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Shawn Vestal: Ruling panning Spokane mayor’s fire department shuffle may not reach police

Sat., May 3, 2014, midnight

One person’s flexibility is another’s cronyism.

This is one reason for civil service laws, to protect employees – and, in a broader sense, the whole city – from the whims and caprices of a constantly rotating political leadership handing out favors to the loyal. And that, arguably, is one of the reasons the city can develop sclerotic organizational problems that never go away.

A judge ruled last week that Mayor David Condon’s flow-chart juggling and organizational redefinitions in the Spokane Fire Department were a “ludicrous” violation of state law. The slapping-down occurred at the summary judgment stage, where only the weakest legal fish die.

In essence, the changes redefined the fire department as a “division,” dramatically expanding the number of politically appointed positions rather than positions filled through civil-service screening. The ramifications could be significant in the fire department; the City Council will soon take up a proposal to reverse the reorganization.

Judge Kathleen O’Connor’s ruling was specific to the fire department, though a similar approach was applied in the police department … er, division. A lot of folks assume a union challenge might be forthcoming from there as well. But Lt. Dave McCabe, president of the Spokane Police Lieutenants and Captains Association, made it clear this week that his bargaining unit, at least, doesn’t have a beef with the number of political appointees.

“At this point, based on my reading of the (state law) … the department is in compliance,” McCabe said.

The Spokane City Charter limits political appointees to two per department. But state law – which was the basis for O’Connor’s ruling – grants as many as eight political appointees in a police department the size of Spokane’s. Right now, there are five, and McCabe said there are no plans for more.

Furthermore, he said, his union has “absolutely no problem” with the underlying approach in the department’s reorganization: the creation of neighborhood-based precincts to decentralize the department and connect it more strongly to the community. McCabe has also expressed tolerance, in the past, for the frequent shuffling that’s happened on Chief Frank Straub’s watch.

But McCabe’s union and the Police Guild are both looking at other potential ramifications from the department-division metamorphoses. One possible downside that has nothing to do with appointees: It’s possible that, if the Police Division remains a collection of separate departments, an officer with seniority in one department could be transferred to another and immediately drop to the bottom of the seniority scale there.

Those concerns would be the more likely basis for a legal challenge, but they wouldn’t have to impinge on the larger structural goals, McCabe said.

“I don’t view this as being a controversial issue at all,” he said.

For now, the tenor at City Hall and on the City Council seems to be: Follow the ruling in the case of the fire department, ignore it if possible in the case of the police department. Unless someone challenges it specifically there, this strange and illogical combination could well move forward.

There’s really no question that the mayor’s plan was an end run around Civil Service. The arguments in favor of it make that clear – the administration says it needs flexibility to implement reforms in the departments.

The Spokane firefighters Local 29 sued, and theirs was the legal argument that O’Connor supported last Friday. The union argued that the state’s Civil Service laws are intended to protect the public from cronyism and patronage and from a revolving door between administrations.

“The result of these practices was incompetent employees, high rates of employee turnover with each successive administration, and cultures of retaliation and political yes men,” the union said in a statement. “The Civil Service system was created to promote the hiring and promotion of the most qualified applicants in a fair and transparent manner and retains the wisdom and experience of long-term workers.”

Of course, the wisdom and experience of long-term workers has its flip side, and anyone who’s worked in any organization of any size knows what it is: entrenched habits, refusal to change, burnout. There are also the large numbers of convictions and habits that result from conviction and habit: This is the way we’ve always done it.

Do we want mayors turning over the entire top tier of managers within departments every couple of years? A constant shuffling of political appointees? Of course not.

And yet it’s hard to imagine the kind of dramatic cultural change that so many have called for within the city’s police division without more flexibility in the leadership ranks. For now, those new distinctions stand. But if a legal lance is raised against it, O’Connor’s brusque and definitive ruling leaves little doubt how it would fare.

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

 

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