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An open door requires not coming unhinged

Wed., Nov. 16, 2011

In politics, everyone’s for openness – for accountability, for transparency – until they get a good dose of it.

Then, more often than not, they climb into a bunker, start issuing statements, managing the message and taking no questions. Because when you’re on the business end of true openness – listening to the nettlesome public, warding off the pesky media – it simply ain’t any fun.

So here’s hoping David Condon sticks to his word.

Condon has had his shots. He’s picked up the fumble. He’s the mayor-elect.

And, like every politician in the history of the universe, he says he’s committed to being “open, accountable and responsive.” He must have used those words 20 times Tuesday during his inaugural press conference as mayor-elect. But this is the kind of commitment that is easier to make than it is to keep – Condon actually invoked an old management cliche: “My door is always open.”

But Condon says he’s ready to stick to it.

“The voters clearly want a City Hall that is open, accountable and responsive,” he said during his first news conference since his upset win over Mary Verner.

That is what we want, but it is not always what we get. Spokane is being swamped with failures of frankness and the triumph of message-management from many of our supposed leaders – communication by carefully managed statements coupled with refusals to answer direct questions. Worse, they sometimes are simply disappearing.

No one exemplifies this more than Prosecutor Steve Tucker, a man who has made a mockery of the notion of accountability. Tucker – Spokane County’s championship buck-passer and hemmer-and-hawer – has been dodging the press for weeks, refusing to even pop up and say “no comment” about what he’s pledged to do in the Otto Zehm case. Expecting him to answer for his earlier statements – that’s one of those places where the whole openness thing starts to pinch.

This is par for the course for a man who, over the years, has on more than one occasion had to be staked out by reporters seeking simple comment on matters relating to his public responsibilities. A man who won’t even refuse to answer a question – he simply refuses to entertain them.

Verner is nothing at all like Tucker in this respect. No one is, really. But she’s dived into the bunker a couple times lately, and seemed somewhat stung by some of the difficulties of public life. On sensitive matters, Verner seems more likely to issue carefully parsed statements and answer few questions. She issues FAQs but answers no questions.

I don’t mean to make this only about the press. Some level of hostility or at least wariness toward the press corps is pretty understandable, if you’re a mayor or prosecutor. We’re pests – though we’re often not as vigorously pestilent as we should be. We ask questions they don’t want to answer, and sometimes we ask questions they feel they shouldn’t answer. We get things wrong, and then, when the politicians themselves screw up – “It’s only snow, people” – and start to feel the heat, it’s perhaps only natural that they begin to focus the blame elsewhere.

Soon, the high-minded commitment to openness has vanished and the public official has gone to war, in a sense, with the media and forgotten about the citizens on the other side.

It’s one of the oldest templates in politics: New boss promises openness, old boss dives into the bunker.

Condon is just starting, and he’s making some of the right, easy steps. His first public appearance of any magnitude came kind of late, a week after Election Day, but that’s not necessarily his fault. The votes were being counted, and Verner has refused to concede more stubbornly than Monty Python’s Black Knight.

He announced that he’d be naming members of his transition team and the makeup of several panels intended to examine city services. He said that some 40 to 50 people would be involved with this effort, and that public input would be sought along the way. The people involved will be selected and identified by next week, Condon said.

This stands in contrast to Verner, who initially intended to keep the members of her transition team secret. It was an irony for the mayor, whose platform included pledges to make city government more … what’s that word … open. Right away, she found that openness is a pain in the neck. It impedes efficiency, it muddies the picture, it invades people’s personal space, it drags in the annoying pests of public life, and forces officials to deal with them as the clock ticks on matters they consider more important.

And, crucially, it gradually erodes any sense of authority and respect a leader might think is coming their way from the public. Even the least egocentric politician in the world feels they are owed at least a little respect.

I hope Condon can stick with the message he put out Tuesday. And I hope he will remember, as he says he will, that public accountability involves more than simply issuing news releases and answering only those questions you ask yourself.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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