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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Judges hire fired city attorney Howard Delaney

The city of Spokane’s former top attorney, who was fired last year by Mayor David Condon, is back on the city’s payroll.

Howard Delaney was hired last month by the city’s three elected Municipal Court judges to be the court’s top administrator.

Condon has no authority in the hiring of court staff and was not consulted before Delaney was selected.

Delaney, who is earning about $99,000 a year in his new job, confirmed his return to city employment but did not return a call seeking additional comment. He had served as the city’s top attorney for four years after being promoted from city prosecutor by former Mayor Mary Verner in 2008. He earned about $151,000 in 2011, his last full year as city attorney.

Under his leadership, the city ended its long partnership with the Spokane County District Court and formed the separate Municipal Court, which started operation in January 2009.

Delaney’s office was criticized for its handling of legal matters surrounding the death of Otto Zehm, who died after a violent encounter with police in 2006. The first responding officer, Karl F. Thompson Jr., is serving time in a federal prison after he was convicted of using excessive force and lying to investigators.

Federal prosecutors accused the city attorney’s office of interfering in their criminal investigation of Thompson. They also said Delaney’s office placed the interests of the city, which was fighting a lawsuit from Zehm’s family, above the “search for the truth in its criminal investigation.”

The city attorney’s office denied the accusation and said prosecutors were inappropriately interfering in the civil proceedings.

Judge Mary Logan, the Municipal Court’s presiding judge, said Delaney was selected without interviewing other candidates, in large part because he successfully implemented an electronic case management system when he led the city prosecutor’s office. The court was in the midst of implementing the same system when its previous administrator, Cindy Marshall, accepted a position out of state, Logan said.

“It is important to view the decision to hire Howard Delaney separate from any of the nonrelated politics and is not intended as an affront to the mayor or his administration,” Logan said in a prepared statement.

Asked if he was disappointed by the hiring, Condon said Logan “can hire who she sees fit.”

Logan said Delaney has provided a “seamless transition.”

“Mr. Delaney has excellent administrative and computer skills coupled with longstanding trust relationships with the court and the criminal justice agencies, including public defense, prosecution and probation,” Logan’s statement said.

Before being hired as the court administrator, Delaney served as a judge pro tem with the court. Logan said he will continue to work as a substitute judge at no additional cost to the court when there are unexpected absences or in emergency situations.

City Attorney Nancy Isserlis, who was hired by Condon to replace Delaney, said she was surprised by his selection but that the “judges are free to make the hiring decisions for their staff since it is an independent arm of the municipal government.”

City Council President Ben Stuckart noted that the three judges who hired Delaney are unopposed in their re-election bids this year. The judges were appointed by Verner and retained their offices in city elections in 2009.

“If anyone thought they weren’t doing a really good job, they would have had an opponent,” Stuckart said. “I trust them as a separate branch of the government to make the right decisions for them.”

Breean Beggs, former director of Spokane’s Center for Justice, served on a committee of judges and attorneys who in 2008 ranked candidates to serve as judges for the Municipal Court. He said Delaney did not appear to be involved in the selection of judges and remembers Verner picking the committee’s top three choices. When City Council members made it clear that one of the choices would not win confirmation, Verner picked a candidate who Beggs recalled as the next highest-ranked candidate, then-assistant city attorney Michelle Szambelan. Beggs, who represented the Zehm family in its suit against the city, said he’s not concerned by Delaney’s appointment.

“He knows the Municipal Court backwards and forwards,” Beggs said. “When I look at the Verner administration I would say the Municipal Court was its biggest success.”