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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Will Condon overcome the curse of Spokane’s one-term mayors?

Spokane Mayor David Condon (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Mayor David Condon (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Mayor David Condon is a guy’s guy.

Early in his term, he referred to himself as an “action guy.” Not long ago, he called himself an “accountability guy.” Earlier this week – during an interview discussing his time so far in office – he called himself “kind of an operations guy.”

At this point, the question is whether he can become a re-elected guy.

No mayor has done that in Spokane since David Rodgers in 1973. Three years into Condon’s term – with a string of high-profile accomplishments set against shortcomings that may not matter much to the average voter – you’d have to consider his chances pretty good. Of course, that was the conventional wisdom about Mary Verner in 2010, too. A year is a long time in politics, and there’s a snowplow season on the way.

“I feel very confident,” Condon said. “That being said, I think we at the city have seen a lot of great people who have held this position and not had the benefit of a second term.”

Condon’s reference to himself as an “operations guy” came in the context of a discussion of his love for the budgetary, for line items and funding mechanisms – for the dull but important work of government. He is proud of his administration’s efforts to reform and stabilize the way the city pays for services, from utilities to streets to water quality to police equipment. The recent passage of the streets and park measures – which will make major long-term investments without tax increases – is a good example.

He’s excited about the work that will result, calling the $64 million park plan a revitalization of Expo ’74 proportions and pointing to some of the spiffy street work that’s been done recently. But he might be more excited about the fact that the way the city will pay for these benefits over time is stable and reliable. Repeatedly, when he refers to changes his administration has made, it comes down to making “the financial mechanism meet the operational mechanism” – paying for things in the smartest way, with stable, long-term planning and not annual budget “gyrations.”

“It’s very wonkish, but at the end of the day, it’s making it more affordable to live in the city of Spokane,” he said. “What’s exciting for me, especially on the street side, is the financing of our utilities and streets is set for 20 years. … To have that stability, I think, for Spokane, is phenomenal.”

Condon likes to point out one such achievement that has received little attention: the negotiation of new terms this summer between the city and four unions for the city’s employee pension plan. Employees agreed to pay more into the system. The city agreed to pay more, too. Four city unions agreed to accept more conservative terms on benefits – moving the retirement age forward, lengthening the time of service before vesting, adding a few years of required service before benefits. The result is a city-run pension system that is closer to fully funded, and which will improve the city’s creditworthiness.

Condon says the pension agreement is also an example that his relations with the unions, while sometimes strained, are frequently positive, too. Joe Cavanaugh, president of Local 270 of the American Federation of State, Council and Municipal Employees and a key negotiator in the deal, agreed with that.

“I’ve dealt with 11 mayors now, and not all of them have been able to talk to us and work with us,” Cavanaugh said. “His administration was willing to talk to us and get to where we needed to be.”

This has not always been the picture of the Condon administration, which has occasionally stomped on toes as it raced to remake City Hall. Condon argues that he has been more of a collaborator and less of a partisan than he is thought to be. He often points out the number of people he has hired who are not necessarily members of his political camp – “Many of my Cabinet members didn’t even vote for me,” he says. He argues that many of the initiatives that emerge from his office are not victories for one side or the other, but expressions of “all of the above.”

He’s probably the strongest of the strong mayors so far, but he’s at his weakest point politically, with a veto-proof liberal majority on the City Council. There is also an atmosphere of intensifying political conflict in city government – one which is often shorthanded as a conflict between Condon and City Council President Ben Stuckart. It is remarkable how quickly any discussion of city issues veers into the realm of backbiting that one person in city government called the situation between “Ben and David.”

Condon argues that despite the clashing, he and the council have been able to come together on important matters. He notes that he and Stuckart often appear together publicly to represent the city, and he said that Stuckart recently, and perhaps accidentally, used one of Condon’s frequently repeated lines about trying to make the city “safer, smarter and stronger.”

From the city’s perspective, a divided government with a robust back-and-forth is probably an advantage.

“I think in many ways the debate between Ben and I is good for the city,” he said.

Condon and the council have been debating his budget proposal, which includes raises for some of his well-paid Cabinet members. This proposal, along with the absence of some council priorities in the budget, drew opposition from council members. The city, after all, has cut staff in recent years, and the administration’s desire to reduce payroll costs associated with city employment is constantly clear – at a recent news conference, when Condon was asked about the administrative raises, he kept pivoting to other issues: his work on utility rates and the rising cost of other, non-administrative employees.

He seemed not to get it. Does he understand why it might be troubling to give raises to the best-paid administrators, after eliminating jobs and trying to hold the line on other salaries?

“It’s interesting,” Condon said. “Those salary ranges have been in effect for several administrations. The reason why some have now gotten quote-unquote increases is because I brought them in at the lower end of their salary range.”

The “quote-unquote” increases add up to a total of $31,000 for seven of his top administrators. I think the quote marks can come off.

The mayor seems very concerned about limiting the salaries of other city employees – he wants to push a legislative change that would allow cities to include the cost of local housing in salary negotiations, as a way to untether salaries here from those on the West Side – but he seems to see only value in paying more at the top. It is tin-eared, much like his failed rush to bypass civil service in favor of political patronage or the glib dismissals of concerns over the ouster of Planning Director Scott Chesney.

Though he came from the office of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and though he is definitely tax-averse, Condon has been refreshingly committed to governing – to doing things, as opposed to simply resisting things.

“The feeling I’ve had in talking to the public is they’re OK with what they’re paying right now,” Condon said. “So that’s what I’ve pushed with our team. I’m not sitting there saying slash, slash, slash. I’m saying let’s live within what our growth curve is.”

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