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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Ombudsman backer cites Zehm case

A city councilman is continuing his push to keep expanded investigative authority for Spokane’s police ombudsman, citing new disclosures that the assistant chief privately considered his department’s investigation of the fatal Otto Zehm confrontation to be flawed.

City Councilman Richard Rush said Tuesday that the testimony of Assistant Police Chief Jim Nicks, contained in newly filed U.S. District Court documents, shows that the strengthened powers of the ombudsman could avert the kind of problems that developed in the Zehm case.

“Perhaps this illustrates why an ombudsman with the authority granted under the 2010 ordinance is so important to investigating incidents like this,” Rush said. “So we can learn from our mistakes and craft best police procedures and practices going forward.”

The council, however, is poised to repeal that expanded authority after losing an arbitration in which the labor union representing police officers successfully argued that it violated their work contract.

Rush wants the council to recommend city administrators appeal the arbitrator’s decision. He said even if unsuccessful, an appeal would create a ruling that the city could take to legislators from a “higher authority” in an attempt to change state law.

While most on the council say they want the ombudsman to maintain his authority, Rush may be alone on the council in seeking an appeal. Even City Councilman Bob Apple, who has been critical of the city’s handling of the Zehm case, said Tuesday that appealing the decision appears futile.

“I don’t feel that an arbitrator’s decision is something to be considered lightly or something that can be withdrawn from just because the city doesn’t like the result,” Councilman Jon Snyder said last week.

City Council President Joe Shogan has said an appeal would be a waste of money.

“We’ll get to the same result no matter where we go with this,” Shogan said last week.

Attempts made Tuesday to reach other council members were unsuccessful.

The council is set to decide Aug. 22 whether it will repeal the ombudsman’s extra powers or suggest appealing the ruling to the employment commission or to a court.

Last week, City Attorney Howard Delaney wrote the Center for Justice, a nonprofit law firm in Spokane, informing them that Mayor Mary Verner is “in direct contact” with city police unions to reach an agreement to maintain investigative authority. Delaney said “initial reception” of the unions “has been positive.”

The Center for Justice has been among groups pushing the city to strengthen ombudsman rules.

Center spokesman Tim Connor said without investigative powers, the ombudsman’s “only purpose will be as a public relations tool for the city and the police department.”

“This would be a fatal setback for the credibility of the ombudsman and squander the public investment in the office,” Connor said in an email.

Connor called the original 2008 police ordinance that was amended by the 2010 rules “farcical.”

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