November 13, 2011 in City

From rhetoric to reality: Mayor-elect faces challenges

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Mayor-elect David Condon says he’ll unveil his transition team and his “initial plans” on Tuesday.
(Full-size photo)

And now comes the hard part: governing.

David Condon made a spectacular comeback in his bid to become the mayor of Washington’s second largest city.

Now, with the election night cheers of supporters long faded, there are promises to keep and lots of barriers to keeping those promises. He will lead a workforce he has characterized as overcompensated, a workforce that belongs to unions that supported his opponent. A workforce that created many of the ideas he criticized during the campaign.

And then there’s the routine but essential business of the city. There’s garbage to pick up on time, sewage to clean, heart attack victims to resuscitate, robbers to arrest, potholes to fill and – if you believe the forecasters – a lot of snow to clear this winter, thank you very much, La Niña.

Condon, 37, who’s never held elective office or a city job, will lead 2,100 city workers. He will have to work with a new City Council president, Ben Stuckart, who is of a different political persuasion and whose only city position has been as a volunteer city arts commissioner.

There is a new administration to form, a treacherous political game that must balance the push for change with the need for stability and experience.

Condon has said little publicly since his victory about his first steps as mayor; he issued a statement saying he would unveil his transition team and his “initial plans” on Tuesday.

The City Charter allows the mayor to remove department heads or assistant directors without cause, although the past several strong mayors have not made huge staffing changes early in their administrations. Mayor Mary Verner replaced the park director and much of the mayoral staff but kept the previous administration largely intact. People expected wide-scale change in City Hall after the last Republican, Jim West, took office. But he kept even the previous mayor’s right-hand man.

Oh, and there’s that problem with the city budget and trying to balance it.

There are libraries to keep open, senior and youth centers to save, crumbling streets to pave with the money of the last street bond mostly spent. There’s a youth department to hand off to a potentially cash-starved nonprofit and a weights and measures department to dismantle or save with new fees.

Perhaps job No. 1 is the issue that may have propelled Condon into office, the tension that appears to be building within the Spokane Police Department and between the police and the community. Federal prosecutors have alleged a conspiracy to cover up police actions in the death of Otto Zehm.

Less than a week before the election, Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. was convicted of violating Zehm’s civil rights. The U.S. Department of Justice’s homepage soon featured a story about the alleged coverup in Spokane. And there are growing signs of strife in the department. Once divided over the leadership of police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick, there are growing indications that the rank and file are starting to divide over Thompson’s conviction.

Condon’s message, repeated several times during the campaign, was: “Why is it taking so long to resolve the situation with Otto Zehm and his family? Who knew what and when?”

With the criminal case over, the city is already working to settle the lawsuit filed by Zehm’s family, but it’s unclear if that will be done by the time Verner leaves office. The other portion – the “who knew what and when” – likely won’t be fully understood by the time Condon becomes mayor on Jan. 1.

Verner announced in September that those questions would be answered by an independent panel and said this month the group would be led by a former Gonzaga law school dean. It’s unclear now whether that panel even will be formed.

Condon suggested he would fire Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi, who has managed much of the city’s legal response to the Zehm matter. Treppiedi, a Spokane School Board member, was accused by federal prosecutors of conflicts of interests and worrying more about protecting the city’s liability in Zehm’s death than in pursuing the truth. City attorneys have said they acted ethically and that federal prosecutors were inappropriately trying to manage the handling of a civil case.

Assistant city attorneys aren’t protected by civil service rules, and serve at the pleasure of the city attorney, who serves at the pleasure of the mayor. Treppiedi declined to comment on Condon’s win last week and directed questions to city spokeswoman Marlene Feist. Feist noted that Condon isn’t yet in charge and that there isn’t much she could say about Treppiedi’s future.

While campaigning, Condon said he’d make other changes:

• He would repeal the $20 vehicle tab tax approved earlier this year and would work instead for a regional tab tax.

• He would work to repeal the utility tax on a portion of city utility bills known as “rate stabilization.” Doing so could help keep utility rates lower, but it also would force a $4 million or more shortfall that would have to be made up with cuts to the city’s general fund – that portion of government including police, fire and libraries services, paid for mostly with taxes. 

• He opposed the 13.5 percent sewer rate increase approved by City Council this year and questioned the need for similar increases in the future. The city says the hikes will pay for major sewer plant upgrades to improve sewage treatment.

Condon said that to ease the burden on ratepayers, the city should push for a delay in deadlines to complete the projects.

But Rachael Paschal Osborn, the staff attorney for the Center for Environmental Law and Policy, said that since the city already promised the state it would make the improvements before the end of the decade, it won’t be easy for Condon to delay construction in an attempt to keep rates lower. Condon wasn’t the only candidate elected Tuesday who suggested that the city should work to push back the deadline.

“The reality of how to manage the city and to manage this very important infrastructure system is going to be a little bit different than what they thought on the campaign trail,” Osborn said.

And then there are union contracts. Condon pledged to drive a harder bargain with unions, but he also pledged to work well with them. It’s easy to forget that it was West, a Republican, who had the best relationship in recent memory with city unions, and agreements penned during his administration bear that out.

Some contracts will expire at the end of this year and could still be completed by Verner, most notably the Spokane Police Guild’s. That deal, whenever it comes, will be heavily scrutinized by the City Council because many council members have suggested they are likely to vote against it unless it includes rules creating stronger police oversight.

Lt. Mark Vietzke, president of the Spokane Firefighters Association, said the voters have spoken and his group will work with the new mayor.

“I just want to have the opportunity to speak with him and get to know him,” Vietzke said. “When you’re working together, you get a lot more done then when you’re adversarial.”


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