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West, city both deserve answers

No private employer would tolerate the behavior Spokane Mayor Jim West has so far acknowledged. But a responsible employer would provide counseling and other assistance before giving up on a worker whose performance has otherwise been exemplary.

The City of Spokane should extend that help to the mayor for the sake of his well-being, and that of the Spokane community. The sooner the better.

The mayor’s decision Monday to take three weeks’ leave is a good first step.

The mayor is entitled to due process. The allegations raised — many of which he denies — will take time to sort out. Even who would conduct an investigation has not yet been determined. It is not clear what violations of the law, policy or codes of conduct have been committed. Societal codes of conduct are another matter. Soliciting sex with young men — or women, for that matter — using an internship or any other reward tied to his official responsibilities certainly raises questions about the abuse of authority.

The investigation and the mayor’s defense will address those questions.

What is clear is the taint cast on the entire community’s reputation by the alleged nature of the mayor’s activities. Unfortunately, the stain has been spread by national media distracted for a few seconds from the tale of the runaway bride or the trial of Michael Jackson. They have no interest in the tremendous economic progress Spokane has made in the last few years, some of that thanks to the mayor.

But the city itself must move beyond the “earthquake,” as Sen. Lisa Brown put it, created by the allegations. That can best be done if municipal affairs can be separated from those of the mayor, at least for a time. If the mayor will not resign — and Monday’s announcement certainly underscores his determination to remain in office — he should be encouraged to seek out not only legal counsel, but personal counseling as well. The disclosures made in the last few days have been tremendously traumatic.

As an elected official, the mayor has wide latitude to take whatever time off he sees fit. Two years ago, then-Spokane County Commissioner John Roskelley took several weeks off to climb Mt. Everest with his son. The mayor also has access to health plans that provide not only for the treatment he receives as a cancer patient, but also to professional help with the stress of confronting, in public, issues associated with his sexuality.

In the private sector, expectations and procedures regarding private and business conduct would be more clear-cut than may be the case with the city and the mayor, according to Gundars Kaupins, a professor at Boise State University and member of the Society of Human Resource Management’s ethics committee.

Corporate employee handbooks define acceptable practices and the punishments — from termination to counseling — for violators. In the case of a chief executive officer, any misbehavior would be examined in light of the law and internal policy. Where those guidelines are unclear, corporate officers could look to the conditions of the CEO’s employment contract, the outcome of internal grievance procedures or the results of arbitration in other cases.

But handbooks only go so far, as the scandals at Enron, Tyco and elsewhere all too clearly show.

Still, corporate procedures look absolutely streamlined compared with the process of removing the mayor. A recall effort must clear several hurdles, including the gathering of more than 12,000 signatures, before culminating in an election. The process could take a year, and lots of money. Not to mention the further damage to the city’s reputation in the meantime.

If anything, Spokane business leaders are in a more agonizing position than the community as a whole. West, the second strong mayor elected since the city charter was revised in 1999, has been an extremely effective administrator who has instilled a can-do spirit in city employees despite budgets that cannot keep up with the demand for services. Along with a City Council unified like no other in recent years, West has rigorously pursued installation of a wireless network and other initiatives that have greatly improved the city’s prospects for economic development.

Without his personal credibility, there is no way the $117 million street bond issue would have passed.

Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce President Rich Hadley said West’s decision to take some time off will give the whole community a breather.

“I think this time off is important to let things settle down and clarify the good things that are going on and how we can sustain them,” he said.

That was very much the mayor’s message to the City Council, city executives and employees. Three weeks will not be enough time to answer all the questions he personally, and the city as a whole, now face. But it will allow for a welcome degree of separation.