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Officials gave false details leading up to chief’s resignation

In the weeks, days and hours leading to the ouster of Spokane’s police chief, city officials provided incorrect information to the public about growing concerns among police employees about Chief Frank Straub’s leadership.

Even Tuesday’s news release publicly announcing Straub had resigned said his departure was “to pursue new opportunities and be closer to family.” The fact that he had been forced out because of what some in the department considered brash and unprofessional management was not disclosed until Mayor David Condon suggested so in a news conference soon after the news release was distributed.

Attempts to obscure what was really happening with Straub continued from the day it was reported that former police spokeswoman Monique Cotton had been transferred to another city department under uncertain circumstances, until the day he was forced to resign. City Administrator Theresa Sanders and Brian Coddington, the mayor’s spokesman, defended their words and actions Thursday, saying personnel issues are not a matter for public discussion, and Straub’s status as chief was not decided until moments before a statement announcing his departure was released.

Straub, 56, was abruptly forced out as chief Tuesday afternoon following complaints from police leadership about his abrasive management tactics, which they said included personal attacks, emotional outbursts, scare tactics, threats, retaliation and inappropriate language. Straub has denied those descriptions, saying he was direct and blunt, but not abusive or obscene.

Rick Eichstaedt, executive director of the Center for Justice, criticized city officials for allowing the “issue to fester” and blamed the city’s handling of Straub’s management for his forced resignation.

“If they had been upfront and honest and acknowledged that there were problems in the department, perhaps there could have been some discipline or measures short of having to resign,” Eichstaedt said. “There was some deception on the nature of some of the moves.”

When Cotton’s transfer to parks, along with a $9,000 pay increase, was first examined last month, Sanders said she had no knowledge of problems between Straub and Cotton.

“Not that I am aware of,” Sanders said last month when asked if there were any difficulties between Straub and Cotton.

At the time, Sanders dismissed talk of Straub’s problematic management, and suggested it came from police department employees who were upset about reforms Straub was making in the department.

“I’m a little baffled by some of this,” she said. “I hope people on the police department side are well intentioned. There’s been a lot of change in the police department and maybe some folks are unhappy.”

To explain the 11 percent pay increase Cotton received when she moved, Sanders said she had to persuade Cotton to make the jump, calling the raise “an enticement.”

On Thursday, Sanders acknowledged she was aware of issues between Straub and Cotton at the time but felt she couldn’t speak publicly about them.

“I probably should’ve said it was a personnel issue and didn’t want to get into it,” she said.

Sanders said she felt restricted in talking about the specifics because “we’re talking about people in our organization, and I’m probably never going to talk about personnel issues.”

Cotton’s pay increase, Sanders said, was due in part to a “step increase” she would’ve received within weeks whether she transferred or not, and also partly as a way to show “progression” to Cotton and convince her the parks position was an advancement in her career.

“When somebody’s having a difficult work environment and feeling like they need to move, whatever we can do to give them a really good landing is something that we should do,” Sanders said. “More importantly, we had really good reason to retain Monique. Any time anybody wants to do something else in the city, regardless of the reason, we take best advantage of our best talents and get them to a good spot.”

On the day of Straub’s dismissal, Coddington, the mayor’s spokesman, denied any knowledge of Straub’s imminent departure. Coddington was contacted around 1 p.m. and asked to confirm that Straub had lost his job.

“I have not heard that,” he said. “I don’t believe that’s accurate.”

Asked if Straub was in danger of losing his job, Coddington again demurred with the same language.

“I have not heard that,” he said. “I don’t believe that’s accurate.”

On Thursday, Coddington defended his words.

“I have to deal with the information I was given. I suppose I could’ve said it a little differently but that was a personnel decision. At that point, I couldn’t talk about what was happening,” he said.

Coddington said the decision to remove the chief had not yet been reached when contacted.

“It was an open conversation. They were trying to work out how best to proceed here, whether there was a way forward. This is the result they ended up with,” he said. “These are people, these are employees, these are discussions that need to go on, and out of respect for everybody we need to be sure these discussions are had and the details are buttoned up before we make comment. We generally don’t comment on rumors.”

Eichstaedt, however, blames the city’s lack of forthrightness for the rumors.

“It allowed the rumors in the community to persist,” Eichstaedt said. “Certainly in a high-profile position, like the chief of police, there should’ve been an opportunity for some honesty. Honesty is the best policy. Be upfront about it.”

At 4:37 p.m. Tuesday, a new release was sent out to local media announcing Straub’s departure. Local reporters had eight minutes to get to City Hall for a news conference with Condon and City Council President Ben Stuckart.

Until just moments before the statement went out, the decision to remove the chief was still open, Coddington and Sanders said.

“The conversation was ongoing and still occurring,” Coddington said. “It was an open question, it was an open discussion.”

Asked what time on Tuesday the decision had been made, Coddington asked, “What time did the press release come out?”

“About six seconds before that,” Sanders said.