Two City Council members on Tuesday questioned the legality of an independent commission appointed to investigate the activities of Spokane Mayor Jim West.
Council members Bob Apple and Cherie Rodgers criticized the commission when they were asked about a possible conflict of interest involving member Philip J. Thompson, a retired judge.
Thompson served with West for seven years on the board of directors for Morning Star Boys’ Ranch and was the chief Appeals Court judge who dismissed a wrongful death lawsuit against West in 1993.
Thompson said Tuesday he doesn’t consider it a conflict of interest to be investigating the activities of a man he once sat beside on the Morning Star board. West resigned from the board May 6, the day after The Spokesman-Review reported he abused his position of public trust by offering an internship to an 18-year-old man he met in a gay Internet chat room. West also resigned from the Executive Council of the Inland Empire Council of the Boy Scouts of America at the same time.
“If I were still a judge, I probably wouldn’t be sitting on the case, but sitting on an independent commission, I see it as different,” Thompson said.
Under the city charter, the City Council must approve any commission and its members. However, according to Apple and Rodgers, the council had no involvement in the creation of the West commission, the appointment of Thompson, or the four other members of the group. Members of the commission were selected by City Attorney Mike Connelly, who serves at the pleasure of the mayor.
The commission has been asked to investigate abuse of public office allegations against West.
“What do we have to do to get the point across?” Apple asked. “Tell the city attorney he’s breaking the law?”
“Neither the commission nor the members of this commission were approved by the City Council,” Apple said. “It’s an illegal commission formed by the city attorney, and we all know who he works for, don’t we?”
Apple said Connelly has failed to respond to e-mail questions about the legality of the commission.
Questions of conflict are “something I’ll have to look at,” Connelly told the newspaper Tuesday after being told by Thompson that a reporter was asking questions.
Rodgers questioned how citizens can trust the work product of a commission selected by a city attorney who works for the mayor.
“I have never approved of the way this so-called independent commission was appointed,” Rodgers said. “Mike Connelly did it all on his own. He hand-picked these people without any involvement from the City Council.”
The appointments were discussed in a closed-door session of the City Council, which Rodgers said may have violated the state Open Meetings Act.
“I don’t think the discussion of these appointments was executive session material,” Rodgers said.
West attorney Bill Etter could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Thompson said he didn’t disclose his previous membership on the Morning Star board of directors when Connelly approached him last month.
“It didn’t cross my mind,” said Thompson, who served on the state Court of Appeals after being elected to the Superior Court bench.
Thompson said he knows West, “but we weren’t socially involved with each other at any point. Our involvement with each other was negligible.”
In November 1993, Thompson and the Court of Appeals dismissed a wrongful death suit against West for the 1988 drowning of a scuba diver West was supervising on Lake Coeur d’Alene.
Rita Amunrud, a spokeswoman for the newly formed group Citizens for Integrity in Government, said Thompson should resign from the commission because of his past affiliations with West.
“It just looks like this entire thing is being manipulated by Jim West and his people to do damage control and spin control,” Amunrud said. “I believe they need to make sure there’s not even an appearance of a conflict if they’re going to ensure any credibility at all.”
She also questioned the appointments of two other members of the commission, retired judge Harold “Pete” Clarke and Tom Trulove, a professor of economics at Eastern Washington University.
Clarke was named by West to serve on a panel that examined a 2004 industrial accident at the city’s Waste Water Treatment Facility, Amunrud said. Trulove also had dealings with West while he was in the state Legislature. The other members of the commission are: J. Michael Stebbins, director of the Gonzaga University Institute of Ethics, and Nancy Isserlis, a principal attorney with Winston and Cashatt Lawyers.
“Some of these appointments have the appearance of political nepotism,” Amunrud said. “We need some people on the commission that haven’t been involved with Jim West over these past years.”
The commission held its first session last Friday – a telephone conference call – that will be followed by a sit-down gathering on Thursday.
Connelly said he had no idea how long the commission’s work will take. “They’ll report to the council and deputy mayor,” he said. “My intent is to give them as much information as possible.”
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