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Council Crossroads

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by Joel Smith and Kevin Taylor & r & Ever since bombshell allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct exploded around Spokane Mayor Jim West in early May, the City Council has taken upon itself the task of running the city's business as usual. But it hasn't been easy. A gaping flesh wound in the city budget, a continuing trend of dwindling revenues, a stadium up in the air. A board of county commissioners fighting off annexation efforts. A mayor whose refusal to answer calls for his resignation has left him shunned by civic, business and political groups. With all this, the council has stumbled into an unprecedented power vacuum.


While the mayor and his lawyers prepared a strategy for their Supreme Court date, we asked six council members (Joe Shogan was unavailable for comment): Who the hell is running Spokane these days?


"No one," answers Cherie Rodgers.


"What leadership?" adds Bob Apple. "All you have to do is look at the city budget to see there is no leadership."


Though perhaps a slight exaggeration, that refrain is common among council members, many of whom believe that Jim West has abdicated his leadership of the city and his communication with the council.


"[West] doesn't come to study sessions or budget sessions," says Rodgers. "He used to last year. He came to one this year. We find out from press conferences that the budget is $8 million short. There is no communication."


Council President Dennis Hession, though perhaps most confident about the council's progress, agrees that its relationship with the mayor is on the rocks. "That's what I predicted it would be, that it would continue to be awkward and strained, and it is," he says. "You have to remember that we have personally, publicly and officially asked the mayor to resign. That doesn't set up a personal relationship that is healthy. And as a consequence of that, there's a natural friction that has developed between the mayor and the council members, and it creates problems among the mayor, his staff and the council."


Hession adds, however, that he doesn't regret the council's unanimous decision. "The resolution asking the mayor to resign was predicated upon the fact that this continued presence would be an impediment to the progress of the city. I believe that to still be true."





Also believing that to be true, many council members have felt compelled to fill the leadership void themselves -- or, at least, the public face of the city's leadership. Mayor West has kept a low profile in the last few months, attending very few public events and being specifically dis-invited to others. Instead, "attendance at community-wide events is being covered more by the council president and council members," says South Hill representative Mary Verner.


But no council face has become as common as that of Hession, who has been invited to a number of events in lieu of the mayor. "I don't believe the council has taken it upon themselves to try to supplant the mayor in that respect," he remarks, "but it has happened in the natural course of time, as people in the public have seen us as a preferable representative of the city."


The mayor's relative absence hasn't just meant more face time for council members, they say -- it has also meant more work. Hession says that the West scandal has forced him to work as many as three extra hours every day -- attending events, fielding calls and e-mails from constituents, jumping through hoops that didn't exist when the mayor was in closer communication.


And all the extra work has nearly brought the city's legislative body to a standstill, some critics suggest -- especially critics inside the council. Brad Stark says he's "a bit frustrated," but he sounds downright angry. He calls the council "rudderless and aimless" and decries the "growing pains" from which it hasn't been able to extricate itself. "Under the strong-mayor form of government, the council needs to grow into a strong legislative body. [But] in terms of getting in front of things, we haven't been able to do it as well as we should have ... We seem to be very reactionary to everything that comes along."


Though Stark was part of the unanimous resolution calling for West's resignation, it was he who first called it "toothless." Council members, he says, just wanted to "pat themselves on the back that they're standing up and being leaders.... My view is that the council needs to stay out of those issues and focus on the council's business. We have enough to do."


Bob Apple agrees about the city's gummy maw. "We have no teeth to do anything," he says, whether it be changing the city charter to include a code of ethics for elected officials or trying to sit down and talk annexation with county commissioners. "It takes a lot of departments to coordinate [annexation] -- planning and streets and sewer and water -- and negotiating terms with water districts and fire districts. The annexation efforts have gone nowhere. There is nobody to direct it," he says, concluding, "We are kind of hamstrung right now."


Al French says the same, though he thinks West himself was hamstrung by previous administrations' feet-dragging. "Mayor West has tried to put a burner underneath [city] staff ... but we wasted three years," he says. "We've been derelict in getting our development regulations shaped up to where we can attract more business to the community. We need to let the rest of the world know that we're ready for business."


Even the usually chipper Hession concedes that the council has not been as efficient as it was before West-gate. But he and other council members pooh-pooh rumors that all the council's wheel-spinning has broken its members into factions.





There's also been speculation that Hession might be readying himself for a run at the mayor's office, should West be removed. Brad Stark believes it. "It's apparent through a number of public appearances," he says, "that Dennis is looking to be mayor at some point in the future."


Indeed, reports filed with the Public Disclosure Commission, the government's campaign funds watchdog, indicate that Hession has already raised $5,215 worth of named cash contributions this year. The date that money was filed? June 7, just a month after the West scandal erupted. All last year, Hession raised only $1,391.


Though he laughs off the suggestion that he's raising money to become mayor, explaining instead that he's paying off old campaign debt (the PDC notes that Hession still owes some $17,000 from his campaign for council president), he doesn't exactly deny any interest.


"My intention has never been to pursue the mayor's job," he says. "But my overall concern about [Mayor West] has been that his continued presence is hurting the city and that I wanted him to take a leave of absence so that we could sort things out. By charter, that responsibility falls officially to me. How that shakes out after that, I have no idea. I have no reticence about taking on that position, but that's really premature at this point."


So where does all this leave the council? Though it voted to take over the city's investigation into potential misconduct by the mayor nearly a month ago, little has been done. In the meantime, it has hired Seattle attorney Hugh Spitzer to look into ways of amending the city charter (with voter approval) to give the council a degree of leverage over the mayor's office (and possibly vice versa). Even on this issue, the council seems divided, some feeling reluctant to put that kind of power in the council's hands, some eager to explore new possibilities in political accountability. Spitzer's report is due back in a few weeks.


For now, council members say, they will wait on the results of the recall petition. And continue to chip away at whatever they can.


"The city will continue to function. We have a dedicated staff," Verner says. "But we must deal with this."


"It's the most bizarre thing I've seen in my life," says Rodgers. "It's like being in limbo."

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