by Pia K. Hansen

There they were, almost all five of them, dressed to the nines, lined up against the wall on those stackable cafeteria chairs with gray upholstery. On one side sat a huge yet miserable-looking plant. On the other, a crooked overhead-projected list of "The Newest We Can Do It club members."

Another mayoral candidate forum. It's easy to turn cynical when you've sat through a few of these, because almost all of them follow the same format: an opening statement, a few questions from the audience, some very predictable answers from the candidates and then that's the end of that. And let's keep it short, shall we? Apparently voters' attention spans drop exponentially the closer we get to an election -- this one lasted just 40 minutes.

What happened to the actual debate? Just because television does debates in 30-second sound bites doesn't mean all debates have to follow that format. Too often, they do.

Tuesday afternoon, city councilman Steve Corker, journalist Tom Grant, Mayor John Powers, former mayor Sheri Barnard and Brian Murray -- representing Senator Jim West, who was in Olympia doing state senate business -- faced about 80 people, mostly seniors, at one of the last forums before the election.

"What did you all bring notes for? You don't need any notes for this," said Barnard to the other candidates, as she walked toward her seat on the panel.

"Howdy. I stand before you in borrowed shoes," said Grant, who clearly didn't follow The Spokesman-Review's Queer Eye for the Candidate fashion advice.

"This new form of government is different and it works," said Powers, who'd like to keep his job.

"I'm the only senior candidate here," said Corker, playing the age card in an unusual way.

"It's time for Senator West to return home and do good things for Spokane," said Murray, making some wonder what exactly West has been doing in Olympia lately.

All right, enough of the cheap shots.

Barnard got to give her opening statement first.

"After 10 years of watching the divisiveness at City Hall, I'm ready to go at it again," she said. "There are many things we need to address. I'd like for all of you to go down to Dodson's on Riverside tomorrow. That's a beautiful store, but it's isolated on that stretch of Riverside Avenue. We must revitalize that area, it's the historical central area of downtown."

Corker said that first of all, he supports the strong mayor form of government, but he disagrees with the way Powers has done the job.

"The mayor should be a good communicator and not isolate himself," said Corker. "I'm committed to open government." He added that he was the one who started the broadcast of the afternoon briefing sessions the city council has every Monday.

"That's where most of the budget and business decisions are being made, and people should be able to follow that," he said.

Grant has labeled himself as the grassroots candidate, campaigning with free hot dogs and bright yellow T-shirts reading 'The Grin Will Win.'

"I guess I'm unemployed, so I know what that's like," he said. "We must bring more jobs to Spokane -- that should be our first priority, followed by crime prevention and better streets."

Powers took the humble approach in his opening statement.

"Elected officials need a little dose of humility sometimes, so they don't forget that the world doesn't revolve around them," he said, responding to the allegation that he has isolated the mayor's office. "We have made some mistakes. But we have also invited the city council back to join us on the same floor as the mayor's office, and we hope they'll take us up on that." Powers added that he had vetoed property tax increases that came with regular intervals before he was elected, and that the city now has a reserve fund.

"We have also focused on public safety. Crime is down," said Powers, "but we have more to work on, property crime especially."

Murray, speaking on behalf of West, also brought a clear set of priorities:

"First the streets, then safe neighborhoods and, finally, we need to get the economy moving," he said. "When we have a developer who puts up a billboard that says 'Don't move your business to Spokane,' then there's clearly something wrong. We must focus on retaining small businesses here and we must get past the pettiness."

Before the debate got started, people in the audience had handed in questions to debate moderator Joyce Wright. Audience questions often hold surprises, and this afternoon's stack was no exception: One person wanted to know what the candidates planned to do about the West Nile Virus.

"Mosquitoes breed in water, inside tires, around places that aren't that well kept up. We need to look at how we do code enforcement," said Grant. "Perhaps we could give some of the code enforcement to the neighborhoods."

Powers said that's an obvious job for the Spokane Regional Health District (SRHD), but that the city obviously should help in any way possible.

Corker, who's on the SRHD board, said the district is already spraying for mosquitoes and monitoring deaths of birds and small mammals.

"We should of course work with the SRHD," said Barnard. "They work hard also dealing with AIDS, with kids not getting their immunizations and with some who don't get enough to eat. These are all big issues we need to deal with all the time."

Another audience member -- clearly frustrated by leaving messages and being forwarded to new people -- wanted to know what, if elected, any of the candidates would do to improve phone service at City Hall.

"In 1990, I said I wanted the city council meetings out to the community and people said it couldn't be done. But it could -- now we meet at the community centers once a quarter," said Barnard. "I also did the mayor's walk. I did everything possible to be available."

Corker said it's hard returning all messages, especially considering that he gets about 25 phone calls, 250 e-mails and 60 letters every day.

"I try to answer everyone," he said. "It's a challenge, but there is no excuse for not getting back to people within five days."

Powers ensured everyone that a lot is being done to return calls and messages. "We do our very best to answer the hundreds, sometimes thousands of calls we get every day," he said. "Sometimes people with specific questions about pool hours or potholes or something else have to be redirected to the right departments, but we do the best we can."

Grant had his own solution. "I'd call it Tuesdays with Tom. I'd be there, and city staff would be there, and we would do what we can to deal with people's questions right there, on the spot," said Grant, explaining that he'd like to spend at least the entire afternoon doing this.

Murray, speaking for West, said it's simple: "Answering the phone is about providing customer service. We must do that."

A bit more meaty was a question about whether Spokane needs a livable wage. There is an ordinance before the city council suggesting that anyone who's a city employee, or has a contract with the city, should be paid or pay employees between $15-$18 an hour.

Most candidates thought that was too much.

"In principle, I support a livable wage, but quite frankly, our economy can't handle $15 or $18 an hour," said Corker.

Grant said he's opposed to the ordinance, which he predicts will discourage businesses.

Powers said the city has done a lot of work with business empowerment zones and that people need to make at least around $24,000 annually to meet their needs comfortably.

"We could make exceptions for business startups and for smaller businesses," he said, "but we do need to raise the bar in this community."

Barnard said she supports the ordinance, with exceptions for small businesses.

"They have an ordinance in Bellingham -- it has worked great," she said. "I work at the YWCA, and I see the young mothers who can't afford to own a house and feed their children at the same time. We must do something about this."

West is opposed to any such ordinance.

"It's an example of government interfering with businesses," said Murray, speaking on the senator's behalf. "It's going to prevent business growth."

And so another mayoral forum was over, this one held at a time when many voters have already made up their minds -- and with many others having already voted by mail.

The primary election is Tuesday, Sept. 16.

Publication date: 09/11/03

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