Who's In Charge?

Scott Chesney's removal underlines confusion in our strong mayor system; here's what the city charter says

The curtain opens exposing the Wizard, revealing him as not the "Great and Terrible Oz," but rather just a little old man. Dorothy, dismayed, says: "Oh, you're a very bad man!" To which the Wizard replies, "No, my dear. I'm a very good man. I'm just a very bad wizard."

Maybe Mayor David Condon considers himself to be the wizard of our little version of Oz. Wizard or not, to be fair, he has managed to conduct the affairs of the city in a competent if prosaic manner –– until that is, Nov. 5, when he removed Scott Chesney, Spokane's first planning director in 30 years to have everyone's admiration and support. The curtain opened, and the public, like Dorothy, jumped straight to "You're a bad man!"

No longer can the mayor's string of questionable personnel and organizational decisions be ignored. The common denominator valued most by the mayor seems to be loyalty –– that is, people who are compliant. In contrast, a demonstrated record of leadership, education, expertise, experience and insight? These qualities seem not valued much at all.

When challenged by several developers to explain his wizardly actions, the mayor resorted to a bit of cheap-shot demagoguery. He said that he wasn't elected to do the bidding of a few developers — even though, when it came to Chesney, those the mayor denounced as special pleaders were speaking for almost everyone in our city who actually values a healthy city and a dynamic urban setting.

This matter isn't going away. Calling this a personnel matter doesn't get it done. The trail of seventh-floor intrigue seemingly leads to the newly appointed interim division director, Jan Quintrall. Reports are that Quintrall, with Condon's full support, is a "micromanager" of limited competence who meddles in matters that she really knows little about. The consensus guess: Chesney wouldn't go along. So the mayor backed a loyalist over a person with skills and experience.

Now if such reports are an accurate reflection of what happened, the mayor is in trouble. But alternatively, if these reports are not correct, the mayor may be in even deeper trouble. He comes off looking either like a top-down guy who values loyalty to him above all else, or a detached bumbler who has an out-of-control staff. Either way, his administration comes off looking amateurish.

And Mayor Condon isn't doing the strong mayor-council form of government any favors, that's for sure. Some have already grumbled that this sort of thing was built in — the term I'm hearing is "cronyism."

Setting aside that our old manager-council form of government brought with it its own version of cronyism, I suggest that if the city council had been doing its job since the strong mayor system was put in place, most mayoral excesses could have been avoided.

Let's be clear: the strong mayor-council form of government does not mean that the city is left with a weak council. The city charter is quite clear on this. First off, the charter requires that all senior administrators be vetted and approved by the council. Unfortunately, the council has failed to take this responsibility seriously.

Yes, reports one former councilmember, the council has provided a pro forma approval when requested –– which has never amounted to more than a "meet and greet" session. We need more — a formal hearing, serious questioning, and we sure do need to see résumés. (On this point: In trying to sort through the Chesney matter, I sought out Jan Quintrall's résumé. I inquired through City Hall, only to get back word that given state law on privacy, she doesn't have to share it, so she won't. A public employee — a division head, no less — who won't routinely send out her résumé? Extraordinary!)

The city council can fix all this, and should.

Next, the charter is also clear on who is in charge of organizing City Hall, and it isn't the mayor. Given all the organizational changes the mayor has been making on his own, you could have fooled me. From Section 25 of the City Charter:

"Administrative departments shall be created or discontinued by the city council at the time of the adoption of the annual budget, as the public business may demand. The rights, powers, and duties of the departments shall be prescribed, distributed, assigned, established, or discontinued by ordinance."

Again, the charter creates a separation of powers; the council just needs to do its job to enforce that.

Once lost, trust is difficult to restore, and due to the Chesney episode, the mayor has lost, for now at least, the trust of his developer constituency, along with significant elements of his neighborhood constituency.

The curtain has been pulled back. Now we'll see what kind of wizard we elected to lead us. ♦

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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.