Just two months after Mayor Jim West was recalled, newly appointed Mayor Dennis Hession is starting to discover just how hot politics can get inside Spokane City Hall.
A series of controversies engulfed city government last week, including more troubling revelations arising from a sexual liaison between a city firefighter and a 16-year-old girl at the city’s Indian Trail fire station on Feb. 10.
Hession and other city officials confirmed last week that two police detectives, who were called out in the pre-dawn hours to investigate the episode, are under internal investigation for their role in the deletion of sexually explicit photos the firefighter took of the teenager using a digital camera.
Initially, Hession said at a Thursday press conference that one police detective was under internal investigation. The mayor was forced to acknowledge later that the detective and his supervising sergeant both were being investigated.
On Saturday, Hession explained that his misstatement on Thursday, which was also included in a City Hall press release, stemmed from a lack of complete information being given to the mayor’s office.
Hession, who was appointed mayor in December by the City Council, refused to say whether he intends to fire anyone or what discipline might be appropriate for the three employees under investigation. He said he needs to wait for a pair of internal probes before passing judgment.
The Spokane County prosecuting attorney’s office has declined to pursue criminal charges in the case. Washington law makes it a felony to possess pictures of anyone younger than 18 involved in “sexually explicit conduct.”
For his part, the mayor is showing a level of patience and a respect for the system that apparently comes from his years of practice as a business lawyer in Spokane.
He is leaving the in-house investigations in the hands of police internal affairs officers and his administrative staff, despite calls from two City Council members that an outside independent agency should be brought in.
Even the city’s firefighters union president said he expects the firefighter will likely be terminated if the accounts of what happened prove to be correct, but he also expects the firefighter to be investigated fairly.
Hession said, “This guy (the firefighter) is entitled to due process, and I don’t want to do anything to suggest he’s not getting due process.” The mayor explained he is taking a cautious approach to ensure fairness in the ultimate decision on discipline.
As the fire station scandal simmered last week, Hession also found himself responding to a threat by Spokane County to turn away more than 100 city inmates at Geiger Corrections Center because the city has yet to pay higher incarceration fees to the county.
Hession said the city has an agreement with the county that outlines a method for resolving billing disputes, and he expects that process to be followed. The larger problem, he said, is limited room for inmates and escalating costs of keeping them locked up.
Tensions between city and county officials have increased in recent years, in part because of budget problems at both agencies, but also because of disagreements over how best to plan for residential and commercial growth on the fringe of the city. City officials have said they want to annex tax-rich portions of the county to help close perennial budget crunches at City Hall.
The city last week was also confronted about questions over the safety of artificial turf at Joe Albi Stadium. The soccer team that leases the stadium hired a private consultant, who reported that the existing surface is unsafe for soccer. West last year proposed selling Albi for housing development, but the plan died for lack of support from the City Council.
The city is facing a new threat by its nonprofit animal control agency to withdraw its services if the city doesn’t provide more money for its dogcatchers and shelter costs. The city may have to turn to Spokane County for animal control services. The City Council on Monday will consider increases in license fees to pay for higher animal control costs.
The mayor and City Council are also debating changes in the city’s contract with a private ambulance company, which has been accused of over-billing private patients.
As a result, Councilman Bob Apple wants to strip the Fire Department of its contract-monitoring duties.
Hession said problems may be mounting on him, but the current difficulties are not as troubling as last year when West refused to resign after using his office to solicit dates from young men, setting the stage for a months-long recall fight.
“These are things over which we have much more control,” Hession said in his characteristic restrained manner.
“I know it isn’t always an easy job, but I believe this office is doing a good job to be responsive to the issues.”
Former City Councilwoman Cherie Rodgers had a different view. “What a hazing he’s taking,” she said.
Rodgers said Hession has shown a troubling tendency of backing up city administrators even when they are wrong. “He’s in a pit of snakes,” she said.
The way top administrators have handled public disclosure of the firefighter incident is a prime example, she said. “It’s the same old, ‘Oh well. Let’s not tell the public what’s going on,’ ” Rodgers said.
“I felt sorry for Dennis,” Rodgers said. “He gets caught up in that public relations machine up there.”
The problems will compound on one another if they are not addressed, Apple said, but he trusts Hession to take action. “It’s as if nobody is taking anything seriously.”
Hession rejects the suggestion he is not being forceful. Rather, he appears to be following a well-honed instinct for being deliberative. “This is my responsibility,” he said. “I take it very seriously. I am not running away from these (problems). I am very interested in finding resolutions.”
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