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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion

Shawn Vestal: The Greyhound sweeps will end — three years after the strong mayor let them go on

UPDATED: Sat., Oct. 2, 2021

A worker, right, speaks with a Customs and Border Protection agent seeking to board a Greyhound bus headed for Portland, Ore., at the Spokane Intermodal Center, a terminal for buses and Amtrak in Spokane on Feb. 13, 2020. Greyhound has agreed to pay $2.2 million for allowing immigration and border agents on its buses without a warrant or probable cause.  (Nicholas K. Geranios)
A worker, right, speaks with a Customs and Border Protection agent seeking to board a Greyhound bus headed for Portland, Ore., at the Spokane Intermodal Center, a terminal for buses and Amtrak in Spokane on Feb. 13, 2020. Greyhound has agreed to pay $2.2 million for allowing immigration and border agents on its buses without a warrant or probable cause. (Nicholas K. Geranios)

The end of discriminatory fishing expeditions at the bus station is good news if you like civil liberties – though, frankly, if you like civil liberties you’re also wondering what in the world took so long.

One chief reason is that the Custom and Border Protection officials doubled down on legal overreach in boarding buses and conducting warrantless show-us-your papers sweeps more suited to life in a totalitarian state than a constitutional democracy.

Another is Greyhound’s foot-dragging when it became more than obvious – based even on internal CBP documents – that agents in Spokane were exceeding their authority.

Was another reason our city’s form of government?

Ben Stuckart thinks so. Stuckart, who once ran to be Spokane’s strong mayor, is now arguing that it’s time to do away with strong mayors and return to having just a city council and a city manager. The current division of power, under mayors Condon and Woodward, has produced too many stalemates in which the chief executive simply refuses to execute the laws passed by the council or to cooperate on basic governance, he says.

One of those unenforced laws would have, if enforced, prohibited these bus sweeps almost three years ago. Stuckart and the council passed an ordinance banning the sweeps, but it never was anything more than a law on paper, because Condon said, based on legal advice, that the federal authority superseded the city law.

“The mayor was just able to say I don’t believe your law is legal, so I won’t enforce it,” Stuckart said, adding, “The legal argument we used to pass our restriction on the border patrol, which was ignored, was the same legal argument Bob Ferguson used.”

However, as Ferguson’s suit and success in achieving the settlement demonstrates, the mayor was wrong. Had the city law been enforced – and possibly defended in court at that point – the sweeps would have ended sooner, hundreds of bus passengers would have not been subjected to the discriminatory actions, and the state, and Greyhound itself, would have saved a lot of money.

Instead, Ferguson sued Greyhound Lines Inc., and the company settled this week, agreeing to stop the sweeps and pay $2.2 million. Ferguson argued that Greyhound violated state laws prohibiting discrimination and deceptive practices.

“Greyhound failed to warn customers of the sweeps, misrepresented its role in allowing the sweeps to occur and subjected its passengers to discrimination based on race, skin color or national origin,” Ferguson’s office said in a statement.

The sweeps began by 2013, and many believed they increased during the Trump administration. According to Ferguson’s office, agents performing the sweeps delayed travel for all passengers and subjected Latino and other passengers of color to invasive questioning, and sometimes forced them to get off the bus while they searched their bags.

Such warrantless searches are unconstitutional unless carried out at a border; the agency argued that Spokane, which is more than 100 miles away from the Canadian border, met this definition.

In a piece in last week’s Inlander, before the Greyhound settlement, Stuckart pointed to the incredible current dysfunction in City Hall, ranging from a massive staff exodus that imperils basic governance to stalemates over homeless policy to basic intergovernmental communication, as reasons to consider our 20-year experiment with a strong mayor system a failure.

He noted that conflict between the last two mayors and the council has often stalled progress on initiatives, and has created hyperpoliticized, expensive political campaigns for the supposedly nonpartisan office of mayor. Council members have frequently complained that the administration has shut down requests for information or cooperation – as administration officials have complained that the council has sometimes swerved out of its legislative lane.

And the system costs taxpayers a lot more money, as well.

“In the 1990s, before we experimented with the strong-mayor system, the city’s combined city manager and City Council budget amounted to about $500,000,” Stuckart wrote. “Today, the mayor and City Council’s budgets together cost taxpayers more than $3 million. This resource arms race between the administration and legislative branch is not fiscally responsible or sustainable.”

Stuckart’s idea is interesting, though I can’t say I’ve fully absorbed all the potential implications enough to hop on board. But it’s inarguable that city government has been stuck in neutral on more than one occasion in the past decade, and is currently in a severe crisis of management inside the administration that is thwarting basic governance.

If you think it’s a bad idea because the last two mayors were conservative, and therefore a bulwark against the liberal council, imagine future elections where the mayor is not so conservative, which seems all but certain. In and of itself, this structure doesn’t guarantee ideological balance.

If enough people think the idea is worthwhile, it will gain momentum and be further scrutinized. And if that happens, the case of the unenforced city law against the Greyhound bus sweeps might be one argument in favor.

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