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Verner says city can’t afford full-time ombudsman

Spokane can’t afford a full-time police ombudsman, says Mayor Mary Verner.

Instead, Verner has proposed contracting for ombudsman services to keep costs lower.

“I would love to able to have an ombudsman on staff,” Verner said. But given forecasted budget shortfalls and the downturn in the economy, contracting for services on an as-needed basis “is the most cost-effective way.”

Although it might save money, the plan is contrary to recommendations embraced last year by then-Mayor Dennis Hession. A consultant hired by the city recommended a full-time ombudsman with an office at City Hall, using a system designed to restore public faith in police services that’s similar to one developed by the city of Boise.

Pierce Murphy, who has been Boise’s community ombudsman for nine years, said there would be enough investigations, prevention efforts and outreach to keep a full-time ombudsman busy in a city the size of Spokane.

He said that using a contract to bring in an ombudsman means hiring someone whose focus likely is on other jobs too. Further, he said, if the city chooses a lawyer, there could be conflicts if the attorney does defense work or handles other cases dealing with police.

Murphy’s office has three employees and costs the city about $275,000 a year.

“There’s just a question about whether you’d get the focus and the tenacity that you’d really want,” Murphy said.

Verner said the difference between Boise and Spokane is financing. Spokane just doesn’t have the same kind of resources, she said.

During last year’s mayoral campaign, Verner, Hession and City Councilman Al French all gave strong support to establishing independent oversight of the Police Department.

The promises came amid growing community concern over a series of deadly confrontations involving police, including the death of mentally disabled janitor Otto Zehm.

Verner said the city and Spokane Police Guild are putting the final touches on an agreement that would allow for the city to create such an independent system. State law requires that the city negotiate with police unions when creating oversight.

Councilman Bob Apple said he’s OK with contracting out for the services, as long as the person acting as ombudsman is independent.

Council members Al French and Steve Corker said they’re open to Verner’s proposal, but that they prefer a full-time ombudsman.

“I feel more comfortable having that role filled by someone who’s on staff at the city,” French said.

Corker said he believes there’s plenty of work for a full-time ombudsman. When there isn’t an active investigation, for instance, an ombudsman could help develop policies to prevent future problems, Corker said.

Late last year, the Spokane City Council added $200,000 to this year’s city budget to pay for an ombudsman’s office.

Police Guild President Detective Ernie Wuthrich could not be reached for comment late last week.

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