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Shawn Vestal: Eichstaedt steps down, but leaves a legacy of civic improvements

Rick Eichstaedt is leaving the Center for Justice as its director. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Try to picture the legal and political landscape of Spokane without the Center for Justice.

Without the center, the settlement of the Otto Zehm case might have been just a financial payout; instead it became a wide-ranging spur to police reform. Without the center, it’s conceivable we wouldn’t have a police ombudsman or a series of new sexual-harassment policies. We might not have a Riverkeeper, or a program that helps low-income people get their driver’s licenses back after losing them for unpaid fines.

The county’s alleged violations of the Growth Management Act might have gone unchallenged, and unresolved. We might not have banned the box.

On issue after issue, it is almost impossible to imagine the same results without the involvement of the center, its clients and the man who’s led it for the past six years, Rick Eichstaedt. Whether or not you share the center’s progressive vision, you can’t dispute that it’s been woven durably into the city’s civic life.

Lots of people have worked on the issues above, of course. It’s rarely correct to assign complete responsibility to any one person or organization. But the center and Eichstaedt have often stood at the forefront – pushing not just to win individual cases, but to exert a policy influence on the community’s justice system, environment, civil rights and government accountability.

“Our approach isn’t always, ‘Let’s go slam them in court,’ ” Eichstaedt said this week. “There’s a policy approach, too.”

An excellent example of that is the Zehm case. Former Center for Justice director Breean Beggs, now a Spokane city councilman, and fellow attorney Jeffry Finer represented the Zehm family, and brokered a settlement including requirements that Spokane’s police officers receive better training in handling incidents like the one that led to Zehm’s death.

That work, and the center’s influence, extended far beyond the settlement, and helped fuel a remarkable push for greater police accountability in Spokane that has paid off in many ways.

“That wasn’t just about money,” Eichstaedt said. “If a quote-unquote normal law firm had handled that case, that’s what it would have been about.”

Now Eichstaedt is moving on, and the center will look for its third leader as it approaches its 20th anniversary. Eichstaedt will be representing a number of Northwest tribes, and continuing to work for Gonzaga’s Environmental Law and Land Use Clinic. Hilary Hibbeln will be the center’s interim director while a permanent replacement is sought.

Eichstaedt recalls Center for Justice founder Jim Sheehan referring to the creation of a “Center for Justice 2.0” after Beggs’ leadership – the need to build on what had been established.

Now Sheehan and the center are looking to build version 3.0.

Sheehan, a former public defender, founded the center in 1999, using an unanticipated inheritance from an aunt to create a law firm dedicated to correcting what he saw as an essential imbalance: Rich people get better justice than poor people.

As the center’s web site puts it, “While law is usually about keeping order, it too often serves those at the top of the order. Justice is about fairness, protecting the wider community from abuse by the moneyed few.”

Eichstaedt arrived in Spokane 13 years ago. He started the center’s Spokane Riverkeeper program in 2009, and served as the city’s first Riverkeeper – a position devoted to protecting the Spokane River. He took over for Beggs as the boss six years ago. Along the way, the center’s focus continually broadened, taking on cases involving the environment, restorative and smart justice … whatever came cross the transom and fit the vision.

Eichstaedt described it as the refrain of his time as executive director: “Can you help with this? Can you help with that?”

Eichstaedt said he’s most proud of establishing the Riverkeeper program; of keeping last year’s anti-immigrant, anti-“sanctuary cities” measure off the ballot; of forcing a settlement with the county on its haphazard approach to growth management; and working to change the sexual harassment policies at City Hall in the wake of the Frank Straub human resources fiasco.

For the leader of a progressive, reform-oriented law firm that often sues local governments, he’s been able to maintain positive, friendly working relationships with people on the other side of the table. As if to prove his point, at a farewell party this week, city attorneys from Spokane and Spokane Valley showed up to toast Eichstaedt.

He leaves the center on a broader, more sustainable financial footing: When he took over, the center was funded more than 75 percent by Sheehan, but Eichstaedt has fundraised and drawn enough other sources of funding, and Sheehan now foots less than a quarter of the center’s $900,000 budget.

“In order to pass the test of time, and be around for years, we can’t only be funded by Jim,” he said.

The Center for Justice – like the West Main neighborhood that has flowered around it in large part under Sheehan’s direction – has already passed at least one important test of time: It has left a distinct and lasting imprimatur on Spokane civic life, in ways that are both high-profile and practically unknown.

It’s impossible to imagine today’s Spokane without it.

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