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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane City Council seeks to rein in mayor’s political appointees

Spokane City Councilwoman Karen Stratton is taking aim at Mayor David Condon’s political appointments, asking her colleagues to vote for a pair of proposals that would increase council oversight of the hires.

Stratton, who has worked in City Hall since 2005 as both a political appointee and a union-represented employee, said such oversight is needed to rein in spending on salaries. She also wants to reduce what she sees as top-heavy departments where supervisory roles aren’t clear to the council – the group holding the purse strings.

“It’s my opinion that there is an effort where we try to circumvent Civil Service,” she said. “And we’re paying more for those employees.”

But Condon said the ordinances may push against his authority to recruit at the city. He also downplayed the size of the workforce in his administration who are exempt from the merit-based Civil Service process, and said the council is advised about hiring.

“If we do any position, we brief the position (for the council), the salary range, the steps that are done,” Condon said. “When you look at it, there are appointed positions in all branches of government.”

Employees hired through the Civil Service process are evaluated by a commission using specific criteria, and often lead to union-protected jobs. Political appointees serve at the pleasure of the mayor and are not required to go through the Civil Service process.

Political appointees include the chief of police, fire chief, department heads and other high-level officials, as well as assistants to City Council members. Stratton said Condon has been extending exempt positions to jobs that were traditionally handled through the Civil Service hiring process, while Condon said his hiring strategy has led to increased efficiency at City Hall.

Stratton provided numbers showing an increase of about $3.3 million in spending on salaries for political appointees between 2012 and this year, from $5.3 million to $8.6 million. That includes about $325,000 in increased spending for City Council staff.

The mayor’s office disagreed with that conclusion and provided budget estimates putting the increase in exempt salaries closer to $2.2 million.

One of the ordinances Stratton is proposing requires Condon’s administration to provide a written report to the City Council justifying the need to hire a political appointee, rather than recruit through the Civil Service process. In the past, the council had only required an organizational chart, which Stratton said didn’t provide enough information. That led to offices such as Utilities, she said, where there are six department heads and seven other Condon appointees serving in supervisory roles that didn’t have to go through the merit-based recruitment process.

“Exempts are being hired into departments at higher salaries, where there really isn’t a structure,” Stratton said. “We really don’t know what they’re doing in there.”

Condon countered that the council, including Stratton, has not voted down any of his political appointments. The mayor’s office provided figures showing there were 100 positions budgeted in 2016 that were exempt from the Civil Service process, out of the more than 2,100 employees at City Hall.

“This is the balance of making sure that you have institutional knowledge, some 96 percent of the workforce, with the latitude of what our voters asked for, which is a strong-mayor form of government,” Condon said, adding that support staff for city council members is made up entirely of political appointments.

Stratton’s proposals also seek to prevent the creation of one-person city departments headed solely by a political appointee, and a requirement the appointees be confirmed by the City Council before they are paid.

City Councilman Mike Fagan called the requirement that the council confirm appointees before they begin work “common sense.”

“The administration needs to wait to confirm that hire,” Fagan said. “Obviously if time is of the essence, then we pass an emergency budget ordinance that takes effect that day.”

But Condon said that by the time a candidate reaches a vote before the City Council, the council’s role is legally restricted to determining if his appointee is qualified for the job.

“Many times, they’re involved in the selection of that person. They sit on the interview panels,” Condon said. “So, to me, it’s their authority to confirm based on qualifications.”

Fagan said political appointments can play a role in changing a department’s culture. The City Council voted unanimously last week to lower the number of exempt positions that can be hired by the chief of police from 14 to eight, a proposal brought forward by City Council President Ben Stuckart in an attempt to bring city ordinances in line with state law and fight the perception of cronyism from Spokane’s top cop.

But Fagan said he now regretted that vote, and that the next chief would need the ability to put in place supervisors not entrenched with the Spokane Police Guild.

“I firmly believe whomever the police chief is going to be needs to have the tools available to them to change that public perception,” Fagan said.

Fagan, who often casts the lone dissenting vote against the council’s majority, said Stratton’s proposals could inhibit the hiring of additional appointees and stagnate some city departments because of job protections offered by most Civil Service hires.

“If Karen was the mayor of the city, no one would lose their job,” Fagan said.

Stratton said she’s discussing additional legislation that could prevent exempt employees who are moved from one department to another from continuing to receive a salary from the office they left. That prevents the City Council from easily seeing how much a particular department is spending on exempt employees, she said.

Condon moved Carly Cortright and Monique Cotton, two members of former police Chief Frank Straub’s staff, to other city departments after conflicts with him. Cotton has since left city employment, and Cortright is employed in the Community Services division as a customer service program director, earning $98,000 a year.

The City Council will vote on Stratton’s ordinances at their meeting at 6 p.m. Monday at City Hall.