With a handwritten letter personally delivered, Mayor David Condon went a long way toward atoning for the city of Spokane’s shameful behavior in the years following the 2006 death of Otto Zehm at the hands of Spokane police officers.
With his first labor contract and targeted staff reductions, he has also gone a ways, a short ways, toward getting city labor costs under control.
Although a letter of apology from the city was one of the conditions of a legal settlement reached with the Zehm family last month, Condon and the city could have gotten by with a printed letter mailed to Ann Zehm, Otto’s 84-year-old mother. He went two steps further, imparting humanity to what could have been nothing more than a lawyer-approved formality.
The letter owned up to the fundamental flaw in the city’s response to Otto’s death:
“For me, blame was clearly misplaced in this case, and I fear that compounded the pain for you and many others.”
Condon, it is worth noting, is just two years older than the 36-year-old Otto was when he died. The similarity in years, if not fortunes, could not have been lost on those present.
Now, it is up to the Park Board to demonstrate the same humanity in fulfilling a commitment for a pavilion dedicated to Zehm.
At City Hall, Condon is laying off two real estate workers, and perhaps the arts director and the lone weights and measures monitor. These are good people who in better times might not be cleaning out their desks. These are not-so-good times. The city is looking at a $10 million deficit next year.
The mayor also approved a three-year contract with 260 managerial and professional workers that freezes pay, caps the city’s exposure to health insurance increases, limits the cashing-out of unused vacation time, and requires compliance with the city’s ethics code. Compliance had been voluntary.
The deal, which will go to the City Council on Monday night for approval, will yield a net savings of 0.14 percent over three years. It’s something, and something better than the agreement with city utility and street workers handed Condon by the outgoing administration of former Mayor Mary Verner.
But wage and salary freezes, and limits on city exposure to future benefits increases, are not going to get the city to where it must be as officials continue negotiations with uniformed employees: police officers and firefighters. The threat of unaffordable arbitration awards has perpetually kept Spokane and other Washington cities in a difficult position at the bargaining table, and taxpayers at the limit of their ability despite concerns about more property crimes.
The decision by Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich to approach the county commissioners with a proposed 0.2 percent sales tax increase illustrates too well the pressures on his department.
Clearly, the mayor understands the need for leaner government. He’s made a good start reorganizing City Hall. The tougher battles lie ahead.