May 16, 2014 in City
Hire for Spokane Fire Department faces challenge
Spokane Mayor David Condon is putting a new political appointee on the fire department’s payroll despite last month’s legal ruling that limited his ability to bypass the city’s traditional civil service rules.
Mike Lopez, a widely recognized emergency medical expert who has held key roles in developing statewide EMS policies, is scheduled to start Monday as the fire department’s new assistant director of integrated medical services. The mayor’s office contends it should be considered a “grandfathered” appointment since the offer was finalized four days before the April 25 Spokane County Superior Court ruling that partially scrapped Condon’s reorganization.
But union leaders, the city’s civil service director and some council members are balking at the move, saying Judge Kathleen O’Connor’s decision was a clear repudiation of the mayor’s attempts to get around competitive testing requirements.
“We’re in discussions with the city right now,” union President Don Waller said Thursday, adding that any effort to keep Lopez on the job will be challenged either legally or through the city’s Civil Service Commission. “We don’t believe the job was filled correctly.”
The proposed hiring has become the latest showdown in Condon’s efforts to remake a City Hall bureacracy that he sees as too entrenched to embrace the kind of changes voters have demanded. Others, however, point out that it was voters who created Spokane’s rigid civil service system because they’d grown tired of city jobs being used for political patronage.
The city charter limits the number of positions exempt from civil service rules to just two per department, with mayors typically using them to hire departmental directors and assistant directors. State law also sets the limit at two for fire departments but has varying limits for police departments based on their size.
Last year, Condon pushed through a reorganization that reclassified the police and fire departments as “divisions,” with each containing multiple “departments” within them. It gave Condon the ability to make numerous appointments outside the civil service system, though he’s filled just a handful of them, mostly within the police force.
Lopez, who was specifically recruited for the $80,555-a-year job because of his background and experience, is the first appointee within the fire department under the reorganization.
Monday night, the City Council is expected to restore the previous local ordinance limiting the number of political appointees in the fire department to two, but leaving the police reorganization intact.
Councilman Jon Snyder said Lopez appears to have the kind of background and experience that would benefit the city but noted that the judge’s ruling was clear.
“It looks like he has some good skills,” Snyder said of Lopez. “I don’t know why he wouldn’t do well going through the civil service system.”
City spokesman Brian Coddington said Condon has no intention of backing out of the agreement with Lopez that was struck before the judge’s ruling.
“The mayor’s position is that the ordinance, as it was enacted, was appropriately applied,” Coddington said, noting that the mayor is still deciding whether to appeal O’Connor’s ruling. “Mike was offered a position that was accepted under the ordinance … which was in effect at the time. He’s set to start Monday and that won’t change.”
Spokane’s civil service director, Glenn Kibbey, has said the city’s Civil Service Commission is unlikely to support a “grandfathering” argument based on a reorganization that was found to violate state law.
“To do so would create a precedent and a loophole that would simply invite this and future administrations to create illegal organizations, and appoint employees to them, leaving the citizens stuck with political appointees,” Kibbey wrote in a May 6 email to Assistant City Attorney Erin Jacobson and City Council members.
Lopez, who supervises development of statewide EMS and trauma policy at the Washington Department of Health, was raised in Spokane and spent two decades with American Medical Response and its predecessor Spokane Ambulance before taking a job with the state.