Over the next several weeks, our two mayoral finalists must make clear their positions on the River Park Square garage case. Jim West tells us that after the election he will reexamine the city's legal strategy. This amounts to a non-position position. If, after almost eight years of public acrimony, hundreds of news stories and the discovery process all but completed, West hasn't learned enough about the case to take a clear position, he shouldn't be elected mayor. And if he just wants to keep his opinions to himself for now, he'll only feed the suspicion that, if elected, he will somehow engineer a Cowles-friendly settlement via the mediation process. It is true that, come January, such a last-minute solution is the Cowles' only off-ramp before a jury gets to make the call -- when anything can happen. West needs to answer this question.
Tom Grant faces a different problem. Unlike West, he has a strongly held position, but one that paints him into a corner from which there is only limited support. I refer to the conspiracy theory that he used to rally the true believers during the primary. This approach may be good enough to solidify those 9,000 or so votes he won, but if he is serious about getting elected, he needs a message on River Park Square that fits the facts of the case. Failing to do this, at least in part, is what doomed John Talbott's reelection bid.
If Grant has read the depositions, he must realize what even so doubting a Thomas as Steve Corker now accepts -- that there is plenty of blame to go around. Corker's one-third/one-third/one-third solution may have been too tidy, but he was on the right track in recognizing that the facts show many culpable parties. In Grant's worldview, the Cowles did it. In reality, yes, the Cowles did it, but so did the city council, city staff, the city's bond attorney, various other lawyers, the firm hired to gauge parking demand and the firm hired to make sure the fine print of the deal penciled out.
That's the case that is being pursued by Laurel Siddoway, and Grant needs to study her defense. (It's clear that earlier in the campaign, he wasn't familiar with the city's pleadings.) Grant has been critical of Siddoway, but in a knee-jerk sort of way. Now that the stakes are higher, he may even want to consider endorsing her strategy prior to the general election -- or at least explain which parts of it he supports. This would anger some in his base, who break out in hives at the hint of anything touched by Powers, but he needs to ask himself: Do I want to be popular with my base or actually get elected? We have to view Grant as a long shot at this point, so he needs to prove he's not on the fringe that has often characterized the opponents of River Park Square.
To those who think the city had the wool pulled over its eyes by the developer all those years ago, consider Roy Koegen's recently released deposition. While discussing meetings held in the summer of '96, the city's former bond attorney was asked if the purchase price came up.
Keogen: "It was my view that the city should not have paid more than $18 million for the garage."
He told his inquisitors that he got that number from Pete Fortin, the city's top negotiator on the garage deal. He then says that he became concerned when council members were pushing the price above that $18 million: "It was my understanding that the city was not trying to acquire a parking garage for the best price it could." Nonetheless, the city council instructed Koegen to "proceed to acquire the parking garage and to take all necessary actions that we should."
Fortin and Koegen then took the $18 million price to Bob Robideaux, the developer's agent.
"What was the developer's reaction?" Koegen was asked.
"We had killed the project," he answered.
Yes, indeed. The developer wanted more coin of the realm, i.e., taxpayer dollars. So we see confirmed, yet again, that the price was artificially inflated. We all know what happened next: The city agreed to a higher price than the $18 million its own lawyer counseled. You can see how this will be argued by the bondholders' lawyers when the federal case starts in April: The partners -- the developer and the city council -- ultimately had a figure of about $26 million in mind, and they all worked backwards to reach it, even pumping up parking studies if necessary. Although it will also be argued that only the developer saw all the numbers, it's hard to see how the city council of 1996-97 was completely duped.
Then, a few years later, with the garage failing and no help in sight, the revamped city council was asked to fund the garage's shortfalls; it refused. But that was not the end of the story. Again, from Keogen's testimony:
Keogen: "I was requested to call Stacey Cowles and try and get the Spokesman-Review to do an analysis of what would happen to Spokane if its rating was downgraded."
Q: "And which council person asked you to make that contact?
A: "I believe it was Phyllis Holmes, I think, I'm not certain, but that's my memory."
Q: "Did you have this conversation then with Stacey Cowles pursuant to Mrs. Holmes request?"
A: " I do remember talking to him at least once on the telephone."
Q: "Tell me what you remember about that conversation with Cowles."
A: "That was, I remember one of the things I remember about that conversation is that I was urging him to have a reporter investigate what would happen if the city was downgraded in terms of cost of services, those sorts of things."
A sitting member of the council goes to the city's bond lawyer and pressures him to ask the publisher of the city's daily newspaper, which just happens to be the party of the first part, to push for a story undermining a decision that the city has duly made. Extraordinary! It would be hard to explain to the state Supreme Court that this is how someone who was badly duped would behave. No, the city is on the hook for something -- but how much depends on the defense the city puts on in April
The realities of the issue dictate that Grant rethink his position. If he continues to play to his base with his "paint myself in a corner" strategy, West will win by doing nothing more than playing out his "talk to me later" routine. And if this happens, Spokane could come out the loser, both politically and financially.