Not Buying It

Spokane City Council delivers a reverberating reality check to the mayor on police oversight.

By Tim Connor

In stunning fashion, the Spokane City Council suspended the rules during its afternoon briefing session today so it could unanimously reject a new contract with the Spokane Police Guild.

Council President Ben Stuckart guiding the stunning vote, Monday afternoon, to reject a "tentative agreement" with the Spokane Police Guild.
Council President Ben Stuckart guiding the stunning vote, Monday afternoon, to reject a “tentative agreement” with the Spokane Police Guild.

The move was at least as much a rebuke to Mayor David Condon as it was to the Guild, with whom Condon’s bargaining team has been negotiating for nearly two years. Conversely, it came as a pleasant surprise to citizen organizers and activists who’d planned to come to the council’s evening session Monday  to plead with council members to reject the highly controversial “tentative agreement.”

In a sense, the council beat them to it.

There was no immediate word from the Guild. But Mayor Condon responded shortly before 6 p.m., expressing his disappointment and criticism of the council.

“We had hoped the City Council would embrace the important next step toward independent oversight at a cost the citizens could afford,” Condon said through his spokesman. “We had negotiated an approach that provided independent oversight and allowed us to use the investigative information as part of discipline. Now we start over.”

Condon’s response also illustrates why the council and community groups have become so frustrated with him.

As Liz Moore of the Peace & Justice Action League of Spokane (PJALS) reminded the council this evening, the council and the public have been clear for several years about wanting to empower the City’s Office of Police Ombudsman (OPO) with independent investigative authority. Resistance from the mayor’s office (beginning with Condon’s predecessor, Mary Verner) is what ultimately resulted in the council sending Proposition 1 to the ballot in February, with its main purpose to amend the city charter to require the OPO to perform independent investigations. Prop. 1 passed by nearly 70% of the vote and is now part of the city charter.

As his statement today indicates, Condon has his own interpretation of Proposition 1—and believes it would be acceptable for the OPO to work within the lines and limitations of the SPD’s internal affairs process. When the “tentative agreement” with the Guild became public a couple weeks ago, Spokane voters could see for themselves that the independent investigations they thought they’d secured at the ballot box last February were not included in the agreement the mayor had signed off on. The result was strong political blow-back that seemed to catch Condon by surprise and led to evasive and nearly incomprehensible answers at recent press events.

The gulf between what Condon had delivered with the new “TA” and what Proposition 1 requires fueled a political crisis even before the agreement was made public eleven days ago. Already there were closed door meetings to try to craft an implementing ordinance that could somehow bridge the gap. But it was a bigger gap than the council first realized, and efforts to span it with new ordinance language were reigned in late last week by a lawyer for the Guild, Hillary McClure. McClure’s position is very understandable and is reported in a lengthy, investigative  story we published over the weekend. After having negotiated with the City for 22 months, why would the Guild agree to re-negotiate key elements of the agreement almost as soon as its members had voted to approve it?

When Moore got her three minutes to talk this evening, she reminded the council of its consistent support for independent investigations and ripped Condon and the new agreement for failing to deliver it.

Liz Moore testifying Monday night.
Liz Moore testifying Monday night.

“I want to particularly salute, and appreciate and thank you for asserting the reality of what independent investigations and oversight has to mean in our community and for asserting it even in the face of Mayor Condon’s claim to the media and the community that it could mean lots of different things,” Moore said. “And in spite of those claims you all have asserted the reality that we know which is that independent investigation means independent investigation. It doesn’t mean anything less than that. It doesn’t mean anything different than that.”

The move to suspend the rules this afternoon came after the city council adjourned its regular, Monday afternoon briefing session to go into executive session, something state law allows when labor negotiations are being discussed. The session that was expected to last thirty minutes instead lasted most of an hour.

Shortly after the public session resumed in the council chambers, Stuckart invited Councilman Jon Snyder to offer a motion to reject the tentative agreement.

Most of the council members made brief statements before the vote.

Steve Salvatori, whose leadership brought Proposition 1 to the ballot, said his decision to vote to reject the new agreement was sealed when he learned the Guild was unwilling to give any assurances that they would not bring a legal challenge against an ordinance that tried to bridge differences between the “tentative agreement” and Proposition 1.

That message—that the Guild would not be signing off on anything different than the “tentative agreement”—was apparently delivered with some clarity during the executive session this afternoon.

And that news clearly unsettled Nancy McLaughlin who was laboring not just to understand what had happened, but about how she could address in open session something she’d just learned in a closed session.

On a second try, she said she was “struggling” with how close the Guild and the City were and she posed a question to Assistant City Attorney Erin Jacobson, who was Condon’s lead negotiator.

“There’s a part of me that says maybe we’re jumping the gun by a week, if we’re jumping the gun by a week,” she said. “If we could get a change in a couple of those areas we talked about. Any thoughts?”

Jacobson replied: “So assuming the primary issue you’re talking about is that which councilman Salvatori addressed, which is at the end of this process, if we’re able to deal with additional language issues, will the Guild sign something saying ‘we now approve this ordinance,’ or sign a new tentative agreement or sign a supplemental agreement, or something to that effect? And the answer is no.”

“Additional time will probably give us some more language that we like in a draft ordinance on some of the other issues that we discussed,” Jacobson continued, “but I don’t think there’s any end in which the Guild signs a new agreement.”

The City had originally planned to go out for three public hearings–the first was scheduled for this coming Wednesday night–but those sessions are now canceled because of the death, this afternoon, of the agreement that the public was supposed to be commenting upon.

The last person to speak before the vote was Stuckart, who spoke first to Jacobson. He thanked her for her work, and added: “I don’t believe that you were given the proper direction on what independent investigative authority is.  I think that’s where we’re stuck.”

He added: “I hope what will happen is negotiations will reopen and we don’t just go to arbitration. Because we came so close if we’d just negotiated that step into the TA (tentative agreement). In my opinion, once we vote yes on that TA, we’d be stuck with that for another three to four years. And we’d be playing around the edges and a possible PERC (Public Employment Relations Commission) violation if we passed any ordinance.”

Stuckart later sent out a press statement about the vote. Here is the full text of the mayor’s statement in response to the vote.

All the testimony at the evening session was in support of the council’s rejection of the TA.

But long-time Spokane activist David Brookbank also criticized the council for conducting such an important vote during its afternoon briefing session, instead of during the more visible evening session.

“The point is,” Brookbank said, “we have very few opportunities to look in on how our government actually works.”

Brookbank actually attended the afternoon briefing and noted that McLaughlin had censored herself when she started talking about what had happened during the executive session.

“It reminds people that there is this process that has been mutilated and mishandled and people have been deceived about for a long time,” he said.  “There’s a whole lot of stuff that happens outside the view of the public.”

Brookbank was followed by Ann Murphy, the president of the Spokane chapter of the League of Women Voters. She, too, applauded the council’s vote to reject the “tentative agreement.”

“The League continues to support independent investigatory powers for Spokane’s ombudsman,” Murphy said, in closing.

 

–CFJ

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