The Spokane Club became an unofficial annex to City Hall. Or actually, it was the other way around, for City Hall was unlikely to overrule the City Club.
By William Stimson
That the commission form of government would destroy local politics was no surprise, since that was its express purpose.
It was adopted in Spokane and in dozens of other cities in the wake of local government scandals such as those reported by Lincoln Steffens in his famous 1904 book, The Shame of the Cities. The political boss at the center of these scandals accumulated his power by cultivating the loyalty of voters in the ward or neighborhood. The remedy, it seemed, was to undermine the power of the boss by diminishing the political power of the neighborhood.
Almost without anyone noticing, this reform caused a tip in the balance of power from the neighborhood voter to those who had enough money or prestige to sway a city-wide election.
This was no conscious grab for power, however. Reformers of this era did not consider the city to be a political entity in the same way the state and nation were. A city-at least one not already corrupted-required few political decisions, they thought. To reformers its proper functions were self-evident. City government needed to lay water and sewer pipes, keep police on the beat, update fire equipment regularly, maintain parks, and very little else.
Under Spokane’s new system, the commissioners-for Utilities, Public Safety, Public Works, Finance and Public Affairs-would oversee their range of tasks and be judged at the next election on how well these were executed. Voters were appointing experts to tend the machinery, not electing representatives to do the popular will.
That was the theory of the commissioner form of government, and it never worked. Among the first to notice were many of its original backers. Charles M. Fassett, for example, helped draw up Spokane’s commissioner charter and campaigned for its adoption. In the first election under the new form, Fassett was one of five commissioners elected, and he eventually served a term as mayor.
A few years after leaving office, in 1920, Fassett wrote an article for the National Municipal Review pointing out that the commission form had not lived up to its promise, because it had “notoriously failed to elect experts as public officials.” Instead of competent engineers and executives, Fassett wrote, voters tended to elect “popular men, men who are good ‘mixers’, men who have good standing in church, lodge or union, men who know how to dodge, trim and side-step, men who are politically wise and who are willing to make intensive personal campaigns-all these classes stand a better chance of election than the straight-forward, the honest, the successful, the competent, who are not adepts at the political game.”
Fassett noted a second serious problem with local government. It was practically impossible for a well-meaning official to survive in public office. “It is my theory that a man who is honest, competent and fearless in the conduct of a public office is . . . continually building up an army of discontent and dissatisfaction which will surely swamp him.” A conscientious public servant necessarily had to make unpopular decisions, and an unsympathetic public would punish him for it.
Fassett’s observation is intriguing. “An army of discontent and dissatisfaction” describes Spokane’s political experience. But what was the solution? Fassett suggested yet another reform government, the city manager system. He reasoned that the dissatisfaction of voters would settle on the non-political city manager and not the members of the part-time council. Spokane would try the city manager form four decades later and find that, while it was more successful at providing city hall with expertise, the discontent and dissatisfaction remained.
Fassett’s distaste for politics, typical for an early 20th century businessman, kept him from seeing the obvious connection between his two complaints. On the one hand, “popular” and “politically wise” politicians thrived with voters, while on the other hand those who were “competent” but above politics found their tenure foreshortened. Apparently politics was a factor in successful public policy.
The fatal error of those who framed the commissioner charter was in believing that competent policies would speak for themselves. Fassett could already assure them, in 1920, that this was not proving true. But it remained an article of faith to Spokane’s leadership long afterwards. Decades later, business leaders who complained “naysayers” would not get behind their plans were paying the price for a political culture that never saw the need for dialogue.
To give the commission form of government its due, it provided unusually honest and unusually efficient local government. The machinery was well-maintained.
Having seen the defeat of the honky-tonk, the ruling clique had no appetite for anything too flashy. “People who thrived on frolic, nightlife, and artistic inspiration found Spokane dull,” historian John Fahey wrote. “Except for a handful who tried to impose their own standards, they generally moved away.”
But the system had no mechanism for initiative. No one of the five commissioners was a chief executive who could could cause things to happen. On the contrary, each commissioner was most motivated, in order to protect his own budget, to checkmate big ambitions of the others. The feeble connection to the citizens of the deliberately apolitical mechanism deprived commissioners of one of the politician’s most effective tools, the ability to stir up a citizen mandate.
As these flaws became apparent with experience, many cities abandoned the commissioner form. Tacoma and Denver, which both adopted it about the time Spokane did, dropped the plan within a few years. Denver had turned to commissioners in order to rid itself of the dictatorial Mayor Robert Speer. It changed back within three years. As a Denver newspaper editorialized: “The return of Mr. Speer may mean one man power, but that is better than no man power.”
Spokane kept the commissioner system for half a century. Perhaps it could deal with the flaws of the system better than some cities because the five commissioners in city hall represented only a portion of Spokane’s government.
The Spokane Club became an unofficial annex to City Hall.
Overseeing and supplementing what the commissioners did was an unofficial “city council” consisting of a couple of dozen business and professional leaders. Membership of this council of insiders was informal and only loosely defined. It always included, of course, the publisher of the Spokesman-Review, the president of Washington Water Power Company, presidents of the major banks, the owners of downtown department stores and other large downtown businesses, an assortment of attorneys and accountants who were either bright or family, and others who made themselves useful in a small town.
The Spokane Club, which coincidentally opened in 1911, the year the Pan-Tans were routed from office and the business elite assumed control of Spokane’s future, became an unofficial annex to city hall. Or actually, it was the other way around, for city hall was unlikely to overrule the City Club.
The dean of Spokane historians, John Fahey, was a close observer of this informal government system. He described it in his book, Inland Empire: Unfolding Years, 1879-1929. Spokane’s ruling elite was drawn together, Fahey wrote, by “a conviction that they could control their economic and physical environment and, to a lesser degree, their social and natural environment.” When members of this elite were concerned about a threat or opportunity, they could get on the phone and within a couple of hours put together a decisive consensus. Or they could wait until lunch and bring it up over soup at the Spokane Club.
The governing and social circles overlapped, and the city’s progress formed convenient conversation material at social gatherings. If the social occasion made serious discussion inappropriate, “a raised eyebrow, tone of voice, or nod might pass for agreement.”
“The men who fashioned Spokane,” wrote Fahey, “would not hesitate, working through such agencies as the Chamber of Commerce and the Washington Water Power Company, to discourage commercial or industrial expansion of the wrong kind-one, for instance, that would import workers undesirable as permanent residents.”
“If their progress toward this consensus ideal sometimes seemed heavy-handed (as it occasionally was), their outlook was benevolent,” said Fahey. Despite the Spokanite’s grousing about a ruling clique, the clique mostly sought what a lot of Spokanites wanted, a proper town of pleasant neighborhoods, decent people, and low taxes.
Having seen the defeat of the honky-tonk, the ruling clique had no appetite for anything too flashy. “People who thrived on frolic, nightlife, and artistic inspiration found Spokane dull,” Fahey said. “Except for a handful who tried to impose their own standards, they generally moved away.”
It was in this half century, between 1910 and 1960, that Spokane became the butt of little jokes. It was called “Spokaloo” or “Sin City,” on the idea that nothing so interesting as sin would occur in Spokane.
Certainly Spokane had excuses for its blandness beyond its chosen system of government. The year that it adopted the commissioner form happened to be the high point in the city’s financial fortunes. The mines that had pumped so much money through Spokane began to subside into just another regional business. Between 1910 and 1950, Spokane’s population was almost static.
But some part of Spokane’s decline in this era was its own doing. It turned its governance over to two groups: one, the commissioners, given to inertia, the other, the business community, resistent to innovation. The tone was established by the Spokesman-Review.