by Pia K. Hansen

It's beginning to look a lot like California around here, and we're not talking about the 90-degree heat. Initiative politics have taken a serious turn south of here, where the governor is being recalled after a year in office. The Oct. 7 election is expected to plunge the Golden State into even deeper political turmoil -- not to mention costing the state $30 million it doesn't have to spend.

Here in Spokane, we have our own recall effort -- and it's not just to remove a person, but a form of government. (Although at least some of the impetus behind the move has to do with the man at the top: John Powers.) While in California a political opponent of Gov. Gray Davis has put up millions of his own money, in Spokane it took only $20,000 to get the recall on the ballot. The majority of that money came from the public employees' union, which is apparently smarting over the treatment it has received from the new mayor's office.

In both places, it's a new political frontier. Davis is the first California governor ever to face a recall. In Spokane, John Powers is the city's first strong mayor. Not only is he running against challengers Steve Corker, a city councilman, and Tom Grant, a former newsman, but he's also running against the recall effort. Even though all three candidates support the strong mayor system, they may not have an office to run for after the primary election on Sept. 16.

The group Citizens for Sensible Government (CFSG) has successfully gotten a charter amendment -- sometimes referred to as the Weak Mayor Initiative -- on the Sept. 16 primary ballot. This initiative would change the current strong mayor form of government back to the city manager-council type of government that Spokane used to have.

And the people behind this initiative are feeling really confident these days.

"We have excellent support in the community. In my conversations with the public, I'd say the support is really strong," says Dick Gow, campaign manager and spokesman for CFSG. "We have not really mounted a campaign yet, but all the surveys I've seen show us running ahead."

The change back to manager-council government would take place quickly, by Jan. 1, 2004.

"If the strong mayor form of government is changed back to the city manager form of government at the primary election, apparently, yes, the strong mayor candidates will be done," says Michael Connelly, Spokane city attorney. "I have to use that wording 'apparently' because some of the candidates may choose to continue to run just in case the initiative is declared unconstitutional before the general election."

The author of the legislation that created the strong mayor system in Spokane, current city council member Steve Eugster, is challenging the legality of the initiative in Superior Court.

"My group, the Coalition for a New Spokane, asserts that the initiative is invalid," says Eugster. "Why? For the reason that it calls for a recall of an elected official, the appointment to fill that vacancy immediately with someone elected for a different office, and because the ballot title fails to disclose that it's a recall and a change of government all wrapped up in one."

Eugster adds that it's unconstitutional to have more than one issue in the same initiative -- a lesson Tim Eyman learned just a couple of years ago -- and that the wording of the initiative doesn't do away with the strong mayor office.

"It just says the strong mayor will be replaced by someone else, the person elected as council president," says Eugster.

Connelly confirms that the newly elected council president would become the new mayor, but otherwise his office won't take a stand on the initiative.

"If there's no strong mayor office, then the person who wins the council president race becomes mayor," he says. "But that would be a weak mayor, much like when John Talbott was mayor -- a mayor who sits on the council."

But Gow isn't shaken by Eugster's challenge.

"We stand on very firm legal ground," he says, "and we're ready to defend our stand."

So far, no one knows when the court will get a chance to look at the case.

"The hope is that if the initiative passes, at that time the court would be able to get together and make a ruling before the general election," says Connelly. "But who knows about the court's schedule?"

Eugster doesn't know either, but he says he may call for a summary judgment before the general election, if the initiative passes.

Without a strong mayor, the city will have to start looking for a city manager right away. That manager, however, will be hired by the incoming city council -- not by the one sitting now.

"I'm sure that process will be well underway by January. I think there will be plenty of time to do so," says Gow. "When we were trying to get on the November ballot, we were heavily criticized by some people on the city council for our timing, for not getting on an earlier ballot. Now that we did get on the early ballot, the same people are criticizing us again."

He also refutes any rumors that the initiative is aimed at Powers as a person.

"I have lived under both systems, and believe me, good things happened under the city manager system, regardless of what people would have you believe today," says Gow. "I will be very much a watchdog as to who is chosen as city manager. A less qualified but very popular person could still get that job, and that's not what we want to see. We don't want a rush to fill the position. We want the best qualified person."

Infiltrating City Hall -- The effort to change Spokane's form of government gained serious momentum back when a newly elected Mayor Powers took a serious look at the city's budget. Powers, and the city council transition team, pushed for streamlining of various departments and a restructuring at City Hall, a part of which included a hiring and pay freeze. Some say this charter amendment is a personal vendetta against Powers; others say it's a coup staged by city employees, some of whom think they had a better chance at regular raises under the old type of government.

On its public disclosure forms filed in early July, CFSG reports having received $20,450 in donations, most of which went to pay signature gatherers. The Washington State Council of County and City Employees gave $20,000 of that total. CFSG lists only three other donors: former city attorney James Sloan and his wife Judith, as well as former city manager Terry Novak. Ultimately, the group got just one signature more than the 6,489 required. That number is 50 percent of the voter turnout in November 2001; it's about 4 percent of the total city's population.

Everett-based union president Chris Dugovic did not return phone calls asking for a comment on why the union decided to back this charter amendment so strongly.

Enemies of the strong mayor system are quite visible in City Hall. Carol Vaughn, the treasurer for CFSG, is a full-time employee in the city's public works and utilities department as well as the union rep for the Local 270.

Even Gow now works for the city. In June, he was hired as a temporary seasonal worker in the water department, but he says his hiring was in now way payback for his championing of the employees' cause.

"There is nothing weird about my hiring. I'm still a citizen, and this is a seasonal position. Once the season is over, I'm back to being a regular person," says Gow.

He explains that he is an avid power-walker and that for the last several years he has tried getting a summer-time meter reader job with Avista, without success. When he saw a similar position come up with the City of Spokane, he applied for and was hired.

"Basically, I get to walk and get paid for it at the same time. It's wonderful," he says. "I got this job long after the initiative drive started. There is no connection whatsoever."

Connelly agrees.

"The city hires lots of people for lots of jobs all the time," he says about Gow's recent hire. "I wouldn't read anything into that."

Eugster, however, was pretty surprised when he heard about Gow's new job.

"How the hell did that happen?" he asked. "You know what I have to say to that? Say that Eugster has no comment -- no comment at all." n

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Publication date: 07/31/03

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