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Council delays ombudsman vote

Lawyer considers whether city can appeal

The Spokane City Council isn’t giving up on stronger police oversight, at least not for two more weeks.

The council voted 6-0 this week to delay a decision on whether to repeal the expanded investigative power given to the city’s ombudsman in 2010. The delay will give an outside attorney time to see whether a labor arbitrator’s July decision demanding the city repeal the ordinance should be appealed. The law, which strengthened the city’s original ombudsman rules from 2008, gave Ombudsman Tim Burns the power to investigate accusations of police misconduct separately from the police department’s own reviews.

Soon after the rules were approved, the Spokane Police Guild filed an unfair labor practice claim with the Public Employment Relations Commission because Burns’ authority was expanded without negotiation with the guild. The 2008 ordinance was negotiated with the union.

The city agreed to allow the case to be decided by an arbitrator instead of by the commission, and in July the arbitrator ruled against the city.

Assistant City Attorney Mike Piccolo said the city will hire labor attorney Rachelle Wills, of Littler Mendelson’s Seattle office, to analyze the possibility of appealing the arbitrator’s ruling. She will be hired under a small contract of less than $5,000 that doesn’t need City Council approval. She will have two weeks to finish her analysis, just in time for the city to file an appeal of the arbitrator’s ruling before the employment commission’s appeal deadline.

Wills is the second outside attorney to defend the 2010 law. The city’s case at the commission and in front of the arbitrator was handled by Spokane attorney Keller Allen.

Several people who testified at Monday’s council hearing pushed the council to hold firm on the newer ordinance, in part as a negotiation strategy with the guild. Spokane resident Marianne Torres told the council that repealing the rules would be an “act of profound civic irresponsibility, not to mention a waste of hundreds of thousands of dollars and the last shreds of the community’s belief that their elected officials are working for the community’s best interest.”

A repeal would mean that if Burns disagrees with a decision of the police department’s internal affairs division, he will not be able to conduct an independent investigation into the incident. Burns said in an interview Monday that the loss of that ability is “huge.”

But he added that another part of the ordinance, which deals with making information publicly available, won’t be lost through repeal because of a recent state Supreme Court decision that said police internal affairs investigations are public documents. Until that ruling over the summer, the city only released internal reports if the department determined that an officer did something wrong. Burns said all internal affairs investigations conducted from when Burns was hired in 2009 until now will be placed on his office’s website, no matter the finding.