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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: At a moment of acrimony in city politics, Amber Waldref chose compromise over conflict

UPDATED: Thu., Jan. 4, 2018

In a time of combat at City Hall, Amber Waldref has been a peacemaker.

And it’s fair to hope, as she leaves office for now, that one lingering effect of her service will be a less acrimonious zone of disagreement between the Spokane mayor and the City Council. Those deep and frequent differences have not vanished by any means; witness the recent mayoral veto of the council’s legislation on political contributions, which one assumes will be promptly overridden by the council.

It was all very stealthily done, with no formal public communication from the mayor beforehand – nor even any informal communication from the mayor to the council. It was not what you’d hope for in a debate over an important piece of legislation, and it demonstrated vividly an important difference between working together and merely avoiding conflict.

Nevertheless, since the nadir of the council-mayor relationship, brought on by the administration’s failures of accountability over the departure of police Chief Frank Straub, there has been less intensity and acrimony to the disagreements, at least publicly.

I think that’s in part due to work that Waldref has done to focus on communication, practicality and compromise over combat. I have always been struck, when interviewing her at times of political conflict, with how carefully she chooses what she says, how strictly she focuses on the practical and the possible, how little anger she indulges at a time when there might be reason for it.

It is during times of combat, after all – when the combative among us are banging our shoes on tables – that peacemakers are vital.

Everyone’s a peacemaker the rest of the time.

Waldref said she has not avoided taking principled stands in the pursuit of getting along, but that she has tried to always focus on the practical. It’s been an intentional approach to the zone of combat, and one that means she has sometimes gotten less attention and credit in the public eye and from those of us in the media who gravitate toward the dramatic.

“There’s no need to have public fights about things when you disagree about public policy,” she said. “I get angry about things, too. But I try to figure out the issue or the problem in a way that’s strategic.”

Waldref applied that approach to helping mend – at least somewhat – the broken relationship between Mayor David Condon’s administration and the City Council following the yearlong Straub debacle. In that case, the administration tried to hush up a sexual harassment complaint about Straub as it ushered him out the door, lying to the council and the public about the circumstances. It then doubled down on every mistake and blamed the council, critics and the press for everything.

An independent investigator concluded that the administration had delayed the release of damning information until after Condon’s re-election. It was an important matter for the city’s leaders to hash out in terms of the mayor’s accountability to the public, and it was important for critics to call out the malfeasance.

But it was also death to getting things done at City Hall.

“The council and the mayor weren’t talking,” Waldref said. “We didn’t have any trust. The relationship was really frayed. … Everything was just bitter at City Hall.”

A plan was hatched among some administration officials and council members to try to mend fences, with Waldref identified as the council emissary to a series of peacemaking meetings. Rick Romero – who has been among the administration’s most important thinkers and doers – was the primary administration emissary. The idea was to identify points of agreement and goals.

“It went well,” she said. “That first meeting, everybody behaved, everybody was bringing forward ideas and it just evolved from there into a whole strategic plan.”

The group produced a six-year set of goals shared by the administration and council. These include two- and six-year goals in infrastructure, safety, urban experience and sustainability. How well the city meets those goals going forward will be the primary question, of course, but after the breakdown of 2015, there is more reason than usual to regard the completion of a strategic plan as worthwhile.

It was just one example during Waldref’s eight years on the council where she put her focus on government over politics. It’s the kind of thing that has led former Council President Joe Shogan to suggest that she ought to be mayor someday.

Should we look for her to take his advice?

“I’d think about it,” she said. “Right now, I’m just trying to have the time and space to think about the next steps.”

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