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Shawn Vestal: Strong Spokane council blasts mayor’s weak arguments for police deal

Shawn Vestal
Shawn Vestal

Welcome to the strong council system of government.

The Spokane City Council acted quickly and without equivocation Monday in rejecting the mayor’s failed effort at negotiating an acceptable contract with the Spokane Police Guild. Council President Ben Stuckart urged the strong mayor to go back and try again.

At least someone in the system is acting strong. Because when it comes to the desires of citizens, Mayor David Condon capitulated, and the council stood strong. In pursuit of badly needed outside investigation of local police misconduct, the mayor equivocated, and the council stood strong. In the face of a public exhausted by years of failed attempts to force police accountability, the mayor trotted out the brand-new police chief – who probably still has unpacked boxes at home – to counsel us about patience, and the council stood strong.

In his public attempts to redefine and weasel-word the term “independent investigative authority” – in his patience-testing claims that the tentative agreement with the Police Guild does what it manifestly does not do – the mayor has spent his credibility lavishly. And then, once the council stood strong, the mayor suggested they had been hasty – when in reality they and the public have been waiting and waiting and waiting.

One wonders how Condon the candidate – who took savvy advantage of the previous mayor’s failures on police oversight – would run against Condon the mayor. Actually, one doesn’t wonder, because the line of attack would be obvious: The mayor gave the guild raises in exchange for signing away only some of what citizens demanded.

“The bottom line is the administration negotiated a bad deal,” Stuckart said. “I’ve talked to zero people, besides the administration,” who think otherwise.

Stuckart campaigned for his seat on the notion of a stronger, more activist council president and council – a view of the legislative branch working alongside the executive. This has not been exactly how it’s worked out. Condon’s administration has been short on collaboration and playing with others.

On this question in particular, one of the mayor’s failures was to shut out direct council involvement in negotiations with the guild. Stuckart and council member Mike Allen asked Condon specifically, “months and months and months ago,” to be allowed to sit in on negotiations and were shut down. Short of that, there must have been a way to leave council members feeling less in the dark.

Stuckart now argues that a more collaborative process could have prevented the current standoff. If nothing else, the mayor could have been alerted – though it is mind-boggling to consider how much of an alert he needed – that the “tentative agreement” was insufficient.

Condon has tried to claim otherwise. The tentative agreement granted the guild 2 percent annual raises over three years and established a system in which police complaints are still investigated by the Internal Affairs unit. The TA does expand the ombudsman’s role and adds a citizen commission with the authority to order investigations. But bottom line: The investigations would not be independent. Seventy percent of voters in the city made it part of the city charter that police would be overseen by an ombudsman with independent investigative authority.

Condon seems to believe there are different ways to interpret this – different “latitudes” of independence. That argument is weak, and the council’s is strong: Independent means outside, apart, unconnected, not contingent – “not affiliated with a larger, controlling unit,” as Merriam-Webster puts it. It does not mean a system in which the investigators and the investigated belong to the same bargaining unit.

Otherwise, “you’re just stuck inside the system,” Stuckart said. “This has always been about the ombudsman acting outside the current system. That’s what independent investigation is all about.”

Stuckart orchestrated the Monday afternoon rejection of the mayor’s bad deal, but it was a unanimous vote. Not one of the four conservative members of the council was persuaded by the mayor’s tricksy explanations.

What now for police oversight? Close observers of this process have suggested that the mayor simply did not pursue outside investigations as a priority. His answers and his spokesman Brian Coddington’s answers to questions about this have been evasive and hair-splitting.

Stuckart says he’s optimistic that negotiations could still produce an agreement that honors Proposition 1. We can all hope, though the guild’s legal power should not be underestimated; it clearly towers above that of the mere citizens.

Which is why good enough cannot be good enough. The mayor is now out making the case that it is. He’s choosing his words carefully – avoiding “independent investigative authority” in favor of “independent oversight.” He says he got the city a good deal “at a cost the citizens could afford” – which makes you wonder whether the cost or the accountability was his priority. He says that it is now “apparent that we have to work with the City Council” to get what the citizens need.

That’s apparent now?

Weak, Mayor.

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