In the decade since Spokane began electing strong mayors, none had served more than three years – until this week.
Mayor Mary Verner didn’t even need to finish her term to become the city’s longest-serving strong mayor.
Verner’s goal, however, is much bigger: To become the city’s first mayor to win a second term since 1973.
But to do that, she’ll have to weather what likely will be her toughest year yet. In the coming months she’ll have to deal with dozens of city layoffs, reduction of city services, potentially prickly union relations, possible closure of a library, the federal criminal trial of a police officer whose actions she has defended, and a winter that’s forecast to be extra harsh.
Her supporters praise her communication style and ability to work with all sorts of people and organizations to get things done.
“She’s proven herself to be very intelligent and very hard working as a strong mayor,” said Tom Paine, government relations director of Avista. “She’s shown herself capable of working on the budget issues even in tough times.”
Some critics, however, say her style can lead to indecisiveness.
“Sometimes you can spend a lot of time getting people on the same page instead of just making a decision,” said City Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin. “But I applaud her desire to be inclusive.”
Perhaps Verner’s biggest accomplishment is her success, at least until this fall, at avoiding a mass distribution of pink slips.
While many other cities and counties, including Spokane County, laid off dozens of employees over the past two years, Verner persuaded the City Council to back a combination of an expanded utility tax and fee increases, and got city unions to accept modest concessions to keep the city’s service levels virtually unaffected.
But the outlook is worse for 2011, and layoffs are almost a certainty.
Verner decided against seeking new taxes to fill what has become the $13.5 million gap between expected 2011 revenue and maintaining employee levels and services.
City Councilman Richard Rush, a Verner supporter, said the recent election in which voters overwhelmingly rejected increased taxes proved that Verner’s aversion to raising taxes this year “was prescient.”
Instead, she told unions that they would have to give up their 2011 raises and pay more toward their medical coverage to save jobs. All the city’s unions had balked at her demand until last week, when she and the leadership of the city’s fire union reached a tentative deal that would prevent firefighter layoffs and closure of a fire station.
But with only a couple weeks until the budget is scheduled for approval, most unions are unlikely to reach deals, meaning most of the more than 50 non-firefighters told they would lose jobs on Christmas will do so. In the Police Department, layoffs would mean a major reduction in crime investigations, including the loss of all the department’s fraud detectives. The Street Department would lose a crew that patches streets in the summer and plows in the winter.
Under the City Charter, Verner is entitled to a salary of more than $170,000, but since taking office, she has capped her pay at around $100,000. It’s not something she often publicizes, but her supporters say she sets a good example during hard times.
Arguably, Verner’s biggest blunder was her handling of her first major winter storm, soon after taking office. After snow paralyzed the city in January 2008, it was several days before she addressed frustrated residents.
By the time the next big storm rolled through 11 months later, however, Verner appeared to have learned a lesson. Months before, the city had prepared contracts with private grader operators who could be turned to in emergencies and sewer and water employees were trained to drive plows to bulk up the city’s force. December 2008 became the snowiest month in city history. This time, Verner waged a high-profile effort to publicly assure residents the city was prepared.
Verner may be most known for her environmental positions, most notably her Sustainability Action Plan, a nonbinding guideline to cut the city’s dependence on fossil fuels.
But one of the biggest marks Verner will leave on the city is one that’s largely ignored.
Verner last year successfully negotiated a deal with Spokane County and Airway Heights to annex 10 square miles of the West Plains in 2012. Although West Plains annexation had been in the making for decades, it had been bogged down by lawsuits and disagreements. The expansion, the largest for Spokane in more than a century, gives the city a significant chunk of land to expand its tax base.
Path to re-election
Mayor David Rodgers was the last Spokane mayor to win a second term. Bill Youngs, an Eastern Washington University history professor, said that by 1973, voters saw progress in the preparation for Expo ’74, and city leaders likely were riding a wave of good will sparked by the likelihood of hosting a successful World’s Fair.
Since then, however, the city’s top elected leaders have been tripped by sour relations with unions, business leaders or neighborhood activists. Or by River Park Square. Or poor health. Or scandal.
In 1999, voters approved a change in city government to give the mayor control over administering the city. Before that, mayors sat on the City Council, which hired a city administrator to run the city.
Three constituencies hold considerable sway in city politics: city employee unions, businesses and neighborhood leaders. Verner had strong support from unions and neighborhood leaders when she defeated Mayor Dennis Hession in 2007.
Business leaders largely backed Hession, but there’s some sign that some of that support has turned to Verner. Avista Corp., for instance, which pushed for Hession, already has contributed to Verner’s re-election campaign.
Tony Bonanzino, former CEO of Hollister-Stier Laboratories who had been rumored to be mulling a challenge to Verner, said earlier this month that he won’t run against her. He said he’ll wait to see the field of candidates before deciding whom he’ll support, but he wouldn’t rule out backing Verner.
“She has been an excellent listener,” Bonanzino said. “She is doing her very best to address the difficult challenges that she’s been faced with.”
Verner has stayed mostly on the sidelines for one of the biggest debates of the past three years.
Although she backed the creation of a new police oversight system when she ran for mayor, once taking office, Verner planned only to contract for police ombudsman services on a part-time basis, arguing that a full-time ombudsman would be little more than a “Maytag repairman” with little to do. The City Council eventually approved a full-time ombudsman, who was given stronger powers this year.
“She had the opportunity to lead the city in a good direction in terms of police oversight,” said Liz Moore, executive director of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane. “Many times, she was just silent.”
Verner argued that during a historic economic downturn, her goals for Police Guild negotiations were for concessions to save jobs and service over gaining more police oversight authority.
Under her leadership, the city attorney’s office has vigorously defended Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. and other officers involved in the fatal 2006 confrontation with Otto Zehm, an unarmed mentally ill janitor who was mistakenly suspected of stealing money. He died two days after he was beaten, hogtied and shocked with a Taser. The city has argued that Zehm was responsible for the deadly encounter.
“I just don’t think that the behavior of the officer rose to criminal behavior,” Verner said in February 2009. A few months later, Thompson was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of using excessive force and lying to investigators. That trial is expected to start next year.
Despite those positions, Verner’s relationship with the guild grew contentious this fall as the mayor held firm on the union’s choices: Agree to concessions or face layoffs.
Kiondra Bullock, executive director of VOICES, a nonprofit advocacy group for low-income people, said she considers herself a Verner supporter. She praises the mayor for her positions on issues affecting the poor and neighborhoods and especially for reaching out to people of color.
But she said Verner should have taken a stronger stance on police oversight.
“I believe that she cares about the people in Spokane,” Bullock said. “But I wonder if she cares more about the Police Guild than the people.”
Rush, who supported stronger oversight, said he doesn’t share those concerns.
“The council provided the leadership for getting the ombudsman passed,” Rush said. Once that happened, “she embraced it.”