Mike Lopez was the city of Spokane’s man from the moment Mayor David Condon and Fire Department officials determined they needed someone to reassess emergency response policy. And that’s a problem.
Lopez was interviewed April 10 by Mayor David Condon, Assistant Chief Brian Schaeffer and other city and department officials. He also met with union representatives. On April 14, he was offered the job – assistant director of integrated medical services – which he accepted the following day. But Spokane County Superior Court Judge Kathleen O’Connor ruled April 25 that the city’s fast-track recruitment had violated Washington law that limits to two the number of fire department hires that can bypass the civil service process. The city charter has the same cap, but O’Connor’s ruling did not address that potential conflict.
The lawsuit was filed by the two unions representing firefighters and fire officers, who challenged the mayor’s reorganization of the fire department into a division with multiple departments, each with two exempt positions.
The Police Guild and other police bargaining units have, so far, been more accommodating. State law removes more police positions from civil service requirements, depending on the size of the department.
Despite O’Connor’s ruling, Lopez went on the city payroll last Monday. Schaeffer said the city has a contractual and ethical obligation to keep him there and that, until the judge’s decision overturned the reorganization, the department was complying with the law. Hiring Lopez at $80,000 per year, he added, is a better deal for taxpayers than adding another assistant chief at $160,000 that does not have Lopez’s knowledge of state Department of Health guidelines for EMS services, some of which he helped write.
Friday, the city filed notice it will appeal the O’Connor decision, arguing the firefighters cannot sue because they were not harmed: Lopez filled a position that did not exist before his hiring. That may be true, but state law says two positions, not two-plus-new.
If the Court of Appeals agrees with O’Connor’s finding that reorganizing departments into divisions is just a “ludicrous” sleight of hand, Lopez could be in no-man’s-land.
What relief, if any, the city’s Civil Service Commission can provide is also unclear. Condon said Lopez should be “grandfathered” into his position because it was allowed under the restructuring, which the City Council has since rescinded. Again: When does two not equal two?
Commission Chief Examiner Glenn Kibbey said Lopez could have been retained on a project basis while the civil service process moved forward, but with no certainty he would be hired long-term, why would Lopez leave a job with the state?
Given his skills and background, it would be unfortunate if the city’s arguments do not ultimately prevail in the courts. But while the legal process grinds away, much more work must be done to sync city human resource practices with the civil service code. An informal effort to make that happen began last year, but clearly has some way to go.
Don’t let the courts get there first.