Spokane Mayor David Condon settled what’s likely the last major threat to his administration in the handling of former Police Chief Frank Straub on Wednesday.
But Spokane’s first two-term mayor in decades has not escaped the Straub affair unscathed, as the turmoil at City Hall has led to a series of capitulations involving the police department and his handling of city government.
The Spokane chapter of the National Organization for Women dropped its ethics complaint against Condon on Wednesday, capping a year of public discord, lawsuits and resignations at City Hall following Straub’s forced resignation.
“We would have loved to hold the mayor’s feet to the fire,” said Sherry Jones, the NOW member who filed the complaint in partnership with the Center for Justice. “But this was never political for us. Our purpose was higher.”
The settlement agreement calls for NOW’s involvement in a new task force, made up of both public officials and private citizens, that will look at employment issues at City Hall, including sexual harassment and pay inequality. All city employees, including Condon and his staff, must also complete sexual harassment training by the end of the year.
Condon denied in an interview Wednesday that the ethics complaint, recall effort or lawsuits stemming from the Straub ouster had affected city services or his ability to govern.
“We need to build back that confidence,” Condon said in an interview Wednesday afternoon. “I believe people do think we’re going in the right direction.”
Condon cited downtown road work, the development of an affordable-housing plan and a renewed discussion with the City Council on economic development as evidence the scandal is behind him. But in the past few months, he’s also been forced to bow to political pressure in the hunt for Straub’s successor, lost his top pick to take over an embattled city attorney’s office, fought against a finding that members of his administration intentionally withheld damaging public records and continued to butt heads with a truculent City Council on his authority to hire and fire department heads.
“There’s been a resurgence of support for me,” Condon said. “I’ve noticed that, a lot more people saying you’re doing the right thing, keep on going.”
NOW’s complaint focused on a statement Condon made at a news conference in September 2015 there hadn’t been any sexual harassment claims “lodged” against Straub. Public records later showed Monique Cotton, a former police spokeswoman, had spoken to the mayor months before about alleged inappropriate conduct by the chief. Straub was later forced out of office when members of police leadership penned a letter of no-confidence in the chief.
Condon said he welcomed the opportunity to work with NOW to implement reforms that have already been laid out in multiple reports to the city. Attorney Kris Cappel conducted an independent investigation into Straub’s forced resignation, while a task force convened by City Council members Candace Mumm and Karen Stratton authored a study on equal pay.
“The reality is, we’ve been doing a lot of this work already,” Condon said. “You can look at the pay and equity report, and it has a plan of action in there. We need to look at some of those critically, and put a timeline to some of those.”
Stratton said Wednesday some of the initial proposals she’d like to pursue are putting a lounge for nursing mothers in City Hall and adding an on-site day care for employees, which were both part of the report issued months ago.
“We’ve got everything in place to start moving forward,” she said.
Mumm expressed surprise that the administration had not run with the findings of the report earlier, but said it was encouraging attention was being paid now.
“The time has come to make these changes,” she said.
The decision to drop the case leaves unresolved the question of whether Condon lied about Cotton’s allegations against Straub in the September news conference. Condon says there was no formalized complaint from Cotton, who demanded confidentiality in their meeting. NOW charged Condon with handling Cotton’s allegations as a complaint, making his answer untruthful.
In an interview Wednesday, Condon focused on the dismissal of the recall petition and Straub’s $4 million lawsuit against the city, as well as the settlement with NOW.
“It’s pleasing to know a superior court judge, a federal judge, and others have confirmed that we acted within policy,” Condon said. “Even the Cappel report concludes that.”
“Now we can definitely focus where the public wants us to,” he added.
Stratton, who’s sparred publicly with Condon on issues related to political appointments and believes Cappel’s report eroded confidence in the mayor among city employees, said Wednesday she was “frustrated” that what she termed “bad behavior” in the handling of harassment complaints against Straub will not result in any repercussions for Condon or his administration.
But, Stratton said, “to dwell on it isn’t going to help anybody.”
“We can either fall behind, and continue to be angry and vindictive, or we can choose to take what we have left and move forward, and try to be positive,” Stratton said.
The Cappel report lists dozens of complaints, made by both men and women working for Straub, that were brought to the attention of Condon’s staff for at least two years without any formal investigation before the chief was forced out. Straub has denied any sexual harassment during his time with the Spokane Police Department, as part of his federal lawsuit against the city.
City Council President Ben Stuckart said the agreement puts the city in a “good spot” to address longstanding concerns about harassment issues in the workplace. He also said the council is in a better position with Condon as a result of the recall petition’s dismissal and an ending to the uncertainty about the administration’s future.
“I’ve had a better last two weeks working with the mayor and the administration than the first eight months of this year,” Stuckart said.
Rick Eichstaedt, the executive director of the Center for Justice who represented NOW, said at a news conference in front of City Hall the settlement was reached in a frenzied period beginning at 5 p.m. Tuesday, with Condon’s legal team initially reaching out to find a resolution without the mayor publicly testifying. Eichstaedt acknowledged the settlement barred an answer about whether Condon was dishonest.
“I’m fairly confident, at the end of the day, we would have won,” Eichstaedt said. “But that gets to the question of, well, then what?”
Eichstaedt pointed out that City Administrator Theresa Sanders was fined $75 by the Ethics Commission for her role in the Straub matter.
“Has that really changed anything here at the city?” he said. “Our feeling is, with this settlement agreement, and NOW’s participation on these committees, we’ll really change how things work at City Hall.”
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