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Council president says Spokane Police Department has too many nonunion top jobs

The next Spokane police chief may not have the same ability as former Chief Frank Straub to hire and fire top staff if a proposal by City Council President Ben Stuckart is approved.

Under Stuckart’s plan, the number of nonunion leadership positions in the police department would be reduced from 14 to eight. These positions are exempt from Civil Service rules, which exist to make sure the city appropriately hires and promotes people.

The reduction would put the department in line with state law, Stuckart said.

Stuckart said Straub had abused the system as a way to reward and punish people.

“That’s why people were self-demoting,” Stuckart said. “So in order to protect against that from happening in the future, I think a change needs to be made before the next police chief comes in.”

Three of Straub’s first picks for his leadership team – current Assistant Chief Craig Meidl, Capt. Brad Arleth and Lt. Joe Walker – all requested demotions within months of being promoted.

The plan, which will be considered by the council in June, met resistance during Monday’s Public Safety Committee meeting from Jim McDevitt, who is temporarily leading the department as law enforcement director.

McDevitt, a former U.S. attorney, said every candidate for the chief position he has spoken with wanted to maintain the ability to choose their top staff, and suggested Stuckart’s plan cuts too many positions.

“Those people unanimously want to have the ability to lead the department and to have folks of their own choosing … without any obligation to Civil Service,” McDevitt said.

Meidl, the department’s operations director under McDevitt, said the positions were made to help change the department’s insular culture.

“One of the methods you can use in changing the culture is, obviously, you bring in a fresh set of eyes,” Meidl said. “When we changed the ordinance, it allowed outsiders basically to come into positions of leadership, with a different outlook or perhaps a different flavor of the organizations they came from.”

Stuckart and McDevitt agreed that the department’s current structure is “personality driven” with potential for abuse, but did not agree on how that abuse should be contained.

McDevitt suggested the city simply needs to hire an “objective and fair” chief.

“If you got somebody in there who is not being objective, and rewarding their friends, punishing their enemies, then it’s bad news,” McDevitt said. “If you’ve got somebody in there who is objective and fair, like myself for example, who is going to look at people on their qualifications and put those people in there and fairly rate them, then I for one – having been in a number of leadership positions – want to have the ability to put people in, whether they’re from inside the organization or outside, in positions of leadership, people that I can trust.”

Stuckart said the system should protect against such abuses.

“I understand that in a perfect world we would hire a chief who does not do that, like you have done, but I think that Civil Service exists for a reason and I believe we blew it up too much and allowed for problems to manifest themselves,” Stuckart said. “If you don’t learn from your mistakes, I believe we are doomed to repeat ourselves.”

Stuckart suggested he would be willing to cut even more of the exempt positions than he had proposed, telling McDevitt he was “offering up a compromise.”

“We’re violating state law right now. We’ve been violating state law for two years,” Stuckart said, pointing to a statute that allows eight positions exempt from Civil Service rules within a police department that has between 251 and 500 employees.

Stuckart said the police department has been reorganized 14 times since he joined the council in 2012, primarily by Straub.

Currently, there are six departments in the police division: operations, business services, strategic initiatives, public information, communications and investigations. Under Stuckart’s plan, the assistant chief would direct operations. The departments of business services, strategic initiatives and public information would each be allowed to have two exempt positions. In total, there would be eight positions, including the chief.

A similar move to create multiple departments within the fire department was challenged by the Spokane Firefighters Union and blocked by a Superior Court judge. The parks department also was changed to a division with up to 10 parks positions exempt from Civil Service rules.

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