Spokane’s first police ombudsman will soon be out of a job, and the city may be without a permanent replacement for several months.
Mayor David Condon has decided not to renew Ombudsman Tim Burns’ three-year contract that expires Aug. 24, said City Administrator Theresa Sanders. He will keep his job, however, until Oct. 31.
Sanders said Condon was uncomfortable extending Burns’ stay for the long term because the position is likely to change. The city’s Use of Force Commission is due to release its final recommendations for a reformed police oversight model next month. Condon also has said he will select a new police chief by the end of this month.
“We’re in the process of re-engineering that position,” Sanders said.
Burns, 58, was the neighborhood preservation manager in Visalia, Calif. when he was picked for the ombudsman job by then-Mayor Mary Verner in June 2009. Before his work in neighborhood services and code enforcement, Burns served as a police officer for 22 years in Los Gatos, Calif.
Sanders said Burns offered to stay through the end of the year but that the administration decided to end his employment Oct. 31. She said that since the city was certain to have a transition, Condon decided the transition should start earlier.
“When Tim and I spoke, he was looking for some certainty for the future and I was unable to provide that to him,” Sanders said.
Last year, Burns was paid about $99,000 plus medical and other benefits.
Rick Eichstaedt, director of the Spokane-based Center for Justice, said he’s concerned that the city will be without an ombudsman.
“We have an existing ombudsman ordinance in place. We need to have an ombudsman,” Eichstaedt said. “There was considerable public outcry to get an ombudsman in place. This needs to be vetted with the community.”
Burns said Wednesday that he has discussed his future at the city with Condon and Sanders since January. He declined to give details of the discussions.
“I think the mayor and I will come to a mutual agreement at some point in the near future,” Burns said. “I’d rather have this conversation after I have it with the mayor first. There’s not a whole lot to know at this time, quite honestly.”
Sanders said Condon is committed to maintaining an ombudsman position and that each of the options for police oversight under consideration by the Use of Force Commission includes an ombudsman. She also said the city will work with Burns to determine how ombudsman duties will be handled until the new system is in place. That might include appointing an acting ombudsman.
The Center for Justice and other groups have criticized the city for not giving the ombudsman authority to investigate allegations of police misconduct separately from the police department’s own investigations. When he took the job, Burns said he was fine with the limitation, but he later endorsed a City Council proposal to expand his powers.
“He has done an admirable job, given the limitations he has,” Eichstaedt said.
Burns has received mostly praise from elected leaders for his work, and Sanders said Burns gave the city a good start for better police oversight.
“He’s been very calm, cool and collected,” said City Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin. “He has great listening skills.”
In order to expand the ombudsman’s powers, city officials must win agreement from the Spokane Police Guild.
“We are absolutely committed to having an ombudsman and we are committed to having some kind of citizens’ oversight,” Sanders said. “I know that the guild is going to be willing to discuss it with us. I just don’t know what the outcome is going to be.”
City Council President Ben Stuckart said he supports the decision not to offer Burns a long-term contract at least until the city determines its new model for police oversight. But he said he’s concerned about having a long period without a permanent ombudsman on duty.
“We need an ombudsman,” Stuckart said, “even if the ombudsman is not as strong as I or the citizens want.”
Local attorney Breean Beggs, the former director of the Center for Justice, said Burns worked diligently to be perceived as fair by both law enforcement and police critics.
“It’s too bad we are losing Tim Burns now, because he took a good year and a half before he figured out what was going on in the Spokane Police Department,” Beggs said. “Whoever takes over will have to start from scratch.”
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