The plan to rehire an alcoholic Spokane police officer who fled the scene of a drunken off-duty crash is being put on hold.
Spokane Mayor David Condon announced today that he wants to give the state Human Rights Commission more time to investigate former police Sgt. Brad Thoma’s complaint that his workplace rights were violated by the city’s refusal to accommodate his alcoholism disability. The executive director of the state commission was critical of Spokane’s earlier characterization that it had signed off on the controversial deal between the city and Thoma’s lawyer.
Condon said he learned today that the commissioners want another 30 days to have a second investigator look into the proposed legal settlement. Under the plan that Condon initially wanted the City Council to approve next week, Thoma would be rehired but demoted to detective, and given back pay of about $275,000.
“It was absolutely new to me and has changed the circumstances within the city,” Condon said of the commission’s announcement. What was believed to be an endorsement of the settlement by the commission “was a major factual piece I was using to make this decision.”
Asked if he wanted to rehire Thoma following his arrest for DUI and leaving the scene of an accident in 2009, Condon replied: “No. It is the wrong decision to make. But the decision you toil about the most is not the right decision, it’s the legal decision.”
Thoma was fired in December 2009 following an arrest for driving under the influence and leaving the scene of an accident he caused when he struck a pickup truck with his vehicle.
Thoma’s lawyer, Bob Dunn, argued that his client has a disability — alcoholism — that the police department knew about but did not help Thoma get help with. The city said it did not know Thoma was an alcoholic until after the accident.
The settlement that has been pulled from the council agenda would have resolved three pending issues, city spokeswoman Marlene Feist said in the news release: a grievance by the Spokane Police Guild, a civil claim by Thoma and a complaint by the state Human Rights Commission asserting the city failed to accommodate a disability.
With the extra 30 days, Condon said he wants the Human Rights Commission to key on one question he has: What is the responsibility of an employer to accommodate a disease? And, one that Condon said the city didn’t know about until after the DUI collision.
Condon said hiring Thoma back would “absolutely” undermine his efforts to restore trust within the Spokane Police Department, following a series of missteps by officers, large payouts to settle other disciplinary actions and the Nov. 3 conviction of Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. for his 2006 confrontation with Otto Zehm.
“The public can trust that I will be open and honest about why I make a determination,” Condon said. “In this case, during the last 24 hours the facts have changed. It gives us an opportunity to pull it for now.”
He cautioned, however, that the decision may be the same in the end. “I don’t get the liberty to make the decisions every day that people would feel is just or right,” he said.
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