The Lincoln Street Bridge, which in the end, along with River Park Square, doomed the council-manager system, serves as a case in point. The city's experts, intent on building a bridge over the falls, claimed that their project would result in the "efficient delivery of services," i.e., ensuring more efficient traffic flow. Opponents argued that the bridge project, experts notwithstanding, was both environmentally unsound and unjustified. So we had here a serious political issue that called for political resolution. But our council-manager system, which denied the very legitimacy of politics, simply could not provide the leadership necessary to resolve the issue. Spokane was facing a growing number of such challenges by the late 1990s. Under the emerging circumstances back then, therefore, voting to end the council-manager form of government made sense. It still makes sense now.
A year or so later, when the strong-mayor form of government was challenged, I once again took to the hustings to make the case. I recall one heated debate I had with former Council President Rob Higgins that ended peaceably only when one of us suggested that we stop shouting at each other out on the sidewalk and go in search of a beer. (By the way, I suggest that should Higgins become interested in being mayor, without question he should be on everyone's short list. He may be the single person in town who has the necessary stature, experience, character, vision, temperament and knowledge of how the sausage is made down in City Hall.)
I must acknowledge, however, that so far, things haven't yet turned out as I had expected. Our community is still waiting for the right mayor to come along. When I thought "strong mayor," I had in mind the likes of Charles Royer, Vera Katz, Joe Riley or Kevin White.
Royer became mayor of Seattle in 1977, just as Seattle was trying to recover from the economic doldrums of the early 1970s -- back when a billboard asked, "Will the Last Person To Leave Seattle Please Turn Out the Lights?" The strong-mayor system was responsible for Seattle's spectacular recovery during the three terms that Royer served. Royer also achieved national attention as a spokesman for American cities in housing, the arts, health care, energy, civil liberties and the needs of children and youth.
Vera Katz, who also served 12 years, was instrumental in the rejuvenation of Portland's neighborhoods and success of the green belt initiative. She worked to make Portland more pedestrian friendly, while encouraging residential life downtown.
The legendary Charleston, S.C., mayor, Joe Riley, who has served since 1975, seized on the importance and opportunity of historic preservation as the key to downtown Charleston's revitalization. He also worked successfully on affordable housing and racial harmony.
Kevin White, at great political risk, threw his weight behind Boston's Quincy Market restoration project as undertaken by developer James Rouse. Despite dire predictions by all the financial experts, Quincy Market -- a 150-year-old downtown market and the Pike Place of Boston -- made more money its first year than any of the other Rouse suburban malls. Without White's bold intervention, there would have been no project.
I hoped that, at the very least, our fair city could produce a "lite" version of Royer, Katz, Riley or White. So far we haven't come close.
John Powers was an amateur who just couldn't figure it out. Jim West could govern, but to what end? And Dennis Hession? He has revealed himself to be a strangely detached and invisible person for whom both leadership and political rhetoric remain a mystery. He has frustrated the City Council, demoralized the staff and exasperated the neighborhoods.
Now we enter into another campaign. As things stand today, Mayor Hession, shortcomings and all, would very likely be swept back into office on a wave of apathy. Al French has announced his candidacy, but French has to be considered a long shot. Councilman Al must know that coming from the over-represented northeast district, he faces a tough citywide campaign. And here's the big mystery for me: French could have laid claim to Mayor
Hession's natural voting constituency on the South Hill (which is a whole lot bigger than French's Nevada-Lidgerwood voting constituency) had he done nothing more during the recent Bernard Street fight than stand up for both the Comprehensive Plan (which he helped write) and Neighborhood Councils (which launched him into politics). Alas, he turned his back both on the plan and two unanimous Neighborhood Council resolutions in opposition to the project. Why? Beats me, but his actions only make his quest more difficult.
Can Mayor Hession, over the next months, show us something that he hasn't yet? Can Al French emerge? Or do we need to turn elsewhere? One thing for certain, Spokane could really use its first "strong" strong mayor; but, as of today, our prospects don't appear all that promising.