The city will pay $50,000 to settle a public records lawsuit filed in August by a retired Spokane police detective alleging the mayor’s administration knowingly withheld documents in the ouster of former police Chief Frank Straub, if the City Council OKs the deal.
The settlement is scheduled for a hearing Oct. 24. The settlement money would come from a risk account the city maintains for legal liabilities and will not affect the budget next year, said Brian Coddington, a spokesman for Mayor David Condon.
The lawsuit, filed by Brian Breen, charged that former city attorney Nancy Isserlis withheld handwritten notes from an interview with former police spokeswoman Monique Cotton charging Straub with sexual harassment until after Condon’s re-election last year. Breen filed a public records request for the documents on Sept. 5, 2015. The Spokesman-Review also requested the records several weeks earlier.
Condon released a statement Friday announcing the settlement. “I understand the damage to transparency that can be caused by even the appearance of lack of transparency,” the statement said. “I have committed in my recent budget to increase the amount allocated for addressing public records requests.”
Condon also said he would recommend a change in city policy to have the hearing examiner review appeals of disputes about public records requests. He said he will also recommend that the city’s ethics code be changed to include “willful intent” by employees in withholding records from the clerk’s office.
Coddington said the policy changes the mayor is proposing are similar to those being explored by other cities across the state.
Rick Eichstaedt, the attorney representing Breen in the case, said the intent of the settlement is to provide an outlet for citizens to hold public officials accountable for alleged public records violations without taking them to court.
“If there is a situation where an individual arguably took actions that were willful and without just cause, and delayed giving you their documents, they could at least be held accountable by the Ethics Commission,” Eichstaedt said.
The Ethics Commission may take several actions against city officials, including fines and potential removal from office. Eichstaedt also represented the Spokane chapter of the National Organization of Women in their ethics complaint against Condon, which was also settled with a promise from the administration to review the city’s sexual harassment policies.
Breen’s lawsuit leaned heavily on findings by independent investigator Kris Cappel, a former federal prosecutor contracted by the city to examine the city’s public records and human resources processes in the wake of Straub’s forced departure from the city.
Cappel released a report in July charging Isserlis, her employee Pat Dalton and City Administrator Theresa Sanders – who prepared the notes from the Cotton meeting – with willfully sitting on records to improve Condon’s re-election chances. Condon and the members of his administration have publicly disputed that finding, and Isserlis has threatened legal action against Cappel.
Eichstaedt said Breen planned to use the money “for work on police accountability and government transparency” if the council approves the settlement.