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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Civic response to West a model of timidity

Steven A. Smith The Spokesman-Review

The Spokesman-Review’s investigation of Mayor Jim West is fast becoming a case study in journalism ethics in university journalism schools around the country. An upcoming ethics newsletter of the Association of Educators of Journalism and Mass Communication will tackle the issue.

But I think the West crisis could provide case studies in another arena – community leadership.

The West revelations have generated enormous public response, mostly against the mayor despite his protestations to the contrary. In a recent television poll, 66 percent of respondents favored recall and only 24 percent opposed. But in the community’s power establishment, reaction has been slow. And in some surprising areas, there has been disquieting silence.

Where is the outrage from area educators, whose job it is to protect the interests of children, over the mayor’s admitted sexual interaction with young people still in high school, barely of legal age?

Where was the outrage from educators when they learned District 81 school board member Rocky Treppiedi offered unqualified support to the mayor in a recent e-mail, presumably letting his dislike of this newspaper cloud his responsibility to the community’s youth?

Speaking of youth, where are the voices from the Chase Youth Commission, responsible for one of this community’s great events, the annual Chase Youth Awards ceremony?

I was privileged to be a reader at this year’s presentation just a month before our West stories broke. As award winners came to the stage to receive their certificates, they had their pictures taken with West and County Commissioner Mark Richard.

Having just reviewed the transcript of a West Internet chat with our consultant, Moto-Brock, and knowing what was coming, I watched the mayor’s interaction with the community’s best and brightest young people, wondering at the outrage that must surely erupt when Chase officials knew what I knew. Instead, silence.

Will the mayor be on stage next year? How many of those proud young people from this year’s ceremony will be hanging those award pictures in their rooms?

Where was the outrage from our business leaders whose heroic economic development efforts are surely hanging by a thread as long as West remains in office? True, several business organizations collectively called on the mayor to resign days after the story broke. But individual voices have been, amazingly, absent.

And, other than the City Council, what has happened to the community’s political leadership? It took weeks for area Republicans to stake a stand. We’ve heard precious little from West’s former colleagues in the Legislature. Congresswoman Cathy McMorris, described by West as “cute” and a potential “date” interest in one of his e-mail chats, has stayed out of the fray despite her strident family values persona.

Maybe most startling is the absence of leadership from the religious community. Where is the outrage from the pulpits? Are the good reverends afraid that criticism will be viewed as gay bashing? The mayor has tried his hardest to make this a gay issue, but the community seems to have seen through that fiction. Are clergy embracing the mayor because this previously and admittedly irreligious politician now has found Jesus and won the Lord’s forgiveness?

Outsiders find this relative silence as surprising as revelations of the mayor’s duplicitous life. I’ve been asked over and over by visiting reporters and producers why the community’s political, business, social and religious leaders would stand quietly in the face of the mayor’s admitted activity, disregarding the unproven allegations.

Letters to this newspaper tell part of the story. Some would trade the mayor’s moral collapse for the good work he was doing on economic development, ignoring the fact that good work can’t continue even if he does.

Still, there have been striking examples of leadership from individuals unafraid of getting out ahead of the pack in defense of community.

“Shaun Cross, local lawyer and failed congressional candidate, had little to gain by advocating the mayor’s resignation weeks before his fellow Republicans reluctantly stood up. With continuing political ambitions of his own, Cross might have positioned himself better by standing back.

“City Council member Cherie Rodgers, no friend of this paper and a West confidante, could have jumped all over our reporting, then adopted the council’s initial wait-and-see attitude. Instead, she took an immediate stand and publicly called the mayor on his dissembling and obfuscation.

“Rob Brewster. The young developer and entrepreneur, and a one-time Boy Scout in a troop led by known child molester and West acquaintance George Robey, spoke out against the mayor in a courageous column on these pages. He then refused to back down from former Councilman Steve Eugster’s bizarre defense of the mayor on a public television talk show.

“Radio talk show host Mark Fuhrman and his producer, Rebecca Mack, are, I know, strange bedfellows for this newspaper. Fuhrman, like West, is a former cop. And his politics are closer to the mayor than to this newspaper’s editorial pages. But Fuhrman helped channel and focus community outrage from the first day. And Mack stood up to West and his hired-gun lawyers at the orchestrated but still botched mayoral press conference a few weeks ago.

“Shannon Sullivan, leader of the formal recall effort, is an example of leadership growing from the most unexpected quarters. While most community reaction has gone no further than hand-wringing, Sullivan, a perfectly flawed everywoman, stepped forward to initiate honest-to-god political action. How much courage did it take for this unemployed florist to take on West’s legal team in court – and prevail?

When Mayor West’s exercise in political narcissism at the expense of public interest is over, the community needs to engage in a long conversation about leadership. How do we find and develop more Shannon Sullivans? Where do we find politicians whose commitment to service outweighs self interest? What ethical principles can business leaders develop in the community at the same time they’re developing jobs?

If we have that conversation, perhaps some long-term good will grow out of the present crisis.

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