After a flurry of edits Monday afternoon, the Spokane City Council tabled its latest attempt to wrest some authority overseeing the pay and hiring of employees at City Hall.
City Councilwoman Karen Stratton requested the move with plans to revisit the measure in a month. The suite of legislative changes, first proposed by City Council President Ben Stuckart earlier this year, aims to reduce tension between council members and the mayor’s office regarding personnel matters, including a provision that would cap employee earnings at four times the median household income.
Stuckart made changes after Chris Cavanaugh, the city’s human resources director, raised concerns that the so-called “budget controls” ordinance might run afoul of recently approved state laws and establish different rules for employees represented by unions and those who aren’t.
Stratton said after Monday’s meeting the proposed changes, which included the removal of the salary cap as well as changes to the way lawmakers could review employees receiving temporary bumps in pay as a result of job vacancies in supervisory positions, took the teeth out of the law.
“It felt like it had just kind of been gutted,” Stratton said of the changes, which were made while she was absent from City Hall at a doctor’s appointment Monday afternoon.
Cavanaugh had requested the council table the law until lawmakers and administration officials could discuss the issue. She said the main cause for a spike in the temporary payments, which reached close to $1 million in 2016 after remaining flat around a half million for several years, were due to multiple departures from City Hall. Many of those, including Cavanaugh’s predecessor, Heather Lowe, and Nancy Isserlis, former city attorney, were in the wake of Frank Straub’s departure as police chief, itself a position that required lower-ranking employees to step into higher paying jobs.
Cavanaugh said after the meeting she appreciated the opportunity to work with council members on their concerns about pay, rather than have to work with an ordinance that she said seemed ill-suited to deal with broader issues around compensation that also includes employees working under collective bargaining agreements.
“I’m really, really pleased that Councilwoman Stratton brought this forward,” Cavanaugh said. “I know this is really, really important to her.”
Stratton said her main concern was that high salaries could put future councils and elected officials in a difficult financial position. She said she’s continually seen salaries climb for those supervisory employees who are not represented by a bargaining group.
“I’m not saying they’re not worth it, I’m saying it’s not sustainable,” Stratton said of employee salaries, specifically for heads of departments and divisions that are not subject to civil service rules nor represented by labor groups.
Brian Coddington, a spokesman for Mayor David Condon, said earlier Monday that the mayor was “strongly considering a veto” of the ordinance in the form it was in before Stuckart’s proposed edits, which he said were an effort to get more council support for the ordinance. The administration was also under the impression that the council would work with staff on their concerns, rather than enacting a law, as part of a proposal to have the city’s volunteer salary review commission review department head pay.
But communication at City Hall indicated a resurgence of the ordinance, backed by Stratton, might be fueled by continued consternation about the dismissal of former Solid Waste Director Scott Windsor earlier this spring.
“I thought you said this was dead,” outgoing City Budget Director Tim Dunivant wrote in an email to Stuckart regarding the ordinance.
Stuckart replied: “I can’t control what other council members do, would not have happened if Windsor was left alone.”
Stuckart said Monday that was “a supposition” on his part about Stratton’s motives in taking up his ordinance.
“This has bugged me for a long time,” she said.
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