Spokane Mayor Jim West has become an Untouchable ... but not in a pariah sense after his admissions of sex with boys in their late teens, or because he has been accused of molesting boys in a Scout troop decades ago.
West is an untouchable because he is the city's elected strong mayor. The city's political architecture makes it nearly impossible for West to be removed from office.
Unless West resigns -- and he has shown no inclination, despite a swelling chorus from single moms and business leaders alike -- there are only two ways to remove an elected official from office, says City Attorney Mike Connelly: One is if he dies in office, the other is a recall vote.
Spokane City Councilman Al French says the lack of any ouster mechanism is frustrating.
"At this point, there aren't any checks and balances. The mayor's office has power absolute,'' says French, who this week proposed an amendment to the city charter that would allow the council to discipline or remove a mayor.
In the furor surrounding West in the weeks since the Spokesman-Review began reporting on allegations of sexual misconduct, shortcomings in the city's relatively new strong mayor form of government have come to light.
"It's like being God,'' French says. "Currently, the only one who can punish the mayor is the mayor. What's he going to do, slap his hand with his other hand? It's a limp process.''
West, wearing his trademark brown suit, seemed defiant during a noon-hour press conference at City Hall on Monday. He told an S-R reporter that the newspaper has so far failed to deliver a promised transcript of an interview about the sex-abuse allegations, and that he wants it.
He then called the allegations of molesting "totally without merit.''
He vowed to finish his term.
West began his short recitation Monday by apologizing "to the citizens of Spokane,'' but never said flat-out for what.
The statement then listed three paragraphs of what he says he has not done: never had improper contact with a child, never offered city jobs or favors in return for sex, never used computers inappropriately while on city time.
Then followed a long passage about working hard as mayor even while undergoing surgery for colon cancer before listing "over one hundred'' messages of support from city workers and a vow to "serve out the remainder of my term.''
This left some rolling their eyes. "I checked them -- there are 30,'' e-mails from city workers, Councilwoman Cherie Rodgers says.
"And a lot of those are people saying things like they will pray for him, so it's not exactly what he's saying it is,'' Councilman Bob Apple adds.
It speaks to the level of conflict between the mayor and the council that even the number and nature of e-mails is disputed.
It's clear, some City Hall observers say, West has looked at the odds and figured he can stay in office until the end of the year, when he would qualify for a pension far higher than what he would get after decades as a state legislator.
"We expected him to put the interests of the city ahead of his own,'' Council President Dennis Hession says. "I would hope that at some point he would realize that for him to stay on is a significant impediment for the city to progress and prosper. We are dealing with the consequences on a daily basis. The national publicity that we're getting is not exactly positive."
"Oh sure,'' French adds about the mayor's odds of making it through the year. ``Short of a recall, there is nothing that can get him out of there, and there has never been a [successful] recall in Washington.''
Even before collecting enough signatures to get a recall petition on the fall ballot, French says, "First, you have to get it past a Superior Court judge by showing there was criminal conduct.''
West's conduct may be reprehensible, immoral or unethical, French says, but if it's not criminal, there is little chance of a recall.
Martin Howser, a north Spokane resident who has been a close observer of city politics, said Monday there is nothing new to speculation about West hanging on for a pension.
"When he ran for the mayor's office the first time [in 2000], people were saying he was just doing it to boost his pension,'' Howser said at City Hall Monday.
West's pension, Howser noted, is based on "Two years at your highest salary.'' As mayor, West makes $136,000 a year. Even as a state senate majority leader, West's salary rarely topped $40,000.
Howser, though he takes issue with the mayor's behavior, says "I will not sign a petition for his removal, and I'll tell you why: These are all just accusations and he deserves his day in court.''
West may also deserve the higher pension, Howser said, because of bills from his cancer surgery. "Maybe his condition is arrested now, but what if it comes back?''
If West were offered a deal on salary and health benefits, would he resign?
"I've already posed that question, and we can't do it,'' French says. "As a public official, it would be gifting. There is no golden parachute like there is in the private sector.''
Monday, leaders of two major business groups, the Chamber of Commerce and the Convention and Visitors Bureau, called for West to resign.
Still, they understand West may be around for some time. As Rich Hadley, president and CEO of the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce, puts it, a recall vote "Isn't going to happen any time soon, and that means we have to work on those things that we can control.'' Hadley adds that the chamber's executive board will meet on June 6 to see what other forms of pressure it can exert.
Apple also notes the months-distant prospect of a recall and says council members were kicking around a different idea.
"One of the things we are looking at is an ethics policy, such as Seattle's, which comes with a procedure for removing a strong mayor,'' Apple says.
The ethics policy could be adopted by council vote in about a month, Apple says, even as other council members disagree on whether it would apply to West retroactively.
"I don't know that we're going to have any authority over him for the duration of his term,'' Councilwoman Mary Verner says, adding the legal opinion is still unclear on whether new rules would apply to West.
"I have looked at this and thought, if he takes this intransigent position and stays, then council members need to accelerate our leadership roles in whatever way -- filling in where the mayor might have been the appropriate city leader. I'm willing to deal with that," Verner says.
Ted S. McGregor Jr. contributed to this report.
Publication date: 05/26/05