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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Lopez-AMR contract kerfuffle raises questions

Before the courts slapped down the mayor’s attempt to expand political appointments in the city’s hiring, one handpicked hire snuck through the gate.

That appointment – the hiring of Mike Lopez as head of EMS services – illustrates the problems built into the entire approach. Lopez was hired without a competitive process. He was hired before his position had even formally been created. His hiring was justified by a bureaucratic rigmarole – title-shuffling and department-creating – and placed in a Catch-22 type of category, which Assistant Chief Brian Schaeffer described in an internal email as a “civilian EMS Chief that isn’t a chief.”

Lopez has since been a part of a single-bidder contract process that seems, to some, to have been designed to hand over a long-term deal to his former employer, American Medical Response. Council President Ben Stuckart challenged Fire Chief Bobby Williams about the contract at a Public Safety committee meeting.

“The chief didn’t answer the question,” Stuckart said this week. “He handed it off to Mike Lopez, who is a former AMR employee.”

Is something rotten in all this? Part of the goal of good government is to make it possible to tell. The problem with the Lopez-AMR mess is not that anyone can say for certain that there was an improper connection between these dots. It’s that it’s impossible to say for certain that there wasn’t.

In spring 2013, Mayor David Condon proposed a new approach to hiring administrators. The city charter allows for two at-will, political appointments at the top of each department. Civil service laws, intended to prevent cronyism and nepotism, establish a merit-based process for identifying candidates and hiring.

Condon’s proposal redefined the fire, police and parks departments as “divisions,” each with several departments. The change, approved by the City Council, meant that Condon could appoint 40 at-will employees instead of six.

This dramatic expansion of appointees was presented as necessary to create a more efficient, responsive organization, one that could avoid the entrenched bureaucracy of civil service and allow the administration more flexibility. Of course, one mayor’s “efficiency” is another’s “cronyism.” And, while the mayor’s “action guy” haste and urgency has sometimes served the city well, it has also sometimes seemed ill-considered and rushed-into.

Judge Kathleen O’Connor termed the Fire Department’s reorganization “ludicrous” when she threw it out on April 25, ruling it was a violation of state law. The City Council later undid the reorganization of the Fire Department. Upon the mayor’s appeal of the ruling, a judge decided the whole thing was moot based on the council’s rescinding of the reorganization.

But by the time of O’Connor’s ruling, Lopez had already been hired. His hiring was indeed a model of efficiency.

According to documents obtained by the firefighters union and used in its challenges to the mayor’s hiring practices, Schaeffer emailed City Administrator Theresa Sanders on March 28, 2013, about creating the new position for Lopez. “I know that his need is 80k in salary,” wrote Schaeffer, adding that he would have to shift funds around to make that happen, and he was “confident we can do that.”

Sanders responded that they could create the position. “Please be careful not to promise the job to Mike,” she wrote. “The Mayor will be very engaged in this discussion. Recommend you get Mike in Spokane to spend time with him soon.”

The mayor’s time with Mike must have gone well. Condon offered him the job in writing April 10. Lopez accepted April 15, the day after a formal job description for the position was completed.

Now, it might be argued that Lopez had a unique set of skills and experiences for the job. He once ran the AMR operation in Spokane, and left it 10 years ago for the state Health Department. He might, in fact, be the best person in the whole wide world for the job. Still, it’s always good to take a peek around at the whole wide world before deciding.

Don Waller, the president of the firefighters union and a persistent antagonist of the administration on the Lopez and AMR matter, said it would be hard to argue that Lopez was the best person for the job, given that the job wasn’t formally even defined when it was offered to him. Furthermore, if he was the best, wouldn’t he have survived a competitive process?

“It’s very obvious the city was actually trying to skirt rules and find gray areas to get what they wanted,” Waller said. “That’s not the way government is supposed to work.”

The recent kerfuffle over the AMR contract helps illustrate why that is.

Prior to the city putting out bid requirements for its ambulance service, it revised the language of the contract to limit bidders to those with experience in cities of 150,000 or larger. In essence, this left AMR as the only qualifying bidder. The process of how those bid requirements were established has now become a matter of debate and innuendo; Condon agreed this week to put the contract out for bids again.

Could there be a more perfect example of the reasons to do things the right way? Perhaps every single piece of this was wise, from the hiring of Lopez to the revision of contract language. But the specter of a political appointee defending a single-bid contract awarded to his former employer – it’s like a case study on how to create the appearance of impropriety.

Williams, the city’s fire chief, correctly notes that Lopez was hired according to the rules at the time – the mayor’s short-lived reorganization. He correctly says that hiring by selective appointment is done throughout governments. He argues correctly that Lopez brings a ton of experience to the job, in government and the private sector. He says he was blindsided over the contract dispute, because the other bidder that has since complained about it, Falck, as well as council members, had ample opportunity to weigh in on the bid specifications throughout the process and did not do so.

He says the process was clean, and his argument is persuasive. The problem is that we are left to take his word for it. Or not to.

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

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