Editor’s Notebook: City Council’s expansion needs to be discussed more broadly
As budgets tighten …November 5th, 2020
When I learned the Spokane City Council had hired a new spokeswoman, my first thought was, “Man, how many people work at the City Council now?”
The answer is 22. That’s up from 15 employees six years ago and means the ratio of people working for those elected officials rounds to 2-to-1.
With the growth in staffing has come an increase in the City Council portion of the budget, rising to $2.14 million this year from about $940,000 in 2014. That’s a 128% increase. In comparison, the city’s total budgeted expenditures have risen 23% during the same period.
Mayor Nadine Woodward’s proposed budget calls for $2.29 million for the Council next year, another 7% increase in spending.
It’s time to have a broad conversation about the role and scope of the Spokane City Council. That conversation should culminate with a ballot measure of some sort. Spokane voters should decide whether they want a full-time, executive Council with its own big staff, which is what it has been moving toward on its own, or the part-time Council it has had traditionally.
The growth in the Council’s mission has been deliberate, says Council President Breean Beggs. He describes a vision for a governing body that sets a broad-range policy for the city, which he says has been demanded by the city’s residents.
When Beggs talks about it, he has an admirable mix of sincerity and enthusiasm in his tone.
Even so, the question persists as to whether it’s the community as a whole that’s making those demands or it’s the Council itself and its partisan base.
Council positions are nonpartisan, but what’s emerged in recent years is a veto-proof, left-leaning majority that has held office during much of this period of expansion.
With that voting bloc, the Council takes on issues like climate change and comes up with a committee that has the goal for the city of using 100% renewable electricity by 2030. It forms its own sick-leave laws and places other demands on private employers, essentially making itself a union for a citywide workforce. And now, it’s spearheading police reform.
One could argue the merits of each of those efforts individually. But collectively, those and other initiatives not central to governing the city’s operations paint a picture of a body that has expanded its own scope, somewhat unilaterally, then used that mission creep, as some detractors call it, to justify its own growth. The Council members are busier because of their own initiatives coupled with routine demands of the job, making it more difficult to do the job on a part-time basis and thereby making a more compelling argument for full-time status, or at least, full-time pay, accompanied by a deep, well-paid staff.
But it’s more like a self-fulfilling prophecy than a voter-initiated directive. And voter buy-in would make it a lot easier to support this direction.
Much of this growth has occurred in an era of economic expansion, during years in which city revenues consistently exceeded projections. Those years are behind us, for now, as city revenues are down $6 million to $8 million this year, with another 1% to 1.5% drop in general-fund revenue expected in 2021. For the first time in years, the city is talking about being in a structural deficit position, something it hasn’t experienced since the aftermath of the Great Recession.
Now is the ideal time to ask whether we, as a community, want a full-time, executive-style Council. If so, then so be it. But voters deserve the right to weigh in on it, instead of one day waking up to it.