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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Smart Bombs: Mayor seduced by secrecy

In the “City of Choice,” Mayor David Condon was faced with a big one last spring: Play by the rules, or enter into a job transfer deal with then-police spokeswoman Monique Cotton that would require deceit to conceal the motive.

The choice he made was the best for him politically because it kept a sexual harassment allegation against his police chief out of the news in an election year. Was that why he did it? Condon says no. But if the allegation were revealed in early April, perhaps other candidates would have filed to run against him. As it was, he faced a relatively obscure opponent, Shar Lichty.

But, hey, it just turned out that way.

When the subterfuge was exposed, City Hall acknowledged that Cotton wanted to move on from alleged sexual harassment by moving away from then-police Chief Frank Straub. She asked for a transfer and wanted it to look like a promotion. The mayor agreed to this extraordinary (one would hope) misdirection, which set into motion a false narrative that Condon’s inner circle would sell.

But because this deal precluded a formal complaint from Cotton, the mayor had no basis to remove Straub. So from April until late September, it’s possible the Police Department was being run by a ticking liability bomb who still supervised women. Straub has denied sexual harassment allegations.

Cotton got the new job – “positive messaging” for the Parks Department (whose board wasn’t consulted). She got the raise, a hefty $9,000. It’s the rare boss who is this accommodating.

But Cotton also wanted the city to pick up the costs she incurred in hiring outside counsel, rather than taking her complaint to the Human Resources Department. If the city didn’t comply, her attorney said, the allegation could end up as a lawsuit.

The price tag was about $13,000, which included counseling costs, according to Cotton’s attorney, Bob Dunn. In a sense, we can view that as the value of the secret, unless Dunn was bluffing about revealing it.

Then, according to the mayor, the lieutenants and captains union came forward with a letter delineating Straub’s abusive behavior of a nonsexual nature. In short order, the chief was forced out without an investigation. So short, he wasn’t given a chance to respond, according to Straub’s $4 million legal claim.

In another act of accommodation, the city will continue paying Straub his considerable salary – the highest at City Hall – through December. Condon said the former chief would be doing important criminal justice work for the city attorney’s office. But he hasn’t shown up at the office, and officials have declined to produce evidence of his labors.

Guess they feel they’ve earned the public’s trust on this one.

When Condon and his aides were initially asked whether sexual harassment was behind the transfer of Cotton, they said no. However, they knew their tale would unravel, because The Spokesman-Review’s City Hall reporter had requested documents in August related to Cotton’s transfer.

As it turned out, city workers weren’t able to pull those records together for three months because – darn the luck – an inordinate number of requests had poured in at the same time, the mayor has said.

So the election came and went, and voters were none the wiser. Condon won the race but damaged his reputation. Public trust also took a beating.

By choosing secrecy, the mayor ignored the lesson of all political scandals: Nobody wins when the truth is treated as the problem.

POSTSCRIPT. The Parks Department announced it has opened up the communications position to outside applicants. Monique Cotton will have to apply for the job. Those are the rules.

Associate Editor Gary Crooks can be reached at garyc@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5026. Follow him on Twitter @GaryCrooks.

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