The Spokane City Council took initial steps Thursday to fill a leadership vacuum created by last week’s resignation of City Manager Roger Crum.
The council voted 5-1 to put a strong-mayor initiative on the September ballot.
In the meantime, Assistant City Manager Bill Pupo, 42, is being asked to serve as interim city manager.
Council members said the strong-mayor proposal creates so much political uncertainty that it would be nearly impossible to attract top candidates to replace Crum.
That’s why they want voters to decide the proposal’s fate before investing time and taxpayers’ money in a nationwide search for Crum’s replacement.
“This is a very, very important decision for this community,” Mayor Jack Geraghty said about the initiative.
It would eliminate the city manager in favor of an elected mayor with power to hire and fire department heads and essentially run the city. That power now belongs to the city manager.
Currently, the mayor’s power is limited to chairing council meetings and acting as titular head of the city.
Last week, Crum announced he will be leaving Spokane at the end of June to take a higher-paying job as city manager of Evanston, Ill., a community with less than half Spokane’s population.
Pupo, who in 19 years with the city has worked his way from management intern to assistant manager, was chosen because of his knowledge of city government.
Council members spent 90 minutes talking about Pupo in a closed-door meeting, then held a brief public session and voted unanimously to offer him the temporary promotion.
Pupo was summoned from his office to the council’s meeting room and told about the decision.
“Thank you very much,” said Pupo, looking surprised. “It is a privilege.”
Geraghty told Pupo, “We have a great deal of confidence that you have the background and experience to do the job.”
Pupo, a native of Spokane, graduated with a business degree from Washington State University and later earned a master’s degree in business at Gonzaga University.
He was elevated to assistant city manager by former City Manager Terry Novak and is part of a management team that has guided Spokane since the late 1970s.
In an interview, Pupo said he will pursue the priorities set by the City Council earlier this year - revitalizing the downtown core, managing growth, creating jobs and fighting crime.
“I didn’t establish my reputation and my professional career as a caretaker,” Pupo said.
Geraghty said the council still needs to reach a contract with Pupo, setting his salary and other conditions of his employment.
Pupo is expected to be a candidate for permanent city manager.
But Geraghty said Pupo’s appointment as interim manager does not give him an inside track for the permanent job. He wants the council to hire a consultant for a nationwide search. Pupo would have to compete against any other candidates, Geraghty said.
Before that happens, voters will choose between a city manager and a strong mayor.
Ironically, council members earlier this year rejected the idea of putting the strong-mayor issue on the ballot this fall.
Instead, they told the proposal’s sponsor, activist attorney Steve Eugster, to gather signatures to force the measure onto the ballot, maybe in 1997.
Now, council members are saying the city cannot wait 16 months to clear up the question of who will run City Hall. There are too many problems facing Spokane, they said.
Uncertainty surrounding control of power was a factor in Crum’s decision to leave for Evanston.
Now, Crum’s departure is forcing the council to reverse its previous stance.
Councilwoman Roberta Greene said she opposes the strong-mayor proposal because she believes the city-manager system works well in Spokane. But she wants the voters to have the final say.
“Let the community vote,” she said.
Councilman Mike Brewer cast the lone vote against putting the initiative on the ballot. “I think Mr. Eugster is running a bluff, and I’m not ready to cave in,” he said.
But Greene countered that in all likelihood, Eugster would get the issue before voters in 1997.
“I hate twisting in other people’s wind tunnels,” she said.