by Robert Herold

If necessity is the mother of invention, Spokane needs to discover the political equivalent of the light bulb. Necessity is upon us. Because our form of government is based on the separation-of-powers model, we have a disgraced mayor who cannot be removed short of recall or conviction -- both of which, it seems, are long shots.

Our strong-mayor system isn't the problem: We face this problem because of the separation of powers in our city charter. Separation of powers, while not the invention of Americans, defines government in America from the federal level down to the states and cities. Congress holds the power of impeachment over the president. Our state governors wield executive powers while our state legislatures legislate. Now we hear that our City Council, frustrated by Mayor Jim West's refusal to resign, will consider ways to alter the city charter so as to make it possible for a council to dump a mayor. At press time, we don't know what kind of change will be proposed, but a good guess is that it will take the form of impeachment, local government-style. It's an understandable response, but we need to be concerned that the council, in its efforts to fix an immediate problem, will back the city into the old, discredited council-manager system, albeit in a slightly different form. The end result would be the same: Any council majority (or perhaps super-majority) could fire any mayor.

Or perhaps the reasons for impeachment could be restricted to criminal offenses (which would, at this stage, let Mayor West off the hook). This approach would only reaffirm the tradition of associating political accountability with possible criminal action. What we should realize by now is that proving the latter is so time-consuming and costly as to make such a reform all but moot.

I suggest bold action that would improve our existing strong mayor system and break new ground in American governance while still making it possible for the city to deal with its Mayor West problem immediately.

The key to success lies in the establishment of reciprocal accountability -- mayor to council, council to mayor. Reciprocal accountability is what distinguishes the parliamentary form of government from ours. Our founders wanted no part of this model, if for no other reason than England was developing just such a system. Moreover, parliamentary systems are highly dependent on strong parties, and the founders feared parties almost as much as monarchies. Rather than reciprocal accountability, our framers headed to separation of powers.

I suggest that reciprocal accountability is of vital importance to the success of representative government. Our system of government (no matter the level of government) is left open to irresponsibility, even demagoguery, because our framers failed to consider its importance.

So if the West case leads us to reform the charter, why not do it right? Why not take the opportunity to break new ground by addressing not just the accountability problem (mayor to council) but the reciprocal accountability problem as well?

Some goals:

* We protect the strong mayor form of government and not back into the old and failed council-manager system through bad reforms.

* We find a way for the mayor to be held politically accountable to the council -- the operative word is "politically," because we don't need or want the lawyers involved.

* We find a way for mayors to hold the council politically accountable, to create balance.

* We seek to minimize governmental instability.

To accomplish these goals we must agree on one central point: Loss of confidence in leadership is more than enough cause all by itself for removal from office. High crimes and misdemeanors are irrelevant except to the extent proof (or appearance) of such leads to a loss of confidence.

With this as our working precept, we would design into the charter reciprocal accountability that holds the promise of minimal threat to stability. So a unanimous council vote of no confidence in the mayor would trigger an immediate special election. (Note: not a majority, nor even super-majority, but unanimous -- remember, stability is of high priority.) Then the voter would be given two choices: support for the council's resolution, or support for the mayor. If the council wins, then the council president becomes interim mayor and a special mayoral election is held as soon as possible. If the mayor survives, then all council members stand for reelection at the earliest possible election.

Now here comes the groundbreaker: If a mayor loses confidence in any council, he or she can dissolve the council (just as a prime minister can dissolve the parliament). The voters are given the same two choices they would have if the no confidence vote had been directed at the mayor. If the mayor wins, then all council members must stand for reelection. If the mayor loses, he is out and must stand for reelection. By giving both sides the same power, you preserve the protections found in the separation of powers by a different route.

This change would allow the council to deal immediately with the Mayor West problem. Assuming a unanimous no-confidence vote that would be supported by the voters, West would step aside and the city would hold that special election immediately. This isn't a recall vote. It is not dependent on proof of anything, other than no confidence. What it does is fix responsibility and build in, for the first time, reciprocal accountability.

We can assume that either side would seek to trigger a no-confidence vote only under dire circumstances -- such as the case of a mayor who has acknowledged that he trolls chat rooms in search of sexual relationships with teenagers.

Publication date: 06/02/05

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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.