From the top-floor windows of Spokane’s tallest building, Nancy Isserlis looks across a city landscape of financial heartache and recovery.
She reigns as one of the top bankruptcy attorneys in the Northwest. Her work has ranged from clever, collaborative lawyering that helped rescue Schweitzer Mountain Resort in the 1990s to steely takeovers of businesses mired in the recession’s red ink.
But on April 2 she leaves that successful career at Winston & Cashatt to leverage change at City Hall as the new city attorney, pending confirmation by the City Council.
With a $4.6 million budget, she will manage a staff of 35 that has been dragged into a string of law enforcement tragedies, embarrassments and accountability gaps. The public’s trust has been shaken and the city’s new elected leaders are fed up.
“I’ve had a number of people ask me, ‘Why?’ They think I’ve lost my mind,” said Isserlis, who is 57. “I answer this way: I am not a particularly religious person, but I’m a firm believer that opportunities come your way for a reason and at a time when you can embrace them.
“Like everybody else in this community I have watched from afar about what’s happening in our city, and somebody somewhere thought I had a skill set to help work on those problems.”
Mayor David Condon called Isserlis a couple weeks ago with the job offer. The two have different political ideologies but found common ground while serving together on the board of Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners.
“David knows I didn’t vote for him,” said Isserlis, who has donated to Democrats.
Condon, a former deputy chief of staff for Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, said it didn’t matter.
“My litmus test is professional ability, and loyalty and passion for the city of Spokane,” Condon said. “On those counts Nancy and I fit hand and glove.”
After several days of deliberations with family and confidantes, Isserlis agreed to take the job, which comes with a $150,628 salary.
Condon then fired Howard Delaney and made the biggest announcement of his short tenure at Spokane’s helm.
From hula dancing to law school
Isserlis moved from her birthplace of Philadelphia to the sandy paradise of 1950s Honolulu as a kindergartner.
Her father, Dr. Eldon R. Dykes, had finished medical school at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and after a residency at the Cleveland Clinic vacationed to Hawaii and decided to move there and practice plastic surgery.
Nancy was named after her mother. She jokingly calls herself “Nancy Jr.”
Dr. Dykes earned fame as the surgeon who treated John Kennedy Jr. in 1966 after the 5-year-old son of the late President John F. Kennedy fell backward into some campfire coals while on vacation.
Isserlis remembers the media hubbub as her father treated the burns on the little Kennedy’s hands, arms and buttocks.
“What a circus. Exciting, though,” she said.
Dr. Dykes died of colon cancer in 1968. He was 39.
Nancy was just 13 years old, the eldest of four children.
In the following years she thrived in school, reveled in Oahu’s multiculturalism and learned to hula dance.
After high school she moved to Oregon to study at Linfield College, a private school south of Portland. Isserlis earned her law degree from Gonzaga in 1980.
For the next 30 years Isserlis would work for some of Spokane’s leading law firms along with running her own successful private practice.
At Paine Hamblin she met her future husband, Ken Isserlis, who at the time was a law clerk and is now an attorney.
The couple raised three children, Heather, Russell and Katharine, in a modest brick home on Spokane’s South Hill.
The couple, celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary this month, are empty-nesters but for a mutt named Minnie rescued from the pound.
They now spend time off with two granddaughters, Lauren and Lillian.
Career, community connections
Isserlis’ early career earned her connections throughout Spokane’s legal and business community. She worked with Bob Dunn, who is representing disciplined Spokane police officers suing the city.
It is Dunn who filed a $4 million lawsuit last week against the city after the council members rejected a negotiated settlement with his client, fired Spokane police Sgt. Brad Thoma.
Thoma was fired in 2009 after a drunken-driving hit-and-run crash. He hired Dunn, claiming the city discriminated against him for alcoholism. The settlement, reached by Dunn and the city’s legal department, called for Thoma’s rehire and $275,000 in back pay.
Though Condon found the settlement distasteful, he signed it. The brokered agreement unraveled, however, and the city legal department drew the ire of council members. Condon fired Delaney and hired Isserlis days later.
Besides her legal career, Isserlis brings a lifetime of community service to her job. She chaired the city’s ethics commission and served on Condon’s transition team.
She intends to keep her chairmanship of the Health Sciences & Services Authority – a quasi-governmental agency administering more than $10 million in tax dollars to promote bioscience business projects and promote public health efforts.
Susan Ashe, the acting executive director of the HSSA, said Isserlis brings a pragmatic approach to problem solving and has helped shepherd the HSSA from a legislative idea on paper to a grant-making body that will bolster Spokane’s economy.
Isserlis for years has mentored young women entering the legal profession in Spokane.
While in her mid-40s and in the midst of a successful solo law career, Isserlis quit to work for Columbia Legal Services, a job in which she represented the poor in complex legal matters.
“It was the most rewarding thing I have ever done,” she said. When the funding dried up after five years, Isserlis returned to private practice with Winston & Cashatt.
Local attorney John Munding called Isserlis a top-notch bankruptcy lawyer who can help Spokane.
“The city is lucky,” he said recently.
Isserlis keeps busy. She has some 200 open cases, of which several dozen are active. Much of her work is in managing distressed properties as a court-appointed receiver.
A recent appointment, for example, is to manage the Holley Mason building in downtown Spokane.
City spokeswoman Marlene Feist said background checks indicate Isserlis has not represented clients against the city, though her firm has on occasion been hired by the city to provide outside counsel.
Time to start restoring trust
Isserlis offered limited details about how she intends to change the operations of the city’s legal department. She declined to comment specifically on whether Rocky Treppiedi – a Spokane school board member and an assistant city attorney noted for his aggressive advocacy for the city and especially police – would be fired.
“I can assure you that I will be making lots of decisions starting on April 2 and soon thereafter,” Isserlis said. “All I can say is people will have to wait until I get there. And I think that’s as fair an answer as I can give you right now.”
During last year’s campaign, Condon indicated Treppiedi would be fired, in part for his handling of the case of Otto Zehm, the mentally ill janitor who was beaten with a baton, shocked with Tasers and hog-tied by police in a north Spokane Zip Trip. Zehm died two days later, and his death spurred a federal conviction last year of police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr.
Zehm’s family has a wrongful death suit pending against the city.
Isserlis said it was time to restore trust and move forward.
“I just don’t believe that the business of the city attorney should be something that’s on the front page of the newspaper every day,” she said. “But it has been.”