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Shawn Vestal: From snowplow gates to parks, Condon’s legacy is creative progress

FILE - Mayor David Condon announces the purchase of more hydraulic gates for snowplows to better serve Spokane residents beset with driveway berms. (Kip Hill / The Spokesman-Review)
FILE - Mayor David Condon announces the purchase of more hydraulic gates for snowplows to better serve Spokane residents beset with driveway berms. (Kip Hill / The Spokesman-Review)

For years, every time a big snowstorm hit, we had serious snowplow envy here in Spokane.

Over in Coeur d’Alene, snowplows were outfitted with hydraulic gates that helped them avoid leaving fat berms in people’s driveways.

Here in Spokane, we just got a big dose of snow. And a big dose of excuses.

As Coeur d’Alene tried, then expanded, the use of the gates, citizens loved them.

In Spokane, berms reigned.

The gates were too expensive for a fleet the size of Spokane’s, officials said. They didn’t work on this kind of truck or grader. They were impractically time-consuming. They were a maintenance nightmare.

This was more or less the standard line out of City Hall. Until now. The city tried out several hydraulic gates last year, as part of an overall series of improvements in the way Spokane plows after storms.

And guess what? The gates worked, people loved them, and now the city is adding more of them for the upcoming winter. The city will have 16 gates, and, “We’ll make an effort to use them on all residential areas as much as we possibly can,” streets director Gary Kaesemeyer said last week at a news conference.

Turns out it was not just possible – it was eminently possible. All it took was an effort.

Credit the Action Guy.

Mayor David Condon – who described himself as an action guy early in his first term – has less than a year and a half left on his historic second term. Lately, he’s been involved in trying to put together a downtown sports stadium plan that would have transformational, legacy implications if it goes through.

But I would argue that these 16 snowplow gates – and the assault on conventional wisdom about what’s possible at City Hall that they represent – may well represent the most powerful legacy of the Condon years.

That is meant as high praise, however sexy or un-stadiumlike those snowplow gates might be. Because we had a problem. And we had a historic complacency about the problem at City Hall – the sense that the way we’ve always done it is the way we have to do it. And Condon came in and changed the city’s answer on the question of snowplow gates from “No” to “Why not?”

That’s been his approach in lots of ways, on a lot of questions. The first two-term strong mayor – even weakened politically by a veto-proof liberal City Council – has initiated and presided over a wave of creative problem-solving efforts at City Hall, from an ingenious way of combining infrastructure projects and meeting federal pollution standards, to successfully pitching a major park renovation and renewed street repairs citywide, to the massive current proposal to combine city and school resources to build schools and libraries and parks and – yes, maybe – a downtown stadium with a chance of attracting a minor league soccer team.

That stadium needs to be sold more persuasively, I think. A stronger, clearer case should be made, if only because lots of people support everything in the package but that.

Still, you could see how a mayor, presiding over a city having some of the best years of its life, might be powerfully drawn to such a project.

Eager to land a pro sports team, transform the skyline, give a jolt to the economy, put his stamp on it all.

Eager to put a nice, fat, visible cherry in the cocktail of Spokane’s recent fizzy success.

At the end of the day, though, great mayors are the ones who heed the routine areas of life, the points where city government interacts with daily existence. Potholes. Garbage pickup. Snowplowing. When citizens ask why the city can’t serve them better, great mayors respond “Why not?” on their behalf, not “No” on behalf of the forces of institutional complacency.

The city government does a lot of important things, but I’d guess most of us only really care viscerally when they interact with our own lives. The decision to make swimming free again at Spokane pools – a decision that comes out of the same “Why not?” spirit – might be the single most popular thing the city will do this year, and it should be, because it’s great.

Getting rid of driveway berms is similarly great.

It’s the Action Guy at his best.