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

Condon says city is thriving; Lichty points to recent police controversy

Spokane Mayor David Condon, left, debates his opponent, Shar Lichty, right, at the candidate debate held by the Chase Youth Commission Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015 at North Central High School. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Ronald Reagan, a political hero of Spokane Mayor David Condon, famously asked voters in 1980, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”

The answer that year was a resounding no, and Reagan entered the White House on a white horse.

Over the past year, as he has argued for his own re-election, Condon sung a similar refrain, pointing to progress in the city’s development, employment and median household income as markers of his success as mayor. He reminded voters of his kept promise to keep utility rates from skyrocketing, done largely by his administration’s ability to slice $150 million off the costly effort to keep pollutants from entering the Spokane River. He praised voters for approving the 20-year street levy and Riverfront Park bond – major investments in city infrastructure.

He balanced the city’s budget, hired more police officers and secured a plan to fund new public safety equipment. He made peace with City Council President Ben Stuckart, who was the sharpest burr in the mayor’s saddle during the first years in the men’s shared tenure at City Hall.

But Condon’s grandest achievement, he said, was the reforms done in the Police Department. The U.S. Department of Justice was invited in to analyze the department and issue recommendations. Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi, one of the architects of the city’s controversial legal handling of the fatal police confrontation with Otto Zehm, was fired at Condon’s urging. The mayor hired a reform-minded chief in Frank Straub, and the two were invited to speak at the White House this July to discuss the gains made in the department.

In the past few weeks, however, Condon’s ability to speak of a Police Department that has changed markedly for the better in the past four years has been eroded. Fractures within the department have been exposed as the mayor demanded Straub’s resignation following serious complaints about Straub’s management style that arose from police brass. Straub, in turn, denied the accusations and filed a $4 million claim against the city.

To top it off, oversight of the Police Department has been troubled since the beginning of the year, if not longer. Tim Burns, the former police ombudsman, left the city Jan. 2, and the position remains vacant. The ombudsman commission was largely purged in the spring.

Sensing the first real opening for her dark-horse campaign, Condon’s opponent Shar Lichty pounded even harder on Condon’s troubles with police, her signature issue from the start of her campaign. Last week, Lichty filed an ethics complaint against the mayor’s spokesman, Brian Coddington, and City Administrator Theresa Sanders, accusing them of lying to the public about police personnel issues.

“The debacle continues. And it continues and it continues and it continues,” Lichty said. “We have a mayor – and it becomes more apparent each week – and we have top administrators who are not good leaders. That reflects poorly on him and his selections.”

For his part, Condon said the reforms he and Straub made in the Police Department have “permeated” the force, and he argues that the department has made great progress from “where we were four years ago.”

“Where we’ve come in our police department, you can’t take it away,” he said. “We’ve substantially increased the resources, both in people and dollars. Their direction is much better. The strategic plan that Frank put together is still being implemented and will be.”

Question of leadership

Four years ago, as the trial of Karl Thompson began and his conviction for violating Otto Zehm’s civil rights and lying to investigators became imminent, Condon pivoted from his earlier campaign issue of outrageous water rate increases to arguing that the incumbent, Mary Verner, was in over her head with police matters.

“It’s a question of leadership,” he said at a debate in 2011. “The mayor has to be in charge and not let the departments have their own way and set their own agenda.”

After federal prosecutors filed a document in federal court saying the city had released “patently false” information at a news conference, Condon pounced.

“As mayor, Mayor Verner has wasted taxpayer money and slowed the course of justice by her defense of the city bureaucracy and the mismanagement of this case,” Condon said in a statement.

Lichty raises similar concerns now.

Straub’s troubles as a manager were known in April, when the city quietly shuffled the Police Department’s spokeswoman, Monique Cotton, to the city parks department, even while the Police Department continued to fund her paycheck. It wasn’t until Cotton’s transfer was reported by the media in August that city administrators began looking into Straub’s management style. And it wasn’t until the Lieutenants and Captains Association wrote a damning letter about Straub that Condon was compelled to ask for Straub’s resignation.

Straub remains at City Hall through Jan. 1, and continues to be the highest-paid city employee, making nearly $180,000 a year.

In the days, weeks and hours leading to the announcement of Straub’s ouster, city officials did not tell the truth about Police Department personnel matters, claims that form the basis of Lichty’s ethics complaint against Sanders and Coddington.

“There’s a big difference between the current mayor and myself,” Lichty said. “There’s a lack of transparency now. I’m fully transparent.”

Condon defends the words and actions of Sanders and Coddington.

“The ethics process will go through, and I think that it will show that this was not in any way a lapse of ethical judgment,” said Condon, noting that Straub’s status as chief was in flux when the statements were made and that personnel matters should be dealt with carefully to guard employee privacy.

“As individuals, I think it’s our responsibility to put out the best information we have at the time we’re doing it. Some of these cases, it’s a moving ball, moment by moment,” Condon said.

Lichty dismisses such justifications, saying Coddington, Sanders and City Attorney Nancy Isserlis would be fired if she were mayor. She includes Fire Chief Bobby Williams, who has led the city’s fire service since 1988, in her list of people who would lose their jobs if she’s elected.

“He’s an outdated leader, with no confidence from the firefighters,” said Lichty, adding that Straub would not be invited to re-apply for his old job. Lichty couldn’t say who in Condon’s Cabinet she would ask to remain at City Hall, but she said she likes to “promote from within.”

“We have people that are qualified for those positions who already work in the city,” she said.

Police Guild and the ‘good old boys’

When Lichty launched her campaign in April, she had two main planks to her platform. She believed the oversight of the Police Department was insufficient and in violation of the voters’ will and the city charter. And she described Condon as a tool of the powerful.

Not much has changed.

Lichty acknowledges she “may be at odds” with some members of the Police Department but believes a robust oversight apparatus is the only way to instill trust between police and the community.

“I’m not anti-law enforcement, but there does need to be transparency and accountability, and the only way to achieve that is through an ombudsman,” she said.

Lichty accuses the mayor of not asking for “independent investigative authority” when the Spokane Police Guild contract was discussed.

“Even after the council told the mayor to go back to the table, independent investigative authority was not on the bargaining table,” she said.

Lichty went so far as to defend the Guild, which has earned a reputation of blocking previous efforts at reform.

“I’ve always been of the mind that the Guild is doing their job and representing their members,” she said. “They’ve never really been given an opportunity to reject independent authority. We don’t know exactly where they stand on it.”

Condon, however, asserts that he “negotiated the most independent oversight in the state of Washington.”

Like Lichty, he expressed frustration with the level of oversight currently in place.

“I’m frustrated that we don’t have an ombudsman. I’m frustrated with the progress there, or the lack of progress there,” he said.

Condon said the ombudsman’s powers now amount to a “quasi-judicial hearing” that does not have the power to compel an officer to testify “because you’re not in front of a Superior Court judge.” Any further powers for the ombudsman could be gained only with a change in state law, he said.

Condon added that he only has so much negotiating power with the Police Guild.

“Let’s also remember that labor law trumps city law, and that’s the precedent we have set in this state,” he said.

Lichty’s other enduring issue in the campaign is what she describes as Condon’s lack of knowledge about “everyday people.”

“He’s the millionaires’ mayor,” she said. “He does seem to favor millionaires and big business. The good old boys club. Not everyday people.”

Lichty points to the informal agreement between Condon and developer Walt Worthy for up to $3.3 million in city funds and fee waivers for Worthy’s downtown Davenport Grand Hotel project.

“In what world does a developer like Walt Worthy need incentives and fee waivers?” Lichty said. “Incentives should be going to people who are looking to build quality, affordable housing downtown.”

Condon suggests the troubles with Worthy, as well as many other recent problems with development projects, stemmed from miscommunications perpetrated by the city’s former planning director, Scott Chesney.

“You could look at a multitude of projects that were under the direction of Mr. Chesney, and there definitely was a communication breakdown with the City Council, which I entrust my senior managers to do, to keep folks informed and otherwise,” Condon said.

While Lichty hasn’t backed away from her original critiques of the mayor, she also hasn’t become well-versed in many other issues facing the city.

Lichty couldn’t speak generally or specifically about the city’s use of its investment pool as a lender, its issuance of $200 million in municipal bonds earlier this year and a type of street planning called “road diets.” Instead, she said “the pros and cons need to be weighed out,” or “that is something that needs to be looked into.”

Condon, on the other hand, is a finance wonk whose sentences often wind on and away from him like a spool of tape.

Lopsided money hauls

Lichty, however unpracticed as a candidate, said she entered the race as an underdog and has been kept there by powers beyond her control, namely Condon’s ability to raise money.

As of mid-October, Condon has raised more than $370,000 – more than all other city candidates’ fundraising totals combined. Lichty has brought in just over $22,000.

Condon’s money – which he started raising just days after he was sworn in as mayor – comes from a variety of sources, including companies like Comcast, CH2M Hill and Avista. Individuals also gave in large numbers, such as former U.S. Attorney Jim McDevitt, local developer Jerry Dicker and Spokesman-Review Publisher William Stacey Cowles. Groups such as the Kalispel Tribal Economic Authority and Spokane Home Builders Association also contributed to Condon’s campaign.

Lichty’s money came from the Democratic Party and many unions, such as the Washington State Council of County and City Employees and the Washington Teamsters Legislative League. The Spokane Tribe of Indians also donated to Lichty’s campaign. Individual donors include Spokane City Councilman Jon Snyder.

Lichty said Condon’s fundraising prowess scared off other potential challengers, as well as donors to her own campaign.

“Condon’s huge war chest of campaign funds has deterred some support with people, who have said I have their vote but maybe not their dollars. Up until recently, they saw it as I didn’t have a chance,” she said.”

Lichty was reticent to talk about her lack of endorsements from more prominent liberals, notably Stuckart, who considered running against Condon for all of 2014. Both Stuckart and Condon have steered clear of each other’s races.

Lichty said Stuckart has cozied up to Condon during their re-election bids.

“He has future political aspirations, I would assume,” Lichty said of Stuckart, but she also took aim at most other council members who have stayed away from the race.

“Overall, they’re all looking at his big amounts of money and thinking I have no chance, and they don’t want to burn bridges with a mayor they may have to work with for four years. I can’t fault them for that. I’m running my race, and I’m not worried about them.”