Change has come to Spokane City Hall courtesy of voters, who in November ousted Mayor Mary Verner from office in favor of David Condon.
In his first 100 days as mayor, Condon has shown a willingness to shake up the city’s bureaucracy perhaps more than any mayor since voters in 1999 adopted a strong-mayor system, placing the mayor firmly in charge of City Hall.
Condon will complete his first 100 days in office on Monday, and he already has fired nearly as many department directors and top administrators – four – as his predecessor, Mary Verner, did in four years.
Not that there’s been a blood bath; most current administrators had their jobs in Verner’s administration. But Condon has said another re-evaluation of his team will take place after he’s been in office 120 days.
The new mayor is a member of a prominent South Hill family who was 37 when he was inaugurated, making him the youngest person to serve as the city’s mayor since the early 1890s.
Where Verner stressed collaboration, partnerships and innovation from workers in City Hall, Condon has talked about decisive leadership that leads to results.
He has completed most of the short-term goals he outlined for his first 100 days, including a overhaul of controversial water rates, creation of a new police plan that emphasizes property crime and a revamping of the city’s permitting system in an effort that started under Verner. He’s also put on hold a $300 million sewer program that’s intended to keep raw sewage out of the Spokane River, a move that was not on his 100-day list and that has concerned some environmentalists.
His selection for his city administrator, Theresa Sanders, was a signal that change would be coming. She previously oversaw economic development efforts at City Hall but quit under Verner, saying the culture at City Hall needed to change. Two longtime administrators she had clashed with were the first ones Condon fired.
Councilman Jon Snyder said that while there may be benefits to new faces in top levels of City Hall, the loss of experience, including from retirements, may slow progress.
“We lost over 100 years of institutional knowledge, which is always tough to replace,” he said.
A family in business
Condon grew up on Sumner Avenue, a street known for its posh homes overlooking downtown. He was the youngest of nine kids in a Catholic family. One of his uncles was a bishop in Montana.
Condon’s father, John J. Condon, was a successful dentist and businessman.
In most of his important speeches, Condon pays tribute to his mother and father not only for their examples as parents and community volunteers, but also their business acumen. His brothers have had interests in diverse businesses, including a bakery, multiple railroad construction companies, a North Idaho tugboat operation and a rental firm (attendees of Spokane’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade might remember the rental company, American On-Site Services, by the float that features portable toilets and brags: “Proud to pee in an American, where at least I know it’s clean.”)
One brother co-owns a composting company, Barr-Tech, that has a city contract approved before Condon became mayor. Another brother is suing that brother, claiming he was promised an ownership stake in the company.
Condon got his start in the workforce as a kid helping out on a Christmas tree lot run by his dad. He later paired with a brother and opened a coffee stand in Boston when he was a student at Boston College. He’s done work for his brother and dad’s dental office and he co-owns a building on Northwest Boulevard with a friend that they rent to a pharmacy. But Condon has mostly made his living outside family businesses as an employee, first in the Army, and then as a congressional staffer in the office of Republican U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.
Condon’s father was active in Republican politics, and with his congressional job, David Condon increasingly followed suit. It was Condon who first suggested to Michael Baumgartner that he run for state Senate against Democrat Chris Marr, who had amassed a huge campaign chest and was popular among business leaders. Baumgartner had just moved into the district but still managed to pull off the win in 2010. The state Republican Party pumped $63,000 into Condon’s 2011 mayoral campaign in the final days of the race.
But while he used party support to help propel him into office, Condon says he will veer from partisan politics as mayor. The woman he hired to lead the city attorney’s office, Nancy Isserlis, has been a financial backer of Democrats, and he has enjoyed amicable relations with Democratic-leaning City Council members, especially Council President Ben Stuckart.
Defending the indefensible
When allegations surfaced last month that a city representative may have tried to pressure a police officer to hide incriminating details about a pedestrian hit by a city-owned vehicle, officials said an investigation already was under way to determine if the city should sever its contract with the firm handling its risk management services.
Breean Beggs, an attorney who once led Spokane’s Center for Justice, said the city’s response to the risk management controversy, along with Condon’s change at the top of the city’s legal department and his outlined goals for the police department, show promise for true reform.
“That’s a big change over City Hall’s approach over several mayoral terms – where they tend to defend things that look indefensible to the average citizen,” said Beggs.
Condon has said his top priority is public safety and the restoration of public faith in the police department following the conviction in November of former police officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. for using excessive force against mentally ill janitor Otto Zehm and lying to investigators.
The mayor has pushed to explore the use of police body cameras and says he’s willing to move forward with the program despite budget shortfalls. Verner had expressed doubt that the city could afford cameras.
He fired Howard Delaney, the city attorney who led the legal department in 2009 when the city filed a response to a lawsuit from Zehm’s family that said Thompson did nothing wrong in the Zehm case, even though the city’s assistant police chief felt otherwise. Condon also promised during his campaign to drive harder bargains with city unions. But to meet many of his goals in public safety, he’ll need to win agreement with the Spokane Police Guild, which has to approve any police oversight system and the use of police body cameras.
Meanwhile, the Spokane City Council earlier this year rejected a contract for the Spokane Firefighters Union that had been negotiated by Verner. That means Condon could be facing two protracted battles with public safety unions, which under state law have significantly more negotiating powers than other unions because they’re not allowed to strike.
Still, despite Condon’s call for more police accountability, the biggest controversy he’s sparked since becoming mayor has come from the police department.
On Feb. 12, Condon signed his name to a settlement that agreed to rehire a police sergeant who had been fired as a result of an off-duty drunken driving crash in 2009, to a demoted position of detective. The settlement also paid the officer, Brad Thoma, for all the time he’d been out of his city job.
Thoma alleged he was being discriminated against because he’s an alcoholic, and the State Human Rights Commission helped craft the settlement that Condon signed.
But a public tired of bad behavior on the police force was outraged over the deal and by the time the Spokane City Council unanimously rejected it, both Condon and the rights commission had changed their stances.
Condon says he doesn’t regret agreeing to the deal because he was worried about liability. Indeed, the city now faces a lawsuit from Thoma.
Condon promised in his campaign to revamp water rates, which had been restructured in 2010 to lower bills on those who use less and raise bills for high users. Last week, he released his new plan, which will increase bills on low users by about 6 percent and decrease bills on higher users, in some cases, by half.
The structure maintains a graduated ladder of fees that charges customers higher rates the more they use. That decision has satisfied even backers of the 2010 rate change and it’s likely headed for a clear victory in a couple of weeks.
But Rachael Paschal Osborn, staff attorney for the Center for Environmental Law and Policy, said she’s concerned that Condon’s new rates will lead to more summer water usage.
“Conservation of water is needed in order to protect the river,” Osborn said. “I don’t think the new mayor has an understanding of that.”
But Councilwoman Amber Waldref, who supported the controversial rate change last year, said she likes Condon’s plan in part because prices are still designed to discourage waste. The fees just aren’t as large.
“It keeps all the best parts of the changes we made,” Waldref said.
With all the focus on water rates in the past year, another decision Condon has made with potentially bigger impact to the river has been nearly ignored.
Condon earlier this year put the brakes on two multimillion-dollar contracts that would have paid to design and manage construction of a $300 million plant to nearly put an end to the dumping of raw sewage in the river.
Many of Spokane’s sewer lines, mostly on the south side, function as sanitary and storm sewers. When it rains, they get overwhelmed and drain, untreated, into the river. Spokane has agreed to fix the problem by 2017 by building a series of tanks that can hold the rain and sewage until capacity returns and the sewage can flow to the treatment plant.
Osborn said tanks have proved effective. She questions the delay when the city’s timeline for completing the projects already was pushing close to the deadline.
“We would be completely opposed to the extension of the deadline given that they’ve had 20 years to do it,” said Osborn, who also is active in the Sierra Club.
Condon says he remains committed to stopping raw sewage from flowing into the river and notes that he approved construction of tanks that already had been planned to be built this year.
Waldref said she supports Condon’s decision to give the project “a fresh look.” Given the huge expense that likely will affect sewer rates, it’s worth examining other potential solutions, she said. Waldref and two city administrators are being sent to a conference to investigate how other cities have found cheaper alternatives.
Beggs, who supported Verner in the election, said Condon’s administration appears better at communicating with the public. “It’s clear that things are moving,” he said. “In the past, it seemed like there was a wall between City Hall and the citizens.”