The Spokesman-Review

Opinion

Editorial: City Council action raises specter of arbitration

A lot more than a tentative agreement with the Police Guild blew up Monday.

With its unanimous rejection of a tentative deal with the police officers union, the Spokane City Council also vented frustration with an administration some say ignored their input and kept them at arm’s length as the pact was negotiated. Nor did the terms fulfill expectations among council members and Spokane voters that the Office of Police Ombudsman would at last have freedom of action investigating complaints against officers.

Mayor David Condon says the combined oversight of Police Ombudsman Commission and the ombudsman attains that level of independence by incorporating his or her investigative materials into the file compiled by the Police Department’s internal affairs division. The file goes to the police chief for possible disciplinary action.

The ombudsman can also issue a separate closing report.

But the ombudsmen cannot take an investigation beyond that conducted by internal affairs, although they can call for further review.

Spokane voters wanted more independence, voting by almost 70 percent in February to change the City Charter to make it happen.

Condon says that was the best deal possible within a matrix that also included more money for education, 2 percent salary hikes for four years and the introduction of body cameras.

And despite the charter revisions, there’s only so far the city can go under state labor law to renegotiate the ombudsman’s prerogatives, which were first outlined in a prior contract with the guild.

A memo from a Seattle attorney who reviewed a potential ordinance that would have implemented the charter changes supports the mayor’s take on the city’s position.

The ordinance might deny any intent to interfere in disciplinary action, but “the City would have an increased risk of civil liability in any situation where the OPO found misconduct while the Police Department took no action.”

The Public Employee Relations Commission, which has been mediating the Spokane dispute, would likely side with the guild over several potential complaints.

Knowing all this, the council still found the efforts of the mayor and his negotiating team unsatisfactory; 7-0, heck no unsatisfactory.

Back to Square One unsatisfactory?

The mayor, who thought he had brought the council along with him as the negotiations progressed, says he will sound out each member to determine whether and where there is a way forward. The alternative to renewing talks with the guild is a walk into the scary realm of arbitration, where the good parts of the agreement like body camera implementation and education aid get tossed, the financial terms get more onerous and an empowered ombudsman is no closer to reality.

Condon says the city probably missed an arbitration window when reasonable salary terms were within reach. Now, anything above the increases the council rejected would subtract from the funds budgeted for 25 new officers. If there is no council consensus on the value of the oversight citizens said they wanted in February versus more police on the streets, a date with the arbitrator may be next.

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