To the Ballot

With surprisingly little dissent, the city council moves unanimously to put police oversight charter amendment to voters in February.

By Tim Connor for the Center for Justice

Barring a successful legal challenge by the Spokane Police Guild, a charter amendment to mandate independence for the City’s Office of Police Ombudsman (OPO) will come before voters in a special election early next year.

That is the upshot of a unanimous city council vote Monday night, one that is clearly a major victory for police oversight reform advocates including the Center for Justice, the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane, and the Spokane chapter of the League of Women Voters.

Monday’s vote was also a legislative trophy for first term councilman Steve Salvatori who, along with councilman Mike Allen, took the lead this fall in bringing the charter amendment initiative to fruition.

tlsmSalvatori introduced the proposal by describing how, for more than six years, the City’s elected leaders have struggled, unsuccessfully, to overcome police guild objections to a credibly independent police ombudsman with the authority to do what people expect an ombudsman to do—conduct independent investigations and issue independent reports.

“But one thing that’s been missing from the past several years of conversation is a direct voice for you our citizens,” Salvatori said. “We’ve had several city councils weigh in, several mayors weigh in, we’ve consummated two collective bargaining agreements with the police guild, we’ve had a PERC (Public Employment Relations Commission) ruling, all included in this mix. But there’s been no direct voice for the people of the City of Spokane.”

“While the League supports Spokane’s Police Force, over the years, even before the Zehm case, confidence in Spokane’s police department had been eroded by actions of a few members of the police force and the police guild who’ve been called upon to defend those officers. The incidents of misconduct have been numerous, some so serious that they required federal investigation. Enhancing independent oversight after years of police misconduct is essential to restore faith in the actions of our local law enforcement.”–Pam Behring, League of Women Voters, Spokane chapter.

The one-sided council vote masked what has obviously been an intensive but largely hidden debate among council members and city lawyers about the wisdom and scope of a charter amendment. Fourteen months ago, the city council voted 5-2 to repeal a 2010 ordinance that had briefly empowered the Office of Police Ombudsman (OPO) to conduct independent investigations and produce independent “closing reports” about the office’s investigation of citizen complaints against Spokane police officers. The repeal followed a state arbitrator’s ruling that the OPO’s authority was controlled and limited by the City’s collective bargaining agreement with the Spokane Police Guild.

But that collective bargaining agreement expired at the end of 2011, opening a window of opportunity for the City to try to bolster the OPO’s authority. The window of opportunity–which includes ongoing negotiations with the Spokane Police Guild for a new contract–has also contributed to a reluctance on the part of City Attorney Nancy Isserlis to be public with the advice she and her staff have been giving to members of the city council about how they interpret the scope of the City’s managerial rights under state law.

Both the council and Mayor David Condon made enhancing the OPO’s independence a top priority last February. Nothing has happened since then as negotiations with the Guild have dragged on in secrecy.

But something did happen Monday night

After Salvatori explained the purpose and scope of the proposed charter amendment, veteran Spokane activist David Brookbank stood to testify about what the opportunity represents to him and others in the community.

“The conviction and imprisonment of Karl Thompson for his role in the death of Otto Zehm does not resolve our police in crisis or the crisis of public confidence,” Brookbank said. “The moment’s now with you, the new chief and city attorney and the mayor. With the guild’s contract expired and the people behind the resolution of this issue we could have no more opportune moment for this council to act on the clear public desire for independent oversight, something I understand the new police chief supports.”

“Democracy in America, the illusion, the dream, the reality, now faces a moment of truth in Spokane,” Brookbank continued. “You can approve this amendment, pass the ordinance, putting the charter amendment to a vote in February and make yourselves and the people of Spokane proud. Give us a real example of democratic process fulfilling the will of the people. Give us a path to effective independent oversight with investigative authority.”

All of the public testimony Monday night was in favor of putting the proposed charter amendment on the ballot in February.
Said Pam Behring for the League of Women Voters Spokane chapter:

“While the League supports Spokane’s Police Force, over the years, even before the Zehm case confidence in Spokane’s police department had been eroded by actions of a few members of the police force and the police guild who’ve been called upon to defend those officers. The incidents of misconduct have been numerous, some so serious that they required federal investigation. Enhancing independent oversight after years of police misconduct is essential to restore faith in the actions of our local law enforcement.”

Said Peace & Justice Action of Spokane director Liz Moore:

“I think living without independent investigations has exacted costs on our community including the lack of trust in our own police department, including people who have had experiences for which they’ve sought investigations feeling the cost of not being able to be heard fully, of hitting a stone wall while trying to pursue a just resolution of their complaint; the very measurable costs of lawsuits and the costs of being stuck in a loop and repeating this conversation in the same cycle of incident, public outrage and too little change to prevent the next incident, followed by the same cycle continuing. So the cost of that loop has been a loss of hope and a loss of faith that is very damaging to our community.”

Certainly part of what has caused the City to get stuck in a loop, as Moore put it, has been the City’s reluctance, thus far, to assert that it has rights of managerial discretion, under state law, to empower a fully independent ombudsman. There’s no question that those rights were compromised in 2008 when, in a closed-door negotiation with the police guild, Mayor Verner and her negotiators chose to restrict the activities of the ombudsman in exchange for the guild agreeing not to challeng the City with grievances and/or unfair labor practice complaints. The closed door agreement was later folded into the collective bargaining agreement with the guild that expired 11 months ago.

On Monday night, lawyers working for and with the Center for Justice tried, again, to persuade the council that it can recover and use its managerial rights, so long as those rights are not precluded by a new contract.

“I urge you not to prevent an independent ombudsman out of fear for an unfair labor practices complaint and the risk of not prevailing,” said CFJ staff attorney Julie Schaffer. “Our research finds that it is within the City’s managerial discretion to grant the ombudsman independent powers so long as the ombudsman is explicitly prohibited in management of day-to-day functions of the police department and from recommending officer discipline.”

“We believe the charter and the proposed ordinance would prevail if challenged by the guild,” Schaffer added. “We also believe that the harm we would potentially face as a community if we do not take this risk is far greater than the risk of not prevailing in a legal challenge.”

Spokane lawyer and former CFJ executive director Breean Beggs later offered a brisk tutorial to the council on the subject of the City’s rights. He then noted that the City’s uncertainty as to whether it should resolve the issue primarily by ordinance–or continue to have ordinances dictated by guild contracts–had caused the City to get stuck.

“We’ve been shadow boxing for far too long,” Beggs said. “Now it’s time to let the citizens have their voice and be clear.”

Prior to public testimony, councilman Jon Snyder expressed reservations about changes made in recent days to the charter amendment Salvatori offered. Snyder said he had no issue with the substantive goals of the amendment—to give the ombudsman investigative powers and to create a new citizens commission to oversee the OPO’s work. But he said he objected to amending the draft charter amendment because “language referring to future councils and future administrations and future collective bargaining agreements could just bring us closer to a legal gray area that would actually delay this implementation even further. So I can’t support the language at this time.”

But Snyder’s vote against Salvatori’s amended language was the only dissent to considering the amended language. In the end, though, even Snyder went along with the vote to send the charter amendment to voters.

“As many commentators pointed out, we need to do whatever we can to try to get there,” Snyder said. “And I’m going to try whatever we can to try to get there.”

Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin was serving on the council when the ombudsman model was first proposed in 2007.

“My only struggle from the very moment that we decided to implement the OPO program was in wanting to make sure that if we were going to spend two-hundred thousand dollars a year for an OPO program that we get everything from that program that we want,” she said, explaining her vote in favor of the charter amendment. “And I still stand by that.”

Salvatori spoke last and provided a moment of levity when he described his conversations with new police chief Frank Straub, by speaking through a photograph of Straub’s face, which he held in place using a popsicle stick.

Salvatori said that while Straub had questions about some of the details of the ordinance, including how the ombudsman’s investigatory authority would be defined, that he nevertheless supported the concept and pledged to do “my best to help build a viable model for civilian oversight of the police department here in Spokane.”

No representative of the Spokane Police Guild was present to testify at Monday’s meeting.


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