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News >  Column

Shawn Vestal: It’s not a shutdown, but Condon and the council have found themselves in quite the stalemate

Spokane Mayor David Condon (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Mayor David Condon (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Just how strong is the strong mayor meant to be?

In his lame-duck final year, David Condon is testing the limits, acting in ways that, to some, seem more like the behavior of a civic emperor.

He has refused to enforce a law passed by the City Council to stop warrantless Border Patrol searches at the city-owned bus station – a law he vetoed only to have the veto overridden. The measure is on the books, but the mayor simply isn’t enforcing it, saying he believes it’s outside his authority.

He has so far refused to create a committee to develop a climate action plan for the city, as required by legislation the council passed last summer. And he is moving forward with plans for the city to join a dispatching system for emergency services that is integrated with other agencies in the county – in the face of a council vote to block the plan.

In each case, Condon has arguments against the policy. But in each case, council members argue, that no longer really matters: The measures are now city law and the mayor is responsible for enforcing them.

“He’s just refusing to do his job,” says Council President Ben Stuckart – who is running to succeed Condon as mayor in this fall’s election.

“Our council has passed legislation with a veto-proof majority,” said Councilman Breean Beggs – who is running for Stuckart’s seat as council president. “That’s the law. The system doesn’t really work if you don’t follow the law.”

“It appears to me like one of those, ‘I didn’t get my way and I’m going to do what I want to do anyway,’ things,” said Councilwoman Karen Stratton. “That’s not leadership. It’s just not. It’s immature. It feels like high school.”

Condon argues he is taking prudent action with regard to rash, underbaked legislation, and is acting on legal advice. But it’s clear that he’s pressing the boundaries of how the system is meant to work.

In the wake of an administration-driven investigation into “bullying” of high-level staffers by council members over some allegedly impolite challenging of the mayor’s emissaries – an investigation that concluded there was no bullying – it’s clear that relations between the branches of government at City Hall are even worse than they’ve been during a time when it’s often been pretty bad.

Council members complain that they receive no information, and often simply no answers, to their requests for details on certain proposals. Condon makes similar complaints, saying the council has sometimes moved forward with legislation too quickly, and without accommodating different points of view more fully. Each side of the impasse, unsurprisingly, sees political motivations underlying the other’s actions.

Beggs emphasizes that there is not conflict between the mayor and council on every issue. But sometimes, he said, “It seems if there’s something the council wants to do, the mayor doesn’t want to have any part of it.”

On the books

In October, the council passed legislation to restrict the Border Patrol from doing random ID checks of Greyhound buses at the Intermodal Center. It was an emergency ordinance – passed after a lot of emotional testimony from people who see the checks as warrantless overreach – and thus Condon could not veto it.

It’s city law, but in name only. The bus searches continue.

Critics who oppose the searches say they amount to racial profiling and violate the constitutional prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. The Border Patrol, which has arrested more than 200 people at the city-owned bus and rail station since 2013, says it has authority under federal law to conduct such warrantless checks within 100 miles of a border.

Condon said last week that he simply does not have the legal power to enforce the law.

“I do not have the authority under federal law,” he said. “We don’t have a wall on the northern border and in exchange for that, they’ve written these laws … that border security and enforcement has the ability to walk into an establishment and ask for IDs. Presumably that is the non-wall way to do it.”

Beggs, who is an attorney, says that he believes the mayor’s legal advice is wrong. But worse, he said, is that the administration has simply refused to engage him on the legal argument that he believes is clear: a ruling in Almeida-Sanchez v. United States, a Supreme Court case from 1973.

In that case, the court found that a warrantless search by the Border Patrol of a Mexican citizen’s car, which was justified under the same legal rationale as the bus searches, violated the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.

“This case, the only Supreme Court case we have, seems to suggest the (council) is correct,” Beggs said. “I haven’t gotten an answer from the mayor’s office on why that law doesn’t control.”

Similarly, the mayor has so far refused to fulfill an ordinance requiring him to form a citizens commission to develop a “climate action plan” that would find ways to meet the goal of moving the city, and city residents, to renewable sources of energy by 2030.

Critics of the proposal say it is too ambitious and would saddle the city with unforeseen and burdensome costs; supporters say the goal is just that – a goal – and that taking specific actions to meet it would require public debate and council action.

Condon just sees it as a bridge too far.

“When you come out and say you’re going to be 100 percent by 2030, you just lose all credibility,” he said.

The mayor frankly acknowledges that he’s not following that law because he disagrees with it. Condon said he plans to create a panel that’s different from what’s called for in the legislation, as a subcommittee of a larger committee at City Hall.

Stratton said she sees the delay and the notion of a “subcommittee of a subcommittee of a subcommittee” as just a way to slow things down to avoid doing anything before the end of the mayor’s term.

Stalemate

On the matter of an integrated dispatch system, Condon argues the city has no choice but to move forward. The other agencies in the county are doing it, it would create efficiencies of cost and operations, and it was part, he said, of the city’s promise to voters to extend a public safety sales-tax measure in 2017.

City dispatchers and others objected to the plan and the process, vociferously, and the council voted to allow only city employees to work as dispatchers and established training requirements for such positions – a move intended to limit, if not block, the integrated system. Stuckart has said that supporters of the integration insist it will be better, but haven’t made the specific, factual case.

The mayor says the city is moving ahead anyway. He said he plans to put a proposal for integrated dispatch into next year’s budget.

To members of the CityCouncil, this is baffling. They said they cast their votes after a frustrating series of unfruitful attempts to get more specific financial analysis of the integrated system from the administration and a fuller argument of why an integrated system would be better.

“We said, ‘Give us the financials,’ ” Beggs said. “They just didn’t do it, and they still haven’t done it.”

Condon said the council has wanted specific numbers that do not exist yet. He says the council’s legislation was simply a move to protect union positions in the city at the expense of creating a more efficient system.

“Fear of change should never drive the development of legislation,” he wrote, “especially such narrowly defined requirements that have no policy purpose but are simply designed to stop a discussion.”

Condon has a series of particular objections to each of the three pieces of legislation that he is ignoring. He has sent letters to the council enumerating them, and he discussed them in a phone interview last week from Washington, D.C., where he was attending the U.S. Conference of Mayors in the midst of another divided government.

In fact, the mayors were addressed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday, right after she rebuffed President Trump’s effort to give the State of the Union speech during the government shutdown. “She must have just hit the send button on the letter to the president,” Condon said.

While the city’s government isn’t shut down, the current moment in Spokane government echoes the stalemate in the nation’s capital. The relationship between the council and mayor seems so fractured that it’s hard to see how they can work together to produce significant actions for the city.

And by essentially ignoring legally passed legislation, the mayor – the first to be re-elected in a long time, the strongest mayor since the city adopted the strong-mayor system – is pushing the limits of his authority. His arguments may or may not be correct on the policy questions, but he lost those battles in the legislative process.

“Our position all along was it doesn’t matter whether the mayor or legal staff think something is constitutional,” Stuckart said. “His job is to administer the laws of the city.”