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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Mayor Condon should do more than clam up on streets director

Feb. 28, 2017 Updated Tue., Feb. 28, 2017 at 11:01 p.m.

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

The mayor seems to have learned one very clear lesson from the Frank Straub debacle when it comes to the hiring and firing of top administrators.

Too bad it’s the wrong one.

Some of the possible right ones would be: Tell the truth, and be accountable. Don’t be rash, don’t rush. Take your lumps, and don’t pretend you’re perfect. If you’re asked a simple question, give a straight answer.

Instead, in the matter of the ousted streets chief, Mayor David Condon and his team have gone with: Don’t tell anybody anything.

Not the public. Not the press. Not even the City Council.

Following a seemingly endless and infuriating series of street-related problems – starting with downtown disruptions, followed by a bafflingly inconsistent snowplowing response and an unprecedented pothole eruption – Condon sent Mark Serbousek packing last month as the head of the streets department.

Given that there is a lot to wonder about in this decision, and a great deal of public interest, one might have expected more explanation.

There are, after all, a lot of reasons for road problems, and some of them are outside anyone’s immediate control – such as a “perfect storm” of winter weather and the city’s historic failure to keep up with street maintenance, going back well before the street levy. And yet a fuller public accounting of the city’s performance on these issues is crucial to understanding how it can be better.

The administration may have a clear idea of that. The public the administration is supposed to serve does not – though it has been invited by the context to hang all the blame around Serbousek’s neck.

Serbousek, meanwhile, will be given a new job overseeing bridge projects.

Recall that it did not go well the last time the administration tried to manage a personnel problem with a job shuffle and an effort to quell questions. It was the reassignment of a police spokeswoman and the administration’s failure to be honest about it that peeled back the lid on the festering can of worms that led to Straub’s firing, the subsequent investigation and political combat, and the ongoing lawsuit.

The Serbousek matter reinforces how the administration failed to grasp what it did wrong in that case. Instead of recognizing that it should not have lied about the spokeswoman’s transfer, and that it should simply have given Straub a chance to respond to the complaints against him before making them public, the administration seems to have decided that it was simply too forthcoming.

City spokesman Brian Coddington said that the administration understands there is a balance between informing the public and protecting an employee’s rights, and has decided that in this case it will only say the decision was a personnel matter.

The mayor is in charge of running the city, and the hiring and firing of department heads. He does not have to give a reason if he doesn’t want to. But an elected official with a properly tuned sense of accountability would explain this change, even if he had to do so in general terms, to help the public understand more clearly what went wrong and how it’s being addressed.

Instead, we’re left to infer, which isn’t fair to the public or Serbousek.

The silence about Serbousek has been followed by a flurry of new proposals at City Hall. The City Council’s Public Works Committee met Monday in the basement of City Hall, talking over proposals for new, longer-lasting pothole-filling material and equipment and a resolution to see if the city couldn’t get all the streets plowed faster.

A lot of the ideas sounded promising. It was hard not to wonder, though, if the end of February was early enough for that discussion. It was hard not to wonder whether that seeming delay was connected to Serbousek’s departure.

And it was impossible not to notice the irony in the fact that the people saying Serbousek will be perfect for his new job are the same ones who won’t explain why they took away his old one.

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