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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane mayor asks retired Utilities Director Rick Romero to help craft long-range plan; Ethics Commission cries foul

Rick Romero spoke to a group at Rockwood Retirement Forest Estates in 2014. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane Mayor David Condon is looking to his administration’s past to help shape the city’s future.

But ethics rules could get in the way of his choice.

Rick Romero, the former utilities director who retired from the city in April, has returned to help lead an effort identifying goals in the final years of Condon’s administration and align them with existing city departments and functions.

That participation has been called into question by the city’s Ethics Commission, which voted last month to reject Romero’s employment based on a city policy preventing retired employees from rejoining City Hall within a year. The commission also noted that the position wasn’t advertised to other potential applicants.

“Clearly he has a skill set,” said Troy Bruner, a consulting psychologist with the Spokane Resource Group and chairman of the Ethics Commission. “That doesn’t mean he’s the only one that can do the job.”

Romero spent nearly three decades working for Eastern Washington University, his alma mater, before joining City Hall during Mayor Mary Verner’s administration as an auditor. Under Condon, Romero was placed in charge of the city’s utilities and led the charge on what the city now calls its Integrated Clean Water Plan, in an effort to reduce pollutants in the Spokane River.

City Administrator Theresa Sanders said Romero is uniquely qualified to lead the efforts of both the City Council and Condon’s Cabinet in preparing a targeted plan addressing issues such as housing, tax incentives for businesses, property crime and homelessness in Spokane.

“He certainly brings the passion and the smarts to get us to a great outcome,” Sanders said.

On Tuesday morning, Condon, his Cabinet and council members met for the third time this fall to discuss their direction for the next three years. Romero, who said he’s serving as a volunteer pending resolution of the Ethics Commission’s denial, worked to ensure the priorities of the mayor, Sanders, Chief Financial Officer Gavin Cooley and members of the council focused on improving public safety, community health, economic stability and infrastructure.

“This is something I’m really energized about,” Romero said in an interview. “I think we’ve rediscovered the connectivity, and the importance of working together to get things done.”

It’s not the first time the former utilities director has been tapped by Condon to serve as a bridge between his administration and the council. Romero served at the mayor’s request on a joint panel overseeing the investigation of City Hall practices following the ouster of former police Chief Frank Straub.

City Council President Ben Stuckart, who along with other members of the council has expressed a desire to move beyond the divisions at City Hall caused by the Straub controversy, praised Romero’s work and said he will urge the Ethics Commission to reconsider.

“Rick’s got a unique set of experience,” Stuckart said. “He’s best suited for that job.”

The city’s Ethics Code requires the Ethics Commission to sign off on any employee serving the city within one year of retirement if that employee is to provide “expert or consultant services.” Sanders said she sent the request Nov. 9 and didn’t anticipate any problems.

“I thought it was pretty clear we had somebody that understood the nature of the city and somebody that already had relationships inside City Hall,” Sanders said.

Sanders’ request called for an 18-month period of employment with the city, with the possibility of extending the contract another 18 months thereafter. Sanders said a draft contract set compensation at $70 an hour. That would equate to an annual salary of $146,090, making him one of the most well-paid employees at City Hall.

Sanders said the position would likely start as a full-time job, with declining hours once city leaders finalize their goals.

Romero also said he’s uncertain how a potential contract with the city, if the issues with the Ethics Commission are resolved, would affect the retirement benefits he receives from both the state and city. The Ethics Code’s one-year ban is written to avoid potential conflicts of interest, but also implicitly prohibits the practice of “double-dipping,” which would allow a worker to retire and receive pension payments and then quickly rejoin the city under contract.

Stuckart said he has no concerns about Romero, but that the city’s municipal code does not adequately address the double-dipping practice and he hopes to bring forward revisions soon that will prevent it.

Following the meetings this fall, Romero would help create a road map for city leaders to guide spending in 2017 and beyond. That document would be adopted as part of the city’s comprehensive plan, the city’s long-term growth plan.

Romero said he was eager to begin the work, but wanted his role at the city formalized before he dug in.

“I’m not that old yet, I still want to keep working,” Romero said. “I feel like we’ve got a really good opportunity to re-engage both branches of government here.”