Spokane City Attorney Howard Delaney, under fire for his handling of the Otto Zehm case and more recently plans to rehire an alcoholic police sergeant who fled from a drunken off-duty crash, was fired today.
Mayor David Condon informed Delaney this morning, said city spokeswoman Marlene Feist. Condon named Nancy Isserlis, a Spokane attorney and former chairwoman of the city’s Ethics Commission to the job.
The move comes just days after an angry Spokane City Council rejected a proposed settlement for fired Spokane Police Sgt. Brad Thoma, who was terminated in 2009 after an off-duty drunken driving and hit-and-run incident. He protested his firing claiming that the city was discriminating against him for being an alcoholic. Earlier this month, city administrators agreed to rehire Thoma and give him $275,000 in back pay, but the City Council rejected the deal.
“Is our system so broke or our process so broke that staff and legal counsel for the city think this is a justified outcome for our citizens?” Councilman Mike Allen said at Monday’s council meeting before the council voted unanimously against the settlement.
Feist said the change was not about any “single issue.”
“The mayor was looking for new leadership in the city attorney’s office,” she said. “Nancy Isserlis is the fit he’s looking for.”
Delaney was the city prosecutor in 2008 when then-Mayor Mary Verner hired him to lead the city’s legal team.
The city’s legal department has received intense scrutiny over its handling of the Otto Zehm case. Zehm died in police custody in 2006 after he was beaten, shocked and hogtied in a North Spokane convenience store. The first responding officer, Karl F. Thompson Jr. was convicted by a federal jury in November of violating Zehm’s civil rights and lying to investigators. In 2009, the city responded to a lawsuit from Zehm’s estate by claiming the city did nothing wrong and that Thompson followed police procedures even though the man who led the department at the time, Jim Nicks, had already come to a different conclusion.
In the aftermath of Thompson’s conviction, the Department of Justice accused the city of participating in a cover-up to protect officers involved in the confrontation.
Feist said the future of Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi will be determined by Isserlis. Under the City Charter, the City Attorney, not the mayor, makes hiring and firing decisions regarding assistant city attorneys. Treppiedi helped lead the city’s legal response to the Zehm case.
The city continues to negotiate a settlement to the civil suit brought by the mother and estate of Zehm. Jeffry Finer, who is representing both, said he does not believe Delaney’s ouster will slow the process to select a mediator to help resolve the case.
“I think all the parties are still moving forward,” Finer said. “I wish Mr. Delaney good fortune and the best of luck.”
Efforts to reach Delaney, who earned $150,591 last year, were not immediately successful.
In November, after Condon won the election, Delaney attended a press conference where he said he was looking forward to helping Condon’s transition.
Asked about his future with the city, Delaney said at that time that he believed his tenure leading the city attorney’s office “has been a positive one.”
Spokane attorney Bob Dunn recently won a $1.55 million judgment against the city for the handling of Officer Jay Mehring. Dunn also has another suit pending for fired Det. Jeff Harvey and this week filed a suit on behalf of Thoma seeking $4 million in damages.
He said both Delaney and Isserlis are “fine” attorneys, but said their advice is only good if the Spokane City Council chooses to accept it.
Isserlis “may give great advice, but if the City Council says ‘Hell with that, we will do what we want’ her hands will be really tied,” Dunn said. “Good luck to her. I think it’s a really, really tough job to try to give advice to seven people who don’t have a clue what they are doing.”