September 14, 2012 in City

Vestal: Patience needed to weigh ‘Action Guy’s’ decisions

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Colin Mulvany photoBuy this photo

Spokane Mayor David Condon in action at the press conference Wednesday for the 700-room hotel that Walt and Karen Worthy plan to build across from the INB Performing Arts Center.
(Full-size photo)

Mayor David Condon once referred to himself as an “action guy.” Eight months into the strongest example so far of Spokane’s strong-mayor system, the term seems apt.

Action Guy! Cutting through red tape! Slicing through the fog of negativity! Getting stuff done!

Action Guy! Hiring and firing! Ignoring advisory boards! Personally subsidizing positive testimony for his hand-picked police chief!

Condon’s quick, decisive approach has done what quick, decisive approaches do: produced results, become tangled in unforeseen consequences and ticked some people off. Any leadership style has its ups and downs, but the Action Guy approach tends to have more dramatic ones than most.

Condon’s no-patience- for-delay attack on the problems with the Otto Zehm case was thrillingly fast and effective, and it cast an ugly, retrospective shadow on the city’s failure to get it done earlier. Less impressive was the sense that he’d predetermined a police chief and that the public input process was merely a stroll through a Potemkin village.

But that’s what you get with an Action Guy – and it’s especially what you get with someone who’s girded themselves against criticism by defining themselves as Action Guys.

Action. Which is, of course, a neutral quality. Can be good or bad.

City Councilman Mike Allen, who served previously on the council when Mary Verner was mayor, said he admires Condon’s approach.

“I think some of our previous administrations would gather information, put it to thought, and then be disabled by decision paralysis,” Allen said.

There’s certainly no paralysis with Action Guy. Just the opposite: He’s often rushed out ahead of the people he’s supposed to be working with. His decision to oust Ombudsman Tim Burns – followed by his decision to walk that back – is an example of action outpacing thought. Sometimes you have to stomp on toes – the Police Guild comes to mind – and sometimes you don’t.

Council President Ben Stuckart, who’s been at odds with the mayor occasionally, sees the Action Guy approach as double-edged.

“Change is good, and you need to force change, because bureaucracy is slow,” he said. “He gets things done quicker. People may not always know the full extent of what’s going on before it happens.”

The hiring of Frank Straub as police chief – or chief-in-waiting – is a grand illustration. Condon had his eye on Straub early and personally invited Straub to apply. It became the conventional wisdom as the hiring process rolled forward that Straub’s hiring was a foregone conclusion; when the mayor stuck by him against the wishes of an advisory panel of law enforcement officials, the conventional wisdom was cemented.

Once Straub was hired, Action Guy and his chief administrator, Theresa Sanders, personally paid to bring out four pro-Straub witnesses to address the City Council, because they felt there had been too much negativity surrounding his hiring.

A fascinating action. It’s entirely unsurprising when “deciders” get huffy over negative reactions to their decisions. But what they usually do is whine about it. Condon and Sanders did something unheard-of, did it on their own dime, and were up front about what they had done. I can’t decide whether it was brilliant or just expensively defensive, but it wasn’t passive.

There’s a lot of public appeal to the Action Guy approach. Anyone who’s ever gotten tangled in the weeds of organizational bureaucracy – sat through meeting after meeting, postponed deadline after postponed deadline – has some love for the idea of taking a big sharp blade to those weeds. The big drawback, of course, is what’s tangled up in those weeds: the messy, pain-in-the-butt thing known as participatory democracy, to say nothing of morale and teamwork. For every Action Guy out there who’s energizing an organization with vigor, there are another two blithely and thoughtlessly trampling the folks they’re supposed to be leading.

Stuckart said that during the selection process for Straub he heard a lot of complaints that ran along the lines of this: “It was already a done deal. Why even have the process if you’re just going to end up where you already are?”

That kind of thing comes with the territory, with Action Guy. It was just that kind of issue that led to Condon’s characterization of himself in that way; he’d ruffled feathers by rushing an unexamined decision on the ombudsman’s office, and he told the Inlander, “It’s no secret out there, I’m an action guy. Let’s go.”

Condon came roaring into office with a plan, with a team, with a style. His first day on the job involved appointing an interim police chief and holding a press conference. In the weeks that followed, he fired more than a half-dozen administrators.

We probably won’t have a great read on the actions of Action Guy for a while. In particular, the ramifications of Condon’s budget proposal will be crucial to his long-term prospects. Will we be happier in a few years that he didn’t raise our taxes, or further dismayed by the erosion of public services that accompanies the loss of 100 jobs?

On that and other questions, we’ll just have to do the one thing that Action Guys hate most: Wait and see.

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


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