The Spokane City Council will consider Monday wholesale changes to the makeup of the park department, widening the scope of the mayor’s appointing powers.
The decision follows similar moves in the city police and fire departments, which prompted a lawsuit by unions representing fire department employees.
If successful, Mayor David Condon will have the power to hire and fire 40 people in three departments. At the beginning of the year, only five people fell under such rules.
Though it fits the pattern of a broader effort by the mayor’s office to restructure government and create more senior members in City Hall who can be removed without restriction, the change to the Spokane Parks and Recreation Department is said to have been independently conceived and pursued.
“I’ve been having this conversation for years,” said Park Director Leroy Eadie, who proposed the changes. “It’s about having flexibility on firing, not on hiring.”
Eadie said he has no current plans to fire any of his senior staff.
City Council President Ben Stuckart said he’s strongly opposed to the proposal.
“They’re circumventing employee protections,” he said. “They’re just creating a whole universe of people to fire.”
If the change passes, the park department would become a division with three department heads under Eadie. The changes would create eight positions exempt from civil service rules, which are meant to insulate employees from the political process. Currently just one position is exempt, and it’s held by Eadie, who runs the department without an assistant director. The new positions would mirror those already in place – directors of finance, park operations, and recreation and entertainment – but their new status would enable the mayor to appoint those who held the positions as well as assistants for each of them.
Eadie said he plans to add two more exempt positions in the department next year. That would bring the total number of park employees outside of the civil service system to 10, but Eadie said he plans to fill only six of those positions.
Members of the Spokane Park Board were near-unanimous in their support for the proposal. Chris Wright cast the only dissenting vote.
“The core motivation was to give the park director flexibility,” said Andy Dunau, a Park Board member. “The consensus was that the director ought to have the ability to put people in this senior level.”
Dunau said discussions within the board’s finance committee, which first heard the proposal, included worries over a potential housecleaning of management by a mayor and the creation of a senior management team at odds with the Park Board, which controls the department’s finances.
“What are the odds of a director coming in and changing four people all at once? Frankly, the odds of that are pretty low,” Dunau said, adding that the board is aware of the potential for a mayor to replace every manager in the park department. All city employees are part of the civil service system except the top two managers of each department and those who work at the Spokane Public Library. Positions within the civil service system are filled through rules and tests, and civil service employees are protected from unjustified termination by the Civil Service Commission, which has the power to reinstate wrongly fired workers.
Civil service systems were created to prevent politicians from practicing political favoritism over sound hiring practices. But some say Spokane’s system offers too much protection, creating an entrenched bureaucracy that too often rejects change.
By creating more exempt positions, more power is given to a mayor to fill City Hall with people who subscribe to his vision for the city.
Earlier this year, Mayor David Condon proposed reorganizing the police and fire departments into divisions, each with multiple departments. After a 4-3 vote by the City Council, six departments were created within the police division, and seven were created in fire.
The International Association of Fire Fighters Local 29 and the Spokane Association of Fire Officers quickly filed a lawsuit against the city after the vote, arguing that the changes circumvented city and state law.
The legal challenge will be heard by Superior Court Judge Kathleen O’Connor in September.
Councilman Mike Allen, the council’s liaison to the Park Board, said changing the park department “goes back to the same reason we changed around police and fire: It gives senior management a little more control over who their team is.”
Stuckart, who is opposed to creating positions outside the civil service system, said the changes will give mayors inordinate power to replace city workers.
“Who’s to say that a new mayor won’t come in 2015 or 2019 and go fire 14 people in the police department, 16 people in the fire department and 10 people in parks just so they can bring in their own?” Stuckart said, noting that he’s in the minority on this issue on the council and probably can’t stop the changes.
“But I can make crystal clear that they’re violating the city charter, which is the city’s constitution,” he said.
According to the charter, “administrative departments shall be created or discontinued by the city council at the time of the adoption of the annual budget, as the public business may demand.”
But Eadie said he’s following the law.
“For me, I’m in the middle of a budget process,” he said. “We fit the definition. We are in the midst of budget-making.”