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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Council members want police ombudsman in city charter

City officials have a new strategy to achieve independent police oversight after multiple failed attempts: Let the voters decide.

Spokane City Council members Steve Salvatori and Mike Allen want to ask voters in February to approve a city charter amendment creating a police ombudsman position with the ability to investigate alleged police abuse separately from the Police Department’s internal affairs division. The plan also would create a citizen board that would oversee the ombudsman.

“If it’s in there as a charter amendment, it’s pretty much baked in the cake,” Salvatori said. “Mike and I felt that it was important to give the citizens a voice and a say in this so unequivocally all future administrations, all future councils, all future mayors, all future guild (members) – that everyone knows that in the city of Spokane, we want civilian oversight of the police.”

City administrators and the Spokane Police Guild are in mediation working to reach a new deal to replace the union’s contract that expired last year.

Most City Council members have said or at least strongly hinted that they would not support a contract that did not give the police ombudsman independent investigative power. With next year’s budget flat, however, the city has little to give the union in exchange for stronger oversight.

The Spokane City Council approved the ombudsman law in 2008. Two years later, it added provisions giving the ombudsman independent oversight powers. But the guild filed a grievance, and the state Public Employment Relations Commission sided with the guild, forcing the council to revoke the new powers last year. The state board ruled that because the original oversight system was bargained with the guild and included in its contract, changes also had to be approved by the guild.

An attempt made to reach Guild President Ernie Wuthrich was unsuccessful Thursday.

The proposal will be considered by the City Council early next month.

It was filed with the city clerk’s office on Wednesday, one day before Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. was sentenced for his role in the beating of Otto Zehm, a Spokane man who died in 2006 after a violent encounter with police. Zehm’s death created the political pressure to create the city’s ombudsman position.

Salvatori said timing of the resolution with Thompson’s sentencing is coincidental. He wanted to file it in time so it could be properly debated before next month’s deadline to place an item on the Feb. 12 ballot.

Most council members say they like the idea, though some, including Councilman Jon Snyder, are worried that – given other failures at approving stronger oversight – even rules approved at the ballot box might not survive a grievance.

“It’s an interesting concept. I’m always looking for angles where we can achieve the citizens’ goal of independent police oversight,” said Councilwoman Amber Waldref. “My No. 1 question is, does this actually achieve the goal?”

City spokeswoman Marlene Feist said Mayor David Condon has seen the proposal but hasn’t taken a position on it.

Breean Beggs, a Zehm attorney and the former director of Spokane’s Center for Justice, said the amendment would mean that the city couldn’t accept a guild contract without independent oversight.

If the guild didn’t agree to oversight in contract negotiations, the matter might have to be decided by the employment commission, and he believes that having the rules enshrined in the charter likely would change the outcome.

Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart said he supports the plan, but prefers that the proposal go before voters in the primary or general elections next year because the city already is scheduled to have to pay for those elections.

Holding a special election in February would cost about $200,000.

Liz Moore, director of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane, said the group likely would advocate for voter support for the charter amendment.

“It’s an opportunity to create a durable structure,” she said.

She said there’s little patience in the community for waiting much longer for stronger police oversight, and February may be the better choice to go to voters.

“If it’s important in being able to move forward, it may be worth it,” she said.