Spokane Mayor David Condon has won vast new power to hire and remove top fire and police administrators.
The Spokane City Council on Monday narrowly approved the creation of six new departments within the Police Department and seven within the Fire Department, potentially giving the mayor the power to appoint a director and assistant director of each new department.
The move was driven by police Chief Frank Straub’s proposed reorganization of the police force and the recent report from the Use of Force Commission arguing that the Police Department needs “a change in culture.” Straub says he needs more authority to hire and fire for top leadership positions without the constraints of a civil service system. “The community wants change, and I think they want it now,” Straub told the council. “We are committed to creating a police organization that is challenging the status quo.”
Civil service in Spokane was created by voters in 1910. It sets up hiring rules and tests to ensure employees are selected by merit and to prevent cronyism. Almost all city workers – except those working in the library system and the one or two managers of any department – are part of civil service.
Opponents of the change said it creates too much potential for volatility in leadership and ensures managers will be “yes men.”
Breean Beggs, former executive director of the Center for Justice, said while a good case has been made for greater hiring flexibility for police managers, the same case wasn’t made for fire management. He added that the City Council should be wary of limiting civil service protections that have enjoyed strong voter support.
“Let the voters speak,” he said.
Supporters said civil service tests are too rigid and don’t ensure that those selected for a role support the vision of the police or fire chief.
“We need to give this chief the power to make the changes that are necessary and not hold an arm behind his back as he’s trying to do that,” said William Hyslop, a former U.S. attorney who served on the city’s Use of Force Commission.
Administrators, including Straub, said the change won’t add to the city’s costs because managers already serve in many of the roles under different titles, and jobs that don’t exist can’t be created without further City Council approval.
But opponents argue that the change will create pressure to add more positions later this year when the budget is approved and is likely to boost salaries because the jobs won’t be tied to civil service regulations.
Even the three council members who voted against the change agreed that Straub needed more flexibility to hire managers. But given the historical support for civil service by the voters, the system should be reformed without reducing the number of positions with civil service protections.
“This feels like a back-door way to address that problem,” Councilman Jon Snyder said.