In some people’s minds, Spokane city government is a car that isn’t running on all six cylinders.
Steve Eugster doesn’t want to fix the car, he wants to trade it in for a new model.
“I’m trying to change this town,” Eugster says.
His plan involves tossing out the city manager in favor of a mayor who serves as the top city administrator.
A strong mayor who can appoint department heads and veto legislation has the power to move the city forward - power that’s sorely lacking in the current city-manager system, Eugster argues.
He argues the city needs new leadership and the new leaders will need the power to do something.
The strong-mayor initiative goes before voters Sept. 17.
While Eugster talks about the positives of power, the plan’s foes talk about its negatives.
“There are aspects of this plan which provide so much power without checks and balances,” says Councilwoman Roberta Greene, the measure’s most outspoken critic. “This is too drastic a change from what we now have.
“Steve talks about evolution. I call this a big leap.”
Under Spokane’s current government - in place since 1960 - the city manager runs everyday business such as managing the budget, and hiring and firing. The manager takes policy direction from the council.
A mayor now earns more than other council members - $30,000 a year to their $18,000 - but the title is strictly ceremonial. Mayor Jack Geraghty has no more power than his colleagues.
Under Eugster’s plan, the mayor would perform the day-to-day duties of the current city manager or hire someone to do them. The mayor also could appoint department heads and three assistants in each department.
The mayor would make at least $80,000 and no less than the highest-paid city employee. To Eugster, that sends the message the mayor is the most powerful employee.
The mayor could veto the seven-member council’s decisions, but five council votes could override it.
Eugster says his plan would force city leaders to be accountable. “The mayor would actively be seeking council legislation. The mayor would be the source of proposals for new laws - laws to deal with problems.”
A public unhappy with Spokane’s direction could vote the mayor out of office, he says.
“The only way to get really responsible government is to have leaders directly elected by the people,” says Bill First, a public relations consultant who favors the strong mayor plan. “There are no term limits on city attorneys or city managers or department heads in the city government.”
Besides, First says, a city manager supplies the information the council uses to make its decisions. “The governor has his own personal staff to give some assessment. There’s no check like that in this system.”
City manager supporters don’t see it that way.
A council unhappy with the city’s direction can fire a city manager any day of the week, says Catherine Tuck Parrish of the International City County Management Association in Washington, D.C.
Voters must wait for a new election or go through the often-arduous process recalling a mayor. “Four years is an awful long time for a city to be mismanaged,” Parrish says.
Besides, she says, a city manager is trained to deal with the complex job of running city government: utility service, budget management, fire and police operations. “You can get in a lot of trouble if you don’t have someone who is trained in local government.”
Critics also charge the plan is an open invitation to patronage, with the mayor hiring buddies and relatives for top posts.
“I have a brother with a master’s from MIT in science,” Greene said last month during a debate on the measure. “I could call him and say, ‘Come on over.”’
Eugster counters that Civil Service protects against patronage. Besides, he says, “Nobody’s going to go out and hire their buddies. You hire the best. You want to get re-elected. You want your city to run.”
Critics also charge the plan would be expensive. The mayor’s salary is more than double the current wage. Plus, the top official could hire an administrator.
“I see dollar signs,” says Chris Schnug, chairwoman of the Spokane Chamber of Commerce Board of Trustees.
Eugster says the mayor could control spending with a line-item veto.
Every year, two or three cities propose changing their government from a city manager form to a strong mayor form, says Parrish.
Voters in Cincinnati, Ohio, last year turned down a strong-mayor proposal by nearly a 2-1 margin.
Cincinnati City Manager John Shirey says big business pushed for a change that average citizens couldn’t swallow. “Many times I’ve seen this issue come up,” he says. “People are dissatisfied with the people in government. They try to fix a people problem by making a change in the system. Keep in mind, good people can make a poor system work.
“The opposite is true as well.”
Residents of Fairbanks, Alaska, chucked the city-manager government in favor of a strong mayor last year.
Mayor Jim Hayes worked under the old system before taking charge of the new. “People in Fairbanks wanted to hold someone accountable for government,” he says. “The city manager could pass the buck.”
Closer to home, six of Spokane’s seven council members say they oppose the strong-mayor initiative. Chris Anderson is the council’s lone supporter of the measure.
The chamber’s board issued a statement opposing the plan - despite a poll commissioned by the chamber that showed residents and members favoring a strong mayor.
Moore Information Public Opinion Research of Portland polled 150 chamber members and 250 Spokane voters.
A series of questions about the proposal ended with one about support for the measure. Of chamber members, 69 percent supported the plan. Of voters, 64 percent did.
Schnug says the poll was done two months ago before chamber members and residents knew much about the measure. Chamber members voted against the plan after a debate between Eugster and Greene, she says.
Schnug says she and other chamber board members may campaign against the plan, but there’s no committee in place at this time, she says.
Eugster isn’t actively campaigning for his proposition. In fact, as of last week, he couldn’t decide whether to start a campaign with the $200 he’d received in donations or return the checks.
He claims the council stole his measure, putting it on the ballot at the last minute to ensure its failure at the polls.
In March, the council nixed Eugster’s request to put the initiative before voters without a signature drive.
But when City Manager Roger Crum resigned in June, council members changed their minds, arguing the threat of the measure would make it impossible to fill Crum’s job.
If they had done that in March, Eugster says, he would have had time to launch a successful campaign, but that window of opportunity closed.
“The proponents did not have time to mount a campaign,” he says.
If it fails, he’ll bring the proposal back, he says.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Proposition 2 Under the strong mayor plan: Mayor would serve as top city administrator or appoint someone to serve as administrator. Mayor would earn at least $80,000 annually and no less than the city’s highest paid employee. Mayor couldn’t hold an outside job. Mayor could appoint department heads and no more than three assistant administrators per department. Seven council members would earn $30,000 annually. Five would be elected by district, two at-large. A council member couldn’t be absent more than four consecutive meetings before seat is declared vacant. Council must confirm mayor’s choice of city attorney. Mayor won’t attend weekly council meetings. Council will elect a president to preside over meetings. Mayor would have veto power, but council could override with five votes. Civil Service Commission would remain unchanged. Eliminates charter’s employment preference for “married males.”