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Mayor’s FAQs on Zehm case short on real answers, again

It is sad that the Otto Zehm case is becoming a political spectacle.

Sad, and absolutely appropriate. Because it’s hard to see what else – apart from insistent public pressure and repeated uncomfortable questions – might lead to an actual public accounting of how the leadership has led.

Otherwise, all we can count on is what we’ve already seen: A pretense from the mayor, the police chief and most of the city’s leadership that they are somehow bound by questions of legality and propriety and respect for the judiciary from saying anything or doing anything or settling anything or standing for anything. And worse: the repeated insinuations that it is improper or naïve to expect them to do so.

Pick your monkey – see-no, hear-no, speak-no – then shut up.

So it’s good for everybody that David Condon is poking that monkey with a stick. Condon, the former hand-servant for Cathy McMorris Rodgers who’s running for mayor, came out with a statement criticizing Mayor Mary Verner and everybody else over the Zehm case. In particular, he blasted the mayor for allowing the city to proceed with a legal strategy in the family’s lawsuit that now seems doomed by information that has long been known at City Hall – the turning of Assistant Chief Jim Nicks and others against Officer Karl Thompson, who faces federal charges in Zehm’s death.

Just because it’s opportunistic doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

Verner responded with a statement of outrage. It was reckless for Condon to dis her so. He was victimizing the Zehm family all over again. It was horrible of him to use this tragedy for his personal political ambition, she said in the statement released by the organization that supports her personal political ambition.

On Friday, she followed with a hastily called campaign appearance – I mean, an official news conference as mayor – in which she and several council members announced plans to investigate the hell out of this case, eventually.

Well, OK. Super. But Verner’s newly public passion for getting to the bottom of things was accompanied by a refusal to answer any questions. It would be wrong, of course, for her to answer any questions while there is a pending trial. Instead, she helpfully passed out a list of FAQs.

FAQs? Really? Is there any tool in the duck-and-deflect arsenal of public relations that is quite so presumptuous? Is there any form of stunt accountability that more clearly skirts any form of true accountability?

Plus, plenty of Q’s were not exactly A’d.

Such as:

Why now, Mayor? What made this moment – Sept. 9, 2011, five-plus years after Zehm died – the right time to announce that eventually, once everybody else gets done handling it, the city is going to go after this thing like a badger?

It wasn’t politics, was it?

Because that would be – what, reckless? Thoughtless?

And what about this plan for a thorough external and internal inquiry – excellent as it is – took “several weeks to craft”? Did it really take that long to consult the Manual of Obvious Responses?

Surely neither politics nor any other form of self-interest had anything at all to do with the years of silence and deferral on this case at City Hall, followed by lots of empty, high-profile gestures on the heels of shocking public revelations?

And – to follow up on the first question – why was Aug. 16 the prime moment to announce the city would pursue closure and resolution in the civil lawsuit brought by the Zehm family? It wasn’t, I assume, because the turning of Nicks against Thompson had blown up into a public outcry?

Should we adopt any skepticism about the sincerity of that gesture given the fact that nearly a month after the pledge to pursue “any and all courses of action” toward a resolution, the attorneys for the Zehm family are still wondering exactly what that means?

If, as Verner says, it’s a re-victimization of the Zehm family for Condon to criticize the city, is it a re-re-victimization of the Zehm family for her to criticize Condon for criticizing the city?

What, precisely, is inappropriate about pressing these questions? What, precisely, would be inappropriate about answering some of them? What, precisely, is inappropriate about demanding accountability from a bureaucracy that absorbed and silenced legally inconvenient information until it became too embarrassing to do so? A group of leaders who – if Bob Apple is to be believed – sat on this information at the assurances of a city attorney that it would not be introduced in court?

Speaking of Apple, could somebody find him a pair of long pants for the next press conference?

And could someone spring for a day planner for the chief of police? So she’s able to make it to the next get-tough, respect-the-process, we’ll-all-heal-eventually presser?

So many Q’s. Such empty A’s.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.
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