July 28, 2011 in City

Ombudsman powers ruling challenged

Only state commission can decide, groups say
By The Spokesman-Review
Police oversight

An arbitrator said the new ombudsman powers were subject to mandatory bargaining. The arbitrator and his ruling’s challengers both said the decision belonged to the Public Employment Relations Commission.

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 Wednesday he doubts the city will take that action: “It’s very hard to overturn an arbitrator’s decision.”

Instead, it’s likely to do just the opposite. A draft copy of a new ordinance, which would repeal the 2010 law that expanded the ombudsman’s authority, was filed Wednesday with the City Clerk; it is tentatively scheduled to have its formal first reading on Aug. 8 and be up for debate and a vote as soon as Aug. 15.

In a letter sent this week to city officials, Bonne Beaver, an attorney for the Center for Justice, argues the arbitrator acknowledged in his decision that the authority to settle the dispute between the city and the Police Guild over the ombudsman rested with the Public Employment Relations Commission.

That commission should determine whether the city’s action was the subject of mandatory bargaining, arbitrator Michael Beck wrote.

But because both the city and the guild hired him, Beck believed he had the authority to rule that the city overstepped its power when it expanded the police ombudsman’s authority, allowing the ombudsman to conduct independent reviews of police complaints. That was such a big change that it qualified as a mandatory subject of bargaining in the city’s contract with the Police Guild, he said.

Beck is wrong about the issue being subject to mandatory bargaining, but is right about not having the statutory authority to make that call, Beaver wrote. 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.

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 outside attorney the city hired to handle the case also believes the arbitrator was within his authority, Shogan said.

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. That ordinance was a result of contract negotiations with the union, but the 2010 revisions were not.

The draft ordinance on file Wednesday says the arbitrator determined the city violated its contract with the union with the 2010 ordinance and in keeping with Beck’s decision the city will rescind that ordinance and “give no further effect to the changes.”

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