by Robert Herold

Before voting to prohibit more billboards in the city late last year, Council President Rob Higgins and Councilwoman Roberta Greene did it again. They chastised the staff and expressed concern that the business owners who had a direct interest in the outcome of the issue had not received adequate notification of the now 15-year-old effort to ban billboards.

The issue of notifying impacted parties goes back much farther than that, though. Beyond the billboard issue, they referred back to the Comprehensive Plan debate and recalled the many complaints from business owners who reported they had not known about, nor been involved in, any of the meetings that affected their property.

One billboard owner used the word "invited." He actually complained that he had "not been invited" to any meeting of the Plan Commission when the matter of billboard bans had been taken up.

Higgins and Greene issued a strongly worded request to the Plan Department that in the future staff should issue what would amount to special invitations to any and all business owners who might be affected by recommendations under consideration by the department, or the Plan Commission.

Now, setting aside the question of whether the claims of not being invited are just one more stall, what Higgins and Greene ask of the staff is both unworkable and inappropriate. What's more, it stands as yet one more example of political irresponsibility manifested by our elected leadership.

How exactly is staff supposed to go about issuing all these special invitations? Registered mail? Signed letter? Courier? Smoke signal? Do we ask that staff members get the invitees to sign on the dotted line so as to give members of the council something to wave in the air when the complaints about not being invited come in?

And just who should be invited? All business owners? Or just representative business owners? And if not all business owners, who is to say that the ones invited will be the right ones? And we haven't even bothered to concern ourselves with ordinary citizens who might be affected by the special interests of business owners who have been selected for special treatment. How about these citizens? Should they receive that registered letter, or that knock on the door from the courier?

More important, such action on the part of the staff would be grossly inappropriate. Effectively what Higgins and Greene demand is that the staff make political judgments. Handing out special notifications is not a neutral exercise. By deciding to decide who gets special notification and who doesn't, the staff is engaging in a political act. And staff isn't supposed to do this sort of thing. Indeed, it is just this sort of action that gets staff into trouble. While Higgins and Greene no doubt view special notification as nothing more or less than a courtesy, to me it's just one more cozy relationship -- one more example of what in Spokane's political life amounts to the relentless institutionalization of conflict of interest.

Haven't we learned anything from the Lincoln Street Bridge fiasco, or the River Park Square project? If any message is clear, it is that political leadership should not put staff in the danger of showing favoritism, nor should staff, on its own, get into the danger of showing favoritism.

So what is the solution? How can the council avoid being ambushed at the eleventh hour by special interests who seek to obscure the issue by claiming to have missed out on getting their special treatment?

What might work is the exercise of political responsibility by those elected to provide it.

If the council sees the need to provide special treatment to special interests, then it should fall to the council take on the job. It should fall to the council, not the staff, to draw the distinctions -- which interests need to be contacted, which don't, which interests do we want to hear from, which interests are not important to the debate, who has standing, who doesn't, who might contribute to the deliberation and how?

To accomplish this, I suggest that the new council of 2002 consider adopting an addition to its regular meeting schedule.

Historically, the council takes testimony and then, from time to time, offers up debate before taking a vote. The council does not hold hearings in the usual sense of the term. The State Legislature holds hearings, and Congress holds hearings. The council takes testimony, when anyone can come down and talk about anything that has even the slimmest of associations with the matter being discussed. Dialogue seldom follows.

Hearings are different altogether. When legislative bodies hold hearings, the chair is in charge. The chair (in our case, the council president) determines who will testify and on what question or subject. The chair determines whether the testimony should be in written form and if it must be submitted before the hearing so as to give staff time to respond. Often oaths are issued. Hearings are formal. Taking testimony isn't, and that's a big part of our problem in dealing with the complex issues that have and will continue to face our city.

Were the council to mix in hearings with testimony taking, then the council itself would be required to decide who is heard from and who isn't -- to draw the political distinctions, and to see to it that claims made are routinely critiqued as a necessary part of the deliberative process.

After all, what we are after is deliberation -- the very thing that legislative bodies have been created to accomplish.

We don't get deliberation when all we do is listen to endless and typically unsupported claims, charges, counterclaims and banter. We get deliberation only when we set out to deliberate.

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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.