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Shawn Vestal: Spokane Mayor David Condon is wrong to ignore laws reining in his political appointees

Spokane Mayor David Condon (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Mayor David Condon believes that he can determine, on his own, which city laws to follow and which are “void.”

Talk about a strong mayor.

The City Council has passed three ordinances intended to rein in the mayor’s loosey-goosey approach to hiring, reorganizations and civil service, and to his expansion of political appointees. Two of the ordinances were passed after a mayoral tantrum Aug. 1, when Condon appointed Craig Meidl as police chief – the first time – while wondering aloud whether he needed to bother securing City Council approval, as required by the city charter.

That was far from the administration’s first attempt to end-run the rules of hiring and firing at City Hall; it has constantly pushed to expand the number of political appointees hired outside the civil service process, and to skirt limitations on the way that money and employees can be swapped among departments. The head of the city’s civil service commission complained in 2012 that the Condon administration was regularly making “sweeping” changes to department organizations and job assignments, “without advance notice, documentation and due process.”

The three new laws, all proposed by Councilwoman Karen Stratton, attempt to clarify and strengthen the requirements regarding mayoral appointments and department reorganizations. The mayor, who views these laws as an improper encroachment upon his administrative authority and “anti-innovative,” refused to sign them.

Which means, under the city charter, they became law. They are now law. But Condon has made it clear that he considers them invalid, and has referred to one of them as “void” because – in his view – it violates the city charter.

“It’s a legal opinion that’s been given to him that this law, because it violates the charter, is … not something he can implement,” said his spokesman, Brian Coddington.

Does the strong mayor have this particular strength? The ability to singlehandedly declare a city law void, all on his own? He does not. I’m not sure where he could have gotten this ludicrous idea – perhaps he believes himself royal – but the City Charter is not a particularly difficult document to read, and it says that when the City Council passes an ordinance and sends it to the mayor, the mayor may sign it into law, veto it or allow it to become law without a signature after 10 days.

It doesn’t say a word about the mayor declaring by fiat that he won’t follow a law.

Stratton has argued that the rash of undocumented transfers and reorganizations are being done outside the annual budget process – “outside the view of the public and without a public process.” One new law would require the mayor to seek council approval every 180 days for interim department heads; that arose from a seeming intention on the administration’s part to make interim appointments as a way of avoiding the council approval process. The others would require council approval when the mayor transfers money or workers between departments outside the public budget process, and setting a time limit for the council approval of permanent department heads.

The mayor has argued, in a series of letters to the council through the summer, that council members are overstepping their bounds and delving into executive decisions about operations. He accuses the council of “continued attempts to impede the organization from being able to adapt, learn and grow.”

“I cannot support such a dramatic departure from our established system of government,” he wrote in a Sept. 9 letter indicating he would not sign the law requiring council approval of interim appointments. “Further, as this ordinance conflicts with the Charter authority of the mayor to assign work and functions of executive government, it will be treated as void.”

There is a legitimate debate to be had about the boundaries of power between the council and mayor on organizational and administrative matters. Perhaps if Condon’s team hadn’t exhibited such ineptness in this realm, there’d be less of one. But time and again, the rush-job decision-making that Condon insists is necessary has backfired, and when it has, the mayor and his team have reliably blamed everyone else.

Stratton, a former longtime City Hall employee, has close ties to city workers and has made a particular focus out of her concerns about worker morale.

“When all is said and done,” she wrote to Condon, “your efforts to ‘outsmart’ the system, ignore Civil Service rules, and reduce the number of employees who are within Civil Service only continues to hurt employees.”

The mayor, of course, argues that he must do the things he does the way he does them, and that those who do not agree are enemies of the city’s welfare. But these new ordinances are pesky things. They exist. They are on the books, at least for now.

It takes more than a wave of the mayor’s wand to change that.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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