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

Report highlights deficiencies in city of Spokane’s workplace policies

Spokane Police Chief Frank Straub briefs the media about the officer-involved shooting, July 27, 2015, near the Peking North Chinese restaurant. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

The city of Spokane’s human resources policies need work.

That’s one of the most forceful conclusions of an investigation of how city officials handled a sexual harassment complaint against former police Chief Frank Straub and his subsequent dismissal.

“While the City’s policy against sexual harassment is clear, the procedure for enforcing it is ambiguous and in some areas, can be read as internally conflicting,” independent investigator Kris Cappel wrote in the 126-page report, released Wednesday.

The finding that the city needs to revise its policies on harassment claims, particularly the discrepancies between the Police Department’s rules and those of other departments, was one of the few points of agreement between Condon and members of the City Council in the aftermath of the report’s release.

“As you clearly can see, even in the report, there’s conflicting law between public records and human relations, and legal exposure, and that needs to be rectified,” Condon said Wednesday.

Councilman Breean Beggs said immediate changes to human resources policy were needed, not just in relation to sexual harassment.

“The most troubling thing is the abuse our employees suffered so long, without it being addressed, and that has to change,” Beggs said.

Cappel’s report is missing testimony from most of the players in the complaint made by former Police Department spokeswoman Monique Cotton against the police chief. Condon said he was first made aware of her allegations at a meeting in the offices of her attorney in early April 2015; the report notes that Condon didn’t know when he arrived at the meeting which city employee the lawyer was representing or what the meeting was about.

City attorneys Nancy Isserlis and Erin Jacobson were both tasked with interviewing witnesses, but the scope of their questioning was not focused on specific claims Cotton made to City Administrator Theresa Sanders, that Straub “grabbed her ass” and “tried to kiss her.”

Instead, Jacobson and Isserlis focused their interviews on witnesses to an explosive meeting involving Cotton and members of Straub’s command staff on March 31, 2015. But the attorneys took no notes of these interviews, and refused written testimony from Capt. Eric Olsen, according to the report.

The Cotton complaint was also complicated by discrepancies in city policies dealing with harassment between the police and other departments, the report states. Witnesses in the human resources department told Cappel it’s unclear which policy should be followed in the case of a civilian police employee complaining about police executives.

Cappel found the police department’s policy was more robust than the city’s.

“The SPD policy is generally clearer about roles and responsibilities of employees and supervisors, key terms are less ambiguous, and the procedure for responding to allegations is more coherent overall,” she wrote.

The report details multiple informal complaints from police command staff before March 2015 about Straub’s profanity-laced tirades, mood swings and targeting of employees who disagreed with him, though none of those complaints alleged sexual harassment. City attorneys, human resources staff and others who were made aware of the complaints took no official action regarding those complaints, according to Cappel’s report.

Tim Schwering, the department’s then-director of strategic initiatives, testified to Cappel that the administration seemed to believe the complaints were symptoms of Straub’s efforts to reform the department, rather than legitimate concerns about the work environment.

In a quote he attributes to Gavin Cooley, the city’s chief financial officer, Schwering said there was a prevailing opinion at City Hall that “Frank’s an asshole, but he’s our asshole,” according to the report. Cooley, who was also subsequently interviewed by Cappel, did not repeat that statement to her.

Cotton, Straub, Isserlis and Jacobson did not grant interviews to Cappel.

Cappel concludes that the investigation and subsequent transfer of Cotton from the police department to the parks department was consistent with a city policy calling for the resolution of harassment claims at the lowest level possible. But she calls the investigation limited in scope and said officials ignored city policies that prescribe an immediate, well-documented investigation – though she notes “it appears that those steps are routinely overlooked by the City.”

Sherry Jones, with the Spokane chapter of the National Organization of Women, called for Condon’s resignation following the release of the report. Jones, who filed an ethics complaint against Condon after he denied that there were any sexual harassment claims against Straub after his ouster, on Thursday called the mayor “incompetent” and “dishonest.”

“The mayor clearly abdicated his responsibilities when it came to protecting his employees and providing them with a safe work environment,” Jones said.

The city’s Ethics Commission recently upheld one of Jones’ two complaints against Condon and will ask the mayor to testify at a hearing to be held next month.

In recommendations to correct city policy, Cappel suggests developing a clear set of instructions for launching investigations, whether they are made through a formal complaint process or are made informally, as Cotton’s was. Cappel also recommends clear documentation to avoid the appearance that officials are skirting public records laws, and to establish clear confidentiality guidelines for complaints, specifically that the city “cannot guarantee confidentiality.”

Jones said her organization would be “ready and willing” to work with the city developing those new policies.