There are strong Strong Mayors but also weak Strong Mayors. A strong Strong Mayor complements the formal authority of the office with effective political leadership. The weak Strong Mayor relies principally on formal authority. By reducing the office down to formal authority, i.e., the "CEO" role, we miss the point. Public administration doesn't foreclose on political leadership, but neither does it demand it.
These two responsibilities, public administration and political leadership, are inexorably connected. A mayor who messes up on the CEO front fails, but so, too, does the mayor who has no vision or is unable to make the case for his or her vision.
Grading his first term, I'd say that on the CEO front, at best, Mayor David Condon rates a C-; as for political leadership, giving him every the benefit of the doubt, a B-. Combined, we see a weak Strong Mayor performance.
Consider his campaign claims: a) he succeeded in making Spokane more friendly to business; b) he improved policing; and c) he made serious progress cleaning up the Spokane River.
As Inlander Publisher Ted McGregor noted last week, Condon fired both Scott Chesney and Frank Straub, yet he now takes credit for what they did. To quote Saturday Night Live's Church Lady, "Isn't that special."
As regards to the CEO role, the the C- trail leads directly to Jan Quintrall. When she moved against Chesney, he was working with Ben Stuckart, Jim Frank, Amber Waldref and others to introduce "form-based" zoning to Spokane, a form of zoning that actually would have made it far easier to develop in West Central and along Hamilton Street. No surprise, Chesney's initiatives have stalled, and a year later, following a failed search, we still have interim leadership in the planning department. Thus the C- also reflects his poor judgment in hiring an underqualified person, then giving her very broad authority.
About policing: Taking Condon at his word, he fired Chief Straub only because senior officers objected to how he treated them. A strong Strong Mayor would have asked these officers the critical question: "Given the SPD post-Otto Zehm mess we needed to address, would it have made any difference had Straub been Mr. Nice Guy? Or were your wagons going to circle no matter what?" Condon has sent a message to both the police and community: "They complain, I cave. That's the price of popularity." Fits the classic profile of a weak Strong Mayor.
About the river: A strong Strong Mayor would by this time have moved beyond generalities, i.e., "made serious progress." He would have done the job of educating the public (which Jim West did on the street issue); the public would know exactly the nature of the problem, the difference between swales, storage tanks and water usage, and the threat to the city and region. I bet you could ask 50 people to explain the issues surrounding the Spokane River and get 50 different answers.
All this brings us to the City Council elections, which will impact Condon's second term. Forget the meaningless liberal vs. conservative labels — instead, follow the money trail. Here's where the picture becomes clear: If you value city neighborhoods and the downtown, you vote for Lori Kinnear and Karen Stratton; if you favor more urban sprawl, you vote for LaVerne Biel and Evan Verduin (who, by the way, has zero experience).
Biel and Verduin are getting money from the West Plains, from the Valley, even from Liberty Lake. Kinnear and Stratton are not.
Adding to his weak Strong Mayor performance, on several issues Condon has seemed oddly disengaged. For example, when the backlash came his way after the Chesney firing, he seemed dumbfounded, more so because the backlash came from strange political bedfellows — developers, neighborhood groups and members of the Plan Commission, all united around the John McEnroe-esque line: "Mr. Mayor, you cannot be serious!" Classic weak Strong Mayor.
As for his higher grade on the political leadership front, the case can actually be made that he owes this to his good fortune of having to work with an energized and bright, veto-proof City Council. For Condon, it's been a win-win. When he agrees with the majority — something he does more than 85 percent of the time — he gets a photo op with Ben Stuckart. When things don't work out, he can say, "Hey, don't blame me."
But if Stratton and Kinnear both lose, Condon loses that buffer. And then his money likely will really begin to talk. Voters are advised to consider this prospect.
Thus, Spokane is still looking for its first strong Strong Mayor. John Powers was an amateur. Jim West self destructed. Dennis Hession had no vision. Mary Verner had limited presence. Mayor Condon? Overall, he gets a C.
Still, he's about to be given a second chance to become Spokane's first strong Strong Mayor. He has a ways to go. ♦