It would change Spokane more than Expo ‘74, draw more attention than Bloomsday and cause more political upheaval than the “Contract With America.”
But after 30 years of talk, and little more than a month before the election, campaigners say many people still don’t know what city-county consolidation is all about.
“What is it again?” asked a visitor at the Spokane Interstate Fair campaign booth for We The People, the group promoting consolidation. “Why haven’t I heard of it?”
“That’s the biggest problem right now,” said Neal Fosseen, campaign co-chairman. “There’s an awful lot (of educating) that needs to be done.”
Fosseen joined others talking about consolidation in the early 1960s, when he was Spokane’s mayor and became frustrated “with the confrontational relationship between the city and the county.”
The idea simmered until 1992, when voters elected 25 freeholders to write a “unified charter” - in effect, a local constitution. Voters will be asked to approve it Nov. 7.
The charter would erase city boundaries, eliminate the Spokane City Council and County Commission, and create a regional government with executive and legislative branches.
Proponents say the merger would create an efficient, responsive government to attract businesses, better control urban sprawl and provide better representation.
Supporters include the economic development group Momentum, which has pledged up to $100,000 to match campaign donations.
Opponents are just beginning to organize and haven’t started collecting money, said Scott Lanes of the Community Action Committee in the Valley. His group of about 50 Valley incorporation backers “opposes (consolidation) to a member.”
The charter would prevent future drives to form a Valley city. Lanes said the group also worries that Valley taxpayers would pay for expensive city projects, like proposed downtown redevelopment.
“Why should a poor handmaiden (like the city) be married to a handsome prince” like the Valley, he asked.
Most consolidation supporters concede Valley residents would pay more. But most of the money would stay in the Valley, they say, paying for more police, better roads and other improvements the county cannot afford to provide now.
Other opponents include county Republican and Democratic committees, who don’t like the idea of non-partisan campaigns, as required by the charter. City elections already are non-partisan; the county’s are not.
Public employee unions haven’t taken a stand. But “most rank-and-file discussion of it has not been supportive,” said Randy Withrow, staff representative for the Washington Council for County and City Employees.
The charter promises no wage cuts or layoffs among hourly workers. Still, many public employees fear their jobs eventually will disappear or their benefits will suffer, said Withrow.
“There’s no suggestion of any kind of civil service system in the charter,” he said.
City Manager Roger Crum, who would lose his $93,000-a-year job if the charter passes, also opposes consolidation, saying an elected executive may not have the skills to run the government.
Crum, a 21-year city employee, said the threat of consolidation was the main reason he wanted to become city administrator in Ann Arbor, Mich. He was a finalist, but didn’t get the job.
Among elected officials, Spokane Mayor Jack Geraghty is the biggest - perhaps the only - consolidation booster. Others either oppose the charter or aren’t taking a stand.
The three county commissioners are vocal opponents, with Commissioner Steve Hasson refusing even to meet with freeholders when they were writing the charter.
Commissioners have a lot to lose if consolidation passes. They are the highest-paid and most powerful politicians in Spokane, but would lose their jobs under consolidation.
The variety of reasons for voting no illustrates a major challenge facing campaigners. To win, they must convince voters to accept a document almost no one likes in whole, on the promise that any problems can be ironed out after the charter is adopted.
“Anybody, if they want to oppose this, can probably find a reason,” said Geraghty. “I don’t claim that it’s perfect.”
The campaign could come down to buzzwords, with opponents waving the threat of big government and proponents promising to eliminate bureaucracy. Already voters are picking up those themes.
“I think we can reduce the layers of government by one,” said Leslie Yates, a Wild Rose Prairie resident who promised support at the fair booth.
“I just think there’s too much government already,” said Porter Reiter, who stopped by the booth to announce he’s voting no.
Campaigners say they’re fighting the urge to suggest that voters support consolidation as a way to throw controversial politicians out of power.
“Our campaign is taking the high road,” said coordinator Kerry Lynch. “We’re presenting the vision” of better government.
But Fosseen and other workers acknowledge their campaign is helped by public outrage over county courthouse antics.
Earlier in the month, Commissioner George Marlton acknowledged making offensive sexual remarks about his campaign consultant. The next day, at We The People’s fair booth, some people told workers they had decided to support the charter, saying, “We’d like to get rid of Marlton, and Hasson, too,” according to campaign worker Leta Walters.
Opponents counter that if consolidation passes, Hasson or Marlton could run for executive of the new government, a position much more powerful than commissioner.
If consolidation fails, it’s unlikely to be on the ballot again anytime soon. Voters would have to elect new freeholders, who would go through another government study and write another charter.
By the time all that’s done, the Valley may have incorporated, or there may be other changes to make consolidation more difficult.
And odds are against consolidation passing on the first vote. While no one’s kept track of all the consolidation attempts in the country, there have been many in almost every state.
Only 19 communities have consolidated in the past 50 years, typically on the third or fourth vote or during a government scandal or crisis.
“The track record for these things is that they’re almost always voted down,” said David Nice, a political science professor at Washington State University.
“They’re very, very tough to pass.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Graphics: 1. Putting it all together: The consolidation proposal 2. Proposed countywide government districts