The Spokane City Council has quietly taken steps to prepare a ballot measure that could give the council power to impeach the mayor.
About a week ago, Council President Dennis Hession approved a contract hiring a private lawyer to research legal aspects of adding impeachment power to Spokane’s City Charter.
The move by the council comes as Mayor Jim West faces a possible recall petition drive over allegations that he misused his office by offering an internship and raising the possibility of sex with a man he met on Gay.com.
Council members are seeking an alternative to a lengthy recall petition drive and election. Any change in the charter would require voter approval. Council members have said they hope to put a charter proposal on the ballot this fall.
Hession said he approved a contract about a week ago, hiring Hugh Spitzer, of Foster Pepper & Shefelman in Seattle, to research discipline options up to and including impeachment. Spitzer has been asked to give an opinion on the constitutionality of impeachment as an alternative to a voter recall. Spitzer is an expert in municipal government and public finance.
Hession said the council sought the outside counsel because the city attorney’s office operates under the authority of West. “What we want to do is take them off the hook,” Hession said.
He described Spitzer as a “well-respected guy.”
In a related development, a meeting that had been scheduled for today of a Task Force on Allegations Concerning Mayor West was canceled after former Councilman Steve Eugster filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of the independent panel appointed by the city attorney.
City lawyers were reportedly preparing a response to Eugster’s lawsuit, which argues that allegations against the mayor can be handled only by a special inquiry judge or a City Council investigation – not a City Hall task force working through City Attorney Mike Connelly.
Allegations against West surfaced in May when The Spokesman-Review published an investigation showing that West offered positions and gifts to young men he met through a chat room on Gay.com.
West also is accused by two men of sexually abusing them when they were boys in the 1970s, allegations West denies.
The investigation showed that West offered an internship to a man he believed was an 18-year-old Ferris High School student. The man was actually a computer expert hired by the newspaper to confirm that West was using the Internet to solicit dates.
Several young men have now reported personal contacts with West, including a former member of the city’s Human Rights Commission, who said he was offered $300 by the mayor to swim naked with him.
West has acknowledged seeking relationships over the Web but has denied that he offered the internship to the computer expert. He said he merely recommended to the man that he apply.
During an interview on KHQ-TV Wednesday, West said the computer expert asked him for an internship. The mayor criticized the newspaper for its extensive coverage of the scandal.
A transcript of an April 9 chat between West – who was going by the screen name “jmselton” – and the computer expert – who went by “motobrock34” – showed that West sent the man his photo. West then asked him not to reveal his identity.
About the possibility of obtaining an internship, West wrote in the chat, “Oh, you were going to get it.”
Several lines later in the chat, West wrote, “Someday I may run for governor and this would be bad if you know what I mean.”
A recall charge brought by Spokane’s Shannon Sullivan, and now headed to the Supreme Court on an appeal by West, is based on exchanges between West and the computer expert, including an e-mail letter.
The ballot synopsis of Sullivan’s charge states: “During a series of Internet conversations, before and after the letter, Mayor West sent a photograph of himself to the person, raised issues of sex, discussed dating and urged the person to keep Mayor West’s identity a secret. Mayor West admits these conversations.”
West has said he did nothing to misuse his office. He also said he is seeking more accurate wording in the ballot synopsis.
The decision to hire Spitzer came after Hession talked individually with council members to obtain “a consensus,” he said. There was no action in open session, and the public contract with Spitzer did not need a vote for approval by the council since the $7,500 maximum amount was below the city’s threshold for requiring a public vote during a regular council session. The council has its own budget for hiring outside legal assistance.
It is only the second time in two years that the City Council has sought outside legal advice. The last time in 2003 came during a dispute over salaries and benefits offered to top city employees under former Mayor John Powers.
The strong-mayor form of government approved by voters in 1999 does not include any provisions for removal of a mayor by the council, which leaves the state’s recall law as the only recourse in the case of wrongdoing.
On May 30, council members approved two resolutions. In the first, they unanimously called for West’s resignation. In the second, they signaled their intention to write a City Charter amendment creating a code of ethics and a disciplinary procedure for the mayor, including the possibility of impeachment.
The council on Tuesday is expected to vote on another resolution calling for West to abandon his appeal of Sullivan’s recall charge so that proponents could start gathering the 12,567 signatures required to force it onto the city ballot this year.
Seattle, by comparison, allows for impeachment. Its charter states: “The mayor may be removed from office after a hearing, for any willful violation of duty, or for the commission of an offense involving moral turpitude.”
City Attorney Connelly previously has said it’s not clear whether a city council can impeach a mayor, even with authority in its charter, since state law has a separate recall process for removing elected officials from office.
Councilman Bob Apple said council members believe the Seattle charter provision is the way Spokane should go.
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