Would you buy a used car without checking beneath the hood? How about a different form of city government?
On Sept. 17, Spokane voters will decide whether to switch City Hall from the council/manager system to a strong-mayor form.
Steve Eugster, a local critic, wrote this version of a strong-mayor charter - and wrote it largely on his own, without a public process to collect suggestions for refinement. He contends Spokane would find needed leadership in a stronger mayor and a weaker city council.
However, Eugster’s version of the strong-mayor form has fatal flaws.
In our judgment, he has opened the door too wide to patronage - the weakness of the strong mayor form, a weakness, in fact, that inspired creation of the council/manager form. Eugster’s plan would allow the mayor to name one department head, plus three assistant department heads, in every agency of city government. In addition, the mayor could create his own administrative staff, including a highly paid administrator similar to the current city manager - except that a city manager answers to the council, and the new administrator(s) would answer only to the mayor.
Say what you will about current City Hall administrators - and we think most are conscientious professionals - the history of American government teems with mayors who named poorly qualified cronies to boss specialized agencies (water, sewers, zoning, libraries, streets, police) that the cronies didn’t understand.
Experience in other cities also shows that after a strong mayor picks his own administrative staff, council members each hire staffs of their own because they don’t trust information fed them by the mayor’s crew. This explosion in bureaucracy would cost plenty; so would the full-time salaries Eugster proposes for the mayor and council.
Might Spokane experience power struggles in a strong-mayor government? C’mon, we’ve seen struggles for years - and in a governmental form designed to maximize professionalism.
Sure, City Hall has shortcomings - and always will. Solutions come gradually, not with magic wands. The last round of council elections attracted some exceptionally fine candidates. Another liability, Chris Anderson, could be ousted soon. With vigorous new members, the council will be ready to choose a new city manager who can address the public’s current frustrations.
Be wary of the call for intensified power; it’s only an improvement if you agree with those who seize it.
The quality of local government depends more than anything else on the administrative, technical and political skills of the individuals who run it. Spokane needs to concentrate on the search for more good leaders, rather than shifting political energy into assembling, staffing and repairing a new and significantly flawed power structure. Vote no.
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