While early polling isn't entirely clear (is it ever?), evidence suggests that some voters want to toss out the strong mayor form of government because they want to toss out Mayor John Powers. This confusion works to the advantage of those who claim to stand for "reasonable government" but who have gone out of their way to hijack the electoral process. The sponsors of the strong mayor referendum cornered the city council into calling for a decision about the fate of the city in a premature election likely to produce the smallest possible turnout.
When asked about the strong mayor system, we hear some people say that they don't believe Powers has done the job, so we need to bring back the city manager system. This analysis makes no sense, of course, but that's not really the point. Does it make sense to vote in favor of both raising and lowering taxes via statewide initiatives, as voters have done? No. To some voters, perception has become reality, and that makes for unpredictable elections. As far as the future of the strong mayor system is concerned, anything can happen.
But the debate isn't really being framed properly. The issue isn't whether Spokane should have a strong mayor or a city manager system. The question really is, do you favor a strong mayor system of government or a strong council system of government? And if Powers' numbers are low, they don't get anywhere near the dismal 5 percent or so approval rating earned by the council in recent polls.
Powers certainly can challenge these perceptions. He has made several strategic and tactical moves of great significance, moves that demonstrate both courage and insight. Take his high-level appointments, for example: The important ones have been good to excellent:
* He has a city attorney who has been able to reorganize the office into something that looks and acts more like a law firm and less like a haven for those who view their role as expediting the agendas of preferred special interests.
* For the first time, over the objections of some on the council, the city now has a professional chief financial officer.
* His appointment of Laurel Siddoway as special counsel on the parking garage case has also proved to be a solid choice. In managing to move the case to federal court where the discovery process was broadened, Siddoway relieved the case of the pressures of local politics, a critical accomplishment.
* The appointment of Jack Lynch as city administrator also proved to be a good choice. While Lynch can be flinty, his overall performance has been most effective -- especially when compared to our past couple city managers, produced by the form of government some want to return to.
These are big changes: Competent management of the city is a major corner to turn. On the other hand, however, it's disappointing that Powers has wasted so much political capital and burned bridges on matters not nearly as important.
Any number of items can be mentioned: His mid-level staff appointments, those of a more obviously political nature, have drawn fire. Nor have his political communication skills been very good. He should by now be the darling of the business community, given his stance on the budget; his support in that sector, however, remains quiet, which says much about how muddy his performance has been.
And then there is his anti-poverty campaign. The public wants a leader who demonstrates a clear understanding of government and the art of governing. Neither impression was created by One Spokane.
Nor has Mayor Powers developed a reputation for being a good listener -- some say you only get a nanosecond before he launches into yet another locker room rah-rah speech. Nor has he done a particularly good job of cultivating his supporters, which should include even the troublesome unions.
So while his accomplishments haven't been effectively communicated, his failures -- even those just of style -- have been magnified. (The Spokesman-Review appears to be only too glad to exacerbate this weakness by its silence about his accomplishments.) But whatever the reason, Powers' fate matters less to me than does the fate of the strong mayor form of government. If his numbers improve and the strong mayor appears to be safe from guilt by association, then no doubt Powers has many accomplishments he can run on. But should his numbers not improve -- and I mean over the next three weeks or so -- then the mayor might be faced with a Torricellian moment. (Sen. Robert Torricelli stepped aside during his troubled reelection campaign, allowing another Democrat, Frank Lautenberg, to keep the seat in New Jersey.) In Spokane, if Powers is dragging the strong mayor system down (fairly or not), perhaps a Lautenberg may need to be enlisted to step in and save the office -- that is to say, a candidate with similar policy goals, like Al French or Dennis Hession.
In the meantime, candidates who have the media's attention must speak out for keeping the strong mayor system. Voters need to be reminded that the new system, although already paying dividends, will take some time to gel -- and that the effort itself was funded by grumpy city employees, whose union paid for the signature-gathering effort.
In a way it's not fair: Powers only got a three-year term to establish himself and the new office, and he inherited a pair of cement boots in the form of the parking garage issue. Now he not only has to run for reelection in a town famous for dethroning incumbents, but he also has to defend the fledgling strong mayor system. But nobody said it would be fair: his first step back from the brink needs to be to shore up his support and make his case to the voters, preventing a Torricellian moment from ever happening. Buoyed by his good appointments, helped by some changes in style and approach, complimented by wiser council leadership and with the garage issue on a track of its own, a second Powers administration would certainly be stronger than his first.
Publication date: 07/24/03