by Robert Herold

While others can't seem to decide what do to about a potential referendum on the strong mayor system, Councilman Dennis Hession has made a simple, concise suggestion. On Monday night, he simply asked the backers of the initiative to just drop it. They should heed Hession's advice: Spokane doesn't need, nor can it afford, this distraction.

The immediate issue facing our City Council is just this: Should this item be placed on a May ballot even if the backers of the plan didn't gather enough signatures? The instigators say that all they want to do is avoid confusion on the fall ballot. To begin with, this is an insult to those who care enough to inform themselves and vote; name a fall ballot that hasn't been confusing in the past 10 years. Voters can sort these things out.

No, that argument's a red herring; what's really being sought is political advantage. Everyone knows that the plan has its best chance in a special election where the turnout likely will be low. Remember Valley incorporation? It passed in a special election. Referendum backers know that if they wait until November, the voters will be involved and energized by an important election with both control of the mayor's office and the council in the balance. The chances of the voters throwing out this process at a time of such interest are not at all great.

And what kind of precedent would overlooking the lack of signatures set for the future? Will the council grant a special election -- at more than $100,000 a pop -- to those forces who want to restore the strong mayor system if it is repealed in May? That's an eventuality these people should consider and something that no doubt informs Hession's suggestion.

After all, it's quite likely that such a victory would be followed immediately by a move to overturn the council-manager form of government for a second time. And why not? How difficult is it to get a few thousand people to sign on the dotted line? Then we would face yet another vote next year, putting Spokane in a permanent state of political theater. That the proponents of this change don't seem to have anticipated such an outcome speaks volumes about their insulation from political reality.

I envision an endless process: initiative, election, change... initiative, election, change. The loser, of course, would be Spokane. Oh yes, we would have defended our title as the Silliest City in the State, but we would have spent gobs of money and, in all the turmoil, not been able to muster the stability necessary to address the many problems that face the city.

The whole episode has been truly crass. It was foisted upon us at the last minute, obviously the product of behind-closed-doors efforts of some still-nameless backers, made urgent to the point of making public debate impossible and using signature gatherers paid for by public employees wanting bigger raises. In other words, it was business as usual during the good old days of the council-manager system.

The council-manager form of government works well in relatively homogenous and affluent communities. It also can be maintained in towns that have managed to repress or oppress politics. But neither of these factors defines Spokane any longer. We live in what might be termed a plantation economy, one that has only recently become self-conscious about its chronic condition.

Presently in the state of Washington, most major cities have concluded that the need for political leadership and accountability requires a strong-mayor form of government. Bellingham, Bremerton, Everett, Aberdeen, Seattle and Spokane all have responded to this need. Seattle managed to pull itself out of the '70s doldrums in no small measure by empowering the office of the mayor. Tacoma continues with the council-manager system, although its current mayor is of the opinion that his city now needs and will support a strong-mayor government and even a full-time council, as the present system has become overwhelmed by the city's challenges.

In Spokane, the usual list of challenges all cities in America face is compounded by deep divisions in the community, many born and bred by past council-manager decisions. Cities that face deep political cleavages aren't friendly places for city managers; indeed, when confronted with the volatile politics of class, race and location, city managers usually go underground or are destroyed. Along with district representation, the strong-mayor system connects citizens and leaders in a way never before experienced around here. As the strong mayor system takes root, elections will actually mean something -- candidates will take stands on issues and be held accountable at the next election. That's the way out of this distrust and discord, through good old-fashioned American politics -- in all its messy glory.

The council should not dignify this suspicious effort by granting the kind of advantage the effort would gain from being held in May. Nor is it appropriate that the city's election process be held hostage to narrow interests. Which brings us back to Mr. Hession's wise counsel: Just drop it. n

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Publication date: 03/06/03

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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.