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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: Move fast, carefully on ombudsman selection

The Rachel Dolezal implosion was bad enough, but the panel she chaired to oversee the police apparently needed some oversight of its own.

On Thursday, the Spokane City Council voted to remove Dolezal as Police Ombudsman Commission chairwoman, and accept the resignation of Commissioner Kevin Berkompas as a result of an investigation into a whistleblower’s complaint of abuses. The council delayed a vote on the third commissioner named in the city’s investigation, Adrian Dominguez, who is traveling and asked for time to respond.

Two of the commissioners were on the way out anyway. Dolezal burned all Spokane bridges with her deceptive tales and remorseless response upon being exposed. Dominguez had already accepted a job in Seattle. He and Berkompas say they were not given an opportunity to explain their actions to investigators, and that, too, is troubling.

So the city is left with two commissioners, not enough to complete a search for an ombudsman to replace Tim Burns, who announced his resignation in December.

Shortly before that announcement, we wrote an editorial about the promising future of the newer, stronger ombudsman apparatus. The city, it seemed, had arrived at a workable resolution to the complex process of bringing more independence to the position after voters passed a proposition in February 2013.

But the reality is that there’s been no police oversight this year. One worker remained in the office after Burns departed, and she’s the whistleblower. She resigned in May.

The whistleblower says she was harassed, insulted and generally treated shabbily by the three commissioners. They deny this. The problem was a lack of clearly defined roles. Commissioners weren’t selected to run the office, but nobody else was in place to do so. The mayor and council should have watched the situation more closely, and pressed harder for a swift replacement for Burns.

And so, nine years and three months after the in-custody death of Otto Zehm that led to the commission’s formation, city officials find themselves scrambling for a permanent ombudsman solution. Even with an intact five-person commission, the selection of a replacement for Burns was moving at a glacial pace. Selection panelists say they had many applicants, but none that were qualified.

So now what?

The city faces the same state labor laws that complicated this process from the beginning. Officials need the Police Guild to sign off on actions that stray from its collective bargaining agreement, such as a request to temporarily change the ombudsman ordinance so the selection panel can send names of ombudsman finalists to the council, rather than the commission. If that doesn’t fly, the commission itself will need to be reconstituted as quickly as possible.

The city should move with haste, but carefully, because the vetting process is crucial. Just ask those who believed in Dolezal.