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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Spokane Mayor David Condon explains what he learned from recent turmoil

David Condon

Dear community member,

Let me begin by saying that I am sorry for the turmoil the recent personnel matters have caused you and the community. No matter how well-intentioned our actions, we fell short of your expectations. You and Spokane deserve better from your leaders – all of your leaders in all branches of city government.

As I spoke last week with city employees and members of the community, they wanted to know what we have learned and what will be different. They asked what steps will be taken to better evaluate information to determine sooner whether a situation is an individual personality conflict or symptomatic of a larger problem.

Much of the discussion also focused on the central issue: the right of a public employee to confidentiality when they state a concern and how that reconciles with public expectation of transparency. That debate is as valid and important as it is difficult and complex.

What we cannot lose sight of in this conversation, which has turned deeply personal, is that we are talking about people. Real people who lead real lives, have real families, and maintain real careers.

For me, treating real people equally and fairly is what the entire discussion has been about – and should be about.

As public employees, and especially as mayor, we accept a responsibility to the community that we act as transparently and as reasonably possible. This may mean access to all files, emails, notes and text messages, and assistance with efforts to disclose that information. None of that is in dispute.

Where things have been a little grayer is when it comes to the difference between expressing concern and making a formal complaint that needs to be acted upon. More to the point, what do you do when an employee comes to you in confidence with a statement alleging sexual harassment that is followed up with repeated assertions that the employee does not want an investigation and, further, will not participate in an investigation?

Does that employee, by virtue of working for city government, lose all right to being treated with the decency and respect due to any other community member?

My response to that set of circumstances was to honor the request for confidentiality. Here was my thought process: The statement made was serious, very personal and significant for the person making the statement and the subject of the statement; the statement could not be substantiated without the cooperation of the person making it; and the city policy is to resolve the situation “at the lowest appropriate level, informally and effectively.”

The situation was resolved in accordance with city policy and every effort was made to honor the request for confidentiality within the requirements of the public records process.

Let me be clear about this: There was absolutely no intentional effort to keep documents from the public. Every effort was made to be thorough and careful in the review and release of requested documents. The impending election had no bearing on how records were handled or delivered.

As for the request for confidentiality, this experience has taught me that there is an expectation that the public’s right to know supersedes an individual employee’s pleas for privacy. Moving forward, that will be the lens through which the city views employee interactions. Hopefully this will not deter legitimate concerns from being aired.

Further, I have learned that we need to improve how we collect and analyze concerns raised during the course of individual conversations, casual or otherwise, for broader patterns and impacts. We have to focus on our employees and their abilities to do their jobs in a safe environment.

That begins with providing employees and the public with greater clarity of terms like complaint and investigation, of the process that will be followed when an employee raises a concern and the mechanisms for reporting a concern.

Building trust includes treating employees with respect at all levels of the organizations. Being clearer with expectations is where trust-building begins. It puts everyone on a level playing field and establishes firm expectations that become the measure of accountability for everyone.

As long as people are involved, mistakes are unavoidable. Updated policies and additional training will help minimize human error, create a safe environment in which our employees can work and deliver the best return on your investment.

Thank you for the opportunity to serve Spokane.

David Condon is mayor of Spokane.

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