For the good of the city he loves, Mayor Jim West should make his vacation permanent and resign from office. It may not be fair, but it's just the kind of no-nonsense solution West himself might have suggested if he weren't in the eye of this political hurricane.
As a practical matter, the controversy will certainly continue to be a distraction for every one of the 1,100-and-whatever days he has remaining on his term. Spokane -- a place where every step forward comes slowly if at all -- cannot bear any kind of additional weight on its shoulders. Serious charges of sex abuse have been made, and West will need to focus his full attention on clearing his name, if in fact that can be done.
As a political matter, it's important to note that West is not the person we voted for. With a personal life so different from his political persona, it's hard to know who he really is or what he really stands for. If he can't represent himself accurately to the public, how can he represent this city?
As a moral matter, West's practice of luring young people over the Internet is wrong. While at this time no laws appear to have been broken -- although offering internships may violate city rules -- a bond of trust between the people and their leader has been lost.
This is not just a question about the details of what happened inside his office, or whether he used a city computer at a certain time. This is more about the big picture: It's about the kind of mayor we want representing us, and it's about removing distractions so the city can move forward. Every city deserves a mayor who personifies the community's aspirations and its standards of conduct. There must be consequences for violating those standards. Without consequences, cynicism about our institutions deepens, trust in government wanes and our collective future grows darker.
Which, like most things in politics over the past decade or so, leads to Bill Clinton. The parallels between Clinton's problems and West's are remarkable. There are significant differences, too, but they were both faced with a crucial decision: stay or go. Readers may wonder why The Inlander is arguing for West to resign when we didn't argue for Clinton to quit after he covered up his adultery. All we can say is that we live and learn. Now it's clear that Clinton should have resigned. Had Clinton done that -- not in shame, but for the good of the country -- Al Gore might be president today, the country might not be occupying Iraq and the GOP might not have been taken over by religious fundamentalists. One man's decision can have a great bearing on the course of human history.
While he considers the need to fight for his name and reputation, West should also consider what staying might cost the city and the region. Here's an example: The Pentagon is considering which bases to close, and while Fairchild is considered safe to remain open, it is a political process and city officials acknowledge that anything can happen. At the very least, the city needs to be focused on keeping Fairchild right where it is.
Clinton also offers us a lesson in sympathy. Republicans gleeful over the former president's troubles now can feel what it's like when one of their own falls from grace. West offers a case study for GOP leaders to consider as they attempt to understand gay Americans: sexual repression, which many Republicans seem intent on legislating, is not healthy. (To their credit, local Democrats who have felt bullied for years by West are exhibiting the proper respect over what they might view as his much-deserved comeuppance.)
Despite the serious allegations leveled at West, it's possible to feel sympathy for him. He truly loves his city, he has managed his anger in recent years, he has won a fight with cancer and he has calmed the waters at City Hall by focusing on basics like fixing the streets. Now he's in the fight of his life, as he has been hit with public humiliation in doses that appear to be well beyond what might be required to trigger madness or suicide in ordinary people. Hester Prynne got to embroider her own scarlet letter; Jim West had his chain-sawed into his chest.
But West chose his profession, and it comes with a clear caveat that your personal life is fair game. We had heard the rumors here at The Inlander, too -- usually offered by his political opponents. (We never heard from any victims of alleged abuse.) Perhaps we failed for not simply coming right out and asking him whether he is gay. Now the question is if the Spokesman-Review went too far in outing the mayor. We don't think so. But despite their careful and detailed reporting, the Review did manage to muddle the issue. By hiring a former law enforcement official to lie about his identity on the Internet, the Review may have violated the ethics of journalism (the debate on that question is just getting started). But more important, in choosing that method, they inserted themselves into the story. West's defense, therefore, will likely call this tactic into question, allowing him to divert attention back on the Review.
Fighting the Review and its owners has been a winning election strategy for previous mayors, but never one that leads to reelection. John Talbott was vilified as, in the Review's words, "a civic terrorist," while John Powers watched every initiative he offered be ridiculed in a kind of Chinese water torture treatment. Neither won reelection. Now comes West, who engineered a settlement with the Cowles family over the parking garage that some felt was too lenient. While mayors are fair game, of the last three, West's treatment is most warranted. Still, it might not be a stretch for citizens to wonder what it is the Review doesn't like about Spokane mayors.
So by inserting themselves into the story, the Review may give West fodder to mount a defense, or even a lawsuit, but citizens should not lose track of the big picture. Although the means could have been cleaner, the end is undeniable and West has been exposed. The public absolutely has a right to know the information the Review published.
But what if West refuses to leave? That's the way it appears today, as he has taken a vacation to gather his defense. If he is intent on staying, it will fall to the City Council to act. Saying they will wait and see, or that it's West's decision isn't good enough: It's time to lead. If West persists, the Council must take up the matter and vote on whether they have confidence in his remaining as mayor. They could make this statement without passing judgment on the most serious and as-yet-unproven allegations about sexually abusing children 25 years ago. They cannot force him out, but such a move by the citizens' representatives is the most forceful tool available. And the Council should not wait; there's no reason to delay action on this matter.
Hopefully West would listen to such a vote from the Council, but if he's not convinced, a recall effort is warranted, even though that would drag the city through another rough patch of political upheaval. And its end is uncertain, as unlike in California, where Arnold Schwarzenegger was ready to challenge Gray Davis, there isn't even a short list of candidates to replace West.
If West survives -- Clinton beat impeachment, after all -- here's hoping he will work to minimize the distraction by mounting his defense quickly and moving on. But even so, these 25-year-old charges of sexually abusing children will linger. It's doubtful that those charges will ever be fully erased or fully proven; evidence is long gone.
But between West's current interest in younger men and his past close association with an alleged pedophile (former Sheriff's Deputy Dave Hahn), there's enough authenticity to the charges to make them credible. Even if you believe they are the creation of felons, one of whom is trying to win money in a related lawsuit, that stigma will never go away. Every time you see Clinton, it's hard not to think of Monica Lewinsky before anything else. West faces a similar future, in which questions about him will linger, disabling his effectiveness as a leader to some degree.
While the controversy over West may wane if he leaves, a huge story remains -- a story that is finally leaking out after 25 years -- about all the pedophilia, both alleged and admitted, that was going on around Spokane. George Robey, a friend (and some would say accomplice) of Dave Hahn, was also a friend of Patrick O'Donnell, the Catholic priest accused of widespread sex abuse that has led to multiple lawsuits against the Diocese of Spokane, triggering its bankruptcy. In the late 1970s, O'Donnell was also the Diocese's official chaplain for the Boy Scouts, where West and Hahn volunteered.
This scandal is widening: The Review has reported that Spokane County destroyed files documenting Hahn's career. (Hahn killed himself in 1981; Robey did the same in '82.) The Diocese of Spokane has also been accused of destroying files. The local Boy Scouts have denied having records of any complaints.
Review columnist Doug Clark wondered earlier this week what Spokane did to deserve all this: Somehow, we allowed our children to be sexually abused.
This is an extremely sad moment for Spokane. Just when we got over the divisive politics of the parking garage issue, and just when the city seemed poised to make a name for itself right alongside Portland, Seattle and Boise as a dynamic city on the rise, this comes along.
But how we overcome this adversity will define our future. There's no time for the "poor us" routine: If we wallow in this controversy for the next three years, we will sow salt in these lands that are just now beginning to bear fruit again. If we move on, without passing immediate judgment on the most damning charges against West, we may yet become a stronger, more enlightened city. Right now, Jim West alone has the power to let us move on with the least amount of public trauma, but it will take the kind of selfless decision only true leaders make.
This editorial was written by Ted S. McGregor Jr., editor of The Inlander. If you'd like to comment on any of the stories about Jim West in this week's paper, send them firstname.lastname@example.org.
Publication date: 05/12/05