An ally of Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart has been chosen to replace city attorney Mike Piccolo as the council’s legal adviser, a move designed to assert the council’s independence from Mayor David Condon’s administration.
Brian McClatchey, a local attorney with ties to regional tribes and experience on the city’s Plan Commission, was picked by a unanimous vote of council members Thursday afternoon.
Councilman Mike Fagan, who voted to approve McClatchey’s hiring, said Friday that he would have preferred hiring another finalist for the position, Jo Ellen Thomas, over McClatchey, saying her “qualifications and experience blow Mr. McClatchey out of the water. They do, truly.”
Fagan, the most conservative member of the council, said he supported McClatchey’s hiring instead, “acknowledging the fact that I’m going to have to work with him for the next year. I don’t want to start out on a bad note with him. But am I going to get a fair shake in the future? I don’t know. Only time will tell.”
McClatchey said he looked forward to his role in “providing information to every single council member to help get their legislative priorities to reality.”
“I will treat every council member as a client and provide my best efforts to each and every one of them,” he said. “I look forward to forming a sound relationship with Mike Fagan. I enjoy working with him. I think he brings a refreshing voice.”
McClatchey has donated nearly $3,000 to liberal and Democratic candidates and causes in recent years, though not to Stuckart. In November, when Stuckart became the subject of an ethics complaint for improperly sharing an email dealing with a confidential lawsuit, Stuckart said he had hired McClatchey to represent him.
At the time, McClatchey called the ethics complaint a “distraction.”
The ethics committee ruled that Stuckart had violated the city’s ethics code, but could not find any evidence that his actions hurt the city. He was fined $250.
At Thursday’s meeting, Stuckart said he and McClatchey had ultimately decided not to work together on the ethics complaint. McClatchey echoed Stuckart.
“I decided that there might be an appearance of conflict so I withdrew and I didn’t represent Ben in front of the ethics committee,” McClatchey said.
When McClatchey begins on April 20, he will perform most of the roles of a city attorney, including legal research and analysis, drafting ordinances and resolutions, and attending council meetings. He will not represent the council in court, because of restrictions in the city charter. McClatchey’s position as policy adviser will come with an $87,000 salary, which was funded by the council when it approved this year’s budget in November.
As policy adviser, McClatchey will be an at-will, exempt employee, meaning he won’t be part of a union. Due to an ordinance the council passed this year, votes from five council members are needed to remove McClatchey. Piccolo, whom he is replacing, will remain with the city attorney’s office.
“It’s an amazing opportunity to be the first person to have this job. It’s something the council needs,” McClatchey said. “They need the right staffing in place to help them be as smart as they possibly can. It’s not about us versus them.”
Under Stuckart’s leadership, the council has said strengthening its autonomy was a goal.
“We’ve said it since 2012. We were all really clear we wanted to assert the independence of this branch of our government. This is one step in that direction,” Stuckart said. “If there’s disagreement on a piece of legislation, where the mayor opposes it and the council is moving it forward, there needs to be a clear delineation on the legal end.”
Aside from numerous council assistants, the council office employs a budget analyst, Debra Robole, but she was hired by the council before Stuckart was elected.
Councilman Mike Allen, who was absent during Thursday’s vote, said McClatchey was his “first choice.”
“I always found him to be very professional and courteous,” Allen said, noting that he believed McClatchey would offer fair advice to all members. “With any of these jobs, if his performance is biased, then that will definitely present itself.”
Stuckart agreed, but suggested that politics are a part of City Hall.
“It was a unanimous decision. That speaks highly of Brian,” he said. “Nobody questions Theresa Sanders’ ability to be a great, strong city administrator. And she donated to the mayor in 2011 and maxed out this time. But nobody questions her advice.”
Sanders, who holds one of the most influential positions at City Hall, has donated $1,800 to Condon’s re-election campaign, to his 2011 campaign, and to other conservative or Republican candidates.
McClatchey, a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, recently practiced law with K&L Gates and was the in-house attorney for the Coeur d’Alene Casino from 2007 to 2012. He has owned his own law firm since last summer and is the vice president of the city’s Plan Commission.
He also chairs the commission’s subcommittee on transportation, a new board tasked with determining how the 2014 street levy money will be spent during the next 20 years. With his new position, McClatchey must resign from those roles at the city.
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