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At council, Joe does it his way

Just wondering: When the Spokane City Council meets, whose meeting is it?

Yours and mine? George McGrath’s? The Cowles Gang’s?

No. It’s Joe’s. And Joe’s meetings can sometimes be uncomfortable for everyone else.

Joe Shogan is the City Council president whose no-bull style can cast a gray, tense cloud over a meeting. He often opens the public comment period with the least-welcoming welcome to constituents I have ever heard.

Here’s an example from March 29, the last time a decent crowd gathered in council chambers. Shogan opened the public comment period on a plan to tear down the YMCA building in Riverfront Park by growling:

“If you’ve been here before you already have heard this, but you’re going to have to listen to it again. You’re allowed three minutes to speak. You have to focus exactly on what we’re talking about, which is whether or not to use Conservation Futures for this Y property. I ask the courtesy that if somebody gets up and says exactly what you want to say, you don’t have to come up really and say it again. …

“We’re here for testimony. We’re not here for a question-and-answer period. … The last thing is, we have a lot of people here to speak, so you’re not allowed to applaud, boo, hiss or speak out loud to disrupt this meeting. Everybody’s got a lot of things to do. All our time’s valuable, and we’re not going to spend it while we have somebody else just decide they want to demonstrate. … If you don’t want to abide by these rules and you feel you want to disrupt us then I’ll call a recess and I’ll have the officer in the back escort you out of the chambers.

“We’re here for serious business. We’re not here for ‘The Gong Show.’ ”

So there you go, Mr. and Mrs. Concerned Citizen. Step right up.

More recently, Shogan clashed with County Commissioner Mark Richard at an April 12 meeting, a confrontation that included Shogan demanding three times that Richard sit down – “Sit down, commissioner!” – and Richard’s exit in a huff. Afterward, Shogan noted that Richard had not followed the rules of “my meeting.” Councilman Bob Apple put it this way to a reporter: “Joe runs his meetings his way. He has the right to make those calls.”

Well, there are rights, and then there’s what is right. And then there’s what is important right now, namely that the elected representatives from the city and county occupy the same room and discuss the issues facing them both, such as a new jail, animal control, garbage pickup, air pollution, river cleanup …

Here is a quick recap of Shogan’s style:

After Councilman Steve Corker apologized to attorneys for Shogan’s direct questioning on the issue of the Christian cross on the police chaplain’s uniform in December 2007: “Thank you Mr. Corker but I don’t need you to apologize for my questions. These gentlemen are lawyers. I’m a lawyer. … If these gentlemen don’t think they can debate lawyer to lawyer, then maybe they shouldn’t have come.”

Speaking to council gadfly George McGrath on April 5: “Mr. McGrath, you’re done and if you want to keep talking, you know the rule, you’re out of here. Will you have the courtesy to let me finish, or do you have any courtesy?”

At a Feb. 22 meeting on whether the council should put a school dropout-prevention measure on the ballot: “We are not taking testimony tonight on the merits of the measure. So if you’re here to testify on the merits of the measure, you’re not. … Now I’ll warn you one more time. If you come up and you want to start talking either in support or against this measure I’m going to cut you short. … I’ll just warn you once again. Do not come up here and start to speak about the merits or the disadvantages of this measure.”

Which is to say nothing of his most famous outburst, when he accused the other council members last October of working behind his back while he was out of town, promising to return “bringing hell with me.”

I am not unsympathetic to people with a temper. I’ve had my own angry embarrassments, more than I can count. So I want to give Shogan the benefit of the doubt.

When I called him about this, he was clearly familiar with – and tired of – the subject of his demeanor. He said he’s tried to be more welcoming. He said he didn’t feel he lost his temper with Richard – “It’s not like I threw my gavel at him” – and said Richard was flouting the rules of the meeting. He said as council president, he gets it from all sides.

“I’m damned if I do, damned if I don’t,” he said. “I do the best I can.”

Some people who are concerned about Joe’s approach insist he’s a nice guy at heart, a compassionate person whose nature is not defined by a brusque, loud tone or an impatient desire to run a tight ship.

And there is something to be said for his bluntness over its corrosive opposite: Pretty, empty talk, with which our public life is jammed to the gills. So many people strain to avoid saying anything definitive, or craft words slyly to shade meaning, that even Joe’s milder comments sound overly direct. Still, there must be a path between those two woods.

I’m not so concerned about the tender feelings of Mark Richard. The city and the county have to get past it, even if it’s difficult. It’s their job, and if any of them allows a dust-up at a meeting to get in the way, it won’t be just Joe Shogan who has an attitude problem.

I’m more worried about the welcome given to the public in the chambers of their representatives. It takes time and effort to testify before the council. Apart from a couple regulars, hardly anyone bothers to do it. When they do, it’s not asking too much that they not be scolded before they open their mouths.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or