May 18, 2012 in City

Condon sped resolution by calling end to blame-Otto game

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Spokane Mayor David Condon reflects on this week’s $1.67 million settlement with the family of Otto Zehm.
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Tuesday morning, after the first full day of mediation in the Otto Zehm family’s lawsuit against the city of Spokane, there was no deal in sight.

A group of attorneys and officials representing the city, the family and the insurance company had gathered at the federal building and old post office. Negotiations shuttled among the three groups in separate rooms, working through how much the city and its insurance company would pay and what other components a deal might include – an apology from the city; a form of memorial for Otto; a guarantee of better training for the police.

Chief among the difficulties was persuading the city’s insurers to come to an agreement – a major shift in direction for them, after playing defense at the city’s behest for years.

By late Tuesday afternoon, not only was a deal in sight – all the parties had agreed to it, and it was being publicly announced.

The speed of those developments reflects, in some ways, the speed the entire case has taken on in the weeks since David Condon took office and began dismantling the structure that led the city into an utterly indefensible defense: It was Otto’s fault. A lot of different factors and people played roles in this week’s settlement, not least of which was the conviction of Karl F. Thompson Jr. in November.

But a lion’s share of the credit has to go to Condon’s insistence that the city stop blaming Otto – first on the campaign trail, where he hung out some big promises, and then action by action since taking office.

“It just wasn’t the narrative I wanted to be known about Spokane,” Condon said Thursday. “This is not what Spokane should be known for. It’s not what Spokane is about. … I didn’t think the leadership of the city was going in the right direction.”

It’s worth noting what Condon has done to change that direction – especially given the fact that former Mayor Mary Verner has taken to the Twitter-verse to suggest that the settlement arose from a continuation of her own policies.

Facts in opposition abound: On Condon’s first day in office, he ended the conflict-of-interest legal relationships among the lawyers involved in civil and criminal cases. Within weeks, the architects of the city’s “Otto-did-it” legal defense were not just off the case – they were out of jobs. In their place was new City Attorney Nancy Isserlis, who got a lot of credit for making the deal happen. Condon himself pressed for a judge to order mediation, and he participated all day Monday and Tuesday.

“When we started Monday morning, I didn’t know if we’d be there by Tuesday afternoon,” he said.

Working with the insurance company, AIG, was one hurdle. One problem, said Zehm family attorney Breean Beggs, was the fact of Thompson’s conviction. Since criminal conduct was now proved, the insurer wasn’t convinced it was contractually obligated to pay. In fact, Beggs said, the city’s previous approach regarding the lawsuit – to wait for the conclusion of the criminal case – created that obstacle.

“It would have been much easier to settle the case, legally and practically, before the trial,” he said.

Beggs said Condon deserves a lot of credit for leading a change at City Hall and following through on his promises, and Isserlis deserves credit for doing much of the heavy lifting. And he drew a sharp contrast between the current and former administrations: He said his team made a settlement offer to the city right after the Thompson conviction, when Verner was still in office. They never heard a word in return, he said.

They started Monday’s mediation session with the same offer.

On Tuesday morning, when a deal still seemed far off, the mediator, U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan of Oregon, met privately with Otto’s mother, Ann Zehm. Hogan came away with a stronger sense of what was crucial to her in a settlement; he came back and made that happen. Chief in her mind was Otto’s legacy – the way the community would remember him and his story going forward.

“She was wanting his memory to be in a positive light, not a negative light,” Condon said.

At one point, Condon got onto Google maps on his iPad and zoomed down onto the pavilion outside City Hall, overlooking the falls, as a possible location for a memorial. The final memorial likely won’t be there, but the very idea that Condon suggested putting a memorial to Otto right outside the front door to City Hall is utterly, pleasingly astonishing. The last mayor said she didn’t think Karl Thompson had committed a crime. Condon suggested putting a memorial to his victim on the front step of City Hall.

There are details still to be hammered out in the settlement. And there remain questions to answer, accountability to be assigned. There is a danger of treating the settlement as a cure, a balm, a salve. Water under the bridge.

I was also glad to hear, talking to Condon on Thursday, a reluctance to be celebratory. “It’s kind of a nebulous feeling,” he said, going on to compare it to a wake – where high spirits coexist with sorrow.

“I’m not taking a victory lap,” he said.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.


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