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Shawn Vestal: Recalling the mayor doesn’t make much sense

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

There are few things that make less sense for Spokane right now than a recall of the mayor.

Was the behavior unearthed by the Kris Cappel report shoddy and shameful? Absolutely. Was the manner of Craig Meidl’s appointment as police chief reckless and poorly thought out? Utterly. Has the blame-everyone-else mayor taken any level of responsibility? Not even close.

But it’s hard to imagine anything productive emerging from a protracted dismantling and remantling of leadership at the top. That kind of uncertainty could put a damper on significant and important initiatives regarding police, the homeless, the courts, infrastructure, water quality and business services.

Many of those initiatives grow, it’s worth remembering, from the strengths of the Condon administration, which have included creative, ingenious approaches to stubborn problems, a push to improve key city services quickly, and a willingness to take on long-standing bureaucratic sclerosis. He and his administration, like all human beings and human institutions, are not a single, pure quality – all good or all bad – but a combination. The strengths of the Condon administration, the ones that persuaded the city to re-elect him, are not erased by its weaknesses. We must weigh them together.

For me, the scales don’t tip quite that far. Not quite. A recall is meant for extreme cases, a tool to be used conservatively. If a judge signs off on the petition and thousands and thousands of Spokane citizens think this is a death-penalty case, then so be it. But in pragmatic – perhaps cynically pragmatic – terms, it’s hard to add up the potential consequences here and see it as good for the city.

This would be an easier call if not for two things: the fact that City Hall manipulations of the public records process involved an election, and the fact that the administration and its attorneys – city attorneys and private ones – have been such a vortex of denial and spin.

But the best argument against a recall is not anything in the scales of guilt or innocence with regard to Frank Straub. It resides in the balance of power at City Hall, the checks and balances, and the ability of other parties in an adversarial system to counteract and influence.

The mayor tried to cram a police chief down the city’s throat, rashly suggesting that he did not need City Council approval. The council checked him, and he relented. The mayor and his team tried to pull the wool over the city’s eyes regarding problems with his police chief. Journalists and others refused to swallow it, and used the public records law to discover the truth – or more of it, anyway. That spurred the investigation that resulted in the Cappel report, which is a damning and persuasive indictment.

This checking and balancing has seemingly overtaken everything else at City Hall, but it has indeed worked as intended, by limiting and exposing overreach.

Is that enough? The Spokane County Democrats have called for Condon to step down. A CPA and local Democratic district chairman, David Green, has filed a recall petition. He filed his petition on Aug. 16, charging that Condon had committed acts of malfeasance and misfeasance and violated his oath of office; a judge will rule Sept. 12 whether the petition conforms with the law.

If the judge signs off, petitioners would gather signatures; it would take 25 percent of the votes cast in the last mayoral election – more than 51,000 – to qualify for the ballot. That’s roughly 13,000 people. And if that last election is a guide, it would take more than 25,000 voters to turn Condon out of office.

Say all that happens. We could be well into 2017. The City Council would then be obliged to name a replacement, for which the winds of conventional wisdom continually whisper one name: Council President Ben Stuckart.

Within the administration, the belief that Stuckart is behind this whole thing is an article of faith. Stuckart has said he’s not involved in the recall, but by virtue of his position and tradition, he’s at least a likely candidate to replace Condon should he be recalled. Remember that it was Dennis Hession, then the council president and more recently one of the zillion attorneys drafted into duty for the Straub mess, who was appointed mayor after the recall of Jim West.

But whether Stuckart himself wants a recall in order to become the mayor, the more important question is whether that’s the way he should become mayor – as the default option produced by a political process in which he has played a significant role.

The Condon administration has shown that it has a tin ear for ethics and accountability, and it has flouted its responsibility to communicate honestly with the public. That’s not going to change. It has also demonstrated other strengths that it can bring to challenges moving forward, including criminal justice reform and homelessness. And Condon has presided over a time of positivity and growth in this city, at least outside of City Hall. The loudest calls for his head are coming from the quarters where there has been a continual failure to recognize this, where there is nothing but knee-jerk opposition.

Will 13,000 Spokane voters sign the recall petition? And, if so, will more than 25,000 voters call for the political death penalty?

I doubt it. And I don’t think it will be good for Spokane if they do.

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


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