Spokane Mayor David Condon is fighting for the power to hire more political appointees in the Fire Department even though a judge has said he can’t and the City Council repealed his right to do so.
Condon announced Friday that he is appealing a Spokane County Superior Court ruling that invalidated the city’s creation last year of seven departments within the Fire Department.
City leaders created the departments to give the mayor power to hire up to 14 more fire administrators outside the civil service system. The City Charter says most city employees must be hired through its civil service system except for the top two in each department.
Superior Court Judge Kathleen O’Connor ruled last month that the creation of the departments was an end-run around state law that says only two employees in a fire department can be hired outside civil service.
Even if an appeals court rejects that judge’s opinion, however, it won’t change much – unless Condon can change the City Council’s mind.
That’s because on Monday, the City Council voted 6-1 to repeal the law they passed last year creating the new fire departments.
“They’re appealing an ordinance that no longer exists,” said Don Waller, president of the Spokane Firefighters Union. “It’s a waste of taxpayer money.”
But Councilman Steve Salvatori said Condon is right to appeal even though Salvatori said he now regrets his vote last year to create the new fire departments.
“I would want for any future City Council the ability to structure any department the best for our citizens legally,” Salvatori said. “That’s why getting a legal clarification makes sense.”
Condon and other supporters of hiring more administrators without civil service review argue that City Hall is too entrenched to embrace changes voters have demanded. Opponents note that voters created Spokane’s rigid civil service system because they had grown tired of city jobs used for political patronage.
Like Salvatori, Councilman Mike Allen supported the creation of the new departments last year but voted this week to repeal that decision.
Allen and Salvatori say that although they believe the council should have the power to create extra departments within the Fire Department, doing so appeared unnecessary. That’s because only one person was hired to fill one of the new non-civil service positions in the year after the departments were created.
“My position was, OK, was this really necessary?” Allen said.
The only person hired for a non-civil-service fire job before the court ruling was Mike Lopez, who was named the assistant director of integrated medical services a few days before the court ruling.
Councilman Mike Fagan was the only councilman who opposed repealing the law he voted for.
The Police Department underwent a similar reorganization at the same time as the Fire Department, and police Chief Frank Straub filled four of those jobs. The judge’s ruling in April did not invalidate the new departments created within the Police Department.
Council President Ben Stuckart, who criticized Lopez’s hiring, said O’Connor’s ruling was clear.
“Our legal department has more important things to work on,” Stuckart said.
City spokesman Brian Coddington said Condon understands that even a successful appeal may not have an effect on his administration.
“It’s about protecting the future ability of the council and mayor to be able to take that action,” Coddington said.
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