by Robert Herold

When citizens determined that the time had come for Spokane to have a strong mayor form of government, no doubt they were reacting to the many recent failures of our exhausted council-manager system.

Consider just a few:

* The Lincoln Street Bridge fiasco -- need we say more?

* The arrogant "cloak room" hiring of Bill Pupo as city manager, sans any kind of national search for an outsider.

* Years of failing to tackle difficult budgetary issues, resulting in two decades of annual tax increases.

* The utter failure to exercise due diligence as regards the River Park Square garage project -- negligence that has cost the city millions, has exposed the city's CDBG money and brought about years of public acrimony.

We might sum up the old regime's governing philosophy by recalling the oft-used words of a former mayor, the late Vickie McNeill. When the Council found itself stumped (which was most of the time) or hard pressed -- never a fun moment for our guys and gals who just kind of liked to go to meetings -- Mayor McNeill would turn to our city attorney and say, "It's in your court, Mr. Sloane." And thus those who were elected to decide, decided not to decide.

Now we have a proposal to allow voters to decide whether we should roll back the strong mayor system. Ironically enough, the author of the new measure is none other than Jim Sloane, the now unemployed former City Attorney. The backers of the ballot measure want Spokane to go back to the glory days of deciding to let somebody else decide -- the days when public policy was orchestrated in shadows by unelected bureaucrats.

To think about this rationally, we need to understand we are only two years into this new form of government, and we need to separate support for the structure from the man currently holding the office. The difference is simple: If you don't like the job Powers is doing, you can vote against him. But under the council-manager form of government, no city manager ever lost his job. Every time I hear someone say this isn't about John Powers, I sense that it really is about John Powers. It shouldn't be.

So what has the mayor done to invite such an attack? Quite simply, he rocked the boat.

But each charge against him, paradoxically, serves to make the case for the strong mayor form of government even stronger.

1. A few self-styled elites have lost their privileged access to power, and they are downright offended. After all, these people have always presumed to know what's best for us. Most citizens, however, view their eclipse to be a refreshing change.

2. The mayor vetoed the requested $800,000 loan to the River Park Square parking garage because he said it would have been a gift, not a loan. Events have proved him right. Had the loan been made, the city would be out the 800-grand and would face yet another such request, with no end in sight. No such prudent and tough decision-making would have come out of our council-manager form of government.

3. The mayor has fought to put the city on sound financial footing by reestablishing our depleted reserve -- not an easy thing to do in tough budgetary times and something that the council-manager system could never muster the courage even to address. If the mayor is successful, our bond rating will improve and taxes will stabilize.

4. Because of these tough economic times, the mayor asked the unions to hold the line at a 3 percent pay increase in total compensation. Not bad in these times of zero inflation and high unemployment. Most unions have cooperated. But not the police. It isn't as if Spokane's finest are hurting -- they are paid well, receive negotiated COLAs, step increases, full medical benefits, and on top of all that they want pay raises. The mayor, recognizing the public safety needs of the city, has sought to avoid layoffs, which will come if compensation rises above 3 percent. Tough, say the police union bosses, pay up. They never had any trouble getting their raises through the old system.

And this point in particular leads us to a smoking gun. The strong mayor-haters have recruited the police to their cause, as their union spokesman was also the spokesman for the anti-strong mayor measure, according to a recent Spokesman-Review article. This speaks volumes. Those who want to overthrow the strong mayor system have actually encouraged civil service to conspire with them. How unseemly! How outrageous! Alas, how typical. The message to other employee unions is clear: If you can't negotiate the raise you want, just help to overthrow the government.

5. Poverty has been identified as an overriding community problem. No doubt some resent all this bad news, which no doubt we would not have received from our "feel-good" council-manager regime -- the news, that is. The poverty, of course, would remain.

Regardless of one's assessment of Mayor Powers' performance, surely these examples prove that our new form of government has elevated mayoral elections into useful functions that do more than simply determine who will spend the next four years saying, "It's in your court, Mr. Sloane."

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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.