Mayor David Condon’s veto of an ordinance to keep City Hall open to the public last month will stand.
For the third time among Condon’s nine vetoes during his two terms in office, the Spokane City Council failed to override the mayor’s action.
Condon, Spokane’s longest serving strong mayor, has vetoed more proposals than any city leader before him, and has also had more vetoes overridden.
Spokane’s mayors have had the ability to veto council action since the city switched to a strong mayor form of government in 2001, and every mayor except Dennis Hession has used the veto power at least once. In a strong mayor form of government, the mayor leads the city’s administration and has veto power. Mayors have 10 days after an ordinance passes to sign or veto it, and the council has 30 days to override a mayoral veto.
Condon vetoed the open City Hall ordinance April 11, so his veto stands. His veto took effect late last week.
Mayors in some other regional cities with strong mayor forms of government haven’t used their veto power as often as Spokane mayors have. Boise’s most recent mayor, who has been in office since 2004, has never vetoed an ordinance. Seattle mayors have vetoed 20 ordinances since 1971, four of which were overridden.
In the seven years since Condon took office, he has vetoed nine ordinances, six of which were overridden by the council. Most of his vetoes have occurred during his second term.
The four strong mayors who came before him vetoed seven ordinances altogether, three of which were overridden.
In raw numbers, Condon acknowledged, he has vetoed more proposals than previous mayors, but he’s also only the second strong mayor to finish a full four-year term in office and the only strong mayor to be elected twice.
Condon said he vetoes only a small percentage of the proposals that come across his desk, and every veto is based on individual issues he has with the item, such as budgetary concerns or last-minute amendments.
He said that either he or the city administrator usually meets with the council monthly or sits in on committees, but when proposals are changed after committee, staff members may not have a chance to weigh in.
Even when he knows the council will override his veto, it is still important for him to explain why he opposes a proposal, he said.
“It’s a matter of leadership, standing by why the citizens separately voted for me as the strong mayor,” he said.
Condon’s first veto in office was a proposal sponsored by City Council President Ben Stuckart, who is now running for mayor himself. That ordinance would have changed the way the city enters into water contracts with customers outside of city limits.
Stuckart said the council didn’t need to override that veto because they found a different way through the city’s water plan to accomplish the same goal.
He said his decision to withhold his support for the open City Hall ordinance was similar. In the mayor’s veto letter, Condon reiterated that City Hall would remain open to the public.
“You don’t need to override the veto if you achieve the same end,” Stuckart said.
Councilwoman Kate Burke, the sponsor of the open City Hall ordinance, said she had planned to bring it up for an override but didn’t have other council members’ support.
Councilman Mike Fagan and Councilwoman Karen Stratton initially opposed the proposal, and after the mayor vetoed the law Stuckart said he wouldn’t support an override. The City Council needs five yes votes to override a veto.
Stuckart said one of his goals as City Council president was to lead a stronger, more assertive City Council.
“We’ve made a conscious choice not to be a rubber stamp,” he said.
Steve Eugster, a former city councilman who was behind the strong mayor initiative, said he isn’t surprised that conflict, vetoes and overrides have increased between council and the mayor’s office over the years.
He said the system was designed to create conflict between branches of government, and the council itself had changed since he served.
“It’s not unusual that the mayor, with the way that the council is presently put together, would veto legislation and would force an override. In other words, he’s trying to be darn sure it’s what we can tolerate,” Eugster said.
Former City Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin said she believes City Hall is more political than when she was on council, and more extreme legislation was coming out of the City Council.
When there were smaller majorities on the council, members were often more willing to negotiate before a proposal came to the dais, the conservative leaning McLaughlin said. She said several proposals that the mayor has vetoed, like keeping the U.S. Border Patrol out of the Greyhound bus station and new sustainable energy requirements, were overwhelmingly approved, with only conservative Councilman Mike Fagan opposing them.
“When you have this uber-liberal council, they’re sending, in my opinion, uber-liberal legislation that hasn’t been through that healthy debate of a balanced council, then they send something that’s really not palatable to the mayor because it hasn’t been through that healthy debate,” she said.
The third veto the council didn’t override was an ordinance sponsored by Stratton that would have increased council oversight into hiring at City Hall.
In his veto, the mayor said the council ignored the advice of the city’s professional staff, and hiring and salaries were under the mayor’s purview, not the council’s.
Stratton said she had begun the process of starting an override, but decided to reintroduce the legislation under a future administration.
“It was just a fight I didn’t want to put Council through,” she said.
Stuckart said the vetoes and overrides might be better for the city overall because it forces the administration and council members to publicly explain their positions.
“It’s actually made us all stronger and better able to articulate our views or why we disagree and get to better solutions,” he said. “Having to state their positions, has made for better policies in the long run.”
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