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Retreat Yourself

Retreat Yourself

by Haley B. Brown (Center for Justice Legal Intern/Women Leading With Purpose Retreat Attendee ‘16)

As I drove up to Coeur D’Alene with two of my classmates for a weekend away from law school, I started to panic. We all started to panic.

“Did you get all of your reading done for next week?”

“I already feel behind not spending my weekend at the library”

“How will I be able to get ahead of my reading schedule now?”

“I’m too busy to be here.”

But, as we forced ourselves to chat about things outside the realm of law school over sour gummy candy, with the view of CDA Lake fast approaching, that panic began to melt away.

The Women Leading with Purpose Retreat is an annual event run through the Center for Justice for female law students at Gonzaga University School of Law. The Retreat provides those that decide to attend a weekend away from law school on the beautiful CDA lake, little to no cell service, time for personal reflection, relationship building, and much more.

I had just completed my first semester of law school at Gonzaga when I attended the retreat, and had already convinced myself that it was going to be a lonely, miserable three years. All of my free-time that I once filled with hobbies that enriched my life seemed to vanish. I rarely saw my husband and all of my girlfriends were now states away. (Not to mention, on top of figuring out my first semester of law school I was in the midst of trying to learn how to drive my husband’s car, a manual 5-speed, after we sold my vehicle to save money for school. This was like the least amount of fun I have ever had in my entire life. . . but, I digress.) Law school was all consuming; it consumed all of my time, all of my thoughts and all of my conversations. I didn’t feel like myself and was experiencing more self-doubt that I ever had before. To top it all off, I was convinced I was the only one of my classmates who was experiencing this. Most people seemed like they had it all figured out.

The Retreat taught me that law school doesn’t have to be lonely or miserable. In fact, I learned that I was surrounded by strong, supportive female classmates who had experiences just like mine that will enrich my law school experience and provide me a shoulder to lean on, cry on, or stand on if necessary. But, had it not been for the retreat, I am not sure I would have had the chance (or the courage), to get to know the 11 classmates I spent my weekend with on the deep personal level that I did. Until that time, most conversations I had with these women and all of my other classmates were school related and surface level. I left that weekend more committed to developing deep, personal relationships in school, work and in my personal life.

Additionally, being at the retreat afforded me the time to look inward, reflect and morph back into the person that I was before coming to law school. I left feeling more like myself with a renewed sense of purpose, a louder voice, and a reminder of why I chose to come to law school in the first place. I also left committed to learning how to bake bread, something I had been continually putting off with criminal law reading.

Like all good things, the retreat had to come to an end. As my two classmates and I headed back to the reading, outlines, flashcards, and significant others that awaited our return, not one of us felt panicked. Instead, we felt and continue to feel empowered and driven to be women leading with purpose.

Katie’s Take

CFJ extern Katherine Freeman-Otte on being here, and now.

Certainly one of our big pushes this year has been to get Proposition 1—the city charter amendment requiring true independence for the City’s Office of Police Ombudsman—implemented.

Katie 3A vital part of our team on police accountability has been extern and Gonzaga University law student Katherine Freeman-Otte. Katie joined us in June and quickly dove into just about everything we do, from casework to public policy research. But she brings a special interest and passion to her work on police oversight, and gained valuable experience in 2012 when she was intern at the City’s Office of Police Ombudsman (OPO.)

Her passion and her sense of humor come through in this audio interview with CFJ Communications Director Tim Connor that was recorded in mid-November, shortly after the city council voted unanimously to reject a new contract with the Spokane Police Guild. To the extent that the Center played a pivotal role in persuading the council to reject the agreement (because it does not, in our view, comply with Proposition 1), Katie was instrumental in the analysis that informed our advocacy. She also testified before the Spokane City Council on October 7th and garnered praise for how she turned Mayor David Condon’s adage about Spokane as a “city of choice” into a pointed critique of his failure to implement Prop. 1.

And to think it was only a few months ago that she quoted a line from the movie “Wayne’s World” in her successful extern application interview with our Barry Pfundt.

On Proposition 1: “One thing we’ve talked about a lot, and I still can’t wrap my head around it—if the voters passed, and are specifically asking for independent investigative powers, which are the traditional duties of an ombudsman, why won’t the executive office, the mayor, implement that for the citizens of Spokane? It just boggles my mind.”

On what she learned from being detained several years ago by a police officer in Yakima: “At any second they (the police) have the ability to take away your liberty. At any second. To me it was just a realization of how much power that actually is and how it truly impacts an individual’s life.”

kfo2On what the role of a police ombudsman should be: “An ombudsman is supposed to be able to go around and investigate non-disciplinary actions on his own and report his findings. If we don’t shed light and allow someone to report on complaints that the citizens have, that bridge between the community and the police, those relationships aren’t ever going to be repaired.”

Erasing Prop. 1

How Mayor David Condon is deleting the voices of Spokane voters on police oversight.

By Tim Connor

Nine months ago this week, Spokane voters were filling out their ballots on Proposition 1, an initiative advanced by the Spokane city council to amend the city charter.

On the face of it, Prop. 1 is about robust civilian oversight of the police. In its details it re-commissions the Office of Police Ombudsman (OPO) and empowers the office to “independently investigate any matter” necessary to address complaints and concerns about the conduct of Spokane police. Prop. 1 is now formally inscribed as Article 16  of the city charter. This is supposed to matter, given that the charter is, in essence, Spokane’s constitution.

Prop. 1 is also a potent symbol of public frustration. It was a reaction to a police department that had lost public confidence. It was also a rebuke to two successive mayors who’d shown themselves to be unwilling or inept to deliver on their own promises. Voters approved Prop. 1 by nearly 70% last February.

Mayor David Condon defending his police oversight plans at a City Hall press conference last month.

Mayor David Condon defending his police oversight plans at a City Hall press conference last month.

Prop. 1 has been the law of the City for more than 250 days. It’s just not being implemented. Although the Spokane Police Guild has done its part over the past five years to resist the independent investigations that Prop. 1 requires, the Guild’s role in the latest and most serious debacle is less than you might think. Instead, the facts point to a failure of city government that is largely self-inflicted. It’s also becoming clearer, by the day, that the person who owns this fiasco is Mayor David Condon.

Condon successfully seized the issue of police accountability in his fall 2011 campaign against former Mayor Mary Verner. But a close review shows that his actions as mayor have actually undermined the community’s goals for civilian oversight of the police. The best example of this arrived a month ago, when Condon signed off on a new “tentative agreement” (TA)  with the Spokane Police Guild that simply omitted independent investigative authority for the Office of Police Ombudsman (OPO). When the mayor publicly released the TA on November 1st he also released a legal opinion that underscored a crucial point. Given the tortured history of Spokane’s effort to gain independent investigative authority for its police ombudsman it was imperative that the mayor negotiate for it with the Guild. The record is now clear that he didn’t.

As the embargo was lifted on the details of the mayor’s 2013 “tentative agreement” with the police guild there came a jaw-dropping disclosure. Even after Proposition 1 passed, the mayor’s lead negotiator was not instructed to bargain for independent investigative powers for the City’s police ombudsman. So she didn’t.
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The Guild’s Headlock

David Condon wasn’t the first mayor to brazenly ignore public calls for independent police oversight in Spokane. That act belonged to his predecessor, Mary Verner, who joined hands with the Spokane Police Guild in 2008 to cut a very bad deal, one that lives on to this day.

The idea to create a police ombudsman position arose in community discussions in the wake of the Otto Zehm tragedy. The formal impetus was a report provided to the City in April 2007 by Sam Pailca, a well-credentialed consultant. Her recommendations—centered on the creation police ombudsman office—were well-received at City Hall. Pailca interviewed police guild members for her report but didn’t address how to engage the guild leadership in implementing her recommendations.

Whether the City is legally required to negotiate the role and powers of the ombudsman with the Spokane Police Guild is a matter of debate. While the Center for Justice has long argued that the City has the managerial prerogative under state law to put in place a vigorously independent system of civilian oversight if it chooses, the Guild disagrees. Because of the potential effects independent oversight could have on officer discipline, the Guild considers it a “mandatory” subject for collective bargaining, and Spokane’s legal department leans toward the Guild.

Before that issue could even be publicly debated, however, Mayor Verner rendered the argument moot in April 2008. She and her management team met privately with representatives of the Guild and emerged with a deal that waived whatever managerial discretion the City has by statute to enact independent oversight. The “tentative agreement” created an Office of Policeman Ombudsman (OPO). But it did so in a way that completely perverted the meaning of the term “ombudsman.”

Although Pailca’s proposal wouldn’t have given the ombudsman disciplinary authority, it did insert the ombudsman deeply into the SPD’s internal affairs (IA) process. But Verner’s deal with the Guild deleted a key provision from Pailca’s proposal. It removed the ombudsman’s authority to independently investigate and publicly report if the ombudsman wasn’t satisfied with how an internal affairs investigation was handled. Thus, under the 2008 agreement Verner brought to the city council, Spokane’s ombudsman was essentially going to be a ride-along monitor to oversee the police department’s internal investigations. Independent investigative authority was out, and so was any power the OPO might have to publicly explain its objections to specific SPD investigations into citizen complaints.  Moreover, the selection process would give the City’s police unions a way to control the candidates who could even be considered for the job.

 

Liz Moore

Liz Moore

“I don’t care why it didn’t happen. It’s just unacceptable that it didn’t happen. We needed this result. The mayor didn’t get the job done, and he had twenty two months to do it.”–Liz Moore, director of the Peace & Justice Action League of Spokane, November 2, 2013, responding to the disclosure that Mayor Condon chose not to negotiate with the police guild for independent investigative authority for the Office of Police Ombudsman.

 

Verner’s shackled version of the ombudsman was met with public scorn. It wasn’t just the deep dark questions raised by Otto Zehm’s gruesome death at the hands of police in March 2006. There were other highly-publicized uses of force–including Shonto Pete’s shooting by an off duty officer, a July 4, 2007 protest march in Riverfront Park that resulted in several violent arrests, and later that same month, the botched tasering and suicide of Josh Levy, a 28-year-old man with a history of mental illness–that fueled questions about the attitudes, tactics and integrity of the police.

Questions about the incidents were underscored by the statistics indicating that when it comes to complaints of excessive force against Spokane police, exoneration of the officers by the department’s internal affairs (IA) branch is all but certain. According to SPD statistics, from 2007 to 2011 there were 62 citizen complaints about excessive force by Spokane officers. According to SPD-IA, none of the complaints were valid.

Despite repeated assurances from the city council that the 2008 agreement with the Guild was a temporary measure that would be re-negotiated with the Guild to add independence to the office, the 2008 agreement has survived denunciations, demonstrations, resolutions, and at least one ordinance. It is still being enforced even though it is squarely at odds with the city charter.  It is the police guild’s headlock on police oversight in Spokane.

In his run for Mayor, David Condon gained ground on Mary Verner after he made police oversight a centerpiece of his campaign. But his plan for police oversight never surfaced, and his actions have actually undermined the implementation of what voters sought with Proposition 1.

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The 2010 Revolt

When the agreement Mayor Verner reached with the Guild was solidified with an ordinance in October 2008, Liz Moore, the director of the Peace & Justice Action League of Spokane (PJALS) spoke for many when she termed the situation an “Ombudsfarce.” The public backlash was swift and led to the council adopting a unanimous resolution in 2009, calling upon the mayor to secure independent investigative authority for the ombudsman in a new collective bargaining agreement with the Guild.

The council’s 2009 resolution had zero effect. When the new guild contract emerged in November 2009, the notorious 2008 agreement was absorbed, verbatim, as Article 27 of the 2009-2011 contract. The council approved the contract anyway.

A 2010 rally at City Hall demanding independent oversight of Spokane police.

A 2010 rally at City Hall demanding independent oversight of Spokane police.

The public backlash was quick and severe. As the Justice Department  pursued criminal investigations of Spokane police officers involved in the Otto Zehm death and coverup, PJALS and other citizen organizations, including the Center for Justice, responded by mobilizing public support for a new ordinance to require independent investigations into citizen complaints. Under the weight of public pressure the Spokane city council passed the new ordinance on June 28, 2010, and Mayor Verner signed it the next day.

Three weeks later, the Guild filed a grievance against the City of Spokane, alleging that the new ordinance violated Article 27 of its collective bargaining agreement.

Concerned about what they were hearing about the languishing negotiations for a new labor agreement with the Spokane Police Guild, Council President Ben Stuckart and councilman Mike Allen asked Mayor Condon last spring if one or two members of the city council could sit in on negotiation sessions. The mayor said no.

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Down in Flames

In its legal defense of the 2010 Ombudsman ordinance, the City of Spokane had the choice of defending the ordinance as a matter of law before the state’s Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC), or as a matter of contract interpretation through arbitration. The City chose the latter. It then clearly perplexed the state arbitrator, Michael Beck, when Beck convened a hearing in Spokane on April 5, 2011.

As Beck dryly noted in his July 11, 2011 ruling, “the hearing in this matter took only about one hour and 20 minutes.”  The Guild presented an opening statement, presented 16 exhibits, and called the hearing’s only witness. On the other hand, Beck noted, the City offered no exhibits and rested its case “without providing an opening statement or calling any witnesses.”

It was only after the hearing that the City advanced its main argument, which is that it was entitled to managerial discretion under state law and had acted within the scope of those rights. In his ruling, Beck admitted this presented a problem for him. To address the question of whether the City acted within its legal authority was a statutory issue that falls to the jurisdiction of the state’s Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC). It wasn’t an issue that belonged in arbitration.

“In any event,” Beck explained, “the parties have engaged me to resolve their dispute and I shall do so.”

Beck then ruled in the Guild’s favor, overturning the 2010 ordinance, and immediately reinstating the 2008 Verner agreement contained in the 2010-2011 contract.

After surviving being shot while fleeing from an off-duty police officer, Shonto Pete helped lead the movement for police oversight reform in 2010.

After surviving being shot while fleeing from an off-duty police officer, Shonto Pete helped lead the movement for police oversight reform in 2010.

Under pressure from the Center for Justice and others, the City then turned to PERC to complain that Beck over-stepped his authority, the result was a fiery reply from David Gedrose, the PERC’s Unfair Labor Practices Manager. Gedrose not only rejected the City’s request for PERC intervention, but chastised the City for its conduct. He pointed out that the City was the party that actually certified the matter for arbitration by signaling it would defend it as a contract dispute. Then, after failing even to present a case during the arbitration hearing, Gedrose noted, the City sprung a “surprise statutory defense.”

In his letter to Keller Allen, the outside attorney the City hired to manage its defense, Gedrose wrote: “An employer who adopts such a course of action cannot legitimately cry foul and ask that the arbitration award be nullified based upon circumstances it alone generated.”

Within days after receiving Gedrose’s letter, attacking the City’s competence and good faith, the city council that had voted unanimously to approve the 2010 ordinance empowering ombudsman, now voted 5-2 to repeal it. The council still wanted to deliver independence to the OPO, but it now saw only one realistic path to doing that: by bargaining for it with the Spokane Police Guild as the city entered negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement.

“If we negotiate with the Guild and we don’t get what we want, clearly this council is united — we do not want another contract if it does not include increased ombudsman authority. If we don’t get that, we don’t have to approve the contract.”—Spokane councilman Jon Snyder, October 11, 2011.

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The Condon Plan

Among those watching from the wings of this fiasco was David Condon. After getting clobbered by Verner in the August 2011 primary election by a near 2-to-1 margin, Condon’s campaign began to take off when he picked up the issue of police accountability, including Verner’s handling of the Otto Zehm case.

“I agree with you completely that we must have police oversight that has teeth in it,” Condon wrote in an October 31st email to PJALS’s Liz Moore. “Furthermore, I have made this one of the key elements of my campaign for mayor. I think it is unfortunate that our current mayor did not secure this in the last round of negotiations with the police department. When the police ombudsman law was challenged, the City did not even present any evidence.”

At the same time, though, Condon declined to sign a pledge to reject a new labor contract with the Guild unless it included independent investigations for the ombudsman.

“I want to explore all the possible avenues to hold the police accountable,” he explained to Moore, “including a coroner’s jury inquest and the possibility that state law needs to change to bring about the result we desire.”

Condon flanked by City Attorney Nancy Isserlis at the press event announcing the settlement of the Otto Zehm civil case in May 2012.

Condon flanked by City Attorney Nancy Isserlis at the press event announcing the settlement of the Otto Zehm civil case in May 2012.

In short, Condon was indicating he wanted to propose his own plan for police oversight, and not be bound by the ombudsman model that the public and the city council clearly supported. But what also became clear after he became mayor is that Condon was feeling his way on the issue, trying not to get scorched by public opinion.

The collapse of Mary Verner’s popularity because of her indifference to police reform was not lost on any of the City’s elected officials. On February 6, 2012, the city council unanimously adopted a resolution giving its support to an ambitious 13-point plan for police reform. Among the goals was to amend the ombudsman ordinance to “restore independent investigative authority for the OPO.”

Condon quickly follow suit. The very next week he released his own 13-point “immediate police action plan”  that included, as one of his goals: “Implement independent investigative authority for civilian oversight of the police.”

One hopeful sign was that both Spokane’s police unions—the Spokane Police Guild representing the rank and file, and the Lieutenants and Captains Association—made a rare public appearance to signal their support for the City’s goals. Still, the Guild’s then-president, Ernie Wuthrich, reminded the City on February 6th that it would have to negotiate for much of what it wanted.

Said Wuthrich: “The guild wants to thank the council members for recognizing that many of the steps presented in your resolution may affect the working conditions of represented employees and would need to be negotiated with the affected unions.”

Condon gave no indication that he didn’t expect to negotiate any of the items on his list with the police guild. But what soon became clear is that he did not share either the council’s approach to oversight, or the council’s sense of urgency.

If Mayor Condon were really serious about securing the Proposition 1 requirement for independent investigations, he would have chosen to either bargain the issue with the Guild, or to have put the Guild on notice that the City intended to reclaim the managerial rights it had waived in 2008 and 2009. He did neither.

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“Exactly What I’m Talking About.”

On August 14, 2012, the mayor announced, out of the blue, that he was not going to retain Tim Burns as the City’s police ombudsman.

“We’re in the process of re-engineering that position,” said Theresa Sanders, the mayor’s top assistant.

There was an immediate backlash, including swift complaints from Rick Eichstaedt, the Center’s executive director, and the city council’s president, Ben Stuckart. In the face of the public criticism the mayor quickly retreated,  announcing he would extend Burns’s contract at least to the end of the year.

The bungling of Burns’s contract focused new questions on just where Condon was headed on police oversight. These questions multiplied again when the mayor—in introducing Frank Straub as the new police chief on August 22, 2012—said Straub would lead a process that would result in “deliberations” on a new proposal for police oversight by the spring of 2013.

The City, by this point, was already several months into negotiations with the Spokane Police Guild on a new contract that could lock the City in for at least another two years. So if the new mayor wasn’t even going to start “deliberations” on a police oversight plan until the spring of 2013, it begged the ominous question of just what was on the bargaining table with the Guild now.

This very question came up during a City Hall meeting between Center for Justice staff members and City Attorney Nancy Isserlis on October 8, 2012. Isserlis replied that she didn’t know what was in the City’s bargaining proposal with the Guild and that she would have to check with Erin Jacobson, the assistant city attorney who is Spokane’s lead negotiator in dealings with the Guild. In December 2012 I reported that this October 8, 2012 meeting with Isserlis had not gone “particularly well.” Certainly one reason the meeting went sour was our surprise at hearing the City Attorney say she didn’t know what the City was negotiating with the police guild.

A month later, the Center for Justice returned to City Hall, this time with our allies from PJALS and the Spokane chapter of the League of Women Voters. We held a press conference in the Chase Gallery to release our prescription for a new ombudsman ordinance, specifically to add independent investigations and change the ombudsman selection process.

While the press was still gathered, Mayor Condon arrived to respond directly to what we’d presented.

“This is exactly what I’m talking about,” he eagerly told the reporters. “I think the feedback from the Center for Justice is phenomenal.”

You can view the mayor’s remarks at the end of this broadcast report  by KXLY’s Colleen O’Brien.

It’s plain, in hindsight, that the mayor really wasn’t talking about what we were talking about. Moreover, the most important people for the mayor to have been talking to about independent investigations for the ombudsman would have been representatives of the Spokane Police Guild. But he wasn’t.

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Steve Salvatori, Mike Allen, and Proposition 1.

Among others watching the September 12, 2012 press conference in City Hall was Steve Salvatori. Salvatori was new to the city council in 2012 but, along with councilman Mike Allen, he was eager to move on police oversight. Although Salvatori would take the lead on putting together what became Proposition 1, Allen’s role was also key.

What Allen brought was institutional memory. In late 2007, he had been appointed to serve out the remaining two years of Mary Verner’s council term, after Verner won the 2007 mayoral election. Thus, Allen was on the council in 2008-2009 and he well-remembered the promises from the council that the 2008 “tentative agreement” would only be temporary, that the council would work with the mayor to secure independent investigations for the OPO. Allen still visibly bristles at suggestions to the contrary. As frustrated as anyone by the failure to deliver the long-promised investigative teeth for the City’s police watchdog, Allen joined Salvatori in working closely with the Center’s lawyers to develop a new city charter provision that could be put before Spokane voters.

Mike Allen

Mike Allen

“I’ve seen the iteration of the ombudsman three different times now. And every time the citizens are the ones that don’t get represented in this equation. And it’s always a filing of a union grievance, or there are these other things that are going out there. This is the citizens opportunity to weigh in and be heard on this process. It is a sad state of affairs when a union can control what the citizens desire, or the elected officials who are brought to this table to represent its citizens do not find the will to even back up what its citizens want.”–Councilman Mike Allen at a November 2012 council meeting.

 

The pathway to the ballot was a new ordinance, one that the council adopted unanimously last December 17th. One reason this matters, now, is that in the political jostling following the release of the 2013 “tentative agreement” last month there is the suggestion from the Condon team that it’s just not clear that Proposition 1 is about independent investigative authority for the OPO.

Except it is clear.

In the preamble of “whereas” statements leading into Ordinance 34941, the council notes that it has “continuously called” for negotiations with the Guild “in order to provide the police ombudsman with independent investigative authority,” and now finds “independent investigative authority is of such importance to the community that the citizens should be given the opportunity to vote to amend the City Charter to include such provisions.”

To be sure, a second piece was added to Prop. 1 to set up  a new citizen commission to work with and oversee the police ombudsman. (This, too, was part of Sam Pailca’s original recommendations back in 2007). But the core of Prop. 1—and the very reason it was necessary—was to secure independent investigative authority for the OPO.

 “We are comfortable that the tentative agreement gets us to where the community wants,” said the Mayor’s spokesman in early October. “Unfortunately, I can’t comment on any of the specifics.”

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“Dead on Arrival”

After voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 1, it became the mayor’s duty to come back to the Spokane City Council with a new labor contract with the Spokane Police Guild that complied with the new city charter requirements. Instead, the mayor and his team returned with a contract that—to borrow the Spokesman-Review’s phrase—“appears dead on arrival.”

Roughly speaking, the “dead on arrival” conclusion is what the Center’s lawyers and interns recognized when we first saw the contract a month ago. As we then reported  the new “TA” is strikingly similar to earlier agreements between the City and the Spokane Police Guild. The language in those agreements—now imported into the new TA—is toxic to the major reform of Proposition 1. In simplest terms—and as everyone can see now that the agreement is no longer secret—there is simply nothing in the new pact about the power of the ombudsman to conduct independent investigations as the city charter now requires.

Rick Eichstaedt

Rick Eichstaedt

The sum of our analysis is that the tentative agreement is a travesty. —Center for Justice Executive Director Rick Eichstaedt in an October 16 letter to Mayor David Condon and Council President Ben Stuckart.

 

The Center’s lawyers have some important disagreements with the lawyers representing the police guild. But we do agree on this much: silence in the TA on independent investigations only serves to keep in place the prohibition on independent investigations.

There is also a cynical feature to the TA. The second sentence of the section (Article 27) on “Civilian Oversight” says this:

“The City and the Guild agree that the OPO and the Police Ombudsman Commission as set forth in Article 27 complies with and satisfies all of the requirements of the City Charter in effect on March 1, 2013.”

This is a breath-taking assertion. One of our lawyers joked that it was as though the City and the Guild emerged from behind closed doors after two years to announce that they now agree the sky is green.

There is the suggestion from the Condon team that it’s just not clear that Proposition 1 is about independent investigative authority for the ombudsman. Except it is clear.

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A Few Questions for the Mayor

Because the mayor signed off on the tentative agreement with the Guild, one of two things must be true.

(a) The mayor believes the new labor agreement allows for independent investigations, or,

(b) The mayor is interpreting Proposition 1 differently than everyone else, except the Guild.

The answer is (b).

The mayor and the Guild have a different understanding of Proposition 1 than the rest of us. Neither believe the new charter amendment invests the Office of Police Ombudsman with authority to conduct independent investigations.

After we first read the TA early last month, I tried to determine which choice the mayor had made.

First, I posed this question, via email:

“Is the mayor confident that the tentative agreement with the Guild allows the Ombudsman to conduct independent investigations of complaints, beyond the role that the Ombudsman plays in the oversight of SPD internal affairs investigations?”

The City’s Communications Director, Brian Coddington, sent me this answer:

“We are comfortable that the tentative agreement gets us to where the community wants. Unfortunately, I can’t comment on any of the specifics.”

Coddington wouldn’t comment on the specifics because the TA was still being withheld from the public, until the Guild members voted to approve it.

Two weeks later, on October 21st, the mayor and the police chief were slated to appear at a morning conference at City Hall. I went and asked the question differently. Could the mayor assure voters that by the time a labor contract was approved and Prop. 1 implemented, the OPO would be able to conduct the independent investigations as Prop. 1 requires?

As I reported,  the mayor gave a long answer, but he wouldn’t answer the question. So I asked it again. And he still chose not to answer the question directly. As best I could tell, what he and the chief were saying is that the question of what independent oversight would look like under the new TA and new city charter had yet to be worked out. The chief then announced that he was inviting stakeholders, including the Center for Justice, to participate in a series of meetings to sort it out in the form of a new ordinance.

“Nothing is simple,” the chief said.

The next opportunity to pursue this question was last Friday morning, (November 1st) when the mayor and chief again met with the media, this time to officially release the TA. By then, the Center had obtained a confidential city document indicating Condon’s negotiating team never actually negotiated with the Guild for independent investigations by the ombudsman.

If, as the document suggests, Condon’s team never actually negotiated with the Guild for independent investigations this would be a remarkable twist. So did they, or didn’t they?

That was my next question for Mayor Condon.

“When voters approved Proposition 1 last February,” I asked him, “did you instruct your negotiators to go in and specifically request that the Ombudsman be allowed to conduct independent investigations outside the IA (internal affairs) process?”

Condon spoke, but he didn’t answer my question.

“The issue you’re asking is in Proposition 1, the definition of independence,” he said. “How do we, what is that independence? There is [sic] many latitudes to that, right?”

You can hear my exchanges with the mayor here.

When the press conference was over I headed for the city attorney’s office. Because the TA was now public, I reasoned, I should be able to ask Assistant City Attorney Erin Jacobson, the city’s lead negotiator, the same question. After Prop. 1 passed overwhelmingly, was she instructed to bargain for independent investigative authority for the ombudsman?

Jacobson politely deferred all questions back to Brian Coddington, the mayor’s spokesperson. Here’s part of the subsequent email exchange, with Coddington’s responses in blue.

1)      In negotiations with the Spokane Police Guild did the City ever specifically request that the new collective agreement (the TA) include language that allows the Office of Police Ombudsman to conduct independent investigations into citizen complaints?

The City’s negotiations team was directed to negotiate exactly what it did, which provides complete independence in the form of the citizen Commission.  The Ombudsman, through the Commission, can now require IA to initiate investigations that might previously not have been initiated and to conduct further investigation on issues that might previously have been closed.  The Ombudsman can participate in these investigations and ask unlimited questions.

The negotiations team was also directed to, and did, negotiate only those components of civilian oversight that are mandatory subjects of bargaining.  To the extent that the “independent investigations” inquired about refer to issues that are completely separate and apart from officer discipline (such as an audit of all TASER usage for the purpose of recommending procedural or training changes), that authority is also consistent with the TA, but would not need to be explicitly called out in the TA.

2)      After Proposition 1 passed in February of 2013, did the Mayor instruct Erin (and other members of the City’s negotiating team) to specifically bargain for independent investigative authority for the Office of Police Ombudsman? In other words, was independent investigative authority for the OPO a clear request/offer to the Guild in negotiations with the Guild following the passage of Proposition 1?

This direction did not change following Prop 1 because it was already on the table in negotiations long before Prop 1 was ever contemplated.  Again, “independent investigations” is not defined in Prop 1, and our view is that the TA does provide additional independence that does not exist in the current contract.  To the extent that any additional independent investigative authority is needed to satisfy City Council’s vision of Prop 1, it is up to the Council and its working group to include that in the ordinance.

There’s lots going on in these long answers. But when you boil it all down, the answer to question #1 is negative, the City did not at any time negotiate for independent investigative authority for the ombudsman.

The answer to question #2 is also negative, the instructions to Erin Jacobson and other negotiators did not change after voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 1. Both answers square with what the confidential document provided to the Center had previously indicated—the City’s negotiators never actually proposed to the Guild that the TA include language that would give the Guild’s blessing to independent investigations for the police ombudsman.

Immediately after the Friday press conference I asked Council President Ben Stuckart if he knew whether the mayor had ever instructed his negotiators to bargain for independent investigative authority for the ombudsman.

“I haven’t gotten the answer to that question either,” Stuckart told me.

Stuckart then reminded me that he and councilmember Mike Allen had written to Mayor Condon last May, asking that “one or two” council members be permitted to sit in on negotiating sessions with the police guild. The mayor declined their request.

 The Spokane city council can pass ordinances and, as with Proposition 1, it can enable voters to make popular changes to the city charter. What it cannot do is negotiate directly with the Spokane Police Guild. That job belongs solely to the mayor.
————————————————————————–

The End is the New Beginning

There are at least a couple messages that need to be carefully unpacked from Brian Coddington’s answers to my questions on November 1st.

First, there’s this: “The City’s negotiations team was directed to negotiate exactly what it did, which provides complete independence in the form of the citizen Commission.”

This is the revisionist version of Proposition 1 that Mayor Condon is now trying to sell Spokane voters—that what voters really wanted is to expand the OPO’s independence by adding the OPO Commission, a five member board that would oversee the work of the OPO and replace the mayor as the final arbiter in any disputes between the OPO and the chief of police about whether SPD internal affairs has adequately investigated a complaint.

Why Condon and his team thought this would fly is hard to figure. As you can hear in the audio strip inserted in this story, the mayor clearly floundered in trying to answer this at his November 1st press conference releasing the new TA.

“How do we, what is that independence?” he asked aloud, clearly flustered. “There is [sic] many latitudes to that, right?

The reality is the city council and voters have been very clear about what independence for the OPO should look like. Moreover, the mayor’s Use of Force Commission squarely addressed the issue when it presented its report to the mayor in February. The commission’s call for investing the OPO “with the authority and discretion to open and conduct independent investigations concerning the operations, actions, or omissions of the SPD” could hardly have been more explicit.

For the record, the mayor and chief accepted the commission’s recommendation by reporting the City is complying with Proposition 1.

In any event, the mayor’s effort to redefine Prop. 1 was shot from the sky right away, not just by the Center for Justice but by Spokane’s newspapers, including a biting editorial in the Spokesman-Review on November 5th, recommending the TA be rejected by the council and pointedly reminding Condon that the community’s patience is wearing thin.

If the decision to distract the public by over-hyping the commission was Condon’s Plan A to defend the new TA, then Plan B was to assert that the long-awaited agreement with the Guild was not the end of a five year process, but something like the beginning of a new one.

Wrote Coddington: “To the extent that any additional independent investigative authority is needed to satisfy City Council’s vision of Prop 1, it is up to the Council and its working group to include that in the ordinance.”

This is an extraordinary statement. What the mayor’s spokesperson is saying is, in effect, ‘if the council has a different idea of what the mayor thinks Prop. 1 means then it’s up to the council to put that in an ordinance to implement Proposition 1.’

Of course, the council had been trying to do just that, days earlier, when the mayor’s team effectively stopped the council in its tracks. The council had unanimously approved a resolution last May that included a draft ordinance for implementing Proposition 1. The only reason the council didn’t move to finalize that ordinance in May is that it was under pressure to stall. The council was waiting for the mayor and the Guild to reach agreement on the long-overdue labor contract. So instead of passing the ordinance as an ordinance, the council passed a non-binding resolution to guide the mayor in his negotiations with the Guild. By mid-September, Salvatori, Allen, and others were out of patience. Salvatori put the ordinance on the council’s agenda for October 7th.

The push-back began almost immediately, with the council hearing that if it voted to approve the ordinance the Guild would file a grievance and withdraw from the new TA.

Coddington’s email confirms what is obvious on the face of the new TA—the council’s resolution about what it wanted was basically ignored. For example, the council was clear it wanted to change the way the ombudsman was selected, to remove the police unions’ heavy hand in the screening process. Yet the selection process laid out in the new TA is identical to that Mary Verner signed off on in the 2008 TA.

Still, the glaring problem was, and is, the gaping chasm on independent investigations. The council was being assured the TA complied with Proposition 1.

But how?

Spokane Police Chief Frank Straub.

Spokane Police Chief Frank Straub.

No one really could say for sure, and what ensued was an unsightly scramble by city officials to try to save the TA by pulling in the Center for Justice, Spokane lawyer and former CFJ director Breean Beggs, and representatives of the Guild. The hope was to come up with language in a new ordinance that could bridge the chasm between the TA and Proposition 1. It was also the hope, to have at least a draft of what that language would look like to present to the press and public along with the TA.

That didn’t happen, and all the mayor and the police chief had in hand when they met the press on November 1st was the TA.

When I asked about this, the mayor acknowledged he was “disappointed” that he didn’t have a “final draft” of an implementing ordinance but that he was “excited” about the process moving forward to marry the TA with Prop. 1.

“Frankly,” he said later, “my patience is wearing thin, obviously, with the public’s and it’s due time that we continue this process that allows us to get to citizen oversight in a way that is consistent with state law, with Proposition 1 and also an ordinance that is compliant with that.”

When the mayor stepped aside, police chief Frank Straub spoke.

“The Mayor’s frustrated, I’m frustrated, the Guild’s frustrated, the Center for Justice is frustrated, the people are frustrated.”The chief then asked for patience.

“One of the things that we have to do is put out not just a charter amendment but an ordinance that is consistent with Washington state law and brings in the collective opinion of all those parties and ultimately this community. So, to rush to judgment, to rush to create something because it feels good that it’s out there is an error. It’s an error that will eventually get overturned and then we’ll be back to square one, yet again.”

To which he added: “Why don’t we just take our time and get it right?”

The chief’s plea for patience defies at least one basic truth. If the countless hearings and votes over the past six years have not been enough, the public and the city council had both been clear with Proposition 1 about what they wanted. Both expected the mayor to negotiate in good faith with the Guild for the Proposition 1 reforms. It now turns out he didn’t.

————————————————————————–

“It Should Be Clear that the Guild Does Object.”

Lost in the late October scramble to bridge the chasm between Proposition 1 and the new TA with the Guild was a stark fact that should have surprised no one. The lawyers for the Spokane Police Guild believe they’ve captured the Spokane police ombudsman fair and square, and they’re not about to let him go.

“While I was born in the morning, it wasn’t this morning.”

This is what Guild attorney Chris Vick wrote to the City’s Erin Jacobson in June 2010 after Jacobson shared with Vick the terms of the 2010 Ombudsman ordinance that the city council was then considering. Vick listed numerous items that violated the contract because they were “mandatory” subjects of bargaining, adding, “in any event, the Guild demands to bargain the effects of any change reflected in the proposed ordinance.”

The position of the Guild’s lawyers hasn’t changed in three years. By most accounts the reason Mayor Condon didn’t release a new draft ordinance that might bridge the chasm between the new TA and Proposition 1 is that a Guild lawyer in Seattle had finally gotten wind of what was going on in Spokane, and hit the brakes.

That lawyer appears to be Hillary McClure who works in the Seattle office of Aitchison & Vick, along with aforementioned attorney Chris Vick, a lawyer who’s well known for his work representing police unions in both Spokane and Seattle. (The single witness at the 2011 arbitration hearing on the 2010 ordinance was Chris Vick). McClure did not respond to requests for an interview, but her views are well-expressed in an email she sent to Jacobson on October 31st, the day before mayor Condon released the TA.

In the email to Jacobson, McClure reminds the City that the TA wasn’t some open-ended exercise. To the notion that the language in the TA about the ombudsman selection process, could now be changed in an ordinance implementing Proposition 1, McClure put her foot down.

“The selection committee was purposefully designed in its current form so that the OPO selection committee would be made up of a group of people who would work to find a candidate who could be fair to the involved parties,” she wrote.  “I saw an email from the Chief that said ‘no one objects to the Chair of the OPO Commission being the 5th person.’  This is not accurate, it should be clear that the Guild does object.”

McClure also voiced her displeasure with what seemed to be happening in the scrum to try to backfill what the TA had left out.

“As you are aware,” McClure wrote, “our TA included an agreement that ‘All proposals by either the City or the Guild that are not addressed in the below or attached TA’s are withdrawn.’  There are issues raised in the Ordinance that appear to me to fall under the category of proposals that the City had on the table but that were not included in the TA. As a result we are in the difficult position that it feels like as soon as we made the agreement, the City is asking for things that the City had removed from the table to get the TA done.”

McClure re-emphasized that, in the Guild’s view, just because the City chose to leave something out of the TA, doesn’t mean it has the right, going forward, to just slap it into an ordinance. In this, she includes the ombudsman’s investigative authority.

“It was my understanding at the negotiations table that the City believed it was fulfilling the City Charter (the Ordinance, Prop 1, Section 129 and 130) with the terms of the TA,” she wrote. “I have heard that there is an assertion being made that there is some investigative authority that was granted to the OPO that is separate from what was agreed to by the parties. I strongly disagree.”

It was the mayor who’d chosen not to bargain for independent investigations for the ombudsman, as Prop. 1 requires. The consequences of that decision are already becoming clear. They’re not good.

————————————————————————–

The Mayor’s Signature

The way Spokane city government is now organized under the strong mayor system, there is a limit to what the city council can do to achieve the police accountability reforms Spokane voters demand. The council could pass ordinances and, as with Prop. 1, it could enable popular changes to the city charter.

What it could not do is negotiate directly with the Spokane Police Guild. That job belonged solely to the mayor.

There were only two paths by which Mayor Condon and his negotiating team could reconcile the Proposition 1 city charter requirements with the City’s legal and ethical obligations to the Spokane Police Guild.

brally 300The first path is obvious. The mayor could have bargained directly with the Guild for the elements of Prop. 1. If, for example, his team agreed with the Guild that the OPO’s functions were a mandatory subject of bargaining, the City could offer financial compensation in exchange for the Guild accepting independent investigative authority for the OPO.

The other route—as the Center for Justice had suggested—was to inform the Guild that the City would seek to recover the managerial rights that Mayor Verner had forfeited in 2008. To the extent the Guild disagrees that the City can unilaterally implement police oversight, then it would have been free to file an unfair labor practices complaint with PERC. Such a legal challenge would at least result in the issue getting adjudicated one way or the other. If PERC and the courts sided with the Guild then the City would have the clear option (and more of a case) to go to the state legislature arguing that Washington labor law was infringing upon the will of the voters in Spokane.

In evaluating the Mayor’s conduct, it’s important to recognize that he chose neither path. He neither negotiated with the Guild, nor did he inform them that he was moving to reserve the City’s managerial rights.

The final piece of Brian Coddington’s November 1st reply (on the mayor’s behalf) that needs to be highlighted is this one:

“The negotiations team was also directed to, and did, negotiate only those components of civilian oversight that are mandatory subjects of bargaining.  To the extent that the ‘independent investigations’ inquired about refer to issues that are completely separate and apart from officer discipline (such as an audit of all TASER usage for the purpose of recommending procedural or training changes), that authority is also consistent with the TA, but would not need to be explicitly called out in the TA. (emphasis added.)

What Coddington is saying here is that the mayor actually accepts that the City has managerial rights it can use to empower the ombudsman. Readers will have to decide for themselves whether this answer is honest and credible.

Whether his answer is honest and credible, it is not helpful.

The reason it’s useless is actually found throughout a legal opinion that the mayor shared on the same day he released the TA.  The opinion comes for Otto Klein a state labor law expert at the Summit Law Group. Klein’s Oct. 4 memo was used to knock the legs out from beneath the ordinance that Steve Salvatori brought to the council for a vote on October 7.

Klein emphasizes that the City has a duty under state labor law to bargain in good faith with the Guild. In the main, his memo is very pessimistic as to whether the City can escape any duty to bargain with the Guild for significant functions of the ombudsman, most notably independent investigations.

Klein notes, among other things, that the City is not working with a clean slate (or clean hands, for that matter) when it comes to asserting its managerial discretion. The 2011 Beck decision is still there, he notes, and “under generally accepted arbitration law, once an issue has been resolved in arbitration, that resolution is final and binding on the parties, and is a precedent for purposes of their future relations.”

Again, what Beck ruled is that independent investigative authority for the ombudsman is a mandatory subject of bargaining. While the Center for Justice and others continue to question the legitimacy of Beck ruling on a statutory question that should have been resolved by PERC or a court, it’s also true that the 2011 council had a chance to appeal Beck’s decision to superior court, and chose not to. If the Guild challenges a unilateral decision by the City to implement independent investigations by the OPO, Klein warns that PERC might impose an “extraordinary remedy”—meaning unusually heavy sanctions against the city.

“I believe,” writes Klein, “the agency (PERC) will view the City as a pattern (or ‘recidivist’) offender on the issue of civilian oversight, and thus will want to take strong affirmative action to ensure that the City understands its bargaining obligations in this area.”

To be fair to the Salvatori ordinance, independent investigations could only have proceeded with clearance from the city attorney. And to be fair to the council as a whole, the Beck decision and the rebuke from PERC were not lost on them. They voted to repeal the 2010 ordinance and tried to focus the mayor’s attention on bargaining with the Guild.

In short, Klein’s memo says, if you want independent investigations for the ombudsman, then treat it as a mandatory subject of bargaining and negotiate it with the Guild.

Mayor David Condon

Mayor Condon announcing his appointment of Frank Straub in August 2012.

Yet, what Coddington reported on November is that the Mayor decided not to negotiate for it, but to silently reserve it as within the City’s managerial discretion. (Indeed, it is so quietly reserved that it is not even listed in Article 3 of the agreement which is where the parties list the City’s management rights under the contract. It’s just not there.) It is so quietly reserved that when Guild lawyer Hillary McClure sensed just a whiff of it in the flurry of discussions last month, she called it out and objected to it in her October 31st email.

The point is, it’s hard to argue with Otto Klein’s memo on this point. The City does have an obligation to bargain in good faith, and it should be obvious to anyone that if the City were to make such a major change as to try to recover its managerial discretion in a new collective bargaining agreement, that this would need to be “explicitly” spelled out, not secured by stealth or omission, as Coddington now suggests it was.

The bottom line is that the new TA with the Guild is worthless in securing the major reform of Prop. 1. The Guild didn’t agree to independent investigations, and the “managerial discretion” supposedly reserved for the City is just the slim fuse for a legal bomb that, as the Klein memo cautions, would likely explode in the City’s face.

This is David Condon’s signature on this fiasco. The man who was able to unseat Mary Verner by criticizing her performance on police reform appears only to have made matters worse, and it’s not clear, now, that the Proposition 1 reforms can ever be put in place.

“I don’t care why it didn’t happen,” PJALS Liz Moore says about the long-awaited labor agreement that omits the heart of Proposition 1. “It’s just unacceptable that it didn’t happen. We needed this result. The mayor didn’t get the job done, and he had twenty two months to do it.”

 

–CFJ

Heart & Soul

Suellen Pritchard talks about what she brings to the Center for Justice, and where it all comes from.

It was nearly fifteen years ago that Suellen Pritchard arrived at the Center for Justice in distress. While there’s never really a good time to be in distress, her timing was  serendipitous, to say the least.

Suellen speaking at Gonzaga University on September 16th.

Suellen speaking at Gonzaga University on September 16th.

As Suellen describes in this audio interview with Tim Connor, the new, non-profit law firm had just moved into offices at the Minnesota Building on West First Avenue and was feeling its way toward a mission in the community. There was a lot of ambition and energy, but as CFJ founder Jim Sheehan happily concedes there was no blueprint, as such, for what was about to take shape.

What did take shape has some discernible organs and limbs (e.g. the Spokane Riverkeeper, and government accountability programs) but the signature component is our Community Advocacy program which Suellen helped create in 2005.

As she explains in the interview, the Center’s then-director, Breean Beggs, sought to reconfigure the organization’s work to better respond to the problems and needs of people who were coming through the door seeking help. How?

With CFJ founder Jim Sheehan in 2010.

With CFJ founder Jim Sheehan in 2010.

“My response to that question,” Suellen says, “was ‘I would like to start a social service agency to help people do all the things the Center had initially helped me do when I was a client. They helped me clean up my credit, they helped me get my driver’s license back, they helped me through a very long divorce out of an abusive relationship. They helped me holistically put my life back together. Everything that I needed done with my life they, one-by-one, they gradually did all that. And, in that whole process, I was able to get out of poverty and actually buy my own house in a very good neighborhood, put my family back together. I got my driver’s license back. The Center hired me and I got a very good job. That’s what I wanted this whole program to look like.”

Here are some additional excerpts from the interview:

They say that the (driver re-licensing) program was started before me with another woman out of Coeur d’Alene but I remember distinctly being the guinea pig (laughs) of the driver’s re-licensing program. And, if you know what I mean, it took me literally ten years to pay off my fines, twenty-five dollars a month, at a time. But I did it. I went down there every month, and I never missed a payment.

 

Suellen sharing a laugh with former CFJ outreach coordinator Holly Fauerso at a winter retreat in 2008.

I think we figured my great-grandmother raised seventeen kids altogether. Plus she was a mid-wife in Syracuse, Kansas, and my grandmother, just to give you an idea of how much resilience she had was blinded by her mother putting her on a coal stove. She was born premie and the year she was born premie, most babies born the year before my grandmother was born, they passed, they lost them because they couldn’t figure out how to keep them warm enough. Well, my great-grandmother wrapped her up in a basket; wrapped her up and put her on the door of the coal stove and it baked her eyes. And she was blinded. When I was in junior high, my mom took my grandmother to Kansas City, to the KU medical center and they did complete cornea transplants on my grandmother. And she was able to read out of the phone book after that. She worked in a nursing home taking care of old people from the time she was twenty-three until she was eighty years old. And she was amazing. I remember we would go see her every time we would go visit and I would hear them yelling, ’Sny-der!’ That was her last name (laughs). And my grandmother would go ‘shh, you stop that hollering.’ But she was so good to them. She was an amazing woman. And my mother, she was very amazing too, and it just kind of trickled down the line. (laughs) You know, we’re very resilient. Stuff happens, on a daily basis you know, but you just keep going.

 

With former CFJ client Stacey Green.

With former CFJ client Stacey Green.

For some reason I think I have to fix everything. Everything. You know? And people tell me, ‘but Suellen, that’s not your problem.’ But it’s not my nature, to not. To not try. You know, maybe it’s not my problem but if I can fix it, or if I can give somebody an avenue to go down, to help them fix it, then I’m there.

Partners for Health

The Center for Justice dives in on an innovative and ambitious effort to help doctors help patients.

By Tim Connor, for the Center for Justice

If Barry Pfundt and Dr. Darin Neven are making their first strides in a boldly innovative collaboration, it’s not because they travel in the same professional circles.

Pfundt is an attorney. Dr. Neven is an emergency room doctor at Sacred Heart hospital. To explain how their paths have begun to cross it helps to start with the tall, plain-spoken doctor and see, from his vantage point, how the world beats a path to his door, at least when he’s at work.

Dr. Darin Neven (left) with CFJ attorney Barry Pfundt at the Community Building.

Dr. Darin Neven (left) with CFJ attorney Barry Pfundt at the Community Building.

“A lot of people come to the emergency room who don’t have medical problems,” he says. “They have social problems, or social ills. But they come to the E.R. because it’s open and we can’t turn anyone away.”

Call it a well-intentioned law with unintended consequences. What Dr. Neven and his peers are on the receiving end of is a mandate of the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA).

The 1986 law requires nearly all hospitals to serve anyone who comes to their emergency rooms in distress. To those who followed the inflamed debate over the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. “Obamacare”), EMTALA’s mandate came up in a very interesting way. High-profile critics opposed to health care reform insisted the U.S. already has universal access to health care by all citizens—through the emergency rooms of American hospitals.

Notwithstanding the rich argument about whether emergency rooms are really the best way for Americans to enter the health care system, there is a relentless truth that Dr. Neven and his colleagues experience in the real world on a daily basis. Because of the requirement to treat, emergency rooms have become the gateway for all kinds of underlying problems that make people sick.

“You know, they want help,” says Dr. Neven. “And we are very good in America at providing instant medical help if you have a real medical problem. But we’re really not well-equipped at all for the overwhelming social ills of poverty, inadequate housing, and injustice that people are being afflicted with.”

“Honestly,” he adds, “I feel like we need to convert the emergency room, which is really used as this place of refuge, into a place for emergency social services.”

Dr. N mug“I’d like to see people get the legal resources they need, when they need them. It’s better to help these people with these problems, because it’s going to cost us more in the long run if we don’t, and it’s the right thing to do.”–Dr. Darin Neven.

Dr. Neven’s diagnosis comes from years of experience on the ramparts of American health care.

Barry Pfundt’s interest in the sort of problems that challenge Dr. Neven comes from just being Barry Pfundt, a fisherman, turned sailor, turned Congressional aide, turned lawyer who never quite turns off his brain.

Always in search of the next big idea, Pfundt’s epiphany as to how lawyers can bring value to community health challenges came a couple years ago, at an Access to Justice conference. He was listening to a Seattle lawyer, Scott Crain as Crain was presenting on his involvement in what is now called the Washington Medical-Legal Partnership. Created as a pilot project in late 2008, the purpose of the partnership is to enlist lawyers and paralegals in removing obstacles to medical care, especially for patients who are economically vulnerable.

“He blew my mind,” Pfundt says about his reaction to Crain’s talk.

A short description can’t really do justice to the medical-legal partnership model. It isn’t just about lawyers cutting through red tape to solve insurance hassles. It’s also about using attorneys to help attack the underlying causes of chronic diseases, like asthma, that are rooted in economic stress and substandard living conditions.

“If a kid is getting sick because he lives in substandard housing, you could give him an inhaler to treat the asthma,” Pfundt explains, “or, you could help move him to a safe house where he isn’t being exposed to mold or other hazards.”  Pfundt says that with safe housing, “we are not just treating symptoms, we are eliminating the root cause of the illness. And that’s something a doctor can’t always do.”

Once he absorbed Scott Crain’s presentation, there were lots of reasons for Pfundt to think the approach would be a great fit in Spokane. He kept an eye out for a chance to advance the effort.  That opportunity came his way a year ago when the Center hired him to fill an open staff attorney position.

He soon engaged Rick Eichstaedt, the Center’s executive director, in conversations about how the Center could be a leader, partner and catalyst in helping doctors deliver better health care.

“It was really Barry’s enthusiasm that lit the fire in my thinking,” says Eichstaedt.

The result is the Center’s Health & Justice Initiative, which has been underway for months as Pfundt and Eichstaedt have explored potential partnerships and opportunities where the Center can make its contributions.

“We see this as an opportunity to fill in an important gap to address issues of health with our tool, which is the law.” —CFJ Executive Director Rick Eichstaedt.

Through the Center for Justice’s intake system and outreach efforts, a relatively small advocacy organization with a team of lawyers at its core gathers large amounts of information about the problems that afflict poor and disadvantaged people in the Spokane area. On any given day at the Center for Justice, advocates, paralegals, interns, and attorneys approach problem solving on a variety of levels. Litigation grabs headlines. But most of the work is shoe-leather advocacy that leverages the law to negotiate solutions in individual cases or pushes public policy changes that can remove systemic barriers, and thus help whole groups of people.

What Pfundt recognized early on is that the Center’s non-traditional approach to addressing legal problems makes it an ideal platform from which lawyers and advocates could team up with health care providers in medical-legal partnerships such as the one Crain and his peers have created in Seattle.

“For doctors there can be initial barriers but the end result has the potential of being really liberating,” says Pfundt. “Because this goes back to the Hippocratic Oath, the core values of their profession, to prevent disease and heal people – not just treat illness. And so the law becomes another tool for doctors to achieve that goal.”

As Pfundt started digging into the prospects of a medical-legal partnership in Spokane, he found no shortage of exasperating problems to work on. But he also quickly discovered some invaluable allies like Dr. Neven. Another essential players has been the Spokane County Medical Society (SCMS). Lee Taylor is the Society’s Director of Strategic Initiatives and Pfundt found him to be a deeply engaged partner whose thirst for innovation matches his own.

The medical society’s mission is to promote community health and wellness. Part of Taylor’s job is to foster two young SCMS programs—Project Access and Consistent Care Washington—whose purpose is not just to improve access to health but provide better care at lower cost.

“A lot of the people that we’re identifying as frequent users of the hospital system are homeless, they’re very sick, they’re substance abusers, and they have behavioral health issues,” says Taylor. “What we’re trying to do is get them connected to the services that will help them get stabilized in all of those areas.”

One of Pfundt’s and Eichstaedt’s major challenges is explaining to public and private decision-makers how legal advocacy can help with health access and cost challenges. But they didn’t have to explain it to Taylor.

“We know generally that a lot of the folks who are in this population of very complex and vulnerable people have a broad variety of legal challenges,” says Taylor. “We need the expertise that Barry and others can bring from the legal community to try to figure out how to address those challenges in the most expedient way.”

Although medical-legal partnerships can take a variety of forms, the early work funded at CFJ with grant money secured through SCMS was directed, in large part, to resolving legal obstacles to housing for low-income patients. This work, in turn, helped lay the groundwork for a so-called “Hot Spotters Group” that is now underway with seed money provided by Providence Health & Service’s Community Benefit Fund.

Barrymugsmu“If a kid is getting sick because he lives in substandard housing, you could give him an inhaler to treat the asthma or you could help move him to a safe house where he isn’t being exposed to mold or other hazards. We are not just treating symptoms, we are eliminating the root cause of the illness. And that’s something a doctor can’t always do.”–Attorney Barry Pfundt

The Spokane “Hot Spotters” are modeled and named after a project conceived by a Camden, New Jersey coalition of health care providers. The Group’s purpose is to focus on high risk and low income patients with a history of frequent emergency room visits and higher than average use of medical resources. What makes Hot Spotters different in Spokane is the legal assistance component that Pfundt and the Center bring to the mix. A key facet of Hot Spotters is to efficiently diagnose and coordinate care. This means being able to move reliable information about a patient’s condition and needs across several disciplines. One clear obstacle to this is a 1996 federal law, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). While many of HIPAA’s provisions exist to protect patient privacy, the law’s privacy provisions can be a major obstacle to coordinating patient care. And that’s where a lawyer can help, not just to ensure the law is followed, but also to guide the way for sharing the necessary information.

The community buy-in on “Hot Spotters” is impressive. In addition to Pfundt, Taylor, and Dr. Neven, the leadership team includes the City’s assistant fire chief, Brian Schaeffer, Joe Beckett the Mental Health Care Coordinator for the Spokane County Regional Support Network, Sarah Bates, who directs operations for both Consistent Care Washington and Project Access, and Sheila Morley, the City of Spokane’s Housing & Human Services Program Coordinator.

For Pfundt, “Hot Spotters” is anything but an abstraction. He’s literally walked alongside the patients “Hot Spotters” identifies to get them to services, court hearings, etc. It’s familiar terrain for him through his work with the Center’s low-income clientele.

Along the way he is developing what he calls “the business case” for how he and other legal and social work specialists can bring value to health care providers at the same time they are improving the circumstances of patients.

One of many examples Pfundt cites is a project initiated a decade ago through the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. By investing federal grant money in housing services for a hundred chronically homeless people in the Denver area, the coalition was able to document an extraordinary decline in medical costs for those who were no longer homeless. The avoided emergency room savings alone averaged more than $30,000 per person. The way the American health care system works, these are costs that health care providers either have to absorb or pass on to other patients. It wasn’t just avoided emergency room visits. The program also documented a dramatic reduction in publicly funded de-tox and jail costs as well, easing the burden on local taxpayers.

So although “Hotspotters” is a grant funded program, Pfundt’s hope—indeed his and Eichstaedt’s vision for the Center’s Health and Justice Initiative—is that the legal work involved in such projects will, in time, more than pay for itself within the business models of health care providers. Part of the reason he’s optimistic, Pfundt says, is that provisions of the new Affordable Care Act will actually increase incentives for health care providers to invest in systemic solutions to costly public health problems.

Viewed at the community level, the need for new and innovative programs to address community health problems could hardly be clearer. The best evidence for this is the eye-opening “Odds Against Tomorrow” report produced last year by the Spokane Regional Health District under the primary authorship of epidemiologist Adrian Dominguez.

In an introductory letter to “Odds Against Tomorrow,” health district Health Officer Dr. Joel McCullough wrote:

“America’s public debate on ‘health’ has mostly centered on access to and the affordability of health care, even though a large body of evidence tells us that in most cases whether or not a person gets sick has little do with seeing a doctor. A far greater determinant is the relationship between how we live our lives and the economic, social, and physical environments that surround us; some of these certainly we can influence on our own, but many are outside our individual control.”

As he was working amongst his peers at CFJ to develop the rationale for what became the Health & Justice Initiative, Pfundt cited “a stark example” from the pages of “Odds Against Tomorrow”—life expectancy in Spokane’s East Central Neighborhood is eleven years less than it is if you live in the affluent Southgate Neighborhood just a few miles away.

The are, undeniably, a myriad complexities behind such stunning disparities. But what’s clear is that the movement to address community health on a deeper, more innovative level has arrived, and that the Center wants to be a major partner in that effort.

“Right now we’re trying to figure out where is our proper fit and what direction we want to take,” says Eichstaedt, “and Barry has done a good job in laying the groundwork. We’re identifying opportunities and beginning the strategic plan of how we get there working with other partners.”

From his vantage point at the Sacred Heart emergency room, Dr. Neven is delighted to have the help.

“I’d like to see people get the legal resources they need, when they need them,” Dr. Neven says. “It’s better to help these people with these problems, because it’s going to cost us more in the long run if we don’t, and it’s the right thing to do.”

-CFJ

 

Visit our Health & Justice Initiative page.

A Gifted Lens

Don Hamilton & Co. take a look at CFJ

Don at work on a CFJ shoot last January.

Don at work on a CFJ shoot last January.

As some of you know, we’ve been deeply blessed to enjoy the support of Spokane photographer Don Hamilton and his wife, Lorna St. John, for the past several years. In addition to the fine creative work the couple do through Hamilton Studios, they’re both long-time civic activists whose passions for building a better world and community show up in countless places.

Lorna, for example, is a member of our board of directors.

In May, Don & Lorna hosted our signature annual event and fundraiser, Jazzed for Justice, during which our guests were treated a short documentary of the Center that the Hamilton team put together.

But their work didn’t stop there and now, with special thanks to associate producer Alyssa Crawford and editor Kevin Graham, we have a handful of shorter clips that we are going to share this summer, beginning with this one that is a video debut of our modified logo and new motto, which you’ll see at the end of the clip.

 

In this video released on July 22nd, we showcase the Center’s national award winning work on police accountability.

Spokane Riverkeeper Bart Mihailovich is, of course, featured in this quick overview of our Spokane Riverkeeper program.

 

A glimpse at Jeffry Finer and the Center for Justice in action in response to a white supremacist family’s efforts to intimidate a Spokane-area Montessori school, to stop them from teaching tolerance and multi-culturalism.

 

How to Look at a Coal Train

Opinion by Tim Connor

Having struggled with asthma much of my life, I don’t understand why people smoke. But I do understand why they sometimes set themselves on fire. There’s nothing quite like self-immolation to get peoples’ attention.

In June 1963 a Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, torched himself in Saigon. His flaming image, captured in a wire photo, was a searing act of defiance that symbolized the deep moral objections to the corrupt, U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government that was doomed to fall. Likewise, when the Tunisian street vendor Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010, his fatal act ignited the “Arab Spring” uprisings that led to the fall of governments not only in Tunisia but in Yemen, Egypt and Libya.

I’ve been thinking, lately, of Quang Duc and Bouazizi. It’s not because my mind welcomes images of people engulfed in flame. It’s only because I’m part of a growing cohort of people who are increasingly restless, if not outwardly desperate, to imagine what it will ultimately take for us to act to avert the looming tragedies of global climate change.

As tragedies go, this one is as surreal as it is soporific. I’m folding my towels at a laundromat, a stone’s throw from the tracks at Latah Junction in west Spokane. I look up to see a steady stream of weather-beaten, uncovered rail cars, brimming with Wyoming coal, heading west. The long train could as easily be moving small mountains of grain to feed people.

But this cargo is planet lethal. The burning of coal accounts for over 40% of greenhouse gas emissions world-wide. The short of it is that when we burn coal, we burn the future. Whatever warmth or hum of electricity comes from igniting the coal loaded onto this lumbering train, it also takes us inexorably closer to more calamities like Katrina and “Superstorm” Sandy which ravaged the mid-Atlantic coast last fall. And even these tragedies pale in comparison to the foreseeable destruction caused by sea-level rise, desertification, and increasing ocean acidity that is already chewing away at coral reefs throughout the tropics.

The mechanisms for this havoc are as well understood as the process by which you warm your coffee in a microwave oven. But we are still told to look away, or at least to not see what we know to be true. Trains are romantic. Yes. If you have to ship coal, it’s more energy efficient to ship by rail than by truck. True. Spokane should be proud of its railroading heritage, and grateful for the railroads’ “economic impact.” Of course.

“The issue is not whether the trains will come, but where they will go, and who will get the economic benefits,” says the opinion page of the Spokesman-Review. So, please, think locally and leave the planet to others. If you’re anxious, look down with a “tight focus” to the fistful of dollars in our hands today, and let someone else fuss over our children’s stormy tomorrows.

“We need to deal with the facts of the matter,” says Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, “not the emotions from coal.”

I gather the sheriff means we’re not supposed to consider all of what we know to be true when we see a coal train heading west into the sunset from Sunset Junction. Who needs Zoloft to buffer our emotions when a good mind-washing of denial will do the trick?

I have a better idea. Let’s look squarely, instead of looking away. Let’s listen to what the earth and the vast majority of scientists are telling us. Let’s give our energy and our coinage to support the work of spirited young activists, including our Spokane Riverkeeper Bart Mihailovich,  and Maura Cowley of Energy Action Coaltion.

When we burn coal, we burn the future. Whatever warmth or hum of electricity comes from igniting the coal loaded onto this lumbering train, it also takes us inexorably closer to more calamities like Katrina and “Superstorm” Sandy which ravaged the mid-Atlantic coast last fall. And even these tragedies pale in comparison to the foreseeable destruction caused by sea-level rise, desertification, and increasing ocean acidity that is already chewing away at coral reefs throughout the tropics.

Coal train leaving Latah Junction.

Coal train leaving Latah Junction.

Time is not on our side.

Earlier this month, a New York Times headline read: “Heat-trapping Gas Passes Milestone, Raising Fears.”  What the article reported is that, for the first time in millions of years, the measured concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth’s lower atmosphere (as averaged over 24 hours) surpassed 400 parts per million.

This was not a milestone that a person could detect with any of the human senses. CO2 at 400 ppm is not going to burn the eyes like tear gas, pound the ear drums with a sonic boom, or darken the sky like a solar eclipse at noon. But if you know just enough to connect that number to the litany of earth science about the consequences of such high CO2 levels, and what this means for our children and grandchildren, then you may just know enough to be sick to your stomach.

The scale of the changes  beginning to unfold is almost as compelling as our indifference to them. If you want to observe what a disappearing polar ice cap looks like in its swirling death throes, you can see that here at one minute into this video presentation by a fast-talking Al Gore. It will take you only a few seconds to visualize, on a grand scale, what’s happening in the environment.

On the other hand, if want to witness just how assiduously we are now moving, as a society, to address this gravest of all problems, it may take more than a few seconds to hear the sound of almost nothing. You could start by going to video replays of the 2012 Presidential debates and hearing not a word about climate change. Sorry “all you climate people”  said debate moderator Candy Crowley, after she chose not to call on a citizen questioner who wanted to ask Barack Obama and Mitt Romney about global warming.

So much else to talk about. So little time.

Candy Crowley is a good political reporter. But her casual brush-off of the topic was wrong even when measured in pure political terms. Voters care more than she acknowledged, and especially voters in Republican primaries. This is where the American political landscape gets shaped and where denial and obstructionism are so deeply rooted. Between the ideologues and the buckets of money from oil and coal interests, climate change has become so politicized that honest leaders like Rep. Bob Inglis—a once popular Republican Congressman from South Carolina—are removed from office if they admit to what the science has so clearly revealed. Inglis lost his seat in the Republican primary of 2010.

“The most enduring heresy that I committed was saying the climate change is real,” he told PBS’s Frontlines.

Spokane Riverkeeper Bart Mihailovich with a coal train in the distance.

Spokane Riverkeeper Bart Mihailovich with a coal train in the distance.

Crowley’s brush off and Inglis’s political demise bring to my mind a tragedy my father witnessed as a young boy. It was the explosion and fiery crash of the passenger zeppelin, the Hindenburg, in 1937, as it arrived on the East coast after crossing the Atlantic with 97 people aboard.

“Oh the humanity,” sobbed Herb Morrison, the WLS radio announcer who was broadcasting live at the time of the tragic explosion at Lakehurst, New Jersey. In the haunting recording of his broadcast, you can still hear Morrison’s voice, drenched in grief, as he finally apologizes to his audience for having to look away in order to compose himself after witnessing “the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”

What we, with collective indifference and denial, are inflicting upon our children is so much worse than the tragedy that brought Herb Morrison to tears.

When I look up from my laundry and see a coal train rolling through Latah Junction, I hear Herb Morrison’s voice.

“Oh, the humanity.”

Tim Connor’s essays do not necessarily reflect the view of the Center for Justice.

Catching the Keys

James Wilburn arrived in Spokane carrying the weight of a powerful history and a personal quest for transformation.

In a tiny office near the main entrance to Spokane’s Lewis & Clark High School sits a living capsule in the form of a tall man with a tightly trimmed, gray beard. When he speaks, James Wilburn’s voice has the unmistakable lilt of his native Arkansas and when his sentences end in a laugh they are laughs of the deep, quaking sort.

His job at Lewis & Clark is to help black and other minority students increase their odds for graduation. In the larger scheme of things, his role as the new President of the NAACP in Spokane is to make a mid-sized, predominantly white American city more hospitable and economically accessible for people of color. Now in his sixth year as a Spokane resident, Wilburn doesn’t hesitate to give his assessment of that challenge and a pithy description of where Spokane is on the curve, so to speak.

James Wilburn

James Wilburn

“In coming to Spokane and realizing that you only have a two percent African American population, that tells me automatically there’s something in the atmosphere that causes African Americans not to live here,” he says.  “You know, and that’s obvious. So what is it?”

“What do you think it is?” I ask.

“Well, racism,” he replies, “from a James Crow Esquire perspective. You know, how do you get a job here? Who will hire you? What positions are available for your kind? You know, when I look at the politics of Spokane, it’s obvious that Spokane is still being run by a system of people that’s in the grave. Old money runs this city. Old money.”

His reference to Jim Crow is to that period in American history when southern whites reacted to the enforced reconstruction of the region following the Civil War, when  federal troops attended the dismantling of the plantation society that had enslaved nearly 4 million black men and women by 1860. Instead of the leg irons of slavery, southern whites used economic and legal barriers to preserve their hegemony. It took the modern Civil Rights movement to dismantle the most overt signs of Jim Crow—the separate water fountains, public bathrooms and such—but Wilburn is old enough to remember these institutionalized oppressions. They were fixtures of his youth in Marion, Arkansas, just outside Memphis, Tennessee.

“I was reluctant to come at first, to Spokane. Because I looked at the demographics before I left Memphis. I’m looking at one point seven percent? Two percent African-American population. What the heck am I going to do in Spokane. And I wear African attire sometimes, you know, and I was saying ‘boy, I hate to have to throw my clothes away.’”—-James Wilburn

He also remembers the repeated efforts to burn his family out of their home and the hotel his father owned in Marion. In the third fire, both his parents suffered serious injuries and James, himself, was burned across his midsection when a flaming beam fell on him.

As he describes in the above audio interview for our Smart Justice dialogues, Wilburn’s life and his life-long activism have evolved around his quest to understand the roots of the hatred behind the violence directed at him, his family, and his race. It was a sobering self-assignment, especially when he came to realize there was nothing besides racial prejudice that could account for it.

As he moved on in life, and toward Spokane, he says, “one of the things I had to do was get the bitterness out of my heart.”

Before he came to Spokane, Wilburn served as a city council member and then the Mayor of Sunset, a town not far from where he grew up. One of the poignant stories he relates is how he persisted in confronting an all-white school board that was determined not to allow young African Americans to play basketball in a school gym in Sunset.

Wilburn’s appeals as a city official fell on deaf ears until he noticed that white teens were given the keys to the gym, while African American youths were literally locked out. After being told he could come to school board meetings so long as he didn’t talk about the lock out at the gym, Wilburn said he then managed to get on the agenda to talk about “something else.”

“I go to the school board meeting,” he recalls, “and we discuss that something else. And then I said, ‘you know, by the way, I know you said don’t ask about the gym any more but I would I would like to ask one thing and that is if you would just put a sign on the gym, ‘Whites only, no colored allowed.’”

His in-your-face shaming of the school board worked. The superintendent immediately dispatched an assistant to get the keys to the gym. As he tells the story, Wilburn picks up his own keys and drops them on his desktop to illustrate how the keys to the gym were tossed in his direction by the superintendent.

“‘Anything happen in that gym, it’s going to be on you,’” Wilburn says, repeating what the superintendent announced at the time. But Wilburn had won.

In addition to his evolving and productive conversations with new Spokane Police Chief Frank Straub—which, he says, have already led to a pledge that the SPD will help organize community sports leagues aimed at low to moderate income and minority youth–Wilburn says he’s eager to continue and build upon the Smart Justice dialogues and initiatives that have bloomed in the past year.

One of the raw data points he discusses in the interview is the disproportionate incarceration rate of African Americans both in Spokane County (12% of the Spokane County jail population is African American, though African Americans make up only 1.7% of the county population.) He sees this number, and a correspondingly similar ratio statewide, as a symptom of a larger social and criminal justice system flaw.

“When you get out and they ask whether you’ve ever been arrested for anything, when you’re applying for a job, and you can’t get that job, you’ve still got to eat. So you’re back in and it just becomes a revolving door, and you’re in and out of that system. And now, for those who have families you’ve got kids, you’ve got a wife, and now they’ve taken you, the only bread-winner, out of the family and incarcerated you. What have you done to that child, and that wife and that family? You know? The punishment doesn’t fit the crime. You’re punishing him, and you’re punishing them.”

—Tim Connor

Unbound is Unwise

Defacing a beautiful county with soul-deadening urban sprawl is neither acceptable nor inevitable.

Update: Read Daniel Walters’s followup story in the Inlander 3/12/13

Ten minutes from downtown Spokane you can still take a left turn off a thoroughfare and find yourself not only in nature, but with views of something other than noveau riche housing developments and freeways. One of my favorite places that fits these directions is above and beyond a high wall of basalt palisades, opening to meadows of balsamroot, camas, and serviceberry, with a horizon of pines in two directions, mountains in a third.

Meadow in the palisades of west Spokane.

Meadow in the palisades of west Spokane.

I can’t help you measure this experience in cash. But I think I can help you evaluate it, or at least comprehend it, in terms of what is truly precious. My doctor would say it lowers my troublesome blood pressure. But beyond such intimate physiology, there’s just a spiritual richness that comes with living in a place that’s not only aesthetically beautiful, but beautiful within the reach of our daily lives. It’s a form of being in love, and I write that knowing of the genuine heartbreak that comes in witnessing places that we treasure being gouged by bulldozers and then paved over for the sake of “progress” and “growth.” Five Mile Prairie isn’t a prairie anymore, and though some are materially richer because of it, something of greater value was lost.

For at least a decade, now, Spokane County has endured something akin to governmental bi-polar disorder when it comes to growth. “Near Nature, Near Perfect” is an economic development mantra. It’s a catch-phrase to market the Spokane area to people who really want what we’ve got, which is a rare combination of urban amenities leaning casually against a rural wilderness, and the remarkable recreation this affords. But politically we don’t have much of a commitment, at least not yet, to the nature part. Mostly, we want to make developers and land-owners happy and rich. It’s both sad and senseless to sell out the public interest this way. In the long run, we’ll all be poorer for it.

As I reported five years ago, the Center for Justice (led by the efforts of our current executive director, Rick Eichstaedt) became deeply involved in a high stakes legal battle against a corrupt county government that openly defied the state’s Growth Management Act (GMA) and public records law. The raw purpose of this defiance was to serve the interests of developers who’d supported the Republican troika on the County Commission at the time. Our clients  were individuals and neighborhood organizations trying to preserve the rural nature of areas, like the beautiful palisades tract in west Spokane, and protect them from development.

NearsmuCounty government is discernibly less corrupt than it was in the mid-2000s, but the pressures and nature of the political dynamics hasn’t much changed. Next week the Commission will conduct a hearing to consider well over a dozen “study areas” and “individual requests” to expand the county’s urban growth area (UGA) beyond its current boundaries.

There are compelling, nitty-gritty economic arguments against the sprawl that the proposed expansions to the UGA would accommodate. The state-wide group Futurewise does a terrific job pointing out that these proposed expansions are notorious for thrusting new costs on to taxpayers because of the expense of extending public infrastructure to serve the new developments.

But there really is a simple show-stopper here that should settle the issue, not just now, but for the foreseeable future. The simple truth is this—the existing urban growth area for Spokane County is not bursting at the seams. There is plenty of room inside the existing UGA boundaries to accommodate new development. So this idea that we need to expand the UGA to accommodate new populations and economic activity is just a canard.

If this piece of news seems familiar to you, it’s probably because it came up two years ago when the County was trying to push through an emergency UGA expansion to grease the skids for a rural grab land out on the West Plains to site a new jail. With the Center’s help, the jail proposal was quickly withdrawn after it became clear it couldn’t withstand land use scrutiny.

The same is true for the expansion proposals that will come up for a hearing next week.

Here’s what the county’s Planning Technical Advisory Committee reported a year ago:

The Regional Land Quantity Analysis for Spokane County, published October 2010 and revised in May of 2011 (the “LQA”), concludes that the existing UGA has the capacity to accommodate an additional 117,800 people, 4,259 more than the forecasted increase of 113,541. The LQA also concludes that the current UGA has a sufficient amount of commercial and industrial zoned property to accommodate the 2031 demand, with a surplus commercial land supply of 4,828 acres and a surplus industrial land supply of 3,087 acres.

Of course the best thing for us to do, in the long run, is elect County Commissioners who are committed to upholding not just the Growth Management Act, but the County’s own comprehensive land use plans. In the short run, though, groups like Futurewise and the Neighborhood Alliance need our help and voices to preserve the essential nature of Spokane County. You can register your voice  by attending the hearing on Wednesday the 27th, or by calling or emailing your commissioner, or by going here to sign this petition being circulated by Futurewise.

–Tim Connor

(Tim Connor’s commentaries do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Justice.)
The public hearing on expansion of Spokane County’s urban growth area is set for Feb. 27 at 5:30 p.m. in the commissioners’ assembly room in the lower level of the county Public Works Building, 1036 W. Broadway Ave.