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Ballot questions clarify, change City Charter

Thu., July 28, 2011

Switch to strong mayor in 1999 introduced interpretive questions

When Spokane ballots arrive in the mail this week, the largest chunk of paper will be filled with a series of questions that have received little attention.

In May, the Spokane City Council voted to place 11 amendments to the City Charter before voters.

Many of the changes are minor and don’t change current practice. Some, however, would potentially make a difference in the operations of the city, and at least one, involving the condemnation powers of the Spokane Park Board, has proved to be controversial.

Spokane City Councilman Steve Corker, who led the City Charter Review Committee that recommended the changes, said most items aim to clarify the charter in the wake of the 1999 vote to create a strong mayor form of government.

“Some of these, I think, are critically important,” said Corker, who is running for City Council president. “Some are just asking the voters, ‘What did you mean?’ ”

In March 2009, voters approved the first set of changes the committee recommended. Corker said he believes this will be the last set of proposals from the committee.

Former City Councilman Steve Eugster, who led the effort to switch to the strong mayor system, said the proposals don’t substantially change the intent of the strong mayor system. He thinks many of the propositions are unnecessary. He opposes some but supports others.

Proposition 1 would allow a City Council member to serve as City Council president even after serving two consecutive terms on the council. City attorneys say the charter’s current language prevents council members who have served two terms in a row from moving on to run for the presidency.

Eugster said he supports the change. It was his intent all along to allow someone to run for council president after serving two consecutive terms as a council member, he said.

The proposition keeps a requirement that candidates must be residents of the city for at least a year, but creates a definition of residency to mean the person’s “permanent address where he or she physically resides and maintains his or her abode.” It also would allow someone to maintain residency “by reason of his or her absence while employed in the civil or military service of the state or of the United States.”

Proposition 2 clears up language in the charter about the salaries of elected officials, but doesn’t change the rules. The mayor still would be entitled to a salary equal to that of the highest-paid city employee other than the city administrator. Last year, the mayor was entitled to $172,796, the amount earned by police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick. Mayor Mary Verner, however, only accepted $99,632. The current and proposed language says the mayor “shall” earn the amount stipulated, leading some to question whether a mayor is allowed to refuse pay. Current city attorneys, however, say it’s acceptable under the charter, and even if it’s not no one is likely to sue the city to force the mayor to accept her full salary. The change also eliminates salary minimums.

Proposition 3 would stipulate that recall elections of council members elected by district would be held only in the member’s district. Currently, all recall elections are held citywide.

Corker said allowing all voters to recall an official who was elected in a district diminishes the power of each district and means that a member could be tossed out of office by people he or she doesn’t represent.

Eugster says he opposes the change.

“My position is that once you are elected to the City Council, you are acting for the entire electorate for the city of Spokane.”

Proposition 4 would allow the City Council to create temporary committees to make recommendations. The purpose, officials say, is to remove any doubt that the council has such authority.

Proposition 5 would require that in the event that the City Council president is elevated to perform mayoral duties because the mayor became unable to fill the role or the office of mayor is vacated, the City Council president could not also serve on the City Council at the same time.

Corker said the change is needed to prevent one person from controlling two branches of city government.

Proposition 6 would give the mayor the power to hire outside attorneys without council approval. Currently, the City Council must approve any decision to hire outside legal help.

If the cost of employing an outside attorney were to reach $44,200 for 12 months of work, then the City Council still would have to approve the funding under other city rules.

Officials say the change is important to ensure the mayor controls the city’s legal strategy.

Eugster, however, questions why the mayor should be allowed to hire an outside attorney without council approval when she already has the power to hire and fire the city attorney.

“She’s got to live with the attorney that she’s hired,” Eugster said.

Proposition 7 would strip the Spokane Park Board of its power to condemn property. The City Charter currently requires the City Council to condemn land for park acquisition if requested by the Park Board. This proposal would give the City Council the power to turn down the Park Board’s condemnation requests.

Park leaders say the action is a move against the Park Board’s independent authority granted to them by voters more than a century ago. They add that the board has rarely, if ever, used its condemnation powers.

“There is no reason to believe that the current Park Board or future boards will be any less responsible or that it will recklessly exercise its condemnation authority,” Park Director Leroy Eadie said in a letter to the council. He added that “in the coming years circumstance may require use of this power to further develop Riverfront Park, the North Bank or other properties in its inventory.”

But City Council members say they should not be forced to condemn land by unelected officials.

“It’s an important check and balance we need in a strong mayor form of government,” Councilman Jon Snyder said during council debate.

Corker said the proposal came forward in the aftermath of the controversial decision to acquire the former YMCA building in Riverfront Park. City attorneys, however, say condemnation never played a role in that decision because the Park Board had an agreement with the Y that gave the board the right to purchase it when the Y decided to move.

Proposition 8 would formalize the process for determining how to assign newly annexed land to a City Council district. Annexed land contiguous to only one district would automatically be placed into that district. The Spokane City Council would vote to assign annexed land that touches multiple districts. That’s what happened after the city annexed a strip of land along North Division that touches the Northwest and Northeast council districts; the council voted to place it in the Northeast district.

Proposition 9 would clarify that the Office of Neighborhood Services reports to the mayor. In practice, that’s where the office has been reporting anyway. This item has had little discussion and officials say it simply clarifies the law. Eugster said he doesn’t have strong feelings on the proposition, but that he’ll vote to prevent any mayor from using the neighborhood council system as part of a “political apparatus.”

Proposition 10 would allow the city to hold more than one special election within a six-month period. For the city, a special election is any city election, except the primary and general elections held during odd-numbered years when city officials are elected. Assistant City Attorney Mike Piccolo said, however, it’s unclear if the general or primary election might count as a special election if other items were added to the ballot – for example, a proposal for a property tax to pay for firefighting equipment. He added that it’s unclear how the current rules would apply if citizens collected enough signatures to place an item on the ballot within six months of an earlier special election.

Supporters of the change say it removes ambiguity and would give elected leaders flexibility to deal with serious issues.

Opponents say the current rules prevent the city from approving too many special elections, which cost money. Maintaining current rules, they say, forced the city to reflect before asking voters to approve a tax proposal that failed.

Proposition 11 would formally give the City Council the power to direct the City Plan Commission to review specific proposals and make recommendations on pending legislation. Officials say the change doesn’t substantially change existing rules.

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