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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Vestal: Time for patience with Police Guild has passed

If Steve Salvatori is tilting at windmills, the whole city should join him in the tilt.

Salvatori has lost patience with the quicksand of the city’s contract negotiations with the Spokane Police Guild. The process is a black hole of information, even for members of the City Council such as Salvatori, and one that has become a direct obstacle to the will of the people of Spokane. And so Salvatori is proposing that the city simply stop waiting on the guild and start implementing the charter amendments that voters passed in February – back when 70 percent of us said we wanted the Office of the Police Ombudsman to conduct its own independent investigations into complaints about police and to name a citizens review panel to oversee it.

If the guild members want to oppose it – again – let’s make them oppose it.

“I would be hesitant if I were them to tell the entire city to take a hike,” Salvatori said this week at a meeting of the city’s Public Safety Committee.

If they do, the entire city should fight back. And that would include, this time around, a vigorous defense of the citizens’ will by City Hall, rather than the rolling-over that occurred when former Mayor Mary Verner negotiated the 2009 contract that has blocked independent oversight of the police department ever since.

That contract made the ombudsman program a part of collective bargaining; it gave the Police Guild authority over what citizen oversight it would accept, and it led to an arbitration ruling in the guild’s favor. The conventional wisdom in some quarters is that it’s a settled issue – oversight must be negotiated with the guild.

Is that the way this was supposed to work?

Some citizens might mistakenly think we already do have independent police oversight in this city. After all, Spokane voters passed Proposition 1 in February with overwhelming support. Since then, nothing has happened, as the guild and the administration tango in complete and utter secrecy. Some, including the mayor, have urged patience. Some have expressed the not-implausible view that the city’s hands are tied by the contract and the previous ruling.

But Salvatori’s attitude feels right: The time for patience is past.

“I’ve run out of excuses to give the citizens,” Salvatori said.

He and other City Council members have complained before about the difficulties in getting accurate information about negotiations. Council President Ben Stuckart and Councilman Mike Allen asked Mayor David Condon if the council could have a representative at the negotiating sessions – they were rebuffed.

Salvatori said, “I have done everything I know to reach out to the guild … and I’ve heard nothing.

“So far we’ve been talking to a pillar,” he said.

Some wonder if it isn’t fruitless to go down this road, having already done so and lost. But Salvatori argues – backed by a cogent-seeming legal analysis by the Center for Justice – that the city botched that earlier case so badly that it ought to take another run at it. In essence, the city treated the dispute as a contract dispute for arbitration rather than trying to have the conflict settled in court – and then failed to argue its case strongly or smartly.

Salvatori calls this “a rather uncontested at-bat.” It has left the city with two options, the way the Center for Justice sees it: Wait for guild approval, or assert the city’s managerial authority under the law and prepare to defend it in court.

Salvatori’s ordinance includes a “severability clause” intended to clear away any conflict with the current police contract. It says any element of the ordinance that is pre-empted by an existing contract would be unenforceable. That could allow the city to slip this in without violating the current contract, but forcefully placing the expectations of the citizens and the City Council on the record, again, with regard to current negotiations.

It’s been six years since we began discussing an ombudsman program seriously in this town.

It’s been four years since the City Council passed a resolution urging independent investigative authority for the ombudsman – and then approved a contract that failed to do that.

It’s been three years since the City Council tried again, passing an ordinance giving the ombudsman independent power.

It’s been two years since the guild challenged that ordinance and had it undone.

It’s been seven months since 28,343 Spokane voters insisted, once again, that this is what we want and what we deserve and what we have the right to expect.

And still, the guild has us waiting.

Impatience is the virtue, in this case.

As Councilman Mike Allen put it, “The citizens gave us a very clear mandate. We need to follow through on that mandate.”

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