

To no one's surprise, Councilman Eugster took the occasion of the decision to deliver his own version of the "I'm shocked" routine from his pulpit. Not only were the developers the devil incarnate, he seemed to say, but worse yet, they accused him of being tethered to special interests.

Eugster moralized for more than 20 minutes. (A week later, he was to endure a humbling political defeat in his bid for county commissioner at the hands of a political newcomer.)

While he claims nobody tells Citizen Steve what to do, I can think of more than a couple of cases when he changed his tune inexplicably. Sure, his endorsement of mediation in the garage dispute probably ruffled some feathers, but at other times his positions seem to look a lot like those of the people who funded his city council campaign.

During the most recent debate over funding the Downtown Spokane Partnership, Eugster voiced strong opposition and then actually spoke to the concerns of "my clients." Guess what, the only "clients" who should matter in decisions he makes as a council member are citizens, not businesses or idividuals he represents in the private sector.

Then there was the city's aborted attempt to annex Yardley. Early on, Eugster championed the annexation plan; then, almost on a dime, changed his mind. His followers and fans were perplexed. He tried to clear up the mystery by reporting on a neighborhood meeting out in the Valley -- attended, no doubt, by a handful of activists who were pushing for incorporation. "They hate us" was, as I recall, how he characterized reaction to the city's plan. Just a short time before Eugster decided to oppose annexation, two of his supporters had come out in favor of Valley incorporation.

And remember the comprehensive plan debate? Some developers didn't much like that down-zoning. As Barrister Eugster doing land-use law, he finds himself in a situation fraught with built-in conflicts of interest when he acts as Councilman Eugster and rules on land-use issues. But that "no" vote he cast -- the only vote against the plan and the downzoning -- did raise some eyebrows.

Coincidences? Hmmmm...

Long accused of orchestrating a vast conspiracy, it's not surprising that the Cowles family wanted to respond in kind -- by discovering whether their alleged conspiracy was concocted and sold to the public by another competing bunch of conspirators. But in attacking the political process, they overreached, confirming some people's worst suspicions about them.

Meanwhile, Eugster's declarations of independence notwithstanding, his voting record proves that he is subject to the whims of his political faction. There's nothing wrong with that -- that's how political parties work. Just don't tell us you're "untethered" when you, like all politicians, are tethered.

The Cowles family and Eugster don't have much in common, but in this little sideshow in the epic River Park Square saga, they both came off as just plain silly.

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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.