No Way to Run a City

Mayor ignores an important City Ordinance

The following is an excerpt from a RANGE Media article by Carl Segerstrom from April 28th entitled “City staff aren’t providing legally required homeless data”:

Last summer, Camp Hope became a flashpoint in Spokane. Sprawling over a large lot in sight of the I-90 freeway, organizers counted more than 600 people in the heat of summer. Opinions ranged on why people had come to the camp and where they were from. Julie Garcia, the founder and director of Jewels Helping Hands, collected her own data on the camp’s inhabitants, but no official data was collected by the city — and the reliability of Garcia’s data was challenged by local leaders.

The lack of information allowed anecdote and conjecture to fill the holes left by solid numbers. Excuses proliferated:

People were coming to the camp from out of town. Garcia was exaggerating the camp size. The camp was full of criminals and people who wanted to be homeless.

But under city law, this information vacuum shouldn’t have existed.

One year earlier, in the summer of 2021, Spokane City Council passed a law requiring city staff to track the overall homeless population, provide demographic information on people experiencing homelessness and identify barriers to accessing housing. City staff in the Community, Housing and Human Services (CHHS) Department were required by the law to provide quarterly reports to city council and the public through the city website.

In a functioning government the legislative branch (in this case the City Council) passes laws that the executive branch (here the Mayor’s office) carries out. Meanwhile the judicial branch (remember “checks and balances”?) makes sure that the “constitution” (here the City of Spokane Charter) and the law are being followed and are not in conflict. 

The case in point discussed in Segerstrom’s RANGE Media article is a City of Spokane City Ordinance passed by the City Council almost two years ago on July 26, 2021, ORD C36082 (click to read it). The ordinance is now (and has been) part of the Spokane Municipal Code (SMC), specifically as Section 18.05.030 of “Title 18 Human Rights”. B.6 of that Section reads:

Each calendar quarter the City shall present to City Council and publish on the City’s website a written report using HMIS and other reliable data sources to provide its estimate of the average number of homeless individuals in the City of Spokane and Spokane County who were unsheltered on a nightly basis over the previous quarter along with demographic information and key barriers identified by them to securing adequate shelter.

The Ordinance became law by Ms. Woodward returning it unsigned after the “Mayoral Signature Deadline”. As Segerstrom’s article details, it appears that the executive branch under Mayor Woodward simply ignored the legal requirement to gather and offer data on the homeless population. Instead, the Mayor chose to spend money on grandstanding legal efforts to forcibly close Camp Hope. Ignoring the law is no way to run a city. Lack of data gathering means that that city is flying blind in its efforts to address the issue. As stout a conservative as Councilperson Michael Cathcart understands this. Consider this exchange [the bold is mine]:

Council members are hungry for better data and frustrated that it’s not coming from city staff — despite city laws that require it. In an April 27 city council study session on the point-in-time count, Council member Michael Cathcart requested that the CHHS create a live dashboard of homelessness data. Presumably with live data on the state of homelessness in the community, policy decisions could both be data-informed and be constantly tracked for their efficacy.

Council member Kinnear responded, “Michael, Michael, we’ve asked for that for years.”

“Hence the reason I’m asking for it again,” Cathcart said.

“So, keep repeating that,” Kinnear said. “In fact, I think we put that in one of our ordinances that we require that.”

“It’s in an ordinance,” Cathcart said.

“It’s a head-scratcher,” Kinnear said.

Clearly, it is “in an ordinance”—it’s just that the Mayor, either by intention or ineptitude, ignored it. 

It’s not really a “head-scratcher” either. The City of Spokane City Council has no means of forcing the Mayor to abide by the laws it passes. That deplorable circumstance would have been rectified by Proposition 1, a ballot measure that appeared on the November General Election ballot just last fall in 2022. Prop 1 was voted down by 51 to 49 percent. Thanks to its failure, the City Attorney still serves mostly at the pleasure of the Mayor. Section 24 C. of the City Charter gives the Mayor the “Power to appoint and remove the city attorney, provided such appointment shall be subject to the approval of the city council.” Prop 1 would have changed the Charter to make the City Attorney less dependent on the Mayor’s pleasure. 

I’m sure I voted for Prop 1, but I don’t think I fully understood the importance of this Charter change until RANGE Media pointed out this glaring example of Mayoral nose-thumbing at a City Council Ordinance (aka law). 

More from the RANGE article:

“Unfortunately, under our City Charter, the city council is not permitted to retain a lawyer and sue the administration for ‘specific performance,’” Beggs said. “That was the point of the independent city attorney ballot measure last November that was narrowly defeated after a large influx of cash from the mayor’s supporters.”

The other option is for a private Spokane citizen to sue the city for not following the law by failing to file quarterly reports tracking homelessness in Spokane.

“Any taxpayer in Spokane can file a mandamus, which is a special proceeding to ask the court to enforce the municipality’s own laws or to enforce against the executive — the mayor — the municipality’s own laws,” said Jeffry Finer, a local attorney who represented Jewels Helping Hands in a civil rights lawsuit against the city and county which was settled in January 2023.

This kind of lawsuit is “a well-understood, well-established method to force a recalcitrant official to do their job,” Finer said. “The language [of the ordinance] is clear, it’s mandatory. This is not discretionary. The mayor’s decision to ignore that is frankly a little shocking.”

Read and subscribe to RANGE Media, to whom we are indebted for shining light on yet another example Woodward’s non-cooperation.

We need a Mayor who understands the importance of data and is willing to support data gathering, a Mayor who follows city ordinances without a citizen having to engage the legal system to force them to do so. 

Vote for proven administrative excellence. Vote for Lisa Brown for Mayor in August and November. 

Keep to the high ground,