The recent thawing of relations between Mayor David Condon and the Spokane City Council could be tested by a dispute that has lasted through the summer.
Condon has refused to sign ordinances offered by City Councilwoman Karen Stratton and passed by the council majority that seek to rein in the mayor’s power to hire and fire.
The ordinances would affect Condon’s ability to appoint department heads indefinitely without confirmation; to create new positions that are exempt from the city’s Civil Service process; and to restrict the transfer of employees and their salaries among departments.
In a series of strongly worded letters, Stratton has said the Condon administration’s lack of transparency in staffing decisions gums up the budget process and adversely impacts union-protected employees. The mayor, meanwhile, has said the ordinances steal from his authority to hire and fire that’s included in the city’s strong-mayor charter.
“Your continued attempts to impede the organization from being able to adapt, learn and grow are a disservice to the citizens of Spokane,” Condon wrote in a Sept. 9 letter to Stratton.
He added that he would consider one of her ordinances void – limiting the amount of time an interim department head can serve before going before the council for approval – if passed unchanged. The law was changed, but Condon refused to sign it and also didn’t veto it. A bill becomes law 10 days after its passage if it’s not vetoed, with or without the mayor’s signature.
Stratton responded earlier this week, accusing Condon of using poorly reasoned excuses for not signing her laws.
“Your characterizations gloss over the lack of transparency in these budget transfers and organizational changes. Contrary to the statements in your letter, the changes often occurred outside of public view and without the Council’s consent to significant changes in appropriations,” Stratton wrote in a Sept. 25 letter.
Condon and City Council members said this week they’re committed to moving forward and refocusing on governance after a recall petition against the mayor was dismissed and an ethics complaint against him was settled. But the issue of political appointments remains a major policy hurdle.
“The authority is clear, and it’s in the charter,” Condon said in an interview this week. “The issues that she brings forward to me are seemingly chasing a problem that hasn’t existed.”
But Stratton said her most recent ordinance – the limit on how long an interim appointment can serve – was proposed to eliminate the uncertainty that arose after Condon announced he wouldn’t seek City Council approval of his choice of Craig Meidl for police chief.
Condon said at a news conference announcing his choice, “At this point, I will not be seeking confirmation from the council. He serves as the assistant chief now, and he will be moved into the position of full chief, and we’ll be discussing with the council at a period in the future if that’s necessary.”
He later clarified he did not intend to immediately seek the council’s approval of the appointment.
Stratton said the Meidl appointment was the “tipping point” that caused her to file the time-limit ordinance.
“They have been chipping away at this since his administration started,” Stratton said in an interview this week. “I’m not picking on him. I’m just trying to help employees who are stuck in the middle of this stuff.”
In dismissing the recall petition, which called out Condon’s pick of Meidl and argued it violated the city’s charter and laws, Yakima Superior Court Judge Blaine Gibson pointed out the requirements for council confirmation weren’t specific.
Stratton also charged in her letter that City Administrator Theresa Sanders had “stated to several council members” the possibility of Meidl serving as an interim chief until the end of Condon’s term in 2019. This week the mayor, Sanders and council members all denied having such conversations.
“I have not seen the letter you mention but I can tell you no such conversation ever occurred,” Sanders wrote in a text message Friday. “I am not aware that Mayor Condon ever contemplated an interim chief for any length of time.”
Stratton stood by the wording of her letter, saying it was discussed among City Council members in the days after the Aug. 1 appointment and the concern about Meidl being appointed without their blessing.
City Councilman Mike Fagan, the lone vote against Stratton’s ordinances among the seven-member panel, said he agreed with the mayor that the proposed laws overstepped the council’s authority.
“Everything else the council has been throwing at him is just crossing the line of the separation of powers,” Fagan said.
But Councilman Breean Beggs said he supported Stratton’s efforts to put an enforceable timeline on approving the mayor’s appointees.
“That dance of democracy, that’s exactly how local government should work,” Beggs said.
Condon said he’d been encouraged by his work with the council on policy issues recently and hoped that relationship would continue.
“I think we can refocus,” the mayor said.
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