by Robert Herold

The word "somnambulism" refers to sleepwalking. I can think of no better word to describe our current Spokane City Council. As our "All-American" city drifts towards Third World status -- a town that can't even figure out a way to keep its libraries open -- members of the council, week after week, seemingly can do no more than give us version after version of "woe is us." Our elected representatives have reduced the concept of political leadership to the shuffling of budget cuts from one box to another. It's as if they are so intent on avoiding the personal acrimony, lawsuits and harangues that characterized past councils that they have determined to avoid politics altogether. Cut the police? Well, OK, where? Cut fire? Gee, we guess so. Cut libraries? Well, golly, that's too bad.

They assure us that they are out "looking for money everywhere." I'm not sure what that means. Are they engaging in a stealth move to reintroduce, say, annexation? The past council, we know, botched this issue. Steve Eugster proposed adding more land to the city. Annex or die, was his message to the city. But after he attended a single citizens' meeting in the Valley, he reported back that "they hate us," so he retreated from the very annexation effort he had first proposed. So went any prospect of annexation to the east. But areas to the south and the southwest remain possibilities, areas where the city has strong claims that even our anti-city, pro-sprawl state Supreme Court could support. So why hasn't the matter come back up? Annexation would be a source of revenue.

Is it that annexation, and perhaps other such issues, are -- heaven forbid -- controversial? Have we so turned away from politics that debate on any serious matter is to be avoided at all costs?

The council dominated by Eugster, Corker, Rodgers and Talbott came into government with a limited bank account of political capital. Faced with a hostile and compromised daily newspaper, they had their task cut out for them. Alas, they confused "issue-raising" with "coalition-building," wasted what political capital they had and left office with little to show for their efforts. But at least they tried. Instead, what we now have is governmental sleepwalking.

It's ironic, isn't it, how far we have run from politics? Former Mayor John Powers, at great political expense to himself, sought to build up a reserve at the cost of pay raises for fire and police. So far as I know, he never considered layoffs. Spokane's Finest wanted nothing of that, so they turned on Powers. Didn't like his style. Well, they got what they asked for -- a mayor who would talk to them, as in "you're fired."

In regard to the budget crisis, knowledgeable people who have been involved with Spokane government for years are shaking their heads. What happened? And why aren't the mayor and council members doing a better job of explaining the problem? Perhaps it's that in order to clearly explain the problem, they'll have to risk engaging in politics -- and we don't want to risk doing that again.

Mayor West, political "pro" that he is, must know exactly what he's doing, and his political skill has been manifest. He's taking only what the course gives him, to borrow the old line about how to succeed at golf. In other words, he's not forcing things. He knows that every budget decision is a political decision, even those disguised in the sanitary language of the bean counter. He knows that the questions aren't how many police officers and fireman are to be laid off, or how many libraries will be closed. Rather, the questions are how these proposed cuts affect our community's quality of life. The mayor is implicitly answering these questions for us. It falls to the council to flesh out the consequences of those answers. Hopefully, the politically charged decision on the River Park Square case this week can help each of them find their inner politician.

Consider all the issues that have a bearing on our public welfare but which have become swallowed up in the sanitized language of the budgeteer. I've mentioned annexation. To this we might add consolidation. Isn't it time to reexamine the issue of creating a regional government -- maybe this time uniting the cities of Spokane and Spokane Valley? Utility rates continue to rise, which only exacerbates our problems. We hear nothing except for talk of additional regressive utility tax increases. Or how about the protection of the Spokane River -- a rather important issue, you might say. Presently Avista is seeking recertification for its dams on the Spokane River. Does the council have anything to say about this? And why doesn't the council weigh in on the Gorge Park initiative? Wouldn't the success of this effort, over time, contribute to our downtown vitality? Then there's the restoration of the Fox Theater. This project won't succeed without strong political leadership. Where is it? As a final issue, what about the University District initiative? Unless the matter of academic programs is addressed, especially in regard to the role of WSU, bricks and mortar it will remain.

Ideally, our elected officials should become leaders, or, at the very least, participants in all these debates and discussions. Instead they seem content to play the role of spectators who just happen to have a vote.

Publication date: 12/09/04

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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.