March 19, 2008

Center for Justice criticizes ombudsman plan

By The Spokesman-Review
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Background and the latest updates

The law firm representing the family of Otto Zehm is critical of Mayor Mary Verner’s suggestion that the city doesn’t need a full-time police ombudsman.

Earlier this month, Verner told a group of reporters that she prefers to hire an ombudsman by contract on an as-needed basis because of forecasted budget shortfalls. The position conflicts with a report issued last year recommending a full-time ombudsman with an office at City Hall.

Breean Beggs, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Justice, contends cities with full-time ombudsmen save government money because they have “fewer injuries, fewer deaths and fewer claims.”

The center issued a statement critical of Verner’s proposal on Tuesday, the second anniversary of the fatal police confrontation with Zehm, a mentally disabled Spokane janitor wrongly accused of robbery.

The criticism comes as the city and Spokane Police Guild finalize a plan to create officer oversight. The agreement will not include language preventing the hiring of a full-time ombudsman but could include stipulations about what an ombudsman will be allowed to investigate, city spokeswoman Marlene Feist said.

Verner was unavailable for comment Tuesday. She flew to Georgia this week after the death of her brother.

Feist said Verner believes in having a strong oversight system and that the mayor’s earlier comments reflected a preliminary position.

“She hasn’t made a final determination on what her recommendation will be,” Feist said.

Late last year, the Spokane City Council budgeted $200,000 to pay for an ombudsman office in 2008.

Verner discussed her proposal in a meeting with journalists on March 5.

“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.”

Beggs noted that Verner’s concerns about the budget comes after city leaders approved the creation of 12 police officer positions for 2008 and endorsed the hiring of another 12 next year. Verner has said she remains supportive of hiring the 24 officers despite concerns about the economy.

Meanwhile, negotiations for the ombudsman with the guild are wrapping up.

City Administrator Ted Danek said an agreement that can be voted on by the guild’s membership could be ready by the end of the week. State law requires that police unions have a say in police oversight.

City Council President Joe Shogan said he prefers a full-time ombudsman, but he’s waiting to see the final agreement to see if there will be enough duties for a full-time position.

“What you’ve got in the negotiation is defining what incidents require investigation by the ombudsman,” Shogan said. “The issue just becomes exactly what roles the ombudsman plays.”

Police Guild President Detective Ernie Wuthrich could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

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