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Council could change ombudsman rules

Groups question arbitrator’s decision

The city should not have let an arbitrator decide whether it had the right to give extra authority to its police ombudsman, three Spokane citizens groups say. The decision should be sent back to a state board that has the power to make the call.

“The arbitrator’s decision was illegitimate, and the city needs to challenge it, the sooner the better,” said Tim Connor, communications director for the Center for Justice, a public-interest law firm.

But Spokane City Council President Joe Shogan said he doubts the city will take that action. Instead, the council could consider repealing the 2010 ordinance that expanded the ombudsman’s powers.

“I don’t have the sense that the council’s going to appeal,” Shogan said. “It’s very hard to overturn an arbitrator’s decision.”

In a letter sent this week to city officials, an attorney for the Center for Justice argues the arbitrator, Michael Beck, acknowledged that the decision to decide the dispute between the city and the police guild over the ombudsman rested elsewhere, with the Public Employment Relations Commission.

But because the city and the guild hired him, Beck said it was his ruling the city overstepped its power in expanding the ombudsman’s authority to allow him to conduct independent reviews of police complaints. That should have been bargained as a change to the city’s contract with the Police Guild, he said.

Beck’s right about not having the statutory authority to make that call, attorney Bonne Beaver argues in a letter to city officials. The city should go back to PERC and make the case there.

Also calling for the city to appeal the decision are the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane and VOICES.

But Shogan said the council believes Beck had the authority to decide the case because both the city and the guild asked him to do so. The city hired an outside attorney to handle the case, and he believes the arbitrator was within his authority.

If the groups want the decision appealed, they can “figure out a way to appeal it.” That could be difficult, Shogan added, because they aren’t a party to the case and may not have standing.

Instead, the council is considering repealing the ordinance that gives the ombudsman the authority to conduct independent interviews and investigations of complaints against the department. Under the original ombudsman ordinance, the ombudsman only had the authority to sit in on investigations the department conducts of officer complaints. That ordinance was a result of contract negotiations with the union, but the 2010 revisions were not.

A proposal to repeal the 2010 ordinance could be available for review by the end of today, Shogan said. That would meet the deadline for making it available for a first reading on Monday and a hearing and vote the following Monday.

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