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David Condon turns to veto to assert strong mayor power over veto-proof City Council

Spokane Mayor David Condon takes a test ride through the Chase in City Hall on a Lime electric scooter, Monday, Aug. 20, 2018. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Mayor David Condon takes a test ride through the Chase in City Hall on a Lime electric scooter, Monday, Aug. 20, 2018. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

When the Spokane City Council nixed a land deal and grant project that Mayor David Condon and his staff had spent years bringing together, he was “flabbergasted.”

That uncharacteristically frank assessment from Condon, who is more commonly known for the phrases “comprehensive plan” and “strategic initiatives,” came on the heels of a council-backed levy the mayor thought never should have been on the ballot and an ordinance declaring there could be no time limit for being at City Hall during business hours, an idea the mayor called redundant.

That land deal with Union Gospel Mission eventually passed the council, but it was just one of many dust-ups between one of the strongest mayors in the city’s history and a council that was more than willing to check his power.

In his eight years in office, Mayor Condon vetoed 10 ordinances, and the majority of those were overridden by City Council. There have been 17 vetoes total since Spokane’s mayors gained that ability in 2001.

The council, which had a veto-proof majority for much of Condon’s term, would often make changes just before voting or without checking with city staff, a frequent source of frustration for the mayor. In an interview earlier this year, he said even when he knew the council would override his decision, it was still a matter of principle to make his voice heard.

“It’s a matter of leadership, standing by why the citizens separately voted for me as the strong mayor,” he said.

The clashes between Condon and the City Council weren’t always a veto or a vote on the dais.

The City Council butted heads with the mayor over how the city should address homelessness, if the mayor’s employees have the right to investigate City Council members for bullying and if the mayor has the right to loan employees to another agency. One city employee interviewed for the bullying report described their experience as like being a “child caught in the middle of divorced parents.”

Condon publicly acknowledged differences with the City Council, whose members are known to side with activists who frequent council meetings and provide public comment.

“It’s no secret that we have different philosophical looks at certain issues,” Condon said in an interview in January.

It’s also true that the council has sided with the mayor despite outcry from activists and the public, such as whether the city needs a law on the books barring camping.

Outgoing City Council President Ben Stuckart and Councilwoman Kate Burke also acknowledged their differences with Condon. Burke specifically authored one ordinance that was held up for months, led to weeks of dueling public statements, and finally was vetoed.

It also led to a rare moment of unity between the mayor and at least one council member who rarely sides with him.

That ordinance would have reiterated that City Hall is open to the public, and there are no time limits on how long a person can be in the building during business hours. While it passed initially, Condon vetoed it, saying it was a distraction from what the city was actually doing to solve homelessness.

Neither City Councilwoman Karen Stratton, who has publicly disagreed with Condon, nor Ben Stuckart nor Mike Fagan supported an override, making it one of the few in the last few years that stopped at the mayor’s desk.

Rebecca White was the City Hall reporter covering local politics from summer 2018 to summer 2019.

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