To decide what form of government Spokane should have, as voters are being asked to do on Tuesday, you need to boil down all the rhetoric to a more basic level: What do we expect from our government? It's a simple question that can be answered with two words: competence and innovation. American corporations spend millions of dollars and hand out thousands of shares of stock options to hire decision-makers who can meet these criteria. In Spokane, too many bemoan how expensive it is to reach for the same goals.
Finding leaders who are competent and innovative does not depend on the form of government. Count us among those who believe that the people in government make a bigger difference than the system. That said, however, the evidence is overwhelmingly clear that the strong mayor system not only allows competent and innovative leaders to be more effective, but that the office is also more likely to attract competent and innovative leaders.
It's a harsh new world out there for cities like ours. The federal government is running record deficits, spending more money on rebuilding Iraq than on rebuilding America's crumbling infrastructure. Most states are flat broke. Cities are left to fend for themselves, and the competition among them for economic development is fierce. It's a struggle, and unless Spokane gets in the game, it will continue to stagnate. Much has been made of how many cities about our size use the council-manager form of government. That's a useless statistic. What's more enlightening is to look to the cities we should emulate -- the dynamic cities routinely listed as among the most desirable places to live -- and find out what system they employ. Here's a short list that use the strong mayor system: Seattle, Minneapolis, Boise, Denver, Albuquerque, Portland (in a hybrid form) -- even Beaverton and, most likely come this fall, Tacoma. We should wonder, how have these cities risen to prominence? The answer is, they have invested in good decision-making, and their form of government has allowed them to prosper.
So let's compare the council-manager form of government to the strong mayor form, when it comes to these key criteria:
Competence This issue can be broken down into two pieces: delivery of services and decision-making.
On the face of it, you'd think that the old council-manager form of government would have the edge in the delivery of services, with its focus on professional, apolitical, disinterested management. But that hasn't been the case. Take garbage: The old regime built an expensive and perhaps unhealthy trash burner without a public vote. As history has shown, the people (who never would have voted for the project) were wiser than the pros. Or how about the city sewering vast swaths of the Valley and West Plains over the past 20 years? It was a fine "professional" decision rendered silly by the failure to follow through politically with annexation. And when did the roads go to hell? It didn't just happen in the past three years. Edge: Strong Mayor
As for decision-making, it is true that more power is concentrated in the mayor's office under the strong mayor system. Much of that power used to reside in a hired manager and seven part-time council members. The past decade or so has offered a lesson in what happens when increasingly complex issues collide with a decision-making apparatus ill-equipped to deal with them. Oftentimes, ideas were hatched among well-meaning city staff, then were sold to the council members, many of whom only dropped by city hall once a week. So who really ran Spokane then, the city staff or the council? The costly Lincoln Street Bridge survived after one council thought it had killed the project. After the River Park Square plan was adopted, the council allowed the city manager to hammer out the crucial final details. A part-time council facing increasingly difficult issues was a recipe for disaster, and it has exploded in the parking garage mess.
Under strong mayor, the elected leader is 100 percent responsible to the voters. Any strong mayor interested in reelection would have taken the River Park Square plan and put it on the ballot for the people to decide. Today we still have that part-time council to hash through policy the way Congress does (although some serve full time), but we also have the full-time, adequately funded leader necessary to at least grapple with the profound challenges of modern municipal life. Edge: Strong Mayor
Innovation This is a crucial element of any successful city. Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith's experiments with privatization, Seattle Mayor Charles Royer's recognition of downtown housing as a key to civic health and New York City Mayor Rudolph Guiliani's zero-tolerance policy that cleaned up Manhattan are all innovations that helped those cities thrive. The same old ways of doing things aren't working. Hoping for a Microsoft to land in a local business park is the old way of doing things; reengineering the city to tap into the dynamics of the amorphous new economy would qualify as innovation. You can competently deliver services all you want, but it's no guarantee that you'll be creating a dynamic city that will survive and thrive into the coming century. That's why innovation is such a crucial piece of the leadership puzzle.
Under the old system, the paradigm was not to screw up -- apolitical city managers don't like to take chances. If innovation ever came out of the old city council or mayor -- and it did from time to time -- it was a struggle to turn it into policy. John Talbott harped on implementing a city auditor for most of his term; his failure to make it happen proves that the old system stifled innovation. Strong mayors like Goldsmith, Royer and Guiliani can turn ideas -- whether from voters, from other cities or hatched in their own heads -- into reality. Edge: Strong Mayor
There are a couple of persistent myths that need to be dispelled about the strong mayor system, too. Somehow people think that the council-manager offers professional management while the strong mayor does not. Not true. The city has a professional manager; his name is Jack Lynch. The system currently in place calls for the hiring of a manager to administer the day-to-day details of running a city.
Another complaint is that the council and the mayor don't get along. Here's a news flash: They're not supposed to. When your legislative body is a set of greased skids, you get $500 billion-and-counting deficits. It's called checks and balances, and it's the system envisioned by the Founding Fathers. If the city council and the mayor get along too well, that's when citizens should start worrying. Of course everyone should be civil -- and the discourse in City Hall is improving -- but expecting everyone to get along is a na & iuml;ve take on how government should function.
Finally, how this vote landed on the ballot matters. As in California, where a well-funded minority forced a statewide recall, what we have here is special interests trying to change the city's path to suit their needs. The signatures required to get this item on the ballot were gathered by paid collectors, not volunteer activists. Their efforts were funded by a public employees union, apparently upset over contract negotiations (although recently they have claimed to be acting altruistically). The point is that, with all due respect to our city employees, they work for us. Attempting to dictate our form of government is not in their job description. They can vote like any other citizen, but active lobbying of this kind is inappropriate.
Rewarding this kind of behavior will only embolden other special interests. Many voters are seeking stability in this election, but throwing out the strong mayor will bring us just the opposite. If the system is in fact thrown out after Tuesday's vote, shouldn't we expect another run at reinstalling the strong mayor system? The result of such an ongoing tug-of-war would be disastrous for Spokane, as instead of fighting for progress we could wind up stuck in a whirlpool of political schizophrenia for years to come.
Spokane needs all the help it can get, and the strong mayor system offers it the best chance to become the kind of city most people want it to be.
Election Day is Tuesday, Sept. 16.
Publication date: 09/11/03