Spin Control

As city deals with more revelations in Zehm case, Verner campaign points to ombudsman

Mayor Mary Verner latest campaign newsletter picks a topic fresh in the news: police oversight.

Last week, Verner's campaign stressed her support for creating a police ombudsman position at City Hall. The week before, a filing in federal court detailed the position of Assistant Police Chief Jim Nicks related to the death of Otto Zehm, who died in police custody in 2006. Nicks has told federal investigators that Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. violated department use-of-force policies and that detectives failed to thoroughly investigate Zehm's death.

Verner has indeed been on record supporting the creation of the position for some time, but she hasn't always pushed for the kind of independent, full-time ombudsman that was envisioned in a 2007 report commissioned by the city.

In 2008, Verner said that instead of hiring a full-time ombudsman, she planned to contract out for an ombudsman on an as-needed basis because of the city's budget problems.

In a meeting with journalists in March 2008, Verner explained that a full-time ombudsman wasn't necessary.

"I don’t really think that we need an in-house, full-time employee for an ombudsman," Verner told reporters. "I really believe that with Chief (Anne) Kirkpatrick’s leadership and the evolving good working relationship between the guild and the chief that we would have a Maytag Repairman on our hands."

Verner's position, however, had changed when she unveiled her 2009 budget plan, which included money for a full-time ombudsman, and her newsletter is correct that she conducted a nationwide search in an open process when she hired Ombudsman Tim Burns.

Since Burns started work, some council members pushed to give Burns the power to conduct investigations separately from police. Verner initially opposed that effort, and said that it was too soon to change Burns' powers and that doing so would require negotiations with the Spokane Police Guild.

Verner argued that during an economic downturn, her goals for Police Guild negotiations were for concessions to save jobs and service over gaining more police oversight authority. Verner signed the ordinance boosting Burns' authority after the council passed it unanimously. Next week, the council will consider revoking the ordinance in response to an arbitrator who ruled that the city should have negotiated the rules with the guild.

That action, along with the ongoing federal case against Thompson, will keep police oversight one of the top issues of the campaign even after Tuesday's primary.

Here is part of Verner's campaign statement about the ombudsman:

"My brother was a young police officer in Georgia in the 1980’s, and I recall many a conversation about the challenges he faced every hour of every day on the job.  My brother was a good officer—dedicated, fair and honest.  By his example, I came to expect high standards of those who are hired to protect us and our community," Verner says in her campaign email. "This is why I fought hard to establish the Office of Police Ombudsman from the outset when I was a City Council Member. As Mayor, I hired our first Ombudsman after conducting an extensive national search, and negotiated the terms of the Ombudsman’s authority into the Police Guild labor contract."

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Jonathan Brunt
Jonathan Brunt is an assistant city editor.

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