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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

City hires Rick Romero to lead Spokane economic development initiative, skirting ethics ruling

FILE – Spokane Mayor David Condon, left, watches Rick Romero, Spokane’s then-utilities director, talk about future storm water projects on Mar. 16, 2015. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane city administrators have found a way to bypass a recent ethics ruling and rehire a former employee to lead economic development efforts.

The Spokane Ethics Commission ruled in November that Mayor David Condon could not place Rick Romero, the recently retired utilities director, under contract for a new job to develop a plan for future growth. City rules say retired employees who want to return on contract must be approved by the board.

The city instead will hire Romero as a temporary seasonal employee at a rate of $70 an hour to develop what the mayor and City Council call an “integrated strategic plan.” Romero’s final report will include strategies to reach specific benchmarks in public safety, infrastructure, workforce training, employment, housing and all other areas where government provides services.

The work will be performed while Romero continues to receive the retirement benefits he earned while employed at the city from 2008 until earlier this year.

Brian Coddington, a spokesman for Mayor David Condon, said Romero’s new job responsibilities are more varied than his previous work as utilities director and involve more departments of City Hall. Municipal code also caps Romero’s hours at 960 per 12-month period, which would limit his potential earnings in the new job at $67,200 before taxes. Under contract, Romero could have earned more than twice that.

“The work is very important, and temp seasonal employment is a transparent way to put very clear parameters around what he’s doing,” Coddington said.

City Council President Ben Stuckart, who named a unified economic development plan as one of his top priorities in the new year, called Romero’s work “an important project.”

Romero said he’s already put “several hundred hours” of volunteer time into work on the plan, which will be developed in the coming months as part of the city’s work on a new comprehensive plan guiding growth and development.

“We needed to get it worked out one way or the other, and this is the best path for everyone moving forward,” Romero said.

Romero stressed the work will run “the full gamut of what we can do as a city” to improve quality of living, public safety and the economy.

The city’s Ethics Commission denied the request from City Administrator Theresa Sanders to sign a contract with Romero, who retired in the spring. The commission cited concerns the position was not advertised and that Romero was returning to the city within the one-year time frame prohibiting re-employment without the commission’s approval.

Temporary seasonal employees are not subject to the same review as contractors by the Ethics Commission under the municipal code. Romero’s employment will be part of an annual report made by the Human Resources department to the Spokane Employees’ Retirement System Board, a six-member body that reviews pension benefits for city employees.

City Councilwoman Karen Stratton, a vocal critic of Condon’s hiring practices, questioned why the administration went to the Ethics Commission for review of Romero’s position if they planned to hire him anyway.

“I don’t know why you even ask, or why we have an Ethics Commission,” Stratton said.

Stratton called Romero a positive presence at City Hall, and said she didn’t question his qualifications, but shared the concerns expressed by the commission.

“I don’t doubt that he’s going to do a good job,” Stratton said of Romero.

Romero’s report is expected to be released sometime next year and will include public input, he said.