Mike Allen left City Hall this month the same way he came in: unexpectedly, in the political middle and focusing on fiscal responsibility.
Of all current members, Allen joined City Council the earliest, in December 2007. He took the seat left vacant by Mary Verner, who had been elected mayor.
Over the years, he’s seen fellow members come and go, and they saw the same of him after he lost the 2009 election to Jon Snyder, but returned two years later by unseating Richard Rush. He’s been a member of the voting majority and on the lonely end of lopsided votes, like most recently when he joined staunch conservative Mike Fagan on a number of 5-2 tallies.
Allen has taken the lead on many issues at City Hall, such as pushing for a change to state law allowing short-term rentals like Airbnb; brokering an agreement between telecommunications companies, neighborhood activists and the city allowing cell towers; creating a bicycle registration to help recover stolen bikes; instituting a citizen’s hall of fame with the Spokane Public Library; helping to envision greenways in the city; and playing a part in crafting police oversight.
Next month, he’ll begin his new job as a professor of business and entrepreneurship at Spokane Community College.
Allen is leaving a city embroiled in a controversy surrounding the forced resignation of police Chief Frank Straub, and the transfer of police spokeswoman Monique Cotton, who accused Straub of sexual harassment.
We sat down with Allen and asked him if the city is going in the right direction, who he would hire as police chief, if Condon will survive the Straub-Cotton predicament, and who he would build a statue of, if he could.
The Spokesman-Review: Is the city moving in the right direction?
Mike Allen: I think the success the city has seen in the past four years is unprecedented since Expo. We took care of the long-term structural gap at the city by restructuring how we do utility rates and how we structure our budgets. For years, the conversation was, “We have a structural gap. We can’t get past it.” Well, we got past it. Not only that, we have long-term street funding, thanks to the voters. Our street situation is going to look very different in the next seven to eight years. We’ve had amazing successes the past four years in how the city conducts its business.
Who is responsible for these successes?
It was a collective effort. During that time we had a strong mayor. Two of those years we had more pro-business and financially accountable folks on the council. And we had two years of people who are more oriented toward life infrastructure, such as bike lanes. That’s a good complement. Everyone deserves credit for it. Especially the voters.
Favorite council member you’ve worked with?
Steve Salvatori. He and I have a very similar view of the world and how we try to find solutions to problems.
You endorsed LaVerne Biel in the race for your seat this year. She didn’t win, and now there are six people on the council who are oriented to life infrastructure, as you call it. Are you worried about the city at all?
I think the city is at a very interesting precipice right now. We have the conflict that is inherent when you have a mayor on one side and a supermajority council on the other. Almost by de facto, the council can run the city. They’re veto-proof. I don’t think either party should ever have a supermajority of anything. We lose dialogue and compromise for good solutions that way. Obviously, with the lawsuits that have been filed (in relation to the Straub controversy), the ethics complaints that have been filed, rather than focusing on how we move our community forward, like we have the past four years, my fear is it’s going to turn into a bunker mentality.
How do you see the relationship between Mayor David Condon and Council President Ben Stuckart?
We need those two gentleman to get on the same page, drop the armor and get back to finding solutions for our city.
Do they just not like each other?
I don’t know if I would ever describe them as close. There’s always some inherent conflict with those positions. I saw it with (former Council President) Shogan and Verner a little bit. I don’t think that’s unusual. But we have gotten so much more done by working together as opposed to hunkering down and lobbing grenades at each other.
Or is it the political tension between the two that is productive?
It can be. It can be destructive, too. The best thing we can do is get back to the business of the city, which should be economic development and continue to grow the median household income.
Jan Quintrall, Scott Chesney, Frank Straub, Monique Cotton, Nancy Goodspeed. Is there a personnel crisis at City Hall?
You’ve got 2,000-plus employees at the city. You’re going to have natural turnover. These are inherently political positions and you live in a spotlight. Sometimes that spotlight will cook you, so it just depends how you manage it.
You’re leaving City Hall during a crisis in the police department. How would you fix it?
It’s all about transparency. If you’re not transparent, or you don’t disclose things as they’re happening, it gives the appearance that you’re hiding something, or you’re misleading people.
When will this get resolved?
History has shown me that nothing moves fast at City Hall. My guess is the inquiry will be done by late February or early March. The lawsuits will take a year or two.
How much will this cost the city?
It depends on if the city settles or fights.
Is there a place for partisanship in City Hall?
There’s no such thing as nonpartisan positions. When I first got on council, I didn’t perceive it as being politically partisan. We all had our different views, but it wasn’t until that first election against Jon that I really noticed that the political parties were starting to get engaged a lot more, in particular the Democratic Party. I don’t think it’s good, honestly. It’s frustrating when I hear Seattle’s political agenda, and Portland’s political agenda, and then two months later, I hear it here. We are not either one of those communities. We are our own community. Let’s not be lapdogs to those places.
Are you saying that local politics have become the pawn of a regional or even national agenda?
Yes. Feel-good politics. I use my cats and dogs theory. Republicans are cats. They’re independent. Leave us alone. Let us do our stuff. Dogs are always there, wanting attention and needing something.
Is there anybody at City Hall who doesn’t have a political agenda?
Rick Romero. Scott Simmons. Gavin Cooley. They’re the ones that I haven’t seen get stuck in politics so much. The three of them also have to work with council members because of the committees, which helps them maintain that balance. (Romero is the utilities director, Simmons runs the business and developer services division, Cooley is the finance director.)
And who is the most political?
We’re elected officials. We’re all highly politicized on some level.
The mayor worked with U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican. A lot of people expected him to be very political when he took office. How do you think he’s done?
The mayor has always been very focused on fiscal management, finding solutions. He’s the best mayor we’ve had since I started hanging around Spokane in 1985. He got a lot done in his first four years. I never viewed him as overpoliticized. In fact, there were some things I wanted him to veto that he didn’t veto. I think he’s done a remarkable job, and I think he’s done it largely nonpartisan. I’ve never felt there was a political ideology driving him when making decisions.
A decision he’s been criticized for was when he quietly transferred Cotton out of the police department. Do you take him at his word that he was following city policy?
I don’t know. I wasn’t there in the room. But that’s an early lesson we learn in business school in how to handle those situations. It creates the very difficult situation we have now, having not followed that pathway. We went from one situation; now we have three situations.
You’ve said Condon had a very successful first term. Does this controversy hamper his second?
I know both the council and the mayor want to focus on economic development over the next four years. The sooner we can get this other issue behind us, at least the pieces the council and the mayor control, the faster we can focus on economic development in our area. We need to get away from the politics of it.
Condon also made the decision to bring in Frank Straub as police chief, who has filed a $4 million claim against the city and is suggesting that an “old guard” in the police department stops reform. How do we get a police chief to stay in town longer than a few years?
We have taken in some pretty good people in the past and they got railed out of here within two or three years. I don’t know that becoming Spokane’s police chief is all that attractive to people you would want to come in and do it. Also, there are people on staff who have come up through the ranks who have the qualities to do it. I don’t think we need to recruit somebody from Indianapolis or Seattle.
How can we trust somebody from within the police department to make the reforms a lot of people want to see?
That’s where we as elected officials have to interject. There’s a corporate culture in every organization, especially within police departments. I think we all need to lobby to get Ozzie Knezovich’s law passed, which holds police officers accountable and unable to hide behind their union.
Is police oversight where it should be?
In retrospect, I think we need to restructure the office (of the police ombudsman) so you have an ombudsman and an assistant ombudsman. That way if the ombudsman were to leave, the position’s not vacant for a year. That person could step up and fill the role until a permanent ombudsman is located.
Won’t we have to pay more for that?
You may have to throw a little more money at it. The citizens have stated this, it’s an important thing for them, so why wouldn’t we fund it?
This year, we’ve had the ombudsman commission filled and purged, the police chief forced out and police officers have been criminally charged in connection to an alleged rape of a fellow officer. Is this just a bad year or is there still a lot of work to be done?
When we first filled the OPO commission, we didn’t think about how it’s really a policymaking commission. You put a bunch of people who are advocates for certain things, it’s hard for them to make that switch from being an advocate to being a policymaker. They wanted to get in and do it, rather than sticking back at that policy level.
Is there something in the culture of the police department that led to all of this?
I just can’t point to the police and say, “You’re all bad.” That’s not the case. They spend 99 percent of their day with the worst 5 percent of the population. I appreciate them and am really thankful for them. For me, it comes down to leadership.
Who has the brightest political future?
If the mayor can get through this, he has a pretty bright future. He’s got a great track record to run on. I think Ben (Stuckart, the council president) has a bright future. They’re totally opposite people. One’s very collegial, the other’s very emotional. I think Amber (Waldref, who represents northeast Spokane) has a pretty good career ahead of her as well. She does a really good job at being thoughtful in her approach and is willing to compromise on some things. I would’ve told you Salvatori had a huge future, but he didn’t even make a term. I will tell you not having Joe Shogan and Al French on the council was very nice. It sucked up a lot of my time trying to make peace between those two.
Fagan is on the lonely end of a 6-1 split now. Any advice for him?
No. Mike marches to his own drum. I will tell you I really enjoyed working with Ben. Ben is now probably my best friend on council and I’ve known him the longest. I think he’s done a really nice job trying to find balance.
If you could build a statue of anybody, who it would it be?
I’m not into statues. Probably King Cole. (Expo ’74) was a big vision, it was a big undertaking and it got pulled off. We need that type of vision again. That was the last big vision I can see.
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