Serving on Spokane City Council is a full-time job or a part-time service – depending on who in City Hall you ask.
The council adopted a new set of rules Monday that largely leaves the panel’s current standards in place, but includes a new section at the very end of the 25-page document that spells out the full-time commitment expected of a City Council member.
“We are the second-largest city in the state. We have a budget close to a billion dollars. This is a heavy responsibility,” said Councilwoman Candace Mumm, who helped spearhead the addition to council rules, which are reviewed and revised periodically.
Though innocuous at first glance, these three paragraphs are the latest chapter in the decadeslong debate over who wields power and influence in Spokane city government – the executive branch or City Council.
With just weeks remaining before he leaves office, Mayor David Condon is more than willing to enter the fray. His political foil, City Council President Ben Stuckart, is also happy to weigh in as he prepares to leave his post after two terms in office.
The two have both spent eight years working to strengthen their respective branches of government, and are fighting to depart with their legacies intact in that regard.
“Council has become a stronger branch of government over the last eight years. Instead of just rubber stamping what others bring forward, we’re bringing forward our own policy,” Stuckart said.
But Condon was sharply critical of the new rules after Monday’s vote, noting city voters never approved of a full-time City Council.
“Philosophically, I think people want a citizen legislature. They don’t want a professional legislature,” Condon said.
Though not a formal requirement, the new section in the council’s rules states that a City Council member should expect to work between 30 and 50 hours on city business. It demands that members attend each council meeting and uphold their commitments to various committees – unless excused by the council president or a committee chair.
Council members said Tuesday that the time commitment is nothing new, and that the new rules only reflect an expectation that already exists. It’s especially important to have it in writing, though, as the council prepares to appoint a new representative for the South Hill when Councilman Breean Beggs takes the president’s chair in January, Mumm argued.
Each member sits on numerous boards and commissions, attends a weekly City Council study session, a Monday afternoon briefing session and a Monday evening legislative session. On top of that, they are expected to meet with constituents.
“We’re just stating the truth of what our job is,” Mumm said.
But much of what contributes to the council’s heavy workload should be left to the mayor, Condon argued. For example, he cited the lengthy agendas for council committees, which can include reports as specific as a citation-by-citation accounting of the city’s enforcement of its sit-and-lie ordinance.
“They’re going into the administration’s work,” Condon said.
Condon expressed concern that the demands of a full-time position could limit the number of people willing to run for office. He said it was “hypocritical” of some members of the City Council to endorse a full-time schedule while retaining outside employment, and noted that even state legislators work part time.
After operating for years with a city manager, voters approved a strong-mayor form of government in 1999. But the city charter doesn’t offer much guidance on the expectations of a City Council member and does not specify whether the council should work full or part time.
Condon recalled the push in 2014 by then-councilmen Michael Allen and Steve Salvatori for an advisory vote from the public on whether council members should be full- or part-time. But Allen and Salvatori’s colleagues blocked the effort.
The charter is clear, Beggs argued, that it’s the role of the council to establish policy and the mayor’s job “to implement it and supervise staff.” A difference of understanding of the charter “does lead to conflict sometimes,” he said.
“I’m looking forward to a new administration that will work that out better. In his administration, originally, he had a council majority so that was blurred. When he didn’t have a majority and the council exercised its independence on policymaking, that’s when the conflict started,” Beggs said.
Stuckart is adamant that it’s City Council that should drive policymaking, and that the mayor’s role is as CEO.
“Probably one of his greatest frustrations was as a strong mayor, he didn’t understand it. He thought he should be developing policy,” Stuckart said.
Strengthening the City Council over eight years is “one of the things I’m most proud of,” Stuckart added.
“Our city is turning the corner and growing. … As your city becomes larger, you need more involvement,” Stuckart said.
But that involvement comes at a cost.
In 2011, the year Stuckart was elected, the City Council spent $629,962. That figure has nearly tripled in the following eight years.
“(The council’s budget) has dramatically increased, and why? What is the benefit to the citizens? These things come with a cost,” Condon said.
As the City Council has flexed its legislative muscle, its budget has grown. Each council member now has his or her own full-time legislative assistant, and it has hired a policy adviser. Council salaries, which are set by the Salary Review Commission, are $46,000 for district representatives and $62,000 for the council president.
“How is the work that much different than eight years ago, when they had one assistant for the entire council?” Condon asked.
Altogether, that makes for a budget of about $1.6 million for the City Council. In a city with an annual budget of more than $1 billion, Stuckart says the council’s costs are well within reason.
Beggs said the community wants the council to be robust and is “demanding us to do that.”
“I see us having an even bigger role than we’ve had. We’re working on our budget proposal and staffing proposal going forward,” Beggs said.
Dennis Hession has experience in both branches of government. He was midway through a term as City Council president before his appointment in 2005 to replace Mayor Jim West, who was recalled by voters.
During his time leading the council, it had a single assistant and its members tended to view themselves as citizen legislators, Hession said.
“The number of hours worked is important, but the perspective that you bring is just as important,” Hession said. “If you are insulated by working solely inside City Hall, then that citizen-legislator perspective begins to be diluted.”
But Hession added that as the city grows, so does the complexity of the job.
“The point is, to me, the level of discussion should not be so much about hours worked, but the scope of what should be the responsibility of individual council members,” Hession said.
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