Proposition 1, a proposed amendment to the city charter regarding the city attorney that Spokane voters will see on the Nov. 8 ballot, would erode the strong mayor form of government that voters approved in 1999, and the main reason behind the proposed power shift doesn’t justify changing the city’s charter.
The measure came about because of a power struggle between Mayor Nadine Woodward and the City Council, triggered by interim city attorney Lynden Smithson’s advice regarding the extent to which the city could enforce an unauthorized camping ban in light of the federal appeals court’s 2018 Martin v. Boise decision.
Prop. 1 essentially would remove the city attorney from the mayor’s cabinet by creating an independent position that would be subject to nomination from the council and that would serve a minimum of seven years.
However, it also would give both the council and the mayor authority to hire outside counsel, negating the reasoning behind appointing an independent staff counsel.
The measure also would give the council authority to decide when to file litigation on behalf of the city.
If passed, Proposition 1 would chip away at Spokane’s strong mayor form of government, which provides for the city administration to be headed by an elected official directly responsible to voters.
Council President Breean Beggs, an attorney and author of the measure, says that it would provide job security for the city attorney, which would attract a better pool of candidates and ensure that legal advice isn’t politicized.
Countering that sentiment, former U.S. Attorney for the District of Eastern Washington Jim McDevitt says the city attorney currently can make up to $180,000 a year, plus benefits, which is well above the average income for an attorney in Spokane.
Also, McDevitt says, someone who is more concerned with job protection than about providing competent counsel in any circumstance isn’t right for the job.
Beggs says he has envisioned changes to hiring practices regarding the city attorney in various forms for about 10 years, although he confirms the decision to bring Prop. 1 forward now was reinforced by the current city attorney’s advice regarding the camping ordinance.
McDevitt, however, contends the council decision that sent Prop. 1 to ballot was passed as an emergency resolution, with little notice or opportunity for public discussion regarding its merits.
Perhaps most troubling about Prop. 1 is that, rather than bringing about the unifying, independent legal voice it purportedly is intended to do, it likely would create even more division, as both the mayor and the council would be able to seek outside legal advice, in addition to the city attorney’s advice, potentially resulting in three opinions on one issue.
Prop. 1 should be defeated, because fundamental changes to the charter should be proposed in a more transparent manner, allowing for more public notice and input, and not—as in this case—be rushed to be placed on the ballot because of a divisive power struggle in which certain council members don’t like the city attorney’s advice on a single issue.
Mike McLean is the deputy editor of the Journal of Business. He can be reached at 509-344.1266 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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