City Trying To Move Ahead Despite Uncertainty
Political uncertainty hangs over Spokane City Hall like a thick winter fog, but those in charge say they aren’t going to wait for it to lift before they act.
Hiring a permanent replacement for outgoing City Manager Roger Crum was put on hold last week. Assistant City Manager Bill Pupo was named interim manager.
The council wants voters to decide first who should run the city - a manager or a strong mayor as proposed in an initiative.
“I think this is a major, major decision point for the community,” said Mayor Jack Geraghty.
So the question of political leadership continues to perplex a community that spent nearly three years debating city-county consolidation and then rejected it at the ballot box last November.
The uncertainty aggravates people who look to City Hall to orchestrate urban revival and preserve neighborhood tranquillity.
“We keep having these spasms,” said Pupo, a 19-year veteran on the city’s leadership team who suddenly finds himself thrust onto center stage.
“We have to come together in this community. Where are we going?”
The answer won’t come until at least Sept. 17, when voters will decide if a mayor with power to hire and fire is better than an appointed city manager.
If voters approve a strong-mayor system, the new mayor and council won’t be elected until the following year.
If voters reject the initiative, then the council would embark on a nationwide search for a permanent city manager, a task that could take as long as a year.
In the meantime, Spokane must grapple with tough problems such as crime and urban decay, growth, the lack of affordable housing, underemployment and the long, slow decline of downtown retailing.
The problems threaten to disrupt the tax base, which pays for city services.
Insiders at City Hall say the public shouldn’t worry just yet.
Downsizing in the 1996 budget is helping ease financial problems, and tax revenues are holding steady.
However, there isn’t enough money coming in to pay for any large salary increases in 1997, and all of the city’s major unions are back at the bargaining table this year.
“We still have a city to operate, and we are going to do it. The daily work is going to get done,” said Ken Stone, director of management and budget.
Still, there is a pervasive feeling, as Councilwoman Phyllis Holmes puts it, that Spokane is “treading water.”
Activist attorney Steve Eugster has been promoting his strong-mayor initiative for a couple of years.
Eugster says Spokane lacks effective political leadership, and he believes the answer is an elected mayor, with strong powers, who must face voters every four years.
“I want to create a sense of power so there is some political accountability,” he said.
Just a few months ago, the council told Eugster to gather signatures to force the issue onto the ballot; the council wasn’t going to put it on the ballot for him. He planned to bring the issue to a vote in November 1997.
Crum’s resignation for a higher-paying job as city manager of Evanston, Ill., triggered the change of heart by council members.
They said top candidates for city manager would stay away under the threat of changing government, adding that the city can’t wait until the end of 1997 to start a search for a permanent manager.
But all of this uncertainty has yet to spook civic leaders who are working to define the community’s future.
“I think what this is all about is we are going through a lot of change in our community,” said Rich Hadley, chief executive of the Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce.
He said people in Spokane want effective political leadership and are “wrestling with the best way to do that.”
Pupo, who is expected to seek the permanent manager’s job if and when it opens up, is saddled with several immediate problems.
First, he needs to replace longtime city engineering manager Irv Reed, who is retiring at the end of this month. Reed headed up public works, planning and transportation.
Phil Williams, who oversaw construction of the garbage incinerator, is considered a possible choice.
Meanwhile, downtown redevelopment is at a critical juncture. Plans to renovate the shopping area around Nordstrom and to construct a Lincoln Street Bridge are expected to move ahead this summer.
Geraghty and council members quietly are putting together a system to empower citizens through neighborhood councils.
They also are talking about a ballot measure to raise money for street paving through property taxes. The bonds would replace a similar street bond approved in the 1980s.
With so much to do, Pupo said he isn’t going to sit around fretting about his future.
“The short term will work itself out,” he said. “Let’s charge ahead into the future.”
The truth is Pupo was a little overwhelmed after his temporary promotion last week. Well-wishers called, and Pupo was asked what he is going to do next.
An assistant rushed into his office and gave him a hug of congratulations. “Does this mean we are going to get some work done here?” the assistant asked.
Pupo couldn’t help but become a little philosophical as the enormity of the job settled over him.
“Life’s a series of interim steps anyway,” he said.