Council won’t vote until state rights commission reviews case
The plan to rehire a Spokane police officer who fled the scene of a drunken off-duty crash is being put on hold.
Spokane Mayor David Condon announced Thursday that he wants to give the state Human Rights Commission more time to investigate former police Sgt. Brad Thoma’s complaint that his workplace rights were violated by the city’s refusal to accommodate his alcoholism disability. The executive director of the state commission was critical of Spokane’s earlier characterization that the agency had signed off on the controversial deal between the city and Thoma’s lawyer.
Condon said he learned Thursday that the commissioners want another 30 days to have a second investigator look into the proposed legal settlement. Under the plan that Condon initially wanted the City Council to approve next week, Thoma would be rehired in the lower rank of detective and given back pay of about $275,000.
“It was absolutely new to me and has changed the circumstances within the city,” Condon said of the commission’s announcement that it wasn’t done investigating the complaint. What was believed to be an endorsement of the settlement by the commission “was a major factual piece I was using to make this decision.”
Asked if he wanted to rehire Thoma following his arrest for DUI and leaving the scene of an accident in 2009, Condon replied: “No. It is the wrong decision to make. But the decision you toil about the most is not the right decision, it’s the legal decision.”
Thoma was fired in December 2009 following his arrest for leaving the scene of an accident he caused when he struck a pickup truck with his vehicle.
Thoma’s lawyer, Bob Dunn, argued that his client has a disability – alcoholism – that the police department knew about but did not help Thoma get help with. The city said it did not know Thoma was an alcoholic until after the DUI collision.
Thoma had filed a complaint over his firing with the state Human Rights Commission, but Sharon Ortiz, the commission’s executive director, said Thursday that she wants the agency’s most senior legal adviser to review it before proceeding.
The complaint, which is one of about 800 pending cases with the commission, was handled by a staff member in Spokane. Ortiz, who is based in Olympia, said she only recently received it but emphasized there is no settlement of the case pending with the commission.
“A settlement’s not a settlement until I sign it,” Ortiz said. “I’ve looked at the file, and I’m not going to sign the agreement” until the case is reviewed.
A final copy of that review would be sent to the five-member commission, which doesn’t meet until March 22. The complaint could be withdrawn by Thoma if he chooses, she said.
The settlement that has been pulled from the council agenda would have resolved three pending issues: a grievance by the Spokane Police Guild, a civil claim by Thoma and a complaint by the state Human Rights Commission asserting the city failed to accommodate a disability.
With the extra 30 days, Condon said he wants the Human Rights Commission to answer one question he has: What is the responsibility of an employer to accommodate a disease?
Condon said hiring Thoma back would “absolutely” undermine his efforts to restore trust within the Spokane Police Department, following a series of missteps by officers, large payouts to settle other disciplinary actions and the Nov. 3 excessive force conviction of Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. for his 2006 confrontation with Otto Zehm.
“The public can trust that I will be open and honest about why I make a determination,” Condon said. “In this case, during the last 24 hours the facts have changed. It gives us an opportunity to pull it for now.”
He cautioned, however, that the decision may be the same in the end. “I don’t get the liberty to make the decisions every day that people would feel is just or right,” he said.
Interim police Chief Scott Stephens said he didn’t know until told by a reporter that Condon doesn’t want Thoma back on the force.
“I support the mayor. He has been very supportive of the Police Department,” Stephens said. “It’s not a personal condemnation of Brad Thoma, but this clearly does not fit that purpose of developing trust and confidence in the police department.”
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