Spokane Mayor-elect John Talbott takes his oath of office today before a cozy crowd of family and friends. But the warm, fuzzy feeling may be short-lived.
The city critic turned city leader knows he has some work to do to build trust and camaraderie among many of the same people in City Hall he has alienated for years.
Talbott says he has been unfairly portrayed as an “angry outsider” who dislikes everything about city government. He insists that’s not the case.
“There were a few issues I’ve felt strongly about … that weren’t being clearly explained to the people,” he says.
“When that wasn’t forthcoming, I did become that angry person. That reputation precedes me. Most people, after they get to know me, don’t feel that way.”
Since winning a narrow victory over Mayor Jack Geraghty in November, Talbott has tried to show those inside City Hall he’s far more than the sum of the most critical speeches he had made to the council.
He spent hours meeting with city managers, talking to them about their goals and his. He met with community center directors to arrange future meetings with neighborhood residents. He made preliminary plans for a weekly radio call-in show.
He also met separately with his future council colleagues to begin what could be his toughest task: building a relationship with many of the same people he asked several months ago to resign.
“Right now, it’ll be a challenge for John to do that,” says Councilman Jeff Colliton. “He’s antagonized members of the council and he’ll have to struggle to get consensus built. It’s not impossible, but he’ll have to work at it.”
The need to make nice goes beyond appearances’ sake. The council faces big problems, such as finding the money to fix streets and repair and build bridges.
For his part, Talbott is keenly aware of the challenge that lies ahead.
“The toughest job of the council is working with each other. It’s not just one person,” he says. “We have to be able to bring that expertise in a common direction and keep in mind what we’re doing is serving the people of Spokane.”
Talbott already has suffered a few disappointments on his road to the fifth-floor corner office that overlooks Riverfront Park.
Soon after the election, Talbott says, he tried to sell the council on the resume of a would-be assistant, but other council members said the man was overqualified.
His proposal for an internal auditor also has met resistance from some council members, but Talbott says he isn’t giving up.
“The internal auditor will benefit city government by either affirming that what we’re doing is the best way we can do it or pointing out ways we can improve,” Talbott says.
He adds that if an auditor could cut 5 percent from the city’s annual spending plan, that’s $15 million that could go to other needs like streets.
If the independent auditor idea doesn’t fly, he says he’ll pursue other cost-saving measures such as managed competition, where city departments compete with private industry for city jobs.
Talbott also would like to see some changes in the weekly meeting format.
He wants routine contract items voted on during the regular meeting instead of the briefing session. He wants hearings and the public forum moved from the end of meetings to the first so residents won’t have to wait hours to testify.
“That makes it more customer-friendly,” he says. “We’ve got people who want to say something to their government. They ought to be able to get that done as quickly, as early as possible.”
He plans to serve on several committees, including Public Works, the Association of Washington Cities and the National Conference of Mayors.
Talbott spent nearly two hours talking with Geraghty about the transition. Geraghty briefed him on topics such as mayoral protocol and proclamations and gave his successor a tour of City Hall, including the mayor’s privy.
Geraghty also offered Talbott some solicited advice.
“I told him he would have to really work hard to work with the council,” Geraghty said. “The mayor’s only one of seven. If you try to get an agenda through, you have to get the votes.”
Talbott may quickly find how difficult it can be to win those votes.
He plans to nominate Cherie Rodgers as his mayor pro-tem. The appointment is subject to council approval, which may be tough to get.
Some council members, such as Colliton, admire Rodgers but think she may be too green for the job. She joined the council in January 1997.
“Cherie is one of the most looked up to (council members) by the public and city staff,” Talbott says. “That’s why I selected her.”
While Talbott is proposing several changes, he’ll share one major player with Geraghty. Joan Jamison, Geraghty’s secretary, plans to stay on during Talbott’s term.
“Why change?” Talbott says. “She’s highly respected … and she knows the process of government.”
Talbott admits some nervousness about the job, but he quickly notes he’s ready. During a 30-year Air Force career, the retired colonel learned how to operate under fire.
“I’m just going to go up there and get to work,” he says.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: A week off Spokane City Council members are taking a holiday break tonight from their weekly meetings. They won’t meet again until Jan. 5, when new Mayor John Talbott and Councilman Rob Higgins will make their debuts.