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Shawn Vestal: Lack of public involvement leads Stuckart to reject Meidl’s appointment as police chief

Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart on  July 27, 2016. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart on July 27, 2016. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Shawn Vestal,columnist

Every day, the appointment of Craig Meidl as Spokane’s police chief is looking more like a house built on sand.

Which is to say it’s the foundation, not the building itself, that poses the biggest problem.

City Council President Ben Stuckart said Thursday that he would vote against Meidl’s appointment Monday night and urge his fellow council members to do so. It’s not clear where other council members stand, though several of them have been sharply critical of the appointment. Some say they are undecided, some have not made their view public, and Mike Fagan has said he will vote in favor of Meidl. Stuckart said he doesn’t know how the votes stack up at this point.

The mayor had no comment on the pending vote, spokeswoman Marlene Feist said, other than to note that it was the job of the council members to decide how to vote.

Stuckart said his rejection of Meidl’s appointment comes down to how it was done – the lack of a public involvement underpinning the decision. Sixty community members had participated in an advisory process to select the next chief; they had vetted 31 candidates and narrowed them down to two finalists.

Condon’s seemingly hasty appointment of Meidl set their work aside with a swipe and he made a point of saying that he planned to ignore the city charter and not seek City Council approval for the appointment.

Since then, his office has attempted to walk that back and indicated he intended to seek council confirmation later, but that was not at all the spirit or the letter of Condon’s words when he announced Meidl’s appointment Aug. 1: “At this point I will not be seeking confirmation from the council. He serves as the assistant chief now and he will be moved into the position of full chief and we’ll be discussing with the council at a period in the future, if that’s necessary.”

It’s a mystery how he could think it might not be. The council organized two public forums for people to ask Meidl questions, and Meidl – who was essentially thrown to the wolves by this process – said he would seek the council confirmation as a way of trying to build a broad base of public support.

In those forums, citizens have challenged Meidl over what he called the elephant in the room: his salute of Karl Thompson, in front of the family of Thompson’s victim along with 40-some other members of the police department. Meidl also wrote an email to his fellow officers following Thompson’s conviction, in which he called Thompson an “innocent man” and the “most professional man in the department,” and said he was “Feeling betrayed by the very public we’ve sworn to protect.”

Meidl has apologized and tried to explain himself, for which he deserves some credit. But some people can’t forgive it, and that’s understandable, for it was the support for Thompson in the department – and the way that influenced everything from the department’s investigation and public lies, to the salute and beyond – that made it so clear that the city desperately needed a reformed department. To have selected a saluter as chief displays a less-then-zealous commitment to reform, to put it mildly.

Stuckart said the questions Meidl has fielded in community forums should have been examined more fully via the vetting process the other candidates went through.

“The same process that happened with the 31 candidates who applied did not happen with Craig because Craig did not apply,” he said. “At the forums, we tried, but there isn’t the same level of vetting.”

He said that the vast majority of citizens he’s heard from about the appointment oppose it, and that many of them say they can forgive Meidl for the salute, but that doesn’t mean they can support him as chief.

“Craig did apologize, and I respect that,” Stuckart said. “I don’t know if forgiveness equates to leading an organization of 300 people.”

Councilman Breean Beggs said he’s undecided, torn between concerns over the “horrible process” of the appointment and the difficulties of finding a new chief if Meidl is rejected. He said he has asked his constituents about three possibilities: confirmation, rejection or a kind of conditional confirmation.

“It’s really hard to know what to do,” he said.

Other council members did not respond immediately to messages seeking comment. The clash over Meidl comes as the divide at City Hall between council and mayor – a dynamic that is often boiled down to Condon versus Stuckart – seems to have become unbreachable. Each side sees the other as cravenly, cynically political; any presumptions of good faith are long gone. The animosity and bad feeling simply can’t be good for the city’s ability to move forward. I asked Stuckart about that dynamic, and the sense that people have that it has all simply devolved into political combat.

“It is political,” he said. “I’m a politician. The mayor’s a politician. He makes appointments, the council confirms. It’s a political process.”

And if the vote comes Monday and Meidl is rejected, what then? What’s the end game here, in terms of finding the city the chief it needs?

Stuckart said the council’s role is to confirm, not appoint. “It’s not my job to come up with solutions for the mayor,” he said.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.