Spokane Journal of Business

Who’ll be first strong mayor?

Names of possible candidates are popping up; ideal profiles emerge

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Ten months before city of Spokane voters will choose their first strong mayor under the new form of government they narrowly approved in November, names of possible candidates have begun to emerge.

Candidates wont officially file for the powerful post until late July, and so far, calls to a few of the people whose names have been mentioned as possible candidates result mostly in modest demurring of such speculation. Still, the trial balloons appear to have launched.

The names of many of the people being discussed as plausible candidates were expected, say observers of city government. A rough list of 20 such people compiled for this story include mostly current or former elected officials and well-known businesspeople: City Councilman Steve Eugster, state Sen. Jim West, banker Ric Odegard, and sports-team owner Bobby Brett, to name just a few.

Spokanes new strong mayor, who is expected to be elected next fall and to take office in January 2001, will become the citys chief executive, replacing the city manager we have now. The City Council will remain a legislative body of seven members, with one elected as council president, to preside over council meetings.

The strong mayor will be paid $80,000 a year, comparable to that of the current city manager, but far more than the salary of the current mayor, who is paid $36,000 a year and has little more power than the other council members.

The power and responsibility of the new strong mayor post, say observers, should attract high-caliber candidates, and the first person to hold that office ideally would have the attributes to set a lofty standard.

One thing weve felt very strongly about is that the voters establish high expectations for the first strong mayor, says Judy Cole, Spokane-area manager of Avista Utilities, where executives have begun to discuss the significance of the upcoming election. We need to set the bar pretty high, establish it as a prestigious position, something that people will strive for.

Cole and others say its still very early for serious discussion about candidacies, but its a good exercise to begin to identify people who possess the experience, character, and skills the voters might expect of a strong mayor.

Perhaps the most often-mentioned names are those of West, Brett, Eugster, and current Mayor John Talbott, the latter two of whom have made public comments about their possible interest in the job. Eugster himself authored the strong-mayor initiative that voters approved.

West, Eugster, and Talbott arent the only ones mentioned to have held public office. Both state Sen. Lisa Browns and state Rep. Jeff Gomboskys names have come up, as have current council members Roberta Greene and Rob Higgins, and former Councilman Joel Crosby, who now is a commercial real estate agent.

Brett, whose companies own the professional baseball, hockey, and soccer teams here, and Ric Odegard, a longtime Spokane banker, are among a host of businesspeople whose names have emerged as possible candidates. Others include retired Spokane accounting executive Gordon Budke, clothing retailer Patrick Jones, auto dealer Chris Marr, Avista Corp. executives Rob Fukai and JoAnn Matthiesen, Journal of Business Publisher Greg Bever, and attorneys Mike Ormsby and Randy Stamper. Developer Ron Wells and accountant Chris Schnug also have been mentioned in discussions of possible candidates.

Flattered, but no thanks

Only a few of those people were contacted for this story, but the tone of those responses was decidedly modest.

Says West, Im extremely flattered, but Im engaged in an important legislative session in which Im a key leader, as minority leader of the Senate. To people who have asked me about that, I have said thank you very much, come see me in April or May. West, a Republican from the 6th District, has held public office for 20 years, including during stints on the City Council and in both houses of the Legislature.

Brett, who has made a name for himself here with his Spokane Indians, Spokane Chiefs, and Spokane Shadow sports teams, says that hes had several people approach him about running. I was taken aback, says Brett, with a chuckle. What Ive told people is that Im not running, but if I were recruited, I would consider it.

Patrick Jones, who owns Harveys Fine Clothing and has been known most recently as an advocate for expansion of the citys convention center, acknowledges that people have mentioned his name as a possible candidate, but says he hasnt taken such talk seriously. Quite frankly, this is a very contentious town right now, and Im not sure thats something I would be interested in.

Greg Bever, who outside the Journal is chairman of the Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce and is leading the effort to develop the Mirabeau Point community complex in the Spokane Valley, says he, too, is tremendously flattered that people thought of me as someone to lead the city, but I am not interested.

Chris Marr, who is part owner of the Foothills Lincoln Mercury Mazda, Honda of Spokane, and Acura of Spokane dealerships, says he, too, isnt interested in being strong mayor. However, he offers this advice to those who are interested, especially in light of the criticism Seattles mayor is getting over his handling of the recent World Trade Organization meeting there: If youre going to be a strong mayor, youd better be prepared to have the buck stop with you.

What it takes

Erik Skaggs, director of government and community relations at Metropolitan Mortgage & Securities Co., says its far too early to identify candidates for strong mayor, saying that the more appropriate time might be after the Legislature adjourns and some current legislators feel more comfortable considering a run for the office.

Still, in general, Skaggs says, A lot of what happens will depend on the current City Council and their reform efforts. If the sitting councilwith its perceived new majority of vocal city criticsis successful, he says, similar candidates might emerge with their same mission.

Skaggs says a successful strong-mayor candidate will have to gain the trust both of people who identify with that movement and of those who are more comfortable with what reformists call the establishment.

He or she also will have to have a strong resume of accomplishments, consensus-building skills, and no personal agenda to push, Skaggs says. Character will be a big issue, he adds.

It has to be somebody who the neighborhoods would feel comfortable with as well as the business community, Skaggs says.

Avistas Judy Cole, who says the Spokane-based energy company is very interested in ensuring that strong candidates run for the office, adds these three attributes to the list: the abilities to communicate a vision, to create support for action, and to execute a strategy.

Cole says discussions at Avista about the characteristics a strong mayor should possess have included such words as experienced, energetic, believable, courageous, optimistic, and articulate.

As for a candidates past experiences, Cole says the individual probably should have built strong relationships with the Legislature and agencies of government, and have solid management skills, perhaps gained while running his or her own business.

Dan Kirschner, public affairs director at the Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce, says the chamber wont be involved in the recruiting of strong-mayor candidates, but plans to develop somewhat of a view of what the right person might be. He says that process will be akin to writing a classified ad for the strong mayor position, then making that public in hopes of attracting the right person to run.

Though that ad hasnt been written yet, Kirschner says that a solid candidate most likely would be someone whos been engaged in an executive capacity in the private sector, preferably in a pretty good size organization, because thats what the city is.

Dave Clack, a longtime business and civic activist here and former chairman of Old National Bancorporation (now part of U.S. Bancorp), suggests that the community needs to think of the strong mayor in a much different way than it does the current city manager.

What were doing here is shifting gears from a city-manager skill set to a strong-mayor skill set.

We have seen demonstrated a management skill set. The question is, What is that skill set in a political setting, in which someone has to be elected rather than appointed, as the city manager is, by the council? Its going to take some getting used to, he adds.

Like Kirschner, Clack predicts that the successful strong-mayor candidate will have a track record of heading an organization. Someone who has had no business or management or supervisory experience is going to be hard pressed to convince the voters that they can run the city, he says.

Clack and Cole both say its important that employers do whats necessary to make it easy for their managers and executives to run for and hold the office of mayor while having confidence that they can return to their careers later.

(Avista Chairman) Tom Matthews has made it clear that he wants employees to run for public office, says Cole, adding that Avista might hold a job open for someone who runs for strong mayor, or make similar arrangements. We need to encourage people who are well qualified to run, she says.

Adds Clack, We did it all the time (at Old National Bank), at one time having two ONB executives on the city council.

Skaggs, however, frowns on that idea, saying the public will perceive that a strong mayor whos supported by his or her employer in that way will provide quid pro quo favors while in office.

Responds Cole, You have to have qualified people to run. They have to have experience. If you look at the current City Council, other than Talbott who is retired, everyone there is employed elsewhere. They all have associations.

The key, she says, is, Does the public see them (the candidates) as fair?

Ray Lawton, chairman of the Business Alliance for Inland Northwest Prosperity, a relatively new political action committee, says the PAC met last week to discuss the strong-mayor race, but wont begin recruiting candidates until after other business groups, including the chambers of commerce here, have formalized a list of criteria they believe ought to be used in identifying possible candidates.

When that happens, then the alliance will set out to look for potential candidates, says Lawton, who also is president of Lawton Printing Inc.

Council president

As for council president, the other new position Spokane city voters will fill this fall, the successful candidate will be more of a populist who is an effective watchdog of the strong mayor, predicts Metropolitan Mortgages Skaggs. Voters, he says, wont see a ticket of two candidatesone for strong mayor and the other for council president. Instead, Skaggs says, a successful council president more likely will be one who for now is willing to challenge the strong mayor in policy debates, but also has an eye on running for strong mayor in the future.

Skaggs predicts that the strong mayor form of government will bring together what has become a polarized City Council, since the council will serve as the legislative body that well could go up against the executive branch on some issues.

Adds the chambers Kirchner, The council president should be a facilitator.

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