For sixteen months, it seemed like Mayor Jim West and this city were a perfect match. Becoming mayor had been a lifelong dream for West...
SPOKANE — For sixteen months, it seemed like Mayor Jim West and this city were a perfect match.
Becoming mayor had been a lifelong dream for West, a former sheriff’s deputy and powerful Republican state senator who’d battled colon cancer in recent years.
And West seemed like just the tonic the city needed after being gripped for years in a toxic dispute over River Park Square, a downtown shopping mall financed by a controversial public-private partnership.
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Since West was elected in November 2003, Spokane’s fortunes have been on the rise.
The town of 200,000 was named an All-America City and landed the 2007 U.S. Figure Skating Championship. The mayor flipped the switch on a 100-block wireless Internet zone. Voters approved a $117 million road-repair bond after having rejected smaller road measures in recent years. Downtown bustled with new hotels and restaurants.
Perhaps most importantly, West settled some of the last significant lawsuits surrounding the River Park Square imbroglio, allowing the city, at last, to look beyond its self-destructive feuding.
November 2003 — West elected Spokane mayor after a 17-year career in the state Legislature, including as Republican Senate majority leader.
January 2004 — Begins four-year term in what he called his “dream job.”
May 5, 2005 — The Spokesman-Review newspaper reports that two men allege West molested them in the 1970s. The newspaper also says West visited a gay chat room on the Internet and alleges he used the perks of his office to entice young men he met there. West denies the molestation allegations, but admitted visiting a gay chat room and having relations with adult men.
May 6 — City officials say they will investigate West for possible violations of city policy.
May 9 — West announces he is taking a few weeks’ leave to “gather my thoughts and prepare my defense of the false accusations leveled against me.”
May 10 — The FBI confirms it opened a preliminary inquiry into a possible public-corruption case against West.
“We can think of no mayor in recent decades who has accomplished so much in so little time,” a Spokane Journal of Business editorial gushed in February.
But as it turns out, maybe Spokane didn’t know Jim West very well at all.
On May 5, The Spokesman-Review newspaper published allegations that West had molested two boys in the 1970s when he was a sheriff’s deputy and Boy Scout leader. West, 54, has denied the accusations, which were made by convicted felons, one of whom is suing Spokane County.
The paper also reported that West, who has opposed gay-rights legislation throughout his political career, had been visiting a gay Internet chat site and had offered a City Hall internship and various gifts to someone he thought was an 18-year-old he’d met there. The “teenager” actually was a much older computer expert hired by The Spokesman-Review to document West’s online activities — a tactic that has been widely criticized.
Since then, at least two other young men have come forward to say they were pursued by West after meeting him online.
“Who did we elect?” City Councilman Bob Apple wondered aloud last week at City Hall, where he and other city officials have been dealing with a stream of national media attention. “He’s a phony. He’s a fraud.”
A new nightmare
West’s early success has made his scandalous tumble all the more tragic. And while civic leaders last week downplayed the long-term effects on Spokane’s image, some were wondering whether the Lilac City can ever catch a break.
The scandal has sent West into seclusion. He left City Hall last week after announcing he was taking a few weeks off to prepare a defense to the newspaper’s accusations. He couldn’t be reached for comment for this story.
With West’s office locked and dark, most of his duties have been handed to Jack Lynch, the deputy mayor.
“It’s out of one disaster, into another,” said City Councilwoman Cherie Rodgers, who has called for the mayor’s resignation. “You want to put the best foot of the community forward, but this clouds everything.”
By all accounts, West had launched himself into his new job with quiet confidence. Council members say they often saw his blue Lexus parked at City Hall late at night and early in the morning.
West has mostly won applause from local leaders for restoring a sense of confidence to a city that had been sorely lacking in it.
“He really has helped change the tenor of the city,” said Robert Brewster, a developer who is redeveloping a whole city block of 100-year-old buildings on the east end of downtown into a new complex of taverns, apartments and retail stores. Brewster speculated that West’s “self-hatred” over his sexual identity might have led him to pour intense effort into his political career.
West often joked that he didn’t have much time left in office — a reference to the fact that no Spokane mayor has been elected to a second term since the early 1970s.
His predecessor, John Powers, didn’t even make it past the primary election in 2003. (West is only the second mayor elected since the city switched in 2000 to a “strong mayor” form of government, which invests the mayor with the power of a chief executive officer.)
Bitter mall controversy
In recent years, Spokane’s mayors had been made short-timers thanks to civic anger over the River Park Square deal, which tarnished the city’s reputation and credit rating, and cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in legal fees.
The $110 million mall project, anchored by a Nordstrom store, was built with a mix of public and private money. The mall and attached parking garage were designed to jump-start a downtown that had been in decay for years.
A complex financing scheme, approved by city leaders in 1997, included a loan of federal money meant to combat urban blight. The project became hugely controversial due in part to revelations that the city had paid about twice as much for the parking garage as it was worth.
Complicating matters was the involvement of the wealthy Cowles family, which owns the mall as well as The Spokesman-Review and a local television station. The fine print of the deal put taxpayers on the hook to cover financial shortfalls at the parking garage with city parking-meter revenue. Critics smelled a conspiracy and lashed out at the newspaper and city officials.
Although Spokane, in part due to its shiny, new mall, began to see development take off downtown, the controversy overshadowed any good that was happening.
“River Park Square made it feel like we were running a marathon with cement boots on,” said Ted McGregor, editor of the Pacific Northwest Inlander, Spokane’s alternative weekly newspaper.
So it was with a sigh of relief that many greeted West’s efforts to settle the remaining legal issues surrounding the mall project.
Those efforts were capped last month, when the city settled the last of the major lawsuits by accepting a $4.25 million payment from its former bond lawyers.
Even Steve Eugster, a former city councilman and mall-deal critic who vehemently opposed the city’s settlement, credited West with trying to do the right thing. “I think he was being a very good mayor,” he said.
New spirit at City Hall
City employees who’d complained of weak leadership and a climate of distrust warmed to West, who instituted an “employee of the month” program and insisted that department heads kick off each day with an 8 a.m. meeting, with a $1-a-minute fine for those who were late.
“He always included us, which was a change. He worked very hard at it,” said Joe Cavanaugh, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 270. The union represents 1,000 of the city’s 1,900 employees.
Cavanaugh said his union took some heat for endorsing West, who as a Republican state Senate leader had taken stands opposed by labor. But he said West had proved able to work well with union leaders at City Hall.
West also won the confidence of city voters, persuading them to approve a $117 million road-repair bond last fall. Voters had rejected smaller bond measures, and some thought West was crazy to ask for so much. But the measure passed with more than 61 percent of the vote.
“Ground to a halt”
With West essentially absent — though reportedly staying in touch with some city administrators via e-mail and phone calls — some wonder whether Spokane’s recent progress is in jeopardy.
“We ground to a halt last week,” said Apple, the city councilman, who said he’s had trouble finding any civic leaders in their offices since the West scandal broke.
Terry Novak, a former Spokane city manager who is now professor of public administration at Eastern Washington University, said most people won’t see a direct effect. “Your street will get swept. Your garbage will be picked up,” he said. “But there probably is a loss of momentum on areas like economic development, and other areas that depend on leadership.”
City Council President Dennis Hession said civic leaders are trying to withhold judgment on West until more is known. In the meantime, he said they’re trying to get out the word that the city is more than the scandal plaguing the mayor.
Hession met on Friday with members of Spokane’s Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Spokane Area Economic Development Council and the Spokane Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau to discuss ways to control possible damage to the city’s image, The Associated Press reported. Suggestions included hiring a consultant to help retain government grants, attract new employers, draw large conventions and maintain the city’s footing in financial markets, he said.
“What you have to say to people is that there are a lot of good things happening in Spokane that are independent of this problem,” Hession said.
That includes a downtown that has grown noticeably more active with new development. A “university district” is expanding with adjoining campuses of Gonzaga, Eastern and Washington State universities. The city also has a $55 million convention-center expansion under way.
And the region received good news late last week when Fairchild Air Force Base — among the area’s largest employers — escaped the latest round of proposed military-base closures.
Business leaders say more than $1 billion in new development has poured into Spokane over the last several years. They insist Spokane’s newest scandal won’t change that progress a bit.
“I’m just as optimistic now as I was two weeks ago,” said Walt Worthy, the Spokane developer who financed a lavish makeover of the historic Davenport Hotel and is now at work on an expansion across the street.
Brewster, 35, a developer who said he has invested close to $40 million in downtown Spokane, agreed. He called the West controversy only a “blip” in the history of the city.
The scandal, Brewster admitted, is “frustrating” because Spokane recently seemed to have turned a corner. Now it looks like the man who helped the city do that won’t be remembered for it.
“It’s too early to say he is guilty. But it’s too late to say he is going to be a success,” Brewster said. “I think it effectively erases what he has done.”
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org