Grading the Mayor -- The Year That Was

by Pia K. Hansen

When John Powers beat John Talbott in the 2000 mayoral election, it was a bit of a surprise victory. Not only was Powers new to politics, he was a lawyer -- we all know what that can do to your public image -- and he approached his new office with much more of a cheerleader attitude than Spokane had seen at City Hall in a long, long time. During his campaign, he met with virtually every single community group and leader in the entire city. He shook hands and talked about a better tomorrow and about solving problems in a civilized manner involving negotiation and mediation. He was all about win-win solutions, and when one looks at the ups and downs of Powers' first year in office, it's amazing that he still carries that attitude with him.

As Spokane's first strong mayor, Powers quickly set about to define his new office, while politicians and civic activists were still busy arguing over the new power structure at City Hall.

His hiring of Randy Whitrow as chief of staff, Greg Sweeney as director of public and legislative affairs and Martina Simms as his personal secretary immediately landed him in hot water with some city council members who said Powers was overstaffing his office and entrenching himself.

Public servants and activists joined the choir, complaining that it was impossible to gain access to the mayor and that their phone calls weren't returned. The press complained that landing an actual interview with Powers was as hard as getting one with Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.

"It was a bit difficult in the beginning," says County Commissioner John Roskelley. "At first, he just didn't call back -- he left that to the people he had hired."

And other things changed in the mayor's traditional working relationship with boards and commissions across the community. Suddenly, the mayor wasn't part of the city council anymore, although Powers continues to go to some of the meetings, and many boards and commissions that used to have the mayor at their tables found his chair vacant.

"We don't see the mayor in our board meetings," says Roskelley. "The other mayor used to take more of an active role, but as a strong mayor Powers doesn't do that. In some respect that is a loss because you learn a lot about the community and its functions by sitting on boards like STA and solid waste and so on."

But Powers defended his staffing level and later the raises his staff got along with 365 other city employees. And if there's one thing people give Powers credit for today, it's his effort to meet people and return phone calls.

"He's made an enormous effort defining this office. I think he's accessible, and I do believe he did a good job at adequately staffing his office," says Ron Wells, a downtown developer and one of Powers' biggest supporters. "Apparently some people didn't realize he needed staff when he was creating a brand- new office that really was a new branch of government."

Setting Up Shop -- Once he was settled in at City Hall, supporters and opponents alike waited for Powers to make a decision that would prove just how strong a mayor he is. Powers had campaigned saying that the controversy over River Park Square and the infamous parking garage could be settled as a "win-win" solution. Now, asked the citizens of Spokane, when would he deliver?

In the summer, Powers began stepping up to the plate. He vetoed the city council's decision to lend the PDA $800,000 to cover the increasing garage costs. Powers' reasoning was that the city would never have been repaid and that the debt wasn't the city's to pay in the first place. That loan would have come due next week, and it doesn't look like there would have been any money to repay it.

This was the first time Powers vetoed a city council recommendation on a big issue -- and fur went flying. The developer's supporters found the move both stubborn and short-sighted, but those of Powers' opponents who had called him a Cowles-boy had to backtrack.

Lawsuits followed in quick succession, moving the garage controversy to federal court. Toward the end of 2001, Powers' critics -- and even some of his previous supporters -- were beginning to grow increasingly impatient.

"Obviously, the River Park Square controversy is a very complicated issue, and yes, I would have hoped that mediation would have worked by now," says Wells. "Powers has been in office for more than a year now, and River Park Square will be two years old this August. Hopefully something can be worked out soon."

River Park Square and the Cowles family, which owns the development continue to publish great revenue numbers for the mall. "The city had its eyes wide open and got the benefits it bargained for," Betsy Cowles told The Inlander back in September. "The city's [recent] actions have escalated the stakes. Since Powers took office, the issue has become more complicated than it was."

Powers' other critics are still complaining that he hasn't been tough enough, yet he may slowly be gaining support for his famous consensus-building approach.

"I don't agree with everything Powers has done with that controversy, but let's face it: downtown would have been dead without River Park Square," says Roskelley, echoing the views of many who are increasingly tired of the controversy. "I'm sure they'll get it solved; the Cowles family doesn't want it hanging over their heads either."

Growing Pains -- Another hot potato Powers inherited from the previous administration was the passage of the Growth Management Plan. Several years in the making, the blueprint for the city's growth was maturing in April. The mayor kept a low profile during the often heated city council meetings and public hearings, where debates raged over everything from the use of wood stoves to -- perhaps more seriously -- the zoning of mixed-use developments and future urban growth areas. In May, the council passed the "Centers and Corridors" plan by 6-1, voting over Councilman Steve Eugster's loud objections.

And it was growth management that came back to haunt Powers toward the end of his first year in office, when he stood up to Spokane County over an annexation issue that had been brewing for years. At the heart of the latest discussion is the Yardley area, a semi-industrial neighborhood located between the city and the Valley. The city has provided some utility services in that area -- which is in the county -- and now wants to annex it.

County commissioners are not amused, since several big retail stores providing hefty sales and property tax revenues are located in the area.

"Powers has taken a strong stance on this issue," says commissioner Roskelley. "I'm surprised the city is now stepping forward and taking a position on the annexation issue. For the longest time, the city just didn't do that."

Valley residents are not amused either, since they were getting ready to vote on incorporating the Spokane Valley in March. Now the city's appeal to the Boundary Review Board will have to be settled before the Valley gets to have its incorporation vote. Yet another issue has been added to the city's litigation list.

Roskelley remains optimistic about working out the annexation issue: "I think, for the entire community, both the city and the county, we are doing a pretty good job at working it out."

Budget Bipartisanship -- Among the many anticipated hurdles Powers had to clear during last year, at least one was vaulted with relative ease.

The 2002 budget was adopted on time, and it even included a couple of new line items straight from the strong mayor's office. Under the city manager form of government, the city manager worked closely with the city council while developing the budget. Not so with a strong mayor: he simply presents the budget to the city council, which then seeks amendments before approving it.

The City Council struggled with its new role, with some council members feeling left on the sidelines. In an effort, perhaps, to exert some authority, the council approved a one percent property tax increase, which was not part of the mayor's plan.

Powers, on the other hand, won a much-desired $2.1 million reserve fund and a one percent allocation to the city's human services program.

In the end, the budget was passed unanimously by the city council, and some say the passage of the budget is a great example of how this new type of government should be working out -- and of how Powers is able to build consensus in the community.

"I think the strong mayor type of government is a good idea, and the passage of the budget shows you why," says State Senator James West, who ran against Powers in 2000. "With the budget, you saw negotiations between the council and the mayor. It started out divided, but in the end it came together quite nicely. It's that dynamic of the back-and-forth that I think is a benefit in the long run."

Under the previous form of government, West says it was as if the council members were just quarreling among themselves.

"There was less angst and less confrontation about the budget than I have ever seen in 20 years of watching the city council," says West, who was a Spokane city councilman at one time. "What I think will be interesting is if the council tries to amend the budget during the upcoming year, and to see how the mayor will then deal with that."

Reaching Out -- When Spokane was still debating whether adopting the strong mayor type of government was even a good idea, proponents often said it would give the city a stronger voice on a state and federal level. But West says that so far, not much has changed in Olympia.

"I'd say 90 percent of the legislators don't know that it did change," he says. "But how many people in Spokane know if Tacoma has a strong mayor?"

In the legislative arena, Powers had to fight to keep a budget allocation for a lobbyist in Olympia, and the same goes for the lobbyist who was just recently appointed in Washington D.C. It's the first time in seven years that Spokane has had a lobbyist in the nation's capital.

Powers' opponents took him to task for the spending, arguing that lobbyists were unnecessary and that regular city employees may as well travel to Olympia when needed.

West doesn't agree. "The mayor still comes over here, and [Council President Rob] Higgins was here just last week, but we still need a lobbyist. There are over 3,000 bills introduced in the legislature every year, and you'd like to stay on top of things."

When he served on the Spokane City Council, West says, the council did away with its Olympia lobbyist. "The assistant city manager was essentially the lobbyist," he explains. "But we weren't here [in Olympia] every day, we didn't know what was going on all the time. Frankly, I don't think we were doing nearly as well as we thought we were. A lobbyist can be much more focused on the issues."

A Learning Process -- Powers is the first to admit that his first year in office has been a learning experience for everyone involved. After all, he took office without any prior political experience, and at the same time had to define a new branch of government. Issues will still arise where it needs to be worked out who's actually in charge, the strong mayor or the city council. His supporters maintain that Powers' reluctance to assert his veto-power isn't necessarily a sign of weakness.

"I think he has been diplomatic and he has done a good job of balancing his legal authoritative role as strong mayor that gives him a right to push things, and to work with the council," says Wells. "Being more authoritarian may have worked in the short term, but by being a bit more diplomatic you build better working relationships in the long run."

Roskelley says constituents should be more patient with the process. "When I read the abuse [Powers] gets from the media on River Park Square and from the chamber about not being pro-business enough, I mean -- there are only 24 hours in a day, that criticism is simply not warranted. John [Powers] came in and had a lot of things he wanted to get done fast. He didn't realize how slow things go. He has made some good decisions, but people need to remember that his hands are tied as to how fast he can move and what he can actually do."

When we first talked to Powers back in October about doing this profile, we asked him if he had any advice for a successor in case he had to leave office tomorrow. Here's what he said:

"Delegate all the details, like zoning and water and whatever it may be to the experts, and then you have to be the one looking 20 years ahead. And that vision, everywhere you go, that is what you call forth and sell the best you can. You must believe in the city's potential and that the best days are ahead -- we will be the leading city in the Inland Northwest, but no one can do that alone. We have to work together."

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