Sitting with Ben Stuckart for coffee, I thought I heard The Who whispering in my ear: Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss?
It doesn’t seem so. As president of the Spokane City Council, Stuckart is one of several new, or new-ish, faces at City Hall these days. He’s a first-timer in elected office, a young man who seems temperate and measured, a guy with “progressive tendencies,” as he puts it, who’s the legislative leader of a new conservative council. It’s an interesting time in city politics, with new people in the mayor’s office and on the council, with the good and bad that newness entails.
Part of the good is energy, optimism and openness. The new kids are diving in, trying to learn, and keeping an eye on their goals. And for all the pooh-poohing some of us may do over the city government’s nonpartisan nature, there seem to be some areas in which Stuckart and conservative Mayor David Condon are sounding similar notes: Eliminating regulatory hurdles that limit new business and trying to repair the city’s fractious relationship with its police department.
The regulatory complaint has been such a perennial drumbeat – raised in all circumstances, no matter what – that I’m suspicious of it. And since my tendencies are somewhat like Stuckart’s, I didn’t exactly expect we’d be talking a lot about the regulatory overload.
“What changed my opinion was just going and talking with small-business owners,” he said. “Multiple examples become a narrative.”
Stuckart rattled off a list of woes experienced by businesses trying to open in urban spaces, only to find themselves thwarted by city requirements for parking lots or open space on residential lots. Those zoning requirements may make sense in certain environments, but they’re unreasonable when you’re trying to encourage new businesses in urban areas and existing neighborhoods – the kinds of enterprise that foster denser, smarter, walkable city life.
“We have overlaid one set of standards that satisfies our suburban environment over the entire town,” Stuckart said.
Another problem – which the city has already begun attacking – are requirements for “change of use” permits. These are required when someone wants to turn, say, an antiques shop in an old building into a cafeteria. Under current rules, the change requires that the newest, strictest code requirements apply – meaning that the antique store can’t become a café, in some cases, without spending impractical amounts of money to meet modern codes, Stuckart said.
He recognizes that these questions always involve winners and losers, and he mentioned the neighborhood controversy that arose over parking when the Flying Goat opened in a former abandoned gas station in north Spokane. Parking spills onto neighborhood streets; some neighbors complained. Of course, other neighbors say that the presence of a new business enlivens the neighborhood, makes it feel safer and brighter at night.
“Would you rather have the abandoned gas station or the Flying Goat?” Stuckart asks.
Me? Gimme the Goat. Projects like that – which turn eyesores into neighborhood hangouts – are good for the city.
One thing Stuckart would like to do is create a pilot project in West Central with zoning rules that relax parking requirements and allow for more dense residential construction. It’s just one idea, but an example of the way Stuckart says he wants to see the City Council become more active.
In 2010, he said, just five pieces of legislation out of more than 100 the council passed were authored by members of the council.
“Policy is being driven by administrative staff instead of being driven by the council members,” he said.
Stuckart’s victory at the polls came amid a strange city election. Four candidates with conservative tendencies – Steve Salvatori, Mike Allen, Mike Fagan and Condon – won. At the same time, Stuckart defeated former Mayor Dennis Hession, and the Community Bill of Rights captured almost half the vote.
Stuckart said he thinks that hard work may have weighed more in each candidate’s favor than any overarching political perspective; in most cases, he said, the candidates who rang the most doorbells won. He also points out that much of city government does not turn on the conservative-liberal spectrum – though plenty does – and notes early points of agreement between council members who would seem to be ideological opposites. We’ll see how that holds up.
As the president of the council, Stuckart is responsible for running the meetings and setting the tone with the public. He replaces the pugnacious Joe Shogan as the banger of the gavel. Already, he’s found himself having to eject someone from the council chambers, though he did it during a recess, with the TV cameras off and without a lot of bluster.
“I was hoping for four years I wouldn’t have to kick anybody out,” he said.
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